Music promoters talk ups, downs of business
FARMINGTON — At 5 feet, 3 inches tall, Katee McClure is not exactly a physically imposing specimen. But when one of the artists performing at the annual Animas River Blues & Brews Festival verbally abused a festival volunteer backstage a few years ago, McClure didn't hesitate to get in his face about it.
"He was just nasty," said McClure, who has been booking the talent for the annual summer festival for the past eight years. "He acted so entitled. And it wasn't his band — it was just him."
McClure was in no mood to put up with those kinds of shenanigans from anyone, not even one of the festival headliners. So she marched up to the offending party — she declined to reveal his name — and began barking right back at him, giving him a dose of what he'd just dished out to the volunteer who had incurred his wrath.
"I was just ready to nip that in the bud," McClure said. "I said, 'I don't care who you are, you don't treat people that way.' And the show went on."
McClure, probably no stranger to absorbing the occasional broadside from an angry citizen in her role as an Aztec city commissioner, said the incident left such a strong impression on her because it's never been repeated before or since at the festival. Though a lot of popular musicians might have developed well-earned reputations for being prima donnas, McClure said that with that one notable exception, the performers at the event she helps run each July in Aztec's Riverside Park have been unfailingly gracious and professional.
"It's only happened once in 10 years, which is a really good record," she said.
With all the other things that can and will go wrong during a show, such backstage blow-ups are the last thing a music promoter has time to deal with. Many of those who bring touring musical acts to the Farmington area say their experiences with the talent have been overwhelmingly positive — even if the bottom line often isn't.
Brian Johnson of MB Entertainment has seen plenty of ups and downs in the 15 years he's been booking shows in the Farmington area. Though he deals primarily with metal acts, he also occasionally works with country, reggae or 1980s rock performers. He said it's always been difficult to carve out an existence as a music promoter in this area, and most of the rewards are not monetary.
"It's just the friendships you make with these guys," he said, explaining how much he values the relationships he's built in the business over the years. While he's had his share of experiences with demanding, sour performers or support personnel — a show he did a few years ago with Insane Clown Posse still draws a groan from him when he recalls it — he said most people who work in the live music business understand their role is to make things go as smoothly as possible.
"Everybody's just trying to make a living," he said. "And when they step off that tour bus, they're missing their homes and their families just like anybody else would. So I try to make it easy for them."
For some promoters, that means going the extra mile. Anthony Lee of War Party Productions, who has been booking shows for the last six years, since his days as a student at Shiprock High School, said he regularly puts his touring bands up for the night in his living room, feeding them a home-cooked meal as part of the bargain. For a struggling group that barely has the money to keep gas in the van, much less pay for a motel room, that kind of hospitality isn't quickly forgotten.
"I always take care of my bands," Lee said, explaining that on some nights when the gate receipts are poor, he's been forced to dip into his own pocket to make sure the performers get paid. "That's a big reason they always come to me. It's not like Farmington is the place to be when it comes to concerts. They know I will always come through, even if it's only $50 for gas money."
Like every other local promoter interviewed for this story, Lee started out small. As a 16-year-old high school sophomore, he had a band of his own but couldn't find a place that would book him. So he started organizing his own shows with local bands in a primitive space: a shed with a dirt floor. Even so, people turned out for his concerts, and it wasn't long before he was able to move into more modern accommodations. Now, he books national touring acts, mostly in the metal and punk genres, doing most of shows at the Identity Inc. Community Center in downtown Farmington.
George Rowe and Sue Rys of Crash Music say their venture has similarly humble roots. Rowe had just retired from teaching and wanted to open a small studio where he could teach music classes and offer private lessons. He and Rys started by renting a small space on Chuska Street in Aztec in 2012, then moved into a larger spot three months later on Main Avenue.
"From there, it became a natural thing to want to bring in entertainment," said Rowe, who had played in bands in addition to being a music teacher, so moving into the world of music promotion was not an entirely foreign concept for him.
He and Rys brought in a few solo acoustic acts, then decided they were ready to move on to something a little more ambitious.
"I can't remember when we made a conscious decision to do it," Rowe said. "But at a certain point, we realized we could bring in touring bands."
The initial results were encouraging, and by 2013, they were ready to move into the vacant Aztec Theater, a former movie theater that can accommodate 250 people comfortably. They booked a show with the Plateros, a successful blues-rock band from Tohajilee that tours throughout the Southwest, then brought in their first national act in the form of the Dirty Bourbon River Show from New Orleans.
"That's a band that tours hard and goes all over the place," Rowe said. "We kind of amazed ourselves."
Johnson's been at it much longer, having organized hundreds of shows over the last decade and a half. But he said he only got into the business by default — he'd been playing in a band and got stuck with a bunch of PA system equipment. He hooked up with some people in Arizona and started organizing underground shows with them before moving up to national acts two years later.
Now, he books all his shows at the Top Deck in Farmington, where he has brought in such big name country acts as Mark Chesnutt, Sammy Kershaw and Johnny Lee over the past several years. He also deals extensively with metal and hard rock acts, bringing in the likes of RED and All That Remains in recent months. He said Top Deck is well known to booking agents across the country, and that helps lure some more successful acts to a market the size of Farmington.
"I've heard (Farmington) compared to a European market because the fans are so hungry (for music)," Johnson said.
Despite the city's size, Farmington has shown a penchant for supporting larger acts, he said, noting that in addition to the aforementioned bands, he also brings in most of the second-stage bands from the well-known Mayhem Festival each year. In 2016, Johnson said, he already has plans to present concerts by the likes of the metal supergroup Hellyeah and Whey Jennings, grandson of legendary outlaw country artist Waylon Jennings.
The local market's size and distance from an interstate highway can make it an unattractive destination for many acts, but those hurdles can be overcome. Rowe said he sometimes deals with booking agents who aren't interested in sending their clients here, but others take the opposite approach.
"Some of them say, 'You're not on I-40. Wait a minute, we never get off I-40,'" he said. "But some of them are really open. Sometimes, I'll talk to a guy who says, 'I don't want to be stuck on I-40,' and I can open him up to some new venues."
Rowe and Rys have taken a creative approach to luring bands to their venue. They have a small, furnished apartment across Main Avenue from their theater and put up bands there as part of their compensation package. If a band plays the Aztec Theater on a Saturday night and doesn't have another show scheduled down the road for three or four days, those groups often spend a couple of nights in the apartment, resting and recharging their batteries while also avoiding the expense of a motel.
Rowe also does his best to line up other gigs for performers besides the shows at the Aztec Theater. He has an arrangement with the Sunflower Theatre in Cortez, Colo., for some of his artists to perform there and has been able to book several of his acts in Taos. He believes he'll be able to add venues in Pagosa Springs and Del Norte, Colo., to that list soon while also partnering with KSUT-FM, the public radio station in Ignacio, Colo., to develop a blues series at the casino there. It's much easier to bring a new act this way when you can offer them three or four gigs instead of just one, he said.
"We're starting to get this axis along the border between Colorado and New Mexico," Rowe said.
Those kinds of tricks are part of the music promotion learning curve. McClure said when she took over the job of booking talent for the Blues & Brews festival, she had no idea that the prices booking agents quoted her were negotiable — she assumed her only option was to say yes or no. It wasn't until John Paschall of Aztec's Main Street Music told her it was customary to make a counteroffer that she said she began to grasp how the business worked.
"It was not the most comfortable thing for me to do," she said of that kind of back and forth. But since her budget has always been very limited, it was a skill she knew she needed to cultivate. "Now I'm not hesitant about it anymore," she said.
McClure said she addresses the issue of recruiting bands for her relatively remote festival by booking them as early as possible. Though Blues & Brews takes place in the middle of summer, McClure said she usually has the lineup set by the end of December each year. That means she's not in the position of having to scrounge for talent in April and May when the blues festival season gets started, she said.
Lee believes the problem of Farmington's distance from major markets is overstated.
"We are at the hub," he said of the Four Corners. "There's so much room for growth here. From here, you can get to Albuquerque, Flagstaff, Salt Lake City, Denver. We're at the dead center of everything. A good venue is all I need."
Johnson routinely brings relatively big-name acts here, but the tradeoff, he said, is that he rarely, if ever, gets them on weekends. He said Farmington is a destination bands use for midweek gigs to get them from one large market to another.
"Farmington is a Sunday through Wednesday market," he said. "The weekends go to Phoenix and Denver or Salt Lake City or Texas."
Though McClure doesn't book bands year round, she takes her job with the festival very seriously and said she makes a point of listening to the music of every band that submits an application to perform. She said the festival features one local band a year, with the others coming from out of state. She also tries to maintain a mix of blues styles — Chicago, Texas and Delta — and avoids bringing performers back two years in a row, no matter how popular they are.
"That happened a couple of times in the beginning, but there are so many good bands out there," she said.
She also avoids the temptation to book acts from outside the genre.
"We'll just keep plugging along keeping the blues alive," she said. "This is strictly the blues."
In addition to promoting shows, Lee is also the frontman for the local band End This Year, so he sees the business from different perspectives. One of the things he loves about the local scene is how humble it is, something he doesn't see in other markets where many of the fans are spoiled, he said.
He also loves bringing bands he enjoys here for the first time and seeing those musicians have a memorable experience. He said two of the groups he's booked — Giants at Large from upstate New York and Heavyweight from California — were so taken by their experience here they wound up writing songs about the time they spent in New Mexico.
Rowe said he takes a great deal of satisfaction in presenting bands or artists that few people here have heard of, then watching them wow the audience. One of the shows he was most proud of in 2015, he said, was a performance by country musician J.P. Harris, who has gone on to draw the attention of Rolling Stone and The New York Times.
Still, he said, there are plenty of nights when the crowds are disappointingly small — a feeling likely shared, at one time or another, by everyone who's ever organized a concert.
"It's extremely difficult," Rowe said of making a living promoting shows. "It's not a question of having competition, it's getting people used to the idea of going out."
Rowe realizes not everyone shares his love of music, but he believes the best musical performances don't just entertain people, they help build a sense of community. He compares what he does to ancient innkeepers who provided troubadours with a good meal, a warm bed and a place where they could display their talent. He finds that experience meaningful and said it helps make up for the uncertainties that come with the business.
"This is the best way to live," he said. "And this is the way I intend to live for the rest of my life. I couldn't think of a better job description for what I do."
Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.