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Industry Insider: San Francisco Club Mogul, OM Records Founder Chris Smith On Keeping Clubs Alive In Tough Market, Artist - Label Relationship

We chat with Chris Smith, co-owner of SF clubs, The Great Northern & Monarch, plus OM Records founder, to learn more about how labels have evolved and what it takes to stay open as a club in San Francisco.
Chris Smith

Krescent Carasso

Keeping a club open is a notoriously difficult task. Just about every force is against you -- rents that always seem to go up, landlords who want to replace you with soulless glass condos, government agencies and shifting consumer interest. You can go from being hot to not in the matter of a year. San Francisco is no different, but with skyrocketing rents and gentrification taking hold of the city, many venues are finding it harder and harder to stay open.

Chris Smith is a longtime veteran of the San Francisco nightlife and dance music scene. Getting his start as a DJ at 14, he later founded OM Records in 1995, home to artists over the years such as Kaskade, Bassnectar, Groove Armada and many more. Smith has since gone on to help found nightlife institutions Monarch and The Great Northern, in addition to a new restaurant Pawn Shop and event marketing company Up All Night.

We wanted to get to know Chris Smith a little better on his incredible journey in this industry and see how he has survived in the San Francisco nightlife business. Learn from the best as you read on below to our latest Industry Insider.

San Francisco is seeing clubs close because of rising rents, Mezzanine being a prominent example. This happens everywhere, but what are you guys doing to try and fight those market forces?

The situation in SF is challenging. Not only have rents skyrocketed, but nearly all expenses are also incredibly high. Considering how challenging the environment is, I’m continually impressed by the resilience of SF venues, promoters and the scene as a whole. Yes, there are a few casualties, but by and large, the market is thriving and the clubs battle on.

The struggle is real, however. To make it in this game you need to understand market trends, work with the very best people, deliver the highest quality production, provide a safe and inclusive environment and micromanage expenses and budgets. It’s a tightrope of creativity and business discipline. You also need stamina. It’s a battle every day.

What are two things that people don’t often think about (beyond good talent), which are keys to keeping a club open?

Promoters are incredibly important in SF. They’re a major component of the scene here and do amazing work. These guys are in the trenches taking risks every week to bring new ideas and fresh talent to the market.

Another important thing is creating a vibrant program of shows that are not always DJ talent driven, but rather experience driven. Great Northern and Monarch put a lot of energy into delivering shows like Art Battle, Snapshot, The Great Bingo Revival, Brunchtopia, aerialist and burlesque shows, etc. People love these kinds of events and it’s a great change from the typical DJ club show.

A lot of nightclubs require talent to bring people in the door instead of people going just to be at the club. How are you guys going to try and keep those loyal customers that aren’t reliant on talent?

Our venues are really designed to be platforms for great shows. We don’t have an expectation that people are just going to show up to the club just because they’re loyal or like the room. We aim to deliver a diverse range of programming across a wide range of genres and experiences. Many ‘clubs’ are just that…they’re clubs. The focus is to get people in the door regularly who may not know or care who is performing or what the show is. They’re just going to the ‘club’ because they like the scene or they heard it’s cool. In our view, that’s a recipe for short-term success. Ultimately the club will get played out and will likely go downhill. Our focus is to be a true venue…a canvas for different shows each night. It’s a much harder road but if done correctly can provide unlimited longevity.

What is your booking philosophy?

We aim to provide high-quality shows across a diverse range of talent. Of course, our passion is rooted house & techno as that’s where we come from. However, we try to book a broad mix of shows including hip-hop, bass, live music, and even trance. Some examples of the range of shows we’ve done include Dixon, Solomun, Maceo Plex, Kaskade, Fisher, Deadmau5, M83, Purity Ring, A Flock of Seagulls and Missing Persons. So you can see the range is pretty wide. Being in San Francisco we also do a ton of Burning Man fundraisers. Those events are a big part of our calendar and are a major part of the SF scene.

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What do you guys look for in potential employees?

Both Monarch and Great Northern have been blessed with an incredible family of staff with almost zero turnovers. We really are a family (somewhat dysfunctional at times) so it’s important to find people that fit our culture. Our values are respect, inclusiveness, honesty, integrity, creativity, lots of fun, intelligence, and extremely hard work, non-stop, all the time. That’s a lot of boxes to check, so when we find people with these shared values, we generally get married.

How do you balance all of the various platforms and companies you are involved with? How involved day to day are you with each?

It’s challenging and requires organization & stamina. It’s really about balancing my time and priorities each day. I’m 100% hands-on with Monarch, The Great Northern, and now The Pawn Shop (our new restaurant). I’m also running my other event marketing company, Up All Night. Additionally, we have several other projects coming down the pipeline. What makes this all possible is great partners for each business. We work together to accomplish a lot more than we could do on our own. We’re a pain in each other’s asses, but we get shit done.

You founded OM Records back in 1995. How have you seen the artist-label relationship shift since then?

In my opinion, it hasn’t really fundamentally changed in the dance music world. Dance music has always been very DIY artist driven. The artists get their career off the ground by DJing and making tracks in their own studios. They deliver the music to the label team, who handle the promotion, distribution, licensing, etc. Once there’s some profile for the artists they start touring, etc. Their studios get bigger and the music evolves. This pretty much holds true today. The business relationship is also essentially the same. For most of Om’s history, we had 50/50 deals with all the artists. This holds true today.

How did you get in the business?

I started DJing and producing electronic music when I was 14. After getting heaving into the industrial music scene, I discovered house music in '89, which grabbed me in a way nothing else had before. I then got into producing shows and exploring various aspects of the music business. I founded the Om label in 1995 and things took off from there. Running an independent label was extremely challenging. Again, it’s all about stamina and perseverance.

What has been the most challenging part of staying in the music business for the past three decades years?

The challenges are almost always linked to cash flow or lack thereof. Like almost any creative business the music industry is very tough -- even more so when your passion is more about quality music as opposed to commercial artists. There’s never enough money and it’s a never-ending juggling act to pay the bills and keep pushing ahead. For me, this was compounded by the very slow transition from the CD and vinyl market to on-demand streaming. This was a 20-year process where we saw the declining unit sales for nearly the entire existence of the Om label due to free MP3s, etc. I remember years where the media was continually reporting that music had no value and will be 100% free moving forward. That’s a pretty tough environment in which to run a recorded music business.

I always knew that on demand was the end game. However, I never imagined it would take two decades to get to where we are now. So, not to sound like a broken record, but it’s all about staying in the game. Now, we’re finally seeing major growth in music revenue and everyone is now paying for monthly subscriptions to listen to music.

Is there such a thing as financial stability?

I really hope so! I’ll let you know when I find out!

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