[Editor's note: This is the first installment in a new Star Tribune series spotlighting key players in the Twin Cities music scene, many working behind the scenes.]

It's one thing to book bands charging $20-plus at the door. How about doing it at venues that never charge a cover? Laura Westley-Williams has been facing that challenge in the Twin Cities for over a decade now, working at the vibrant 331 Club (where her colleague Jason Woolery does the booking) and now serving as talent buyer at the 331′s sister venue, the White Squirrel Bar in St. Paul — all spaces well known for their eclectic music bookings.

Here's a recent, edited conversation with Westley-Williams.

Q: What are the biggest challenges in booking a no-cover venue?

A: Balancing interesting music with pleasing our audience. I really want creative, interesting things in the room, and I want to represent as much of the Twin Cities scene in there as I can. Some things I've tried just didn't work with the space. Especially for such a small space, there has to be a connection with the people who come in.

At another venue, if there's a $10 cover that people pay to get in, they've already committed to it being something they want to see. When you have venues like these, you have to balance your clientele that's not there to see that specific band with the clientele that is there for that, and trying to satisfy them all.

Q: How do you pay bands without getting any door money?

A: I've worked places that pay off a bar [sales] percentage, but we don't do that. We have a flat fee, which is usually $150 during the week and $200 on weekends. For payment beyond that we encourage the acts to ask for tips.

As much as I love the Midwest, people asking for money is not something they like to do. On the East Coast where I'm from, if people want you to put money in the tip jar they will ask you directly. Here, they want it but a lot of times they don't want to say it. So we try to pitch in and let people know: We're not requiring that you pay money at the door, but we are asking you to pay some money once you're already in. It's a show, and you're enjoying it. So pay up!

And part of how you make a no-cover venue work is you make the venue itself enticing. The bartenders, the hospitality, the audience are all part of the appeal. And sometimes bands think, "It may not be a lot of money, but it'll be a lot of fun to play there." We work hard to make sure the band has a good time playing there and it's appealing.

Q: How did you get into booking in the first place?

A: I went to a lot of shows with my dad when I was a kid. Some people get into music and want to play it. I just wanted to be there. My dream job when I was a kid — besides being a screenwriter — was to be a roadie. I just wanted to be around bands, but not be onstage.

So I started hosting house parties with bands. And then my best friend and I in about 2006 decided,"Let's throw some shows," and we were both into hip-hop. This was in [Washington] D.C. We did this show called Hip-Hop in its Essence for Real — or "H.E.R." We were sort of instantly successful. We had a great venue, great reaction, and we'd get national hip-hop acts like Bahamadia, Immortal Technique, Lyrics Born, 9th Wonder, plus D.C. had a great local hip-hop scene.

But that scene was hard to find. One of the things that's great about the Twin Cities scene is it's obvious where the music is and who's doing it. That's one of the reasons our shows in D.C. went so well, it put a spotlight on the local scene.

Q: What brought you to Minnesota?

A: I met and for a while dated a guy in a Minnesota band who was very popular here, and still is [Sean McPherson of Heiruspecs]. Through him, I instantly met a lot of musicians and made a lot of connections here. I didn't move here just for him, though. I came here for the scene, too. I just fell in love with it.

Q: What's the best concert you've ever been to?

A: My favorite all-time band to see live was TV on the Radio. But I became sober about six months ago. And in that time, I saw Blonde Redhead at the Amsterdam Bar, and I think that might now be my favorite. I could've lived in that room, stayed there if they played 24 hours. And it was great to experience that being completely sober, and the natural high coming just from the music.

Q: What's one thing every newbie band wanting to get a gig should know?

A: Think about your email before you send it. Put as much information in there as possible. Having too much information in there is much preferred to, 'Hey, I'm looking for a gig. Thanks.' Put some links in there and tell me about your band. Come up with a way to describe yourself, and how you sound, because it's something you'll be asked a lot. And get a good band photo.

Q: What's the greatest joy you get from this job?

A: Seeing people enjoying the music. Seeing a happy room makes me so happy. Really seeing people enjoying what's onstage, and being a part of that, it's such a thrill. A happy room, when the band is happy, the people in the bar are happy, and everybody is just vibing. There are a lot of moments like that, thankfully.

Tuesdays are my favorite nights at White Squirrel because we have this 6-8 p.m. music [twang aces Mary Cutrufello and Dan Lowinger] that generally attracts more of a middle-aged-and-up crowd, and then at 9 there's a show for younger folks who like to stay out till midnight. And you'll see people stay for both, or some of the young people come out early. That experience is so beautiful.