The House That the Bowery Boys Built

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The first gunshots erupted about an hour after we arrived at the concert. The crowd roared, and DJ Blaqstarr set the sampled machine-gun blasts off again. The violent sound thundered through the hall, exciting the sweaty mob even further. The time had come—M.I.A. was in the house. The visa-challenged Sri-Lankan/British artist known as much for her politics as for her music—a mash of global rhythms and hip-hop with radical lyrics, which could be termed militia disco—was about to come out on stage to start the first of her two sold-out shows during the CMJ Music Marathon at the city’s newest venue, Terminal 5.

This was the second occasion in the past seven weeks of a new concert hall opening to a string of sold-out shows. The Music Hall of Williamsburg was the other and both are owned and operated by the concert promotion company known as The Bowery Presents (TBP). The early success of both new venues combined with other recent developments at TBP suggests that the local promoters may now be the most important local player in a business that, until recently, has been dominated by faceless mega-corporations.

Terminal 5 is the TBP’s largest venture to date: A 3,000 person-capacity club that rubs shoulders with luxury car showrooms on West 56th, had been opened for exactly a week—perfectly timed to take advantage of all the music in town during the city’s largest music festival. When I arrived for M.I.A., I immediately headed upstairs to the second-level mezzanine. I had learned from my experience on Terminal 5’s opening night, when the Brooklyn-based indie band The National christened the new space, that the floor can quickly become a claustrophobic logjam so it’s best to keep moving.

My friend and I maneuvered our way toward the back and up a flight of stairs to the second floor and found an empty spot along the balcony rail. This is prime real estate at Terminal 5. From this vantage, you have plenty of breathing room with commanding, unobstructed views. And since the space has 40-foot ceilings, Terminal 5 boasts two of these mezzanines, both with wrap-around balconies, their own bars and bathrooms and plenty of couch-and-coffee-table-furnished lounging nooks. Whether you want to be in the thick of it or slightly removed from the mayhem, Terminal 5 offers a sweet spot for everyone.

Although TBP has existed officially for only four years, its origins can be traced back to the opening of a small club on the Lower East Side in 1994. It was then that Michael Swier opened the Mercury Lounge in the former space of a tombstone sales parlor on East Houston. Swier, the owner of nearby tavern 2A, says that, “From the beginning, the Mercury was built out with music as the focus—the acoustic treatment, the right sight lines, the sound system. It became apparent that it was good for bands and fans, and we were quickly on the map because of that.”

A few years later, Swier paid visit to a former carpet store on Delancey Street and saw a diamond in the rough. He leased the space, renovated it, and in 1998 opened the Bowery Ballroom, what many consider the best live music venue in town.

In 2001, Swier hired Southern transplant and self-proclaimed music junkie John Moore as a “talent buyer.” Swier and Moore worked well together and saw the potential to promote more shows around the city. “In the fall of 2004, Michael and I started The Bowery Presents originally to book shows at Webster Hall because we had procured an exclusive booking deal with them—meaning we don’t own the room, we don’t run the room, but we put all the concerts on there,” Moore explains. “The intention was that we would eventually grow into promoting shows in more open rooms around the city, like Town Hall, the Beacon, Radio City, United Palace, the Garden.”

Putting on shows in the bigger spaces provided more logistical challenges though, as well as more competition from corporate promoters. AEG Worldwide, John Scher’s Metropolitan Entertainment and Live Nation—the largest concert promoter in the world—had exclusive booking agreements with venues such as the Roseland and Hammerstein Ballrooms, as well as more money to take on the risk of promoting big shows at arenas. Enter Jim Glancy.

“In 2006, we started talking to Jim Glancy, who at the time was president and head of the New York Live Nation office,” says Moore. “This was an opportunity for him to join our team and become a partner, and accelerate the process of us going into these other rooms that were larger and new territory for us.”

Glancy brought 20 years of music-promoting experience to TBP, punctuated by the important connections gained from his eight years with Live Nation/Clear Channel/SFX: “The same company but with different names,” says Glancy. With Glancy on the team this year, TBP has put on much bigger shows than they had previously: the White Stripes at Madison Square Garden, Daft Punk at Coney Island, Arcade Fire at Randall’s Island, as well as a slew of SummerStage and McCarren Park Pool shows.

“We’ve had a pretty full first year,” says the 46-year-old Glancy. “The promotions side of the company has far exceeded our expectations. And we certainly didn’t envision opening up two new venues in 2007, much less two new venues within five weeks of each other.”

“Both opportunities weren’t anticipated as coming together at the same time, but they did,” says Swier, who had been working for two years on getting the lease to the Brooklyn space now housing the Music Hall of Williamsburg, formerly known as the club Northsix. At the same time, the opportunity came up to move into what once was the troubled rave club Exit, on West 56th Street. “So we did a gut renovation in Brooklyn,” says Swier, “and Terminal 5, well it wasn’t a gut renovation, but it was a huge undertaking.”

With the addition of Terminal 5, TBP took a giant step towards actualizing a unique promotion strategy. Moore, now in his mid-thirties, explains how TBP likes to play emerging bands at the Mercury Lounge, and then as they grow, move them up through their network of venues, each capable of holding approximately twice as much as its junior sibling. “Not to say that we have to play every band in every room,” says Moore, “but it is exciting, and something we feel most attached to.” Having The National play Terminal 5’s inaugural show was a realization of this goal, as the band had played in each of TBP’s smaller rooms.

Although some sectors of the music industry are either struggling or collapsing, TBP seems to have positioned itself well. As the Internet becomes the new forum and marketplace for music, many more bands seem to be finding mid-level success: The level that sells out TBP’s venues. Meanwhile, as downloading and file-sharing on the Internet kill record sales, it may be that the only way to make any money playing music (unless you’re Radiohead) is by playing it live. “Live music is thriving,” says Moore. “There doesn’t seem to be a shortage of fantastic bands and hungry fans that want to come to shows.”

In this way, TBP could be growing to become another one of the big players. Able to work with developing small bands as their fan base grows, TBP can give Live Nation a run for its money since they are closer to the ground, understand their community and offer an integrated music business.

Of course, TBP’s success hinges not only on these factors, but the quality of their venues. It is evident that Swier has stayed committed to his roots, developing venues with the fans’ experience as the priority. The new venues have continued the TBP tradition of guaranteeing excellent sight lines and great acoustics. (Of course, no concert hall is perfect, and you can definitely get stuck in some dead zones anywhere). The Music Hall of Williamsburg is basically a new-and-improved Bowery Ballroom, which has long been an audience favorite (and was named Best New Venue this year by the New York Press). At both venues there’s not a bad seat—or, more accurately, a bad place to stand—in the house. The sound is great, buying a drink rarely requires a wait and getting there is easy.

Terminal 5, on the other hand, is a more difficult destination. It’s located far from a train stop (the nearest is at Columbus Circle) and requires a bit more motivation. The unadorned, industrial interior isn’t exactly charming either, and the high ceilings make it feel somewhat cavernous. That being said, it is still a better choice than its two similarly sized rivals: Hammerstein and Roseland. Terminal 5 somehow makes its 3,000 capacity seem intimate, even at a raucous gathering like the M.I.A. show. And its upper levels are open to everyone (Roseland’s mezzanine is often quarantined for VIPs only). There’s also the fact that Roseland and Hammerstein are erratic—both in terms of quality and frequency of bands booked.
TBP on the other hand has built a reputation on consistency in both of those departments.

Judging from the feedback, both new venues have gotten the fans’ stamp of approval. Despite usual blog snark, most reviews have been complimentary. Moore says he has seen the most relevant indicator of the venues’ success—familiar faces of returning customers—at both spaces. “It’s been a really good opening Fall,” says Moore, “and it feels like it’s going to get bigger.”

Although TBP’s main goal for the present is to just dial in the new spaces and continue working out some kinks, Swier and Glancy both say they haven’t finished doing everything they want to do. “The expansion will continue—maybe at a slower rate. Opportunities seem to be knocking at our door constantly of doing new venues, new scenarios with partnerships. Now we can hopefully take a little breather and focus on what the next step should be.”

Full details about upcoming shows at Terminal 5 can be found at

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