Jeff Shuman lives, eats, breathes and sleeps talent-buying at the Observatory. That isn't a figure of speech–when he isn't working there, he actually sleeps there. His commute home after an all-night show is a 50-yard schlep out the rear side exit to an old, white RV in the back of the Observatory parking lot. Once inside, he flops down on his bed and prepares to do it all again the next day.
Being the driving force behind the most important venue in Orange County leaves little time for slumber anyway. Keeping the show calendar full almost every night of the week (often with multiple shows) makes him elusive. He rarely does interviews or responds to press inquiries.
“I've always been super-low-key. It's not important for me for people to know that I'm a promoter,” says Shuman, sitting cross-legged on a couch inside the Observatory's green room. He's sporting a thick beard, and his longish brown hair is gathered into a ponytail. “The exciting thing is more about the artists and the shows and the kids who come. People don't really care about who the promoter is.”
But behind the scenes, Shuman has helped bring plenty of shine to OC, supplying acts such as Kendrick Lamar, Morrissey and Lauryn Hill to hungry local crowds and scores of fans used to carting themselves to LA for a big-ticket show. As an independent, all-ages venue, the Observatory (and its deep-pocketed owners and investors) created a phenomenon in OC, where the ability to bid aggressively for the biggest acts in the world has made it (and Shuman) a crushing force in OC entertainment. In January, a second venue in the North Park area of San Diego was announced; it's already pumping out sold-out shows.
Shuman's main asset is the ability to tap into the sounds and styles that escape the mainstream radar. “A big part of what I like to do here is make sure [fans] know that we're into the music, just like they are,” Shuman says. “We're not just booking the big artists; we're also booking the next one that they're thinking about.”
Having grown up in Oxnard and cutting his teeth as a promoter in Santa Barbara, booking acts such as Bon Iver and St. Vincent, he got turned on to Detroit Bar in Costa Mesa (now the Wayfarer) in the mid-2000s before leaving for the Observatory and helping to build its mini live-music empire. “I don't have anyone to really answer to, as far as how we do our thing and how we do our business, how much we pay artists,” says Shuman. “Whatever we wanna do, we do on our own because we don't have a giant company looking over our shoulder.”
Utilizing the 1,000-person capacity of the main room and the smaller 350-capacity Constellation Room allowed him to organize overgrown local festivals such as the Growlers Beach Goth Party and Burger Records' yearly hipsterati extravaganza, Burgerama. This year, Shuman even snagged '90s alt-rock gods Weezer to headline Burgerama 4.
As far as Shuman is concerned, whether or not the shows sell out, he'd like to continue booking artists he genuinely enjoys and who are worth the trip–whether it's driving down to San Diego or walking back to his RV.
“If I don't book shows here, then I'll be just as bored as the next person sitting at home,” Shuman says. “Instead, they can say, 'Cool–there's this show tonight. Let's go.'”