Talking Shop With Ex-9:30 Club Booker Lisa White
From 1991 to 2013, local bands called booking manager Lisa White when they wanted a show at 9:30 Club—and when they were pissed about not getting one. Working with primary booker and club co-owner Seth Hurwitz, White booked a lot of the bands that opened for big acts at the venue. She had the right background for it: She'd spent part of the 1980s as a freelance booker in town, putting bands in tiny clubs like dc space and BBQ Iguana. Small was her specialty.
White started booking the 9:30 Club when it was still a "wonderful rat-infested hellhole," as she puts it, on F Street NW, and she stayed on when the venue moved to its much roomier space on V Street NW in 1996. As 9:30 Club owner I.M.P. broadened its reach across the region, White put bands in other rooms that the company became involved in, like Republic Gardens, Fletcher's in Baltimore, and U Street Music Hall.
White left 9:30 Club last year after what she calls her last hurrah—the Funk-Punk Throwback Jam in February. By that point, she'd already been living part-time in Austin for several years, and she badly needed a break from work. After she took as much time off as she could afford, White jumped right back into booking, but on a smaller scale. Now she finds bands for Gypsy Sally's, the small and still-new Americana venue in Georgetown.
White recently spoke to Washington City Paper about her new gig, the difficulties of booking small local bands at 9:30 Club, and why she'd never work for a massive entity like Live Nation.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Washington City Paper: Do you think there’s such a thing as too many clubs in D.C.?
Lisa White: Well certainly there’s a point where there’s market saturation. But as it stands now, I don’t really see that we’re at that point, because so many more people have moved into the city that I think [it's] created an environment where there’s room for more clubs. It's just amazing how much more populated the city is now than it was back in the '80s and the '90s. I think that there’s room for smaller clubs that are addressing different niche markets, like what Jim Thomson was doing at Tropicalia. He was addressing a style of music that really wasn't being addressed anywhere else in this city.
With Gypsy Sally’s, it’s the same thing. Gypsy Sally's is focusing on Americana. And Americana encompasses a lot of things, whether it's folk and singer-songwriter stuff, blues—and I’m bringing some zydeco bands here coming up. Any kind of country, honky-tonk, alt-country stuff—and did I say bluegrass? Americana kind of encompasses all of those things, but yet it's still a focus.
WCP: I want to talk about Gypsy Sally's, but quickly—you mentioned Jim Thomson. He recently lost his job at Tropicalia because the owner says he couldn't afford to keep him. Do you think that these clubs with niche audiences should be concerned about whether they're appealing to enough people?
LW: I can't speak to whatever went on between Jim and Tropicalia. I don't know. All I know is that I went to some events there that were really well-attended. Certainly marketing plays into it. Any kind of venue that you have, you have to do your marketing. Because it doesn't matter who you've got in there; if the people that are interested don’t know about it, they’re not gonna come, and that doesn't necessarily mean that there’s not an interest in it. It just means that the people that are interested didn't know.
That's one of those things that happens in a lot of new businesses, not just venues. They spend all their money on the build-out and getting the business up and running, and they don’t have any money in their marketing budget, and then they wonder why people don't come to their store or their restaurant or their club or whatever. You have to create a marketing network and a constituency, and it takes time to build their constituencies.
I don't know that there’s room for another large venue in Washington, D.C. I mean now we've got the Howard and the 9:30 Club and Sixth & I is doing stuff—the Lincoln Theatre is, well it’s not really a club, it’s a theater, but still it’s a large venue. I don't know if there’s room for another venue of that size. But smaller venues that are going after certain niche markets? I don’t know if the market is saturated for that yet, I really don’t. I kind of think not.
WCP: I read an online chat you did in 1999 with the Washington Post. One of the things you said is that bands need to grow their own followings. But at the same time, they’re calling you up and asking, “Why aren't you booking my band?” And you’re like, “Look, it’s just too risky to book your band when you don’t have a following yet.” Now of course more bands are using the Internet to get out there. So do you think bands still have no idea how to market themselves?
LW: Well, this is the big Catch 22. You can’t get gigs unless you have a following, but how do you build a following unless you have gigs? It’s always existed and it always will exist. However, in 1999, there was no Facebook. There were no email blasts. There was no Twitter and the other ways that people can interact with their fans. And now that those technologies exist it makes it easier for musicians, bands, any kind of artist really, to have a relationship with their fans and to communicate directly with their fans. This is what fans want. It is easier to establish that connection with the technologies now that did not exist in 1999 when I did that interview with [the Washington Post's] Eric [Brace].
But the best things for bands to do is go to the really small clubs first. The small clubs are in a better position to take that risk. If you can bring 50 people into Velvet Lounge that’ll pay the cover and buy some beers, that’s probably an OK night for the Velvet Lounge. I mean that room is tiny. I get claustrophobic in there.
WCP: The other issue now is that bands get really big on the Internet before they've played shows...
LW: Right, and a lot of times then they play a show and they can't deliver because they don’t have the chops because they haven’t been playing live and working it out. And people end up being disappointed, like “Oh man they suck. I love that song, but man they suck.”
WCP: You also mentioned in that Washington Post chat that you wanted to book a smaller room. Is that part of why you left the 9:30 Club and went to Gypsy Sally’s?
LW: I didn't leave to book a smaller room. I left not knowing what my next thing was gonna be. I took a big leap of faith that something was gonna come along. After  years at the 9:30 Club—which is a wonderful place and I am very grateful for those  years and they'e had a profound effect on my life—it wasn't easy to walk away from that habitat, but I really needed some time off. Like some real time off. Every vacation I ever took, I was online doing a bunch of stuff from wherever I was trying to have a vacation. And that’s not a real vacation.
I had kind of reached a point in my life where I had a bunch of things that I wanted to do that I just had never been able to get around to doing, and I just wanted some time off. My dad was very elderly and declining; I wanted to have some time off to spend with my parents and help my mom, and the only way I was gonna do any of that stuff—I wanted to do some traveling, like real traveling where I don’t have to be online working the whole time—the only way to do that was to quit my job.
WCP: So did you get to travel?
LW: I did. I live in Austin part time, that’s where I am now. I’ve lived in Austin part time since 2005. So I spend a lot of time down here exploring the Texas hill country and stuff. I didn't get to do as much traveling as I wanted because I realized I was gonna be off work for longer than I had expected, and I was like, "Well I need to watch my money," you know. But I did some stuff. It was great, I mean I haven’t had that kind of free time since I was a teenager, and when I was a teenager, I was young and stupid and didn't know what I wanted to do and didn't have any money anyway.
WCP: When did you finally leave the club?
LW: My last hurrah was the funk/punk show last February. I knew that I was gonna leave the club sometime sooner rather than later, but then when that funk/punk thing came along, I just live for stuff like that. They bring the community together to celebrate the traditional styles that we have in our city. I was like, "This is gonna be my outro. This is the perfect thing."
WCP: How do you balance living in Austin part-time and booking Gypsy Sally’s?
LW: Same way I balanced living in Austin and booking at the 9:30 Club. I have a cell phone, I have an Internet connection, I have a laptop. I think Gypsy Sally's was interested in me because of the experience I have and the contacts that I already have, but they were also very interested in the fact that I have roots in Austin, because a lot of the kinds of music that they're interested in bringing is based in Austin or the agency is based in Austin—there are several agencies here. So they felt like having somebody who could scope out the bands here and have relationships with the agents here would benefit their business.
WCP: I imagine it’s pretty different booking Gypsy Sally's than it was 9:30 Club, right?
LW: Very different, yes. One thing that I’m really happy about is that bands that are touring at the Gypsy Sally's level—I mean it's a 300-capacity room—so the bands that are touring at that level, most of them are not carrying their own support, and there are opportunities for local groups to open their shows. Whereas at the 9:30 Club, you’re basically buying the package. The headliner is carrying their opening act and it's maybe baby bands from the same agency, management, or record label, or baby bands that are friends with the headliner or something. So a lot of that is predetermined before it gets to the club.
It was always a rare occurrence for me to be able to put a local band in an opening slot for a headlining act [at 9:30 Club]. One of the real frustrations that I had was that I could get a band on a really great opening slot and they could play to a sold-out house and be really well received, and it could be two years before I could have an opportunity to get them back in the club.
WCP: I think that’s something a lot of people don't realize about booking—that a lot of these tours are packaged.
LW: A lot of 'em really don't, and I would get emails and voice messages and stuff, [like] "Why did you book so-and-so to open for that headliner? My band's a much better band than that band." For one thing, better is subjective, and for another thing, I didn't have a choice. I didn't do it. The headliner did it. But people don’t know that—they’re frustrated, I understand. Everybody wants to play the 9:30 Club, and why wouldn't they?... But I don't think they understand the way the game is played at that level.
WCP: Would you ever consider working for a large entity like Live Nation?
LW: No. No. I like small. I would not be a good fit for a large entity whether it’s Live Nation or any other one. I like to be part of a team, I like to be part of a small, close-knit team, and I don’t have patience for a lot of corporate red tape or something. I am much more suited to a small, independent operation. The 9:30 Club is the biggest organization I've ever worked with, and I would not want to work with anything bigger.
WCP: Do you have relationships with other bookers in town? Ever sit around and talk shop with them?
LW: I'm friendly with just about everybody, I’m happy to say. I wanna be friendly with everybody. We don’t necessarily talk about specific shows that we've been pitched. But we certainly talk about certain things that might affect us as far as like parking in the neighborhood, gentrification affecting our business. We might bitch about certain agents or say nice things about certain agents, because we all deal with a lot of the same people.
WCP: Do you think there’s been a change in the way that this job is done?
LW: Technology changed everything because now so much is done by email that there's a paper trail. There's a lot less of the he-said-she-said... I kind of like that. Certainly there are different ways to do market research now and find out how bands are doing in different markets, whereas before it was pretty hard. You just had to call people and ask them, and it was subjective. You were relying on their opinion or what their impression of something was. Whereas now you can pull up somebody on pollstar.com and get the information for how their turnout was for their whole tour and what the ticket prices were and all of that.
When I started booking at the 9:30 Club in the early '90s, there was a lot more opportunity to book local openers, even for established national headliners... Then post-Nirvana, when you started getting the advent of the packaged tour, we also moved to a bigger-size room so we were getting more established acts. There was less opportunity to book local and regional openers on shows. [But] I'd like to think that there's a bit of a shift back and that there will be more opportunities for local and regional openers as time goes on, as people see the value in it. But now I’m at a smaller room where at that level, they’re not so packaged as they were anyway.
WCP: Do you think that relationships are as important to your job as they once were?
LW: Absolutely. I mean because a lot of this is about trust. If an agent is gonna send a band to me in a new room, they need to have faith that the band is gonna be treated properly, the show is gonna be marketed properly, that everything is gonna happen the way it's supposed to. And if it doesn't, the act is gonna tell their manager, and their manager is gonna take it out on the agent. It's gonna be the agent's fault. So the agent needs to be able to trust that the person representing the venue is gonna follow through on everything they need to. If it's a new room, they'll send in one of their baby bands first. Couple of baby bands to do reconnaissance, so if things go sideways, they're not gonna get in as much trouble as if they sent one of their top-tier acts that has a top-tier manager that's gonna kick their ass.
So they know me, the agents, most of 'em. I’m meeting some new agents that I've never [worked] with since they don't do a lot of folk and country and bluegrass at the 9:30 Club. But even if they don't know me, they know my name 'cause it's been out there for so long. The 9:30 Club is very well-respected because it's a top-notch, high-class operation over there. So the fact that I was affiliated with it for that long helps even the agents that didn't know me to trust that I know what needs to be done. And I'm very grateful for that trust.