From Idea to Encore: Behind the Scenes at the Birchmere

If youre an Alexandria resident and a music lover, chances are youve seen a performance at the Birchmere Music Hall, a cultural mainstay thats served the area for more than four decades. But have you ever wondered what it takes to put on one of their shows?  

According to the brain trust behind the venue owner Gary Oelze, booking agent Michael Jaworek and artist relations head John Brinegar just like any business, a successful night in their theater is due to hard work, dedication, a whole lot of expertise and a little bit of luck.

The entire process begins in the booking office. Michael knows everything in the world about music, because thats his job, explains Oelze during a recent group interview in the owners office.

I research a lot, adds Jaworek, whos been in the concert promotions business for more than 35 years.  I get three major trades [magazines] in paper form and certain websites that I check to find out whats hot and whats not in terms of artists and trends in a genre I have enough experience to see the signs that something is going to take off.

Sometimes for 14 hours a day, musicians agents and in some cases, the artists themselves, interact constantly with Jaworek and his assistant, Ben Finkelstein. They work between emails and phone calls flying back and forth, trying to determine if a show has the potential to play at the Birchmere. 

After the booking department finds out how much estimated money a possible act is looking to make from a concert, the team meets to make a decision.

Since I have the purse strings, informs Oelze, I get a vote and a half. Im not being snooty about that, but Im the one that has to decide to sign off on it. But, we all have input since we all have areas of expertise. [When Jaeworek brings up an act] I always ask him, Who cares? 

But, thats not a snide remark, replies Jaworek. It just cuts to the chase. Who is the audience who will spend x dollars per ticket on y given night for z artist?

So, then Ill ask, What do they want? adds Oelze. Agents always have in their mind a price thats probably a little more than what the show is worth. Then, we determine what we can get away with offering.

Understanding the negotiation process can be a little confusing, as different factors have to be added into the equation to determine the final asking price. Generally, the act would get first money or a guaranteed amount in order to book the performance. Second money is the clubs total expenses for putting on the show plus a little bit of profit (all of which is referred to in the group as the house nut).  Finally, all remaining moneys are split between the two parties, with the performers getting a majority percentage. 

We have to know that were going make money, says Oleze.  If were in a consensus that we think [a show] can only sell 200 tickets (less than half of the main stages 500 seats), then we dont want it. If we know the act isnt going to cover costs after weve booked them, well cut our loses [forfeiting their deposit] and cancel a show.

The ticket price is a direct result for what the musical act charges us always, according to Jaworek. We get customer e-mails all the time: Chic Corea is $75! Why, I can see someone just as good for $30 at Blues Alley! Now, these guys think Im crazy, but Ill respond to everyone who writes us concerning ticket prices to explain why were charging what we are and if theyre still not happy, then they can blame the artist and not the venue.

Gary is very conscious of ticket prices, includes Brinegar, a man whose build portrays that of the clubs bouncer rather than its artist liaison. A lot of agents will say, This [amount of money] is what we want and this is what we think ticket prices ought to be.  Well, thats fine, but thats your opinion. We still have to run our business.

Does the Birchmere ever dictate ticket price to the band, asking for it to be lowered?

No, says Oleze, we just learn our lesson, and then if that act wants to come back, well work [on the negotiations] so as to make more of our money back. A lot of these younger acts dont want tickets over $20. We have a secret ticket price [somewhere between $20 to $30 per ticket based on the last six months of published prices], and tell agents that we cannot go under that [price]. And we cant, because we cant get our house nut out of anything lower.

Yet, its determining if a performer is a good fit with the venue thats often the most agonizing decision this group faces.

A Birchmere act to me, describes Jaworek, is an act where the audience really focuses on the artist and really listens to it. The act also must fit the physical environment that we have: seated at tables and chairs in a listening room. This would preclude rap, metal, reggae those genres with a harder edge.

Some acts we have every year, so theyre simple, says Brinegar. But, for some acts that we havent dealt with before, well get together and talk four or five times before putting in an offer.

With artists making most of the tickets revenues, for business purposes, it almost makes more sense to think of the Birchmere as a restaurant than a music hall. 

The door and the merchandise (CD / T-shirt sales) make us some money, says Jaworek. But its the food and drink where we see most of our revenues.

Thats why we dont take reservations, adds Oleze, because we need you here early in order to eat and spend money. That leads to another factor when we book the band: Is this act going to attract a drinkin crowd? An eating crowd? So, sure, weve not invited acts to come back simply because we dont do any volume [in food and drink sales] when they play.

While addressing customer needs and an appropriate price structure is critical to determining the Birchmeres bottom line, developing strong long-term relationships with the artists playing the club is just as important. Without a reliable flow of acts, the club couldnt exist.

As we like to say it, Mike books it and I cook it, says Brinegar in explaining his role within the organization. Once we book an act, they hand it off to me. I work with our tech guy Tim [Kidwell] in advance of the show and make sure we have what the artists need in terms of equipment and sound. Then when the act gets here, we talk about what they need [set-up, food, drink, lodging, services], what set times theyre thinking about, are they signing merchandise after the show, all those details. Hospitality is really a big thing for us. Acts will come in and ask, Whatll we get to eat? Ill show them our menu.

It really is the little things that make us an artist-friendly club, adds Jaworek. The washer-dryers, the showers, the cleanliness. The singer-songwriter Darden Smith epitomizes this by saying, Why do I like to play the Birchmere? When I hang my coat up, nothing gets on it. You laugh, but think of most nightclubs, and most of them are just dumps.

One of my favorite quotes Ive gotten backstage [from one of the touring artists], interjects Brinegar, is that in the music circle, the Birchmere is an oh, boy, not an oh, no. I asked, What are you talking about? The guy Im talking to says when they see that theyre coming here, its Oh boy! Were goin to the Birchmere! and not Oh, no.  Were goin to the Birchmere. It makes me feel good because we try to cater to our customers and our bands.

Jaworek concludes, One manager said, Why I love your club is that it takes care of the artist and the audience without compromising ones needs for the other, which is absolutely true.  Both are equally important for us to stay in business.

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