If you live in New York City, you’ve probably been to a show at Webster Hall. Or you’ve at least seen its famous marquee in the heart of the East Village. You may have also heard the news that Webster Hall — the nation’s largest remaining independent music venue — has been purchased (by Brooklyn Sports Entertainment in partnership with AEG and Bowery Presents) and will close this week. After renovating and reopening in 2018, the venue will do away with its famous weekly club nights and likely create a void in the New York musical community.
I talked to John Santiago, General Manager at Webster Hall, about the larger implications of the venue’s purchase, the legacy of rock n’ roll in New York, and the doors that are opening for indie artists across the country, including his own blues-rock outfit Johnny and the Bootlegs. Here’s our chat:
Danny Ross: I remember discovering Webster Hall when I was a junior in college. My first show was The Kaiser Chiefs, standing on the couches upstairs. What’s your discovery story?
John Santiago: I fell in love with the Webster Hall community — and the building itself — through an event called the Quarterly Arts Soiree. It had live art, dance, comedy, dramatic performance, cooking, and of course bands all night. I was playing with a band called the Mellow Spaceships when I walked upstairs and realized I was in this colossal 40,000 square foot, four-floor building with a beautiful, pristine art-deco ballroom that holds 1,500 people. I thought, “This is where I need to be.”
Ross: How does one become a general manager of a large music venue? And what does a GM do exactly?
Santiago: At first, I volunteered my time. By the time I asked for a job, they said, “Go get your security license, kid. See if you can do that first.” I wasn’t a bouncer, but I was a doorman — essentially a host that was licensed to check IDs and help filter people through. And sometimes diplomatically let people know they can’t come in. Then they trained me as a cashier, and five months later offered me a job as a manager.
Once someone becomes general manager, they’ve done it all and can perform it all, generally. You can step behind the bar, run security, book and settle a show, understand the law and how it works with NYC nightlife, know fire protection necessities, help control crowds, etc. Anything you’ve seen at a venue, I’ve dealt with it.
Ross: Webster Hall was the largest remaining independent music venue in the country. What does its sale mean for New York culture?
Santiago: I think the change we’ll see mostly is in the culture of nightlife. Webster Hall isn’t just a concert venue, it’s also a night club. For twenty-eight years, we’ve always been “The People’s Club.” Everybody is welcome. It’s a culture of tolerance and understanding. You don’t have to be beautiful. You don’t have to show up with eight girls on your arm. You don’t have to pay extreme bottle prices to get upstairs. Unfortunately, the nightlife scene in New York is just as corporate as anything else, and I think our closing will be felt.
On the music side, I think it will continue to be a concert venue when it reopens. But historically, Webster Hall has provided immense support to local musicians, with space to grow from the Studio up to the Ballroom. We played a role in nurturing artists.
Ross: Quick sidebar. What was it like the night Kanye West said he would play at Webster Hall, but then it didn’t happen? It was all over the news and people were lining up on the street.
Santiago: It was chaos, thanks to Twitter. It’s rather amazing that not a single person got hurt, and it all worked out just fine.
Ross: What’s the best show you’ve seen at Webster Hall after six years working there?
Santiago: Soundgarden’s twenty year anniversary show of Superunknown in the ballroom. By far my favorite show. I’ve found the best shows have a certain energy in the room that’s created by both the crowd and the performers onstage. No words have to be said. It’s just this amazing give-and-take of magnetism, desire and lust jumbled into a ball of energy that you can literally feel in your gut as you walk in the room.
Ross: But guitar-based rock is not exactly flying up the Spotify charts these days. And rock clubs are notoriously closing all over New York. Do you think the shifts in genre have affected the once-legendary NYC rock music scene?
Santiago: I’m a rock n’ roll guy. I go home and I listen to ZZ Top, Soundgarden, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Hendrix. But everything in Manhattan is either hip-hop or EDM these days. I think we’ll see that grow more in Manhattan, and we’ll see more rock n’ roll and instrument-based music filter more toward Brooklyn, as it has been.
But I don’t think that Webster Hall closing is an extension of rock music dying in New York. No. I think that we did it so well, and we kicked ass so hard that the owners got such a great offer that they had no choice. They had to take it. We’re going out on top. We did the DIY thing 110% and we got where we needed to get.
I think venues close because everyone’s so busy in New York. Everyone spends so much on their rent. Everybody’s working eighty hours a week. It’s hard to find the time to just get out and enjoy.
But Jesse Malin is still here [rock musician and owner of Bowery Electric and Niagara]. He’s the haven for local and real rock n’ roll right now in New York. I don’t think we’ll see any less of rock music just because Webster Hall will be gone. The spirit is still here.
Ross: So where should indie artists go to foster community?
Santiago: Cultivating and creating an atmosphere of artistic community takes a lot of nurturing, and time, and word of mouth. But most of the people that will put the love and care into that kind of atmosphere don’t have the money that’s necessary. So it’s a catch 22.
I hope to get to the point where I can open my own spot, and can help to cultivate that culture, and hang out at the bar. People start to see that there’s a love and care for the music. For example, there’s a cool DIY spot in Ridgewood called The Footlight with great music passing through there.
But I think it’s going to be awhile before we see somebody do a DIY venue of 1,500 capacity like Webster Hall. You need serious capital.
Ross: From your firsthand experience at Webster Hall, what should artists do to cultivate a relationship with a venue they like?
Santiago: First, find other artists who have played that venue, and get in good with them. And it should be because you like their music and you think they’re good people, not just because you’re trying to get something. Play a show with them.
Or just go to the venue and hang out. Do it more than once, twice, three times. Then talk to the bartenders and people working there, see if they can point you in the right direction.
And of course, play good music. Play something from your heart. A venue notices originality and when a band plays a good show, even when the booker isn’t there. I write reports at the end of the night saying “this band, this band, this band,” pointing out the highlights. And those bands came back. If the draw isn’t great yet, it’s okay. It will be. Especially if the five people in the room loved it. Those five will turn into fifty, which will turn into two hundred, which will turn into five hundred. That’s what happened with Secret Weapons at Webster Hall, now they’re finishing a major-label record.
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