Steven Suen's Biscuit & Blues: Booking Agent With a Heart of Gold

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Located in the San Francisco theater district, Biscuits & Blues is a music venue that has been serving up live blues and Southern cuisine since March 1995. At the helm is Steven Suen, proprietor extraordinaire. Suen is also a booking agent with a heart of gold, as we found out in this interview.

Music Connection: When did you get involved in the music business?
Steven Suen: I didn’t get involved until 2006. Before that I wasn’t dreaming of any kind of music career.

MC: What is your background and why, then, a music club?
Suen: It was a business venture. My wife and I were the ones who got the club going, but she has no particular interest in music. However, we were introduced to this place because it was going under. We were friends with the landlord, and he told me they were looking for somebody to keep Biscuits & Blues going. I was in real estate, and when my wife and I walked into the club she said, “I like it.” And there was a real “wow” factor for me. I didn’t really want to run a restaurant, let alone a music club. And being a blues club, I didn’t even know what blues was at that time.

MC: So how did you learn about blues music and develop this passion for it?
Suen: The passion came after I saw that my wife liked the music there. So I said maybe we’ll dive into this thing and take over. There was already a booking agent, general manager and all those people in place. I said to everyone there, “We’re going to bring the best jazz there is to this club.” That’s what I said to them. They realized the day I took over I didn’t know what blues was. One thing I did know was, when I became the new owner, I told the staff the one thing we need here is music quality.

I started spending time in the club every night and I realized the quality was not there. They’d be playing some middle of the road band and I knew I had to develop criteria for booking bands. I was at the club 24-7 and became very hands-on. But during this process I picked up the passion because I realized I had to learn a lot more about the blues. I realized this was not a commodity I was trading.

This is a very special place that is meant for the musicians. It is more like a playground for them. During the course of that this whole thing was not about money. It’s about building relationships and nurturing these people.

MC: You already mentioned quality music acts but, specifically, what kind of artists are you looking for?
Suen: We play a lot of artists who are very, very good and famous. Many are Grammy winners like Charlie Musslewhite, Elvin Bishop, John Lee Hooker, Jr. and Joe Bonamassa. And one thing we never did in over 20 years this has been a music club is deviated from the blues. And during hard financial times I’m sticking to my guns and not changing the format. We’re doing something special here. We’re not for profit.

MC: It’s interesting that you say “not for profit.” Can you explain that?
Suen: I don’t draw a salary from this place. But I make sure everyone else gets paid. I also cover all positions when necessary: marketing, promotions, website, serving, bussing tables, washing dishes. It’s not something that I want to do, but as I said, I am hands-on and sometimes you have to fill in.

MC: How do you find the artists you want to book at Biscuits & Blues?
Suen: There are a lot of up-and-coming artists who are very good but are not known yet. I try to go around the country as best I can and bring them into the club for a feature. Once a year in January I go to Memphis and attend the International Blues Challenge (IBC). There are bands from all over the world that come to this thing. I spend six nights there running up and down Beale Street checking out all the bars featuring bands engaged in this competition. I’ve been doing that for the last four years.

About six years ago I also would attend the Blues Music Awards in Memphis in May. They award the top artists in business and touring. I try to build relationships with artists I think have talent and will fly them in to play my club. I will pay for a band’s hotel and give them some money to take home. And they are very appreciative. I don’t think there is anyone out there doing that.

MC: I would agree! Do you have this expense worked into your budget and then hedge your bets that a band will bring the crowds in for you?
Suen: I’ve been successful in bringing talent into the club. If a band is unknown, that’s okay because we have a really good website, with video and information on our upcoming artists. The people in San Francisco are particularly responsive to new talent. Also, our club is very intimate and affordable. There are only 120 seats, and anyone is no farther than nine yards from the stage. Every angle in the room is great.

Contact Steven Suen,  steven@biscuitsandblues.com