Fillmore Silver Spring: The End of the World as We Know It? Why the new LiveNation venue may not doom the 9:30 Club, the Black Cat, or other D.C. nightclubs

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Photo by Darrow Montgomery

It’s early August and the Fillmore is naked. Only two of the nightclub’s four chandeliers are hanging, and the murals celebrating its namesake’s hippie heritage have yet to be painted on the blank orange walls. That doesn’t matter to Bruce Lee, president of Lee Development Group, who is beaming on the concrete stage. Lee has spent nearly a decade trying to bring a music hall near the intersection of Colesville Road and Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring—and what he calls the “Mercedes of music” is almost here.

When Mary J. Blige takes this same stage on Thursday night as the Fillmore Silver Spring’s opening act, Lee’s quest will be complete. “This project took two governors, two county executives, three economic development people, and two county councils to complete,” he says during a hard-hat tour of the space. The opening also required a one-of-a-kind, no-bid deal with Montgomery County and Live Nation Entertainment, the world’s largest concert promoter and parent company of Ticketmaster.

The Fillmore, which holds up to 2,000 people, has the potential to reshape the D.C.-area music scene. It could draw fans away from long-dominant venues like 9:30 Club and Black Cat, shifting dollars and buzz to the suburbs. Unlike other industries, more competition in the live music world can actually drive prices up as clubs throw money at the limited number of bands who can fill large rooms. The new entrant could cause a domino effect: Smaller clubs lose some of their acts to bigger stages, and a $15 show could easily become $20 with prices rising across the board.

And unlike most venues, the Fillmore has the support of a public company with deep pockets. Last year, Live Nation generated more than $5 billion in revenue. In the first half of 2011, the Beverly Hills, Calif.-based live events business grew its share of tickets sold for the top 100 concert tours from 41 percent to 48 percent. If the Fillmore succeeds—and that’s a huge if—Live Nation will have pulled off something that it and its corporate predecessors have never done: successfully running a nightclub in the D.C. market. Fortunately for Live Nation, it got a lot of help from Montgomery County.


Downtown Silver Spring’s revival wasn’t enough to activate the north side of Colesville Road. Montgomery County wanted that to change. In 2002, then-County Executive Douglas Duncan approached the Birchmere about opening another location in the old J.C. Penney building, owned by Lee Development. The Alexandria, Va., cabaret-style hall, which seats 500, has hosted major blues, folk, and jazz acts since 1966. The owners seemed like a good fit to operate a suburban venue. Duncan wanted the Birchmere to run an 800-seat music hall in Silver Spring for a sweet deal: The state of Maryland and the county would each contribute $4 million to the project. Lee Development would donate the land in exchange for the county’s approval to develop the surrounding site. All the Birchmere had to do was invest $1 million.

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But the Birchmere negotiations dragged on, and power changed hands. Isiah “Ike” Leggett was elected county executive in 2006, and the county’s talks with the Birchmere broke down in the summer of 2007. Lee says Leggett wanted a bigger venue than Duncan’s Birchmere proposal. Montgomery County officials also wanted to seek another company to operate the venue because years of talks hadn’t led to any progress, says Diane Schwartz Jones, the county’s assistant chief administrative officer. The Birchmere owners want to put the whole thing behind them, and declined to discuss exactly why the deal fell through. “The Birchmere wishes Live Nation the best of luck,” says Jim Matthews, a Birchmere partner.

With the Birchmere gone, Lee pressed ahead. When he heard that attempts to bring a House of Blues in downtown D.C. in 2006 had failed, he contacted Live Nation to see if they were interested in a Silver Spring project. “They were like, ‘Where’s Silver Spring?’” he says. But Live Nation executives visited the site, and they liked its Metro accessibility, ample parking, and proximity to D.C.

Meanwhile, Seth Hurwitz, co-owner of 9:30 Club, decided his promotion company, It’s My Party Inc., could run the proposed venue. He says he didn’t express interest sooner than 2007 because he felt the Birchmere would be well-suited for the project. Now that they were out of the picture, a letter outlining Hurwitz’s intentions was hand-delivered to Leggett on Sept. 24, 2007. But Hurwitz was too late. The county and Live Nation signed a non-binding letter of intent for the site on Sept. 18 of that year. The deal was similar to the one offered to the Birchmere, but Live Nation was not required to invest money in the construction of the nightclub.

Our Readers Say

"It’s a county, after all, that recently proposed a curfew for teens."

Ok, but this is only a proposal, while the District - home to the 9:30 Club and the Black Cat - already HAS a curfew for teens.
This article is a joke.
"But walk across Colesville Road, and you’re still in downtown Silver Spring. The nearby shopping center is a menagerie of chain restaurants from the sublime—Nando’s—to the pedestrian—Red Lobster—with 8,000 free parking spaces in the surrounding area."

Hello, Colesville has exactly ZERO chain restaurants (besides a great, local one in Ray's) while you have a bunch of locally owned restaurants in Abol, Kao Thai, Sabroso, Da Marcos, Sergios, etc. along with unique gems in Round House Theater, AFI, etc. You cherry pick crap like a Red Lobster on Ga. Ave. just so you can try and fit downtown Silver Spring into some anywhere-usa mold to bash. If you spent any time in the area you'd know it's far more diverse and urban than just about anywhere in the region.

>>> “The focus this year was to price the house right from the beginning, to drive higher revenue from the front and lower prices in the back to stimulate purchase. The key strategy to achieve this, No. 1, was no mass discounting,”

Isn't that neat. By gosh, the next time I buy one of the lower prices in the back I am going to see if I can't stimulate some purchasing in the front. Not just for me, but for the high revenue folks, too.

I frankly just don't feel like we're making enough effort to contribute to their $5bn revenue.
Makes sense to me. If you are the kind of person who thinks Livenation and Ticketmaster are rock and roll, you are probably the kind of person who thinks Silver Spring is cool. Perfect match.
I only have to look at how Live Nation runs the Jiffy Lube Live Pavillion (formerly Nissan Pavillion) and compare that to how IMP runs Merriweather in MD. The experiences are a contrast of get everyone inside quick so we can suck the money out of them by Live Nation, to one that is about hearing the music and enjoying the experience.

Live Nation, is a tiny spin-off of a much larger and even more sinister entity Clear Channel, whose business practices are to crush the competition and offer a neutered experience driven by the highest priced advertiser. Silver Spring should be ashamed of what they gave to bring this type of category killer to the area. Truly ashamed.
SMP, are you serious? Live Nation is akin to Halliburton or something? Live Nation venues sell 50 million tickets a year - all those people, not to mention all the big musicians, should be ashamed? Psycho much? P.S. Nissan sucks because of the logistics of the site, which is why it sucks compared to Merriweather (in my mind). How does that have anything to do with Live Nation?
@anon
Yeah, how dare he "cherry pick" the shopping center literally across the street. You have to turn a corner to get in there so it shouldn't count as being in the area. And the entrance to the Panera Bread next to AFI definitely isn't on Colesville Road, the door is slightly angled to the parking lot. And we should definitely all ignore the collection of fast food restaurants on Colesville just a block away, that would put Silver Spring into some type of anywhere-USA mold.

Aside from the selection of stores in the actual mall across the street from the Fillmore, Silver Spring is just like any suburban mall in the country.
9:30 and the Black Cat will always have an advantage over Live Nation's Fillmore for one reason: They book cutting-edge acts. Look at the OVERPRICED washed-up has-beens Live Nation is trotting out: Mary J. Blige, John Legend, Bush (are you fucking kidding? Bush?), Cheap Trick (ha!) Et al. Live Nation is clearly aiming for the suburban housewife and husband who is afraid/too tired to go into the scary District for shows.
"Live Nation is quick to emphasize how the Fillmore will develop local talent. Arich Berghammer, Live Nation’s executive vice president of clubs and theaters, tells me he’s open to having Ethiopian music at the Fillmore after discussing the lack of such shows with his cab driver during a recent trip to Silver Spring."

This one will keep me laughing for a while.
Yes, you don't have to look far to find non-chain restaurants in Silver Spring. This isn't Rockville. To name just the chains at the redevelopment hub is a pretty lazy description of the area. But I think that the Fillmore, if it's successful, does portend higher rents and more chains coming to downtown Silver Spring.
Anyone who thinks Silver Spring has more chains than locally owned businesses has never been here. There are few places in the WORLD that are more diverse than Silver Spring. This isn't some Target-filled Columbia Heights or chain-filled Penn Quarter - Silver Spring has, what, a 100 local restaurants that represent dozens of cultures. No one can legitimately say that Red Lobster represents Silver Spring.
"And we should definitely all ignore the collection of fast food restaurants on Colesville just a block away, that would put Silver Spring into some type of anywhere-USA mold. "

Oh, wait there are a few chain restaurants in Silver Spring? That would put them into some type of anywhere-in-the-world mold. Even Paris has plenty of McDonald's, KFCs and Pizza Huts.
Give me a break.

I live in DTSS and the critics are right. I keep seeing people defend this area's nightlife and food life and it's sad. Delusional bunch of yuppies.

The culture of DTSS needs serious work. And yes everything DOES close early- curfew or not. So if you go to a show in Fillmore weekday or weekend you come out and find- nothing. No bars or intresting clubs or nightlife within walking distance still open or not occupied by thugs and hoodlums or old retirees.

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