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In most cities, booking live music is dangerous poker. Nightclub promoters hold their cards close to the vest; stakes are high, and deception is commonplace.
In San Francisco, many promoters merrily announce which cards they've got and which ones they need -- as if the pot were toothpicks, not $500 chips. The business is still competitive, but San Francisco's music community possesses a certain solidarity that's unique to the industry.
"We take care of each other," says Dawn Holliday of Slim's. "It's been that way since I've been booking, six or seven years."
"Everyone in San Francisco gets along and communicates," agrees Ramona Downey, who books the Bottom of the Hill.
Some observers attribute the cooperation to the predominance of female promoters in a male-dominated industry, but the fair sex isn't an adequate explanation: As much as a decade ago, when San Francisco clubs were booked mostly by men, the game was the same.
What do local promoters do to buck the standard practices of booking? For one thing, they compare notes on upcoming shows: Holliday of Slim's or Annie O'Toole at the Great American Music Hall (both of whom have rooms with capacities of about 450-500) will inform smaller clubs like the Bottom of the Hill or the Kilowatt when they've got a big night scheduled. The Kilowatt's Dave Kaplan is grateful for the tips: "I don't want them to have the Jesus Lizard and me to have a smaller version of the same thing on the same night," he says.
For another, while talent buyers in New York and L.A. often demand unconditional loyalty from bands they've previously showcased, in San Francisco, if one space is booked on a certain date, its managers will put the touring band in contact with another venue. Also, though virtually unheard of in other towns, multiple dates like Wilco's recent back-to-back shows at Slim's and the Music Hall have become a frequent occurrence locally.
Finally, some local promot-ers keep each other informed about offers they're making to touring acts. "We keep ticket prices reasonable," Holliday says. "If the Music Hall and I were at war, prices would go up. By us making identical offers, you're not going to be paying $18 to see a $10 act.
"Agents," she admits, "aren't crazy about that part."
Bruce Solar is owner of SOMA's Absolute Artists talent agency, representing acts like Cake and Dick Dale. "People here talk between the clubs," he acknowledges, "so you really can't be too extravagant in your quotes."
And Dave Viecelli, director of the Chicago-based Billions agency (Jon Spencer, Pavement), agrees. "Any honest agent will tell you they'd prefer the promoters didn't" discuss rates, he says. "It takes away some of your options."
Both men, however, emphasize that San Francisco's club scene is much more reliable than others. Bands want to play here -- the clubs are historic and are patronized by supportive and knowledgeable fans. Commanding top dollar for your talent in the Bay Area "can be difficult," Solar says, "but it's a good difficult situation to have."
In other fields, rival businesses discussing the guarantees they're offering would be considered unfair practice. But in live music, some agents regularly quote fabricated offers from one club in order to get what they want from another. Local buyers simply feel they're strengthening their hand by sharing information. Is this a sort of collusion?
"Yeah, it is," says Kaplan of the relatively new Kilowatt, "but an agent should be charging both clubs the same, if they're the same size."
Holliday says that an agent in New York has twice accused her and O'Toole of collusion. "If I had a problem with an agent," she adds, "you can bet I'd call Toni [Isabella, at the Paradise Lounge], Annie, and Ramona."
While some in the business cite similarly close-knit communities in Minneapolis and Austin, for example, all agree that the talent buyers in larger markets can't afford to be courteous to each other. But despite the apparent harmony on the local scene, struggling clubs that need to land recognizable artists in order to boost their credibility must still resort to bidding wars. SOMA's Trocadero Transfer, booked for a time by Bill Graham Presents (BGP) as a test market in preparation for the Fillmore's reopening, was subsequently left in the lurch; it's only recently begun landing premier acts like Moby and Bad Brains.
"The only ways I'll get an act," says Troc general manager and buyer George Lazaneo, "is to offer more money [than a rival], or because the band's management feels I'll do a better job with promotion."
Local promoters with easy access to each other stress that no one's trying to box out his competitors. "Anybody could be in tune with us," says the Bottom of the Hill's Downey. "All you have to do is pick up the phone." But Lazaneo says he is indeed outside the loop -- bolstering the notion that the insiders' connections are firmly in place. "Dollarwise, my bid might look good," he says, but as a relative unknown, he may still lose an act to "someone who has a longer, more tenable relationship [with the band or their agent] than I do."
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