What It Takes

A club owner's mojo

By Avis Thomas-Lester

The main room of the 9:30 Club pulsed as the crowd of 20- and 30-somethings gathered in front of the raised platform. The lights went out and there was a collective scream as the band took the stage.

From his perch above the stage, Seth Hurwitz, the club's co-owner, checked out the crowd, paying more attention to the cheering fans than the guitar riffs, drum beats and amplified vocals of Karen O and the band Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

"Look at them!" Hurwitz said, his eyes dancing. "That's what its all about, the way the people feel. It's not about the sellout performances and the caliber of the bands who appear here. It's about the people who buy tickets, having a good time."

According to concert trade publications, the 9:30 Club ranks at or near the top of clubs nationally. In 2008, Pollstar Magazine named it Nightclub of the Year. Billboard, the preeminent music industry publication, dubbed it the Top Club in the World. The club sells about 500,000 tickets to an average of 300 concerts there each year.

9:30, named after its address at its original location on F Street NW, is the crown jewel of Bethesda-based concert promoter and event production company I.M.P. (for "It's My Party") Productions, which Hurwitz chairs. The company also operates the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia and has produced almost 10,000 events in its three decades of existence at local venues, including Constitution Hall and the Patriot Center at George Mason University.

Hurwitz is the majority partner in I.M.P and the one who works closest with the club's employees. A decade ago, it was Hurwitz who found the new location, the old WUST Radio Music Hall at 811 V St. NW, which used to feature live gospel events.

Hurwitz said he has "survived the shark tank that is the concert promotion business" by signing only deals that will be successful. He won't book an act as a favor and won't flatter a group into playing his club to keep them away from the competition by overpaying them.

"I don't subscribe to doing shows that will lose money," he said. "Business needs to make sense today."

He spends very little time at the club, which employs 120 people, stopping in occasionally to experience the thrill of the band taking the stage. His office is on the second floor of his Bethesda home, where he is assisted by three-full time employees who work one flight up a black spiral staircase.

Hurwitz does most of his business electronically; he receives and sends hundreds of e-mails and texts each week. He reads four newspapers a day and several music industry publications. He reviews tapes of acts lobbying to play at the club or other venues that he promotes.

His workdays begin about 6 a.m., when he heads to the kitchen to make coffee while his wife and three sons slumber. He chooses his mug of the day from among dozens that monopolize two giant cupboards.

His Baltimore Orioles mug is his "absolute karma reversing mug"; he pulls that out when facing a tough deal. He uses his Tennessee Titans mug "when negotiating with a band I've never signed." He drinks from a mug bearing a picture of a buffalo on days when tickets are going on sale for an event at one of his venues.

He believes the mugs have mojo.

"I had a Washington Nationals mug. I was working on a deal the day I took it out to drink my coffee from it, but I dropped the mug and it broke," he said. "That deal has stalled ever since."

His office is a collection of wall-mounted CDs, ranging from Hank Williams Jr. to Will I Am, oddities such as a replica of the Blue Meanie from the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine" movie, toys such as dolls of members of Spinal Tap and family mementos.

And then, there is the ever-present pink pen, which he uses to cross through completed tasks on his ever-present to-do list.

"Every show I've ever booked at the new club I wrote with pink ink," he said. "A few years ago I found out they had stopped making that pen. I had my staff go out and buy all the ones they could find."

Hurwitz said his family spurred his interest in music. His mother, Selma, is an artist. His father, Harold, now retired, worked at a federal government facility on New Hampshire Avenue near White Oak Shopping Center in Silver Spring, where he would sometimes dash off during lunch hour to buy Hurwitz concert tickets at Ticketmaster at Sears. His older brother Mark, who died six years ago, turned him on to alternative music by "playing records that weren't popular," he said.

He owns hundreds of albums and 45s, many purchased for 79 cents at outings to E.J. Korvette's department store when he was young. He was into Jethro Tull and Traffic when his friends were listening to the Eagles and Boston. He started playing drums after a music dealer uncle in New York sent a set for his bar mitzvah.

One of his first concerts was going to see ZZ Top and Alice Cooper at the Capital Centre arena in Landover. He played hooky from school for the first time to stand in line to buy tickets to a Rolling Stones concert. He rigged a system to broadcast "radio shows" from his basement to his parents and brothers in the living room.

"I used to bring my singles into class and play them," Hurwitz said. "I was fascinated by getting some sort of reaction when they heard the music."

When he was 16, he decided he wanted to be a deejay and got his chance when alternative rock station WHFS gave him a spot.

"It was from 7:45 to 8 [p.m.] -- fifteen minutes," he said, laughing. "But that was okay because I wanted to be on the radio, and I had my own show, as a high school student." He said he was fired "for being too progressive."

He later moved to a radio station at Georgetown University, then relocated to the Ontario Theater at 17th Street and Columbia Road NW, where he cut a deal with the owner to pay him $700 in exchange for holding concerts there. Bands he worked with included the Stray Cats before they became famous.

"That's what I've always done, work with bands while they are getting started -- and later when they are big, you still have access to them," Hurwitz said.

He talked his former high school teacher, Richard Heinecke, who remains his partner, into helping him finance the shows. After several failures, they began scheduling concerts at the old 930 Club and later bought it.

Twenty-five years later, the list of entertainers who have played the 9:30 or been featured in Hurwitz-promoted events reads like a Who's Who of Music: ZZ Top, Foo Fighters, Al Green, Martina McBride and Amy Winehouse.

When staffers for British entrepreneur Richard Branson were looking to franchise his successful Virgin Festival across the Atlantic, they tapped Hurwitz and I.M.P. to partner in the venture. Earlier this year, Virgin Mobile FreeFest, drew more than 35,000 music fans to Merriweather Post for acts including Blink-182, Public Enemy and Weezer.

Along with the success has come an education, Hurwitz said. He said he learned how fleeting friendships in his business can be when friends deserted him at the old 9:30 Club to patronize a newer facility.

"There's a saying that says 'It's show business, not show friends,' and I learned that when a vast majority of the people I thought were my friends left me for the shiny new toy," he said. "I decided, if you don't like it, build a better mousetrap and that's what I did."

His mousetrap is a 1,200-capacity, three-level building that features a lower-level lounge frequented by parents with children, a main level with a raised stage and a U-shaped second-level balcony section where every position has a bird's eye view of the stage.

And he's involved himself in some tough battles, mounted, critics have said, to fend off competition. He opposed a proposal to open a House of Blues club in the District three years ago. And he furiously fought an agreement between Los Angeles-based Live Nation, the nation's largest concert promoter, and Montgomery County to build a music venue in downtown Silver Spring.

Hurwitz said he was less concerned about competition than a lack of fairness in the way the contract was awarded. He said he was never allowed to present his plan, which would have cost taxpayers less on the front end and paid more into county coffers on the back end. But county officials said they prefer to have Live Nation operate the facility, which would help revitalize Silver Spring.

Earlier this year, Hurwitz filed an antritrust lawsuit against Live Nation, saying that the Los Angeles company was attempting to limit bands' ability to cut deals with venues outside of Nissan Pavilion and other Live Nation venues. Live Nation's motion for dismissal was denied and the case is still pending.

Hurwitz said his goal is to build a mid-size concert venue in the D.C. area. For several years, he's been negotiating with D.C. officials to find a suitable location, to no avail.
In the meantime, he has breathed new life into the once-struggling Merriweather Post and has high hopes for a new act he is managing, Justin Jones of Justin Jones & the Driving Rain. He remains as excited about music as he did when he attended his first concert at the Cap Centre.

"I want people to feel that excitement at my show. I never want them to feel that it's about business. It's escapism ... It's glamorous ... I want people to get lost in the moment, that moment when the lights to out, and people are at a fever pitch with anticipation. That's what its all about."


Avis Thomas-Lester

 |  December 28, 2009; 10:58 AM ET  |  Category:  success stories Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Please report offensive comments below.

I'm a huge fan of Justin Jones, but for editing purposes, I wanted to point out that it's Justin Jones & the Driving Rain (not Justin Jones "of the" Driving Rain).

Thanks for profiling Mr. Hurwitz! 9:30 rocks.


Posted by: silvergurl | December 29, 2009 9:22 AM
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The 9:30 Club is by far the best venue for live music in the DC area. It far overshadows some of the earlier local rock halls, (Cellar Door, My Father's Place AND My Mother's Place, The Bayou and (give me a break), The Emergency. I went to the Coop/ZZ Top Show at the CapCentre in '73 as well. My daughter now see her favorite indie bands with her friends at 9:30, and even interviewed the bouncer for her school newspaper. With that said, I say boycott all shows at LiveNation and support your Local 9:30 Club.

Posted by: agdowning1 | December 29, 2009 8:29 AM
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