The Fillmore Charlotte is housed in a historic textile mill, which gives it a unique ambience, feel and tradition. (Courtesy Live Nation)
Live Nation adding two more Fillmores to a chain where venues maintain continuity but keep their own identities
The Fillmore Theaters are a community, not a brand, said the man in charge of growing the chain of intimate music halls, Ron Bension, CEO of Live Nation’s Clubs and Theatres division.
The latest addition to the community will be the 2,200-capacity Fillmore New Orleans, which will open Feb. 15 with a performance by the Foo Fighters.
“The Fillmore screams rock ’n’ roll, and we’re putting the Fillmores in great music towns like New Orleans and Philly,” Bension said. “We’re really excited about the evolution of the clubs. The Fillmores are not cookie cutter. They each have their own identity in each community. Brands are the same wherever they reside and the Fillmores are not that. They each have their own unique DNA but are part of the Fillmore community.”
Live Nation has been expanding the Fillmore chain since it took over in 2007, first by changing the names of a number of the clubs it owned around the U.S., and later by opening new clubs.
“We have been focusing on the Fillmores as being the pre-eminent club in the 2,000- to 3,000-capacity space for some time,” he said.
There are seven Fillmores at the moment: the Fillmore San Francisco; Fillmore Auditorium in Denver; the Fillmore Detroit; the Fillmore Miami Beach; the Fillmore Charlotte; the Fillmore Silver Spring in the Washington, D.C., area; and the Fillmore Philadelphia. The Fillmore New Orleans will be No. 8, and No. 9 is under construction in Minneapolis near Target Field and is scheduled to open early next year.
Describing how a fan would be able to tell one Fillmore from another, Bension first pointed out the similarities: lots of chandeliers, red velvet curtains, and an emphasis on sightlines, sound and concessions.
“They all have a lounge-like feel; the restrooms are gorgeous; and every one of them has unique appeal that’s really cool,” he said.
“We believe the Fillmore experience is added value. We want the best fan experience. We want people to come away thinking, ‘That was a great environment; that was a really cool show; we had great food; we had a great time.’”
As for the differences, “Every community is distinctive and so are the Fillmores in them,” he said. “They all have unique features and are designed to incorporate the traditional elements of the look of the environments they are in.”
Bension pointed out The Fillmore Philadelphia’s American flag formed by a collage of Fillmore posters and a take on Robert Indiana’s classic “LOVE” sculpture, spelling out “LIVE” in giant letters, and New Orleans’ 10- by 25-foot collage of Fillmore posters of Louis Armstrong as examples of their individual style.
“All of the decor in New Orleans is very voodoo with a French Quarter vibe,” Bension said. “There is a fleur-de-lis at the top of the stairs. It’s a symbol of New Orleans.”
Bension and his team look first for the right environment, building and location when looking for new cities to grow the Fillmore chain.
“We need a space where we can incorporate the Fillmore style seamlessly,” Bension said. “We’d love to open one a year if we find the right location and right markets.”
Dave Fortin, senior vice president of marketing and business development for Live Nation’s Clubs and Theatres division, said the company is “always looking at cities across the country to find properties where a new venue would make sense. When we find an opportunity there is an internal look at the space, and we discuss whether it should be a Fillmore or if it should be a House of Blues or something else.”
The House of Blues clubs and Live Nation’s assorted theaters are also under Bension and Fortin’s watch.
“As we grow as a division, we’re always looking to serve every size room,” Fortin said.
“Typically, a House of Blues capacity tops out at around 900 in the main rooms. The Fillmores hold 2,000-3,000. After that we look to program our amphitheaters and our arena and stadium partners.”
Building new Fillmores is a “no-brainer” to Fortin. “If a band can play Houston or Dallas and is looking to head east, and the next right room isn’t available in a market, they will skip the market. We’re always looking to have strategic cities with a great live music scene available, so markets don’t get skipped. We want to bring fans’ favorite bands to as many markets as possible.”
After a location is chosen, Live Nation looks at how to get the most out of it. “We bring in state-of-the-art technology. We look at how much space is between seats, how high should the risers should be, where to put VIP areas and how to best serve the fans in that space,” he said.
The Fillmore name first became associated with concerts when Charles Sullivan started booking performers at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium in 1954. In December 1965, Sullivan began letting future rock impresario Bill Graham book shows there.
The Fillmore Auditorium went on to host numerous 1960s counterculture icons. The Grateful Dead played 51 concerts at the venue. The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and The Who played there.
Bension said Live Nation “has international aspirations and we’re looking at other countries. Where it makes sense, we would love to have a Fillmore.”
“I’ve been part of Live Nation and House of Blues for 25 years,” Fortin said. “There is a sense of underlying community and family associated with the Fillmores and it comes from Bill Graham and who he was. He escaped from Europe during World War II and was put in foster care. He would sneak out of his foster home in France to steal apples.
“He was a survivor in every way, and Bill put out apples out at the end of his shows because he wanted everyone to go home with a full belly.”
“That’s what the Fillmores were built on and what we carry and it’s what the Fillmore became,” Fortin said. “It was a real scene at the start with Jerry Garcia, Janis Joplin and Santana and it was all a family with a great communal vibe, and we try to honor that in the way we run it. That history is a really cool piece of what makes a Fillmore a Fillmore.
“We are all about honoring the past in contemporary way.”