Saturday, June 18, 2011

Notes From a Venue Owner

My pre-sold concert idea is still making its way around the internet, getting people fired up, excited, or just annoyed. And since I wrote my musician's perspective on the situation already I decided to ask for the thoughts of a venue owner. Venues have challenges of their own: licenses, permits, staffing, rent. It's hard work and a huge risk. I wouldn't want to own a venue, but I'm glad other people do.

Here, Jamie Zawinski, owner of the popular DJ and live music venue, DNA Lounge in San Francisco, was nice enough to answer my questions in detail:

JWZ: So, by way of rambling background...  We don't actually do a lot of live music at DNA for a few reasons.  We're one of those rare spots that is both a dance club and a live venue; most places tend to do just one or the other.  So, all of our Saturdays and most of our Fridays are pre-booked with recurring DJ nights that pay the bills.  They're put on by outside promoters (so someone else is doing the hard part) and our overhead is low compared to a live show.  Also, this is a pretty big room.  This makes it really hard for us to hire a talent buyer who knows what they're doing -- because anyone who knows what they're doing is going to look at it and say, "So, I can only have weeknights, but  to break even I need to get 200 paid? That's setting me up to fail."

This is a constant source of frustration to me, because I really want to see more live music here, but I just can't figure out how to make it happen with any regularity.

1. What do you think of the idea of a pre-sold show? Would you be willing to block out a date knowing that if enough tickets aren't sold the show won't happen?

I think it's a really neat idea.

When a band self-promotes on a weeknight, the typical rental deal we offer (not having any idea whether anyone will show up) comes out to roughly $1000 rent for 21+, $1300 for all ages.  That covers our staffing costs if the room is empty and we make nothing at the bar.  With that deal, we cover security, sound, and lights, we keep the bar, and the band keeps the door, whatever they want to charge.  So realistically that means that nobody says "yes" to this unless they're confident they can get 200+ people.  Which is good, because this place feels pretty cavernous and empty with fewer people than that.  (Our upper limit for a live show is 800-ish.)

Smaller places get away with doing a straight bar/door split with no rent because they can get away with having like 3 people on staff (door, sound, bar.)  We can't even open this place with less than 10 people.  (Or because they have someone on staff who is a good judge of whether a band will actually be a draw, which we don't.)

As far as scheduling, it depends on what night of the week we're talking about, and when it would be confirmed.  If it's a night we don't have a lot of demand for, like Tue/Wed, then it's almost never a problem to hold that date indefinitely, since we'd likely be closed anyway, so a last-minute cancellation is harmless.  But if it was a night that someone else was interested in, we'd have to make a decision between the two, while leaving at least 4 weeks for promotion.  If it was a Friday, probably more like 6-8 weeks (because risking having a dark or very slow Friday is pretty bad, financially; there are usually pretty good opportunities there, if we have time to find them.)

2. What are the possible negative outcomes you foresee?

Well, the only negatives would be, ending up with an empty house and not getting enough rent or other income to cover staff; or, holding a date for an event that didn't come through or didn't perform well and missing other potential events because of that.

3. Do you have any sad stories you can share about popular bands that you were sure would draw a crowd but played to an empty venue?

Oh man. Almost every time we've tried to in-house-promote a band that I loved, because apparently we suck at promoting.

Our one success at this was a monthly dance party we did for a few years called Pop Roxx, where the primary draw was the DJs, but we booked a band who did a 45 minute set at midnight at every party.  That was great, because we were booking bands who, on their own, usually only had a 100 person draw, but we got to put them in front 700 people and only had to pay them a few hundred bucks.  Usually 20 minutes into their set, 500 of those people decided they needed to go outside and smoke, which made me sad, but I did get to see some great bands on our stage, so that was nice.  But, attendance declined after a while and we couldn't afford to keep doing that party.

4. Best thing about being a venue owner?

Not working for someone else.

5. Worst thing?

It's all my fault and I don't have anyone else to blame.

Alternately: spending way too much of my time talking to lawyers and dealing with insane governmental nonsense.

Thank you for answering my questions, Jamie! 

DNA Lounge  -  375 Eleventh Street, SF CA 94103  -  415-626-2654
Private Parties:

(All photos are from the DNA website.)


As a travelling musician I've met all kinds of venue owners and bookers. Some are money grubbing jerks. Bust most of them are music lovers who saw a lack of live music venues in their communities and decided to step in to fill the gap. I've also seen many of these people lose money, sometimes a little on one night and sometimes catastrophic amounts over time. It's really quite dreadful to try to make a living at promoting music - especially if you love it. Trying to commodify something you love is a painful experience. Some people can make it, but many work hard for little money and reach a burn out point. For my part I'm happy to share revenue with the venue - they're providing a great service to the world.  (Hey, has anybody else ever noticed the word "revenue" has the word "venue" in it?)

Next interview: Brad Lagasse of

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