In His Own Words: First Avenue’s Damon Barna On Being ‘Liability-Minded’

Damon Barna
(Courtesy Damon Barna)

Many Faces of Damon: First Avenue’s Director of Operations Damon Barna who oversees security doesn’t like to use words like “bouncer” and “security,” because, as he says, his “entire team is liability minded, and our customers comfort and safety are paramount.”

Damon Barna is the kind of person you want on your team. With 21 years under his belt working for Minneapolis’ famed First Avenue Productions (which includes the 7th St Entry, the Turf Club, the Fine Line, The Fitzgerald Theater, the First Avenue Mainroom, and the Palace Theatre), the Director of Operations can tell a fake driver’s license by fonts, de-escalate violent situations without raising a fist and run point on socially distanced shows. Here, in his own words, Barna breaks down a show from the perspectives of fan, artist and staff, explains why he eschews the term “security” and how to handle “sandbox fights.”


When people go to shows, I feel like there’s this preconceived perception that there’s an adversarial dichotomy between the venue’s employees and the crowd. Us vs. them. A lot of people see us as the velvet rope guy… the archetypal bouncers from TV. It’s our job to dispel that notion. Taste is subjective, and what I like and what you like might be totally different, but that doesn’t invalidate either one of them.

The important thing is that everyone who works for us is a music fan, and we know how important going to see music is to us. We want to create the best possible environment for the most possible people to enjoy themselves in… to create the same environment we’d want if we were going to a show… so people show up with these walls erected, and it’s our job to tear down those walls, whether it’s that adversarial misconception, or they’re just having a bad day, or maybe they don’t go to a lot of shows and they don’t know where to go or what to do, and they’re filled with anxiety… it’s our job to tear down those walls, and help people get into the headspace where they can relax, and let all the bullshit in their lives wash away, and find that place where it’s just them, and the band that they love, and nothing else for 60-90 minutes, and when it’s done they feel refreshed, and invigorated, and ready to face everything that life has a habit of throwing at us, until the next thing they have to look forward to.


I like to describe it as like they’re dentists and we’re dental hygienists. It’s our job to get you in, get you comfortable, get a little buzz on, and then the dentist will see you. We try to make performers feel as welcome and comfortable as we can. We want to be the easy one. When you’re traveling around the country, sometimes you don’t know what you’re gonna get. One night you’re playing First Avenue, or the 9:30 club, or the Troubadour, and the next night you’re playing the possum barn in Norman, Oklahoma, and they’ve somehow misplaced your rider, and the PA is held together by duct tape.

You’ll see artists walking around before the doors open, or after the show’s done. We emphasize the importance of giving them their space.

That’s their time to be off… to be out of character… to worry about whatever they have going on, whether it be their significant other that they haven’t seen in weeks, or whether or not they’re going to be relevant in a year, or whatever. We give them their space.
First Avenue
First Avenue


We try to instill that same-team mentality in the staff from day one. We want our employees to genuinely care about, and take pride in creating that environment where people can relax and focus on the concert they paid good money to see. We emphasize the importance of leisure in lubricating the wheels of society, and how important having something to look forward to is… a light at the end of the tunnel… and how the positive experience our patrons have, and the happy memories they create, will ideally keep them going until the next thing they’re looking forward to comes along.

Conversely, there’s nothing people love to do more than commiserate, so if someone has a negative experience you KNOW that story’s coming up every time someone mentions us. I hate words like “bouncer” and “security.” Everyone who works for us is liability minded, and our customers’ comfort and safety are paramount, but I think that those words put people in the wrong frame of mind, and have kind of a negative connotation. The last thing we want is a bunch of meatheads with chips on their shoulders, and “security” printed on the knuckles of their gloves, looking to ruin people’s good time.

We make sure our employees understand that we sell alcohol for a living, and with that comes drunk people, and sometimes drunk people can be difficult, but at the same time just because someone’s acting out doesn’t they’re a bad person. Maybe they’re having a rough go of it at work, or school is kicking their ass, or they’re going through a bad breakup, and they have one too many. How many of us have had that morning where you wake up and you go “oh, god… what did I do last night…” and besides… we’re the one who got them drunk in the first place. We teach our staff to have a thick skin, and try to be as empathetic and understanding as possible when we have to remove someone from the environment. Their actions might be what got them where they are, but they’re always going to project their anger, and frustration, and disappointment onto us. In our eyes we’re taking away the thing they’ve been looking forward to. It’s important to be firm, but patient.

Like I said, just because they’re a bad drunk doesn’t mean they’re a bad person, and there’s a decent chance we want them to come back again in the future. That goes double for kids trying to sneak drinks or use fake IDs and stuff. Obviously we can’t have minors under the influence in our venues, but at the end of the day we know two things about that kid: 1) they like going to shows, and 2) they like to drink, and those are like the top things we’re looking for in a customer, so when they DO turn 21, we don’t want them to resent us so much that they don’t want to come drink legally. It’s really important to not take the job personally. It’s not like they kicked our puppy. Sometimes patrons are going to push the limits, and test the boundaries. It’s a party. We just need to make sure everyone’s being safe and not ruining the show for everyone else. You ever get home from a show and say “gosh, that would have been such a great show if it wasn’t for that guy?” Well, we’re in the “that guy” business. We want everyone to have fun, but if your way of having fun puts yourself, or us, or the people around you in danger, then it’s probably time to call it a night.


Can’t take yourself too seriously. Humor is a valuable asset. It’s hard to be “big mad” when someone’s meeting that energy with jovial empathy while at the same time pointing out the absurdity of the situation. Getting people’s friends to help is a great tactic… by the time we’re involved, they likely have already been doing some of the heavy lifting and are happy to have an ally. People also have this weird misconception that “guys are security.” We don’t ascribe gender roles to any of our positions. People can be liability minded and skilled de-escalators regardless of where they exist on the gender spectrum. We also make sure our staff know that there’s no shame in tapping out. If someone is being particularly frustrating, it might be a good idea to have someone else take over and take a breather. Not only does it help keep us from losing our tempers, sometimes a different face can actually diffuse the situation… like maybe I caught someone doing something inappropriate, and I’ve ruined their night by asking them to leave, and they want me to die in a horrible fire, but they might not have the same level of animosity toward you.

Most Common Probs

Underage drinking, overconsumption, and what I like to call “sandbox fights,” which is two people trying to occupy the same space in a crowded area, and maybe one of them feels like they got there first, or one of them happens to be tall, or whatever, and after a few drinks, and a few passive-aggressive elbow bumps, one of them shoves the other one. Ideally we see those situations developing before they become physical, and we can separate both parties and say “you go to that side of the sandbox, you go to the other side of the sandbox, and don’t look at each other, no “mom! He’s touching me!” and try to enjoy the show you paid good money to see.


The Transition From An Insane Clown Posse Show To Lucinda Williams’ Wedding

Lucinda Williams
John Davisson
– Lucinda Williams
Bridge School Benefit, Shoreline Amphitheatre, Mountain View, Calif.

he Insane Clown Posse get a bad rep and that’s a shame because at the end of the day, – I mean they spray Faygo all over the crowd and a pain to clean up – but that’s the day where all their fans can come together and feel like they’re a part of a community. It’s a really powerful thing for their fans. So we did an Insane Clown Posse show and they went through 63 pallets of 3-liter bottles of Faygo Diet Root Beer, spraying them on the crowd. And it’s just a big mess. It’s a lot to clean up. And the next day, Lucinda Williams got married on stage. So we had to clean up and get the room to not be covered in and smell like that Diet Faygo Root Beer. We got these big super absorbent rolls that are used for pig farms for all the liquid. And so then the next day, we had to turn around and Lucinda Williams played a show and then during the encore break, got married on stage and then played the encore. That was a fun one-two punch.

Prince Saw Your Unknown Band

Chris O
– Prince

I unfortunately do not remember the band, but Prince came down to see some band in the main room – whatever band he came to see. And he watched a couple songs and then was on his way out. And he would always come in and out to the 7th Street Entry door – through the small venue door. I don’t know if he was waiting on his ride or what, but he went into the 7th Street entry instead of going out the door. And again, I don’t remember what band was playing, but they maybe had seven friends watching them play that night. So it was not a big show– some local band. And he sat in the back and watched their entire set with nobody noticing or bothering him or anything. And when they were done, he got up and left and got in his SUV and took off. And they got done playing and we’re like, “You’re never going to believe this [laughter]. Prince stayed and watched your entire set and then left.” And they didn’t believe it for a second. We’re like, “Oh, we’re not going to lie about that. Prince just watched your set.”