8-Dec-2011 (Thu)
Wherein live music continues to vex us, and I name names about it.

We have a lot of great DJ dance nights here, and they are all fun, popular, and even award-winning parties. I actually enjoy all of our regular Friday and Saturday events. This is a big change from the first five-or-so years after I opened this place, when our Fri/Sat parties were just to pay the bills, and I actually intensely hated most them. These days, we have a set of dance parties that are both profitable and personally enjoyable, and that's amazing!

But dance parties are only half of the business that I wanted to be in.

Live music is what I love most, and we rarely have any real concerts here. We spent a fortune building a fantastic room for live music, and pretty much the only way we can actually gets bands on our stage is with events like those Battle of the Bands shows, which are basically pay-to-play for (the parents of) high school metal bands. Unsurprisingly, I don't feel like that's really fulfilling the mandate.

So... the Noise Pop Festival's 2012 line-up is out, and guess how many of those shows are at DNA Lounge? Zero! Did you guess right? I'll bet you guessed right. At this point it's not even remotely surprising. Noise Pop puts on shows around the city in dozens of different venues, from large rooms to tiny hole-in-the-wall bars, but DNA Lounge is never a part of that rotation, and we can't understand why. Most of the time when I go to Noise Pop shows, I look around and think, "Ok, why isn't this at DNA?"

Barry has been writing and/or calling the folks who put on Noise Pop every few months since 2008, when we went all ages. (Actually some time before that, but that's when he started trying in earnest.) Every year, that conversation has gone:

  • "Oh, really? You're available? Wow, we should totally do some of our shows at DNA! But we already have the schedule done for this year, call me again in six months."
  • Three, five, six, and then seven months later: "Oh, yeah, we'd love to! I'll get back to you."
  • Two months after that: "Oh, I guess we didn't really have any bands that were 'appropriate', but maybe next year."
  • The next year: "Oh, really? You're available? Wow, we should totally do some of our shows at DNA!"

...and, repeat. Seriously, this conversation has been happening for half a decade.

I mention this not to pick on them in particular (well, that too) but because it seems to be an endemic problem. There seems to be nothing we can do to get live music in here. We just get no respect for it. We have a great stage, a great sound system, but nobody wants to do live shows here. I don't know who we're expected to blow to make this happen. Here's another example, from just a few weeks ago:

There's this band from New Zealand that I really enjoy, The Naked and Famous. I saw on their Facebook that they were doing a few Southern California dates but nothing up here, so we mailed their agent and said, "Hey, how about an SF show? We have Dec 18 open." The agent wrote back and said, "No thanks, they're not up for it." Ok, fair enough. Except that six days later I saw a Naked and Famous gig show up on The Independent's calendar... on Dec 18, the very date we suggested. We wrote back saying basically, "Hey, WTF!" and the agent said, "Well, I've done a lot of business with those guys before, so of course I'm going to give them all of my shows." Which was surprisingly straightforward, I guess.

I did not reply with,

"Thank you for your honesty. I guess I should read this as, I shouldn't bother contacting your agency about booking your artists, because you're always going to choose our competition first without even allowing us to bid."

though I really should have. Certainly there's no point in our ever trying to work with The Windish Agency again; they've made that clear. Even if I was willing to to pay way more for the show than what it was worth, they don't even give us a chance to make an offer!

Normally we don't even get an answer as straightforward as that. The much more common way for that conversation to go is,

    Jamie:   Hey, this band So-and-So is great! We should book them!
    Barry: Dear booking agent, I'm writing to inquire about So-and-So. Are they touring any time soon? We'd love the opportunity to bid on the show.
    Agent: Sorry, So-and-So aren't touring right now.
    Barry: Ok, thank you. Please let us know when they are.
    Agent: [ 50/50 chance of getting "Ok", or just complete silence. ]
    ...time passes...
    Jamie: Hey Barry, did you see that So-and-So are playing at Not-DNA next month?

I go see live music a lot, at other venues. I'd say that during the busier months, I see two or three live shows a week, sometimes more. But never at DNA, because we just don't get to do that here. In particular, I see a lot of shows at Popscene. I think Aaron and Omar book some fantastic acts. I am very much on the same page with their taste in music -- and I'm also a big believer in the format they use for Popscene, a dance party with a single band in the middle. That's what we did for our own Pop Roxx parties, and that's not a coincidence.

So we've been trying to convince Popscene to move to DNA since, again, 2008 when we went all ages. We started nagging them when they were still at 330 Ritch, which is a great little bar, but too small for them, and has a terrible stage for live music, and a terrible sound system. "Oh no, we're totally happy here, we'd never move", they told us, right up until the day that they moved to Rickshaw Stop. Which is a great dance club but, again, too small for them, and has a terrible stage for live music. Aaron and Omar have put on shows here at DNA on occasion (such as the fantastic, but barely-attended, Chromatics show in September), but my impression is that it's only as a last resort, because, I guess, there's just something about this place that they hate? I don't know. The last time we made a concerted effort to recruit them, back in late 2009, we actually offered them such a sweet deal that I would have had to pay out of my own pocket every night that they were here. In a moment of weakness, I was willing to do that just to get their bands on our stage, and still they said no. (Where by "no" I mean "they wouldn't even return our phone calls".)

In fact, Barry says:

Starting in 2009:

  • I called Aaron and Omar nearly weekly;
  • I confronted them when they were DJing at DNA;
  • I confronted them when I would go to Popscene as an attendee;
  • I booked them at Pop Roxx not only because they play good music, but because I knew that since I was the one paying them, they couldn't dodge me when I tried to confront them about this;
  • I went to Popscene with the sole purpose of cornering them;
  • If I saw either DJing at a show I was attending I would confront them;
  • If I saw they were DJing a show that I was not planning on attending, I would go for the sole purpose of confronting them!

So, even the hard sell didn't work.

Perhaps this comes off as sounding whiny, but it's not like we've been just sitting on our asses doing nothing and complaining: we've tried every damned thing we can think of! Here are only three very recent examples of people we could have worked with, and have tried repeatedly to work with to make live music happen here, and still it goes nowhere.

To be clear, I have nothing against these other venues who get all these shows. You can't blame them for out-competing us 100% of the time. I just don't have any fucking idea what I can do about it.

So that all kind of sucks.

51 Responses:

  1. Amber Steele says:

    Yeah, that sucks. You know what sucks the most about it? My pet peeve: that only one of those folks gave you a straight answer. Everyone else involved is so *^*&#$ mortified to say "NO" that they avoid you or lead you on. What assholery. I suppose there are two other options: 1) Someone is paying out-of-pocket for all of the bands you like, and they're trying to keep that on quiet out of respect for their patrons, or 2) Barry is a raving jerk who dresses badly and smells.
    Clearly option 2 can only exist in an alternate universe.

    What if you offered free booze to folks who fill out a survey about DNA's reputation and/or why they don't let you bid?

  2. Lun Esex says:

    I know it's probably hard in such a competitive business, but have you managed to have any conversations with the (current and/or former) booking agents/managers/owners of other venues to get their perspectives?

    • barrkel says:

      To me it sounds like jwz will have to poach a booking agent with connections. It all sounds vaguely corrupt.

      • Lun Esex says:

        "vaguely corrupt"? You can't seriously be accusing anything involving the entertainment industry, or even doing business in general in San Francisco, to be at all dishonest and not completely above board, are you? ;)

        • tjic says:

          > "vaguely corrupt"? You can't seriously be accusing anything involving the entertainment industry

          LOL!

  3. paul yoon says:

    Makes me even sadder I missed Obscura. Lame!

  4. Jeremy Wilson says:

    Perhaps the image of the club as "goth," plus your famously cranky attitude, puts people off?

    • Lauren Wheeler says:

      Yeah, I was going to say that.

      Additionally, the "fantastic, but barely-attended, Chromatics show"--any idea why attendance was so low? Do you have decent stats on attendance when you do have live music? If it's hard to get people through the doors for bands (for whatever reason), that's a good enough reason for promoters and agents to go with other venues. Even if you're offering to foot part of the bill for any given night, they want a successful turnout since their ability to book in the future depends on it.

      • Jamie Zawinski says:

        You can theorize all day and all night about "why was attendance low". Did it rain? Did it not rain? Was it cold out? Was it not cold out? My guess is, Omar didn't bother to promote it. Who knows.

        Really, agents don't care about attendance except insofar as attendance translates to money. We don't even get as far as having conversations about attendance or money with them.

        • EDGAR CHILLINGSTON says:

          Well wait- agents DO sometimes care about where the band wants to play, and the BAND cares about attendance, even if only because it translates to merch sales. If I report back to my booking agent that I didn't have a good show at a particular place, even if it netted me (and thus, him) more money, he's less likely to book me there the next time. So it's not a total non-issue.

          • Jamie Zawinski says:

            What part of "We don't even get as far as having conversations about attendance or money" did you miss?

            • Laird Broadfield says:

              (I'll take "famously cranky attitude" for $100, Alex.)

              You're not going to get to have that conversation in the first place if you've already been blackballed by the band, or by another band with that promoter, or by that promoter's boyfriend's hairdresser's manicurist.

              Just because you didn't get to have a conversation about attendance or money doesn't mean it's not about attendance or money.

        • Lauren Wheeler says:

          It's not about theory; it's about perception. What I'm trying to say is that the perception of the DNA -- that's it's "a goth club" or a dance club in general and not a live music venue (the success of Bootie doesn't really dispel that myth, now does it?) -- may have something to do with it.

          And, if there's a perception that you can't pack the house when you do have live music, that might be part of the problem. Which is why I'm suggesting actually looking at your numbers for those nights when bands *have* played there.

        • charlesmanson says:

          Have you heard about some of the latest?

          The NDAA bill is probably going to be law.
          The problem is here in section 1031 -

          (2) A person who was a part of or substantially
          supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces
          that are engaged in hostilities against the United
          States or its coalition partners, including any person
          who has committed a belligerent act or has directly
          supported such hostilities in aid of such enemy
          forces.

          Now if a citizen is not involved in al-Qaeda but is hostile even in a non-violent fashion and emotionally charged enough to be branded belligerent then they could be detained indefinitely according to this. Also that list of coalition partners contains some 50+ countries so we aren't just talking about anti-American statements. There may even be more ways they can work the works "hostile" and "belligerent" as an excuse to lock you up.

    • Jamie Zawinski says:

      People who think, "Oh, it's a goth club" are either A) goths who only come here on Mondays, or B) don't even live in San Francisco and never look at our calendar. I'm guessing that's you. For just one example, we have this little weekly party called Bootie that's been getting in *one week* what a goth night does in eight weeks for more than five years now. We have one goth party. One.
      I'm sure there are a lot of people who think of us as "that high-school-metal club".

      • Jeremy Wilson says:

        Well, there's reality and then there's perception. The black and green colour scheme and late 90's industrial design sensibility does nothing to dissuade the notion, either.

        And you're still a curmudgeon.

      • Conner Richardson says:

        i live in sf and look at your calendar. i'd say the vibe is still "goth club" ... reality and perception sometimes don't match up.

  5. Eric Larson says:

    If it doesn't work with the existing bookers and promoters, you need to approach someone new who might be just starting. Someone who is going to work their ass off to make something happen and start something new. When my band first started playing we weren't able to get in with the hip booking collective in town, so we turned to a new club that had just opened. Six months later we were doing shows for the hip booking collective at that same club and it became the place to play. I'd keep my eyes open and put the word out you're looking for someone to book and give some folks some chances. Best of luck!

  6. krisgraff says:

    You guys have just too good a rep as the best dance club in the city!

    But for my two cents, it is much easier to do your own thing then try to get involved with someone else's event. Time for a rogue music festival or conference perhaps? thinking outside the box, throw something so good that people will be hunting you down...

  7. krisgraff says:

    My two cents, throw something so good that everyone is pounding at your door...it's much easier to create your own thing then convince an existing event to change what they know. Time for a rogue dna music festival or conference I think!? why couldn't there be a sxsw type event in SF? ps. I also think you just have too good a rep right now as a being the best dance club in the city :)

  8. krisgraff says:

    oops sorry for the double comment, I didn't see the first one go through...

  9. Alex Gourley says:

    There is an aesthetic mismatch between DNA's physical appearance and Popscene's lofi/arty pretensions. I'm sure it's not the only factor but I would wager it's a big one.

    • Jamie Zawinski says:

      I think you haven't been to any of the other venues in question.

      • Alex Gourley says:

        I definitely have. 330 Ritch (before the remodel) at least had a divey, unestablished pop-up feel. Rickshaw has a warmer looser aesthetic that goes with the style of music. I have a hard time closing my eyes an imagining popscene @ DNA. You don't have to agree but but it's honest feedback from someone whos been to both a lot.

        edit: I'd still go if you made it happen, though.

        • Jamie Zawinski says:

          330 is basically an Irish pub, and Rickshaw is a padded room vaguely decorated with 19th Century bicycles. Neither of these really scream "Indie Rock" to me. But in any event, if it's the decor that the promoters don't like, they sure haven't even remotely said so.

          • Alee Karim says:

            19th century bicycles are very indie rock. Really.

            I don't think a promoter will say they aren't into the aesthetics (or the perceived aesthetics) of DNA unless prompted.

            • Grey Hodge says:

              Exactly how else should Jamie "prompt" them? He's fucking begging for feedback, they won't even return his calls. It's like if he were giving away money, they'd turn it down as it would require coming to DNA. Oh wait, HE'S DONE THAT.

  10. EDGAR CHILLINGSTON says:

    Also, this thing wouldn't let me post via facebook, so now you're seeing my band twitter. Meh.

  11. Edouard Poor says:

    Back when I used to work for (well known DJ software company) we had a guy in the US who was in charge of getting us deals (like trying to land Universal Music for our DJ pre-release promo service). He was great at translating the music biz for us.

    e.g.:

    (manager of a small label) "You guys are awesome - I'd like to participate in the Universal Deal you're working on"

    (translation) "Give me a kickback, and I'll make sure to mention you to the right people"

    "Participation" == "Kickback" in the lingo, apparently.

    Is, umm, that the problem you are facing?

    Also, is the music biz really that corrupt? (but I think I already know the answer to that one)

  12. Jamie Zawinski says:

    Wow, these comments cause me physical pain.

    "Hurr durr have you tried X?" Of course we have.

    "I've never run a club or hired a band, but I'll bet the reason everyone thinks you suck is..."

    Come on, guys. Your armchair quarterbacking is only infuriating, not helpful. It makes me regret turning on comments here at all.

    • mipearson says:

      So I was in a band, the sort of band that you're after WRT NoisePop and all that, and if we were in a position to choose we'd outright reject venues that felt like 'clubs' and target venues that felt like 'bars', for a couple of reasons:

      a) the sound at 'club' venues is often really, really terrible (loud to the point of being unlistenable, too much bass)
      b) the people at 'club' venues are often really, really terrible (drunk, obnoxious muscled up shitheads)

      In Melbourne there's a pretty solid distinction between "venues that are for loud, bass driven music and overpriced Jagerbombs" and "venues that you go see performers at".

      What it reads like based on this post alone is that you've got a mismatch between your reputation (as a successful club/events venue) and what you're trying to do with your live stuff.

      I wasn't going to post this because I was thinking "I've never been to the DNA Lounge, I've never even been to SF, what the fuck do I know about this guy's business" but reading these comments from others it sounds like that might be an avenue you wanna look at if you want to be getting the awesome live acts.

      • Chris Brent says:

        You've never been to the DNA Lounge,you've never even been to SF, what the fuck do I know about this guy's business. Or what his "club" even looks like inside.

        • tfofurn says:

          Perhaps he's looked at the webcams, the remodeling diaries and the copious photo galleries? I almost forgot the booking page, which even has blueprints to go along with the pictures. DNA is probably the best-documented venue of its kind.

        • mipearson says:

          All true! But I was in an "indie" band and I can comment on what we, and what the other similar bands, looked for in a venue apart from the obvious "how much will we get paid" and "can we pull a crowd there". Especially if we're touring and we don't know the scene.

          My main worry is that the SF scene is similar more to Sydney, where you pretty much play where you can, and the second you walk off the stage they turn it into yet-another-fucking-trance-club. In which case nothing I said above applies.

    • Lauren Wheeler says:

      If you just want to rant without feedback, then turn off the comments. It's your business (literally), not ours.

  13. Matty J. says:

    As a consumer, I'm easily tricked. And agents are borderline retarded so this is 100% guaranteed to work.

    Change the name. To something like 'DNA Live".

    I'm only half-joking. Derp derp.

  14. Jered says:

    Stupid question: are you a TicketMaster/LiveNation venue? Are the other places? Bands get forced to sign exclusive contracts if they want to play at any TM venue, and I wouldn't be shocked if they're forbidden from disclosing this and have to make up excuses.

    • DFB says:

      Ah HA! The stark jackboot of consolidation?

      Naw. I'm with the commenter who suggested payoffs up front are the cost of doing business, and probably more than worth it in the long run. Honestly, Jamie, for all your weird obsessions with tentacles and people who wear boxes, you're probably up somewhere in the top handful of percentiles in the ethics category. It's part of your fanboy-attracting charm, really, a lot more than those screensavers or the snide comments.

      Seriously, have you ever tried to offer an agent anything under the table? Ever?

  15. gryazi says:

    As much as the thematic / image issue is apparently only a tiny part of it, the fact that someone had to point out that 19th century bicycles are currently Appropriate Decor for the Steampunk-Hipster-Wants-To-Look-Sensitive-To-A-Girl/Actually-Is-Sensitive indie rock demographic says that maybe "I Am Having Trouble Imagining This As An Actual Thing That Could Happen" is a real contributing factor.

    And since you can't get hardly anyone to go first and demonstrate that it *can* work, people may indeed be having a gut WTF reaction ["that high school metal club"] aside from whatever mysterious conspiracy aspects can't be probed.

    (Says the socialphobe who lives on the far outskirts of / is nonetheless exposed to and absorbent of all the various media crap generated by the NYC hipster scene.)

    So... while this completely fails to address the lack of actually being able to book acts, the commenter who said something like "it's all the black and green" may actually have a point. And, bizarrely-coincident to the first commenter, "amber nights" (alluding to all of tube-amp glow, the color generally associated with acoustic guitar, and cheap beer, while also managing to mesh with the 'colors CRTs came in' convention) might be a way to advocate that you're trying to drag in some actual "rock and roll".

    Of course this means you might have to grin and bear some fixie acts to get it rolling, but making it look like you're making an effort to create a thematic impedance-match might shave down that "WTF" hump (leaving only all the other roadblocks and door prizes).

    [Man, what _is_ it about you that makes you so satisfying to give halfassed/bad advice to? You're like the Howard Stern of crowdsourcing the incompetent.]

  16. Seth Kingsley says:

    What do you see as being the differences between Slim's and DNA?

    • Jamie Zawinski says:

      The most obvious difference is that they do live music every night, and never do dance parties. Obviously that's not an option for us. Also, since they also own Great American, they get to share the booking effort between the two.

  17. Rick C says:

    What do actual bands say about it?

  18. jeff ross says:

    How much is a vodka cran at the Rickshaw, Independent and 330 and how much is one at DNA?

  19. Bootie Mashup says:

    This post makes me sad -- the first live show I ever saw after moving to San Francisco was at DNA Lounge. And I feel your pain. The DNA Lounge is an awesome place to see live music, not to mention play at -- I should know, my band Smash-Up Derby plays twice a month at Bootie (despite its reputation as a dance club, we do actually have LIVE music at Bootie). I've often wondered why there isn't more live music at DNA.

    However, I must admit, from a band's perspective (or even a club promoter's perspective, for that matter), the size of DNA Lounge can be a bit intimidating. It's a big room to fill, and it doesn't have the "intimacy" (i.e., low ceilings, shitty sound, cramped space, cheap drinks) that other venues have (especially ones that tends to book up-and-coming indie bands that you like). So therefore, you're not on the radar of these bands' agents and bookers, who go with the same-ol-same-ol venues that have more of an indie rep.

    I also have a strong suspicion that lack of an experienced band booker may be part of the problem. These people are usually hooked up with agents, managers, etc., and have consistent relationships with those people. That "poaching some talent from another venue" might not be a bad idea, actually. Not exactly the best ethical solution, but unfortunately, given this industry, that might be what it takes.

    Also, re-branding a venue's image takes a LOT of time, not to mention a concerted amount of PR. I know people who still think DNA Lounge is a house music club simply based on those Fri/Sat nights from the first five years. That reputation is hard to shake. 1015 Folsom and Ruby Skye both have the facilities to present live music, but their reputation as dance clubs precede them as well.

    • 205guy says:

      "the size of DNA Lounge can be a bit intimidating"

      This got me thinking (where by thinking I mean armchair club owning): what you need is a small room attached to your club. It can still be green and black (or is that just the website), but it's small, intimate, and yet still has good sound. Don't know what to do about the price of drinks. You can convert the pizza place or buy out your other neighbor.

      Yeah, I know, that's the stupidest, most expensive idea anyone has typed in these comments yet. But I have the perfect name: RNA lounge. Or if that's too similar, Polymerase.

  20. François Villeneuve says:

    Why don't you go outside your own established music range, book some punk rock and hardcore bands, host a pay-to-play for actual young bands... Also, you're at SXSW every year: Approach bands directly? Some of them will certainly never have played SF and would be thrilled to be approached by an SF venue giving them some guarantees. Repeat this at one or two other smallish festivals.

  21. 0x6772 says:

    It's a meager contribution, and this will probably come off as being show-offy (maybe less so if I refrain from name-dropping, so I'll do that), but I do keep telling my friends who play actual live music (some of them SF local, more potentially touring there) to go talk to Barry. So far as I know, none of them have. I'm sorry.

  22. Rael says:

    I'm not sure of the finer details of your business operation but I know their are plenty of bands looking for venues to play. I'd be glad to play there and a number of bands I know would as well. I'm in the process of setting up a monthly Prog show and have been addressing a venue in Oakland or Alameda and would be happy to speak with you about it. I was told of this blog from Pete Tillman of bayprog.org. Please let me know if you'd like to speak to me.

  23. googuse says:

    Going back 30+ years, DNA has NEVER been a successful live venue. Why? Who knows? I've seen great shows there for sure, but it's never taken off as a live room. I fucking HATE Slims.

  24. Tanya R. Hunt says:

    Hi,
    I am a booking agent/promoter and I have made inquiries about wanting to do shows at DNA Lounge for almost 2 years and no one ever emails me back. If you want me to put on some awesome live shows there with awesome musicians (both touring and local), please email me at trhuntbooking@gmail.com Thank you.
    Peace,
    TR