We had the good fortune of connecting with Lynn Schwarz and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Lynn, what is the most important factor behind your success?
The way I define success is not based on money at all, but having the ability to be admired and be among the best at what you do, over a long period of time, without your brand diminishing in quality, and without riding on your past successes. In the world of independent music venues, it is extremely difficult to survive, and to stay relevant. While pinching pennies and getting creative with talent offers is helpful to the longevity of the club, and it’s certainly a given that you need to do this to survive, to really thrive and make yourself indispensable in this industry, you need to have kindness in your business model, not just lip service to kindness, but a real sense of hospitality and family.
First off, you need to be kind to your employees. Even if you can’t afford to pay them what you know they deserve, if you treat your employees with kindness and respect, and don’t place yourself above even one of them in your heart and in what you personally are willing to do at their side during a show, you will have a loyal employee base who knows the business inside and out. At my venue, our average length of employment is over ten years. That is unique for any business that doesn’t provide many benefits, nor regular raises. We create a family environment, invite our staff on annual trips, involve ourselves in their lives, as friends, and it’s all based on genuine love and respect. All 3 owners of our business work alongside our staff at shows, and the bonds formed are 100% real. The staff alway says we are “in the trenches” together, and while that may seem a bit exaggerated, it feels that way on some nights.
Secondly, and this may be obvious, but it’s actually the hardest one, you need to treat your customers right, and convey this to everyone who interacts with customers at the venue. If a customer asks a question, we tell our employees, it is never OK to say “I don’t know.” You find out how to help. It is never OK to see someone whose car has been broken into, for instance, and not offer to help sweep up, tape up their window, and report the crime. It is never OK to ignore when someone is having a difficult time inside your venue, and feels less than safe or appreciated. When the mandate to the staff in your venue is to take care of people, you find that everyone competes to be the most helpful, and they wind up feeling so good about their jobs and themselves. Even when you have a difficult or drunk or abrasive customer, that is when it becomes so much more important to rise above and “kill them with kindness.”
Finally, you treat bands and touring parties right. Many of the people I work with have also been touring musicians, and know what a terrible world that is. It’s tiring, it doesn’t pay a lot, it usually involves horrible food and not being treated properly by venue staff, who can often get jaded. At our venue, we pride ourselves on providing real meals and generous drinks, friendly staff who all relate to the musician lifestyle, and being 100% honest about advancing, running, and settling shows.
It may sound like a load of BS, but in fact, it is how we run our venue, and I can legitimately say I think I have the friendliest and most professional staff in the country. I know that people notice. Bands notice and tell their agents. Customers notice and tell social media. Our staff notices and stay with us. It is a really lovely feeling to know you have never sold out for a quick buck and sacrificed the quality experiences that put your venue on the map.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
The reason I chose “Artist/Creative” as my subhead when what I actually do is run a venue and book talent, and of course the musicians are themselves the true creatives in my world, is that I made a decision very early on that I would live my life in service to art. Any kind of art, performing or visual, is what is most important in my life. I have been a musician and actor, a director of theatre and film, a photographer, mosaic maker, and other artistic endeavors. Of course, there’s a new set of skills to be learned while running a business, but I try to run my life and my business in the same way I tackle an artistic endeavor–with a wide open mind and while trying to keep things lighthearted and entertaining.
What excites me most about booking shows is when you find that perfect harmonious bill, and encourage the performers to make it special by finding that ineffable thing that unites all the acts to expand upon, making a fun and special event rather than just another in a long line of shows in the week. For me, the tricky part is not to get bored and jaded, because I book 300 shows a year at a minimum, each with 3 bands a night on average. It can be difficult to think with a creative mind about each and every show, but that’s the goal.
I learned along the way not to be overly intimidated by agents. They at first seemed to me to be the devil, just there to make my job a living hell, and to give me grief, and to be less than human. But I learned how to speak their language after about six months, and now I know they are human beings who are driven by their goal not only to make themselves money, but to protect artists, who are the most fragile of the whole ecosystem. Artists need these spiny creatures, agents, to keep them protected from those who would take advantage of them. I do believe there are many promoters and talent buyers out there who do not have our venue’s empathy and honesty. I am only kidding about agents–some are great friends of mine, but it is not an easy business if you do not have a thick skin and if you can’t bring some guts to the negotiating table!
What Bottom of the Hill as a brand has is personality, coziness, a great sound system, and extremely talented lineups that have stayed high quality over three decades. Oh yeah, and it’s run by 3 pretty cool women, who have made it a goal to book more women musicians every year!
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Hikes are the key to my nirvana in the Bay Area. McLaren Park is my personal playground, which I go to nearly every day without getting bored, and the most undiscovered gem of SF. It stays off every best-of list, but for me is the very best of what we have to offer–views, and rugged terrain, hills to climb, mazes, wildflower fields, pickleball and tennis courts and golf for those who do that, three ponds, redwood groves, an amphitheatre, a watertower with 360 degree views, everything! Just don’t tell anyone!
For neighborhoods, that’s too hard to choose. You have North Beach, the amazing and historic Italian neighborhood bordered by an incredible Chinatown. After Gold Spike closed, my new favorite restaurant in North Beach is Sotto Mare, which is small and serves amazing Italian-style seafood. It is the only restaurant I visited during COVID–I was set on saving it myself, if need be! For pizza, visit Tony’s which actually nails many different styles and offers slices. For old-school vibes, Sodinis. Get yourself a cannoli, or the only birthday cake I will allow someone to get me, the Sacripantina, at Stella’s bakery on Columbus. And finally, get drinks at Vesuvio Cafe or Specs’ Twelve Adler Museum Cafe, across the street, also on Columbus, the best places to soak in the old beat-era history of this city.
Also historic is Upper Haight. Eat at Parada 22, a Peurto Rican restaurant with great quality and value! Go to the amazing Zam Zam, an intimate bar where the proprietor is one of these original old characters who will kick you out if he dislikes your order or the way you placed it. Amoeba Records for amazing selection. Club Deluxe hosts old timey acts in an art deco and classy decor. Go into the park and visit the Botanical Gardens, the Conservatory of Flowers, the DeYoung Museum, and the Academy of Sciences.
Lower Haight hasn’t caved in to changing times and is really still an old-school neighborhood! Mike’s Barbershop is beyond entertaining! They hold court there daily while delivering modern haircuts. Molotov’s is your local seedy bar for tattooed hipsters. Upper Playground supports local artists with an urban vibe and sells merch like shirts, hoodies, and hats and has a real unique artistic vibe there and has created some local legends.
And finally the Mission. So many restaurants and bars. Latin American Club, Benders, Make-Out Room, The Homestead. It has become a bit overrun with trendy tech vibes, but still has so many old school places like Puerto Alegre, burritos at Taqueria Cancun or La Taqueria. Take a walk down 24th Street to see the real Mexican-American culture of SF, before the remaning storefronts and resturants and bars are all forced out by gentrification!
Visit the windmills and Lands End at the ocean, and on the way back visit Cafe Europa for some Eastern European and Russian fare.
Go out of your way to go to Basque Cultural Center in South San Francisco to have a most enjoyable old school meal in a one-of-a-kind cultural center! They serve up delicious food, especially their soups and specials.
Of course catch a show at Bottom of the Hill, my favorite venue!
I could go on and on–I get really excited about the places I love and cherish them so much. We’ve all witnessed how delicate our small businesses truly are, and we need to support and preserve them over time.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
There’s a huge field of people I could thank for where I landed. My amazing parents and various teachers, for instance. But in my case, I need to give proper credit for where I landed to two of my business partners, Kathleen Owen and Ramona Downey.
Kathleen taught me everything I know about hospitality and kindness and creating atmosphere and fun. Ramona taught me everything I know about booking bands and staying unflappable as an owner/manager.
I showed up at the Bottom 25 years ago as a part-time cook, and I was young and jaded, pretty lost in life, and did not expect to last a month flipping burgers. I met these ladies who were killing it and so great at what they did. As hard as it was at that time for women to be successful in the music world, they were some of the most respected people in town and even across the country, and yet they’d roll up their sleeves and plunge a toilet without batting an eye. (They still do!) They focused me, and showed me that if you really apply yourself in what you do, and do it well, you can literally do whatever you want in this life. I worked my way up in this venue from cook to bartender, to manager, to owner, and finally, to head booker when Ramona retired from that job. (Now she’s killing it in a new field, making hand-dyed and hand-woven works of large textile art.)
I am so inspired by what they taught me and humbled that they took a chance on a young headstrong employee like myself by letting me become a partner in their business. And I still look to them for guidance and advice as I go along and continue to learn the ins and outs of this business. None of us believes you are ever done learning your business. They are my friends, my mentors, my parents, and my sisters, all rolled into two amazing humans.