Feature Stories

Dallas Concert Promoters Talk About What Makes the Music Scene Tick

Concert promoters. You may not know who they are, but if you attend shows in Dallas you certainly know their work. They're the behind-the-scenes people who make live music happen, curating lineups, negotiating terms with bands or agents and marketing the shows. They know the scene as well as anyone.

Promoters — often interchangeably referred to as talent buyers or bookers — compete with other large cities to bring national touring acts and give local talent a chance in the limelight. But what often can be a dog-eat-dog business is by most accounts less aggressive in Dallas, where promoters say they oftentimes collaborate.

“I feel like I'm on good terms with most of the promoters,” says John Iskander of Parade of Flesh, a booking company that curates shows at Club Dada, Trees and Double Wide, among other venues. “I can't take somebody getting a show I wanted personally. It's just like, send a better offer next time, oh well.”

There are reasons for Dallas' lack of bloodlust. Los Angeles is cutthroat, according to The Kessler's artistic director Jeff Liles, who did a stint working at the Roxy Theatre on the Sunset Strip. He says a lot of the venues are “pay to play,” making the bands purchase a certain amount of tickets in order to play a show there. It’s up to the band to take a lot of the promotion into their own hands to sell their tickets and recoup costs.

“There's a huge number of artists and creatives trying to get a few amount of slots [in L.A.]. In Dallas, you can operate at your own pace and hustle your own shows and get paid to play. This is not a city where you go do a show and there are five or six important entertainment executives in the audience,” says Liles.

“I’ve been really lucky that I’ve worked with almost everybody in town. I feel like I can go to lunch with any of those people tomorrow,” adds Gavin Mulloy, creative director of The Bomb Factory and Trees. Mulloy doesn't book shows himself but handles the marketing at both venues, each of which frequently rents out its room to outside promoters.

“We're really lucky to have some of the most creative promoters around,” he says. He points to the crossover of different events — such as the AT&T Performing Arts Center hosting events tied in with Homegrown Festival, or pub crawls to help promote performances — as good examples of promoters thinking outside the box. “Promotion has almost gotten mixed in with the experience of the show,” he said. “Any time you add another layer to it, it helps the show.”

Because Dallas is less saturated with hungry talent than L.A. or even Austin, local bands have a multitude of opportunities to get paid to play venues. Sometimes that leads to over-playing the market, which can be bad for an artist’s image and make it harder to promote them.

“Nobody's going to pay to see them if they play out too much,” says Iskander. He recommends bands play a Dallas, Denton and Fort Worth show each month and travel to Oklahoma or Austin if they want more stage time instead of playing more shows in the North Texas market.

“Every local band needs to spread their shows out and treat every show like they’re opening up for Mötley Crüe,” says Rustin Luther, long-time concert promoter and owner of the Tomcats West venue in Fort Worth. “There are roughy 20 to 25 markets within a 200-mile radius of DFW that they can go play in on the regular. When you give people all these options to see your band play, they’re going to take those options and find something else to do,” he says.

Luther has been in the game for nearly 10 years and has seen it change a lot with the rise of social media. He says it’s allowed bands to be lazy. Sharing events on Facebook is easy, but Luther says they're also easy for people to ignore, and he laments the lack of face-to-face promoting on the street, talking to people and passing out flyers. Luther thinks it’s hurt attendance across the board.

Liles counters the claim that social media have hurt the music scene, instead saying it’s made the process easier for bands to get exposure. A show that used to take weeks or months to promote can be done in a matter of days, which has led to the rise of “pop-up” shows, something that never would have worked before social media.

The coveted touring acts are sometimes hard to get and competition among venues can lead to price gouging. Venues will overpay “tremendously” to get a band even if they lose money on the show, which hurts the entire scene, says Luther.

“It inflates the market. The band is going to think they're worth that kind of money, and if they don't pull the same fee next time, that band just ends up skipping the Dallas market on tour,” he says. “What should happen, and what does happen sometimes, is that promoters work together and say, ‘Did you get an offer from so and so? We should both offer the same amount and leave it up to the artist as far as where they want to play,’” he suggests.
The promoters interviewed for this story are a collegial bunch – giving kudos to their fellow promoters for jobs well done and citing the need for more collaboration to make the Dallas scene healthier.

“I think the thing that gets lost in the promotion game, especially if two people have a show on the same night, is that you’re not fighting against each other – let’s just go get more people [to see the shows],” says Mulloy. “Unfortunately, it is a competitive industry because there aren't a lot of jobs, but if we focus more on co-throwing shows and helping each other out, we’re only going to succeed faster.”

As Mulloy sees it, venues in Deep Ellum aren't competing against the Granada, Kessler or House of Blues. “I’m competing against Chicago and a guy in L.A. sitting behind a desk who works at a talent agency. I'm competing against him to get the best show that I can,” he says. “I want the bands to think this is the best city to ever play music in. It may be an unrealistic goal, but … I want to compete against something much bigger than me because that's how you get up to that level.”
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