Americana Highways pulled over to talk to co-founder Bruce Gates about Washington D.C.’s newest and most intimate Americana-friendly venue. The Pearl Street Warehouse opened last fall along the fancy new Wharf area on the cobblestoned streets beside the Washington Channel.
Our first question to him was: “What made you decide to open a new venue?” Gates’ quick-witted response was: “If I were more talented I’d like to be onstage but I’m not, so I figured I’d try to own the stage. (laughs) Seriously, though, I’m a music lover and owning a venue is about fulfilling a combination of passions.“
“My primary partner Nick Fontana and I decided to fill a niche. I’ve been in D.C. since 1982 – I was here at the heyday of the old Cellar Door, the Bayou and the old 9:30 club days and it’s obvious to me that we need venues like that now. We need places that are focused on not only developing the local talent but are also capable of attracting national touring acts for warm intimate shows.”
“Another reason for doing it is to contribute to the development of D.C.’s music scene, and to continue the legacy. We wanted to create the kind of place where people will go spontaneously, even if they haven’t heard of the act, because they know that there is a reputation for quality music there. We are working to grow the music culture here. “
“Thinking back on the old days of Cellar Door with Linda Ronstadt on stage for 175 people – we just didn’t have that. We wanted a place to fill that gap. Pearl Street is an intimate space with a max capacity of 280 but it’s also built out like a much bigger hall with state of the art sound and lights and capability of 4k video recording or broadcasting or live streaming. So it’s a modern approach to the old Cellar Door concept.”
“I really try to elicit criticism from musicians after each show and honestly press them for critical review of the venue – the sound system and the stage — to improve it and have not found one yet who hasn’t gushed over the venue. But I keep asking!“
Asked how they decided on the location, Gates replied, “We had owned Cantina Marina and were looking to open a music venue this time.” The popular waterfront bar Cantina Marina had to close as part of the development process, in order to build a new pier. Gates says, “So, we had an early opportunity to plug into the Wharf; we got in at the early development stages and got to choose our location.” Cantina Marina didn’t have live music, because of neighborhood noise restrictions. But Gates says that “this time we decided to open a purpose-built music venue that was also a bar and restaurant. Fontana and I are very complementary and the collaboration is great; he is a food and beverage guy and I am really passionate about the music side of it.” Great food and great music.
“Designers of the Wharf had iconic music towns like Austin, New Orleans and Nashville in mind, where you’ll have a street with music pouring out of more than one venue. There are other venues on the Wharf but Pearl Street Warehouse is the center of that street and has those big doors you can roll up and people can walk up to the bar and watch from the street. Several performers have commented on how cool it was that they could see people gathered outside the music hall, from onstage.”
Asked whether they have any plans for expansion into other cities, Gates has this to offer: “ We don’t have plans to expand at this time; however, this is not the first time we’ve heard this suggestion. Friends from Philadelphia, Baltimore and Charleston have commented and asked. “ But, Gates said, “I do have this observation — whenever there’s urban renewal there is an opportunity to copy the concept and I recommend it. There are opportunities like this happening all across the country right now. Opportunities to create a venue that can survive financially on nights there’s no entertainment, because of the location, but then provide a good listening room and a place for touring act to make inroads into new cities.”
The conversation turned to more serious issues like large corporations’ controlling musicians’ music—and livelihood–and the role that easy technological access plays in this problem. Gates had this to say, “ I am painfully aware of artists’ struggles. I know what they are going through and I am an artist advocate. I have an indie record label with Henry Gandy called “Warehouse Records” and another called “Warehouse West” in Nashville trying to help up and coming artists. There is a lot of activity around trying to figure out how to redesign the system to protect the artist to get paid, but it is a struggle. The flip side is that technology has made content really available and easy to find, and it’s easier for artists to get their music listened to. So, like most things in life, changes come with some advantages and disadvantages – our job is how to sort it out in the fairest possible way.”
Finally, Gates discussed their booking strategy. “The challenge for the venue owner is how to get full houses in. In terms of acts, we haven’t had a single clunker yet. We have some young talent that may have some growing to do but that’s all part of it, too. We mix local talent with touring acts. We also had David Cook, the Season 7 American Idol winner, as an example of trying to figure out that balance. People on that show have huge national exposure and… then what? They need to bring that kind of exposure back down to an organic development opportunity. Pearl Street Warehouse is a place for that kind of opportunity as well as a great stage for national acts too.”
Browse the Pearl Street Warehouse schedule, and learn more about the venue here.
Investigate Warehouse Records here.