Industry Insiders: Jason Baron, Dark Knight

Jason Baron, owner of two of the Lower East Side’s finest music dens, has all the makings of a rising nightlife macher: great timing, the party bug, plus tons of famous music-making pals. Five years down the road, the Annex and Darkroom owner reveals what it takes to stay current in the ever-shifting LES.

Point of Origin: I’m from Detroit originally. I moved back here about six years ago from London where I went to university. After I finished, I assisted a fashion photographer, but found I didn’t like fashion, so I got into music. When I moved back to New York, I was still photographing bands, including all the Interpol shows. That was what helped me get a scene down here.

The Darkroom used to be another bar before, and a friend of mine was familiar with one of the owners. They wanted to sell. The only places on the street were Max Fish, Motor City, and Pianos. I found out the place was open, so I just dove headlong in. I had had experience in nightlife in London and New York doing parties with friends and DJing, but I mostly learned as I went. It turned out to be an experience because I studied economics; I didn’t study food service management or anything.

The first night [at the Darkroom] was the Libertines after party, and after that it spun out of control. Even last Monday, there were people from Stone Temple Pilots and Spiritualized®. There are always 10 to 15 bands here. It’s usually people from out of town — people from London or Los Angeles. They still come back here because it’s their only point of reference in New York and they know it will be a good time.

Occupations: We hit the ground running and became a part of the scene down here. Even to this day, with everything being built up, we still are a big part. Things went so well here we were able to find the Annex. It used to be another bar that had closed down and we rebuilt. The previous owners were six, seven months behind on rent. They hadn’t paid the liquor bills in forever but it made it really easy to get the place because the landlord was like, “Please, take it over”. Their concept was a little bit different. I don’t want to say it was tacky or anything. It was the same problem you see with places like Libation. They are trying to cater to a crowd that is only here on Friday and Saturdays. Everywhere is crowded on Friday and Saturday. You really make your money on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. I think that’s what killed them over there [at Bar Eleven]. It was more of a party than a job for Simon [owner of Eleven]. I think he took off and moved to the Jersey shore to sell T-shirts.

The idea with the Annex was to have an independent music venue because most of the other venues were controlled by Bowery Presents and AEG. Fortunately, knowing a lot of key people in the industry got us secret shows and after parties and really brought the name up. Thursday nights we have “Club NME,” and that has a huge profile. And Friday, we have “Ruff Club” — you see it in travel magazines on British Airways. Saturdays we have “Tis Was,” and it’s still doing quite well. We have bands seven days a week, and now and we have club nights after the bands Tuesday through Saturday.

What do you think has people coming back? I think it has kind of a clubhouse feel. They see other people here in their industry. Plus, they are well taken care of. It’s a destination point. When you go to certain cities, there are places you always go back to, especially if you are in the music and fashion business. We’ve never had a door policy. We charge gigs over there [at the Annex] so the bands can get paid, but that’s it. People always feel at home. There’s never a lot of press written about it. There used to be when Tricia [Romano] was at the Village Voice. She’d write “so and so was there,” and I would always get really mad. I like keeping it low-key so people know they can turn up at any time and be themselves. They don’t have to worry about someone saying they were drunk the next day to the press. Places that stick around for a long time and have a good name will grow on their own. All you have to do is keep on top of the new things — the new DJs and the new scenes. If you look at the big clubs on the west side, they blow the places up, make them huge, and pay people to come and hang out. But, then they usually close after two years. The lease at Darkroom has another 12 years and the Annex has another 15.

Known Associates: I work with Spencer Product from Ruff Club and Dimitry from High Voltage. Really everyone in the industry is just an acquaintance. A lot of the richer, older, more established club owners have more of a clique.

Where do you hang out? I go to shows, mostly. It feels like every freaking day there is someone coming in from out of town — bands calling me up to come down [to the bar]. I’d love to have a night off. I’d say I spend most of my time going to Bowery Ballroom just to keep on top of what’s happening with the music scene. As far as bars, I don’t really have a frequent hang. If anything, I go to ‘inoteca to have dinner. Is it trendy bars I’m supposed to say? I’ve been to every bar. I’ve done a lot of research.

Do you still have the exclusive basement open? No, that’s been done for a while. We used to be a lot looser with the way things worked around here, but as you grow up, you realize the consequences. I used to live upstairs from Darkroom and then upstairs from the Annex up until a year ago. The weirdest people would turn up in the middle of the night. Dave Attell did a TV show once in my apartment. Axl Rose was there one night. It used to be the most surreal shit. And usually it would just Paul [Banks] and I sitting around, going “Who are these people?” We’d be hanging out watching TV and a band would be on Saturday Night Live and then they would show up an hour later in my shitty little apartment. There are a lot of stories. Now, I’m a gentleman.

Industry Icons: Ian Schrager. He’s diversified so much, but if you remember, he was just a guy who owned a bar in Jersey and then he opened up Studio 54. He’s also a genius as far as design is concerned. Look what he’s done to the Gramercy Park Hotel. It’s amazing. He has longevity. You get the people that come in and out, open a club here, then one in LA, not focusing on anything. I know he has done things in London, but he’s always been really focused on NY. Also, Tony Wilson is an influence, the man behind Factory Records and the Hacienda Club in Manchester.

Projections: I’m working on an English pub that’s going to be in the neighborhood. I can’t really say any more about that. Someone asked me to do a bar in a hotel that will be in the area too. I think it’s the natural progression to be moving from bars to being a restaurateur to an hotelier one day. I’m engaged now. I just bought a ring. I look at it like a career. I’m still down here seven days a week.

What are you doing tonight? I’m going over to see my friend Simon [White]. He’s picking up a new band called Amazing Baby. He manages Bloc Party, CSS, and Broken Social Scene. He’s come over from London and I’m doing a special showcase for him. Supposedly, they’re amazing and going to be huge. They are playing with Bloc Party tomorrow so this is supposed to be their warm up show.