Industry Profile: Michael Jaworek
By Larry LeBlanc
This week In The Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Michael Jaworek
The Washington D.C./Baltimore Maryland corridor has some of the worst traffic as well as the highest housing costs in the United States.
It also houses The Birchmere, the legendary music hall heralded by many as one of the finest music venues in the world.
The Birchmere is located in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, a city along the western bank of the Potomac River, approx. 6 miles south of downtown Washington. Both Neko Case and Stewart Copeland were born in Alexandria that has also been the hometown of David Grohl and Jim Morrison, Cass Elliot and John Philips of the Mamas & the Papas,
The Birchmere opened at its first location in an Arlington strip mall in 1966. Its second home, from 1981 to 1997, was just up the street from the current venue.
Among the artists who have performed at The Birchmere have been Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Roger Miller, Vince Gill, Lyle Lovett, Donovan, Rodney Crowell, Alison Krauss, John Hiatt, Joan Baez, Gordon Lightfoot and Mary Chapin Carpenter.
The Birchmere's founder/owner Gary Oelze opened this "neighborhood bar" on Apr. 4, 1966, retaining the original Birchmere name. Oelze also opened the club's stage to the bluegrass music of his native Kentucky.
In the '50s, when Buzz Busby and the Bayou Boys and the Country Gentlemen were popular nationally, Washington became known as the "Bluegrass Capital of America." In the '70s, the Seldom Scene became the city's most prominent and longest-lasting bluegrass band.
In the early '70s, Oelze lured the Seldom Scene away from Bethesda's Red Fox. They became The Birchmere's home band for over 20 years and still play there four times as year. In the '70s, artists like Linda Ronstadt and John Prine would drop by to perform with them.
As the Seldom Scene was winding down its 20-year residency, newer roots-styled acts like Mary Chapin Carpenter, Alison Kraus and the Indigo Girls were coming up the ranks to perform at the music hall.
Mary Chapin Carpenter started there as a support act. "The Birchmere is one of the finest places in the world to perform and listen to music and to have it in my backyard was beyond fantasy," she once said in an interview, "It has always booked wonderful acts... and the audience is just great. They're respectful of the performers and you get the feeling they have a deep love of music. Every time I come back, it feels like home."
Today, acts big and small laud the concert club's no-frills charm and intimate setting, whether playing its main room, that seats 500 or performing in The Bandstand which holds 1,000 people.
The Birchmere makes audiences feel at home in a way few clubs do. Those who arrive first get the best seats up front and patrons can be served dinner as they enjoy the show. All tickets are the same price, regardless of seating. Prices for shows are mostly in the $35 to $45 range.
The Birchmere's bookings are eclectic and broad. Etta James, Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes, Candy Dulfer, David Grisman Quintet, Orchestra Baobab, Lowen & Navarro, Little Richard and Vince Gill are among the coming attractions.
As its vice president, Michael Jaworek books The Birchmere on a daily basis with about 300 shows annually along with 30-50 outside shows promoted by The Birchmere.
Jaworek has been a concert promoter for over 35 years and has been on the Washington D.C. Board of Governors for The National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences for several years. He has also been active with Musicares. The Washington Area Music Awards, also known as the Wammies, was founded by Jaworek and Mike Schreibman in 1985.
From 1997-2004, Jaworek also booked acts for The Iota Club & Café in nearby Arlington, Virginia for co-owners Stephen and Jane Negrey. Such acts as John Mayer, Jason Mraz, Jack Johnson, Great Big Sea and Norah Jones played their first Washington area gigs at IOTA.
Following five years of negotiations, The Birchmere ended its quest to open a second venue in Silver Spring, Maryland in 2007. The Birchmere had planned to open an $8 million, 800-seat venue on the former JC Penney department store site owned by Lee Development Group. The Birchmere said in a statement that both government officials and the development company backed out of an agreement.
You booked The Birchmere before you worked there?
I have booked The Birchmere since 1988 when I was at Chesapeake Concerts (in Falls Church, Virginia) that was a spin-off from Cellar Door Productions. It was operated by Sam L'Hommedieu who had co-founded Cellar Door Productions with Jack Boyle. Jack and Sam split in 1978 and then I joined Sam in 1986.
How did you come to work in-house at The Birchmere?
The Birchmere has been in business for 43 years. So when it was obvious that they were opening at the present site in June, 1997, I considered what was happening at Chesapeake Concerts and with The Birchmere moving into a new site. It was obvious that I was going to be on the road more and more at Chesapeake and I didn't want to do that. I wanted to stay put in the D.C./Baltimore corridor. So Gary Oelze (the founder and owner) of The Birchmere and I almost simultaneously asked each other if I could go in-house. So I have been here since March, 1997.
Within the D.C./Baltimore corridor, there are venues of about every type.
That's true. Between the two cities and even in Washington, we have almost everything. The only thing we are lacking is a big ballroom-a space for two to four thousand capacity like The Electric Factory in Philadelphia, The Aragon Ballroom in Chicago or the Roseland and Hammerstein Ballrooms in New York. You'd have to go to a college gym to get that equivalent. But other than that we pretty much have it all.
You have seating for both 500 and 1,000 people?
We have two rooms. There's a 500 capacity music hall. Then we have the 1,000 capacity stand-up room we call The Bandstand. We don't use The Bandstand a lot but we will use it for artists like George Thorogood, Train (for three nights) and Orchestra Baobab. We don't run (the two venues) concurrently due to sound bleed.
Is intimacy one of attractions of The Birchmere?
It is the intimacy. When you get above 700 or 1,000 people the paradigm (of a venue) shifts. As one artist said to me, "What's wonderful here is that we can see everybody out there." Somebody else said, "(The room) treats the artist and the audience equally well without compromising one for the other."
What are the other components that have made The Birchmere successful?
There are several. We have a large, free, lighted and secure parking lot. So the parking issue of safety or cost doesn't exist. The doors for the building open at 5 P.M. We give (customers) a line number so when we open the doors for the concert hall at 6 P.M. if they came in earlier, they get to go in first. It is first-come-first-served general admission seating.
Washington/Baltimore has traditionally been home to a wide spectrum of music, including folk, jazz and bluegrass.
Washington/Baltimore has been a nexus for all sorts of music for varied reasons. There was the exodus from the south east after World War II by both Caucasian and Afro-American coming here for jobs with the federal government. Washington is also our nation's capitol so there are people from all around the world here with the embassies, from immigration and other reasons.
So different artists can be presented because of that. With Orchestra Baobab, for example, there will be folks from Senegal that will come as well as Peace Corp veterans, folks from the international community and people who are interested in world beat and the public radio set.
This was the home club for the Seldom Scene for many, many years. Then the bluegrass audience tapered off. But they still come in about four times a year, including every Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve.
Also there's a significant college community locally.
We get some (college students) but not a lot. If anything, we get more of the staff and faculty from the local colleges. There are some college kids that do come if we book an artist they want to see, like younger bluegrass or new grass acts or some of the contemporary singer/songwriters like Colbie Caillat or Gavin DeGraw.
The club's bookings are quite musically diverse.
We will have The South Memphis String Band (with Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars, bluesman Alvin "Youngblood" Hart and Jimbo Mathus of Squirrel Nut Zippers) and then we'll book Mother's Finest for Mother's Day (May 10) with a classical '70s funk rock band.
In bookings, you seem to be a music generalist.
Well, I have been in this market for 30 years and I've had to be a generalist because of the nature of the competition within the marketplace. Being a generalist made it possible to survive. In terms of research, I read the (music) trades. I talk to local DJs within certain genres and with a couple of guys I know at the record stores. As well, we keep pretty good records so I know what we did with America and Boyz II Men the last time they were here. It let's me know what the track history is out there (on an act). Also, CelebrityAccess/industry trade grosses are valuable
We don't have a (local) non-commercial or triple A radio station that supports the majority of the artists that we have here. We do have good radio stations. Urban non-commercial WPFW is helpful for world music, the blues and R&B. The urban AC stations (WHUR-FM and WMMJ-FM) are very strong. The country station (WMZQ-FM) is strong. We did lose a smooth jazz station which is unfortunate.
This is a market that is fairly economically stable because the federal government is based here. The state capital of Maryland is in Annapolis, only an hour away. As a result, there is a certain level of education and income here; and people who are active (entertainment) seekers. And they are internet savvy. We have an email list of about 35,000 (addresses) and we have sold out several shows off of our email list.
Without radio support for some genres, do you have to platform and develop acts in your market?
That's true. For example, we have been able to build James McMurtry up to be a headliner and Dave Alvin. There are several that we have been able to do that with. Shawn Colvin, we also did play when she was beginning. That's a good example of getting the act on the way up.
Many of the acts you present are from '60s or '70s, like Poco, Firefall and smooth jazz saxophonist Candy Dulfer.
To some degree, we get acts on the way up and we get them on the way down. We get some artists who are some times at the top of their game where they have decided to do either "an underplay" or they have heard that The Birchmere is a conducive place to hear great music with audiences that listen really hard to acts. I've seen any number of opening acts that were probably unknown to the headliner sell over 100 CDs off of a 30 minute set because people here listen very intently.
Candy Dulfer is very much remembered here and she usually sells out. She has continued to put out records and has found support in the world of urban AC and smooth jazz.
Would you compete with the 9:30 Club or are they more alternative? You have presented acts like Aimee Mann.
There is some overlap (with the 9:30 Club) but not a lot. I don't think there is any one single direct competitor but there is some overlapping (with other venues) because of the breadth of what we do here. There is some overlap with the PAC (pop adult contemporary) market, some overlap with pop rock market and some overlap with a few of the folk promoters.
Tickets for shows at The Birchmere are quite reasonable. Do you have to fight with booking agents to insure that fees are reasonable for the venue?
Over the years, agents and managers have realized the quality of the experience here. They also know that we can often cover the fee that is requested (by them). When we can't, we will say "I can't pay X but I will pay Y and I will do (the show) on any day of the week." So, to a degree, (having an agreed fee) is a routing situation.
For example, B.B. King was in the day before Thanksgiving; and Vince Gill is here on two weekdays (Monday June 15 & Tues. June 16).
Some times we are solving a problem where (a major act) has been in the market quite a bit but still wants to come through. So we make an offer where we hit the money that they are looking for, or come close and hype the ticket up. It can be a hefty tag but you are seeing that act in an intimate, comfortable environment where you can also drink and eat.
Frankly, for a prime adult entertainment experience, what do you pay for great seats at a Broadway show or a major league sporting event or, indeed, some of the best seating at many of the best concerts in arenas and other facilities?
Couldn't some of these acts, like Vince Gill, play bigger venues?
He could but, as with many artists, we have past history with Vince. We have been able to engage artists who would normally be playing larger facilities and they have decided that playing an intimate venue for, perhaps, a higher price but a better experience is a win/win for all parties.
There have been plenty of artists who have felt that, "The fee being offered is close to what I am looking for or is what I am looking for. If I only have to sell 500 seats, why do I do I have to feel the need to sell 1,500 to 4,000 seats (in a bigger venue)?"
Frankly, overhead here is greatly diminished by being in a club. We have our own in-house sound and lights. We are able to take that overhead money and give the lion's share to the artist for their guarantee.
At the same time, fans can come see Leo Kottke or Ralph Stanley for $35.
Sure and that's the alternative.
You also booked acts for The Iota Club & Café for 7 years?
I felt I needed a smaller room to build acts and be "promoter of record." I called the owner (Stephen Negrey) cold and he said "Why not?" Unfortunately, the phrase "promoter of record" has become somewhat, but not entirely, oxymoronic, so I stopped. We played Jack Johnson, Norah Jones and John Mayer there before anyone knew of them. We have not seen them here at The Birch yet. But Kathleen Edwards, James McMurtry and Dave Alvin to name a few have stayed with me.
You're not from Washington?
No. I grew up in Newark and Nutley New Jersey.
How did you become a promoter?
While I was a freshman at University of Illinois (in Champaign-Urbana) in 1970 me and three other guys started a student concert group Bluespower to bring Chicago blues acts to town. We started in February, 1971 with Hound Dog Taylor & The Houserockers with special guest Blind Jim Brewer, at the Illinois Union Ballroom. We needed 500 people to break even and 1,500 people came. We then (booked) most of the Chicago artists, except Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf who we couldn't afford, for the next four or five years.
After graduating, I got a job with the student activities department of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. I was the local promoter. I worked with Concerts West and I presented Elvis Presley and Doc & Merle Watson.
In 1978, I heard of a job up at the University of Maryland in College Park, (Maryland) working as staff advisor to Student Entertainment Enterprises. From '78 to '85, I did concerts, lectures, dance, puppet shows, you name it. I did shows there with the Ramones, the Clash, Adam Ant, the Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa and even Sha Na Na.
When did you promote the Elvis Presley show?
It was in 1977, three months before he passed away. I didn't meet him because he was surrounded by a phalanx of police and his bodyguard, who had his hand in his coat (on what might have been a gun). But Elvis did pass by me, about two or three feet away. He didn't look well. He was very bloated and pasty, but he certainly sounded great that night. I remember walking down to the loading dock and meeting (guitarist) James Burton. I said, "James, it's so wonderful that you are here." He looked up and said, "You know who I am?" He was genuinely shocked that someone knew he was.
What is your relationship overall with agents? Do you ever get strong-armed to take an act?
Yes and some times I will say that I don't want to play the game. That happened just last week where I had a spirited discussion (with an agent) and did not come to terms on the financing of a show. So the act is not playing for me and I am at peace with that. I did not feel that the deal was at all in our interest.
Generally, I get along well (with agents) but, at the end of the day, we have different agendas. Most agents I deal with "get me" and get what the club is about.
How many shows do you do a year?
Just at the club alone, we do about 300 shows. We also promote or co-promote another 30 to 50 shows outside.
You work with other promoters?
We have co-promoted with all sorts of people, including Live Nation, A.E.G., Outback Concerts, JAM Productions--where we bought a date on a tour where they had all the other dates. We're open to conversations with just about everybody.
In 2007, negotiations between The Birchmere and the city of Silver Spring for a new club collapsed. Now what?
We are pursuing expanding to a second site in College Park that is literally across the street from the University of Maryland. It would be nice to open next year. It would be very much like the present club with the exception of that the sit down room would be the same or a little larger. There probably would also be a smaller room with, maybe. 200 capacity.
Why have a second site?
Besides the size of the D.C area and the traffic, there is a large part of the population that finds it too onerous to travel to Alexandria from the Maryland suburbs. We feel that we have been losing market share for adults who'd love to be here. Coming to see even Dr. John on a Friday due to the commuter traffic, they might pass. So this way we'll get them.
Ticketmaster currently handles ticketing for The Birchmere. Do you have concerns that if there is a Ticketmaster/LiveNation merger that LiveNation might access your files?
Oh yeah, sure. That does come to play. There are other promoters who have spoken out that concern on Capitol Hill and other places.
Is it a real concern?
And if the merger goes through?
I hope it doesn't. I think it would impact our business dramatically in terms of proprietary information being common knowledge while in the hands of a competitor. Though we may not compete on a day-to-day, head-on-head (basis) with LiveNation, we certainly are in competition for certain shows. Every bit of advantage that one may have one needs in this struggle.
Would you not agree with Live Nation president/CEO Michael Rapino that the concert business needs a re-adjustment?
It depends on how one defines the word re-adjustment and where. He's right in that there are things wrong in our industry. But you can't always be objective about (such issues) because there's so much passion attached to music.
People define themselves by certain types of experiences, especially in the entertainment realm. Sports and music dramatically affect certain people's lives and how they define themselves. That emotional attachment is so interwoven with people's lives. That is why (the merger) is such an emotionally charged subject. More so than if we were talking about other properties other entities.
What is happening with arts and sporting events more and more is that it is about the bucks. The rest is conversation. It is about who can pay what for a certain experience.
(The concert industry) is a single source supply. If you are poor, you can eat poor because there are all sorts of (cheaper) food. If you are poor and need a car or transportation, you can buy a junker or you can take public transportation. Even with baseball, you can see minor league baseball. But if you want to see Bryan Adams, there's only one Bryan Adams.
And being (a single source supply industry) is why many of these issues are so emotionally charged. That (exclusivity) colors dealing with issues in a more objective way.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008, Larry was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.