The 9:30 Club is the best music club venue in the United States, hands down. Don’t take my word for it. Since its founding in the early 80s, the Washington, DC, landmark has been awarded best nightclub of the year by Billboard magazine and Pollstar multiple times.
More importantly, ask any band that’s played there and they’ll affirm its premiere reputation for fostering talent and for creating an optimum environment for artists to perform. The club features not only stellar sound, sight lines and atmosphere, but homey touches for artists including showers, bunks and a place to do laundry.
Donna Westmoreland is the Chief Operating Officer of the 9:30 Club and its parent company, I.M.P. Productions. I first met Donna when I was starting out at WHFS in Washington in the early 90s. We caught up with her from the offices of I.M.P. to talk about the concert industry and her rise to the top at the legendary club, named after its original location at 930 F St.
Weeping Elvis: How did you get involved with the 9:30 club to the point where you are now running it?
Donna Westmoreland: I decided when I finished school that instead of going to law school, that I was going to get into the music business. That was as clearly defined as it was. I loved music and I was going to get into the business. I went out to LA to try to find a job in the business and I couldn’t at all. I came home with my tail in between my legs. I was always waiting tables or tending bar to make ends meet. I got a job working for Wynton Marsalis’s manager through a temp company, and they ended up hiring me full time. I was Ed Arrednell’s [Wynton’s manager] assistant. I would do all kinds of different things like calling Wynton in Japan and waking him up, typical management things, whatever needed to be done. I started to become known as “Ed’s Girl.” [But] I was “the assistant” and I didn’t like that.
I didn’t want to be an assistant. I decided to get management on my resume. So I took my restaurant business experience and started to manage restaurants. I ended up quitting that and following a boy to the beach for the summer. At the end of the summer I came back and I had to get a job. I looked in the classifieds and saw an ad for a bar manager at the 9:30 Club. The ad said “Needs to like music and needs to know the bar business” and I said, “That’s me.” I drove down to DC and kind of camped out and asked for the job interview and gave them the business answers that they wanted and I was hired as the bar manager.
WE: You’ve seen a lot of shows at the 9:30 Club (the original club and newer one). Tell me about some of your more memorable shows. This doesn’t have to be your all-time favorite list!
DW: Well, I’m going to date myself here. 2 Live Crew played the club during all their controversy. Ice-T played at Ritchie Coliseum [on the campus of University of Maryland] when he was with Body Count. We were doing shows there and that show was during the whole “fuck the police” stuff and that was a big deal. The campus police were there protesting. We also did an amazing Pearl Jam show at Ritchie Coliseum, right after Ten came out. That was just phenomenal.
Nine Inch Nails were at the original Club. The whole club, your readers might not know, was a tiny room with a corner stage and pole in the middle of the room in front of the stage. It was 199 capacity and we would sell 350 tickets. Nine Inch Nails came in on Pretty Hate Machine with more production than had ever come into that room. It was phenomenal. For two days it was all hands on deck. Everybody that worked there was there just doing stuff trying to get the show up. It was an amazing, amazing show.
The first year of the new club  we did the two nights of The Smashing Pumpkins. We gave away tickets in the HFS parking lot, if you remember?
WE: I vividly remember that. And the show was amazing!
DW: Remember the snowstorm [after the show]?
DW: We did Johnny Cash at the Warner Theatre and at the club too. The Warner show was the only autograph I ever got: Johnny Cash. I like some of the smaller more esoteric shows. Sam Phillips played the old club. She did an absolutely amazing show, that was great fun. We did the Voters for Choice press conference at that old club. Eddie Vedder was there, Gloria Steinem and I think maybe even Jenny Toomey from Tsunami was there.
WE: Those are some amazing memories.
DW: I haven’t even gotten into the Scott Weiland stories, but those are probably better told over a beer.
WE: The club is doing great and it’s so well known and so well respected. I hear artists talk about the change in the industry being it’s not about selling records but about the live show. What changes have you seen?
DW: Touring is where artists make their money now, so it is taken much more seriously. It used to be you would tour in support of a record. You would get money from the label to help underwrite the tour. It’s so much more serious now. There’s real skin in the game. It’s probably been good for the industry — it’s made it more professional, but some of my fondest memories go back to when it was a lot more loosey-goosey. Now it’s a lot more buttoned up and professional. It’s commerce, so the conversations are often more about business than music.
Part of what the club does so well though is to protect the customer from the commerce part of things. We have people that work there that love the music and it’s as important to them that they protect that as it is to the customer. We get all of that out of the way during the day so that the band, when they come on stage, can really perform their best show. I think when you talk to bands about the club, that’s what they talk about. We provide an environment where they can do their best show.
WE: Bands always say that. I always heard that when I was at HFS and now writing for this blog. That’s got to be a good feeling being so beloved by artists who’ve played the club because of the way you treat them.
DW: It is. It’s most gratifying. It’s not always the easiest row to hoe, but being acknowledged for that is definitely rewarding.
WE: Tell me about IMP’s growth, most recently U Street Music Hall and Sixth & I Street Synagogue (both in Washington, D.C.).
DW: Working with U Street Music Hall just seemed like a very natural fit. Seth (Hurwitz, co-owner and Chairman of I.M.P.) and Will (Eastman, owner of U Street Music Hall) got together and talked about how we can help each other. It made so much sense for Will to bring the DJs that he’s trying to develop, to what really is a cool little room down at the back bar — and people do really do love it there, and for us to have an opportunity at U Street Music Hall to work with some (at the next level) electronic artists, but also other artists we’ve worked with in the past or artists we hope to work with in the future on a larger scale, to get them in at the ground level, literally and figuratively.
And then Sixth & I Street Synagogue is a fantastic space and a great opportunity for artists to really be showcased in such a unique, and warm and great sounding space. There have been some really amazing shows there too.
Thanks to Donna Westmoreland for taking time to chat with us. Check out 9:30’s Tumbler.