Few understand the intersection of independent music and the live industry better than Frank Riley, who has represented seminal indie acts like Hüsker Dü, Meat Puppets and The Replacements and founded indie booking agency High Road Touring in 2002.
For that reason, there were few better suited to lead independent agents as they lobbied the government for industry relief in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
In spring 2020, Riley helped unite 14 talent agencies to form the National Independent Talent Organization, better known as NITO, which worked with its sister organization NIVA (National Independent Venue Association) to help draft the Save Our Stages Act, passed by Congress in late 2020.
“We worked toward a goal and succeeded,” Riley says. “What is most remarkable, and underlines the interdependence of the music community, especially the independent music community, is the cooperation and support we offered each other. Not once did we fight. Not once did we squabble. We did disagree, but we worked through those moments to find common ground and continue to move forward.”
NITO “worked tirelessly toward a common goal,” Riley continues, “and that was to benefit the entire indie music ecosystem – to keep this incubator of talent, this source of community, this invaluable resource of business for our companies intact, for now and in the future.”
High Road’s talent will be front and center as the industry comes back to life. The agency’s stable of reliable indie draws includes Wilco – which Riley calls “the backbone of High Road from the very start” – and it also represents esteemed legacy artists such as Patti Smith and Robert Plant. High Road books some of indie-rock’s hottest current acts, including Brittany Howard and Phoebe Bridgers, who both rank highly on this year’s Bonnaroo lineup, as well as club-level artists like Soccer Mommy and The Weather Station, who both seem poised to take the road by storm following recent acclaimed albums.
“Everyone on our roster is a source of great pride, and an opportunity for High Road to make a contribution to their careers,” Riley says. “Represent artists in the way that they choose. Follow their lead, but with guidance and experience help them choose their appropriate path.”
While Riley admits “it’s been difficult to keep a steady hand” during the pandemic, he says High Road and NITO persevered by working as a collective – and earned “a greater understanding of the interdependence of all aspects of the live industry” along the way.
“It will take a couple of years to shake free of what happened over these past 15 months,” he concludes, alluding to the “difficult work” ahead, but says the “communion of sorts” provided by live music “will never lose its appeal.”
The artist you would most like to see live when touring and festivals return?
The first show when I can walk into a venue, and lose myself in music.
When it’s safe to do so, will you go back to the office, work remotely or a combination of both? Why?
Back to the office, for sure, to share the insights, laughter, common goals, of my colleagues. That sharing of experiences, is the soul of a company. I often say that our most important conversations are in the kitchen.
Artist to watch break in the next year?
Soccer Mommy. The Weather Station. Deep Sea Diver.
How do you think livestreaming will or won’t be integrated into your business going forward?
Yes, it will be integrated into our business, going forward. But it will be an adjunct, not a focus. It’s just not the same experience of a live performance. Memory is a great leveler… and a show, once played, is a memory. We put ourselves into the equation, and once that is done, we own it. Streaming, at this point, anyway, does not have that power.
Your favorite music documentary – recent or old?
“Birth Of The Cool.” I’ve been a fan of Miles Davis, forever… but seeing this doc, as my wife noted, makes it clear that Miles not only was a genius, but a unique genius in so many ways. For so long a period too.
Zoom, Clubhouse or TikTok? Why?
Zoom. It was wonderfully reassuring to see faces, and get into discussions, when there was no other way.