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How To Be a Rock Promoter

Photo by Larry Hirshowitz

I can’t sing. I can hardly recall the few chords on guitar an old girlfriend taught me. I’ve never written a song in my life, and currently spend the majority of my waking hours either judging or accommodating the musical output of others. Just the way it’s supposed to be in the music industry.

I am the promoter and booker of a small music club named the Fold. These days the club is held in an old saloon-cum-Mexican cantina called the Silverlake Lounge. If you’ve never had the pleasure of being inside, it’s “rustic,” not swank, virtually unlit, dark wooden walls, ceiling planks, old red-earth tile flooring. The club happens only weekdays, when I bring in, I don’t know . . . fringe music, let’s say, indie rock, acoustic, roots, experimental, avant-garde, punk, psychedelic, no-wave bands and the ilk (but I won’t do emo). The bands come from all over the world — Holland, Australia, many from Japan, Czech Republic . . . lots of American touring bands as well, usually one a night, with local bands who fit the bill. These are not “buzz bands” — rarely industry darlings here.

I’m always thankful when a band offers to play or accepts an invitation, because the Silverlake Lounge is basically a dive bar, with questionable sound, only a 1-foot-high stage, dull, flat stage lights, and as the summer months approach, the heat inside the club can become, well, incurable. For the most part the club still operates on the same humble level as when it started four years ago. Evan the sound man and I still drag in the entire PA each week, and tear it down again before the weekend when the bar hosts drag shows, not rock. With respect to the number of clubs that open and close, the fact that we’re still open after four years is its most credible claim to success. It’s no longer the hobby I thought it was going to be, but it’s not even close to a career. For some reason I just can’t muster enough common sense to quit. Every time frustration nearly gets the best of me, some band comes along and makes it all seem worth it.

Four years ago I was just a lonely guy, exhausted from all-nighters making a documentary on the history of American ceramics. It took three and half years making that damn thing. Alone, all night, me and my footage of pots. When I finally finished, I was burned out, so I started a club. Also my girlfriend had just broken up with me, and she was in a band at the time. Though I don’t think I was conscious of it then, I probably started the club to get back at her in a way — you know, get in good with her friends’ bands and not book hers. One of those strong but hidden motivators. So I guess the club actually started out of loneliness, a love of music, and just a bit of malice.

Sometimes I wake up with a more admirable sense of purpose. What I’m looking for is to present some great rock thing, like an update to CBGB in the ’70s. That’s one of my ideals, a club that’s associated with something, catering to something, a cradle bursting forth with fierce babies like Television, the Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, a crucible where only the best and most original bands dare take the stage. Yeah, right, but on the best nights it can feel like that, with local bands like Autolux, Pine Marten, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Acetone or 400 Blows completely taking control of the room. On other nights it’s not even close.

At 6:30 p.m. or so I’ll pick out the CDs I want to play that night and head to the club. Once there, I reset the stage lights, show the band where to load in, deal with paranoid band managers, supervise sound check, maybe kick a drunk out. When it’s time for the show to start, I’ll drag the first band onstage, get drink tickets to the next band, ask (tell!) the owner to turn on the air conditioning, remind the new door person to act nice yet remain territorial, tell a record exec that his business card is not a ticket stub and will not get him in the club, then turn around and cut the first band off, rinse, repeat.

Being at the shows is the best part of the job. Most of the work is during the day, when running the club usually involves just ordinary, mundane stuff, and feels an awful lot like a desk job most of the time. During the day I’m on the phone or online, usually both. When on the phone, I have to keep detailed notes of quick conversations and myriad insinuations: Band x wants to play with band y, but only if they can go on at 10 p.m.; band x broke up yesterday, drummer fought w/ singer, keyboardist on drummer’s side (when you talk to the singer don’t mention it) but do see if you can help find new drummer. This band may have left their guitar at the club three nights ago, but they are now in Las Vegas at this phone number. This band wants to play on a Thursday, not a Wednesday, because their drummer is an actor and has rehearsal, but would maybe cancel rehearsal if a really good show comes up. This band wants to play on a show with a band from the East Coast because they’re planning a tour and need some new contacts.

Now off the phone, I’ll put together the ad, decide the bill orders and slot times (pop bands want everything exactly on time, punk bands not), update the new outgoing phone message, call the radio stations, update the e-mail list, ask a band to send a promo CD here or there, call to warn a band about the rumors going around about them, refer a drummer new in town where to find a new band, make posters, set the cover charge, ask a band to fill in for a last-minute opening, say no to a friend’s band that really kinda sucks, call to tell another band they were especially great last night, put up posters in 16 stores on Sunset Boulevard, go check out a possible new space for shows, convince a band that they are popular enough to play the last slot, go buy some new microphone cables, leave a message for the bar owner to hire an extra security guard for Tuesday, give this person directions to the club, get four pairs of new white socks for the touring band coming in tonight from Tucson, tell a band about an opening on a show at another club, write an e-mailer for a mass mailing, sit down for a demo listen:

18 demos piled up this past week — got through 8 this morning:

1. GAGA COUPE — “This is Japanese Loud PUNK” — good — incl. bio/letter — “Some of the music has been picked up by snow board makers” — oops — Photo has three guys in backward baseball caps — bad — in the player, cd starts w/ deconstructed electric guitar à la US Maple — very good — but devolves quickly into standard Green Day pop/punk — listening time 1:45 seconds — result: NOT BOOKED

2. FJORD FAIRLAME — bad name — Cartoon cd artwork — good — cd not shrink-wrapped — good — hand-written letter — “we’re lookin’ to do some rockin’ at your club” — suspect — 323 area code — good — 414 exchange — never heard of 414 — insert picture shows band member flipping me off — bad — cd into player — poor production — lots of cymbals — guitar noodleroni — but could be a fun live band. listened to two songs — result: BOOKING UNLIKELY/WAIT FOR FURTHER REFERENCES

3. PRO-TEASE — form letter — bad — “To Booking: Please find enclosed (found) a newsletter, CD, and a flyer to our next show at the Hollywood Gig on Melrose. Currently, we are trying to book gigs for the summer.” used the word “gigs” — very suspect — “We are funk/psychedelic” — distressing — pull out blue cd-r — unlikely to play in my cd player — plays by chance — manic psychedelic funk — yep — 310 area code — bad — poor singing, use of phaser effect on guitar = bad. result: NOT BOOKED

4. LOVELIGHT SHINE/SIX GOING ON SEVEN/MOODS FOR MODERNS — packaged bill — referred by Spaceland because of schedule conflict — sent UPS Next Day Air — nice — 3 bands from out of town — tough — Lovelight Shine — tight band, suspiciously noodley solos — but good production — on to next cd — MOODS FOR MODERNS — nice cd artwork packaging — cardboard — good — sloppy mod haircuts means potential attitude — ’70s pop rock — good production — 3 backup harmonies means Evan the sound man has to put up extra mikes — SIX GOING ON SEVEN — another cardboard cd package — very good — booked them before three years ago — good — result: POSSIBLY BOOK IF I CAN FIND LOCAL SUPPORT

5. NOR CHEERING CROWDS — envelope includes — 1” pins/stickers — hand-written in green pen — “Hi Scott, I’m afraid this recording isn’t very representative, as we no longer play these songs, have a different line-up . . .” result: AWAIT NEWER RECORDINGS. but wait, notice thanks given to the bands Track Star and Tristeza in liner notes — result: LISTEN TO CD. result: AWAIT NEWER RECORDINGS

6. WAY TO GO — terrible name — emo/pop — no emo allowed — bad vocals — worse still — listened for 1 and a half songs only because i had to run to the bathroom (because of the emo?) before changing cd — result : NOT BOOKED

7. WOW and FLUTTER — nice simple black envelope — easy to open, resealable — very good — unstapled sheets inside envelope — bad — to the point intro letter on letterhead “The Portland based Wow and Flutter will be in your area July 17 . . . “ — good — press review mentions that Wow and Flutter opened for Low and Danielson Famile — good — played with Tarentel — good — played with Rainer Maria — good — press all from the Northwest — listen to cd — nice wash of sound — wait til song kicks in — song never really kicks in — good — result: DEFINITELY TRY TO BOOK

 

Almost every package I receive includes a letter of introduction from/about the band. On at least one occasion, I booked a band before I even listened to their tape, based only on their letter:

we are sending you this demo tape “not to threaten you, or anything else bad, but because we want to talk to you about something . . . in a straight-up sort of way.” love, dragus.

BOOKED. Dragus turned out to be a great band, too, no surprise at all . . .

Now, if YOU read one of those “how-to” books written for bands coming up, they will inevitably recommend that you send your demos in an envelope that will get the booker’s attention. Send it in aluminum-covered bubble wrap, send it in an oversized/undersized package, with the scent of strawberry lipstick or fish sticks. Nothing really could be worse advice. The last thing I want is to get an irregular package. Just keeping track of the envelopes and filing them in their proper place is a time-consuming job. I get packages filled with stickers, old candy, pins sticking out dripping with tetanus, scented with perfumes. Just send me a standard-size, easy-to-open, clearly marked envelope. Send me a good old standard CD case and PLEASE LABEL THE SPINE!

In addition to the 20 to 30 demos I get each week by mail, I probably get another 90 to 100 inquiries over the phone, and double that via e-mail. But I’ve got only Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday to book, so out of the hundreds of opportunities presented to me, I only have about nine to 12 spots available, and those are usually taken by bands that have already played the club, bands I’ve made invitations to, or bands that I’m already familiar with coming from out of town. Of the demos received each week, only three or four end up getting played more than a minute, and maybe only one band of these ever gets booked based on the demo alone. Looking back at how I’ve met many of my favorite bands, it’s clear that one good band generally leads me to another. Things have gotten very incestuous, for better or for worse.

There are a million reasons to book a band. I’ve booked over 700 different bands into the club for as many reasons. The primary reason is the quality and originality of the music, but to be honest there are secondary criteria:

1. The band name — Band must have a cool name. And how will it look with the rest of the bill? Can I make the bands’ names on a bill into a haiku?

2. Who a band knows — Did my friend refer you? Is your crowd fun-loving?

3. How a band looks — You can get away with a lot musically as long as you do it with style.

4. Bands in the 323 get preference, and bands with a 666, 664 or 662 exchange have an even better chance of being booked. And anything west of Western Avenue might as well be the beach.

5. Whether or not my 21-month-old son dances while the demo is playing.

6. Have you been to the club before? Why exactly are you interested in playing here rather than there? To a booker, the phone ringing can mean getting offered a show with one of his favorite bands, but it’s amazing how often it’s some ska band or emo thing who’ve never been to the club before, nor know a thing about it, but want to play there anyhow. It’s hard to understand. Aren’t you gonna get friends’ references to a dentist or a mechanic? Or if you’re looking to get your hair cut, you’re not just gonna go, “Oh hey dude, you got scissors, can you cut my hair?” I try to get as many references as possible before I book a band, and that’s the way bands should find their bookers.

 

It all really boils down to etiquette, protocol and politesse, when you think about it.

F.A.Q.

Why did you call your club the Fold?

I was reading The Fermata by Nicholson Baker at the time I had to come up with a name, and in that book the Fold is a dimension where time stops. It’s a pretentious name, I know, and I’m sorry.

 

Isn’t a booker really just a music pimp who exploits bands?

Exactly! But it’s even more important than that, because it takes a lot of experience and above all taste to exploit only the good bands.

 

What other bookers do you admire? All of them, they’re like saints almost, or martyrs. I can’t believe some of the music they’re booking, but I also know everyone thinks they’re booking the best stuff. Everybody just books the stuff they like, and music taste is really a weird call to make. In large part, it’s arbitrary and completely unfair. Vengeance and conspiracy do play a large role, though.

 

Conspiracy?

Yes, the rumors are true, most of the bookers in this town are connected via a private encrypted Internet discussion list where we talk about bands and decide their fate, which clubs they will play and when, how long the bands will play, what songs. We all get together and jam sometimes, too. I used to think bands were all totally paranoid about this, until one day the booker discussion list invited me to participate. I said no at first, but you really have to capitulate if you want to get anywhere in this town.

Via e-mail: “Atkinson, Jeff” wrote:
Hey Scott, How are you doing? Good? Good. We are HotRandomGirlGirlAction. You have our demo . . . . . . . . . . Now, we know you don’t have a clue what to do with it, but we were just wandering if you might be persuaded to take a chance . . . and book us. We won’t disappoint you . . . . . . . I don’t want to beg . . . . . . but I will . . . . . . . . . just say when.

Call us, please!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


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