It’s 6:50 p.m. Izotope’s empty, high-ceilinged kitchen-slash-common area, a peaceful refuge from the summer humidity, enjoys a few moments of silence as the space echoes with only the scraping of metal-legged chairs. As several others are finalizing the evening’s setup, Anngelle Wood scribbles topics onto a whiteboard at the front of the room, setting the stage last night (June 21) for the latest State of Live Music in Boston forum, presented in tandem by Rock Shop Boston and Anngelle Wood Media.
Twenty minutes pass. It’s now 7:10 p.m., and the vibe of the room has shifted entirely as attendees filter in. The energy is high, the room buzzing with chatter and introductions as seats are filled and smiles exchanged. The event hasn’t even started yet, but the collaborative spirit is already alive and well.
About 75 members of the Boston music community, from local artists to promoters to marketing moguls, gathered once again last night at audio software startup Izotope’s Cambridge office for a question-and-answer panel on venue and artist relationships around town. “We realized that we’re not going to solve all the world’s problems in an hour or two,” said Wood, reflecting on last month’s inaugural event. As opposed to May’s less structured forum on the current atmosphere of Boston’s live music, this evening featured a panel of local mavens that are actively working in and around Boston-area clubs. Comprised of Ryan Agate of RTT Presents and O’Brien’s Pub in Allston, Alyssa Spector of Lysten Boston, Jason Trefts of Illegally Blind and Cambridge’s Middle East, and Aaron Gray of Grayskull Booking, the goal of the evening was to offer a more formal conversation on the key players in the industry — what’s working, what’s not working, and what should be done.
The conversation began by the panelists describing their methodology for building bills and flowed to amount of time spent doing their work. It was a bit surprising to hear that almost all of the panelists have full-time jobs in addition to their roles listed above, working countless hours to create the best experiences for the community. It stood as an indicator of the passion that’s so deeply embedded in Boston’s music scene.
Discussion transitioned to the first item on Wood’s list: building relationships between venues and artists. How can each party contribute to this synergy? Agate stated it most succinctly when he said, bluntly, “Don’t be a dick to my staff,” which garnered several chuckles around the room (though, it can be argued that his nugget of wisdom is life’s golden rule: be nice to people. Being an asshole gets you nowhere). Word gets around, and if an artist isn’t treating a venue well, they won’t get invited back. Agate continued: “It’s about the relationship. It’s about patience. Be respectful to the staff and the crowd.”
Gray commented that bands should give themselves and the bookers enough time to schedule dates and build the bill. Requesting a show at a venue next month isn’t the wisest decision. Going off of this, Trefts brought up how bands need to be realistic when thinking about venues, costs, and touring seasons when conversing with bookers. A location such as the Middle East Upstairs runs at $500 for a Friday night, and shows have to be sold out during peak tour times like October. Knowing in advance what is expected at different locations not only strengthens those relationships, but makes everyone’s job easier.
Pay-to-play was, as expected, a hot topic of the night. Moderator Kevin Hoskins’ question to the audience — “How many of you have been asked to pre-sell tickets?” — was met with several raised hands, to which others in the audience yelled out “Stop doing that!” This topic yielded one of the quotes of the night, from Leesa Coyne, formerly of The Easy Reasons, in which she described these sleazy promoters as “predatory bookers”. The general consensus in the room was that pay-to-play equals bad, and bands should know that they have other options. Trefts does his best to let bands know that they don’t have to pay-to-play, but he doesn’t let his personal views on these promoters affect who he selects to play the Middle East. “At the end of the day, my goal is to make the Middle East Upstairs open to everybody,” he said. “If it’s racist or bullshit like that it can’t be there, but other than that I’m not trying to criticize bands or choose bands based on their personal opinion. So I have to keep it open to these shitty, predatory promoters.”
Talks then shifted gears a bit when Matt McArthur, executive director of Boston non-profit music organization The Record Company, posed the questions: where do the fans fit in, and who is in charge of cultivating fanbases? “As a promoter, I feel one hundred percent responsible for getting people to come out to shows,” said Spector, “but part of it too is the media. We have awesome resources here to provide information on the music scene and shows, but why aren’t other media sources in Boston suggesting local music?” She pulled up a recent Thrillist article about cool things to do when a friend visits Boston: breweries, movies, duck boats, bowling, and chocolate tours. With the exhaustive list of concerts happening every night around town, she pondered, why wasn’t one of those list items about seeing a local show? Building off of this discussion, Lauren Koppelman of Foliage brought up concerns regarding timing of shows — can venues book shows earlier, thereby allowing fans who aren’t night owls to attend shows?
Sean Connelly, self-proclaimed promoter wannabe, reiterated this point and posited the idea of catching people after they leave work, especially at those venues that are near or act as restaurants. The panelists agreed that the timing of shows depends on the venue and genre, and while most venues are either trying out or will allow earlier set times (with a few exceptions), artists should know that they can request earlier shows.
Not all of the topics Wood outlined were addressed in the evening’s dialogue, but the discussions that unfolded and problems that were bought up certainly highlighted the need for everyone in the community to work together to support these artists to the best of our abilities. It also brought to light more sensitive subjects, such as security at clubs and diversity within the industry, that warrant larger, more in-depth discussions.
“If you see things missing in the music community, if you see things happening at venues that you don’t want to happen, you can do something about it,” said Trefts. “We all need your help. We’re trying to fight for the artists.”