Concert Venues Parting Ways With Promoters Are Capitalizing on Going DIY

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General view of the atmosphere at Webster Hall on May 10, 2014 in New York City. 

Friday, Nov. 14 was a sort of ­coming-out party for New York's Webster Hall, which, after 10 years as a Bowery Presents venue, celebrated its independence from the New York-based promoter with sold-out shows in each of its three music rooms. From the tiny basement Studio to the midsize Marlin Room to the 1,500-capacity Grand Ballroom, where headliner Caribou dazzled the crowd, the vibe was most noticeably different.

Bowery Presents previously held an exclusive on the venue’s main room during most nights of the week. On the off nights, Webster Hall's options were limited: "We were only able to [book] things that weren’t in the Bowery's wheelhouse," says venue vice president Heath Miller. But since the deal expired Sept. 1 and the companies amicably parted ways, Miller is free to book music, corporate and other events across the entire building. "Since the transition we've been as busy, if not busier, than in previous years with Bowery," he adds.

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Webster Hall joins a new wave of scrappy stand-alone venues, from the Regent Theatre in Los Angeles to Nashville’s Acme Feed & Seed, competing against multibillion-dollar corporate entities. The DIY strategy behind the moves, at its basis, is a matter of simple economics. As Dean Budnick, author of the book Ticket Masters: The Rise of the Concert Industry and How the Public Got Scalped, explains: "We're in an era when small venues can connect directly with fans via social media and ticketing services are increasingly cost-effective and cooperative."

But beyond the impact on the nightly settle-up (a recent sellout by electronic artist RL Grime grossed $36,000 for Webster Hall, of which a promoter typically pays out a guarantee plus a high percentage of the door), going indie also allows a venue owner to focus on additional features like food service and lighting. "I can do certain things only an independent can do," says Peter Shapiro of Brooklyn Bowl, a combination venue, restaurant and bowling alley. "I don't have to go to anyone for approval, and it gives me a flexibility that leads to a better show." Case in point, he adds: "You put on a light show even though it doesn't sell an extra ticket, just for the vibe. With a larger company, they'd be like, 'Why are you doing a light show? How are we going to market that?'" Such touches offer more of a homespun experience for concertgoers, which, he contends, combined with lower ticket prices and early support of acts, help a midsize venue like his compete with the big guns.

As for the downside? Says manager Ryan Chisholm of Nettwerk Entertainment: "Obviously, you lose access to the Bowery mailing list and their stamp of approval. But when Webster Hall is the right room, you need to put your artist in the best position possible."

This article first appeared in the Nov. 29 issue of Billboard.