An inside look at how NoVA talent bookers get your favorite bands on stage

The DC region is home to some of the best music venues in the country. Here, we go behind the scenes with the region’s best—and, let’s be honest, coolest—talent bookers to find out what it takes to get your favorite bands on stage.

The DC region is home to some of the best music venues in the country—and established and up-and-coming artists alike know that a tour stop here is a must. But did you ever wonder how local music venues are scoring such awesome acts?

It’s thanks to the talent bookers. They spend their days on the phone and the computer, dealing with managers and artists who want to perform on their stages for as many people and for as much money as possible. The talent booker negotiates the dates and the fees and tries to assure a crowd will be on-hand with advertising, social media, press coverage and anything else that will pack houses.

It’s an often thankless job—who applauds the talent booker when the curtain falls?—but it’s an important one: The good ones keep audiences happy; the great ones help develop an artist’s career by cultivating a local fan base and by being a friend when the performer comes back to town—until, that is, they outgrow the venue and move to bigger halls. It’s a cruel business.

We went behind the scenes with the region’s best—and, let’s be honest, coolest—talent bookers to find out what it takes to get your favorite bands on stage.

woman in purple shirt sitting on speaker
Meredith Johnstone (Photo by Jonathan Timmes)

Meredith Johnstone

The State Theatre

As the COO and talent buyer, Johnstone, 37, books the 1936 movie theater-turned-music venue (in 1988), bringing the likes of Almost Queen and Lez Zeppelin to Falls Church. She’s been in the business for 13 years, after interviewing as an assistant to the club’s owner. “I wasn’t doing anything with my foreign policy degree, so I figured I’d jump into something I knew I loved—music.”

Your favorite act of all time?
Modest Mouse. I’m a huge fan of their music anyway but their live show is amazing and they never disappoint.

What act always makes you want to stay late?
Here Come the Mummies. Hands down. Amazing musicians dressed as mummies with a huge horn section playing semi-raunchy music to a huge crowd—it’s just impossible to not have fun at that show and it’s worth making it a 15-hour day.

Fantasy triple bill?
Metallica, Barbra Streisand, Red Hot Chili Peppers at Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre (near Denver).

What’s the Coolest thing about your job?
Sounds corny, but watching the fans. Going to a show and seeing hundreds of people just totally rocking out and having a night that they’ll remember for a long time (or until the next morning) makes all the crap worthwhile. Most of the time.

What’s the worst thing about your job?
Dealing with particular agents. They know who they are.

What would you be doing if not doing this?
I’d probably be a scuba diving instructor.

man sitting with legs crossed in red movie theater seat
Gerard Venida (Photo by Jonathan Timmes)

Gerard Venida

The Barns at Wolf Trap

In Venida’s seven years in the business—three of them at The Barns; he’s 33—the most outrageous thing an act has requested on their contractual rider (the list of dressing room accoutrements they can’t live without) was a specific type of chair. It turns out, says the assistant director of program and production, “the chair’s sole purpose was to be destroyed by the artist, and destroying the chair was NOT part of the show.” Second most outrageous? “Maybe a pony.”

Your favorite act of all time?
Prince. He was a genius and an amazing live entertainer.

Your least-favorite act of all time?
Any act that has a difficult crew to work with; most times the way a touring crew acts directly reflects on how the performer behaves.

Fantasy triple bill?
Elvis, Queen and Prince. I think the tour name [would be] pretty obvious: The Legends Tour. I would hold this show at an intimate venue like The Barns or the Black Cat [in DC]. I’m a big fan of underplays.

Craziest thing you’ve seen an audience member do?
A marriage proposal that happened during an artist meet-and-greet. The venue and the tour were not notified in advance. It happened right in front of the artist and he had no clue what was going on.

What’s the coolest thing about your job?
I am passionate about music of all kinds but especially indie acts, Americana and world music. But being completely immersed every day in something that I am passionate about. I’ve got to say, I am pretty lucky.

Sara Beesley

Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts

Vice President of Program and Production Beesley, 34, attended Manhattanville College because “it had a rare music management program.” But her real education came after seeing a show at Joe’s Pub at New York City’s Public Theater, “and I immediately knew that’s where I wanted to be.” She’s been at the Trap for nearly six years, bringing the venue’s famously eclectic lineup to the Filene Center and Barns stages.

Your favorite act of all time?
It’s too hard to pick my favorite act of all time, but the most fun I have at a live show is anytime I see [ironic Georgia cover band] Yacht Rock Revue.

The act that makes you want to stay late?
In the summer I usually work nights and stay until the end of load-out, but whenever Sheryl Crow is at Wolf Trap I make sure I’m not working that night so I can enjoy the show as a fan!

Fantasy triple bill?
Beyoncé, Bruce Springsteen and Dolly Parton, all acoustic at The Barns at Wolf Trap. A girl can dream.

Craziest thing you’ve seen an audience member do?
This summer we had a patron wrestle a copperhead snake in the park. That was a first!

What’s the most notorious rider request?
We take rider requests pretty seriously and luckily don’t have anything too uncalled for or crazy, but recently had Kacey Musgraves request a puppy on her rider, so we made a call and had Wolf Trap Animal Rescue come by to throw a puppy party backstage for her whole team! It was fun to coordinate and made a big difference to the day.

The biggest up-front cash payout?
$140,000.

What’s the coolest thing about your job?
Looking out from stage-right at the start of a show and seeing 7,028 fans freak out when an artist hits the stage. It’s always a reminder of why we do the work we do and I love that the DMV community is so supportive of the performing arts and Wolf Trap.

girl with brown hair in leather jacket sitting
Jen Hass (Photo by Jonathan Timmes)

Jen Hass

9:30 Club and the Lincoln Theatre

The aerospace engineering degree she was working on at the University of Texas at Austin took a wild turn when she landed a gig working for the newly opened Austin City Limits Live. That was eight years ago; for the last two years Hass, 29, has booked the 9:30 Club, Pollstar magazine’s consistently top-performing venue, as well as the restored Lincoln Theatre.

Your favorite act of all time?
So incredibly hard to answer but have to go with Foo Fighters—but The Strokes and Fiona Apple are a close second and third. They all move me in different, unexplainable ways—that’s the beauty of music after all.

The act that makes you want to stay late?
I love seeing all the acts I book, if possible! Let’s just say you get a bit less sleep in the fall when the calendar is packed—but then again, I can’t complain.

Craziest thing you’ve seen an audience member do?
Get picked to go onstage and then proceed to propose to their girlfriend while they were up there.

What’s The coolest thing about your job?
As incredible as it is to see the acts perform, I love watching the audience. I remind myself that everyone has their own crazy lives and day-to-day stresses—and for this one special hour-and-a-half or so out of their day, fans get to let go and simply enjoy live music.

man in flannel sitting next to speaker in front of star
Dustin Pet (Photo by Jonathan Timmes)

Dustin Pet

Hill Country Live DC

When he was 15, Pet’s secondhand iPod had only eight bands, but three of them changed his life: “For two years I listened to nothing but Beck, Cake and Ween,” he admits. “I discovered real, live bands through these bands.”

Pet, 29, started as a line cook at a barbecue restaurant and concert venue in Denver more than 10 years ago, and has been booking Washington’s branch of Hill Country for about two years, turning the smoked-meat emporium—the handiwork of Arlington sous chef/pitmaster and singer [Jumpin’ Jupiter] Jay Jenc—into a honky-tonk listening room most nights of the week.

Your favorite act of all time?
David Bowie. His music is timeless and his voice speaks to me on a therapeutic level. Bowie is an alien who came here to change the way live bands sound forever.

Fantasy triple bill?
Beck, Cake and Ween at the National Building Museum in DC!

The act that makes you want to stay late?
Pierce Edens. Pierce is from a tiny town in the middle of nowhere called Marshall, North Carolina. His stories, songs and spirit as an artist leave me wanting more every time!

The most notorious contract rider?
Bella’s Bartok wanted a 1996 Intercontinental wrestling belt replica.

The biggest upfront cash payfront?
$150,000 to Peter Frampton. The concert wasn’t too crazy, but he did, oddly enough, drink a bunch of milk backstage before playing, which I thought was taboo [for singers].

What’s the coolest thing about your job?
Discovering new bands like The Vegabonds and watching them grow into the band everyone wants to see!

What’s the worst thing about your job?
Telling bands no. I wish I could book them all, but it doesn’t always make sense.

What would you be doing if not doing this?
I am deeply passionate about cooking. I could see myself running a food truck with really loud speakers!

two men sitting on couch in front of union stage sign
Daniel Brindley (left) and Jon Weiss (right) (Photo by Jonathan Timmes)

Jon Weiss

Union Stage, Pearl Street Warehouse, Pie Shop, The Miracle Theatre

Weiss, 28, started the independent record label Babe City Records and booking bands from a Dupont Circle basement as a way “to network with other bands” as well as shine a light on his own acts. Now, working with Daniel Brindley at Union Stage, he’s responsible for much of the nightlife on Washington’s emerging Wharf neighborhood, as well as the Capitol Hill mixed-arts venue, The Miracle Theatre.

The act that makes you want to stay late?
Juggling five venues, a social life, [playing in] two bands and a record label, I try to stay at shows whenever I actually can—if I have the capacity and time to be there that night. It’s great to see any live music and a full room of excited fans. Seeing people excited about their favorite band makes staying at any show worth it.

Your least-favorite act of all time?
Honestly, I don’t have a least-favorite act, but I hate it when artists treat the staff poorly. A lot of artists to this day are still divas and think the world revolves around them, when it takes a village to make any show successful. Thankfully, this doesn’t happen often, but it still happens more often than it should.

What’s the coolest thing about your job?
Bringing through the artist that people are excited about. There is something pretty cool about sitting next to someone in the Union Stage tap room and asking them what band they want to see in DC, and actually being able to deliver it. When a fan is excited, it’s hard for that to not be contagious.

What would you be doing if not doing this?
Honestly, can’t picture myself in any other job. I really do love it here. I’m lucky to work for and with people I can call my friends.

Daniel Brindley

Jammin Java, Union Stage

In the year 2000, Daniel, now 40, and his brother, Luke, would book bands in their parents’ Montclair, New Jersey, house for audiences of 50 or more, when they weren’t playing concerts of their own. “We were just fans of music with no financial agenda,” he says. “Then we got the call about moving down to Vienna to take over Jammin Java in mid-2001.That was the slap in the face, wake-up call, trial by fire! The rest is history.”
The venerable JJ, which opened in October 2001, has evolved from a casual coffee shop-music school-recording studio-performance space to one of the area’s showcase venues, a favorite of touring artists, as well as local bands. Brindley has also evolved: He’s owner of the Wharf’s Union Stage and runs a nonprofit called Music Makes Life Better.

Your favorite act of all time?
Impossible question to answer! All I can say is I am going to see three shows across town who all started out at Jammin Java and are now playing much larger venues: Bon Iver, Noah Gundersen and Foy Vance.

Your least-favorite act of all time?
There was a band about 10 years ago. I promise you I would share the name if I could remember it. The lead singer was a crazy man. He was getting the crowd to basically fight each other during the show. We had to stop the show as a result.

Fantasy triple bill?
Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Cockburn and Johann Sebastian Bach. And I would put them all in Union Stage. It would be packed to the gills and I would be hanging in the green room between sets with the two Bruces and Bach, sipping beers.

The most notorious contract rider?
We had one eccentric songwriter at Jammin Java who always requested an iron and an ironing board—it was a must-have! I’m thinking, “Man, can’t she just iron her clothes in her hotel room?” Turns out, she was ironing her hair before each show.

What’s the coolest thing about your job?
I am my own boss. I listen to music and talk about music every day. I get to be a tastemaker and a driver of culture in the nation’s capital. I also work with a fun and growing group of people. It’s a great gig.

What would you be doing if not doing this?
If money was no object, I would be teaching yoga, writing books and giving talks about spiritual things. That’s probably my retirement plan.

man in tux on green bench
Michael Jaworek (Photo by Jonathan Timmes)

Michael Jaworek

The Birchmere

How did you get started?
Myself and three others at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign decided to form Bluespower, a concert group to bring blues acts to town. We did Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers with Blind Jim Brewer. We needed 500 [spectators] to break even and did about 1,500 paid.

Your favorite act of all time?
This is like choosing your favorite child. The J. Geils Band and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. My favorite artist I have presented: B.B. King.

What act always makes you want to stay late?
Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives. They are the best ambassadors in the country for country music that I know of, in all its glory. Singing, playing, content, period.

Fantasy triple bill?
Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five; Hank Williams and the Drifting Cowboys; Bessie Smith backed by Clarence Williams on piano and the Armstrong band. Venue? The Birchmere, of course.

True or False: Some Big Names require upfront payment?
By the time I payed Chuck Berry, you wired him all the money two weeks out, to him, not his agent. Happily, I did four shows with him [in 1988] in DC, Baltimore and Atlanta and never had a problem.

What is the coolest thing about your job?
I have always wanted to go to work in the morning and be able to support myself, and now my family. Having those two things, and good health, I am so fortunate that I never, ever don’t appreciate that fact. Also, I try to contribute to the quality and grace of a better world in return. Hopefully that will get me an all-access pass when I see Saint Peter.

This story was originally published in our January 2020 print issue. For more stories on NoVA notables, subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

X