Q&A: Third String Productions' Mike Ziemer Talks South By So What, Not Killing Deep Ellum

On Saturday at the Plano Centre, Mike Ziemer's Third String Productions will throw its annual South by So What!? event--a deal that's become something of a tradition.

But it's not the only show Ziemer puts on every year. At just 23 years of age, he's booked thousands of bands on hundreds of shows--most of which take place in the suburbs of Dallas. And, despite his age, over the past few years, Zimer's Third String Productions has become well-known throughout the region and beyond, for all-day music festivals like SBSW and the winter holiday-related Unsilent Night--shows that feature 20 to 30 bands and attract thousands of young would-be music aficionados.

We recently caught up with Ziemer to talk about how--and why--he does what he does.

When did you recognize that there was a need that wasn't being fulfilled in North Texas music? How and when were you able to set up a plan to address it?  
Probably when I first moved here. I was 16. I was a spiky-haired kid from California with surf clothes and everyone automatically thought I was a punk kid, so I started hanging out with bands and there was nowhere to do shows. I didn't start doing shows till I was 18 or 19, but they called me the mascot, the manager, and they started recognizing that I could get them shows and I could do things for them. Back then, you would play the Door or the Across The Street Bar, and that was it. We really wanted to open up new venues--or potentially new venues--that we could do stuff at. We started doing stuff at churches, just places you wouldn't normally have shows--and all these kids would show up because there was nothing else going on.

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Originally, I was going to be an architect. I was the kid during senior year that had a job; I didn't go to class after lunch. I had a job and, like, that's always how I've been--workin' hard and stuff.  And I was writing for Dallas Music Guide and a site called utterpunk.com. I would have bands constantly asking me if I could do shows for them, and, finally, one of the guys who runs utter punk said we should do "punk fest". He was like, "Just find a place to do it and it'll do well. You live in the suburbs. It'd do well." So I was, like, "alright". I was managing a band called The Perfect Ending at that time, and they wanted to play at this place called the Plano Centre that sometimes bands would all rent out and play. So I said OK. It worked out really well. And I thought, "This is something," so I booked another show in July. The first show was in March, so this was months and months later, but kinda the driving force for that was there was supposed to be an AFI, Thursday, and Coheed and Cambria show there that sold out. That's like 3,000 tickets--in advance sold out. It might have oversold to 4000, I don't even know. But the fact that it sold out made me realize I had a potentially good venue worked out.

That was at the Plano Centre?
Yeah, but it never even happened. Davey Havoc [of AFI] got a cyst in his throat. But all my friends were talking about it. They were like, "Man, this is so cool! This show is in our backyard--we don't have to drive to Smirnoff or Nokia." It was just kinda like me being that guy who had a lawn mowing business when I was younger, and a car washing business, I was like "Hmmm...maybe this will work out."

How  many shows have you put together over the course of your promotions/booking career?
I have no idea. I'd say hundreds by this point, but it's weird because a lot of shows I've promoted for other people. I worked for Buzz Oven for a couple of years; I'd help promote Door shows and they'd give me like 10 percent or something small, and rip me off; [I did shows] in churches, too, of course. I mean, we'd do benefit shows at churches and actual shows at churches. We did Red Blood Club shows back in the day. I'd do this here and that there, "Hey, if you give me a cut of the tickets, I'll bring 400 new people to your church." I wasn't really a company at that point; it was kinda just me as a promoter trying to find my niche and what was going to work.  

We used to keep count [of the number of bands we've worked with], but I bet it's in the thousands now. Originally, when I was working for that website and managing that band, I'd send out press kits, so it started out as management and it went on to the fact that the bands I was managing needed shows. And then, about two years ago, the bands needed tours, so I became a booking agent. So it's kind of a progression, and each thing has its own name.  I don't book tours anymore; the bands I manage have their own booking agents. I do have a management company--it's called New Direction Management-but it's completely separate and I've been doing it for a year and I haven't made any money off of it. It's like more of a developing thing; I'm working with younger bands like The Hit who are all under 21, just finally about to get out and just starting to talk to labels. It's just more of a you develop a band, believe in a band, sign a contract with the band making sure they don't leave you and then you know, once they get signed, you see the benefits of it. One of my bands, Kid Liberty, is actually going to be signing soon. And then The Hit will go next, and then a couple of other bands I work with. It'll be finally paying me back for doing this since I was like 17.  

What's the best part about what you do? What is the worst part?
When you have a big show and it's successful, and you have bands that talk about how great it is and how they want to come back. Even when you have a show that financially fails you... like at Metalfest, we didn't make money on it--we lost money--but the credibility we earned with 30 bands that have never heard of us or worked with us was amazing. Them saying this was the most smoothly run festival ever... it gets back to their agents, who handle bigger bands. That's kind of how I ended up here, with the bleeding through shows. I used to book the tiny bands and [their managers would say], "Hey, I want to give you one of my big tours."

The worst thing is when you loose money. It sucks, because it's a separate thing, but it's my money. I only get paid when we have good shows, or when we make money on shows.  Loosing money on shows can be really really frustrating and is definitely the worst part.  

What is the criteria you look for when choosing which bands to work with?  What type of bands would not make the cut? Do you enjoy the music that 100 percent of your bands make?
Usually, the agent sells me a tour package, and tells me, "Hey, this is why you need this band..." We had a band from OKC, these little kids. I didn't want to do the show, but the agent was like, "Trust me, these guys are going to be on TV." And before the show happened, they were on their own reality TV show which was really cool. But as far as bands that hit me up individually, and say, "We're on tour, we really need help," or local bands... they can hit us up to play our shows. Now that we're working with The Max, we're selling pre-sale tickets for every show. We listen to the music, make sure it fits, and the bands presell tickets to get a draw. In the end, the bands have to work hard to sell 30 tickets, but they're playing in front of 300 people that have never seen them. So, it's a pretty fair trade off.

Dealing with so many young bands, do you have to deal with them flaking out, not showing up, showing up late, etc?  
We tell bands not to be late, that if you're past load-in, you're not going to end up playing, and that, if you're not going to sell the required presale number, you might as well not even take the show. And bands know that "Hey, if I open up for this show in front of 300 people and do well, then there's that 3,000 person festival that we might be able to get on." They tend to sell the tickets, and show up on time. I mean, tires go flat and we understand, but there's never been a band that purposely showed up late.  

How do you ensure that everyone involved makes money through the shows you put on: bands, venues, etc?
Tour packages get their money no matter what. If the show doesn't do well, you go to your ATM.  For locals, if there's a really bad show, they understand. That happened at Ridglea; we did a festival called the New Noise Festival. It was an indie music showcase. We thought it was just going to be amazing, and we lost like over $8,000 dollars that night--in one night. At that point, we didn't know what to do.

How did you get in and start making ties with so many national bands and record labels?  How did you open that connection, what did they think at first?
It's kinda like everyone starts somewhere, and some of those people that started somewhere five or six years ago when I first got in the game are a lot bigger now. Like, Dave Shapiro was director of New Media at Equal Vision records, and moved on to smaller band booking; now he's one of the biggest agents at The Agency Group. So he keeps sending me his packages. He sent me small tours back in the day like Acceptance before they were huge. And, you know, and as his bands progressed, he progressed. But he still kept working with me because I always treated him right. I was co-managing Ivoryline when they got signed to Tooth and Nail, too; Ivoryline didn't have any summer tour plans, so T&N called me up and asked me if I could pull it off. I did, so they called me back and asked if I wanted to book some of their smaller bands. So for four or five months there, I was booking for T&N, and just keeping their bands busy. But then Ivoryline got another agent, Sullivan broke up and it just kinda made sense not to do that anymore.

Do you think that the type of music you book/promote will have longevity?  Or is it more fad-oriented?  If so, is it just "book as many shows, as often as you can" until you can't anymore?
We kind of have always made it a really fair mix. I mean, we started out doing pop-punk shows and then bands started screaming, so we started booking screamo shows, then metal shows... We always combine it to have everyone's audience. I think it's funny because last year, in December of 2007, I said "2008 is going to be the year of pop-punk." I said, "I'm going to bring back pop-punk" and I was just joking, just listening to my old pop-punk CDs. But then every band started messaging me saying, "We're not doing metal anymore" and started doing pop-punk. And you know, there's all these bands that came out--like Red Care Wire got signed last year, ABAS came out, The Hit came out--and all these bands that I just fell in love with. And it was just funny because my whole goal was not to kill metal because I like all genres. But I was just sick of every show being that. Like, I wanted there to be a mix in consistency. And now, it's like every show is starting to be pop, so we mix it. Our most successful show was Unsilent Night 2, this past year, where we had Forever The Sickest Kids headlining. But Scary Kids Scaring Kids played right before them with all of their screaming. And Norma Jean played, The Secret Handshake, and Memphis May Fire. Oh Sleeper! played, too, and it was just this huge mess of different genres. You see a festival like Bamboozle, and they've got 50 cent headlining with Taking Back Sunday... 

Describe the usual kid who comes out to one of Third String's shows.
They're young. For some of them, it's the only festival or concert they can go to. And it segues into them being able to go to the House of Blues and stuff. I think it's a gateway for these kids. Their parents trust the Plano Centre, they trust the atmosphere, the security of it, the cops, the no alcohol, no drugs. So they come to these shows and survive and then their parents let them go to HOB. So it's kinda weird because I used to be accused of killing Deep Ellum for doing these festivals in the suburbs. But we only do nine or ten of them a year. They get to see so many bands on these festivals, that they end up going to see them when they play at HOB. Forever The Sickest Kids can still sell out HOB.

How many people do you have helping you? Is it a business-style operation where others are getting paid, or is most of your help volunteer-based?
It's just me and Jonathan Swinnea. I do all the talent buying--like, I work with sponsors and stuff like that. And then he does all of the promotion.  

What is your favorite band to work with?
The Secret Handshake is amazing. Luis one of the coolest guys, and he always does a cool light show and always finds a way to steal the show. He's done balloon drops at shows; he shoots off confetti; he had huge lights. He's one of the best ones to work with, and one of the coolest guys, too.

Who have been the worst to work with?
No one specific, but [there are touring bands] that have gotten to a level that they consider to be a success, but they're still openers or support bands on the show, and they have crazy demands. I mean, there's generic catering for everybody--headliner and openers get the same catering. And they're the ones complaining. It's like, the headliner isn't complaining, why are you? They'll try to make things difficult. They'll complain about their set times--that's the the one thing on festivals. Everyone thinks they deserve to be main support, but 30 bands can't play right before the headliner. They can play before them at some point, but not right before them. Yeah, [egos] are the biggest thing in the music industry.

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