Matt Costa

There was a time when the way for an artist to reach the record- and ticket-buying public was airplay. Singer/songwriter Matt Costa first caught the public’s ear with something a little different – lawnplay.

Mitch Okmin, Costa’s agent at The M.O.B. Agency, was introduced to him in 2003 by No Doubt’s Tom Dumont, who had been recording songs in his home studio with the singer.

Okmin told Pollstar that as good as Costa’s recordings were, he knew he was on to something as soon as he put him in front of an audience – onstage or not.

“On the No Doubt/Blink 182 tour, Matt did the side stages,” Okmin said. “And if there wasn’t a side stage, he would just go up on the lawn and play by himself.

“He would go up with a box of CDs and come down with none. He’d sell them all every night.”

Okmin said promoters were quick to take note.

“Jason Grant of Live Nation Toronto was one of the first to get it. Matt, who was still unsigned, was on the Jack Johnson tour and when they played Toronto, Jason sent me this e-mail talking about how he’d just seen the next big thing.

“Matt sold like $8,000 in merch at that show. People who’d never heard of him saw him play and then went to the merch stand and bought the CD he made at Tom’s house. He sold like 20,000 CDs on that tour.” Needless to say, Johnson quickly signed him to his Brushfire label.

Costa’s manager, Chris Fenn, has also been on board since the early days. Fenn told Pollstar he’s witnessed the phenomenon Okmin described time and time again.

“Over the course of touring with him – whether it’s with bigger artists or headlining or visiting radio stations – I’m always surprised by the amount of people who weren’t really believers before, but when they see him sit down with his guitar, they’re won over.”

Costa jokingly credits some of his success to a deal outside the industry.

“When I started writing songs, I put together all my different musical experiences and then listened to my favorite artists and tried to do what they did,” Costa told Pollstar.

Matt Costa

“One of the things they do is go to the crossroads and make a deal with the devil. So I did that. The first time he wasn’t there. He was helping another artist, but by three or four times we crossed paths and it’s all been uphill from there.”

What’s really made the difference for Costa is his almost constant touring. The singer has averaged nearly 200 shows a year since he first hooked up with Okmin and he shows no sign of slowing down – even when the odds are sometimes stacked against him, as was the case on his current sold-out tour.

In mid-February, thieves made off with more than half of Costa’s instruments and equipment following a show in Winnipeg, Canada. The gear, worth more than $25,000 and including five vintage guitars, was taken from a locked storage room at the city’s Garrick Centre.

Costa took the theft in stride, quickly secured some replacement gear and went on to the next show. But he does have a message for the thieves: “Give me my shit back!”

Four days after the theft, the van carrying Costa and his band rolled over in the snow en route to a show in Madison, Wis., totaling the vehicle and trapping keyboardist Jacob Sahagen’s legs under it. Fortunately, the snow kept his legs from being crushed and he was treated at a hospital for minor injuries.

Costa and his band are currently finishing up a North American headlining tour. Next they’ll head to Australia and Japan for a month to do some shows with Johnson, along with a few headlining gigs, and then return to the States for a summer run that’s likely to include several festival performances.

Both Okmin and Fenn say they’re thrilled with the way things are progressing for Costa, if not a little surprised by the speed at which it’s happening. They’re also both pleased that the singer succeeds in winning over audiences no matter who he’s opening for.

“He’s kind of one foot in the Jack Johnson world and one foot in the Modest Mouse world,” Okmin said. “Last year we opened for Modest Mouse two months before his record came out and everybody loved him. That’s why I think as time really passes, he’s going to have both of those kind of crowds.”

The goal now is to get Costa on “a couple more quality support slots” that will expose him to a wider audience.

For Okmin, the motivation is economic as well as artistic.

“I’m working to transform him from Matt Costa to Matt Costalot.” –