"Is it hard to get people to watch TV?" Henry Rollins asks as we're talking about the prospects for Live At 9:30, the new series debuting on public television stations around the country on May 28. "I thought they were all about it."
Rollins is proudly old-fashioned ("I purposefully don't have a TV. I just know me, and I'll watch it. I don't want to watch. I want to listen to five albums a day."), but even though he avoids the television, he was intrigued at the thought of appearing on a show set at the most venerable rock club in his hometown of Washington DC. So when 9:30 Club communications director Audrey Schaefer asked him to appear on the show to do interviews with DC music scene personalities, he couldn't say no.
"Audrey asked me. She said that they were going to start working on the show, and would I like to be involved? I said yeah. They had a specific thing for me to do—to come out and do some interviews, some presenting stuff, and some promo stuff, and I said absolutely," Rollins recalls. His history with the venue—which has moved into larger spaces, and grown in stature and reputation, as Rollins's own career has evolved from "fan" to "Black Flag frontman" to "acclaimed spoken word artist"—dates back to his teen years. "I started going to the old 9:30 Club many years ago as a younger person. Then I returned there later, in 1981, as a performer in Black Flag. Black Flag did shows there, then the Rollins Band did shows there, on and on, until it moved. They got the new place, and I started doing my shows there."
That history matters—and it helps explain why the 9:30 Club is the venue that's playing host to the revival of the TV variety show format that'll be airing on PBS stations over the summer. Live At 9:30 is the brainchild of Michael Holstein, an executive at the production company the Content Farm, and 9:30 Club co-owner Seth Hurwitz. Holstein has a history of doing music on television, and after a chance encounter with Audrey Schaefer led her to pitch the idea of hosting a music show set at her venue, he decided that it would be his next project.
"It was an easy decision. It's the greatest club in the country," Holstein—a DC native, who grew up with the club, explains. And when the Content Farm and the venue started pursuing the idea, they realized that they didn't want to do an Austin City Limits-style show that booked bands into 9:30 for special TV appearances—rather, they wanted to try to capture what the venue actually does on a given night. "We hashed out a concept where we wouldn't do an Austin City Limits, but we'd do something super organic—we'd take you back on their existing bookings and have an almost fly-on-the-wall production quality where it's not upsetting the experience for the bands, for the staff, for the patrons, for anybody. The directive was to keep it organic and really give people a feel for what it's like to be at the club and offer a music show that's not like anything else on TV."
When Holstein describes it as an organic experience, he means it—he says that some of the performances they filmed, publicists and tour managers were confused because they didn't see any cameras. "They'd be like, 'Hey, I thought y'all were filming,' and then I have to point out where our little ninja camera people are." And because the 9:30 Club doesn't book exclusively music performances, bringing a show to television that was a true variety hour was part of keeping it organic.
To that end, Live At 9:30 is "about 80% music," according to Holstein—and the rest includes comedy features (in addition to Rollins, Hannibal Buress is one of the performers who appears this season), as well as short films, animation, and more. "It's an energetic hour," Holstein says. "We tried to create something that is true to the spirit of the club, but also speaks to the roots of music on TV." The goal is something that isn't a million miles away from Ed Sullivan, but with the personality of the venue. "We're calling it a modern variety show from America's greatest rock 'n roll club."
Setting up a camera crew in a world-class venue and just filming every performer that comes through the doors sounds like a recipe for a heck of a TV show, for sure, but how do you actually bring that to air? There are licensing and clearance issues, bands have their own agendas, and even a crew of "little ninja camera people" runs the risk of intruding on the experience for the people who bought tickets.
To start with, Holstein and his team made a not-for-broadcast sample reel that tapped the talents of two of the bigger-name acts that passed through the doors at the 9:30 Club—Alabama Shakes and Lord Huron—and then used that to show off for the artists they'd be pursuing for the show what it would actually look like.
"We were able to convince two really cool bands right off the break to let us film them, just to see how it looks and figure ourselves out—then once we had that reel, we approached bands first, working with either the publicist from the club or the talent buyer to say, 'Hey, we're doing this show, we'd love to film you. Is that cool?'" Holstein explains. "We're super artist-friendly, so if they say, 'Sure, but it's got to be only these six songs,' we can do that. Some bands are like, 'Yeah, absolutely, do whatever,' and others are more like, 'Yeah, you can do the first half hour, but we don't want anyone onstage,' so it's a give and take process."
The show shoots a lot more bands than it actually puts on the air—by the end of the first season of shooting, Holstein and his crew had shot 70 different bands for its 12 episodes. Some of them are bigger names—'80s post-punks The Jesus and Mary Chain, '90s alt-rockers Garbage, '00s indie rockers Cold War Kids, and more all appear—while others are rising young acts. And at some point in the process, as bands started learning what Holstein and crew were up to, they stopped having to ask bands for permission, and instead found themselves being courted by the artists who were coming through the venue.
"About a month or so into production, we hit this tipping point and went from begging bands, 'Hey, can we do this? We promise we won't screw it up' to them approaching us to say, 'Hey, we're booked at the club, would you mind filming our performance for the TV show?'" Holstein says.
Some bands are low-key about it—they just want the agreement and for the crew to get out of the way—while others have extensive pre-show meetings to determine how to get the exact performance everybody wants. But in addition to booking the bands, the key for Holstein in terms of capturing the atmosphere of the 9:30 Club—and the feel of a true variety show—is diversity.
"For each episode, it'll be four or five bands, and the bands will never be from the same genre of music, so we're careful in how we plot it out—it's like putting together a puzzle," Holstein says. The 9:30 Club does a lot of rock shows, but they could also host Willie Nelson, or Pusha T, and Holstein wants to capture that. "We're super respectful of the 9:30 brand, so we're not dictating content in any way, but we do want somebody tuned into the show to see Pusha T and Willie Nelson—we're hoping it's a discovery thing. I don't think the transitions between bands will ever be shocking. It's not like we go from a death metal band to a soft-country band, but we try to run the gamut of styles and find a way that they play nice together, even if it's not all the same thing. Luckily, they're booked probably 300 nights a year, so there's a wealth of options from which to choose."
The 9:30 Club matters, as Rollins and Holstein have said. Big names in music vouch for the venue—Dave Grohl, Ian Mackaye, Chuck D, and others testify to its greatness. And for their part of this partnership, the club itself wanted to make sure they were working with the right people, too. That's why the club's Audrey Schaefer pitched Holstein and the Content Farm for the show, rather than taking the first deal that came their way.
"The 9:30 Club has been approached I don't know how many times over the last handful of years to do TV projects, all of which we very easily said no to—they were usually the 'reality' type shows, which are not reality," Schaefer says. "We're in the business of entertainment, and taking people away from their lives, not the sausage-making part of the business. Those are really easy to say no to."
But when she ran into Holstein, they came up with an idea that worked for them in a different way—to spotlight the entertainment that comes through the club, rather than the club itself.
"There hasn't been anything like Ed Sullivan on TV in forever," she says. "So why not have something that's very fast-paced, that's mixed up so that you don't know what's going to be coming up next?"
Schaefer and Holstein worked on the idea for a couple of years and capturing the spirit of the club, rather than creating a narrative of what the club might be, was always at the heart of it. The venue matters—Dave Grohl played his first ever professional show at the 9:30 Club, according to Schaefer, and got his first record deal from someone who saw him play there—and Schaefer, who came to work at the venue later in life ("I was a corporate suit with the musical taste of a petulant 17-year-old," she says), wants to make sure that all of the things that made her fall in love with the club are present in the show.
"We don't want the night to be any different inside that room when we film than if we don't," she says. "We put signs up saying that tonight's being filmed, but what people love about it is that it's real. We felt pretty strongly about doing this with public television, because it meant that the hour would run uninterrupted and we wouldn't have a situation where somebody else was dictating that, because we're on X-network and they own a record label, we have to go with these artists, or a soda pop company is advertising, so we have to find a way to get a can of their soda on the stage."
To that end, Live At 9:30 was careful in choosing its sponsors. The show is underwritten largely by Squarespace, a company that Schaefer felt good about because the owner is young, and went to school in Maryland, so, she says, "I imagine he's actually gone to the club." The other sponsors—Shinola and Lagunitas Brewing Company—connect strongly, too. "These are all companies that are very entrepreneurial and independent and passionate about what they do, so it feels like just the right fit."
Ultimately, building a show around a venue like the 9:30 Club is an exercise in capturing a whole lot of things that came about in part by serendipity, and in part because of the hard work of a lot of people who care pretty deeply about creating a certain kind of experience. For Live At 9:30 to work, they have to bring all of that to the broadcast—and that goes from the sponsors to where the cameras are placed to how the shows are cut together to capture the diversity of the artists to the way those artists are treated by the crew to engaging the community that cares so deeply about the venue.
"I'm not a spiritual person, but what would make any venue more special than another?" Henry Rollins asks in response to a question about why the 9:30 Club matters to him. "It has to be the people. That's not just the audience, it's the people who run it. If the artists come into a hostile environment where there are no amenities and they're treated poorly, the show could suffer. Every band wants to be amazing on stage every night. All they want is to be great. The venue has a lot to do with helping that—and that's one of the things that makes the 9:30 Club special. I've been treated poorly in venues all over the world. It's my opinion that the people make the venue, and the 9:30 Club has that part down." And starting this week on public television stations around the country, they'll be able to show that to rest of the country.