If you've seen a show at Marble Bar, El Club, UFO Factory, or even Jumbo's in the last couple of years, Virginia Benson more than likely had a hand in getting your favorite almost-famous band to play it. And while you were watching that show, she more than likely served you up a cold beer or mixed cocktail from behind the bar.
"This whole thing started when I moved from Olympia where I was more involved with music and photography," she tells us from the leafy back patio of El Club, where Benson does a majority of her booking now. "I started bartending at the Garden Bowl and that kind of led to me putting together smaller shows. I did an internship with Ramona from Black Iris Booking, and then just started doing it on my own."
Doing it on her own led Benson to creating her own booking company after leaving the Majestic, where she was doing their in-house talent buying. "I started Party Store Productions from the very bottom and sort of just built it up from scratch," she says. "I've been doing it for five years now."
Once Graeme Flegenheimer opened Southwest Detroit's newest venue El Club in 2016, Benson was recruited to do the in-house booking — where she has had a hand in elevating the music scene in Detroit by bringing acts to the city that have never toured here before.
While Benson confesses that Detroit isn't the strongest market to be working in, the goal is to turn that ship around."Detroit is definitely not a major market — it's secondary at best, so it is hard to convince some bands to stop here." She adds that since working at El Club, however, the variety and diversity of acts coming to the city has changed. "El Club and Graeme have had a lot to do with it," she says. "I was always trying before to get acts to come here, but didn't really have the means to."
Benson finally saw her hard work pay off when she was finally able to book the Brooklyn, New York-based band Woods after years and years of skipping Detroit on tours. "If a band is going on tour they will reach out to us, especially if we have worked together before, but sometimes I'll find an act that is interesting and I'll try and get them to come," she says. "It goes both ways."
Since taking the lead over at El Club, Benson has been able to book amazing (and super-niche) shows with the Detroit Cobras, rapper and singer Lizzo, and former Sonic Youth member Thurston Moore, who played a special series she has helped curate at MOCAD.
Benson achieved another milestone when El Club recently announced a show that is taking place aboard the Detroit Princess riverboat. "I've been wanting to do a boat show ever since I went on the Bruise Cruise years ago," Benson says, referring to the 2011 rock-themed Bahamas cruise that featured the likes of the Black Lips and Vivian Girls. Benson's cruise will take a spin on the Detroit River and then will dock for a concert featuring Detroit's Protomartyr, who are releasing a new album at the show. "This is really my dream show," she says.
Benson has also had a hand in mentoring fellow employees at El Club who want to bring an act or festival to Detroit. "We try to foster new festivals when we can, like Waking Windows fest or Trip Metal. Trever Millay, who works for us, did the Barely Human fest and that was super fun. So if someone who works here has an idea we try and be supportive." She jokingly adds, "I want every bartender to have their own festival."
Coming up from the bottom has taught Benson things she never knew about the industry. "I never realized how much it's like trading commodities or stock, rather than just having a love for music," she says. "For me, I just wanted to book all the bands that I love, but you also have to make sure that your venues aren't going to lose money. I always thought I was going to be a rock star, never on the business side of things."
While Benson is not booking your next favorite show, she can be seen most nights pouring beers and mixing up cocktails behind the bar at El Club. A majority of patrons have no idea that the same person who poured them a shot of tequila also made sure that the band they are about to see makes a stop in Detroit.
Back to the People Issue.