Ticket master

Few bands play in the area without going through Seth Hurwitz, regional concert czar and co-owner of Washington's 9:30 Club. But some say he tunes out Baltimore.

November 13, 2005|By STEPHEN KIEHL | STEPHEN KIEHL,SUN REPORTER

Blond bombshell Stacy Ferguson of the Black Eyed Peas is on stage in the darkened Patriot Center in Fairfax, Va., singing "My Humps" (don't ask) and working the sellout crowd in her hip-hugging jeans and tight black top. And then something stops her cold.

Standing at the corner of stage left, next to the soundboard, is Seth Hurwitz, in black jeans, a black cotton shirt and white sneakers. Hurwitz and Fergie lock eyes and she holds the stare for five long seconds, seemingly paralyzed. Finally, she breaks away and returns to the show.

"She was looking at me like, `Why are they letting that guy stand there? Who the hell is he?' " Hurwitz says later. If she doesn't know him, she should: He's the guy who will decide whether the Black Eyed Peas ever play here again.

Hurwitz, 47, is the co-owner of the 9:30 Club in Washington, the most attended nightclub in the world, according to the trade magazine Pollstar. He's also co-owner of I.M.P., the biggest concert promoter in the Baltimore-Washington region, and perhaps more than anyone else, he decides who plays where, and if they play at all.

On a recent Saturday night, he was prowling the sold-out Patriot Center, where the Black Eyed Peas were opening for Gwen Stefani, to find out if the fans were really into the Peas and if they deserved to come back as headliners in their own right.

"I'm just trying to get a sense of the crowd, to see if they really connect with the Black Eyed Peas," Hurwitz says. So far, he's impressed with what he sees. "The seats are full and it's early. People got here early to see them."

The concert business is a byzantine one based on loyalty, personal relationships and bare-knuckle negotiating. It works like this: Bands have tour managers, and the tour managers hire booking agents to schedule tours. The agents choose promoters in each city to handle the shows.

The promoters, such as Hurwitz, book the artists through the agent, find the venue and advertise the show. The promoters guarantee the artists a minimum amount of money. A successful show means a profit for the promoter. A not-so-successful show means a loss.

Hurwitz has gotten very good at telling the difference. For several years, his 9:30 Club in Washington has sold more tickets than any other nightclub in the world. He took over Merriweather Post Pavilion last year and has pumped life and excitement into the place while guaranteeing its survival (not to mention lowering the beer prices).

He has succeeded through 25 years as a promoter with a simple philosophy: Keep it fun. That's why at shows he watches the audience, not the band. He wants to make sure people are enjoying themselves. His remake of Merriweather included more gathering places and the elimination of signs that said "Beer & Bathrooms." ("Now how is that appealing to either side of the equation?" he asks.)

"It's a rock concert," he says. "That's all we're talking about here. This is not global warming. It's a rock concert. Get real."

At a time when the concert scene is dominated by corporate monoliths like Clear Channel and Ticketmaster, Hurwitz is a throwback - a guy who works from his home in Bethesda, keeps a drum kit next to his desk, was once a DJ on alternative radio station WHFS and really loves the music.

Baltimore blocked

But his dominance in the region has raised questions about his commitment to Baltimore. Hurwitz's critics and competitors - they are often the same people - say he steers the best acts to Washington and keeps them out of Baltimore to protect his ticket sales in D.C. They say he has perpetuated the belief that Baltimore-Washington is one market, and that Baltimore is the weaker half of it.

"Bands will only do one city because he blocks the second city," says Bill Muehlhauser, owner of the 1,500-capacity Rams Head Live club in downtown Baltimore. He says Hurwitz uses the 1,200-capacity 9:30 Club as leverage. "If you're the leader, as he is, in order to keep your competition from becoming successful, you tell a band that if you want to play the No. 1 club in the country, it's the only place you're going to get in the area."

Hurwitz says he does not block artists from Baltimore. But if a band wants to play Baltimore as well as D.C., he may tell them they'll get a lower guarantee in D.C. The band may then decide to play only Washington. Hurwitz's vice president for business development, Dave Geller, says that's just good business.

"If we really feel we have a big D.C. play to protect - like a big money offer at the 9:30 Club - sometimes we'd say we'd rather advertise [the D.C. show] in Baltimore and we'd like to keep the show out of Baltimore," Geller says. "That's called using your resources. It's called having the best venue in the region."

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