Jody Domingue – Meet The Black Pumas
Eric Burton and Adrian Quesada, co-founders of Black Pumas, have been on a rocket ship trajectory, even during a global pandemic.
As Black Pumas performed their breakout hit song “Colors” for the 63rd Grammys one could see Billie Eilish, Harry Styles, and Haim rhythmically nodding along with the audience of more than 9 million at home, further crystalizing what Team Pumas has continuously felt over the last two years: This is special.
While the last 12 months have been terrible for the touring side of the music industry, Black Pumas have somehow grown several magnitudes larger, having played the Grammys, the 46th Presidential inauguration, taking in seven late night show appearances, “The Ellen Show,” CBS’ “This Morning,” and NPR’s “Tiny Desk” concert series.
“Colors” had already hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Triple A Airplay chart in 2020, and with the wave of national exposure the song is now charting on its Rock & Alternative Airplay chart and the band is charting on the Billboard Artist 100.
Pollstar profiled Black Pumas in January 2020
, when the band was plotting its first major tour through Europe and the U.S. to promote its eponymous debut album, which was released through ATO Records in June 2019.
The promise of that tour – which was planning to hit Thalia Hall in Chicago, Brooklyn Steel in Brooklyn, and multiple nights at Stubb’s Bar-B-Q in Austin – has yet to be fulfilled, but Black Pumas co-founder Adrian Quesada told Pollstar the band really never slowed down during the pandemic, continuing to move from project to project.
“We were fully expecting to be on pause for a while but things didn’t really seem to slow down for us. They did in terms of touring and traveling, but we’ve still had a lot of really amazing opportunities,” Quesada said. “We’ve stayed busy for sure and that has culminated with the Grammys. This is our second year in a row being nominated. We got to perform, which was an amazing experience, and now, in April 2021, we finally get that little bit of a pause.”
How did they stay so busy during such a down period for the live sector? Manager Ryan Matteson of Ten Atoms said he would have weekly meetings with the band’s agent, label, and publicist and they would brainstorm, follow every lead, send cold emails and make cold calls, and just generally do everything they could to create opportunities to get the band in front of people.
“Sometimes [these opportunities] worked out instantly and sometimes we had to work for several months to get them,” Matteson said. “I look back fondly on the inauguration performance because that was [months of] cold calling and emailing strangers. We would say ‘Hey, I think this person might be working for the inauguration’ and we were literally cold calling people left and right.
“That’s been the history of our work with Black Pumas. We know how great they are on record and live, and it was always about trying to get a stranger to understand what we already knew to be true. With the inauguration, how quickly that came together, we finally found the person who knew who they were, got approved and were taping within 48 hours of knowing that was going to happen.
“In the moment of how fast that came together, no one appreciated the magnitude of it until it had happened, but the discovery of the band on that day was absolutely life changing. Same thing with the Grammys. The amount of new fans and relationships the band has made, it is incredible.”
Matteson said a key part of the band’s success has been its capacity for high-quality digital content, shouting out Amos David McKay of Two-Headed Boy in Austin, who has handled virtually all of the Pumas’ video content.
He also gave kudos to ATO and Jon Salter – who count Alabama Shakes, Brittany Howard, My Morning Jacket, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, Primus, Drive-By Truckers, and Rodrigo y Gabriela as clients. Matteson said Salter & Co. have been true collaborators in every sense of the word.
“I can remember those early days of the pandemic and thinking ‘This is terrible, this is absolutely devastating to a band that is on a rocket ship trajectory and everything is going to grind to halt,’” Matteson said. “I can remember the meetings with our team and ATO, saying ‘We’ve got to maintain momentum, we’ve got to continue this, we have to have this song, this album, this band cut through. We don’t know if that’s going to be three months, so let’s put one foot in front of another every week, let’s build a story, have the guys continue to be engaging online, let’s make great content and let’s just continue one week after another for as long as this lasts.’”
That step by step approach meant that sometimes Ten Atoms would look more like a tee shirt or livestreaming company Matteson said, but the company added staff during the pandemic and avoided layoffs.
“I think our [goal] was that we could still sell out our shows when we get to the other side of this. But we’ve had some No. 1 songs. We’ve played more late night TV shows than maybe any band has played on a debut record. … Those milestones, those moments kept our entire team and the band motivated.”
And the Capitol performance certainly had an impact on millions, including the inauguration’s director of talent and external affairs Adrienne Elrod, who previously told Pollstar she counts herself as a “huge fan of theirs” and that working with them on the performance was a “labor of love.”
Salter said he knew Black Pumas was special the moment he heard the demo and jumped at the chance to work with Matteson, who he had known for years prior, when the latter was writing the blog “Muzzle Of Bees” and working with C3 Management.
Nicholas O’Donnell – Touch The Sky:
Eric Burton performs at The Academy in Dublin on Feb. 5, 2020. Burton told Pollstar that after busking at the Santa Monica Pier, he doesn’t find it difficult performing for large rooms or cameras, as he has learned how to bring the same energy to every space.
“I’ve been running ATO for ten years. The type of long campaign that we’ve had, where it’s been this mixture of really high highs and, at the beginning, hard work, heads down, slogging it out, it’s kind of a once in a career, once every five to ten year story, something like the rise of the Pumas. And God, I feel lucky. I pinch myself.”
Salter said the band is also unique because it has very organically combined the incredible songwriting and musicianship of Black Pumas founder Eric Burton with the production and musical prowess of industry veteran Quesada, who previously won a Grammy for his work with Grupo Fantasma. When ATO signed Black Pumas, Quesada and Burton had already written, recorded and mixed the first album with the rest of the band, and handed him what was essentially a finished album.
“I think these guys are real artists. They have real, true artistic talent,” Salter said. “I trusted them when I did that deal originally. I knew they would deliver a debut album that was fully fleshed out. With an artist like the Black Pumas, I step in and say ‘I’m here to be a facilitator, a partner, a collaborator if you want. I’m here to execute your vision as an artist.’”
While the Pumas trajectory has remarkably risen through the pandemic, Quesada said he is excited to have a few months of respite to revisit the songwriting process. Burton recently took time to record some of his ideas for the next Black Pumas album at Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, Texas, and Quesada said he is feeling “1,000% confident” in the new material they are working with. Burton said he is excited to begin working with Quesada on the production to try and find his voice in the studio as well as on the microphone.
The band’s agent, Joe Atamian of Paradigm, said the proper touring plans will be pushed to 2022 while the band works on its sophomore album, but the Pumas will be looking to honor all tickets sold for the postponed 2020 North American tour in 2021. This may mean blocks of two or three shows scattered throughout the year as different markets open back up, but everyone felt it was important to honor the tickets purchased (and held) by fans before and during the pandemic.
Most notably, the band has still four nights booked at Stubb’s Bar-B-Que in Austin May 26-29, carry-over dates from last year which, by all measures at press time, were moving forward with an additional night to be added on March 30.
“A lot of those 2020 dates were sold out in advance,” Atamian said. “A good chunk of those fans have held onto their tickets, so it will be good to be able to finally deliver those shows to people who have had their money tied up for that long.”
The European leg of Black Pumas’ 2020 tour did show some serious promise, with Pollstar Boxoffice showing more than $30,000 grossed on multiple stops for that tour. One of the Pumas’ strongest showings was Feb. 9, 2020, when the band grossed $52,490 on 1,900 tickets at TivoliVredenburg in Utrecht, Netherlands.
One thing Atamian has noticed in representing the Black Pumas during the pandemic is that his negotiations have been much less contentious.
“We were booked at a lot of festivals in 2020 and something that has been good to see is the industry’s commitment to the comeback has not been lip service. We’re not getting into the normal battles we always fight. The band has obviously taken some big steps this past year, profile-wise, and at some of the festivals we had confirmed the slots we had confirmed wouldn’t necessarily be appropriate. And to a lot of festivals’ credit, they have stepped up, they have changed our slot and money, they are paying the band what they’re worth and giving them the appropriate slot on these festivals when they ultimately do happen,” Atamian said. “A lot of the rules have gone out the window, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It feels like everyone is working on a common goal right now, between promoters, agents, managers and the bands themselves, to really come back out of this and do it safely and the right way, which feels great, hopefully that continues.”
Atamian, Salter and Matteson all told Pollstar one of Black Pumas’ most striking gifts is the energy of its live performance. The magic of Quesada’s guitar and Burton’s vocals have opened doors at every stage of the band’s journey, Matteson said, and the key has been getting them in front of people.
Morgan Winston – Jake & Elwood:
Black Pumas perform at First Avenue in Minneapolis on Jan. 18, 2020. Founders Eric Burton and Adrian Quesada discovered they had incredible musical chemistry in 2017 and have been lighting up larger and larger stages each year, even during a global pandemic.
Perhaps the secret to the band’s success has been that its magnetic performances have translated well into the digital and broadcast formats. When asked if he found it more challenging or very different performing for cameras instead of rooms full of people, Burton said not really.
“We’re just a couple of real dudes who really love music and it’s felt onstage,” Burton said. “The process of the performance and where it comes from is the exact same thing. It’s harder doing it on the Santa Monica Pier (where he busked before moving to Austin and forming Black Pumas), performing in places where people aren’t expecting live music because they are on their way to do something else. When I was doing that, those people didn’t come to see a show on the corner of 6th and Congress, they came to get a coffee from Starbucks. Engaging with people like that and being able to hold them in such a space, for an extended period of time, I now understand that was my [training]. Playing at 6th and Congress and being able to hold a crowd, that was like playing in the Parish or Antone’s and being able to hold the entire room, the process has never changed, it has just gotten bigger. I’ve grown a bit as a performative artist, but for the most part, it feels the same. But now the chains are taken off and I’m able to really fly with the nuances that the band brings to the live performance.”
“You come to our live performance, everyone is going to believe. At the end of the day, you may not believe in the album, but if you come to our live show you will believe that show because that is where it started. And for me, it started in the streets.”
Burton, who just a few years ago was busking in Austin and Santa Monica, has been smiling throughout the dramatic ascent of the Pumas – from meeting Quesada and working on a few songs with him, to taking on a residency at C-Boys Heart & Soul in Austin and turning what he assumed would be a weekly hang out with friends into the hottest musical event in town, to recording an album, to becoming one of the U.S.’s most televised bands during the COVID-19 pandemic.
One thing Burton said he truly appreciates, though, is how natural and organic the band’s growth has been, moving from stage to stage in a way that made sense personally and artistically, and that he has seen the same growth in the team that represents the band’s business interests.
“We’re extra thankful for our team. It seems like the team has come together in the same way Adrian’s and my own relationship did, it has been very organic, symbiotic. I believe the way management thinks and moves is reflective of the way our label thinks and moves,” Burton said. “When have all of these things aligned you get Black Pumas and we’re looking to take over the world.”