During his six-year run as head talent buyer for Las Vegas’ House of Blues, Max McAndrew cemented the venue’s standing as a hub for consistently varied live performance. With McAndrew just off to Northern California to book the San Jose Civic Auditorium, the task of carrying on the HOB’s Vegas tradition passes to LA’s Paul McGuigan, talent buyer for the House of Blues’ Sunset Strip location and onetime booker/manager for the Troubadour. We caught up with the 37-year-old McGuigan, now charged with filling HOBs in two states simultaneously, by phone from his SoCal office.
To give us an idea of your personal tastes, what are some of your favorite acts?
I’m a DJ myself, and currently I’m into a style of music called dubstep that comes out of London; that’s a really exciting new genre. But traditionally, everything from The Ramones to Massive Attack sums it up.
Do you get to Las Vegas much?
I try to come out a few times a month, whether it be to cover the bigger shows or just to work out of the Vegas office. We’ve got a great team of people out there, and I don’t want to just be a voice on the speakerphone to them.
How tough is it booking two venues at once?
It’s not as crazy as you would think. There’s only so many [booking] agents, so you’re talking to the same core people. And a lot of the shows that play Anaheim play Los Angeles play Las Vegas play San Diego play Dallas …
Do you have an overall booking philosophy?
My philosophy is pretty intertwined with the House of Blues’ philosophy: unity through diversity. I think the key to success is to have a very diverse calendar—to do a metal show one night, an R&B show the next, a punk-rock show after that, then maybe some blues. People in one scene can’t afford to go out that much.
In booking Vegas, are you primarily concerned with year-round residents or tourists?
I probably think about the local population 60-70 percent of the time and the tourists 30-40 percent. One of the first things I do when I’m considering offering a band a show is take a look at their radio play in the Las Vegas market and their Soundscan [retail album sales] numbers, and obviously, tourists aren’t the ones listening to the radio in Vegas and buying records in the local retail stores.
How central is radio play to the overall booking equation in 2009?
I look at a combination of things, and radio play and Soundscan are just a small part of it. I look at the overall national picture; it’s not like Vegas is some isolated place that isn’t affected by national trends. I also have a team of people who are very intertwined in the Las Vegas community. When the kids come up to the guy working the door and say, “Hey, when is so-and-so playing?” I wanna know about that.
Metal, punk and pop-punk and hip-hop and R&B seem to have been the longtime anchors for the room. Is that still the case?
Yeah, I think so, and I think those are the bread and butter for a lot of markets. You’re talking about music based around a demographic [of] 18 to 35, and those, for the most part, are the people who go to shows. If I book something that’s targeted at a 50-to-65-year-old audience on a Monday night, I’m in trouble, because they have jobs and careers and families. If I book a Norwegian black metal show on a Monday night, chances are it’s gonna do much better.
Vegas doesn’t have a great reputation for supporting indie or underground acts, but Animal Collective just drew 1,500-plus last month. Does that encourage you to head further in that direction?
Absolutely. It’s no secret that the Internet changed everything; you don’t need to live in Los Angeles or New York to know about the cool, cutting-edge bands anymore. So yeah, I’d like to see the club host more of those kind of shows, the more contemporary, breaking style bands.
In response to my Animal Collective show review, I received an e-mail that asked, “How do we get Grizzly Bear, Fleet Foxes, TV on the Radio, LCD Soundsystem, Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, Antony & The Johnsons and the like to play in Las Vegas?” Do you see that stuff working at House of Blues Vegas?
Yeah, those bands tour across the United States, why can’t they stop in Vegas? There seems to be a void in the Vegas market, and I’d like to fill that void, in a sense, by booking those cutting-edge bands. Yet at the same time, the House of Blues is not an inexpensive place to do a show, so I have to be fiscally responsible and try to figure a way to manage the costs in the room, keep the ticket prices as low as possible and give these shows a chance. If I’m gonna do a show that’s gonna cost me $25,000 to break even on, I’ve gotta be very careful. That’s a struggle, I think, for any booker—to try to balance cool, credible acts with profitability. But I don’t think those bands need to skip Las Vegas. I think that there’s a market out there for them.
It seems like HOB Vegas is refocusing on comedy of late, or is that just coincidence?
There’s definitely been an initiative inside House of Blues venues since Live Nation and House of Blues merged to do more comedy. Live Nation is a big producer of comedy tours, so I’d like to leverage the fact that we are part of the Live Nation family to get those comedy tours to stop in Las Vegas and play the House of Blues.
You’ve also done local shows in the main room. Will that continue?
Absolutely. That’s something that I’ve asked my assistant, Homie Pooser, to work with me on—putting together a series of local shows. I absolutely want to see bands have an opportunity to grow from that Courtyard room to the main room and do bigger shows with full production.
Is there any style of music that, either because of the relationship with Live Nation or because the House of Blues is inside Mandalay Bay, is too extreme to book, be it hardcore, gangsta rap or whatever?
You’ve gotta be aware of what you’re doing and the crowd you’re bringing in. I don’t want to book a show that’s gonna have fights spill out into the casino; that’s no good for anybody. But there’s not too many bands that are doing House of Blues-sized rooms that are causing that kind of trouble. You’ve already been identified as a troublemaker at the 500-and-below mark before you ever rise up to that level. I don’t turn my back to any particular artist just because of a label, but I definitely pay attention to their previous shows and the kind of crowd they attract and make an educated decision based on that.
I’ve noticed a few more dark nights than usual on the concert calendar. Is that attributable to the bad economy?
Part of it is just the transition between my coming in and Max leaving. That’s a little bit of it. And in the summertime, you’re competing with a lot of outdoor venues and with a lot of package tours, like the Warped Tour, which sucks up 30 club headliners. Summertime is tough in the clubs in general.
Has the economy been tricky to contend with as a booker?
Undeniably, people are being more conscious with their spending money, so it’s been tougher. People are still going to shows; they’re just being smarter about what shows they’re going to see. Instead of going to see two shows a month, maybe they’re going to see one show every two months. But people don’t want to sit around the house and be bummed out all day about the fluctuation in housing prices. At some point you need an escape, and what better escape than to submerge yourself in an evening of music?
Are ticket prices and booking guarantees dropping?
I see ticket prices coming down a little, because the artists are very cognizant of how many other acts are out there playing. There’s no other way for bands to make money with the state of the music business in general. So, instead of coming through Vegas once a year, now maybe they’re coming through two times, three times a year, and they know they can’t charge as much [per visit]. And guarantees and ticket prices are absolutely tied in together.
The Vegas House of Blues competes with the Pearl at the Palms, the Joint and Wasted Space at the Hard Rock, Station Casinos, hotel pool concerts, the Downtown clubs and larger arenas like the MGM Grand and Mandalay Bay, among others. Has that taken some getting used to for you?
Vegas is an incredibly competitive market, part of the reason being the whole nightclub culture, where I’ll have to compete against an ultralounge sending in almost equal money for artist X to get up and sing two songs from the DJ booth as we’d need to pay them to play a full show at the House of Blues. House of Blues is a venue based upon ticket sales, not based upon gaming. So if I’m offering someone $50,000 to play, I need to sell $50,000 worth of tickets to break even on the show. I’m not focused on selling bottles for $350 apiece or having people walk out into the lobby and drop a few dimes at the blackjack table. I’m expected to make money on the door as well as make some money on the bar. If I can even break even on the door, then that’s not so bad. But I can’t afford to lose money on the show in hopes of making it up somewhere else in the building.
To close, what would you say to music fans here wondering what we can expect at House of Blues Las Vegas under your watch?
I’d say more shows in general. And again, expanding the genres of music that we book. And trying to get some of the cutting-edge, hipper acts. And perhaps a lot more U.K. bands stopping through. Also, I’d like to see us making an investment in the DJ world. Although I’m not gonna be able to compete against a lot of the clubs out there, I definitely want to see the House of Blues Vegas more involved in the electronica world.