As music venues go, few have seen as much as the 9:30 Club. Arguably Washington, D.C.’s premier music venue, the 9:30’s stage has been graced by a wide-range of musical acts: from Nirvana to Drake, Smashing Pumpkins to Dolly Parton. The 9:30, now celebrating its 35th anniversary (and 20th in its current location at the corner of 9th and V Streets Northwest) is as much a Washington, D.C. landmark as the monuments and the Smithsonian museums. Playing there continues to be a rite of passage for artists from around the globe, and musicians and audiences consistently rank it among the top music venues in the United States. With a 1,200 person capacity, an excellent sound system and sound engineering team, a spectacular lighting rig, and a reputation for outstanding customer service, the 9:30 Club promises an excellent show experience from the off.
I had the opportunity to sit down and talk to two key members of the 9:30 Club family: Audrey Fix Schaefer, Communications Director for I.M.P. Productions (the company that owns the club) and Maggie Cannon, Director of Marketing for the 9:30 Club and I.M.P.
As the interview got underway on a late Friday afternoon in December, the sound of a sitar filled the historic venue: D.C.’s own Thievery Corporation was in the middle of their sound check in preparation for their show later that evening, their second night in a row playing to a sold-out house – testament to the caliber of bands the venue attracts, and the crowds they’re able to draw.
Through it all, Audrey and Maggie were wonderfully gracious, warm, and welcoming, even as the club was buzzing with moving parts, as staff and crew put final touches to details before that night’s performance. This was a peek behind the curtain of what makes the 9:30 Club such a special place for artists and audiences alike: extremely competent, diligent people treating everyone with courtesy, kindness, and respect.
The World’s Fair exhibition – celebrating the Club’s 35th anniversary and 20 years in the current location – runs from Tuesday, January 5 until Saturday, January 9. Saturday will include matinees. All dates are sold out.
I’d love to hear about how each of you ended up working with the 9:30 Club, and I.M.P. more broadly – this book really is mainly the tales of the people that make this place special.
Maggie Cannon: I was coming to shows here when I was in high school and in college, driving up from Roanoke and southern Virginia, I was always aware of the 9:30 Club. I moved to the area for a PR internship, and I didn’t like working in PR, so I just blindly emailed the 9:30 Club and asked if they had an internship program. I was hired and just never left. [Laughs] I waited it out until I was hired, and did what I could to stay present: I answered phones in Seth [Hurwitz]’s office for a while, I tabled at events, and jumped in to help out wherever I could until something opened up, and just stuck around. My story’s not that exciting! [Laughs]
I mean, you come here, and you find a home here. Since I set foot in this place, it’s been like a second home. Music and concerts were always important to me growing up, so I just knew it was a different feeling from any job or internship I’d ever had when I started here. I was not leaving until they took me. [Laughs]
Audrey Fix Schaefer: I was a corporate suit with the musical taste and petulance of a 17-year-old. I loved the club so much – I took my kids here all the time because we shared the same taste in musical discovery. And although I was living in the area back then, I wasn’t cool enough to go to the old club. It wasn’t until 2001 or 2002 that I came to the club for the very first time – and this is how cool I was – for Rooney. [Laughs] But then I came and saw my all-time favorite band, Phantom Planet. And I stand behind them; they’re still my favorite band.
Are they the guys who wrote the theme song for The OC? Jason Schwartzman’s band?
Audrey: Yes! Originally they were his band – except for those of us who have loved them, and wish you didn’t know them from that [theme song]. Know them for everything else! [Laughs] But I’m really impressed that you knew that.
So, I had a very big job at a Fortune 40; I was a Vice President of Communications for Sprint Nextel, and there came a time when I just didn’t want to do that anymore and I had no idea what to do next. I soon realized that live music and the 9:30 Club were my addiction. Luckily, I don’t need a lot of sleep, because I could do the big corporate job all day long, run to pick up my kids and come to the club, get three hours of sleep and get right back to work.
One day I asked Seth to go to lunch with me when I realized that this is what I wanted to do, and he was very nice and agreed, but gave me zero hope at all. It was the number one club in the nation in terms of attendance, which I didn’t know – I just knew I loved it. And they had never done PR before, or hired a PR person. So I went back to my corner office and did my job, for another year, until I finally quit. I came back to Seth and I said “I’m ready to work for you!” [Laughs] He was very nice, but he reminded me of our original conversation and turned me over to Donna Westmoreland, who was the Chief Marketing Officer at the time, and now she’s the COO – she really has the big hand in running this place, and is astoundingly great.
Donna didn’t give me much hope either, but I sent in a proposal anyways. She called me back a little while later, to talk about a project they had coming up and needed some help with. And the Virgin Festival was five weeks later – it was 2007, and the first time they had stretched it to two days, so I guess they felt that I couldn’t make it any worse. [Laughs] I loved it to pieces, and worked eighteen hours a day because I just wanted to do it. At the end of the two day festival, Donna said “Why don’t you give me a call and we’ll talk about the 9:30 Club.” [Pumps arms up and down in celebration] I was so excited, because there was nothing else I wanted to do.
It’s apparent that a lot of the staff has been working at the venue for a long time, and it seems like this is a trend that goes back to the club’s early days. What is it about working for 9:30/I.M.P that makes people want to stick around? How do you retain people? There’s obvious passion and loyalty, and not just to music. What makes this place so special?
Maggie: First of all, I work with my best friends and that’s something I’m tremendously grateful for. All the people I’ve met through work here have become so near and dear to me. Even those who have come and gone – we all stay in touch, and there’s a very familial vibe and culture here. I think the quote they pulled from me [for the book] was speaking to this. The energy in this room is really special, and we treat bands really well here, whether you’re the Foo Fighters or the first of three on a local bill. Everybody is treated the same way, and there’s a tremendous amount of professionalism and respect here, which translates to how people perform, how audiences receive it and get excited. And that moves onto the staff – it’s this big, special ball of positive energy all the time. [Laughs] It’s infectious, and it’s like a drug – you just want to keep coming back.
Audrey and I talk about it often; we’ll have no plans of going to a show, but then you’re walking by the venue and then think “ehh I might as well pop in.” [Laughs sheepishly] Whether it’s a band that I love, or a band I’m not super keen on, when the lights go down and everybody cheers and this band appears on stage, it’s a super special moment in time to observe. I think all of that plays into why people stick around for so long.
Even our door staff – most of them work day jobs, and they’re coming here directly after work, eating on their way, and working here until 2 to 4 in the morning, and they’re happy to do that because of that. It’s really special, and I’ve never worked anywhere else that had that kind of feeling to it.
Audrey: I want to cry! [Laughs] I’m just so smiley when I hear her talk about it.
It’s a place that I fell in love with first as someone who adored music, and this place was an escape for me. When I walk through those doors as a fan – and I can tell you where I stood every time, because I could see everything from that spot and I wasn’t getting jostled by anybody – I loved it because it took me to another place, no matter who was on that stage. This was my world. The staff that worked here…people like Josh [Burdette, long-time security chief of and “face” of the 9:30 Club who passed away in 2013] looked really scary, and I was frightened of him. And that was good, because that meant other people were frightened of him. [Laughs] I felt like this was a room of 1,200 really hot and sweaty people, but we were safe, and I love that sensation.
As I mentioned, I’d bring my kids all the time, but I wouldn’t stand with them – they’d be down on the floor. A staffer who I’d seen over the years but didn’t know would say “the kids are down there, and they’re fine.” They knew! But, if I were ever to appear without my ID, and even though I’m clearly over 21, I’d still get that big rat-stamp, because they abide by the rules, and I thought that was pretty cool.
I was in love with the venue then, as a fan living a double life of sorts. The idea of getting to work here? I was never the cool kid anywhere, and I never aspired to be, but to get to join a family where everyone was so cool – it’s a reflection. It’s so well respected in the music industry, but I didn’t know that; I just knew that I loved it. [Pauses] Actually, now that I think about it, who that works here now would have been considered a cool kid in high school?
Maggie: We’re all a bunch of misfits! [Laughs]
Audrey: I think we’re all happily flawed and funky and nerdy and funny and odd in our own way, and it just fits.
Maggie: It’s a special, safe space.
Just looking at your faces, I can tell this place means a lot to both of you. I’m getting all the feels.
How has the 9:30 Club maintained its reputation as a top venue nationally across genres and trends and time?
Maggie: Mmm. It’s consistency. It’s funny – I’ve asked this question to a lot of people, because I’m obviously biased. I work here, and I came to work here because I love this place, and I love every person who works here. From the people working at the door, to the people taking tickets, the people bar-backing – and I think they’re all fabulous at their jobs, and I think we’re the best. But I go to other venues thinking that maybe there’s something we’ll see there that we could do better. And I talk to my musician friends who are on tour, and I ask them about these things when they go to nice venues, or places that have a comparable feel. It’s so funny, because it’s really the little things. Of course we have amazing sound, the production quality here is top-notch, our management and the people interacting with the bands are too. But the way we take care of people – it’s so simple: we feed bands, and we have laundry, and we do these little things that make them feel like they have a home for the evening. That’s the reason why people love playing here. In addition to the nuts and bolts of putting on a great show, there’s that. People feel a connection here, and feel like it’s home.
Other places look at that and see that it’s negative x amount of dollars to their bottom line. We care enough to do that, and it comes from a place of really caring about bands and artists. But honestly, from a business perspective, we’re investing in the future. We put on shows here, at U [Street Music] Hall, at Merriweather [Post Pavilion], Echostage – we want people to be as connected to us as we are to them. We feel that for them, and we want them to feel that for us.
Audrey: Some of the things people might think are little are so big. The laundry – can you imagine being in a van or a bus with all these stinky people and they’ve sweated through their clothes? You can’t bring big suitcases on tour, so you have one of everything. Sometimes I’ll see bands that have played here before – and boys will be boys – so they’re elbowing each other to try to get to the laundry room first.
Also, the dressing room has bunks, so people can lie down. It’s nice just to get to stretch out, and have a good nap, and a lot of these folks don’t have that luxury while they’re traveling. It’s small, but it says something.
Maggie: You see bands covered in 9:30 merch because they like this place, but also because we give it to them. I worked the merch table when Holy Ghost came through on their way to Canada. They didn’t have any winter gear, so we gave them some hoodies and some caps.
The way someone in a band put it best to me was that it was such a relief to come to a venue where the default answer isn’t a “no”. Here, it’s usually a yes, or at least a “let me see what I can do.” And I love hearing that! The commitment to that, and consistently doing that across all I.M.P shows and venues, is great. We have massages backstage at Merriweather for the band and the crew. Not just the stars! We try to go the extra mile at each venue in a different way. Kindness, and consideration, and a little bit of generosity will never go out of style.
Audrey: It’s treating customers the way you want to be treated. One thing I noticed and loved as a customer is that it is all-ages. Some places charge the under twenty one patrons more; like that’s the kid that’s going to have an extra three bucks to spend? Probably not. The other thing is the free water, which is huge for under age kids who will otherwise pass out because they don’t have, or won’t spend, three dollars on that. That’s a huge thing to keep them safe, and it’s a matter of respect. It’s such a simple little thing that makes people feel good.
Also, this thing is run really on time. If the band is supposed to go on at 9:30, they almost always go on at 9:30, or a minute after, at the latest. It’s a matter of respecting for people, too.
Maggie: I think in speaking more to what Audrey is saying, the culture and the system that is in place for our security staff is not from a bouncer mentality. We’re not looking to throw people out – we’re looking for people to have a safe and fun time here. Whether we’re protecting them from other people, or protecting them from themselves in those situations, we go the extra mile for it – if someone’s passing out, we’ll bring them up to the office and make sure they’re OK, and try to find a friend or someone who can take care of them. It’s not a “boot in the ass” policy; it’s very safety driven and customer service oriented.
It all sounds very human and considerate.
Maggie: Yeah! That’s what it is. I guess it’s the common thread in everything. [Laughs]
Audrey: And it all goes back to the word you used in the beginning: family. The people who buy tickets are family, too. At least that’s how I felt.
Maggie: We’ve had a crazy amount of people pass away within one year here. And the most remarkable thing to me was how many patrons reached out to me to say how these people were beautiful humans, and to share stories about their interactions with them. It just blew me away, but when I really thought about it, it made sense, because everyone here engages with people. It was really touching.
Is there anything you think has separated 9:30 from the other venues that have come and gone as D.C. has experienced drastic transformation as a city? I know we’ve talked about the human element, but four other venues have opened within a stone’s throw in the last couple of years – what keeps the 9:30 Club at the top?
Audrey: On one hand, that’s a great question for someone else that’s not associated with us, and they’ll tell you. But it’s a matter of sticking to your knitting – just doing what you’ve always known to be the right thing, and in the right way. You don’t morph based on what’s around you, because then you become something you’re not. The one big change was twenty years ago, when the club moved from a 200 person capacity, smelly, rat-infested place to this. And it wasn’t this originally – it was WUST, the gospel station. Seth and Rich had this vision, and the thing that catapulted the move was the Black Cat, because they had capacity for 800 people there. That’s when Seth said he learned why they call it show business, not show friends – the bands just bled over there, and that wasn’t going to be a way to continue. He wanted to build the definitive mega club, and create that, as it didn’t exist before. So this is it, and it still stands as a place that bands really want to come to.
Speaking of the Black Cat, it’s strongly alluded to in the book that the move into the “new” building twenty years ago was spurred on by the heightened competition that came with the opening of that club. How has the relationship with the Black Cat and owner Dante Ferrando changed over time?
Audrey: When the Black Cat first moved there it was a sense of major competition. Over time they’ve worked into a nice groove of camaraderie.
Maggie: Yeah! When I answered phones at Seth’s, I remember Dante calling, and them chatting. I remember thinking in my head whether he was calling to talk shit, but no! It was collaborative – they had a band that they thought was too big, or Seth had a band he felt was better suited to the Black Cat, and then they’d come back to play 9:30 later on. Now we’re all buds. Everybody who works in music, especially venue-wise on U Street, are tight. We all go to each other’s shows, we all know each other really well – from people who work the door, to bartenders, to management, marketing people. We’re all a little happy family. We’re not all so much in direct competition.
Audrey: I think it’s collaborative and friendly, if I had to sum it up in two words. Dante’s in the book! [Laughs]
You moved into a space with such a rich musical history – both as the WUST Radio concert hall and in its previous incarnation as Duke Ellington’s nightclub.
Audrey: We just discovered that it used to be Duke’s club a couple of years ago, actually. I saw a picture on Facebook that had a building that said “Duke Ellington” on it. And I was convinced that was our building! I counted the windows, I looked at the structure, and researched through the D.C. library system that owned that photo. It took me a while, but I found the historian that told me that it was formerly owned by a group of businessmen, including Duke Ellington. He was only involved for a short period of time, and I don’t know what happened, but then he wasn’t. And none of us knew that part of the club’s history.
Was it a risk to buy the WUST venue? Was it tougher when less people lived in D.C. versus the exploding population now? Or did the club’s reputation mean that attendance remained strong?
Audrey: One thing I can tell you about the financial part and the transformation of the entity from a 200-person club to a 1,200-person club is that they needed a bigger place. One of the ways Seth and Rich have operated is to start bands when they’re small, and that way you get to grow with them and hopefully have them when they get big. A good example is this young fellow, Sam Smith – you might have heard of him. We had him at U Street Music Hall, then Echostage, then Patriot Center, and then Merriweather, all within a calendar year! That’s a fast-forward example of trying to grow and develop artists. The key is to get them when they’re starting out and you help to develop them and build them, so you can grow together.
The concern of being in a 1,200 person venue is how are you going to start with small bands and still get to work with them, and develop them in a way that feels good to everybody? If you doubled the capacity of the old club, it was still just a third of this space. They had a brainstorming meeting, and a fellow named Chad came up with the idea of putting wheels on the stage. When it’s a smaller band, we move it all the way up, along with the lights, and it feels like a smaller club. I can’t stand how much people overuse this term, but it was nothing short of brilliant. That made the club transformable, and there was some foresight in being able to keep it small and make it bigger.
Was it a challenge to get people to contribute to the book? How did you go about getting everyone to share their stories, photographs, their ticket stubs?
Maggie: There are some online communities that already existed, which is a testament to how people feel about this place. There’s a Facebook group for folks from the F Street location, and we have one that is somewhat internal called “Life Beyond the Club”, which is people who have worked here, and friends. It’s supposed to be about life outside of the building, but it’s funny how much we talk about things inside of the building. So there was this ongoing conversation already taking place, and people were already sharing old ticket stubs, and stories, and found videos on YouTube. From a current staff perspective, life here is so much the norm, that when they asked us all for stories, we felt like we didn’t have any cool stories. [Laugh] We don’t think we do, because we’re all so deeply into it all the time. From our perspective it felt like we don’t have anything to share – we couldn’t possibly! But when things ended up in the book, I guess that’s cool to people.
Audrey: There are certain artists that could tell different stories of the time, whether it was Dave Grohl growing up here, and living at the old club, according to him. He was so wide-eyed about it all, and he had one of the best lines in the book – how he would stand in the hallway and watch his heroes walk by. And folks like Chris Isaac, Henry Rollins, Moby, Sarah McLachlan, and Natalie Merchant; there are a lot of different phases and time frames, and it was really good to hear from the artists’ perspective.
There are also a lot of behind the scenes people that were part of the D.C. scene and still are, and were big contributors to the book. Amy Austin, who was the publisher of the Washington City Paper, and she was in the D.C. scene, and had a lot to share.
Maggie: You hear that all the time. There’s always stories being shared, and there’s a constant flow of that. It was really fun to see the book as a culmination of all these things; things I’d heard a little bit before about, but never knew the full story; things I thought that were rumors but were confirmed as true; things I didn’t even know about our owners – I didn’t know how Rich and Seth met! It was fun to see it all come together as something physical you can look through.
Audrey: There were probably 150 people who contributed to the book, and maybe 20,000 images that were collected. To cull through all that…
In reading other people’s stories about the Club, did anything surprise you? Did people relay feelings or stories that caught you off guard?
Maggie: As long as I’ve worked here, people talk about the old club. And that was new to me, I never knew anything about it, as I didn’t grow up in D.C., and I wasn’t ever really into the punk or hardcore scene. Everything I knew about it was secondhand. But there’s a story – a whole section – about the rats.
Audrey: [Laughs mirthfully]
Maggie: And, people would always talk about it. You see rats in the city all the time, and I get it – the rats are huge. But the stories are so hilarious, like the fact that they were running on the rafters, falling on band’s food, dying and coming out of nowhere. The fact that they were falling out of the sky is unreal. And musicians and people who worked there corroborating these stories, about cat-sized rats falling from the sky. I’m like, what? That blew me away. I always thought it was mythology, or some exaggeration, but damn. It was very actually rat infested.
Audrey: I’ve kind of beat myself up about the fact that I never went to the original 9:30 Club. I lived in the area, and I’ve said that I just wasn’t cool enough. I didn’t know about it, and it wasn’t my scene – I just wasn’t angry enough, and I missed those first 15 years. You can’t get that back, or redo it. For me the epiphany was seeing those pictures from back then, and good god no – I would have been so out of place. It was all these young punk dudes just thrashing about with all that energy! Ok, that’s why I wasn’t there; it just wasn’t my scene.
Maggie: I loved hearing more about the original ownership of the club. Dody’s always been this figure in my head, and I’ve never seen a photo or met her before – I just knew she owned the club and passed it on to Seth. I got almost giddy reading about her vision for it, and what drove her to cultivate this community around this space, and the hard work she put in and her relationship with Seth. She was already this kind of celebrity in my head, but now I’m really excited to hopefully meet her at the World’s Fair. It was really cool to get a better picture of who she was and what she envisioned, and to hear that and see it in the book, and reconcile that with the place that is still present today. I feel very much the things she feels about this place now that she felt about it then. That was super special to me, and hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to meet her, and seeing her original vision reflected in the way the club is today. It’s very powerful.
Audrey: One really nice surprise from the book was realizing that Tony Bennett and Fugazi played back to back nights. That’s nuts. How many venues can say they did that? I also didn’t know Johnny Cash played the club.
What are the most memorable shows you’ve seen at the 9:30 club?
Maggie: When I first moved here, before I started my internship, I saw Spoon and Deerhunter was the opener. That just blew my fucking head off. I was in the middle of the crowd with my sister. Actually, no – I think I had recently starting interning, and I never asked for tickets because I knew there would be a show I really wanted and I was going to work really hard, and not ask for anything until then. And sure enough, as soon as it was announced, I texted my intern coordinator and said I would pay or do whatever I had to do to be there. Having my sister there and showing off this place where I interned, and greeting Josh at the door like “what’s up, man?” and feeling really cool, and seeing Bradford Cox and Spoon. [Trails off] It was pretty cool to think this would be my life forever, and it was an initial memory that super sticks out for me.
The things I like sharing the most are the bands that surprised me. We had Shout Out Louds here, and I had never really listened to them. Their tour manager is a sweet angel of a man, and he asked me to stick around for the show. For a venue that considers their bands to be like Gwar, or Clutch, or whatever, every motherfucker in this place was dancing to Shout Out Louds! Everyone was feeling their energy, like, “this is some good shit!”
I know that after Josh passed, we had a Marky Ramone and Andrew WK show, and they were playing Ramones songs with WK singing. They’re both sweet and kind people with wonderful management. It was just a weird funk everyone had been in, understandably so. So, they needed an opener and Bryan Christie – who works here – had a band called Booze Riot, and everybody loves them. They’re a blast. They ended up on the bill, and it was a really fun night: there was a Hall & Oates show at the Warner Theatre, so it started off pretty thin. All of a sudden all these people came in from Hall & Oates, and went nuts. Everyone was smiling, and laughing, and dancing, and it was the first time I had seen everyone on the staff elated and having a good time after Josh died. That was exactly what we needed, and I’m so happy it was brought to us by Marky Ramone and Andrew WK.
Audrey: Andrew WK killed it. He was such a consummate professional, and it’s got to be so hard to do what he does. But there was this feeling that the family is together, and we can enjoy music again together.
Maggie: It’s like we broke the seal on something that night.
Audrey: [Pauses] Every Phantom Planet show. [Laughs] Alexander Greenwald use to climb up on the stacks, and go up and go around. Surprising my mom for her birthday, and taking her to see Tom Jones was pretty memorable too. She had been in the hospital for a very long time – like over a year – and I told her I was taking her someplace as a surprise. She had never been to the Club before, and she didn’t know where we were going. So I asked her where she thought we were going – and mind you, she was 77 at the time – and she said “I think we’re going to Chippendale’s.” [Laughs] In the meantime I had popped in some Tom Jones music as we drove over. We pulled up, and Big Josh was there, this enormous mountain of a man. My mom had never seen anyone with tattoos on their face, or piercings, or the gauges, and she’s about five feet tall, this old decrepit lady. He looks down at her, and she looks up at him, and all of a sudden she melted. At first she was scared, but once she locked eyes with him and saw what was in his eyes, she completely melted.
We walked in, and I realize she still didn’t know we were at Tom Jones! So, we sat down and I told her what it was, and she was so excited. About halfway through the second song, she leans over and says “You know Audrey, I’d slip a single in his pants.” [Laughs]
Maggie: It’s funny what this place does to moms. [Laughs]
What does it take for a band to get booked as a headliner at the club these days? What are the key things that you look for when deciding who gets to play here? Do you follow metrics and guidelines or is it more of a gut-feeling thing?
Maggie: I work closely with Melanie [Cantwell, Head of 9:30 Club Booking], but I don’t want to speak for her. I’d say it’s a combination of both; Seth is a data-head, but it’s also about relationships and the things we’ve grown from U Hall. We want to play stuff that we think is cool, and that doesn’t mean we’re exclusive about it. You can watch Gwar here one night, and then Rachel Platten the next, you know? We’re all inclusive. But it’s absolutely a combination of all of those things.
There are certain agents, like Marty Diamond, who we trust and take their word. If he tells us some act is going to be huge, he’s like 99.9% always right about it. But I don’t envy Melanie in managing that calendar. People call for holds and it’s like four to five bands deep on who wants a date. I don’t know how she’s not torn apart with stress, because how do you choose between all of these wonderful people?
Audrey: We also have the Lincoln Theatre now, too. It really is an extension – it’s us, over there. There are a lot of bands that want to play the Club, and either we don’t have the date for them but they want to play with us, or it makes more sense for them to be there, or they’ve played with us so much at the 9:30 Club and they want to try something different, but with us.
Maggie: It’s helped us so much, in just having another room to put people in. We had to keep turning people away because there were so many bands that wanted to play the same dates and we didn’t have a place for them to play. There was a lot of skepticism over it at first, where everyone thought it would just be singer-songwritery stuff that would do well there, but we did Flying Lotus there, SBTRKT.
I don’t know if you went to the James Blake show there, but was that shit not insane?
I did. It was INCREDIBLE.
Maggie: I was a skeptic as well, because I had never listened to James Blake until he played the 9:30 Club, because I was passing by one night, and I dropped in. It was church. And when we booked him at Lincoln, I knew I had to see him as well. And that place fucking LIT up. I think even the band was surprised at how “turnt” this historical theatre could get for him. That has been wonderful, because we don’t like letting any of our people go.
Audrey: I mean, we had Kendrick Lamar there. We had Nas there – both were insane. This is a historic theatre, a “they don’t build them like this anymore” type of place.
Maggie: It’s the same capacity, 1,200 people. And it’s totally haunted.
Audrey: We do a lot of comedy there, too which is a lot of fun. And you might have heard of that little thing called the Bentzen Ball. [Laughs]
The Shaw neighborhood has transformed dramatically over the past decade or so, and there’s been an accompanying real estate boom. I always hear rumors that the 9:30 Club might be relocating yet again. Is there any truth to these?
Both: [Emphatically] No.
Audrey: The Wharf, on the southwest Waterfront is a whole new venue.
Maggie: Have no fear, 9:30 stays here. [Laughs] It was sweet, when Deerhunter was last here, Bradford Cox went on a rant – a sweet rant – about how much he loves our venue. He was like “As long as you guys keep buying tickets to shows here, it will NEVER get priced out of this neighborhood, so do your part!” That was very kind of him to say that, because he cares about this place, and it was a call to action, but also I hope people aren’t worried that this is going to happen. I hope people aren’t worried that we are in danger because there’s a Warby Parker, and all these big new condos in the area, because we’re not. I was actually wondering if people would begin to ask that. You and Bradford Cox don’t have anything to worry about. [Laughs]
What’s your sense of gender equality in the industry, both in the early years of your involvement and now? Do you believe there were obstacles or greater challenges thrown in your way because you’re a woman? Or was that not something you encountered?
Audrey: This happens to be an organization that has so many women in leadership positions, that it’s something that been a practice of Seth’s to always have a lot of very strong women around him. You notice it by observation over time, but you can also see it by just walking through a door. It’s about what you can bring to the table, and it doesn’t matter which bathroom you go into when you’re not at the table.
I was just listening to some of the videos that are going to be playing during the World’s Fair, and there was a woman, Liz Drogula, who was at the old club and did some kind of marketing type of stuff. She got a call from Seth, saying that he wanted an assistant in his office, and he picked her. She left the Club ten years ago to become an attorney – so you can tell she was a smart woman – she was talking about how Seth always had strong women around him, and he liked to have women on his team because a lot of the sexist men in the business will underestimate their abilities, and then the women can go kick their ass.
Maggie: Donna has a story that she told me in the video as well, talking about when she started working in production as a woman. And we’ve talked a lot about it. She would get this look from people, wondering how she got a pass, and she would tell them “Because I gave them to the band in crew when I arrived, and I kept one for myself for working. Now, do you want a check at the end of the night? Because I’m the one signing it.”
Like Audrey said, I feel so lucky, and I didn’t realize it until I went to my first industry conference and saw this posse of women rolling into a sea of men. This is a pretty special thing. I feel super spoiled that I get to work with people like Audrey, and Melanie who books the Club and other venues, and Donna. We have some wonderful men here too, who are not afraid of strong women and work very well. You prove yourself, and it doesn’t matter how you identify. It’s always been the M.O. and there are a lot of women in power positions in this company.
In the industry overall, as a woman? When you’re working on site, there is that extra level of explanation as to who you are if you come backstage or you need something from someone. It’s getting better, even in the five years I’ve worked here, but there’s this extra layer of questioning. This will hopefully fade away for women who work professionally in this industry, but it is not the case in our company. And that shit does not fly here. The last thing you would want to do as an artist is disrespect one of the women who works here. We look out for each other, and sexism, or any of that shit, has no place here.
Audrey: I can honestly say, it never crosses my mind, period. You have a job to do, and just get it done. I never felt the sensation of sexism in corporate America either, and I worked at a Fortune 40. And it might have been there, but I’m so oblivious and I just do what I have to do. But I think I.M.P. as a place, is oblivious to it.
Maggie: If you were in any way sexist – or anything “ist” – you wouldn’t be here. We’re lucky that we get to work in an environment that we get to feel like we’re in a bubble.
Audrey: It’s whoever can do it. We have female production runners, lighting people, crew chiefs, managers of the club.
Have there been any disastrous evenings that stand out in the venue’s history?
Audrey: [Cautiously] I have one that I will give you as a funny disaster. I wasn’t at the show, I was at home on a Friday night and my phone starts blowing up. It was Dark Star Orchestra, which is a Grateful Dead cover band. Apparently there was a gentleman – and I use that term loosely here – who turned out to be a New Jersey State Senator, who had relieved himself in public from the second floor, and turned it into a “VIPee” section. [Laughs] It was horrifying. The staff took care of the patrons, and the gentleman was arrested, and it made national news. It was sad for that guy, because he clearly had issues. I think he went into treatment right after that.
Another one I can think of is taking a bad situation and doing our best to fix it was when Adele played here, even though it wasn’t of our making.
Maggie: Oh, yeahhhh.
Audrey: You can imagine. She was booked before she really hit, and she was sick the time she was originally supposed to play, so this was a re-scheduled date. And in that time in between, she took off with 21. As it turns out, it was probably among the most scalped ticket and the most faked ticket. Some poor people spent $400 for a ticket that was a fake ticket. And our people at the front are really good at spotting fakes, even good ones. And these were incredible.
Maggie: We were blown away. I remember looking at a reel and wondering how the fuck they did those.
Audrey: So that was the situation. And we couldn’t let those people in, because the place was overcrowded, and we’re not allowed to let people in with fake tickets. There’s no guidebook with how to deal with this kind of situation, but the staff had heart and they were flexible. They treated people they wish they would be treated. So, they told everybody, like 40 people with different types of fake tickets, to hang out and wait to see if there were extra tickets which they could buy at face value – and unfortunately that didn’t happen.
What they finally did was to open the doors in the back alley, and let people stand back there so they could hear the show. It gives me chills to think about it now. There was a lot of TV coverage about the amount of fakes for this show, and every patron that bought a fake that was interviewed had nothing but good things to say about the 9:30 Club, and how we did our best to make it right for them.
Maggie: Recently a band came through that didn’t want to do a meet and greet. One of my employees, Alex, was running the event for them on a Saturday afternoon, and he alerted me to the fact that they didn’t want to do it, and he couldn’t find the band.
Audrey: [Audibly gasps]
Maggie: And Alex is very awesome, and so sweet. This was his first meet and greet ever, so he was getting all of the [competition] winners in, getting everyone wrangled, going over policies with the tour manager – there’s a lot of stuff, and a lot of advance work that we go through to make sure everything goes smoothly. I was down the street, so I made my way over to the Club.
I get here, and I see the band’s manager and ask him what’s up. And he’s like “They don’t like doing this stuff, it’s going to be really boring and awkward, and lots of times these winners aren’t real fans” and what not. So, of course, I explain to him that this is a free-form hang, with drinks on me.
I convince him to give me one dude from this band, and he’s grumbling the whole time as we make our way down to the floor. I felt like I was using a nut to try and get a squirrel to eat out of my hand! And I coax two of them down with some shots of Patron. [Laughs]. The manager comes down as well, and he’s so skeptical. Of course, when we get down there, the fans just light up – they’re all so excited, and know their names, and are wearing the band’s shirts. Immediately these two lovely girls come up and share how excited they are for the show, and how long they waited, and it’s all so authentic and relaxed. Naturally, these guys start texting the others, and one by one, all of the band members come down and start to mingle with these people. Doors open, and they’re still down there, slapping fans on the back! [Laughs] They were really happy at the end, and they were so surprised that we brought “real fans” to this event. This band had never played 9:30 before, and they finally got it.
I think also that people are only now starting to think of D.C. as a music city. Bands grow exponentially through D.C., and it’s a huge market on the industry side for people’s artists. For some reason, people don’t think of DC that way outside of that sector. They think of New York, or LA, where venues are a dime a dozen and aren’t run like this one – there isn’t that connection for the fans to the venue, it’s just to the artist and where they’re playing. People here have so much love for us, and so much love for the artists. When you combine those two things, it creates a really special environment for the bands, like I’ve said a thousand times before. It’s super comfortable. This is it. This is part of the magic. D.C. is special that way.