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.”
Venues come and go, though; if one boards up its space due to waning interest or an ill-fated change of ownership, another is always waiting in the wings. In San Francisco, communication among the heavy hitters — whomever they may be at the time — has always been better than in most markets. Rena Nieman, who booked the now-defunct Kennel Club for years, recalls, “When two clubs did two shows [with the same band], we made the same offer. That was standard, and all the agents knew. One time, an agent hit the roof. He said, 'That's not how it's done!' I said, 'Why not? That's how we do it here.' “
Still, the current climate is particularly chummy. Cathy Cohn, longtime booker (1982-89) at the I-Beam, now a band manager and a DJ at KUSF, says with a laugh, “We commiserated, but I'm sure there were times when we were cursing under our breath. This is probably a nicer environment than when I was doing it. … When I started booking, myself and Queenie [Taylor, one of Holliday's predecessors at Slim's] were the only women doing it.”
Nieman, for one, believes the esprit de corps on the local scene “has a lot to do with the majority of bookers being women. There's a different feel [than other cities]. Definitely, everyone's competitive, but not in a negative way.” Solar has the same idea. “You notice a lot of women booking — they took over from a hierarchy of men. It's still the same competition, but they're basically supportive of each other.”
But Kaplan downplays the gender issue. “It just takes common sense about what bands will work together,” he says. “It doesn't matter if you're a man or a woman.”
The San Francisco ethic of working together may stem from familiarity: Many current promoters worked together in the past — in the offices of Bill Graham Presents or as each other's assistants — fighting their ways up from grunt jobs as techies and bar staffers.
What does matter, Kaplan says, is that promoters prove themselves to be competent. Despite the recent prosperity of the area music community — most notably Kaplan's Kilowatt and Downey's universally praised Bottom of the Hill — Kaplan says the city still has room for another small-to-midsize venue. He points out that some clubs are turning down tapes for review; they're already overbooked and swamped with submissions. Recently, the Paradise addressed this problem when they opened an annex, the Transmission Theater.
One reason the city might be less competitive than others is that the current crop of nightspots is fairly well delineated — clubgoers and talent agents alike think in terms of niches, and each is being filled, adequately if not exceptionally. The Trocadero, for instance, is gaining its footing primarily with heavier metal and industrial, while Slim's, the Troc's Lazaneo says, is sticking with its “tried-and-true” bar band format. Other than the larger BGP outlets, the eclectic Great American Music Hall is the sole venue without a discernible clientele.
Downey, who moved to her Potrero Hill gig from SOMA's Hotel Utah, wishes it were easier for every club to throw open its doors to all styles of music. “What we drew well was rock, alternative stuff,” she says of the early months of the 4-year-old Bottom of the Hill. “It just shook down that way.”
Though there's always room for improvement, Cohn is excited to see the current state of affairs on the local music scene. “What's great,” she says, “is the promoters have much more power with the talent. … They're derailing the standard trick of playing one club against another.”
“I think the lack of competition is good,” Holliday says. “Thank God I don't know what it's like any other way.