Mr. Northwest (Extended Edition)

Q&A with Jimi Biron, Director of Entertainment Programming and Venue Development, McMenamins

  • by Jessica Boudevin
  • Published: February 1, 2015

jimi_headshot.JPGJimi Biron and I had too much to talk about. You saw part of our conversation in the February issue of Venues Today, now enjoy our web exclusive extended edition.

McMenamins is so much more than music — although, with more than 15 concert spaces, the company certainly knows the business. In addition to the venues, McMenamins also boasts pubs, historic hotels, movie theaters, spas, and breweries for beer, wine, cider, spirits and coffee for a total of 57 properties and counting. The company has created gathering places around Oregon and Washington since 1983, in many cases breathing new life into historic properties. Biron has come a long way since joining the company more than 30 years ago, now overseeing the booking department encompassing film programming, special events, and, of course, the music.

With so many different types of properties, what does the booking department look like?

We have one arm that is events, like our dinner with the Dandy Warhols (The Dandy Warhols Pagan Christmas). People from all over the world literally sit down to dinner with the band. One of my employees, Claudine Hemingway-Knapp, is really awesome. She sits with Courtney Taylor from the band and they have a whole lunch meeting with the chef to go over what the menu and wine pairings will be. You have 100 huge fans of the band literally sitting down to dinner with the band at the same table. That’s just one arm of events, which is specialty events. We do these kinds of dinners throughout the year at all of our properties. Sometimes it’s a farm-to-table, which we call estate-to-table, or it could be just a scotch dinner or something to commemorate a particular event. You have that whole arm, then you have the different film programming that we’ve done over the years at the movie theaters. Then, of course, you have the music. I also oversee the ticketing and marketing of the music. But in general it’s the booking, I have a great team of bookers who book all of our venues.

How much of the event business is rentals as opposed to creating your own events?

Where we draw the line is, is it a concert or is it a private event. It’s probably 60 percent concerts to 40 percent private events. Out of the 60 percent concerts, it could be Live Nation, AEG, Monqui, Outback, Thrasher, DoubleTee, Steinberg, or our own presentation. About half are our own presentations. We book half the concerts then half are rentals from different promoters coming in.

Are there any preferred promoters that you work with?

We promote in-house, we rent, and we co-promote. We work with every major promoter in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. We pride ourselves on having great relationships with everyone. We like all the agents, all the agencies and all of the promoters. You can’t get me to pick. – I’ll get in trouble.

Each venue has a unique back story and history. Does that contribute to attendees wanting to come see shows and bands wanting to play, as well as effecting the booking strategy?

I’d say for sure. Crystal Ballroom, of course, is the jewel of McMenamins. It’s a historic venue that’s more than 100 years old. We’re having our 101st birthday January 11th. Bands want to play there because it’s a historic venue. Rock creek Tavern is out in the forest in the west hills and definitely has kind of a rustic roadhouse flavor. When we try to send the cool hip bands that are playing out in the city out there, and they’re great talented bands, it doesn’t translate. We’ve learned the hard way that some places just want what they’re used to. Edgefield Winery: singer songwriter; Rock Creek Tavern: Americana; Boon’s Treasury: more blues. White Eagle Saloon does a range of things. It’s 100-capacity super cool hipster venue. Just last week we had Isaac Brock (from Modest Mouse), Jim James (from My Morning Jacket) and Colin Meloy (of the Decemberists) all just hanging out there as customers. That venue does all sorts of stuff from free shows to ticketed shows, national acts to local bands. (Co-owners) Mike and Brian McMenamin have even said specific to the Crystal or some of the others that we’re just the curators. We’re just the ones running the Crystal Ballroom right now. This place has been around 100 years before us and will be around 100 years after us. It’s just our job to be the caretakers of the property and do it the service it deserves.

Is there any programming that’s unique to the specific venue?

Lola’s Room is pretty much video dance nights, which is a totally unique thing that’s some of our most successful programming. It’s 80s on Friday nights and 90s on Saturday night where we show the videos on a screen, put the music through the PA system and have a light show. People come like crazy — it sells out every single weekend. Davina (Labbe, a.k.a. VJ Kittyrox) originally came up with the idea and I said that she could try it, though I honestly didn’t know if people were going to be drawn to seeing videos, but it’s become a huge thing and she’s a brilliant woman. Al’s Den is a residency programming. The band plays three hours a night for seven nights. It’s a week straight where they have 21 hours of music they have to fill. That changes the programming in that you have to find bands that have either a rich catalogue or a lot of friends. You have a week to do as you see fit. It’s a hugely successful and very coveted spot. Al’s Den is a mixture of local and national acts. Al’s Den and the Great Northwest Music Tour are the venues or event type of things where there’s a line of people begging to play them, whereas some of the other venues, we’re begging bands trying to fill the calendar.

The 10-year anniversary of Great Northwest Music Tour is this year. What can you tell me about that product?

Great Northwest Music Tour is where a band goes to all of our different hotels. We’ve had the Avett Brothers play it, as well as Langhorne Slim, Deertick, and Elizabeth Cook. In 2015 is our 10-year anniversary, which is a very coveted booking for a band, as is Al’s Den. There will be probably about six different months that we’ll do Great NW Music Tour this year. We’re in the process of lining them up.

With 18 music and event venues, does it ever feel like you’re competing with yourself?

Oh yeah, that’s a lot of where our strategy comes from when we’re laying out the year. We strategize a lot, especially with our most frequent artists at smaller venues, trying to figure out how many times is too many to play them. For instance, one of our bookers, Alex Wideman, already has Garcia Birthday Band booked for 37 shows at McMenamins venues in 2015, and Lori Hughes is going to book them several times in addition to that. With Garcia Birthday Band, 37 dates isn’t enough, but for other bands that would be way too much and would dilute their draw. Some bands can do more frequency than others. Just the other day we were figuring out that we couldn’t book a band at one venue on their usual Saturday night because they needed to play that particular date at a different venue, so we’ll move stuff around.

How do you do it? Is there a big Xcel spreadsheet or Google Doc somewhere, or is it all color-coded?

Sure, make me sound as good as you want. We do a lot of it on the fly — and we talk about it. Everybody is really organized in their own worlds, but we don’t have that one master war room that’s surrounded by calendars. We just do it. It’s all organic. We have weekly booking strategy sessions every Thursday morning.

Why is it important to appeal to local bands as well as national touring acts?

A lot of our smaller venues and all of the hotel venues, with the exception of Edgefield Amphitheater, are free shows featuring local bands. I had the accountants pull the zip codes and, in a two-year period we paid more than $1 million to purely local artists. That’s the whole thing, as (co-founder) Brian McMenamin says, we’re about being the place where a community can gather. It’s very important to all of us that we’re always supporting the local community. I think one of the Crystal Ballroom taglines is “local music since 1914.”

What are some of the challenges at Crystal Ballroom?

It isn’t a 2015 state-of-the-art venue. It’s got a great sound system, but it’s an old, iconic legendary ballroom. With that comes a small elevator, a stage that’s placed in the corner and ornate chandeliers, which means that the Flaming Lips can’t have all their balloons when they play the Crystal. To their credit, they’re great. They know. They’re like, “we won’t break anything.” We had the sketch comedy Mr. Show, which is Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, that had a show choreographed for rectangle stages, and they rechoreographed their entire show so that it could fit on the triangular corner stage at the Crystal. Those special artists make the changes that they need. Then you have other artists who just say it doesn’t work for them, and they don’t care as much about the fans and the audience or the venue, they just want to get their show in and out, and do it as easy as possible so those bands will often play somewhere else. It’s funny at the Crystal, because when a band who’s never played the venue shows up, they have to push their amps down a hill, into a tiny elevator, up the tiny elevator, the whole length of the building to the stage, up onto the stage and they show up and they’re like “are you effing kidding me?” Then on the way out, they’re high-fiving, hugging and saying it’s the greatest show they ever played. So the beginning of the days are rough and the end of the days are usually hugs and high-fives.

How do you ensure that a band knows what they’re getting into when playing a venue like Crystal Ballroom or one of McMenamins hotel lobby facilities?

I sometimes feel that there are too many layers between the booker and the talent. You have agents, responsible agents, managers, tour managers— it’s just frustrating when the artist shows up and doesn’t’ know what they’re getting into because somewhere down the line that information never got imparted. It is saying repeatedly to the point of being annoying, “are you communicating this information to the band? Are you sure what you’re getting into?” Not to downplay that hotel lobby. When bands think they’re coming into a hotel lobby and they show up at McMenamins, they’re blown away. It’s the greatest thing they’ve ever done. Our hotel lobby is whimsical, fun. You have great staff. It’s casual. You have beer and liquor and music. It ain't your Holiday Inn.

What events have you created for McMenamins that have gone on to be a success?

At Edgefield we started events that have gone on to be company-wide events like our October fests. The first one was Mad King Ludwig’s 147th birthday, which kind of morphed into Octoberfest. I put it on with my friend Scott Fox, the bass player from Crackerbash who went on to Satan’s Pilgrims. So we would call it Rocktoberfest. We’d do all the fun stuff like the traditional lederhosen and things like that, but I’d book rock bands and make it much more of a rock show than a German traditional festival. Then I started booking the Red Shed Summer Series on Thursday nights that still continues today. We started to do music, events, specialty dinners — all kinds of different event-based things. Last year for the 100th anniversary of the Crystal we did 100 shows in a row. We also do an annual series of concerts called December to Remember with partners at 94.7 FM. Those are really cool because everywhere else in the world they do a ‘Jingle Ball,’ which is always 20 bands in one day at a 20,000-seat coliseum. We spread out shows over two weeks so that each band gets their own individual, intimate show at Crystal Ballroom for their fans, so you’re not playing for people that paid to see someone else.

Are there any new events that you’re excited about?

In Februrary we have a new event called Sabretooth. I call it a microfest. The tagline is Sabretooth: psychedelic stoner rock microfest, because it’s a three-day music festival but it’s only at the Crystal. It’s based on the history of the Crystal Ballroom because in the late 60s the venue did 18 months of psychedelic music like Frank Zappa, Grateful Dead, Buffalo Springfield, and all of those bands of the day. We’re not doing a rehash of 60s bands, we’re doing the 2015 version of psychedelic music. We’re doing a series of five consecutive weeks at other not McMenamin venues throughout the city of Portland every Sunday night leading up to the event are psych rock DJ nights giving away tickets and things like that. The owner of VooDoo Donuts, Tres (Shannon) is a longtime good friend of mine, and they’re supporting the festival. They’ll come up with a donut for it and help to promote it. It’s just fun and it’s the first year, but we’re hoping it turns into something that we go on and maybe have the success that we did with Great NW Music Tour.

What is it that makes the Pacific Northwest such a mecca for diversity?

The motto for the city is ‘Keep Portland Weird,’ and it’s really diverse. I don’t even want to speculate. Is it the history, the rain, the fact that you’re so close to the ocean and the mountains that you draw all of these people? Probably a lot of credit needs to go to your Wieden and Kennedy, and your creative industries that draw creative types to the city. It’s the coffee, the food, the beer, the weed — everything.

What was the best advice that mentor Rick Ohlson (of Double Tee Concerts and ICM) gave you?

He said the music industry is an industry of relationships. He had one other line: Settlement is an art form. Those are two very valuable quotes. I’ve certainly learned that it’s an industry of relationships. We are so literally utterly thrilled to have Sleater-Kinney play here again. They did their last show here (before dissolving in 2006) and they’re doing their first Portland show back here at the Crystal. A lot of the bands and success that we’ve had here at the Crystal was literally based in part by Calvin Johnson at K Records, who I didn’t know. I reached out to him because he knew my sister-in-law. He’s been a champion of the Crystal ever since and introduced me to Built to Spill, Sleater-Kinney, Modest Mouse, and has been a great supporter. Like Rick said, those relationships have continued. Forging relationships with David Viecelli (of booking company Billions Corporation), and (booking agent) Robin Taylor, specifically, have been great in our development. They’ve been supporters from the very beginning.

Do you think the success of McMenamins could have happened anywhere other than the Pacific Northwest?

I do. I think that Mike and Brian would have had that success anywhere on earth because of who they are and their vision and creativity. Also, they’re the kind of sincere people that you really want to work hard for. It would look different if we did it in the south, did it in new England or did it in Europe — it would take on the flavor of the region it was in. But as far as could they have come up with a series of restaurants, theaters, hotels, breweries, coffee roasters, cider, wine, liquor, music? I believe they would have been able to realize that success anywhere.

You mentioned, coffee, cider, all of these products - what’s next?

I can’t give away any secrets. We’ve been doing some really wonderful ice cream that I’m really proud of. We talk about all sorts of stuff when it comes to what’s next, so those are questions we have and that we talk about all the time, too.

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  • by Jessica Boudevin
  • Published: February 1, 2015