Webster Hall VP Heath Miller Talks Pollstar 'Nightclub of the Year' Nomination
In 2014, the New York venue Webster Hall -- a venerated, three-room, 40,000 square foot space in downtown Manhattan that's been in the night life game since 1886 -- underwent a change that may not have been noticeable to your average concertgoer: The building's contract with the company Bowery Presents, which was booking Webster's Grand Ballroom among other venues, expired, and Heath Miller, previously tasked with filling the 400-person Webster Studio, stepped into a role that required him to sell closer to 1,500 tickets a show.
"It was a scary undertaking," he tells Billboard. Not only because his workload experienced a sudden increase -- in the age of corporate conglomeration, Webster remains independently owned and operated. "I have a guy and his family that depends on Webster Hall to feed them," Miller says. "If I fuck up, this guy is going to not be able to live in the way he's accustomed to."
So far, so good: according to Miller, average ticket sales per show have increased, as have the number of shows per year (that, of course, means that total ticket sales are also up). As a result, when trade publication Pollstar released its annual ranking of ticket sales worldwide recently, Webster Hall had climbed from No. 11 to No. 3. And this year, the venue garnered a coveted nomination for Nightclub of the Year -- the first such nomination in the history of Webster.
Miller is quick to pass much of the credit to the venue itself. "Bands like playing Webster," he says. "It's been here 130 years. It's such a part of history, you can feel it. The way the building's built, the floors kind of bounce purposefully, a giant trampoline. It's built to take that flex, absorb the energy, reflect it back into the room. And also there's no columns that block your view on the floor because the balcony is essentially hung from the ceiling."
But these appealing structural characteristics were also present before Miller took over, so it's hard to use a variable that stays constant to explain a change. Miller has been booking shows since his high school days in New Jersey, starting off "more in the Vans Warped Tour world," which is populated by punk, hardcore, and metal bands. By the time he reached college, he was already so intent on booking that school proved to be too much of an impediment to his live music efforts. "I took a long semester off," he says. "Still haven't gone back."
In place of college, he started a business, Excess dB, to book shows in New Jersey and New York City, working with a mindset he attributes to the hacker movie Antitrust: "any teenager in a garage could put [us] out of business." After moving to Metropolitan Talent for a short stint, he started booking shows at Webster Hall as an outside promoter. "At some point the owner noticed the shows that were doing the best in the studio were the ones that I was booking," Miller says. After the in-house studio booker got a job offer at Vice, Miller took his place. He already had his eye on booking the big room, so he came to a Hollywood-script-ready agreement with Webster's owner Lon Ballinger. "You've got three years until the Bowery contract is up, if you prove yourself, I'll give you a shot when the opportunity arises."
When the contract expired, Miller stepped into his new position with a series of concrete goals. Notably, he hoped to get more variety in the types of bands that performed at Webster. "The plan in my mind was trying to retain all the shows that would've went to Webster when [Bowery Presents] was booking and then mixing in a little more hip-hop that they weren't doing, some left-of-center metal that they weren't doing, and some younger shows that they weren't doing."
His familiarity with the Warp Tour circuit helped him, as did good instincts for determining who was going to blow up ahead of time: he was early to reach out to Troye Sivan and Eden, and brought Yung Lean to Webster at a time when other promoters may not have taken the Swedish rapper seriously. Because Webster is independent, Miller is able to maintain "hyper-focus on the Webster Hall ecosystem," and he suggests that gives him in advantage over bigger, multi-tasking competitors: "It's hard to have your buyers finding the weird things [that will sell well] when they're booking four or five different rooms."
At the time Miller took over as head of booking, Webster was hosting roughly 100 shows a year, and he expected that total to fall to 80 the first year due to the transition. Instead, his bid for a wider portfolio immediately paid off: Webster got 144 shows in his first year. This year, arena-level bands like Green Day and Metallica chose to play intimate shows at Webster, and LCD Soundsystem used the venue for a triumphant pair of comeback shows.
Webster Hall co-president Kenny Schachter says he is "very proud" of what the team has accomplished over the past few years: "The ability to host three concerts, one on each floor, in the early evening hours and transition into a full venue nightclub event has been an incredible asset. Our goal has always been to continue building on Webster Hall’s rich history by creating an upward path for artists to grow and a gathering place for the community in the greatest city in the world."
The rise in ticket metrics and the Nightclub of the Year nomination is gratifying, but Miller's hardly resting on his laurels. "There's places we could improve the customer experience," he says. "We could do better marketing. There's shows that don't sell out, and I want to move that needle — if I could take any show that doesn't sell out and sell another 20 percent of ticket sales, that's great."
And he still doesn't feel like he's met his principal objective: "One of the things I feel like we lack on, one of my goals when I came in here, was making sure we serve the entire music community, not just people that live in Bushwick and Williamsburg," Miller says. "I think we can book more Latin American artists, more Asian artists -- I need to make sure Webster Hall's for everyone."