Live Nation classifies a venue the size of the Fillmore Silver Spring as a “music theater.” While the company does not break out the financial results of the Fillmore brand, it did say this about the 31 music theaters it owns or leases in last year’s annual report: “Because these venues have a smaller capacity than an amphitheater, they do not offer as much economic upside on a per-show basis. However, because music theaters can be used year-round, unlike most amphitheaters, they can generate annual profits similar to those of an amphitheater. Music theaters represent less risk to concert promoters because they have lower fixed costs associated with hosting a concert and may provide a more appropriately-sized venue for developing artists and more artists in general.” Um, rock on.
Nightclubs come and go, but the D.C. market has two venues that have outlasted waves of competition: 9:30 Club and Black Cat. 9:30, whose current space holds 1,200 people, has been in business since 1980 and is directly challenged by the Fillmore’s arrival. Black Cat opened in 1993 and can hold 700 on its main stage and 200 on its backstage downstairs.
Exactly how much competition those old standbys will face for booking from the Fillmore, though, isn’t clear. “Bands want to play at the 9:30 Club or the Black Cat. No band is saying, ‘Hey, I really want to play at the Fillmore Silver Spring,’” says Steve Lambert of Hood Booking, which promotes shows for the Rock & Roll Hotel, DC9, and Red Palace. 9:30 Club’s Hurwitz and Black Cat owner Dante Ferrando both say they are not concerned about the Fillmore. “I was afraid they were would be competition. After looking at their schedule, I’m not worried,” Hurwitz says. Hurwitz thinks 9:30 Club has a history and connection to fans that will be difficult for the Fillmore to replicate. “It’s intangibles that can’t be explained. They need to evolve organically. It’s not as simple as wall coverings, lighting fixtures, and fruit,” he says.
Look at the calendars of the Fillmore and 9:30 Club and certain things stand out. Acts at the Fillmore tend to cost more: You’re shelling out $89.50 for a ticket to see Mary J. Bilge on the Fillmore’s opening night, $69.50 for John Legend on Sept. 17, and $50 for Black Star on Sept. 18. Cheap Trick is not so cheap at $45 on Sept. 27. And none of these prices include a Ticketmaster service charge, which the venue will still apply even though the tickets are sold by a corporate cousin. On the same dates at 9:30 Club: The Low Anthem for $20 on Sept. 15, Atari Teenage Riot for $25 and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah for $25 on Sept. 17, Molotov for $25 on Sept. 18, and Matt Nathanson for $25 on Sept. 27. These prices don’t include the $6 per-ticket service fee and $4 processing charge if you buy 9:30 Club tickets online through Ticketfly.
Granted, these aren’t apples-to-apples comparisons. So, let’s look at two acts from the same genre going against each other on the same night. On Oct. 17, the Fillmore has Bush for $41.50, and tickets are still available. The 9:30 Club has a sold-out Smashing Pumpkins show, which cost $55 when tickets were on sale. Legal ticket-scalping sites, like StubHub, are selling Smashing Pumpkins tickets for about $100 now.
Hurwitz’s company and Live Nation have battled on other fronts beyond the aforementioned venues. Live Nation owns Nissan Pavilion and promotes shows at Verizon Center, Warner Theatre, Rams Head Live, and Lisner Auditorium, among other local venues. I.M.P. manages operations at Merriweather Post Pavilion and promotes events at Constitution Hall, the Music Center at Strathmore, and the Lyric Theatre and Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore. (Hurwitz likes to point out that a promoter acquired by Clear Channel and later spun off to Live Nation failed at running the Bayou and Nation clubs in the District.) I.M.P. also filed an antitrust lawsuit against Live Nation, which is currently tied up in court.
While Hurwitz often portrays his disputes against Live Nation as a David-versus-Goliath struggle, he is downplaying his promotional skills. 9:30 Club won the “Nightclub of the Year” award in 2009 as voted by readers of Pollstar, a trade magazine that covers the concert touring industry. That’s particularly impressive when you consider that Pollstar’s readers are concentrated in the music industry hubs of Los Angeles, New York, and Nashville, says Gary Bongiovanni, Pollstar’s president and editor-in-chief. “It’s fairly rare for nightclubs like the 9:30 Club and the Black Cat to last as long as they have,” he says.