On With the Song
Independent music promoters rely on intimate venues, unique show experiences, and social media to bring big acts to small cities.
WORDS BY Katrine Dermody // ART BY KATRINE DERMODY
It’s 9:30 a.m. on a bright, blue Thursday morning in Winooski, Vt., and Matt Rogers, 29, walks into The Monkey House. The bar is quiet and almost completely dark inside. Rogers, who’s still wearing his sunglasses, starts talking to the bar owner about the next night’s Low Cut Connie concert — a conversation punctuated by quick and purposeful sips of coffee. Then his phone rings and, with a swift, “Hold on one second, I have to take this,” he steps to the side and begins a new conversation about the same old things: bands, dates, venues, posters, and agents. The list goes on.
Like many kids, when Matt Rogers was growing up he wanted to be part of the music industry. But unlike most aspiring rock stars, whose hopes of fame never came to fruition, Rogers is one of the lucky ones — he’s actually living his childhood dream. “I always wanted to be involved in music,” Rogers recalls. “I played music growing up. I was in bands in high school. It was always kind of a passion thing for me.”
After studying business at Saint Michael’s College, Rogers landed his first job as assistant tour manager for James Taylor. And while he spent several years crisscrossing the United States in a tour bus, today Rogers has settled down in Burlington, Vt., and works as a member of a recently formed independent music promotion and production company called Waking Windows Presents.
From Neutral Milk Hotel and Future Islands to Deerhoof and The Fresh & Onlys, Rogers and the rest of the Waking Windows Presents crew bring live music and entertainment to venues in and around Burlington up to several nights a week. But that wasn’t the case just a few years ago before they started mixing up the local music scene. “All these bands that I loved would play Boston, you know, they’d do Philly, New York, Boston, and then they’d go right to Montreal and skip right over us. So we had this void in Burlington.”
But Rogers refused to believe this void was as inevitable as winters in Vermont. He decided to do something about it. “It was more about me going to these shows and saying, ‘Why aren’t these shows coming to Burlington,’ you know? I figured that I knew enough about booking a concert that I may as well just try it,” Rogers says.
The early days of Rogers’ music promotion career — back when he was just a one-man company called MSR Presents — were a little rocky. The first concert he put on was not a huge success; neither was the second. In fact, when asked about those early shows, Rogers jokingly calls them “tankers.” “I was like, ‘Oh man, maybe I have no business doing this.’ But then the third show was this huge sellout with this band, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, who had just blown up. And then I was like, ‘All right. This is good. This is how it should be.’”
And Rogers isn’t the only one who thinks this is “how it should be.” Over the last several years, a growing independent music promotion industry has emerged in the United States — a trend that’s more focused on the quality of the concert experience than the bottom line. Don Cusic, who teaches music business courses at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., says that the big money remains with large organizations such as Live Nation but that independent music and promotion is on the upswing. “There has been significant growth in the number of indie promoters and the number of events promoted by indie promoters,” Cusic says. “Since Napster and the digital revolution and DIY recording, young, inexperienced bookers and promoters can play a major role. They’ve always had a role at the club level, but now they can grow with the act.”
Like Rogers, Tierra Rich is an independent booker and promoter. Based out of Philadelphia, she chooses to describe herself more broadly as an “artist consultant” rather than just a promoter because her job requires so much flexibility and personalization. “Independent promoters aren’t as big or flashy as more corporate music companies,” Rich says. “But we can offer the audience affordability and intimacy. And no, I don’t mean the love kind. I mean people want to be a part of the artists’ lives. They don’t want to be just a fan. And the artists love it too, because they can connect with the audience and cultivate a strong fan base.”
When asked how smaller, independent promoters compete in a business led by leviathans such as Live Nation and AEG Music, she had one answer: social media. “The number one reason why people like me have been able to do what we do is social media. As long as you’ve got a nice graphic and a social network you can get people’s attention,” Rich says. “When I started working in this business, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, none of that stuff was around. These days, you can pay $20, and you can kick off an entire Facebook sponsorship campaign, and your business and events can get promoted on everyone’s Facebook walls. Technology is key.”
Max Bonanno, vice president of Simple Play Presents, an independent management firm and booking and promotions agency based out of New Orleans, agrees with Rich, saying that social media has been instrumental in the development of independent music promotion. “Now that anyone can book and promote a show from their couch, it’s left the door open for a diversified promotions scene,” Bonanno says. “I think it’s moving in the right direction, but you always have to be wary of inexperienced or unprofessional promoters when booking shows.”
And while Bonanno definitely appreciates the tailored, and often homespun, touches independent promoters can bring to a show, he maintains that professionalism is as important as ever. “One of our goals at Simple Play is to build a reputation for professionalism, and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that thus far,” Bonanno says. “There’s always going to be Live Nation and your other promotional titans, but I like to think we make them blink every once in a while.”
Rogers, for his part, is probably making those giant promotions companies blink now and again, too. But most of the time, he’s just trying to put on shows that are fun for the audience as well as the artists. On Friday night, when Low Cut Connie starts their set, Rogers transitions seamlessly from promoter to concertgoer. With a beer in his hand and a smile on his face, he bobs his head to the music. Rogers gets to have some fun, too.
“The majority of bands are in a van and they’re playing night after night and they’re stopping at McDonald’s when they can and they’re barely making enough money to get by,” Rogers says. “So for us to be able to bring these bands in and take care of them, and treat them and feed them and let them know that we actually care, that’s a big thing. We make it personal.”
Lone Wolf: Matt Rogers, one of a growing number of indie music promoters, takes a DIY approach to recording and booking. PHOTO BY KATRINE DERMODY.
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