In the 1990s, San Diego's live-music scene had a kind of Big Bang moment, growing from a sleepy seaside town into a scene that Spin magazine called "the next Seattle." Since then, a lot of the bands that prompted that description have gone (or returned, in the case of Rocket from the Crypt and Drive Like Jehu), but the scene has slowly expanded in other ways. In the late '80s, only a few clubs were hosting regular live music, including The Casbah, The Spirit Club and Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach. Today, there are more than five-dozen clubs in the city, many of which host live bands—both local and out-of-town—every night.
Bringing those out-of-town bands to San Diego is a fairly structured process. It usually begins with a booking agent, who'll ask the venue to hold a series of dates for their band, after which point the venue is expected to make an offer for how much the band will get paid. But before any of that is finalized, bookers like Soda Bar's Cory Stier will do research on the bands he's considering—including looking up Last.fm and Spotify streams, Facebook likes and live history.
"I field everything that's coming to me," Stier says. "We get a lot of inquiries, so I look for acts that I know, or have a feeling, will pack the place."
Getting to the point where you can predict what band will sell out a 200-capacity club like Soda Bar takes some time. Tim Mays, owner of The Casbah, who's been booking shows in San Diego since the 1980s, says he likes to bring bands to San Diego early in their careers and then continue to help build their audience here to a point where they're able to sell out the club and eventually move to bigger venues, the booking of which often happens in conjunction with The Casbah. He offers an example of what happens when that practice is successful.
"Spoon played here in the '90s to 30 or 40 people," he says. "And now their show at the Observatory sold out in a day."
In some ways, there are advantages to booking bands early in their careers. Because they're still hungry for exposure, they're more likely to want to hit up as many cities as they can, while some acts might not make it to San Diego on a tour. Mario Orduno, who books shows for The Hideout—and got his start putting on house shows as a teenager—likes to seek out up-and-coming bands, both because they want to come to San Diego and because he often books bands that interest him personally.
"Basically, I have to know I want to see all the bands," Orduno says. "I want to be exposed to bands."
Not every band that plays in San Diego will return every time, however. Certain external factors sometimes get in the way. Occasionally, a nearby festival like Coachella will have bands sign a contract with a "radius clause," which stipulates that bands can't play or promote nearby shows within a certain amount of time. Likewise, when some bands play Los Angeles, they'll keep the next evening open for media appearances, like performances on late-night TV, instead of heading south to play here.
Then again, sometimes a band just plays a show to an empty room, and when that happens, they'll occasionally tell another band that playing in San Diego might not be worth their time.
"When bands have bad shows, they talk about it with other bands," Orduno says. "It's a bummer, but it happens."
Stier adds that San Diego can be an "elusive market," because the music scene is small in proportion to the city. Because most people have regular jobs and have to be up early in the morning, he says it's important to consider booking bands that have a wider appeal—bands that might bring in the person who's not already out in clubs every night.
"You have to think of it like that person," he adds. "You can't just count on the kids that are in the know."
Booking local bands can be equally important for venues in San Diego, because they often have built-in followings and can bring more people to shows. So, Mays says he likes to put local bands on bills as openers instead of touring support acts, noting that the money is better spent on a band with a local draw.
But the bookers stress that local bands still have to put in work. Stier says the music should come first, but it's almost as important to have a good name, a proper website and some money saved up for a decent demo recording. Mays adds that simply playing at The Casbah isn't enough to bring people to the club.
"We promote, but you have to promote, too," he says. "You have to get people to come see you. Find like-minded bands. Bring friends. And don't book shows locally three times a week."
Booking live music is a business, and with any business, there's risk. The bottom line for Mays, Orduno and Stier—and every other booker in town—is to minimize that risk as much as possible. But because booking music involves being a fan in the first place, that sometimes means disappointment when it doesn't work out.
"The biggest bummer is when there's a band I really like and show presales are low and turnout is not really good," Stier says. On the other hand, it's just as encouraging to see an up-and-coming band gain momentum.
"It's exciting to watch bands rise," he adds. "It's totally fun."