I.M.P.: A Thriving Independent Promoter

– Special Independents Issue
Cover of Pollstar’s July 22, 2019 issue.

I.M.P., the Washington D.C. metropolitan area promotions company, is a unicorn – and a thriving one at that. It is inarguably one of the most successful U.S. independent promoters at a time when rampant consolidation has seen many independent promoters and iconic venues sell off to larger corporate entities. 

In just the last two years, Live Nation has picked up a slew of promoters, including Frank Productions, Spaceland Presents, ScoreMore Shows and Emporium Presents as well as indie clubs including Southern California’s Observatory and Ventura’s Majestic Theatre. AEG Presents acquired a leading Midwest promoter PromoWest and made deals for storied venues in San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall and Slim’s, Philadelphia’s Electric Factory and New York City’s grand Webster Hall, renovated and re-launched with regional partner Bowery Presents, which AEG acquired in 2016. 

“All I’ve known is being an independent promoter,” says Seth Hurwitz, the inimitable 60-year-old promoter. The entrepreneur and I.M.P co-founder and chairman is a unique combination of quick-witted Catskills-like punster (see his Kirk’s Sommer Fruit & Vegetable Stand, in honor of the esteemed WME agent at Merriweather Post Pavilion), hard-nosed, old-school negotiator (he seems like he’s in constant battle mode after years of head-to-head engagement with agents and rival promoters), keen intellectual (he name-drops philosophers from antiquity during most interviews; during this one it’s Marcus Aurelius) and a mensch to boot (his venues often donate their space to non-profits and advocacy groups and he’s retained his staff for decades). 

It’s a breezy mid-June afternoon and we’re on the second floor of the tri-level Anthem, the nearly two-year-old mid-size crown jewel of I.M.P.’s venue portfolio. It’s a few hours before The Lonely Island’s over-the-top comedy and music performance starts at the sold-out venue and, not insignificantly, Hurwitz is speaking with Geof Wills, president of Live Nation’s comedy division, who is promoting the show. 

“He was just saying, ‘It wasn’t too long ago I was watching you on Capitol Hill testifying against the merger,’” Hurwitz says, referring to the Ticketmaster-Live Nation merger hearing he appeared at in 2009. “Well yes, but things change, I have to adapt, I’m just not one to sit around and cry about what didn’t happen or how it used to be.”

When Hurwitz appeared before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights, he called the Live Nation-Ticketmaster merger “vertical integration on steroids,” a “poster child for why this country needs antitrust laws” and claimed his “biggest competitor” would have “access to my sales records.” The merger was, of course, approved, but later in 2009 Hurwitz sued Live Nation for “monopolistic behavior,” claiming the company would “coerce artists to appear only at amphitheaters and other venues it owns.” The suit was dismissed in 2015 and lost on appeal the following year. 

What a difference, then, a few years can make. Over this same two-year period of consolidation, the appropriately named I.M.P., a sly reference to Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party,” has turned into exactly that, as it has transformed from a hyper-competitive local promoter into a metropolitan-area powerhouse hitting a new business peak all while maintaining its independence.

Jill Trunnell
– Build It And They Will Come
The 6,000-capacity Anthem even draws stadium acts like Kenny Chesney, who played two nights there in April.

In 2018, I.M.P. put on 697 shows, sold 1.1 million tickets and estimates its volume of shows to jump 25% between 2016 and 2019, according to the promoter. Thus far, I.M.P. has booked 739 shows for the 2019 calendar year and has 1,850 employees during the peak season. The venues it owns, operates or programs include the U Street Music Hall (capacity 500, owned by DJ Will Eastman), the iconic 9:30 Club (cap 1,200), the heart and soul of the operation; the Lincoln Theatre (cap 1,225); the majorly renovated Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, MD (cap 19,000); and, more than anything, the aforementioned Anthem. 

The 6,000-cap room, which can easily be configured to 2,500, opened in October 2017 at The Wharf, a $2.5 billion multi-use waterfront development by PN Hoffman on a stretch of land located in D.C.’s traditionally underserved SW quadrant alongside a beautiful inlet off the Potomac River, which has done nothing less than transform the geography of the District of Columbia. 

Its large theater capacity has attracted arena acts like Jack White, Lorde, LCD Soundsystem and Lizzo as well as stadium acts like Kenny Chesney to play multiple nights instead of the city’s Capital One Arena, where I.M.P. occasionally puts on outside shows.

“It’s finally that larger venue that everybody had been asking for forever,” says Melanie Cantwell, I.M.P.’s head of booking, who started out as Hurwitz’s assistant 17 years ago. “It was always, ‘When is there going to be a venue that’s in between the club level and the arena level?’ I would hear that all the time. ‘I don’t want to do two 9:30s for scheduling challenges and I don’t want to go to an arena.’ So what is it? And it didn’t exist a 6,000-capacity room – it really doesn’t exist anywhere. It’s adaptable and we can do anything in there.

“It’s turned into something else way beyond our expectations,” continues Cantwell, Pollstar’s 2018 Nightclub Talent Buyer of the Year. “I thought at the beginning, too, ‘Well, maybe we’re going to take business away from The 9:30 or the Lincoln Theatre.’ And believe it or not, that’s not the case. Both venues are thriving and 9:30’s booked all the time. It’s definitely turned into something else way beyond our expectations. The Anthem’s booked every single night for fall. It’s crazy.”

Albert Vecerka
– A Transformative Venue
Situated in Washington, D.C.’s SW quadrant along an inlet off the Potomac River, I.M.P.’s The Anthem has redefined the city’s geography.

The Anthem is the apotheosis of a business philosophy Hurwitz has honed throughout the years. “The only way to survive is to have something that the other people don’t have,” he says. “That’s just the only way. People are not going to play for you because they like you, or even because you’re a good promoter. It would be nice to think so, but that’s just not how it goes down. You have to have the venue they want to play and you have to have the venue they need to play.”

Hurwitz has repeatedly proven this approach over the course of his 40-plus-year career. In the mid-’90s, the original and much beloved 9:30 Club, opened in 1980 at 930 F Street in a then-moribund part of downtown D.C., was facing an existential threat. Rather than pack it in or sell, Hurwitz, along with I.M.P. co-founder Rich Heinecke, doubled-down and financed the stand-alone building on V Street, the WUST Radio Music Hall, formerly a gospel radio station and a jazz club co-owned by Duke Ellington, with a capacity roughly six times the capacity of the old 200-cap space. 

“The new [9:30] was and still is revolutionary with its sliding capacity and productions,” said Marty Diamond, Paradigm’s head of music, in 2016’s 35th anniversary “9:30” coffee table book. “I remember being in the room before it was renovated, when it was still WUST Hall. I did a PJ Harvey show there when she had outgrown the original 9:30. It took real vision to see what that room could be.”  

I.M.P. pulled a similar venue rabbit out of its promoter hat with Columbia, Md.’s Merriweather Post Pavilion. I.M.P. began booking the shed in 2004, when it was on the verge of shuttering. It’s since been transferred to the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, which took over the facility from The Howard Hughes Corporation in 2016. The historic amphitheater is now in the final year of a transformative $55 million renovation; I.M.P. kicked in a loan of $16 million for the project and now has a 40-year lease for the bucolic shed.  

The new luxe backstage area includes an artist area second to none, complete with adult and kiddie pools, massage cabanas, swanky dressing rooms and an artist/crew cafeteria. There’s also a turntable stage with a loading dock for major rigs, as well as offices and conference room. The front of house has amazing “skylawns,” two GA seating areas that feel like VIP sections, new concession stands and boxoffice, a pinball arcade and a raised and expanded roof originally designed by Frank Gehry. 

Underlying the renovations are fundamental tenets that define all of I.M.P.’s venues and that the staff reflexively adheres to. “It starts with the music and serving our two masters, which are making the artists happy because they’ll come back, and making the crowd happy because they too will come back,” says Donna Westmoreland, I.M.P.’s chief operating officer, who’s been with the company since 1990 (with a stint working for the Lilith Fair) and began as the old club’s bar manager. “When the crowd is happy, the artist feeds off it, and it all works.” 

Courtesy I.M.P.
– It Takes A Village
The staff of I.M.P., the D.C.-based promoter co-founded by Seth Hurwitz (center left, in black button-up), which is having a banner year.

Now, with that philosophy taking the independent business to new heights to the point where even Live Nation is bringing shows to I.M.P., which seemed impossible just a few years ago, one has to wonder how that thawing came about. “I have to give all the credit, really, to Bob Roux [President, U.S. Concerts, Live Nation],” Hurwitz says. “I’ve known Bob forever and he wasn’t in charge until recently. When he took charge of the concert division everyone said, ‘Well, you should talk to Bob and see if you guys can work something out.’ When I called Bob he was like, ‘Yeah, let’s figure it out.’ So, we did. Now they are doing their shows on their tours in our venues instead of us fighting to get them carved out. It’s just that simple and it should have been done a long time ago.”

So what’s left for I.M.P., with all it’s accomplished in the last few years? “I get up every day and I think, ‘All right, how are we going to kick ass today? What are we going to do to move forward today?’” Hurwitz says. “I’m pretty famous for people saying, ‘Oh, you got a sold-out show tonight,’ and I’m like, ‘Huh? Oh, yeah, tonight.’ Well, I’m thinking about tomorrow. It’s not a matter of not being happy or enjoying now, but it’s just sold-out shows are the past. They’ve already gone on sale and you’ve booked it, but I do enjoy the show.”s