Buying talent: Paul McGuigan, House of Blues

The House of Blues recently brought Santana onboard for a two-year residency.
Photo: Erik Kabik/

The talent buyer for the Sunset Strip House of Blues took over the same duties for the Las Vegas location in 2010 and has booked both locations since.

Two years in, how much has changed for you here?

There’s no doubt that electronic music is much bigger now than it was two years ago, and I think all the live venues have lost a little bit of business to clubs in general. It’s not just the nightclub crowd that goes to nightclubs now. I think there’s a lot more people in general who are paying attention to EDM and want to have that experience.

Hopefully, I’ll be announcing a new partnership shortly with a Las Vegas promoter we’re looking to work with a little bit closer to bridge that [EDM] gap. But part of the EDM experience is the experience itself. Going to watch DJs play is inherently one of the most boring things in the world, and I say that as a DJ. We’re standing up there, mixing tunes, and it’s not the most entertaining thing to watch. What makes it an enjoyable experience are the props, the lighting … and that works very well in a nightclub rather than what I would call a theater setting. So I don’t see us really being able to compete with that. It’s like going to Electric Daisy Carnival—it’s as much as about the experience as it is about the actual performers. So I think it’s not smart for House of Blues to try to compete against buildings that are gonna gut themselves every six, eight, 12 months and pour another few million dollars into the place and deliver that experience. That’s just not what we’re about. But we still do try to book the more niche stuff and definitely the stuff that crosses over into the live performance world. That’s where House of Blues, I think, still has a foot in the door with that kind of stuff.

Another thing that I see being a little bit different from two years ago, artists as always are getting paid a little bit more money as the years go by, and I don’t see quite as much price resistance in Vegas as I did two years ago. I’m not saying I’m looking to raise ticket prices across the board, but if an artist is charging me more money than he or she did last time, and I have to raise a ticket price, I don’t really see it having a big effect on the ticket sales.

The Kid Rock shows earlier this year were a bench test for me to figure out what people are willing to pay to see an artist in a small room. I charged a pretty healthy amount for those tickets, and they blew out. Here’s a guy you would think would play Mandalay Bay Events Center, and you get to see him in a club. That was a big part of my education and my learning experience, as far as what I can charge for a ticket to deliver a certain sort of experience.

Band guarantees dictate the ticket prices. If I could sell every show for $20, I’d do it. I make money off the food and beverage component, so it’s in my best interest to get as many people into the club as possible.

Have you seen any change in the local audience?

I’m encouraged about booking some of the Coachella-style bands [Madness and Squeeze] and getting a good response to them. I think it’s cool that when I had Ghost come through on the Mastodon/Opeth bill, there were a lot of people there to see Ghost early. People were paying attention and were getting it.

Do you still have to explain to agents that certain kinds of music won’t go over here the way they do in LA?

Absolutely. A lot of the artists that play House of Blues Las Vegas are playing 4,000 seaters in other markets. … But that’s the beauty of it. If you’re in Vegas and you see the act playing at the House of Blues, you’re not gonna be 100 yards away from the stage.

How has the Cosmopolitan affected an already-competitive market?

If the Cosmopolitan really wants a show, they’ll absolutely outbid everybody in the market. I can’t compete with the money the Cosmopolitan offers if they want something bad enough. … The House of Blues is a stand-alone club inside a casino; it’s not part of the casino. So I don’t have a budget where the casino says, “Hey go out and get me the best band you can for $50,000.” If I’ve gotta pay a band $50,000, I’ve got to figure out how I can make that $50,000 and cover my expenses and make some profit based on the show itself.

Mandalay Bay does benefit from having House of Blues customers onsite, though. Are there never cases where they help subsidize a given show?

What the hotel brings to the table is more on the marketing side of things, Santana being a perfect example. We’re working hand-in-hand with the hotel. And if we didn’t, we wouldn’t have nearly as much advertising and marketing as you see around town. That’s the hotel’s contribution. Having a marquee up by the baggage claim. Helping us get on the cover of M Life magazine. That’s those guys helping me out in a big way.

Let’s talk Santana. As different as the HOB residency might be from what Santana did at the Joint, were you at all concerned that folks who saw the Joint show might not come back for yours?

It’s not having an effect, and I do think a lot of locals are coming back to see the show for a second or even a third time, because it is a very different experience. At House of Blues you’re so much closer to Carlos himself. The worst seat in the house is closer than the midpoint in the Joint. It really is about the intimacy of seeing Carlos on that stage. The cheapest ticket in the house is the general admission ticket, and that gets you the closest to the stage. That’s an experience you can’t have when Carlos comes to the Hollywood Bowl or plays an arena. So it’s not as tough a sell to locals as one might think.

The other thing is, Las Vegas is still one of the greatest destination spots in the country. So it’s not so much that I’m trying to get the Las Vegas local to go see Santana for the third time. I’m also trying to get the guy from Cleveland, who’s flying in for the weekend, to go see Santana. I think we see a really nice mix of locals and tourists, but it definitely leans heavier on the tourists.

Let’s not forget what the House of Blues was founded on—blues and rock ’n’ roll. We’re always trying to book the next cool, hip thing, but there’s nothing wrong with paying respect to the club’s roots with an artist like Santana. It’s not us throwing our hands up and saying we’re not invested in those other worlds or we don’t wanna do those other shows. But where better to see Santana than the House of Blues?

You never wanna fall into a rut and just book the same stuff over and over again. I think Carlos brings a nice balance to it, a nice mixture. To be able to have a Carlos Santana show, and then some Steel Panther shows and a Jesus Mary Chain show and a Volbeat show all in the same couple of weeks, that’s a nice, diverse schedule.

Knowing you’re covered four nights a week must be nice, but having that on the calendar must make booking other acts tricky.

I’ve lost a few shows already that I couldn’t do because we had Santana dates, but that was a calculated risk. Some things we just can’t do, and that’s okay. But also, it’s nice to know how your year is gonna unfold.

Those shows you passed on, did you see them pop up elsewhere?

Absolutely. The artists didn’t skip the market; they just went and played someplace else. It’s pretty weird that a band will skip the market because one particular room is not available, and that goes for all the properties.

Reading back through our last interview [June 2010], Animal Collective had just played House of Blues and drew better than most of us expected, and it felt like HOB might start booking more indie bands as a result. Why hasn’t that happened?

The good news is, I actually have Animal Collective coming back, on September 25.

But if Band X is worth $25,000, and I know they’re worth $25,000, and there’s another property that’s gonna give them $75,000, how can I compete with that? It’s impossible. But with a lot of those kinds of deals, at some point the money’s gonna dry up. You just can’t operate like that forever and ever.

House of Blues is having a good year. We had a good year last year, but the difference is that summer is busier for us. I’ll probably do more shows in July than I’ve done in any other month, whereas last year I did five shows in July.

With the sort of competitive bidding you described, has Las Vegas gone from a market where bookers were once able to get an act at a discount to one where agents expect their clients to get more than in other cities?

You’re absolutely right. Vegas is not considered a secondary market by any stretch of the imagination. Vegas is, to an agent, a manager, an artist, a major metropolitan city, and they want to be paid as if they’re playing in a major metropolitan city. You don’t get those breaks the way you might have five years ago.

I book both Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and the deals are very, very similar. Sometimes Vegas is even a little bit more, because the capacity is slightly higher than the LA club but also because there’s a lot of competition out there. Agents figure if this guy’s offering me X, you should be able to get close to it. Or maybe we’ll get you in a bidding war kind of situation. And that goes back to my other point: I don’t have an infinite pool of money. The shows have to live and breathe on their own. They have to be profitable.

Do you envision having more residencies at House of Blues?

I’m definitely looking into it. I would like to do more residencies around the Santana dates, when Carlos is out of town. That’s one of the things at the top of my list right now, looking for other artists who want to settle down in Vegas for a while and be able to make their nut for the year at the Las Vegas House of Blues. Then the rest of the dates they do are gravy.

Are some acts too small for the House of Blues?

I hate to say no to anything. But a developing artist who’s only gonna draw a couple hundred people is tough to do in the room. You try to close the mezzanine, you try to cut your expenses down to a reasonable level, but even with the mezzanine closed we’re still 1,100-plus. And it’s not good for anyone to play to 300 people in that size of a room. It’s not a great experience for the artist, and it’s not financially feasible for the club.

But of course, I’ll sometimes take those risks. When we book the local shows, we do it because we’re interested in developing local talent. And we all know that a local show’s not gonna do 1,000 people.

It really just comes down to the finances. If we can make a deal work that’s right for everybody—and we’re not gonna give people, whether it be the artist or the audience, a bad experience—then yeah, absolutely, we’re interested in doing it as a show.

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Spencer Patterson

Spencer Patterson is the Editor of Las Vegas Weekly, having previously served as Managing Editor, Arts & Entertainment Editor and ...

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