Why We Chose the Fonda Theatre as L.A.'s No. 1 Music Venue
Jack White at the Fonda, June 10, 2014
Photo by Timothy Norris
At a desk covered in flowers and tour riders sits Donna Busch, the woman most responsible for putting the Fonda Theatre at the top of L.A. Weekly's list of the 50 best live music venues in Los Angeles. From the bartenders to security to the sound guy, it takes a small army to make a 1,200-capacity concert space run smoothly. But without the bands, there would be no audience of 1,200. And for more than a decade at the Fonda, Busch has booked the bands.
"We started booking shows there in 2004," Busch says. The "we" is her employer, Goldenvoice, the L.A.-based company behind Coachella and a growing roster of venues throughout the Southland and beyond. For eight years, Busch and Goldenvoice booked bands around club nights and other lease events at the Fonda, slowly building up the theater's reputation as a quality concert venue, especially following two rounds of renovations in 2007 and 2010 that dramatically improved the 1926 theater's acoustics and further restored some of its Art Deco details. "Then in 2012, the old lease was up, the old tenants left and we moved in."
Since reopening as a Goldenvoice operation in March 2012, the Fonda has quietly become the most well-run, well-curated music venue in town. The sound and sight lines are excellent. Security and box office staff are friendly and efficient. The rooftop patio provide a great space for relaxing or having a smoke between sets.
Above all, Busch's bookings at the Fonda have been stellar, a savvy mix of millennial-friendly indie bands, cult-following legacy acts and the occasional downsizing superstar. A sampling of her work over the past six months includes Purity Ring, Matt & Kim, The Waterboys, Bad Religion, Shlohmo, Caribou, Hozier, The Jayhawks and Smashing Pumpkins. Only the Echo, the Troubadour and the Roxy (another venue booked by Goldenvoice) have calendars as consistent.
Busch, a native New Yorker, started at Goldenvoice as an accountant, then transitioned into talent buying in 2001, learning the ropes from Goldenvoice co-owner Rick Van Santen, who tragically died in late 2003 at the age of 41. By then, she was overseeing her first club, the El Rey, which she still refers to fondly as "my baby." Later, she added the Fonda to her roster of venues, along with a growing slate of downtown theaters: the Mayan, Orpheum, Belasco and Ace Hotel. She is, by her own admission, a bit of a workaholic. Last year, she booked a total of 319 shows, about 120 of which were at the Fonda.
Though she proudly cites Daft Punk at the L.A. Sports Arena in 2007 as the biggest show she ever booked, Busch says she prefers buying talent for midsized spaces such as the Fonda. "I don’t really like big shows," she says. "I like new bands, up-and-coming bands. I’m so excited and passionate about new music. For me, going to the Forum and seeing a show — I’m like, ‘Eh, it was OK.’ I like the closeness of the audience.”
Her passion seems to be infectious; in recent years, more and more bands have been opting to book multinight runs at her venues, even acts that graduated to large theaters and arenas years ago. At the Fonda in particular, "We've had a bunch of runs," she notes happily. "Empire of the Sun did five nights. ... Flogging Molly did four, Tom Petty did six. It’s so intimate and exciting when you’re in a small room, I think. Bands feed off that."
She can't really take credit for the Fonda's most recent coup — the one-night warm-up gig The Rolling Stones played there on May 20. That came about because Concerts West, the tour-management wing of Goldenvoice's parent company, AEG Live, is handling the Stones' current Zip Code tour. Such synergies are another reasonthat the Fonda can host so many noteworthy shows. AEG's clout, combined with the years of goodwill Goldenvoice has built up launching many a band's career at Coachella, makes Busch's job a little easier.
But in many ways, it's Busch herself, and the wide-eyed enthusiasm she still brings to her job, that keep the bands and their agents coming back to her venues. Even booking 300-plus shows a year, she still makes time for one of her pet projects: finding — and, in some cases, making — personalized knick-knacks and decorations for every band's trailer at Coachella, something she's done at the festival every year since 1999.
To Busch, such personal touches are part of what sets Goldenvoice apart from its competitors. "We’re just very fun and friendly. So many of the agents are friends with us, and they enjoy working with the company. So it’s easy to nurture their bands."
As for the Fonda, Busch hopes to focus even more of her attention on attracting top talent to the historic Hollywood venue. Reluctantly, she is handing off her "baby," the El Rey, to another Goldenvoice talent buyer so the rest of her 2015 schedule won't be quite so crazy. "I feel so sad" parting with the El Rey, she says, "but I’m like, maybe I need a life."
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