A genuine love of music – and its live format, in particular – defined the second day of Relix’s third annual Relix Live Music Conference, which took place Wednesday at Brooklyn Bowl, located in the borough’s Williamsburg neighborhood.
So did the importance of the music community itself. In remarks that kicked off the programming, Brooklyn Bowl co-founder Charley Ryan delivered a sobering reminder to the audience that the performances and venues enjoyed by so many can’t be taken for granted.
“Our sacred places to get together and get down, places like this, have generally become a little more cold and commercial,” he said. “We do need to value ethics over metrics. Monetizing everything is a shallow goal, but it seems to gain every year in importance. All value resides in our community: It always has and it always will.”
On a superficial level, Ryan’s comments produced some dissonance. After all, many of those gathered Wednesday – both speakers and attendees – are among live’s foremost movers and shakers, and have made names for themselves in the business, often with plenty of money at play for themselves and their clients.
But dig a little deeper and things start to make sense. Panelists all day spoke about their hard-scrabble starts in the music industry, from Jay Williams’ turn in the WME mail room to Warren Haynes’ stint as a teenaged KFC employee, hustling on the side to get financial runway to pursue his dreams.
Luckily, Ryan’s remarks were among the day’s most serious. From a riotous panel with Nashville music business elites to an instructive interview of The Bowery Presents’ Jim Glancy and John Moore, the conference offered plenty of insights, but with healthy helpings of levity.
Below, highlights from Wednesday’s meeting of some of live music’s most influential minds.
Marc Millman – Breaking Down Country Music’s Jam
Panelists on “What The Rest Of The Music Business Can Learn From Country” discuss the genre’s state of affairs at Relix Live Music Conference. (From left: CID’s Dan Berkowitz, Homestead’s Brad Belanger, mTheory’s Michael Corcoran, Warner Music Nashville’s Emilee Warner, WME’s Jay Williams)
The country and jam worlds share serious DNA
“I always saw we work with both kinds of music: country and jam band,” CID’s Dan Berkowitz said near the conclusion of “What the Rest of the Music Business Can Learn From Country.” And given the state of live country music in 2019, Berkowitz – whose CID destination events in Mexico include shows by Luke Bryan, Dead & Company and Phish – made sense as a moderator.
“The country scene is learning from the jam band scene,” said Brad Belanger, owner of Homestead Management and manager at Red Light Management. Arena shows can be impersonal, he explained, and sometimes “you might not even talk to the person sitting next to you.” The amphitheater package shows now common in the country sphere, however, turn that formula on its head, making shows social events from parties in the parking lot to good times on the grass.
“I always tell Coran [Capshaw], it’s like the Friday night football game in high school,” Belanger said. “You just go to go.”
And while WME agent Jay Williams contested other panelists comparisons of client Eric Church’s wildly successful “Double Down” tour to the Grateful Dead – it’s “more of a Springsteen playbook than anything else,” he said – the parallels were clear: Back-to-back shows consisting of two sets apiece and catering to a massive but passionate fan base.
But Williams did compare country artists to jam bands in another way. “One thing to know about country is it’s not cyclical,” he said. “Once you release a single in country, you’re on the road forever. … Who cares if Phish releases a record? You’re going to the show either way.”
Nashville’s camaraderie makes the town go round
Friendly competition guides business in Nashville. “Artists support each other, managers support each other, even agents support each other across different agencies,” said Berkowitz, contrasting the city with other music towns like New York and Los Angeles.
The foundation for that is the Grand Ole Opry, the collaborative country music revue that’s a rite of passage for emerging artists and a proven stomping group for established ones. As Michael Corcoran, of artist manager services and artist development company mTheory, said, the Opry “is a good indicator of the tight-knit community nature of the Nashville scene.”
In a sense, that ethos has undergirded what might be live country’s special sauce: packaged bills that help new and mid-level artists gain exposure. “I don’t see much of a club country music touring secret as much as there is a support circuit, where someone will go out as first of three or first of four, then second of three, and then eventually headlining,” Berkowitz said. “There’s that really ingrained support system within the live music business of country that I think the rest of the music business could really learn from.”
Belanger explained how, in looking for support for Sam Hunt’s upcoming headlining tour, he’s found himself on the opposite end of the situation he was in just a few years ago, when Hunt opened for Lady Antebellum’s 2015 trek. Between booking and the tour’s start, Hunt broke in a big way, meaning that venues were already packed when he took the stage at 7 p.m. The format benefitted “everybody involved” and Hunt soon jumped straight to headlining.
Americana ain’t country
Good-natured sparks flew during the panel over what, exactly, constitutes “country” in 2019. When the cadre of artists that includes Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price, Tyler Childers and more came up, Belanger categorically labeled them Americana, but Berkowitz retorted that Childers “is as country music as it gets,” subsequently noting that Belanger’s own client, Sam Hunt, has said he’s modeling his next record after Childers.
“The walls are definitely coming down,” said Williams, finding common ground. “The format in the last 10 years has broadened. It’s crazy that you have, like, Chris Stapleton and Dan + Shay in the same format. It’s a really broad format and I think that that’s one thing that country has been really good about is expanding and growing.”
Americana Music Association executive director Jed Hilly, who was interviewed on stage by Relix‘s Raffaela Kenny-Cincotta following the country panel, forcefully differentiated between Americana and country.
“Americana is not country,” said Hilly, who has served in his current role since 2007. “Country, as we know it today, is a commercial format. There should be no animosity from one toward the other, there should be no disagreement. One is a commercial art form, the other is a fine art form. Ansel Adams wasn’t engaged to take photographs for real estate brochures; Pablo Picasso was not engaged to create murals for Best Buy. There’s a difference and people are successful in both ways.”
But, like country, Americana has deep Nashville roots; even Hilly pointed out that Williams, who in addition to handling A-listers also helms WME’s Americana division, served on the AMA’s board of directors following its inception in 1999.
The peak example of the overlap might be Americanafest, which descends on Nasvhille every September. Many of Music City’s most beloved rooms open their doors to the fest’s events for free, said Hilly, pointing out with a smile that “we are a very strong beer-drinking community” and that venues often say Americanafest constitutes their biggest drinking weeks of the year.
Social networks present positive ticketing solutions for fan and artist alike
After a rootsy morning and a lunch break – that served fried chicken, no less – the conference opened its afternoon programming with the day’s most technical panel, “Promise & Pain: Ticketing Tries to Grow Up.”
The panel, which featured executives from SeatGeek, Eventbrite, Blockparty and more, had a clear theme: how modern social networking technology allows for – and even necessitates – breaking down barriers to purchasing tickets.
“Let’s put the tickets where the fans are,” said SeatGeek co-founder Russ D’Souza, who cited the ticketing company’s affiliations with Facebook and Snapchat. “There are so many other places that fans are willing to go [to purchase tickets], and I think that the benefit for the rights holder … if you can [facilitate] that, then you can tap into all these audiences and you can create these almost impulse purchases.”
And, in turn, that’ll pay dividends for a music community increasingly reliant on touring in an era of dwindling album sales. “The majority of the clubs and venues and promoters that we work with are independent, and they don’t sell out most of their shows,” explained Eventbrite director of music Chip Thomas, responding to a statistic cited by moderator Josh Baron of Project Admission that 40 percent of concert tickets go unsold yearly.
“We’re focused on helping them sell as many tickets as possible,” Thomas continued. “We’re just doing everything we can to get the word out to the people who want to come to these shows. YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, just having the ability to buy tickets on a lot of these platforms directly, it’s such a simple thing, but it makes a difference.”
Marc Millman – [email protected]
I.M.P.’s Seth Hurwitz discusses the live business with Peter Shapiro at Relix Live Music Conference.
Seth Hurwitz, [email protected]
In a tonal about-face from the ticketing panel’s relatively dry hour, Brooklyn Bowl co-founder and Relix publisher Peter Shapiro took the stage with I.M.P. founder Seth Hurwitz – the promoter behind 9:30 Club, The Anthem and Merriweather Post Pavilion – for a wide-ranging, predictably colorful conversation about the live business.
Hurwitz came out, guns blazing, bragging about never having watched “Game of Thrones” (“Whatever. Will not be a topic shortly, will it?”) and revealing that he has his staffers CC his over-the-top email alias – [email protected] – so he can lurk on their conversations with other industry power players.
For additional context, Hurwitz declared that he’d never worked from an office: “Why would you not want to work at home?” Shapiro pressed him, commenting, “To interact with other humans?” In a perfect deadpan, Hurwitz replied, “What does that mean? I talk to agents, but that’s not really humans.”
But while humor pervaded practically every line of the conversation – when Shapiro asked Hurwitz what changed when he bought 9:30 Club in 1986, after years of booking the venue, Hurwitz merely said, “We got to lose all that money ourselves – it was also an instructive look at the hard bargains the two men, especially Hurwitz, drive to secure the best outcomes for their venues and the artists and fans who frequent them.
“It’s show business, not show friends,” said Hurwitz, discussing market competition. Shapiro suggested that, with 9:30 Club, The Anthem and Merriweather, Hurwitz had created a “vertical situation” where artists “never really have to leave you,” which the promoter recast in a harder-nosed way.
“What you have to do is to create a situation that they need, so that if they play next door, you take away their toys,” Hurwitz said. “You have to leverage.”
So, while Hurwitz has a boisterous sense of humor – he compared seeing shows that weren’t his own to “a gynecologist going to a strip club” – he has no illusions about the realpolitik that governs the industry. “Nobody else gave a fuck about my welfare,” he remembered realizing the first time he lost money on a show. “They’re not going to do a deal because it makes sense for you.”
Prince had a creative punishment when Michael Dorf accidentally called him a “motherfucker”
At “The Art of Hospitality,” restaurateur Danny Meyer came up more than any musician or music industry figure; Mercer Street Hospitality partner Josh Capon, who is involved with restaurants including Bowery Meat Company and Burger & Barrel, stole the show.
But City Winder founder Michael Dorf provided useful insights about the intersection between the concert business and the hospitality sphere. “My job is to create a stage, and we’re this medium between the customer and their idol and the artist and their fan,” Dorf said. “We are just a spot between the two and we need to think about everything. The stage, the lighting, the air conditioning, the food, the service, every little component, that’s our job. To think that we’re any more important than being this medium is gonna fuck with your ego.”
Dorf knows a thing or two about overstepping his role as a medium. Later in the panel, he shared a wild story about the uncertainty that preceded Prince’s now-legendary August 2013 gigs at City Winery’s New York location.
Earlier in the year, Dorf had staged one of his famous all-star Carnegie Hall tributes in Prince’s honor, and The Purple One was supposed to play a City Winery afterparty. Later, after playing City Winery’s Chicago location, Prince reached out “through smoke signals and all kinds of odd communications” to set up dates at City Winery New York. But Dorf got into trouble during an appearance on a vlog the day before Prince’s performance.
“I called His Highness a ‘motherfucker’ by accident,” Dorf says. “I just said, ‘I’ve been working so hard to get this motherfucker to play, for a long time.'” Dorf had forgotten that, at the time, Prince wasn’t cursing; within five minutes, The Purple One had heard what Dorf said and his team had gotten in touch. “I had to write 100 times on a piece of yellow paper, ‘I’m sorry, your name is Prince'” and send it back to the Prince’s team, Dorf recalled. “That’s what I had to do. That what someimtes you gotta do to get the show.”
Warren Haynes once signed 90 CDs for a fan in Poland
In a fascinating interview conducted by Rolling Stone writer David Fricke, jam band luminary Warren Haynes discussed everything from growing up on Eric Clapton and Johnny Winter to the connection he wished he could’ve had with the late Jerry Garcia.
Among the most fascinating tidbits was about the experience of touring Europe as a jam band. “They don’t think of us as a jam band, they think of us as a rock and roll band,” Haynes observed. “They’re trying to determine whether they’re going to embrace the jam band scene over there.”
Regardless of whether jam culture has fully hopped across the pond, fans exist – and Haynes said they’re some of his favorites in the world. “One of the things that I love about playing there is the respect and reverence that they have for musicians who actually come to perform,” he said. “When you make the effort to go there and play, they really really appreciate that.
“I remember one time being in Poland and a guy showed up at my hotel and he had – I’m being literal – about 90 CDs that he wanted me to sign,” Haynes continued. “Stuff that I had played on one song or I had sung background on two songs. Anything that I appeared on over the course of my career. In America, I would’ve been like, ‘OK, I’ll sign five.’ I signed every one of ’em, because he drove eight hours to see Gov’t Mule perform.”
AEG has proven an invaluable partner for The Bowery Presents
The closing presentation of Relix Live Music Conference 2019 hit closest to home for the predominantly New York audience. The Bowery Presents co-partners Jim Glancy and John Moore took the stage to discuss their continually expanding promotion and venue operation business – and Fricke, on stage for another round of moderating, asked plenty of challenging questions.
Naturally, Fricke had questions about Bowery’s partnership with AEG, which was officially inked in early 2017. “It felt good and it felt like a good fit,” Glancy said. “It clearly was time. I think we had accomplished what we could do under our own backs.”
In fact, mere weeks after the partnership, Bowery faced a situation where AEG’s backing proved invaluable. “[Williamsburg club] Brooklyn Steel opened [in April 2017] and it was on time, but it was way over budget,” Glancy said. “If they weren’t there as our partner slash funding partner … we would’ve been paralyzed for two or three or four years digging out from what we had done at Brooklyn Steel.” Instead, Bowery was able to continue its regional expansion in markets such as Boston and Philadelphia.
“They partnered with us in the Northeast because they believed in what we were doing and that we are experts at what we do,” Moore said. “They’re taking our guidance and they’ve been fantastic partners and we make decisions together.”
And, after Fricke discussed the iron grips that regional promoters of yesteryear deployed, such as San Francisco’s Bill Graham and Denver’s Barry Fey, Glancy took the opportunity to rebut critics who lament the consolidation that has taken place under AEG and Live Nation in recent years. “Twenty or thirty years ago, there weren’t nine promoters in a market,” he said. “There was one or two or three. It’s changed, I’m not pretending it hasn’t changed. But it’s always been that way.”
Glancy said he and Moore defer to “local sherpas” in regional markets and that the strategy has paid off. For instance, their regional partners in Philadelphia suggested installing bike racks at venues and, despite Glancy and Moore’s initial skepticism, additional racks soon had to be installed due to their popularity.
Juice WRLD’s latest audience: The Bowery Presents guys
Fricke ended the Bowery Presents conversation, and Relix Live Music Conference more broadly, with a fun one: “What are you going to see next for fun, not business?”
“The next on my calendar for fun is a family show with my son and his friends,” said Moore, long known for his refined booking taste, with a hint of amusement in his voice. “We’re going to see Juice WRLD and Ski Mask the Slump God.”
“I’m gonna one-up JoMo,” Glancy interjected. “I flew to Richmond, Virigina, last night and I saw Juice WRLD and Ski Mask the Slump God. You’re just going to Hammerstein!”