Hello, I Love You — Fostering Community Around Artists & Events (Pollstar Live! Panel Recap)

L-R: Mark Weiss of 237 Global, Wasserman Music’s Mike Betterton, WME’s Sarah Tehrani, Grace Barrett of Planet Bluegrass, Solange Sinclair of Lobeline Communications and Live Nation’s Kelly Kapp.

What makes art unique is the sense of community that can form around it, that is inspired by it, and live music may very well be the most influential and profitable form around with millions of fans paying hard-earned dollars to see their favorite acts.

But how does one foster such fandom around musicians and events? Some of the industry’s top executives — Grace Barrett of Planet Bluegrass, Mike Betterton of Wasserman Music, Live Nation’s Kelly Kapp, Solange Sinclair of Lobeline Communications and WME’s Sarah Tehrani — gathered to discuss their strategies at the Pollstar Live! conference held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles on Feb. 23.

Mark Weiss, founder and CEO of 237 Global, moderated the discussion and right off the bat wanted to hear from panelists about their strategies for building up artists and events and how to maintain loyalty from the fans.

For Barrett and Sinclair, the community was already there. Barrett works on the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and says that the event itself is more about the people wanting to be a part of the community rather than the music.

“What sets planet bluegrass apart from other festivals, but just in general, … is that openness,” said Barrett, who added that she attempts to reward fans by going the extra mile to deter scalping by looking through each order individually and flagging any suspicious ones.

Sinclair, a publicist with a background in reggae music, understands that culture came together long before they did, such as is the case with reggae — a genre that was propelled to new heights and continues to be buoyed by the legacy of Bob Marley. Much like the bluegrass festivals, reggae is defined not only by its music but its vibe.

“With every single reggae festival, it starts at 6 p.m. and goes until 11 o’clock the next morning, and people are out there still bumping and vibing,” Sinclair said. “People are almost in a trance so to speak. You know that you’re in this space with so many other people and it’s just love.”

Similar to bluegrass and reggae, the genres of country and metal run somewhat parallel in that the events and artists build their reputation by establishing a relationship with the fans — not only providing a safe space for those who love the music but also being open to them.

“It’s because of that sense of community and openness that they’re willing to share and sometimes you see a career start to crumble a little bit when somebody wants to be a little more shut off,” said Kapp, who works with metal bands. “We now expect as a fan to feel like we have a seat at the table with them, and we do want to know what they’re eating for dinner and what they’re buying at the grocery store.”

Tehrani agreed that fan-artist interaction is key and that social media can be a more effective and influential tool for musicians and event organizers than just having a poster.

“I think there’s definitely a lot of noise out there,” says Tehrani, who works with Wiz Khalifa. “It’s definitely not just posting a poster anymore. It’s letting people know who you are and what you like and being honest about your routine.

“I think in this new age of social media, you feel like you know the person you’re watching. I feel like artists who have that open relationship on social media are the ones that get those diehard fans.”

Sometimes, posters aren’t even used to promote an event to deter scalping.

“Some artists press releases, some don’t,” Betterton said. “We’ve never put a press release out. It’s just one of the things you do to try to get tickets to the event into the hands of real fans.”

Barrett had an even better idea for the 50th annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival, one that even Kapp admitted she is going to use in the future.

“We ended up doing our lineup release via postcard to exclusively ticketholders,” Barrett said. “So instead of a poster that said [the artists’ names], every single ticket holder got a postcard with a little poem on it that had individually different artists written in. … They were able to piece together as a group the 50th-anniversary lineup.”

One example of how social media can spark new ideas is the Umi’s meditation tour Tehrani worked on. The artist became a big advocate of mental wellness through mediation and fans followed her journey of overcoming depression during the pandemic. Umi began offering mediation sessions and her fans responded.

“I think that’s what really sets these artists apart,” Tehrani says.

Betterton concurs that fan interaction is essential and can do wonders for artists. He says country is one of “the few if not only genre that actually has fan festivals” that are organized by fans and artists stop by unpaid only to “engage with their fans.”

One artist who has been known to deliver for fans is Kenny Chesney, who Betterton represents, and the Wasserman Music executive said the country superstar extended his reach by learning what works from acts in other genres.

“Years ago, we saw a big change in Kenny when he started seeing Bruce Springsteen shows and The Rolling Stones. But then we really turned a corner when those artists started to come and see us,” says Betterton, who added that Chesney was once visited by Springsteen and U2’s Larry Mullen Jr. at a show once. “… So it’s stuff like that, little things that happen where you’re like, ‘Wait a second, you’re doing something right.’”

Kapp said metal bands were also inspired by what live country acts do and that she’s seen some of them incorporating the stairsteps in more settings.

The panel also discussed the importance of location, and how artists can sometimes make the venue and vice versa.

“Sometimes it doesn’t matter who the artist is that is playing; somebody just wants to go there and be ingratiated into that room and they want to be in the poster room and they want to live that legacy,” Kapp said. “With the community, you build it, and they will come. I think we see that a lot of times in the smaller clubs, theaters and even ballrooms where there is a sense of community for the room and almost like a festival you don’t have to even put an artist, the community wants to come out and support all that.”