Peter Zimmerman, Filene Center

Peter Zimmerman was having a busy day. He had just been running around, and we asked if he was putting out fires. It was 20 seconds into the interview and we had made our first faux pas.

“We don’t ever use that term at Wolf Trap,” Zimmerman said.

The nearly 40-year-old Filene Center at Wolf Trap was the victim of a fire in 1982, when the amphitheatre burned to the ground. The current Filene Center opened in 1984.

Then we called The Filene Center a shed. It’s not.

“It has a full stage house and theatrical seating,” he said. “There’s a front orchestra and a rear orchestra downstairs, and boxes and a loge upstairs. Two sections of balcony. So it looks a lot more like a theatre and those last 1,200 seats are much closer to the stage than they would be at a traditional shed, which is just 1-level seating.”

But the affable Zimmerman forgave our transgressions. Some outdoor venues are not sheds. One learns something new every day.

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He’s been managing The Filene Center and the intimate year-round venue The Barns in Vienna, Va., since 1999, taking over for Laurie Jacoby, currently at MSG Entertainment. A guitarist, percussionist and horn player, Zimmerman fell into his career because of his experiences in college. He entered a music major but made a switch.

“There was an attraction to acting,” he said. “While I was a musician, I always sang and I was in high school plays and things like that. And when I got to the collegiate level, there was a very good theatre program and I just started auditioning for everything that I could.”

Zimmerman spent a lot of time on the road as a college actor but, upon graduating, became a teacher at a performing arts high school, acting during summer vacation. And, true to the thespian arts, Zimmerman’s phone interview included spot-on imitations from George Carlin to industry vets. His résumé is buttressed by consulting in lighting design, set design, historic theatre renovation, makeup and costume design.

Wolf Trap became the center of an online debate earlier this year when Jeff Beck played. Manager Harvey Goldsmith, who took exception to the venue’s standard merch rate of 35 percent, fired off an e-mail to industry commentator Bob Lefsetz.

“I am here at Wolf Trap with Jeff Beck,” he said. “We have sold very well including apparently quite a lot of lawn tickets. This is unusual, I am told, as most venues give them away. We are paying full rent (including a lot of rent overage). Yet this venue has the audacity to charge 35 percent for merchandising. I have been trying to sort this for three weeks.

“The person in charge, Peter Zimmerman, decided to go home rather than discuss this with me. Most acts will virtually double their prices for merch to deal with this. A lot of artists complain and then don’t bother. The venue manageress Barbara told me that if I thought the charges were too high I should NOT sell merchandise! She said a number of acts do not sell. What kind of an answer is that! I am sick of it.

“Why in Washington do I have to sell at more than retail just to satisfy this GREEDY venue? Why does the Wolf Trap audience have to pay more than any other city?”

The post began an online debate about Wolf Trap and merch rates in general. Zimmerman responded in turn. Noting that Goldsmith was “screaming like a schoolgirl” that day, Zimmerman noted that the deal points had been agreed to months in advance, as with any other show. So the kvetching was a little past deadline. And there was a reason why Zimmeran wasn’t in attendance.

“I have a 2-year-old with a nasty rash covering 60 percent of his body,” he wrote. “I decided to be at his Dr.’s appt this afternoon. Some things are just more important than arguing over a deal point that was settled MONTHS ago.”

So let’s just get this out of the way so we can move on.

Any final thoughts on the Harvey Goldsmith matter?

I gave this some thought, and, what everyone forgot to talk about was the brilliant performance that happened that night by both the support act, Erin McCarley, and by Jeff Beck. And, it was a transcendent experience for the patrons that night. That’s what was left behind: that 6,000 people were here and their lives were touched by the concert industry in a positive way.

Second, Harvey was just indescribably unprofessional. And I was here but had to leave because I had an emergency with my son. Barbara Parker was the promoter rep that day. The description from my union stagehands, from my stage manager and from everybody who was here whom I’ve worked with for the past 13 years, was that the way Harvey acted was inexcusable.

I learned a lesson a long time ago from the late, great George Carlin, and it was the same issue. I was having a screaming match with George’s guy on the road, about merch rates. And finally he yells at me, “Let’s go back and see what George thinks!” and I said, “Yeah! Let’s do that!”

And we both burst into George’s dressing room, still screaming and shouting, and he walks up and goes, “Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait-waaaaaiit,” and he extends his hand and says, “My name’s George, what’s yours?” And I said, “Peter.”

“Wonderful,” he says. “Now that we’re both human beings, let’s talk like that.” We figured out the problem, everybody was nice, and I don’t think I’ve raised my voice a half-dozen times since then over a professional issue.

And I’ll say one last thing: Wolf Trap – greedy? Hmm. I compared prices of what a patron has to put down for a Jeff Beck concert on this leg of the tour. Two tickets, all-in, at Wolf Trap, $90. In another market, which is the same size as the Washington, D.C., market, $261. In another market exactly the same size as the D.C. market, $163.

Why? Well, because we don’t charge for parking. We don’t have a facility fee. We don’t have a historical preservation fee and our ticket fees, through our ticket company, are a third to a half less than at every other venue they were playing. So in addition to that, most of the venues you couldn’t bring in food and drink; you had to buy concessions. We have a great F&B concession available to our patrons but guess what? You can bring in your own cooler and anything you want into this venue, for any show. And in the lawn seating, you can eat and drink all night.

I want to personally congratulate Barbara for being a consummate professional and handling Harvey that day. I also want to say thanks to a lot of agents and artists who wrote in and took my side. Not on the merch rate, but took my side on, “Harvey, you don’t know what you’re talking about when you talk about Wolf Trap.” And they mentioned that the experience here is so much more patron/family-friendly than a lot of other places. “We want our fans to have that experience. And we’d rather have that than a low merch rate.”

But what of the merch rate?

Barbara couldn’t change it. And if I was there, I couldn’t. We treat every artist exactly the same.

How did you get your current job?

Well, it was a very interesting thing. Wolf Trap was looking to replace the person who had left, and she’s still active in the business. A wonderful woman named Laurie Jacoby. And an agent I had a relationship with and had been working with told Wolf Trap, “You need to hire Peter Zimmerman.” And the agent, Marshal Reznick of William Morris, told me, “You ought to go after this job.”

I was at the Colonial Theatre Group in Keene, N.H., and I didn’t want to move to Washington, D.C. But I was at an [Association of Performing Arts Presenters] conference. The president and CEO, whom I work for now, Terre Jones, was chair of the conference. At the end of every conference there is a fishbowl you throw your card into and if you’re one of two people who get picked you win a really nice prize.

Well, he picked my card out of the thing. He had been playing phone tag with me the whole conference, trying to get a hold of me, so when I stopped by to pick up my prize, he said, “So you’re Peter Zimmerman. I’ve been trying to get hold of you. Can I have an hour right now?”

How does your touring experience help your job?

I think anybody in this business, on either side of the table, should have to experience what it is like on the road, and what’s important. When these shows come in the back door, I know what’s important to them. And sometimes it is catering. A lot of times it is. But there are many other logistical things and I try to understand what is important as director of production, on top of director of programming. Sometimes it’s the tuna fish but sometimes it’s having a backline tech instead of just getting the backline provided.

How is the artist welcomed to the venue?

There is a representative, a promoter rep, and that’s one of three people. Ann McKee, my boss who primarily books all of the Broadway and symphonies, has been here more than 35 years. Barbara Parker books the ballet and modern dance. One of the three of us is there when the crew arrives for breakfast. And we’re here until load-out. We all know a lot of these people because we’ve worked with them for years, whether they’ve been here with Beck or Sheryl Crow. We do a little homework to find out what they’re coming out of and what they’re going into, in terms of travel, shows, things like that.

I bet you’ve seen tour managers in various moods depending on the tours.

Oh absolutely. Like last night, Raz, Steve Miller’s tour manager, came in after having some rough dates. But he knew what he was walking into at Wolf Trap so he didn’t bring a bad attitude into the building at all.

Have you seen any changes since you’ve arrived?

I’ve learned that you don’t come in and change anything. You come in and find out – for a couple of years – what needs to be improved upon. Every year we evaluate; see what’s working, what isn’t.

What physical changes have taken place?

The Wolf Trap Foundation puts money into the Filene Center every year – and I’m talking major money. We replaced the stage one year and did major work on our fly system. I think we’re in our second year of brand-new front-of-house, monitor and lawn consoles. And we went digital with those. I don’t know if you know what a console costs but it’s probably more than what you, me and my two partners make combined.

But the most important physical change was made by our president and CEO, Terre Jones, when he and our development department raised the money to build our Center for Education. Prior to that our offices were in residential houses over on the other half of our founder Mrs. Shouse’s farm. So I was in a bedroom. My filing cabinet was in the closet and deer were walking by the window every day.

Wolf Trap is not just the Filene Center, and not just the Barns. We also have Nationwide Early Childhood Education programs located across the country. And we do teacher training, all of which costs money. We also have a producing opera company directed by Kim Witman. In fact, they’re going to be debuting a commission of the world premiere opera of The Inspector, based on Nicolai Gogol’s play “The Government Inspector.” It’s a comic opera and it’s really fun stuff. It’s the second opera they’ve produced and commissioned in a couple of years.

This takes place at The Barns at Wolf Trap and we do major operas at the Filene Center also. This summer at the Barns, we’re producing Mozart’s “Zaide,” Rossini’s “The Turk in Italy” and Britain’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

And opera is another thing that costs more money than it brings in.

The Barns. Capacity 382. Sounds interesting.

Oh, it is. And I book 100 shows a year over at that venue. And no offense to all the great artists who play the Filene Center, but I have a lot more fun booking The Barns. The risk factor and the scale are so much smaller, and I can book people like Habib Koite and Bamada from Mali. You can roll the dice and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.

But I have a lot more creativity and freedom in the deals that I structure over there and it is a badass place to see a concert. We have an excellent sound system, but the acoustics of two 18th-century barns to start out with are amazing. Any other questions about The Barns?

Honestly, we don’t know much about it.

And that’s one of the perceptions both locally and nationally. When people think of Wolf Trap, they think of the amphitheatre. We do 100 shows each season at The Barns and we are generally operating at 92 percent of capacity. So there are people who know about it.

After the Filene Center was up and running, our founder purchased two 18th-century barns from upstate New York, hired a person who knew how to disassemble a barn without destroying it and basically connected those two barns. They’re connected so one is the stage house and audience seating, and the other is the bar.

She had the barn builders reassemble the barns inside out. The hayloft is the balcony and the walls and ceiling are the original timbers that you would have seen on the inside, and the walls are the outside’s natural weathered wood. So it’s just gorgeous, and that’s what makes the acoustics so good.

Do you have a typical audience at The Barn?

There is a percentage of the audience, just like at the Filene Center, who make it their business to buy multiple shows every season. But my favorite thing to do, at either venue, is to find out who put their money down to buy the ticket.

At The Barns, you can tell when you have first timers. We booked a great show called The Bird & The Bee last year. It was phenomenal. And you could tell 90 percent of the audience was there for the first time because incoming traffic to the parking lot was much slower, people were asking for the bathroom, the boxoffice, the bar – so you just knew. But I have a lot of same-time-every-year artists, like Al Di Meola, and their fans are very familiar with the venue.

Our programmatic mission is we have a little something for everybody. At the Filene Center we had Cirque Dreams one night and John Butler Trio the next. We have something for a lot of different demographics, and there is no subscription at either venue. Everything is a single hard ticket.

People say, “Eh, Wolf Trap has a large subscriber base.” No. We do some creative packaging sometimes but there is no subscription.

And the artists and crews dig it?

Oh, they love it! They love it. They love the intimacy, and the people who really run The Barns have been doing this for a very long time. Bob Grimes is the production manager and master of everything else that happens over at The Barns. And Rosie Mirabella runs the patron services. And they know how to treat an artist. Bob especially. He makes sure they have what they need.

They say “Wow” when they walk in the door, “this looks cool.” But at the end of the night when Bob is waving goodbye, they say, “Oh my God, that’s the most connected I’ve felt with an audience in a long time.”

You’re one of the few amphitheatres not owned by Live Nation.

That’s true. I worked out in Denver for quite a while, and Red Rocks is owned by the city & county of Denver. But they let outside promoters come in. There’s Chastain of course, which is in a city park. But yes, we’re one of the few.

The two other amphitheatres in the area are Merriweather Post Pavilion and Jiffy Lube Live. Merriweather’s a great venue and it’s also independent. And of course the other amphitheatre, out in Bristow, which is quite a ways from us, is Jiffy Lube Live, formerly Nissan Pavilion.

So how do you compete?

I think communication among local venues is very important, so I talk to Ted Mankin, Seth Hurwitz, Michael Jaworek and Tim Walther, who runs the All Good Music Festival. We’re competitors but we’re able to work together sometimes.

I think there’s a place for Jiffy Lube and it’s what I call a destination venue. So the big shows that can sell 25,000 seats, they do great with Jiffy Lube.

And Merriweather is half destination venue and half “experience” venue. Like us, they don’t charge for parking – one of the few venues in the country that doesn’t. So I find cooperation is much better.

Do we compete? Sure. Seth and I compete for shows and I sometimes compete with Tim Walther for what I call the hippie jam-band shows. When he wins, I’m happy because he is the guy for that kind of show. If it’s the year I get O.A.R. or String Cheese or whoever, we take good care of them but there are sometimes I will tell an agent, “Go to Seth. That doesn’t belong here.” Wolf Trap is not a place for The Killers or Kings of Leon. And we’re not going to change our policy that you can bring in whatever you want. So I think there’s a place for all acts.

But you’ll bring in lots of Cirque shows or four nights of “Legally Blonde.” Wouldn’t you say, along with competition, you’ve carved out a niche?

Oh, absolutely. And mostly it’s been changing through the years with what belongs in this building and what we can afford to get in this building. The reality is I can never outbid Seth or Ted, or Michael Jaworek at The Birchmere. Because I’m 7,028 seats and they’re 15,000, 25,000 and 500 for the Birchmere’s sit-down room.

But would it also be the case that a band that draws 5,000-6,000 would not be as desired by those venues?

Absolutely. I’ve been working with agents and managers, and the majority I respect beyond belief because they care about the position of the artist in the market. They want to make sure the artist is in the right place at the right time, so they can have success. And there are lots who care about ticket pricing.

What’s your demographic? Where does your audience come from?

Great question. Drive in or metro in. We provide the Metro shuttle service from the closest metro station. It’s an interesting market, because there is Washington, D.C., which spawned everything around it, but we’re less than 10 miles away from Maryland, so our demographic includes Montgomery County. We also have a group sales full-time person here at Wolf Trap, Casey Schmidt. When she sells to bus companies she’s bringing people from Richmond, Va., or Harrisburg, Pa., or even further away. But primarily you draw a circle of 60 miles around Wolf Trap and that’s our zone, and 30 miles around Wolf Trap is our red zone. That’s our sweet spot. And it’s in any direction. We’re easy to get to and it’s an easy in-and-out.

This coming Sunday is Alejandro Sanz. We have a very large demographic of European Spanish speakers, and Central and South American Spanish speakers. And Willie Nelson is the next night and that will be a completely different demographic. Then we’ve got three nights of symphony.

But the region itself, I think, is one of the more competitive concert and performing arts cities on the Eastern Seaboard. In addition to The Filene Center you have the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Warner Theatre and Lisner Auditorium on GW’s campus, Bender Arena, Patriot Center, Merriweather, Jiffy Lube, and the Strathmore, Constitution Hall and Verizon Center to name a few. You’ve got a lot of people on that level trying to book the same shows and you’ve also got, on the club level, great venues like the 9:30 Club, The Black Cat, the Iota in Arlington, Jammin’ Java right here in Vienna, The Birchmere and the Barns at Wolf Trap, of course!

What are your thoughts about ticket prices?

I love an agent, when I say “How much?” and the agent says, “All-in, with fees, we want a top of $38.”

That’s an agent who’s looking out for the fan base of his artist and is therefore looking out for his artist.

To say, “I need a hundred grand” is the wrong way to approach “the triangle.”

I learned early in my career there is a triangle in the concert industry. There are three stakeholders that have to have a good financial and experiential success in order for the event to be successful.

The first is the artist, the second is the patron and the third is the infrastructure, which includes the venues, the promoters, agents and managers.

All three of those points on that triangle have to be successful to have a good experience financially and experientially. If any of the three points is slighted, it becomes a house of cards.

And the venues, agents, promoters and managers have all got to stay in business for the concert industry to stay successful. I think that’s part of the turmoil right now, that people have forgotten that.

And everybody’s Live Nation-bashing right now too. A lot. But a lot of the people I talk to in different parts of the country work for Live Nation and they are great people. I’m not sure if it’s what’s coming down from the people who are running that company but I do know there are a lot of great people who work for Live Nation. But no doubt that Live Nation is in serious turmoil right now.

How often do you get an agent who looks at the triangle the right way?

I would say it is in the minority for the Filene Center. But the exact opposite is true at The Barns. I would say the majority are the people who want to start at a ticket price that makes sense for the artist, because a lot of the artists are developing.

But when I’m booking the Filene Center, it’s not the agent’s fault when it’s “this or nothing.” Last night we had three buses, two trucks. And I know what it takes to keep a bus and a truck on the road, and I’m brilliant with numbers Once I see the arrival and what the catering numbers are going to be, I can pretty much figure out what their daily nut is. It’s expensive to be on the road. So a lot of things that come into the Filene Center can’t really work from the ticket price backwards. I’m not saying there’s grief. I’d say there’s grief in probably 2 percent of my experiences. Maybe I’m naïve.

Any last thoughts?

I’ve found most of the people in this industry love what they’re doing and are happy to be doing it. And some are really surprised that they’re getting paid to do it. So that’s why I’m still in it. And one thing to note is that I am a cog in the wheel of Wolf Trap. It’s much larger than what I do.


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