By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
It's an impressive draw made all the more interesting because of its quirks. Namely, the fact that it's largely a suburban phenomenon.
"We started off by doing this in Deep Ellum," says the 23-year-old Mike Ziemer, the man behind Third String Productions. "But kids kept telling us that their parents wouldn't let them drive out there. And, at that point, I was only 15 or 17 myself, and I couldn't really go down there either."
So Ziemer, simply looking for a place to house the kind of music that he and his friends liked, played by local bands that he and his friends knew, decided to bring shows to kids like them, instead of sitting around Deep Ellum, hoping it was the other way around. In 2005, his company threw its first Plano Centre show.
"And then it just started to grow," Ziemer says. "Booking agents started contacting me, saying 'You're doing 500 kids in the suburbs with just local bands. What could you do with national ones?'"
Plenty, it turns out. In fact, the scene's been so good for Ziemer's company that after one last show at the Plano Centre on July 12 his company will essentially move its operation out of that 5,000-person capacity venue and into a new, 8,000-capacity home, The Garland Special Events Center.
"It's just the perfect venue," Ziemer says. "It's bigger. It's more professional. They have people that do ticket windows there. They have people that actually do security."
And, more important, they have more flexibility to offer with their space. Ziemer excitedly talks of the possibilities: "We can sell private suites. We can have corporate sponsorships. We can bring in skate ramps." The list goes on and on and on. And the possibilities, at least for now, seem endless.
Mostly, because, if there's one thing Ziemer's come to learn about his audience, it's that they have a high demand for his product.
"It's just a different scene out here with all the suburban kids," he says.
These kids, and these kids alone, are the audience here—an audience with a lot of purchasing power. And they're spending their money on more than just admission fees.
Hidden amongst the thousands of attendees at May Madness, Seth Bohlman, guitarist for area indie rock favorite The Crash That Took Me (a band whose audiences out-age the Plano Centre crowds by a good 10 years at least), shakes his head in awe at the sheer exuberance of the show that his younger sister begged him to take her to.
It's quite the scene, a mini-Beatlemania of sorts. Girls too young to drive huddle up and point out their favorite band members as they wait in the lines at their merch tables. Boys gather up and argue over which bands on the bill rock the hardest. And the fashion choices, as regrettable as they may appear a few years down the line, are uniform—so much so that, aside from maybe a few years in age difference between the performers and the audience, there's not much of a discernible visual difference between the bands and their fans, except that one group is clearly the trendsetters, the other its legion of loyal followers. One is rocking out, the other in the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds that form in front of each stage.
"It's cool that all these kids are here getting into music," Bohlman says. "It's a little cheesy, but, y'know, whatever. I'd tap into this market if I could; these kids actually have Mom and Dad's money. They buy CDs."
His eyes glance back and forth between the set-ups on two of the venue's stages.
"And they all have better equipment than I do."
Oh, the affluent suburbs...
"The community up here is financially well off," says the manager for the scene-leading Forever the Sickest Kids, Tommy Quon. "When Mike Ziemer came up here, it wasn't being done, and it gave the kids something to look forward to, a regular thing."
Yes, that's the same Tommy Quon, who, in the late '80s and early '90s, managed Dallas-born white rapping sensation Vanilla Ice to the top of the charts.
Quon's re-emergence as the manager of Forever the Sickest Kids? Well, that's something of a redemption story in itself.
"Does it feel like the monkey's off my back?" the self-deprecating, self-aware Quon asks, jokingly. "Is that what you mean?"
"Well, I've definitely learned some stuff," Quon says before detailing his work with Vanilla Ice, his work with Latin pop artist Marcos Hernandez and his failed efforts at creating a buzz with local New Age and ballroom-dancing acts in the years since Ice's status dropped from superstar to punch line. "You learn the pitfalls. You know all that's a part of it."
Mainly, Quon says, you learn that it's all a big crapshoot. You make what you believe are smart business decisions, and you hope for the best. More important, you accept when you're headed down the wrong path to success. Admits Quon: "I remember when I was told about MySpace seven years ago or so, and I said I just didn't see the need for it. Boy, was I wrong."