Seth Hurwitz On Opening The Anthem

“Wow” and “Oh my God,” are the words

The exclamatory-worthy and cavernous tri-level club has a flexible 2,500- to 6,000-person capacity with a moveable stage, cantilevered balconies and a modern industrial design keeping with the aesthetic of the

The Anthem, however, is located within a sparkling new, $2.5 billion multi-use waterfront development by PN Hoffman on D.C.’s Southwest quadrant along the Washington Channel that city officials are hoping will become an attraction for a long-overlooked section of the nation’s capitol.

The Anthem
Audrey Fix Schaefer
– The Anthem

For Hurwitz, the opening marks eight years of planning and the crown jewel in the independent promoter’s venue portfolio, which in addition to the 9:30 Club (which he took over in 1986) includes operating a newly-renovated

Pollstar caught up with the inimitable Hurwitz, who is seemingly never at a loss for words – especially about the business – just hours before the opening of the Anthem.

Pollstar: How are you holding up in the final hours before the Anthem officially opens?

Seth Hurwitz: Shockingly, it all got done on time. Apparently that never happens with things like this. Monty [Hoffman], the developer, was always confident that we would. Which is great because now we get to fine-tune it. We let everyone in on Sunday night and jaws were dropping – I had complete strangers coming up to me and thanking me. That felt great.

What happened on Sunday?

We had a soft opening with local bands and some of our supporters. We had half of Fugazi, some people from Ex Hex and, ironically, Bob Boilen – whose band Tiny Desk Unit was the first act to play the 9:30 Club and is now the first band to play the Anthem.

What are the reactions to the venue?

Literally their jaws would drop when they walked in and looked up. They would say all these things like, “Oh wow,” and “Oh my God.” That’s what I wanted. I wanted wow. And that’s just the lobby. And when they get into the main room they’re like, “Oh my God, this is just great.” It’s exactly the effect we were looking for.

How are the sound and sight-lines?

When the bands came on the sound was great. And I’ve heard from everyone that you can see from anywhere you are. Great sight lines.

And how about the pool on the ceiling from the apartment buildings above?

I haven’t seen anyone swim yet, but the pool is part of the ceiling. And the light shines through in the day —it’s amazing.

Isn’t there an outdoor part as well?

You can stand on top of the marquee and go outside and that’s just breathtaking.

Where does this rank in your storied career?

I don’t ever remember having tears at the opening one of my venues, but I did Sunday night. It’s just so hard to believe that this is ours, it’s a dream – beyond a dream – venue. People are asking me, “Did it turn out as you had hoped?” And it has turned out so much better than I had hoped.

What about ticket prices?

They’re paying good money and tickets are slightly higher here than, say, the 9:30 Club, but it certainly justifies it. And it gives credit to the audience for wanting to have a nice place and I think that people appreciate that. It also says a lot about our audience here in D.C. which has always been a pretty sophisticated audience. But we could do the heaviest of heavy metal shows and they would feel comfortable, too. And even they would feel like, “Wow, nice place to see a show.” But I’m anxious to get the big bands on stage and get their feedback.

What’s been the most challenging aspect of planning and building the venue?

It’s been a pretty un-stressful thing; it’s really been pure pleasure. And thanks to Monty there’s been no battles. My main challenge has been making sure that this place is still ours. On Sunday night, when I walked in, that was the big thing and it felt like our place.  You’re going to see people like Ed Stack [GM of the 9:30] and the other people you’re used to seeing. It’s going to feel like ours.

Did you have to appear in front of any permitting boards?

No, I didn’t have to, Monty’s been a great partner, a very creative and contributing partner and has added in his ideas and made the place greater than we could have on our own.  He could have just made the deal and said, “I’ll see you in October,” but he was really into it. When the 9:30 moved and reopened, I thought, “Well, it’s going to take some time for bands and others to appreciate it.” It was a big change from when the tiny, dirty 9:30 was getting beaten up by the Black Cat and we were losing all our acts. And we thought alright, we’re going to build this nice place and eventually the word will get out and we’ll win. But it happened so fast it was just like a switch flipped and that was it, there was no transition. 

Are you worried about the Anthem cannibalizing the 9:30’s audience?

Honestly, we’re booked every night for the coming months and we maybe have two acts who could play the 9:30.

What’s the Anthem’s biggest competition?

I think the closest competition is probably the MGM [National Harbor, a 3,000-seater] and that opened a year ago. I’m always happier to have the competition go first; I like the last word. Same thing happened with the old 9:30, they opened what was called the Capitol Ballroom back then and everyone was like, “Wow, aren’t you sorry they opened? You must be crazy with them opening.” And I was like no, just wait. We’ll have our day in court. 

What’s been the reaction from the industry?

Seth Hurwitz
Andy Gensler
– Seth Hurwitz

“We want to play there” – that’s been the reaction. We want to play these dates, that’s been the reaction. The transition, the acceptance of this has happened so fast, we’re getting calls from people who want to play the Anthem all day. We really have to curate it because we don’t want to just let anyone in there who wants to play.

What’s been the agents’ reactions? Have any come out and toured the new space?

A few have. [WME’s music head] Marc Geiger, as usual, has been instantly supportive. When asked about playing here he said, “Why wouldn’t I want my products on the top shelf of Target? Duh.” I was out with him the other day. I thanked him for being so supportive.

Have other agents visited?

People who have been in town have come by, a couple of agents have made special trips here. You just can’t believe it until you see it. The largeness of the project, and I don’t mean the size, but the importance of  it and the presence it has in D.C. and the location – you just can’t grasp that.

Has having this prominent new venue opened up new business opportunities, say, for sponsorships or content partnerships?  

Not really, we’re happy to work with people if it fits in, but my whole thing isn’t necessarily about growth. That’s more a question for Donna Westmoreland (the COO) than me. We’re not a public company and I don’t have answer to anyone. I built this venue because there was a void. I don’t want to build another one. I don’t need another club, I don’t need another theatre.

Are you getting more hold requests than ever before?

Yes, every day. There’s just more and more people who want us to hold a date. Some of them should not be holding dates, they should not be playing there so we have to be careful. You know our thing has always been – and it’s why I always get in trouble and am considered difficult by some – is that sometimes I disagree with where a band wants to play. With these checklist-type of agents, who are out there, who are told where to hold dates and just need to tell you what to hold in what building, they honestly couldn’t’ care less about options – to those people I’m a problem.

Then how do you approach bookings?

I’ve been doing this since I started in 1980. When I get an avail and the agent says we want to play here and this is how much we want, I basically ignore that. I research the act and I decide what they’re worth and where they should play. I’ve always responded to an agent who is saying this needs to be this – I just don’t hear that part. I’ll tell you what your act is worth. We get a lot of acts that want to play here because they sold out the 9:30 and that’s just not the criteria.

So what is the criteria?

It’s a matter of how many people we turned away at the 9:30 and you need to see a trajectory because it’s going to take some acts going in here and failing, unfortunately, to learn that hard lesson. 

I know you have a booker for the Anthem, but are you involved in this initial booking process?

Melanie [Cantwell] moved up from 9:30 to the Anthem.I brought her in 15 years ago as my assistant. She’s booked the 9:30 Club for five or six years and has a fantastic grasp of what acts will work. She knows without me saying which acts will work and which acts won’t. I watch everything – I very rarely have to step in because she gets it. 

The thing people don’t understand or know is how we work. When Melanie gets back to an agent and says, “Okay, here’s what you’re worth,” it’s not just her personal opinion, we do a lot of research and we’re very careful. We want shows to do well. We tell agents what we should charge, what their acts are worth and where they should play, because we’re supposed to the be ones who know that.

You actually have many women in senior positions working for you.

It’s not like I tell people to hire women, it just seems to be the people who rise to the top. For the Anthem, we interviewed male candidates but Dori Armor was someone who I had been dealing with for years at other venues and I always liked her and the opportunity to have her run my venue was fantastic.

The Anthem
John Shore
– The Anthem

Who are some of the other women on your team?

Donna’s the COO. She runs all the businesses. Melanie books the Anthem. Maggie [Cannon] got moved up and books the 9:30, she started in marketing. And Molly [Majorack] got hired recently, she used to book the Rock and Roll Hotel and she books the shows we present at U Street Music Hall. Rosanna Ruscetti is the manager of the Lincoln Theatre. Jean [Parker] is our general manager of Merriweather, and Jean [Homza] and Roberta [Klein] are the IMP bar managers. Audrey [Fix Schaefer] is the communications director.

How many people have you hired for the Anthem?

On any given sold-out night at the Anthem, there will be about 200 employees. We obviously have our brain trust and the main people coming from other venues. There will be a lot of familiar faces when you go there – which is what we wanted.

I’m going to have to have a lot more lunch-with-the-boss things I do. I have lunches where I sit down and meet people I don’t really know well.  I would like ideally to know everyone who works for me, but I don’t. But I do try to work on that. And when I say know, I’m not talking about just remembering their name, I mean like you know a person.

This has been a banner year with the major renovations to Merriweather ($55 million) and the launch of the Anthem. Do you think you’ll ever top this?

We’ll never top this, this is a crazy year. I don’t see how we can in terms of new business and new announcements. But what I’m really looking forward to is getting the opening out of the way, although I can’t wait to see Dave [Grohl], to settle in now that I have the tools I’ve been given to run the venues. My challenge now is I want every single person – the thing I really hate is the “no news is good news” philosophy; I fucking hate that – I want to hear they loved it. That’s what I want to hear. That’s my goal. Now it’s time to do business. So my goal next year is hopefully to kick ass. 

When you think back to the original 9:30 Club on F Street it was another universe, with the dank hallway, a pillar blocking the stage and the woman from Betty bartending, did you ever think it would lead here?

Nobody acted a certain way out of strategy; it was just always our vision and our principles and our direction and that’s what we’ve maintained and we haven’t wavered from it. I know this sounds like corny modesty but it’s true: we just took one step after another, one step at a time. It’s about getting avails, selling tickets and producing the show we always have and maintaining that. That’s sort of been the guiding light. It’s about doing what seems logical and it’s come to this.