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Weekly Q&A: Hard Rock Live’s Andrew Courtney developed a niche music venue on the Strip

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Fnding his niche: Andrew Courtney has booked left-of-center acts like Deerhunter and Os Mutantes at Hard Rock Live.
Photo: L.E. Baskow

When he was 16, Andrew Courtney was booking bands in Washington, D.C. When he was 23, he was managing Bruce Springsteen’s star-studded guest lists. But none of those tasks compared to the challenge he faced at 29: booking a concert venue in one of the most competitive—and unpredictable—music markets in the country. But since 2009, the special events manager has made Hard Rock Live, the third-floor club inside the Strip’s Hard Rock Cafe, a destination to see on-the-rise talent (ahem, Imagine Dragons) and cult acts.

Where did your passion for music start? I started doing shows in high school. I grew up in the suburbs of [Washington,] D.C., I was way into the ska/punk scene. Me and a buddy had one of Less Than Jake’s first CDs, and their phone number was on the back, and we didn’t know that calling it would go straight to the drummer of the band. We called them up, said, “Hey, you’ve never been to D.C. before; how can we set up a show?” He said, “Talk to our booking agent, but we’d love to come.” We talked this coffee shop into renting the place out, we passed out dubbed tapes with two of their songs, made the fliers at Kinko’s—just doing it ourselves.

When it was time to go to college, I really didn’t want to, I thought I was already doing what I wanted to do. But my parents talked me into it, so I got into NYU, which had a music business major at the time. I thought, that’s gonna be a great place to start a career. So I moved to New York City, and somehow, right after college, I landed the dream job and went on tour with Bruce Springsteen doing ticketing, guestlists and hotel events. I was 23 years old, and here I am, flying out to London. The guest list that night included all these huge, huge people. I stuck with that for awhile.

Any memorable moments from the road? There were times I’d be running tickets back and forth from the box office to the seats and the stage. Being in the stadium at Barcelona, watching 70,000 people singing along to every word when they don’t even know English but knowing the power of [Springsteen’s] music—there were times like that where I had to pinch myself. It was a great time.

What did you do after that? Toward the end, I was living in New York City, and I wanted to try something new. I was on and off the road for six years. I loved the 24-hour aspect and being in a new spot, new town, new venue every day. But being at the same venue every day, with acts coming in and out, that appealed to me. My wife and I were trying to figure out a place to start up and try something new. She went to Green Valley High and had lots of friends and relatives [in Vegas]. At the time, it seemed like a good time to buy a house here. [Shortly thereafter], they were opening [the Hard Rock Cafe] up, and after a bunch of interviews I landed this job. I started in March of 2009, but we didn’t open until September.

What were the initial challenges of opening a third Hard Rock-branded location in Las Vegas? It was tough to figure out what we’d actually do [with the third-floor venue], being a new kid on the block—especially in a city where Hard Rock already had such a big name— explaining the new spot to people, and getting our foot in the door to book some of the bigger acts.

And people were confusing your operation with the Hard Rock Cafe on Paradise and the adjacent, separately owned Hard Rock Hotel. We had bands [mistakenly] show up at the Joint. We had guests show up there all the time. We still do a little bit.

Did the advantages balance things out? Yeah. Having this location on the Strip was a selling point to the bands. That definitely helped out when it was tougher talking them into playing here.

What was the first booking or show that validated you taking the job? Early on we struck a really good partnership with the Las Vegas Jam Band Society. We had our first meeting at the Paradise [Hard Rock] Cafe before this one was even open. Our first ticketed show up there was [Grateful Dead tribute act] Dark Star Orchestra, which is a great band. They have this history in Las Vegas, and that paved the way. Taking to agents and managers, all they want to know is who else played there. Starting to put together that track record was key to our success.

When did you think you hit your stride? It took a minute, well into 2010. We had a good run of monthly shows with Area 107.9-FM at the time. The Presidents of the USA played here, Eve 6 played here. They were totally packed and they were free—it was like, come in and check us out. That, I think, really exposed Las Vegas to the venue.

What had made you stick with booking mostly niche acts, be it the jam bands or the dubstep DJs? It’s been a mix of things. To have a space that can act as each genre’s clubhouse, for [acts and fans] to feel at home at our venue, is what we’re trying to create—to have a metal show, and then another one booked a month out, and let those people know that we love all types of music.

Skrillex was one of the first bass-music events we had here [in June 2011]. That was due to our partnership with Frequency Events. It’s those [promoter] partnerships, I think, that have been the key to our success.

What makes a risky booking worth it—especially the indie bands? I know people are going to be so stoked that a certain band is playing Las Vegas. Deerhunter’s [August 2013 concert at the Hard Rock] was their first Las Vegas show, and they’ve been around for about 12 years. Even with only a few hundred people in the room, there was still so much energy. With the space up there, you can have 300 or 1,200 people, and based on the way it’s laid out it still feels busy and like there’s energy in the room.

I was very happy after that show. [Deerhunter’s band members] came up to me and couldn’t thank us enough for the hospitality they got when they were here and how good it sounded while they were onstage. Sometimes that means more than the place being packed, to know that a band that spends 300 days out on the road felt at home and comfortable here.

And they’ll remember that when it considering a return on the next tour. Right. And that’s another thing. So many bands have come back here. Moe has played here three times. New Found Glory has played here a couple times. People know they have a lot of choices here in Las Vegas, and for a band to choose to come back here—it’s not always about money or the highest offer. It’s where they want to showcase their music to the fans.

Is the scene here too cutthroat? [Speaking] as a music fan, you can see any of time of music you want. But the competition definitely makes my job tough, to know that there’s that many venues in town, that there’s more opening next month and at the end of the year, and for the places that are already up, there’s offers already out there. Sometimes we’ll get outbid from a place I didn’t even know existed. So it’s creating those relationships with the agencies and the bands and showing them that this is the place they’ll feel most comfortable.

How often do you get to see shows outside Hard Rock Live? [It’s hard to see shows] between all the stuff going on here and having two kids at home and the nights where I’m just tired. I recently saw Elvis Costello and The Roots at Brooklyn Bowl. The venue was beautiful, and the show was amazing. I had a great time. I saw Jimmy Eat World at House of Blues. I’ve liked them for a very long time.

I’m a fan of a lot of bands that played here, like Crosses. [Its March 28 concert] was such an amazing show, from the lights they had set up to just the intensity of the performance and the crowd. It was packed, not sold out. But the people in Las Vegas wait until the last minute to buy tickets. I think that’s the case in a lot of cities now, but especially in Las Vegas. That was a nail-biter. There’s nights where I can’t fall asleep, because I’m thinking, who are we not getting this [show] information out to? That was one of those cases where we did everything possible, and then at the last second, everyone showed up. It was a triumphant night.

How will Hard Rock Live evolve going forward? I think renaming the venue Hard Rock Live last year did a lot for us, not only to differentiate our space from the other Hard Rock properties in town, but giving the third floor its own identity. That was a very exciting moment. There are only a handful of Hard Rock Lives throughout the world, so for our space to be designated as one, I was very proud that day.

It’s also keeping a diverse calendar, and making sure there are shows that are all-ages and 18-and-up. There aren’t a lot of places in the city where that’s being done. And you can’t wait on putting in that offer or seeing what will come to you. I have to actively be out there every single day because there are so many great venues in town. It’s crazy—every time it seems we’re hitting our stride, there’s curveballs that keep getting thrown.

There’s no rhyme or reason to the way a show will play out. There’s so many U.K. tourists and European travelers in town that the few times [Scottish] band Biffy Clyro has played here, they’ve put on amazing shows. So many people from overseas were just walking by, saw the billboard, and said, “I cannot believe Biffy Clyro is playing on the Las Vegas Strip for $15.” They’re playing arena and stadiums out there, and to see a band like that with such intensity in such a small room, it’s like if someone here saw Foo Fighters in the same space.

What we do upstairs caters to locals. I’d say 60 and 70 percent of the crowd are locals, but there are some shows, like Biffy Clyro, where it’s just the opposite. Talking people into coming out to the Strip was tough at first. It’s like Times Square in New York City—you don’t go down there unless someone’s visiting or it’s something you do not want to miss. So we try and have shows that people wouldn’t want to miss.

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