So what makes a great club?
We know that clubs serve as both a critical artist-development tool and an opportunity for more established acts to reconnect with their fans on a more intimate level. Q Prime South manager John Peets, who has developed acts like the Black Keys and Eric Church through strategic touring in clubs, says that what makes clubs great is "the common experience."
Clubs are where chops are honed, legends are born and fan bases are built. "The audience/artist connection is at its highest in a great club," Peets says. "There are enough people to create a sense of chaos, an unpredictability that heightens the emotional connection between artist and audience, coupled with a closeness that allows everyone to feel a part of the crime."
For artists, it's first about the music being heard at its best, then about creature comforts after an overnight ride. "As a performer, I have to say a great club has great monitors," says Jason Isbell, formerly of the tireless Drive-By Truckers and now touring incessantly in support of his third solo record, "Here We Rest." "My No. 1 concern as a singer is being able to hear myself."
But, in case fans ever wonder, the artists can indeed see differences in crowds at clubs. "Good people congregate in good places," Isbell says. "The best clubs are always in towns that support good music, and since we're talking small venues, that's usually independent music. A local support system made up of rock nerds usually leads to the development of a strong venue."
That would be the case in many of the cities cited on Billboard's Must Play and Hidden Gems charts that are located in markets with thriving music scenes. But, when crawling off the tour bus, other things come into play for the artist.
"A dressing room with a private bathroom is pretty important," Isbell says. "That might not seem like much, but going out to the public bathrooms can be tedious. I've been involved in dozens of extremely awkward conversations with fans in the men's room."
Agents have an innate sense of which clubs rock, and what makes them so. "Great sightlines, great sound, great calendar," Windish Agency president Tom Windish says. Then there's that desperately sought "buzz" factor that comes with packed houses. "If it sells out often, a vibe develops that people are seeing something very special on an ongoing basis."
William Morris Endeavor agent Kirk Sommer also believes sightlines are a determining factor in how great a club is. He also adds "great sound, low ticket fees, character, location, drinks and food, and no BS minor charges or food and beverage charges for minors" to that list.
"What makes a great club play," Sommer continues, "is all about an artist's call and concert-goers' emotional and physical response. It's about the 'wow' moments."
While aesthetics like sound and sightlines are critical, Paradigm agent Jeffrey Hasson says that, when it comes to clubs, "ultimately the great ones have history . . . and when you walk in you can feel that history. Venues such as the Troubadour in L.A. or Fillmore in San Francisco have that feeling when you step through the doors."
Truly, how a play comes off is largely in the hands of the artists, and Isbell says the demeanor of those working the show can help bring those "wow" moments.
"The attitudes of the staff can make for either a great night or a disaster," he says. "I understand that many house sound guys would rather be touring with a good band than working their local [club], but allowing that fact to make you intolerable is not going to make bands want to hire you. A good show happens on a night when people are all happy to be there. Or at least when they act like it."
Windish agent Sam Hunt agrees with Isbell, saying that great clubs have "friendly staff across the board. The 9:30 Club [in Washington, D.C.] is a great example of this. It has everything Tom mentions, plus they are great to work with. Their shows sell out faster than anyone else's in the country. That is a great club."
Billboard then took it to the owner of the 9:30 Club, Seth Hurwitz, who has picked up the last seven top club awards at the Billboard Touring Conference. So what makes a great club? "The owner," Hurwitz says. But on further prodding, he adds, "Think about why you like any business. It's when you get a sense that the people there are happy and care about doing the best they can to make their place the best they can."
Urban and electronic dance music acts are now running through the clubs at an unprecedented level. The Agency Group agent Peter Schwartz, who has become the hottest agent in the urban artist-development touring space with his work with Wiz Khalifa, Mac Miller and others, believes the House of Blues clubs provide excellent platforms to present urban acts.
"[HOBs] work well with urban shows, but I am not sure of a specific reason why, other than they are good venues with solid sound, lights and vibe," Schwartz says. "It also depends on the options at hand at different sizes. In Dallas, [HOB] is the venue in the 1,000- to 2,500-[capacity] range. In Houston, Warehouse Live is also a good option. Live Nation happens to be very interested in urban touring and is trying to put as much good urban talent into their rooms as possible."
Ron Bension, CEO of the House of Blues, clubs and theaters division for Live Nation, says his company is indeed "proactive" in presenting urban acts. "We are focused on service, and we do a great job of providing great service and a great venue for that genre," he says. "Our clubs are intimate, which also helps."
Schwartz cites Irving Plaza in New York, the 9:30 Club and Showbox in Seattle, among others, as good rooms for rap artists, but mostly because they're just good rooms. "The top urban clubs to play are not really different than other genres," he says. "With the exception of maybe S.O.B.'s in New York, which is only 450 [capacity] - but a rite of passage for many urban artists."
House of Blues clubs dominate the upper regions of the Billboard Boxscore-driven club chart, and Bension says business is strong at the club level for his company. "I feel good about the momentum we're building up and the quality of the venues and initiatives we're on," he says. "We'll probably do close to 6,000 shows this year."
Bension oversees 36 small venues now, mostly less than the 2,500-capacity range, plus other clubs with exclusive booking arrangements. Not only are his clubs routed into existing tours, Bension and his team are creating tours and one-offs for specific rooms. "We are very active in promoting both individual shows at our venues as well as tours through a number of our venues, 10 or more," Bension says.
Part of Bension's mandate as CEO was filling up the dark nights in rooms where they existed. "We've got these great, iconic buildings in many of these cities where maybe a few years ago were doing 60-70 shows a year," he says. "We've grown double digits for the past two years in show counts by doing a lot of local and ethnic shows on either a weekly or monthly basis, just because the buildings are available. We think we put on a good show - we have great customer and fan service - so we thought, 'Let's do other things with them.'"
Ultimately, the reason that HOB clubs are so present on Billboard's clubs chart is, first, they reported their numbers to Boxscore and, second, "we sell a lot of tickets," Bension says. "We have a rock-star local marketing group, plus a national overlay that gives us a little more juice to help bands sell tickets as well as promote their music when we do bands that want to do multiple shows with us."
While the HOB clubs dominate the business-related charts, these clubs seldom came up in Billboard's poll of agents active in the club space who were asked which clubs were "must-plays." Asked about that disconnect, Bension admits that he'd like to see HOB clubs considered in that way.
"It is important, and we are an important player," he says. "We play huge acts in the House of Blues and for an agent to say that playing the House of Blues is, by omission, not important, I just don't know."
Perhaps the "cool factor" comes into play, which Bension says he gets. "We're a part of Live Nation and maybe it's not cool to say, 'I want to play there,'" he says. "That doesn't mean they don't, and that doesn't mean we don't provide the best and most superior band and fan service in the industry. I've been to all those clubs those guys mention, and they can't compare to how we treat bands and how we treat the fans. I'm proud to be part of Live Nation. We can bring more leverage to the success of the band than any company in the business. The proof's in the economics. If I'm not cool, that's OK by me."
Relative coolness aside, Bension says the club business is a "very tough business, and I don't think anybody will deny that. It's tough for the bands, it's tough for the operators. The landlords do well. But it's healthy because there's considerable volume going through it, and I don't think that's going to change - it's only going to get better. But from a purely economic point of view, it's a tough business. We're up to the challenge."••••