Michael Bailey has one of the coolest jobs in the San Francisco music business. He books the Fillmore, the legendary club at Fillmore and Geary that cradled the city's revolutionary '60s acid rock scene, and that was recently named the No. 2 "big room" in America by Rolling Stone. Before coming to the Fillmore, Bailey booked independent rock bands like X, the Replacements, and the Violent Femmes at the now-defunct East Bay venue Berkeley Square. Renting out the venue for an April 1987 Hüsker Dü show brought him to the attention of the Fillmore's owners, and soon the place was taken over by larger-than-life Bay Area concert promoter Bill Graham, who had built his name booking concerts there years earlier. Today, the Fillmore is still San Francisco's most iconic concert venue, hosting major touring acts more than 170 nights a year. We sat down in the poster room of this century-old building to talk about Bailey's booking philosophy, how the music business has changed over the 26 years he's worked here, and the coolest shows he's seen.
SF Weekly: Has there been an emphasis on the Fillmore's history here ever since you started?
Michael Bailey: By the late '80s, there was a detachment from the history. So I started doing it, and there was a nostalgic element because of all the bands that played here [in the '60s]. But the philosophy I've always had in booking, and I think Bill Graham's philosophy, is do what's current in the moment.
What was it like working for Bill Graham?
The first day that I started working for Bill Graham Presents, one of the first things someone told me was, "Yeah, it's fun working here and stuff, but you should have been there back then." [Graham] was a wealth of information, he knew a lot of people. He was difficult at times, he was a real mensch sometimes. I feel really fortunate that I got to become friends with him. [The Fillmore] was something that was near and dear to his heart.
Upon becoming the booker here, what did you want to do? What were you looking for?
The rote answer is, you're looking for people who can sell tickets. But [I] always try to keep the bookings really interesting, and keep them current. It's really easy for a room like this to kind of dwell in the past, and I never wanted to do that. I always wanted to look ahead and figure out what was happening. And try to stay away from stuff like cover bands. Those are available and can sell tickets, but I think to kind of make an impression on what you want the room to be, you have to try to have a certain train that you go on.
Which way is the train going now?
It's all over the place. This is the most exciting and vibrant time in the music business that I can remember. Back in the '80s and '90s, you were always trying to fight against these record companies, who kind of controlled everything. And now, with the collapse of the major labels and the restructuring, it's a level playing field. So it's a lot more honest, because bands have to work a lot to prove that they can sell tickets and get people interested. It's not all hype. There was a time when a band, say, like Candlebox, could get a lot of support from a record label and get a lot of money, and go on the road. They would have these nice tour buses and do these tours around the country where they could sell out these rooms because of radio airplay and the marketing budget that the labels put into it. But it wasn't necessarily real. It was of the moment, and then it went away. And now there's still stuff like that, but it's on a viral level. It may be of the moment and go away, but it comes from a different place.
When do you know that a rising local band is ready to play the Fillmore?
I think a band knows when they're ready. If they're working with good people, agents, managers, they can kind of watch the growth. Then when they want to make the leap up to a showcase room like the Fillmore or someplace larger, they'll know when they're ready. I think it does a band no good to come in here and sell half a house. It makes a statement when a band is ready to come into the Fillmore and they can do the show and sell it out.
You called this a "showcase room." What does that mean?
It's a room that gets attention. When a band sells out the Fillmore, it's a story to tell.
Do you remember your first show here as a fan?
Yeah, I came in as a fan to see the Replacements, and I was blown away. It was pretty astonishing. There's an amazing vibe in the room. And where that comes from — all the people that have played — I don't know. But it's unlike any other venue I've ever been to.
Do you try to do a certain number of shows per week or month?
The way I evaluate it is over a year. You try to book as many as you can. There's 365 days, so a perfect season would be booking 365 shows. But usually we're in the 170-180 range per year.
You must be bombarded with requests to play here.
If [bands] have smart management, they don't ask and they don't try to get in here until they know that they can perform well. I get a lot of people who want to play here and don't quite understand the dynamics of the room or how many tickets they need to sell, or what they need to charge for tickets to make it work. But I get less and less of those calls. With the changes in the music industry, people are pretty aware of what their strengths and weaknesses are.