Inside the Venues of Northside: Booking Williamsburg’s Giant Music Outpost, Rough Trade

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Photos by Liz Clayman

Williamsburg’s Rough Trade, on North 9th and Berry, is a house of many mansions: this 15,000 square foot warehouse includes a record store, a coffee shop, ping-pong tables, an instrument showroom, and a 250-capacity music venue with a full bar. Since opening in 2013, the space, one of seven run by Bowery Presents, has managed to thrive in a Brooklyn neighborhood that’s priced out its smaller DIY venue (R.I.P. Death By Audio, Glasslands, 285 Kent) thanks to glitzy high rises multiplying on the nearby waterfront.

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Rough Trade’s head booker, Sebastian Freed, consistently showcases emerging bands that go on to play bigger Manhattan venues (i.e. Natalie Prass, Kate Tempest, Marian Hill, Kelela, Alvvays), as well as local legends like Television, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, and Death from Above 1979. All of which helps keep the venue’s risky record store operation, an offshoot of the famous London shops of the same name, alive and well.

We caught up with Freed about what it takes to put on an average of five shows a week without getting noise complaints from Rough Trade’s fancy Kent Avenue neighbors.

What goes into booking an act at Rough Trade? How do you decide who plays here?

I don’t gravitate towards any one specific genre as a booker. If you look at our calendar, you’ll see a little bit of everything at any time. I like to book bands I know are good. It’s a matter of liking the band or knowing a lot of other people who do, and knowing they can sell a certain amount of tickets. I can’t like every band that plays here, but at least I can respect what they’re doing and know there’s a ton of people who do like them. It doesn’t have to be totally new–I respect the fact that not every band is trying to reinvent the wheel. You can make a genre unique to your own style.

Any band that gets booked goes through me. It’s a mix of agents, bands, and managers reaching out to me, and me sort of filling in holes by reaching out to bands, whether I find them online, via other venues, or catching them open for a show at places like Music Hall of Williamsburg.

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What does Rough Trade offer that other New York City venues don’t? What makes it unique?

I think for a venue this small, what you get is pretty incredible sound. It’s also rare to have a balcony in such a small room, giving people that elevated sideline. Even if it’s sold out, you’re gonna have a great view, and the sound’s gonna be incredible. And it’s nice to be able to come early and hang out and buy records.

Over the past five to ten years, things have been shifting from Manhattan to Williamsburg. A lot of bands now will play Music Hall of Williamsburg before playing Bowery Ballroom. Their first plug will be in Brooklyn before Manhattan. Ten years ago, you didn’t have a premiere 200-500 capacity room in Williamsburg. That didn’t exist. But bands can have their first big play in Williamsburg now. You can kind of rely on everything else going well (other than your own performance).

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What do you think about the death knells for the Brooklyn music scene–people saying it’s getting too expensive for musicians and artists to thrive here, and for smaller DIY venues like the late Death By Audio, Glasslands, and 285 Kent to survive? Does Rough Trade feel threatened at all?

For starters, I’m not worried about us closing down. I loved all those rooms, but they’re DIY venues, so by their very nature, their tenure is not that long. This is the neighborhood that sort of gave them their growth, and so it’s sad that it has to happen that way, but it always does. Within the next couple years, you’ll see existing DIY venues shut down or new ones take their place. It’s a rotating thing that happens. Within Bowery Presents, we’re lucky we go through precautions to make sure these rooms last 15 to 20 years.

Still, it’s true that five to ten years ago, the Brooklyn music scene was much more prominent. You had Grizzly Bear, TV on the Radio, bands like that living here, growing here, defining themselves here. But bands can’t really afford to live here anymore. You’re starting to see that more in places like LA and North Carolina. It’s unfortunate, but it doesn’t seem like Brooklyn bands have the same kind of magnitude they had five to ten years ago as far as the scene goes.

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What are some of the best shows you’ve booked here so far?

Father John Misty played in February; Hop Along a few weeks ago–those were both really amazing. Television played here–that was a personal career highlight. We’ve had some really good underplays, too, like Death from Above 1979 and Tune-Yards–bands have been turned by the record store aspect.

What does the future of Rough Trade look like?

When bands are coming from out of town and making their first important play in NYC, I want Rough Trade to be the room where that happens.

Check out the show lineup at Rough Trade, and many other north Brooklyn venues, during Northside Festival.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.)

Follow Carey Dunne on Twitter @CareyDunne

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