“Want the grand tour?”
Heath Miller proudly guides me through the newly renovated White Eagle Hall in Jersey City, NJ – the latest music venue partner for his concert promotion company, Excess dB Entertainment. Miller has been well-respected in the local music scene for over 15 years, and while we crossed paths electronically in the early days, this is the first time we have properly met in person.
He leads me into the main event hall where Matt Pond PA and Wild Pink will perform that night. I am immediately impressed by the spacious room, elevated stage, and dimly lit seating area near the swanky bars. Surely this venue could rival its neighbors across the river and encourage even the most loyal NYC music fans to hop on the PATH. As I share my enthusiasm for perhaps the only part of White Eagle Hall some concert-goers have seen aside from the pristine restrooms, Heath motions above and below. With a separate bar area and balcony overhead as well as two hip restaurants underneath the hall, White Eagle offers much more than initially meets the eye.
Miller and I make our way to the immaculate backstage area, complete with a highly coveted and rarely found at venues appliance – a washer and dryer combo. Any touring musician understands the excitement of this surprising addition. White Eagle Hall’s hospitality is further emphasized by the comfortable green room and private hideaways for performers.
We sit down in the opening band’s cushy alcove and start at the beginning. Our surroundings are Miller’s present and future reality, but I am most interested in how they came to be. I attended countless Excess dB shows in high school and ask about the company’s initial formation. Miller’s background in music parallels mine, having paid his dues and completed several internships early on, one of which was working for a recording studio and sound company.
“One day, I was doing sound at a show in West Orange, and the person who was running the shows there was doing an ok job, but I thought, ‘I think I can do this!’ So, I tried booking a couple of my friends’ bands there, and it actually worked.”
Miller continued booking local shows and even managed a few bands in college. In the early 2000s, small music venues (or businesses/restaurants adapted to serve that purpose) were a treasured refuge for New Jersey teenagers, myself included. I ask about the clubs he misses the most.
“I miss Club Krome and Rexplex. When I was booking Krome, I didn’t really know 100% what I was doing. It was definitely super DIY even though it was a semi-legit venue. I did so many crazy awesome shows there…I had just started booking Rexplex when Krome closed. Every time I did a show there, for the most part, we were building the stage, bringing the sound system in, and hanging stage curtains. That’s probably why my back hurts today.”
The opening band asks to use their space for a final rehearsal before they entertain the crowd, so Miller and I relocate to the fire escape. The balmy September air is reminiscent of summer nights recently lost. I ask if he remembers any favorite shows from the early days. He takes out his phone, fires up the cloud, and scrolls back in time.
“I did a show with Matt Pond at Blend in Ridgewood, NJ nine years ago. I actually miss Blend. It was a really small room, like 200-300 people. It was basically the basement of a restaurant – really nice and upscale. My favorite show that I ever did there was Blind Melon. I had a three-year run when I did a ton of Blind Melon shows, and they all crushed. I was like the king of Blind Melon for New Jersey and New York.”
Along with booking well-known acts, Miller also began breaking new bands with an intuitive ear, taking them under his wing, and encouraging them to fly.
“It feels good when you’re the first person to give a band a shot, and they become massive. I remember paying Paramore $100. I remember Hayley Williams’ dad being on tour with her at Bloomfield Avenue Café and knowing there was something there. I gave her respect even though she was 16 and other promoters on the tour wouldn’t and saw her as a little girl.”
Even with his unwavering support, Miller emphasizes the importance of musicians doing their part to complement concert promoter efforts.
“At the end of the day, no one holds a gun to my head to book a band and to pay them a certain amount. I choose to take that risk, and it’s on me – unless a band drastically doesn’t live up to their obligations like doesn’t post the show on their social media pages or list the show with the correct venue and tour date on their website. This is a group effort. When I put out a message into the world, people know I’m trying to sell them something that they may or may not want. When an artist pushes a message to their fan base in the local market, it’s the message the fan base wants to hear, and they will go see the artist live. The artist is the most credible messenger – not me.”
The opening band starts playing inside, and I ask what other challenges Miller comes across in his profession.
“The challenging part is it’s a very competitive market with large corporations involved. Sometimes, getting the shows you really truly want is challenging. The hardest part of the job is when things go drastically wrong, shows cancel, or when you don’t get a show that you really thought you were going to get. Also, there are variables you can’t deal with like when a venue closes and you already have a lot of shows booked there. I have a responsibility when I book a show. Even when I’m booking under the employment of another company, people look at me as the one holding the bag of shit that has to try and fix it. I have a reputation, and I need to preserve that reputation.”
Knowing Miller is often kept on his toes and serves as a miracle worker in stressful situations, I switch gears to the positive.
“The best part of my job is I spend my day I front of a computer doing stuff that at night gets to be fun for me, my friends, and people I don’t know. Very rarely, unless you work in the music business, do you go, ‘Ugh, I have to go to a concert tonight.’ I might say that on a week when I just want to go home and go to sleep, but I get to produce fun stuff at the end of the day.”
Miller’s eyes light up as he explains his personal philosophy on concerts.
“You go to a doctor because you don’t feel well and you want to get better. You go to a concert because it makes you feel great regardless of how you felt going in. You can’t replicate and download the concert experience from home. You go to see a band, to hear a band, to feel a band, to have an adult beverage or not, to meet people or not meet people – your choice.”
We must soon wrap up our conversation, and Miller ends on a heartfelt note – literally. He mentions a special instance when a concertgoer sent him a letter explaining how his work literally saved her life. She started attending Excess dB shows when she was lonely and suicidal. At Miller’s events, she found friends, a community, and something to be a part of – a hope that gave her strength to press on.
“It’s things like that which doesn’t happen often, but it really resonates. You gave someone an outlet to have friends. You gave someone something to do that empowered them and made them feel better about their life. Sometimes, life can be hard, but you can forget about it all when you’re seeing your favorite band.”
I nod in agreement and think of all the times in my life when Miller’s statement proved true – perhaps too many to count. We return inside White Eagle Hall, and I realize that Miller and I are just two Jersey kids with similar stories, drive, and motivation: music and the incalculable joy that comes with it.