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Backstage confidential 

Eight promoters discuss the ins and outs of the Colorado Springs music scene

For every thousand kids who fantasize about growing up to be rock stars, you'd be lucky to find even one whose dream is to become a concert promoter.

True, concert industry revenues have slowly risen while record sales have fallen, but live music promoters continue to operate behind the scenes. With the noteworthy exception of the larger-than-life Bill Graham, none of them have come close to becoming household names. Even for touring musicians, the promoter's main claim to fame is being the person who pays you at the end of the night.

So why do it?

Well, there's money in it, theoretically, but that doesn't explain the vast number of promoters who work day-jobs and put shows together on their own time. More likely, it's the opportunity to be involved in something you love, namely music, and the satisfaction of knowing a show wouldn't have happened without you.

To understand how all that works on a local level, we put together a round-table discussion with some of Colorado Springs most accomplished promoters:

• Lauren Andrus (Modbo, Acacia Park Summer Concert Series)

• Brian Fortinberry (Front Range Barbeque)

• Steve Harris (MeadowGrass Music Festival)

• John Hooton (Stargazers Theatre and Event Center)

• Chris Huffine (Black Sheep)

• Andrea Nyquist (World Arena, Pikes Peak Center)

• Bryan Ostrow (Triple Nickel Tavern)

• Amy Whitesell (Blues Under the Bridge, A Music Company)

Topics during the hour-plus gathering ranged from below-the-radar house shows to festival and arena events; from manic booking agents to out-of-control "convenience" fees; from local bands jeopardizing their careers to drunken metal fans flipping over a van and setting it on fire.

It was that kind of conversation.

Indy: Let's begin by talking about some of the ways promoters get into the music business. Chris, didn't you start out doing house shows?

Huffine: Yeah, I did house shows, worked on a few tours, and did club shows at Jack Quinn's and H.W. Briggs. I also did some warehouse and gallery shows in Denver — I think it was around 2001 that I really got into that — on top of my house shows.

Indy: So how many house shows got closed down by the cops?

Huffine: Uh, we never actually got shut down. We did have some problems at one point, because of the Independent actually ...

[Laughter.]

Indy: Which was way before my time, I should point out.

Huffine: Way before your time, yeah. They did some little write-up on us and for some reason put our address in. And we never put our address on our fliers; people knew where it was, and word of mouth got people there. And so, of course, like clockwork at the next show, the cops came knocking on the door. They were like: "Hey, you guys, you gotta keep it quiet, and you can't charge money." But we had a box that said "DONATIONS," which skirted some sort of law.

And after that we did Operation Quiet Riot. One of my friends worked in a radio station that went out of business, so we took pretty much ALL the soundproofing and put it all in the basement. And after that, we were fine for about three or four years.

Indy: Anyone else start out with really small informal shows?

Ostrow: That's kind of what I did, too. I had a house in Falcon back in '06, and we did these Falcon Fests where we had like 10 bands play. And we, like, flipped a friend's van over and lit it on fire. And somehow the cops came, I don't know how that happened. But that was when I first started really booking a lot of bands and stuff.

Indy: Once you flip a van over and set it on fire, it's hard to stop.

Ostrow: Exactly, it's addicting.

Indy: Do they explode when they catch fire?

Ostrow: Technically I think they probably do, but luckily it didn't this time. We weren't really in our right minds, we were hopped up on booze and metal.

Indy: Anyone else?

Whitesell: Sure, yeah. I started with the Pikes Peak Blues Community in 2003. We started slow, and Brian [Fortinberry] was right there with us the whole time. And that was how I gained my experience booking acts, because we put together shows and brought in people. So that's how that started.

Fortinberry: The first band that wanted to play my place actually came to me. I wasn't even thinking about having music there. But Tim Zahn from Johnny and the Jukes showed up and kept pestering me over and over again. And finally I was like, "Let's do something on the patio." And so they showed up and it was an instant success. So we did Zydeco Patio every Sunday out there for like two or three years.

Indy: Lauren, you started as a professional musician, right?

Andrus: Yeah, I'm a classical pianist and that's what I did for a living until recently. I played all my life, and I still teach. But I just started trying to play non-dead white guys in a band called Swelter and Burn, where I play piano and sing.

Indy: You're playing live white guys now?

Andrus: Well, now I'm doing live white girls, which sounds like a different kind of show entirely. I'm still playing classically and accompanying where I can, but I just took a big-girl job, so I'm not trying to make a living as a pianist anymore. And it's a relief, frankly, because after you spend enough time practicing for someone's kid's Suzuki violin recital, you get kind of tired of playing piano for money.

Indy: [To Ostrow] You're also in a band ...

Ostrow: Yeah, I'm in a band called Blighter, and then a two-piece zombie-thrash band called Night of the Living Shred. We play punk and metal and all that stuff.

[Note: Three other participants had amateur-musician beginnings, but we'll spare you the details.]

Indy: Steve and Amy, how terrifying is it to put on really ambitious festivals in a market that's obviously not huge compared to Denver? Any sleepless nights?

Harris: Uh, you know, it's not MY money ... [Laughter.]

But I do book the talent for MeadowGrass, so I still am nervous about it. The festival turned its first profit last year, after three years of not making money, but that's what you expect with these things. We're getting up there, you know, and we have room to grow. I have 24 bands this year, and 11 of them are national touring acts, which is the highest number we've ever had.

Indy: Amy, what about yours?

Whitesell: Well, Blues Under the Bridge is an interesting festival because of the location. The parts and pieces kind of fall together, but it's like, you know, if you build it, will they come?

Indy: If they hadn't come, and you'd only gotten to do the festival for one year, what one act would you be most glad you had?

Whitesell: That I actually booked? Koko Taylor.

Indy: Why is that?

Whitesell: Well, first of all, she's not with us anymore. And I had the pleasure of just spending the evening before with her, and it was like spending an evening with my grandmother, OK?

And the next night, all of a sudden here's this grandma onstage and getting the whole audience going. That was great. You know, the trains passed by as she was singing a song about trains, and the audience goes nuts.

So I don't get to see a lot of the festival or interact with a lot of people because I'm busy, but that was very memorable.

Indy: Andrea, I'm guessing that with the World Arena in particular — and also the Pikes Peak Center — you folks can't book all the acts of that caliber directly. Are there certain go-to agents and promoters you continually go back to, and what goes into determining what artists get booked?

Nyquist: Well, Dot Lischick, who's our general manager, typically books our acts for us. And she has worked really hard to build a relationship with different go-to promoters — and to keep those relationships really strong — so that they'll bring acts to Colorado Springs and not just bypass us and just go to Denver, for example. Because of course the population is bigger there, so it's an easier sell up there for a lot of them. So she works really hard on the relationship part of it.

Indy: John, what about Stargazers?

Hooton: We've only worked with a couple of professional promoters. One is Pat McCullough out of Denver, who promotes Celtic music. And he's an amazing guy because he won't rest until every last ticket is sold. He'll literally come to town and ask, "How many tickets have we sold for Great Big Sea?" "Four-hundred ninety." "What's your capacity?" "Five hundred." "What about those last 10 tickets?"

He'll get on the phone and go through our lists, looking for O'Briens and O'Douls and anybody with an Irish name, and contact them to ask if they know a Celtic band's coming. It's the same thing with Amy, who's an amazing promoter because it's in her blood. She won't rest until every damn ticket is sold, which is what a good promoter does.

Indy: What's everyone's experience with specific genres, as far as which ones have and haven't worked for you? I know that when it comes to rap, Tech N9ne could probably play seven shows at the Black Sheep every six months and still sell out.

Huffine: I think each genre does better depending on where it's booked. Like, we have a bunch of Americana-type shows booked right now, which I think is a really bad idea. You know, that's what we bought in Denver, but I don't think it does very good down here at our venue. Like somewhere in Manitou or even the Nickel, those kind of shows do great, but for whatever reason they don't do good with us.

Like, if we tried to do shows like John does, it would tank, it would be awful. We've tried to do older-crowd shows, but they don't like our club. It's not a place they want to go — they want to go to Stargazers.

Indy: They don't want to run into their kids there.

Huffine: Yeah, we did — what was that guy's name? — some older guy who drew a totally, like, old kind of country crowd, and they hated it. There was nowhere to sit, they were complaining the whole night, you know?

Harris: Robert Earl Keen, maybe?

Huffine: I think that was it, actually. Yeah, you remember, you were probably there.

Indy: How do acts who've come here reflect trends in the industry as a whole? I'm thinking the Pikes Peak Center and World Arena might make good examples, since you tend to book mostly touring acts.

Nyquist: I think it depends on the kind of audience you're going after. If you can get the right audience and the right fit with bands that are hot at the time — they're either rising or, you know, kind of descending from their peak — then you've got it. But you have to keep up with the business and know what's out there.

Indy: Lauren, you book the most avant-garde shows here. Paul Riola comes down from Denver and sometimes does some really weird stuff, as well as the Peak FreQuency folks.

Andrus: Yeah, we've had to really find our niche. I guess one thing that's different with us is that we don't really make any money off the bands. I kind of don't consider myself a promoter, I consider myself a gallery owner who has music when it makes sense, and then we try to pay the bands as much as we can. We give them the same commission as we give our artists, which is also one of the highest in town. We give them 65 to 70 percent of the door. So because of that, they're incentivized to try to get people in.

Indy: So do people buy art when they show up for music shows?

Andrus: It depends on the crowd. I'd say cabaret tends to sell some art some of the time. It just depends on how crowded it is. We're so small that sometimes it's so full you can't even see the art. But maybe it makes them want to come back later. So it creates a relationship where they may want to come back for an art opening. It doesn't hurt, that's for sure.

Indy: And then you do the Acacia Park concerts.

Andrus: Yeah, that's a Downtown Partnership thing, and with Susan [Edmondson] ascending to the directorship there, things had been put on hold. It's still gonna happen, but normally it's booked by now. So in the next week it's giddyup-and-go and book bands and get it done.

We try to walk the line between bands that people like and are at least slightly family-friendly. Because the overall goal is to have families feel comfortable in Acacia Park. We want to reclaim Acacia and have it be the great heart of our city that we know it can be.

Ostrow: So it's not just for Juggalos anymore.

Andrus: [Laughs.] Here's my favorite Acacia story: We're getting set up and it takes a few hours, you know. You've got the equipment out and we always have someone onstage watching the equipment, because there are a lot of people in the park who might like to take that equipment and sell it.

So I'm sitting on the edge of the stage untangling a cord or something, and I'm me, and I'm wearing a fucking cardigan. And this guy comes up to me and asks if I want to buy some meth. I mean, do people buy meth when they wear cardigans?

So that, to me, is like Acacia in a nutshell, and that's exactly what we don't want to happen. But we've seen the crowds grow and people do seem to feel safer. And it's all happening in the daylight, and we're getting more vendors down there, and it's becoming a better place to be, for sure.

Indy: Brian, can you talk about some of the genres that have worked for you?

Fortinberry: Well, we started with Zydeco and then we worked our way into bluegrass, a lot of Americana, jam bands, and a lot of artists that can't really be put into a specific genre. We like to mix it up: We'll bring in a country act, a jazz act, pretty much everything but the heavy stuff. Since we're in a neighborhood, I have to be conscious of how loud we are. I don't want to piss off the neighbors.

Hooton: We're still a new enough venue that we try all sorts of different things, but the Americana stuff is particularly strong for us. We typically don't do rap, hip-hop or heavy metal, because the Black Sheep and Triple Nickel and Union Station and Zodiac pretty much have a lock on that. Also, we go for an older customer that won't tear the place up as much.

We do some blues, but Amy really is the promoter for blues in Colorado Springs. There's still so much room in this town for the music scene to grow that we rarely go after the same act. Maybe five years from now, as the economy grows, we'll be looking at each other as competition, but I think we're really all in this together.

Huffine: Yeah, I don't think there's much competition going on here.

Ostrow: I think it's all about community, and that's a good thing. I think we need more venues.

Indy: I want to ask about convenience fees, which have been a big issue since Pearl Jam, back in their heyday, took on Ticketmaster. A recent Frightened Rabbit show in Denver was $16.75, which is a decent price. But the service charge and convenience fee, whatever that is, added on $9.25 per ticket.

Whitesell: That's ridiculous.

Indy: I know the Black Sheep has its No-Fee Fridays, where you can go to the box office and buy tickets with no additional service charge. How do others here deal with the whole service-charge thing?

Hooton: I'm gonna jump in. We use a ticketing agency called Vendini, and we don't get a penny out of what they charge for service fees. When someone calls or shows up in person to buy a $20 ticket, there's a $1 service charge that goes to them when you punch it into the system. But it also tracks ZIP codes and gives us all sort of information, and the company provides our e-mail blast program.

It's all scaled depending on the ticket price, and I'm not sure of all the exact amounts. But even if it's a $60 ticket, it'd still only be $3.50. And then online, there's an additional $2 service fee per transaction.

Ostrow: I think that's part of the reason why people are not buying pre-sale tickets. You know, people are cheap — or at least with me, if I think a show is gonna sell out, I'm gonna buy it in advance and I'll deal with the ticket fee. But if I think there aren't gonna be very many people, I won't do it.

I mean, I went to the Black Sheep to see the Melvins, which is like a legendary band, and I thought it was gonna be packed. But there were like 40 or 50 people there. So I think that's why a lot of people in this town wait and buy at the door, because they don't wanna pay an extra six bucks if it's not gonna sell out.

Indy: I also wanted to ask about set times. It seems like some promoters and venues almost never start a show late, while others will wait for more than 12 people show up.

Ostrow: Yeah, sometimes we do that. I mean, the Triple Nickel's a bar, so it's a late-night crowd that comes in there anyway. So if there's like five people there for the first band, then we can afford to push it back another 15 minutes in order to get an extra 10 or 20 people in. But most shows we usually try to start by 10, which is definitely late for a lot of people.

Indy: Especially since you'll usually have three bands.

Ostrow: Exactly, yeah, we'll have three bands and we'll usually start at 10 and end it by 12:45. I understand why other venues go earlier, but at a bar, a lot of times people won't show until 10:30 or 11.

Whitesell: I had a band just this past Friday. And there were still just a few people in the club when they asked me, "What time should we start?" I said, "Well, contract says 9." "Do you really want us to start then?" "Uh-huh, yeah, and I want you to finish at midnight."

Indy: When it comes to local bands, there are some groups that will play as much as three times a week. So it's like, even their best friends can't go out that much, and fans figure they can just see them next week. To what degree does it hurt a band to do that?

Huffine: I think that musicians who've been around a while know that they shouldn't really oversaturate. I've been saying this for years and years, nothing will kill your draw like oversaturating. If you play three times a week, you're splitting up your fan base between those shows instead of playing once every week or two and having everybody at the same show. And a lot of bands, they have it in their head that the more they play, the more people are gonna see them and keep showing up. We've had bands that used to draw 200 people and draw zero now because they just played too much.

Indy: And finally, I wanted to ask about how people — and particularly musicians — think of promoters. What's their biggest misconception about the business and the people who are in it?

Whitesell: That we're rich.

Ostrow: Right, they think you're paid good money for it. I mean, there's definitely some scummy promoters out there that take money and stuff, but then there's a lot of good people out there, too. I'm a musician too, so I know good promoters and I know bad promoters. But most of us are in this business because we love music.

bill@csindy.com

  • Eight promoters discuss the ins and outs of the Colorado Springs music scene

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