A VERY GOOD YEAR: Merriweather Post Pavilion hosted a sold-out Phish show on July 30. (James Hendershot photo)
I.M.P.’s Hurwitz Takes Nothing For Granted
The Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland, had its biggest ticket-selling year in its 55-year history in 2022, but no one is popping corks at the shed.
“I can tell you how I celebrated, by warning everyone that next year is not necessarily going to be a repeat,” said a pragmatic Seth Hurwitz, chairman of I.M.P., which has operated and programmed the venue since 2004. “People ask me all the time, ‘Are you happy at sellouts?’ And I’m like, ‘Happy about what?’ I’m more concerned about the next show.”
Make no mistake, Hurwitz is pleased to have sold 443,000 tickets for 40 shows in 2022. The closest selling year was 1985, when the venue had 48 shows, including two nights each of The Grateful Dead, Deep Purple and Men at Work. He understands the cyclical nature of the live business — especially emerging from COVID-19 and the cascade of business that came when venues reopened.
“People were stuck inside and they couldn’t wait to get out,” Hurwitz explained. “I saw this coming. The big indicator was during the period where we started offering refunds on moving dates and 80 percent of people kept their tickets.”
I.M.P. is an independent concert promotion and production company, but Hurwitz said the Merriweather is open to outside promoters, including Live Nation, AEG and local promoters. “We try to make it work for whoever wants to play there,” Hurwitz said. “That’s a big part of the big numbers.”
The strong lineup of shows that included Phish, Kenny Chesney, Maren Morris, John Mulaney, Chris Stapleton, Rod Stewart and the All Things Go festival drove high attendance.
“People love live music and the streaming thing was never going to be a replacement for it; and never satisfy that same desire,” Hurwitz said. “Sure enough, people came out. I can’t imagine, especially with the financial headlines you read, that this is infinitely sustainable. I think it’s a great year but if you assume next year is going to be the same, you are asking for trouble.”
Jean Parker, general manager of the Merriweather Post Pavilion likened the surge and success to another period in U.S. history. “2022 was our Roaring ‘20s,” she said. “Everything is cyclical and we were able to provide that great escape for the artists and the audience.”
This isn’t an infinity talent pool and Hurwitz is focused on what happens next at the venue, a 10-acre property surrounded by a natural park. Keeping the venue fresh and compelling for visitors and artists is an ongoing effort. The philosophy has been to make sure added amenities don’t become unnecessary distractions.
Over the past eight years, I.M.P. has invested $59 million to upgrade seating, and food service and build a swimming pool for artists and production enhancements that literally raised the roof an additional 20 feet. In 2022, they added a whimsical art instillation with sculptures of performance alums Dolly Parton, Robert Plant and Miles Davis by French visual artist F. Bernard Pras.
“I think what makes a difference at Merriweather is that when people go, they can feel that the people running this venue are excited about it, too,” Hurwitz said. “People who come to Merriweather every year, they have to feel comforted by the familiarity, but excited by new things.”
Parker, who joined the amphitheater in 1977, said Merriweather was a diamond in the rough until Hurwitz took over the facility.
“The woods that circle us make us unique and with all the improvements, Merriweather is to the point now where it is a concert oasis,” she said.
The SkyLawn is among the most popular features with terraced roof-top platforms providing excellent sight lines. From the stage, the design creates a vertical wall of people.
“We thought, ‘Oh, people would pay top dollar to have one of these,’ but let’s make it part of the lawn seats and first come, first served,’” Hurwitz said. “It’s more egalitarian and Merriweather is not another place where you have to pay more for nicer (amenities).”
Parker said, “It creates that atmosphere, that energy that is created by that additional level up into the sky, up into the stars. When the whole band is playing, they are looking out they see fans out to the horizon, whether it is sold out or not.”
Apart from the main venue, Chrysalis at Merriweather Park is a 5,000-capacity stage nestled in a wooded area near the Pavilion. The $10 million facility opened in 2017.
Designed with no sound bleed over from the main stage, the additional stage provides a home for the annual All Things Go Music Festival, which was held Oct. 1 with 16 acts, including Lorde and Mitski. Rooted in inclusivity, the festival features female headliners since 2018.
“We have to be different,” Hurwitz explained. “If we book everything that is thrown at us we are going to look like every other festival and we can’t do that. We can’t have Merriweather look like any other venue.”
Booking talent for the venue and festival is Zhubin Aghamolla. He said people who released music during the pandemic and right after were eager to perform. While the hectic pace is easing up, Aghamolla is booking shows one year out including Arctic Monkeys, set for Sept. is 7, 2023.
Hurwitz said that with the success of the past year, there is even more reason to be cautious about bookings. “There’s every reason to be careful and not fall into that trap and think that no matter what you book, it’s going to do OK,” Hurwitz said. “Let’s be careful here and not make assumptions.”
Aghamolla and Hurwitz have a considerable arsenal of information beyond streaming data to make informed decisions.
Hurwitz is owner of the 9:30 Club and The Anthem and I.M.P operates the historic Lincoln Theatre. The roster of music outlets has earned a reputation for developing artists and launching careers. In September 2021, when Foo Fighters were reopening the 9:30 Club after 18 months of the pandemic shutdown, Dave Grohl announced that a new, $10 million smaller venue in the vein of the original 9:30 which will open adjacent to the current concert hall.
The options provide artists maximum flexibility to build an audience in the market.
“When we work with them at our smaller venues, we are able to not only see their sales we go to the shows,” said Hurwitz. “When I go to a show, I’m looking at the audience and because we were able to control how an act was promoted early, we know we have taught the audience in D.C. who that act is.”
Whether an artist plays the Merriweather Post Pavilion and The Anthem, it’s all about serving their best interests.
“If a show does well, we make money at either venue,” Hurwitz said. “We don’t have an agenda like that. We want the best thing for an artist at this moment and if you choose carefully, you do well now and for the next time.”