A band needs an audience. An audience needs a band. A promoter needs both.
For a Song
There will always be music that pulls you somewhere else to sports stadiums miles away, to pavilions named after automakers, to huge, once-in-a-lifetime events.
But what about the music that keeps you here?
Meet the people in charge of it all: The music you hear in the neighborhood café. The bands you can hear on a weekday night and still make work the next morning. The concerts around the corner and down the street.
They may never get rich, but Richmond's concert promoters get a charge from shaping the music of your hometown. The music of the here and now.
Age: 56 Venue: Poe's Pub
Primary genre: American roots music
How did you get involved in doing this? We first started putting on shows in high school. We'd get a band and find a space and put on a dance. Then along came the '60s and me and a couple of my buddies put on the first psychedelic dance in the state of Virginia at the old Tantilla Garden ballroom, which was down on Broad Street; it's torn down now. We put that on August 4, 1969. We [sold] it out and lost money because it costs more to produce a show than we could take in at the gate. And I've been losing money on live music ever since. What do you get out of it? [Chuckles.] Monetarily, very little. I just love music and I love being around it, and if there's a way I can further it around Richmond, I try to do my share to keep a viable and lively and exciting music scene in Richmond.
It's always been difficult to make money promoting music, and I think anybody that does promote music will tell you that. I don't think I've ever met anybody that's gotten rich off promoting music. It's like you make a lot on one show and you lose on the next two. But there's no way to know. I do it because it's just a passion and a love of mine. I certainly couldn't say I do it for the money. What's your most rewarding show? Wow, there have been so many of them. Well, the closing weekend of the Moondance was certainly a real barnburner. That was two nights of five or six bands each night. The years of High on the Hog have been particularly rewarding, we've really done some wonderful bands there and had some great moments. I don't know, every now and then a night will just catch fire and take on a life of its own. It's just a wonderful feeling when it's way too hot and people are sweatin' and there's way too much cigarette smoke and way too much beer and the music's just loud. It's just a wonderful thing. Would you recommend this field? Oh shoot no! [Chuckles.] I wouldn't recommend it unless you really like it. It's a lot of work and generally it doesn't reward you much financially. What do you do during the day? Some of the day gets involved with Poe's stuff: promotions and booking and band stuff. Gosh, I go to the pool sometimes in the summer, listen to music, run errands, do laundry. I always work at night. I haven't had a day job in so long, I don't know what it would be like. What's your favorite club? I really enjoy going to Southern Culture to see Johnny Hott on Sunday nights. Alan Davis over at Shenanigans has good bluegrass music a lot. I guess my favorite club in town would have to be Poe's Pub, but I like going out to see live music all over the place. I don't really care where it is. What's wrong or right with the music scene in Richmond? Richmond is not a user-friendly city to the arts in general, particularly live music. The lack of support isn't from the public, it's from the city. It seems to me, you get rid of the 6 percent admissions tax [on all ticketed events in the city of Richmond] and bring some music into town and the whole city would benefit. You want to get downtown Richmond going, then don't tax them to death and charge them a fortune in parking tickets. Richmond has the potential of being a tremendous music city. Austin is one of the most music-friendly cities, and that's from the city-government level. You walk into the visitors' bureau and they hand you a map of all the clubs and music venues in town. They're proud of their music.
Age: "Older than 30."
Venue: Ashland Coffee & Tea Primary genres: Folk rock, Americana, jazz
What did you know about booking bands before you did this? Not a damn thing. This is called seat of the pants. We were approached by musicians who said, "Do you want some music in your coffee shop?" So we tried it, and that was before we had the music room. And that seemed to go over very well. So when we decided to open the room, we went to William Perritt, who is now a founding member of Rodeo Clown, and we asked William if he knew of any musicians that might want to play. And so he gave us some names. From that original group, most were pretty unwilling to play because we couldn't afford to pay at the time. How much were you paying? We said we'd feed them and let them put out a tip jar. So basically tips and dinner. And we operated that way for a very long time. I don't think in the beginning that any of them ever made any money, but we're a listening room. It's different from any place in Richmond. We're smoke-free, so it's not a smoky bar. People will actually come here and listen to the music. They're not here to drink too much and pick up girls. And it is such a diverse crowd, which you don't see either in most of the Richmond bars. Where do you get most of your audience? Are they coming from the counties, from Richmond or from Ashland? We have a good core Ashland support system that comes out to listen to music on a regular basis. Now that the word is spreading about the shop, people are getting in their cars from Richmond. We have customers from Fredericksburg. For the Todd Snider concert, we had a couple come from Michigan. The husband did it as a birthday surprise for his wife. How do you find bands? They're finding me. It's to the point now that there isn't a day that goes by that someone doesn't send me a CD in the mail. How do you choose? We listen to the CDs, and read the promo that comes with it, generally try to talk to the bands, see where they've played, if they're experienced. One of our deciding factors is that we need to hear them and go see them, because it's really important how a band interacts with an audience. What has surprised you most about being a show promoter? How nice musicians are. I think that they're just happy to play their music. And they do it generally for the love of playing. And I'm finding it more and more. There are those few out there that are in it for the money, but for the most part, to sit and watch a musician play his music, they go to this other realm. It's just absolutely incredible. What have you learned about the Richmond-area music scene? That there are an awful lot of talented musicians out there, and not that many places for them to play.
Murty Gollakota and Damian Riddell: Starry Eyed Stories
Ages: Gollakota, 25; Riddell, 24
Venues: Alley Katz, Hole in the Wall, Chopstix Primary genres: Indie rock, electronic music
How did you get into this? Riddell: I think ... about a year and a half ago, me and Murty were just kind of sick of not having any bands that we wanted to go see. Gollakota: The main thing was, the bands that we did want to see, normally they would play in Chapel Hill or D.C., and, you know, we felt that there was a strong community of show-goers here that validated bands stopping by here instead of just skipping us. And we were personally tired of driving all the way to D.C. to go see shows. What's the range of money you make from shows? Gollakota: Anywhere from thirty dollars to like a hundred on our best night. And the great thing about that is that that money is pooled toward pulling a bigger band with a bigger guarantee. How do you find bands? Riddell: Mainly we just go to different booking agents. They usually have a list of availables who are touring, and you just get into contact with an agency ... and you pick out which ones: OK, you know, in three months, God Speed You Black Emperor is gonna be coming through this area, and you just get in touch with their individual booking agent, and you make them an offer. How do you get them to play here? Riddell: We offer money. [Laughs.] What about the Faint? That was kind of a big show for you, wasn't it? Riddell: Well, they had actually played a number of times in Virginia before.... One time they played in Roanoke and I actually drove and went to see that show... It was an amazing show with, like, Mile Marker and the Fugue, Camera Obscura and the Faint, which I mean would've been huge anywhere else and there was like 12 people there in Roanoke... They realized there wasn't anywhere else to play in Virginia [other than Richmond] that was going to get a good draw. So how do you get a large draw? Riddell: It's just a lot of fliering, a lot of going to Style and Punchline. You can edit out the Punchline part! [Laughs.] You know, just like going to other shows and handing out handbills, putting each other's fliers up in Virginia Beach, Harrisonburg. What's the way not to? Have you guys ever messed up a show? Riddell: Yeah, there's been a few of those shows. One thing was early shows. Those are a really bad idea. Another thing in Richmond that's a big problem: Like, a band may be really big and may be interviewed by [college-rock magazines] Option and CMJ and stuff like that and doing really well in the charts, but they might not necessarily be that band that'll keep people there till the end of the show. So sometimes you have to stack the bands and have some 18-year-old kids as the headliner when you've got a band that's been selling out shows in New York, because people will just leave. Why is that? Riddell: People just come to see their friends' bands. Depending on the band. A band like the Faint, we could keep people. What other obstacles do you have? Riddell: There's so many kids in Richmond, like South Side, West End and ... I don't know, I'm not really even familiar with outside of Richmond [laughs] but they don't really come out to shows. They don't drive in. How would you fix that? Riddell: We need a radio station. I think that's the major thing. I think there's a lot of kids out there who would love to see Octant, who would've probably driven from Charlottesville or South Side but they didn't know what they sounded like. It's hard to convey a sense of the band. We're working with word-of-mouth most of the time. It would just be easier if we had radio stations that played something besides crappy Top 40. Do bands seem to like playing here? Riddell: Well, like it depends on where they're coming from. I remember when we had Death Cab for Cutie, they said Richmond was the best city of their entire tour. Gollakota: Yeah, especially on the East Coast. They said they had some horrible shows and they loved it here. And we try to get 'em to come back. And they, they won't. [Both laugh.]
Venues: Varied including Innsbrook, Mulligan's, the Landmark, Carpenter Center.
Primary genre: "Music that is constructive healthy stuff."
Do you get to enjoy the shows you produce? I probably see about 15 minutes of every concert I put on. But it's still an artistic output for me. Even though I'm not singing or playing an instrument, I'm still part of the presentation. Is there any money in this business? It's possible to make money at this, but it's more the rule that you're happy to be in the black and you'd better be raising money for your salary. Gross ticket sales alone rarely make it, even for the big guys. That's why you see the Verizons and the other sponsors. Do you ever jam with the musicians you hire? Sometimes they offer to play with me, but I'm too embarrassed or humble to take them up on it. Tuck Andress had this 1943 Gibson hollow-body guitar and asked me if I wanted to play it... But I said no. What does it take to get a band to perform here? Usually the money will get the artists here. Contract riders are extremely detailed, with the catering, the lodging, the production specs. They do this day in and day out and know what they need to have. If we can't accommodate them, it's not going to work. Which shows that you've produced are your favorites? The Out of This World Guitar series with Mars Music was a favorite. Steve Howe, Leo Kottke, Phil Keaggy, Tuck and Patti, Eric Johnson they were great shows. We were the last concert at the Flood Zone before it closed. That was Sixpence None the Richer. The night before the show they flew the red-eye after doing the Jay Leno show and came here to close the Flood Zone. That was a milestone, I guess you could say. Who are the rising stars to watch? Burlap to Cashmere I hope make it back here. ...They play a mix of Latin influences with bouzouki, Greek styles, flamenco guitar, all homogenized into a pop sound. It's good musicianship but accessible to the public. We're also doing a bluegrass festival with Ricky Skaggs and Del McCoury, Saturday, September 22nd at Innsbrook. Is Richmond a good venue for performers? It may sound cheesy but there's a great heart in Richmond. There are so many people here who may have lost money on a show but had great intentions. There's actually a lot more going on here than you might see in a larger town. Everybody really wants it to happen here. Maybe we'll get on the map. How do you want Sea of Sound Productions to be known? We'll try anything. We really want to put a positive twist on everything that we do. With so much negative message out there in the music industry, we're not trying to censor, we just want to put a constructive message out there.
Primary genre: Punk, metal
How did you get into promoting? I had been in bands and DJ'ed. I had a good grasp of the entertainment side of it and had gone to school for business management. I'd thrown some big rave parties and I'd made a name for myself by bringing some big-name DJs. I used to manage The Factory, which is now Sweetwater, and we got shut down. I'd gotten an offer to come over and take over Twisters and I've been there ever since. What's difficult about booking shows in Richmond? The most frustrating thing is knowing when to say when. If a band is looking for too much and you know you're not going to be able to provide it, if you know going in on the show you're going to lose money, you have to say no. You also have to allow the stress that club situations create on you just kind of roll off of you. You can't let it eat away at you too much. Who do you think out of the whole local punk and metal genre are up-and-coming? Strike Anywhere is one of my favorite bands out there. They're very high energy and remind me of the D.C. Dischord [Records] days. It's fresh, creative and it leans more towards a metal kind of edge. I think you're going to see some success with Sixxer, the Suffolk Airplane, River City High, Ann Berrata, Alabama Thunderpussy, Darkest Hour, From Earth to Ashes, Cephid, 30 Day Warranty. The list is forever growing What's the biggest rule in promoting? You reap what you sow. I truly believe there's a karma that exists with promoting. If you treat the bands right and you don't lie to them and say they're coming into the Taj Mahal, you're going to get good shows. The key is in doing the right thing. Is there a drug scene in Richmond? With the recent troubles clubs have had, has that rubbed off on Twisters? There's drugs in all little cliques and scenes, but it seems the rave scene has been targeted recently, and it's a shame because most of those kids are very positive kids and not all of them do drugs. A lot of them just go to dance and have a good time. I think it's been unfairly labeled and I think that a lot of clubs in Richmond have been unfairly targeted for a problem they really can't control. Drug dealers don't usually go around announcing they're selling drugs. They have their own discreet way to avoid management. I know a lot of kids have tried stuff at Twisters and it has been brought to my attention and I've had no choice but to have them put them out. What do you get out of promoting? The music was my main motivation and music was a big part of my life. I get that out of it, the sense that I'm doing something I enjoy and I'm able to make a comfortable living out of it. I was part of the punk scene in the early and mid-'80s. A lot of my positive experiences that I've been through have been with those scenes. It's good to still be involved. What has been your most rewarding show? I think the Misfits. They did their first show of their reunion tour here the spring of 1996. It was their first gig after, I think, 13 years. The actual start of their tour was at Twisters. On the back of the tour T-shirt it had the dates and the clubs. Twisters was at the top.
Editor's Note: Less than a week after Burd gave this interview, Twisters shut its doors and put Burd out of a job, at least for now. At this writing, he is working to find new venues for bands he had booked for Twisters.
WES and JYL Freed
Ages: Wes, 37; Jyl, 39
Venue: Fireballz, various
Primary genres: Alternative country, rock
How did you get into this? Jyl Freed: About four years ago, Wes and the guys from Used Carlotta [an alt-country band from Richmond] got the idea to put on a monthly showcase for, well, basically the kind of music we like alternative country, bluegrass, country, Southern rock. Everyone else dropped out, for various reasons, and people still equate Wes and I with the Barn Dance, but the truth is that everyone in [the Freeds' band] the Shiners does equal time to make it happen. What do you get out of it? Well, a lot, really. We've met so many great people from all over the country the world, if you count that country band from Bavaria. We get introduced to a lot of bands we and Richmond might never have had a chance to see otherwise. In some cases we get bands that tour, but just don't have enough of a name to get booked in bigger places here. And not for lack of talent, lemme tell you! Basically we're just hillbilly goodwill ambassadors. How much money do you make doing this? As promoters, we don't take any money. Whatever is collected at the door is split between the bands. Sometimes we remember to take out the money we spent on advertising to pay ourselves back, but lemme tell you, I've written a lot personal checks for Barn Dance expenses. We're nice people, but not good business people. How do you find out about bands? Well, in the very beginning we had to scout a few out. But that changed real quick, and folks pretty much contact us now. Plus, we see a lot of great bands when our band plays out of town that we really want to introduce Richmond to. The hardest part, and it is hard, of what we do is saying "no" to people who ask to play. It isn't that we don't think they're great, but we have three slots, once a month, and that's it. Most rewarding show? Probably the one where Cracker, with Joan Osborne, played for free to help the Barn Dance accrue some money to pay future bands and to help promote us. We are eternally grateful to them for that, we really are. They totally understood what we were trying to do, and because of them, we were able to afford to guarantee money to bands we wouldn't normally be able to get, and got a lot of further attention. What have you learned? Never count on anything, and don't take anything personally. What's the best way to get a large turnout? Advertise free beer and naked ladies, but the ABC won't let you do that. So we're looking for other suggestions. Brandon Walters
Venue: Cary St. Café Primary music genre: Jam bands, bluegrass
How did you get involved in the business? I do love music and I always wanted a bar. And I'd seen the Dead for a super long time. So when I bought my own place I wanted to have that scene but smaller for all my friends. I just sort of accidentally started [getting bands to perform]. Some friends of mine had a band and wanted to play we didn't even have a stage then. Before I knew it, it was seven nights a week.
What do you get out of it? I'm not going to get rich, that's for sure. The bigger bands that we get, we can barely cover our costs on, so it's not about that. There's nothing better than standing in the back and looking around at all the smiles on everybody's face and watching everybody dance. Would you recommend the field? I guess I would recommend it, but it would depend on a lot of things like how much time and effort you want to put into it, and if you want to live and breathe it. It never stops. How do you find bands? Mostly they find me. The only time I ever contacted a band was the Jerry Garcia Band. That was probably the first big band that I ever had play here and then after that [in 1996], it was word of mouth. I probably get 25 to 40 demos a week from different bands. We stay booked up for months in advance. We're never hurting for bands. I go to a lot of festivals, which is a really good way to get bands because you get to see how they perform live and the audience's reaction to them. Because it's not just about what I like, it's about what everybody likes. How much money do you make doing this? We just make money off of in-house sales, we don't make any money off of the door. That's one reason bands like to play here, [the money made at the door] is theirs. I've been doing this for six years and it took me like four years to start showing a profit. I'm never going to be rich doing it, but I don't really care because I'm happy doing it. What do you do during the day? I get up at six o'clock in the morning, have coffee, read the paper, get my daughter up, spend some time with her. Then I come in to work at about nine o'clock, spend some time there, run errands. Then I do a lot or work at home on the computer: a lot of the contact with the bands, making the calendar, booking. What's wrong and right with the music scene in Richmond? I don't understand why Richmond can't support a large venue like the Flood Zone or the Canal Club. I don't think there's anything wrong with the music scene. I just wish a bigger venue like [the Canal Club] would get it together. A lot of people think it's an easy business to get in and it's just not. What's frustrating? The biggest frustration is when you get a really great band and there's nobody here to see them. Favorite club? My own. I'm not kidding. I'm not saying that just because it's mine. I always wanted a bar and I sort of developed this for myself and my friends to feel comfortable at. I'll go out and we'll say, "OK, we're going to go somewhere else," because you get sick of seeing the same four walls all the time. And inevitably we end up here. Carrie Nieman
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