LIVE from Bethesda
From a sharply modern but by no means ostentatious home along a leafy suburban street in Bethesda, Seth Hurwitz makes deals throughout the day, booking acts over the phone to play the region’s most thriving venues—from D.C.’s famed 9:30 Club, the most successful live music club of its size in the world, to Merriweather Post Pavilion, The Music Center at Strathmore, the U Street Music Hall, DAR Constitution Hall, the Patriot Center and the Verizon Center. In the last 33 years, he has booked more than 13,000 shows, according to his company, I.M.P., which takes its name from the Lesley Gore song “It’s My Party.”
Since his earliest days booking acts while attending Winston Churchill High School in Potomac and working as a teen DJ at WHFS, Hurwitz has been up against an old boys’ club of concert promotion now largely consolidated into the mammoth Live Nation. He has battled the behemoth in court—taking on its restrictive tour package policies as well as public funding for its Fillmore franchise in Silver Spring. Mostly, though, he has battled the organization in the public arena by packing in audiences nightly at Merriweather and the 9:30 Club, recently named by Rolling Stone as the No. 1 club in the nation after repeatedly winning similar accolades from Billboard and Pollstar.
When the co-founder and CEO of I.M.P. isn’t on the phone, he sometimes turns to a drum set next to his desk. Built like a football player at age 54, he has played on stage with the Foo Fighters and other groups.
On a recent Saturday morning, as his three college-age sons head to Merriweather to work a show by the popular group fun., Hurwitz fields calls on a constantly ringing phone (including one from Eagles manager Irving Azoff). In between, he talks with us about the business, the music he has brought to the region and the nature of success.
The first concert you wanted to promote was at Hoover Middle School in Potomac, wasn’t it?
My junior high school principal wouldn’t let me do my show. But he said, “You know, I think you’re going to make a million dollars someday ’cause you’re so full of shit.” I think it was meant in a good way…as a huckster, a promoter in a pure sense. The P.T. Barnum sense. I am not a liar and actually take a lot of pride in telling people the truth, which does get me in trouble sometimes.
Were you in bands as a kid?
Just little nothing bands that played parties and things—no real big ventures.
You sometimes get to play drums on stage with the bands you book. That must be a perk to your job.
They so seldom let me. If I think I’m going to be playing drums with someone soon, I start boning up. I played ever since I was a kid. I love playing. If I’m able to get someone to let me [play with them], that’s a pretty wonderful privilege.
How did you get into music promotion?
Well, my goal was to be a disc jockey, and I was a disc jockey at WHFS when I was in high school. I hung around the station and just figured out [how to do it]. They were in this whole Robert Palmer/Little Feat groove. I was, too, but I moved on and they got stuck in that. Basically I moved on to Roxy Music and Lou Reed and Be Bop Deluxe and Rory Gallagher—the new progressive stuff.
“Progressive Radio” was their motto. It said so right on the door of the station, but they decided to stay in that groove, and I basically got fired for moving ahead and playing more radical stuff. It was a contradiction of their original ethos—but there I was in 1977, just out of high school, having achieved my life career goal already, and I woke up one morning thinking: Wow, now what?
I did shows on WGTB, the Georgetown radio station, which was volunteer. I never did it for the money anyway. I just enjoyed being on the radio. I did an interview show and did my segues [from song to song]. If HFS was progressive, [WGTB was] somewhere in the distant future. They played some seriously radical stuff, just crazy. So I was welcome there. In fact, I was considered to be maybe too conservative, but they let me give it a shot.
I ended up interviewing a promoter around town who was one of the partners in the original Cellar Door, which stayed around to be part of Live Nation now. His name was Sam L’Hommedieu, and I went to work for him.
This was at the Ontario Theatre near Adams Morgan in the late ’70s?
He was going to do shows there, and I wanted to get into booking. He basically threw me in as manager of the theater and wouldn’t let me do any booking. He booked stuff that didn’t really belong there, like Doc Watson, who didn’t really work [as well in a theater as he would in a small club]. But it was a movie theater, so he let me book the movies, which was really exciting for me.
I saw that the Ramones were playing at this place called Louie’s Rock City about the same time that this movie was coming out called Rock ’n’ Roll High School. And I thought: Let’s do like a premiere and maybe we can get them to come by and meet people and get a bunch of bands to play. (Obviously they’re already booked and they’re not going to play.) So he let me try for this thing because there was no risk really, and it sold out.
The band came by and everything happened the way it was supposed to. [After that] I went with [L’Hommedieu] on booking trips to New York and watched what he said and did, and decided to try it myself.
Was it by yourself?
My partner, who was my money in the beginning, was my substitute teacher in junior high school, Rich Heinecke. He would come in with a pile of Trouser Press and New Musical Express [magazines]. He was a music guy, and he and I would talk music. When this opportunity became available, I said, “Hey, do you want to do this concert together?” [And] he showed up.
His role is researching the bands and deciding how big they are. He’s still a big kid when it comes to music—he’s just a fan, you know, collects stuff. He’s the same fan he always was musically. Every availability we get, he is the one who makes the call and says, “This is how big it is.” He’s Carnac the Magnificent.
We have a pretty good track record as far as putting bands in the right places and holding our ground with the agent. He’s pretty much the seer, and then I go out and make the deal.
You put on a lot of big shows at the Ontario—U2, The Cure, Duran Duran. Why did you start working with a smaller space, the old 9:30 Club on F Street?
I realized the key to doing big bands was [getting] them at the very beginning [of their careers]. So I needed a small place to do these bands, and the 9:30 opened [in 1980] with about 200 capacity. They wanted more exciting stuff than they were doing, so I started doing shows there. The first show I booked was The Fleshtones.
Eventually I started booking the whole club, and the woman who owned it [Dody DiSanto] wanted to get out, so I bought it. And then we moved it in 1996 [to V Street], where it has a 1,200 capacity.
With all the gigs at the 9:30, and then Merriweather and the other big venues, do you feel like you’ve finally made it?
To me, you’re never really there. I’m always concerned about tomorrow. I’m always thinking about what’s next, what can be done better. I get up in the morning and I go through my emails: What can I do to improve my business, what shows need help, what shows need booking, things like that.
We did bands, they got bigger, we stayed with them. There was never a plot to be big. It was just: A band got bigger and had to go from the 9:30 to Constitution Hall, and we refused to give up that next step. We stuck with those bands. Back in [the ’80s], smaller bands and promoters got cut off when bands got bigger—and we just refused to take no for an answer. We just stayed with the bands as they progressed on their logical steps upward. So R.E.M. got big, big, big, big, [as did] Smashing Pumpkins and all those bands. And we did them in big places when they got bigger.
But it was just about the next show. It was never about: We want to be an arena promoter, so we have this plan, we’re going to do this. It was always about just taking the next logical step. To me, there’s always a next logical step. Success: If you ever feel like you’re there, then you’re done, you’re toast.
You’ve battled Live Nation over its tendency to lock bands into national tours at its own venues, like Jiffy Lube Live (formerly the Nissan Pavilion) in Virginia. But you’ve been able to amass quite a strong schedule on your own.
My strength has always been buying ahead of the curve. When I booked [the band] fun., it was not the obvious hit that it is now. Nor were The Lumineers. But I guarantee if I was trying to book them today, I’d be up against massive tour deal offers that bands could not afford to say no to.
Although today they seem like obvious headliners—The Lumineers and fun. and Imagine Dragons—when I booked them, it was like buying Apple stock before it was big. If they’re household names and big hits, then it’s too late.