Amid all the griping about Knoxville's music scene, few understand how promoters actually do their jobs.
By Joe Tarr
SEPTEMBER 20, 1999: On April 22, an eclectic Canadian folk singer named Julie Doiron played at the Tomato Head. Her songs are dark and infectious, and most Knoxvillians have never heard of her.
The crowd consisted of about 10 people, half of whom worked at the restaurant. Two blocks away, the gregarious phenomenon known as Ani DiFranco dazzled her screaming, giggling fans at the Tennessee Theatre with her typical high-energy performance. What brought these two performers to Knoxville--and all the rest this city sees--are very different forces. One a regional promotion company, AC Entertainment, that tries to make a profit by bringing acts its owners respect; the other a young guy in his twenties who isn't looking to make any money.
There is no special formula or conspiracy behind the groups that Knoxville gets to catch live. Generally, the factors involved include the popularity of the group, the size of the venue and the desire of the performers to play here. The handful of people booking entertainment often rely on whim and hope in bringing acts here. And despite the talent and thousands spent promoting some of them, it's usually a crap shoot in trying to figure out who the masses will ignore or embrace. Knoxville has its shortcomings when it comes to the music scene--namely, a lack of small to medium-sized venues and a frustratingly apathetic crowd--but still manages to pull in a great deal of talent, both known and unknown.
Metro Pulse asked some people responsible for these shows to explain what it is they do and why they do it, and to assess our city's musical tastes.
Some view AC Entertainment with suspicious eyes, and indeed it is the biggest thing in town when it comes to staging and promoting shows. However, owner Ashley Capps holds no monopoly on the local concert scene. The former owner of the defunct nightclub Ella Guru's, Capps has been promoting shows here and throughout the Southeast since 1990.
Capps has competition from a number of national promoters, and says he doesn't have time to handle all the shows that come through. For AC, staging shows is something of a big money venture. The company holds contracts with both the Tennessee and Bijou theaters to bring in a certain number of shows each year. It also stages shows at the World's Fair Park and other venues. Often times, these lose money.
Shows at the Tennessee Theatre can cost $15,000 before you pay the artist, and at the World's Fair Park the company might spend $50,000 before paying the performers, Capps says. Performers can ask for guarantees ranging from $30,000 to (at the extreme high end) $75,000. Though much of the ticket cost is determined by the bands, Capps says they try to keep ticket prices affordable, striving for pricetags of $20 to $25 for the World's Fair Park. Some shows at the Tennessee Theatre can creep into the $40-45 range, but Capps says smallness and intimacy of the venue warrant this. Surprisingly, AC doesn't usually have any trouble selling the expensive shows.
"Obviously, the name of the game is trying to balance, trying to make sure the wins outweigh the losses. It's a little like playing the stock market. You do research, and try to make some projection on how people perform in the future," he says. "If you look at a band as a company, which they are, you go out and see how the band has performed [financially]. And then there's always the gut instinct."
Major competition comes in the form of national promotion companies like SFX which have brought in 'NSync and Backstreet Boys. These companies sometimes purchase whole tours and book them across the country. The Campus Entertainment Board books acts at the Thompson Boling Arena, often working through national promoters.
Though perhaps unavoidable, not everyone likes the business view of music. A handful of people around town are bringing in acts simply because they want to--and they don't care whether they make money or not.
Brian Sherry doesn't like to think of himself as a promoter. And there aren't many promoters who would do what he does--hand postering the Fort at odd hours of the morning and putting up musicians in his apartment, offering them clean towels and a place to shower.
But he has been bringing in a long line of unique, eclectic, and largely unheard of performers to the Tomato Head: Bright Eyes, The Faint, Eugene Chadbourne, Muckafurgason, Graham Parker, The Immigrant Suns, Low, Shannon Wright, the Kiss Offs. Two years ago, Sherry started 13th level thievery--which he calls a "reaction to the void of marginal events."
There are no ticket prices for Tomato Head shows per se. However, Sherry asks for a $5 donation, all of which he says goes to the bands. Sometimes he'll pay out of his own pocket, or get assistance from the Tomato Head, which also provides him with a small budget to make fliers.
"Anybody can bring a band to town. Write them a letter, tell them you'll take care of them, give them food and a place to stay," Sherry says. "I don't mind paying $50 to make sure a band comes to town because I don't buy a lot of other things."
Low turnouts still disappoint Sherry. "I always tell [bands] at the beginning: it's a nice place to play in, good food, and I'll promote it. Whether or not people come--it's a fickle town," Sherry says.
"There's like 250 people in this town who are open to new things. A hundred and fifty of them are making art in their apartments or are out with their girlfriends or boyfriends. That leaves 100 of them available, and maybe 75 are doing something else."
But for the most part, Sherry doesn't have to solicit acts. Bands are usually looking for good places to play. "College radio is this intense network of cities. People say, 'Do you know anyone in Knoxville?' They say, 'Yeah, I know this guy Brian.'"
Earlier this year, Dave Whittaker also started trying his hand at booking groups because he was frustrated at how the local music scene had dwindled after the demise of the Mercury Theatre in Market Square. "I think we took the Mercury Theatre for granted. Once that place went down, that was a blow."
Since then, Knoxville hasn't had many venues to showcase small- to mid-size groups and punk bands. And many local groups have found there simply is no place to play.
Clubs like Moose's Music Hall bring in a number of national acts, but because they need large crowds to make their money, they don't take as many chances as many would like to see. The Bird's Eye View is an excellent place for live entertainment, and has slowly built up a strong following, bringing in acts like Iris Dement and Fred Eaglesmith. However, the venue favors adult, folky performers over the rowdy, drunken punk bands.
To try to fill the void, Whittaker has started small. In March, he began booking shows under the name Pinnacle Productions at the Electric Wizard, an arcade on Cumberland Avenue, which can fit about 75 people for shows. He started with local artists, but has since brought in a number of national acts. However, the venue is available only on Sunday nights. Whittaker recently located a second venue for music--CHROMA Art District in the Old City at 150 E. Jackson Ave. The art gallery will be able to fit about 100 people, he says, and will be available any night of the week. The first show was Wednesday with The Blame, New Brutalism, and Atombombpocketknife.
No music genre has probably felt the dearth of venues more than R&B and hip hop. James Upshaw (AKA J-Live) says hip hop shows need to be in a central location because of fears of gang violence, even if those fears are mostly just a perception problem. There have been some successes in bringing acts, including getting Doug E. Fresh to play the Kuumba Festival. Upshaw says that Knoxvillians generally hold out for the big shows. "I've always known Knoxville--black and white--to be a finicky town. They have the money to go out, but they want to see the really big shows."
What sells in Knoxville and what doesn't is, of course, the big money question. There will probably never be a definitive answer.
"We're still trying to figure that out," says Benny Smith, who works for AC. "This market is so conservative, so they don't get out and challenge themselves culturally the way they do in say, Asheville. That is really frustrating, especially seeing the lack of student interest."
But some shows do well despite the market's seeming apathy. For instance, Diana Krall sold nearly 1,000 tickets at the Tennessee Theatre despite having the misfortune of being booked on the same night the undefeated Vols ended up playing in the SEC championship football game. But then in April, Cassandra Wilson--an even bigger jazz diva with major national exposure--sold a mere 400 or so seats.
"It's such a spastic town as far as ticket sales," Smith says. "Bluegrass does well. Other than that, a lot of what I call the black T-shirt rock--stuff you hear on Extreme Radio."
Smith is still smarting from the dismal turnout for Africa Fete, which featured the irrepressibly energetic Baaba Maal and Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabate, who played a unique fusion of American blues and African folk. Knoxville was one of 18 stops on the tour. In Raleigh, 3,000 people came out to see it. Here in Knoxville, less than 300 paid for tickets. Even stranger, smaller African shows had done better here in the past, and Taj Mahal had twice sold more tickets here. Also perplexing about the Fete was that many of those who did go to the show came from Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia.
"I'm really looking at my options about whether I'm going to stay here. Our hearts were really in that show. It was a bit of a slap in the face," Smith says. "It didn't pan out for us. We'd hope Knoxville would kind of step it up. This city was so lucky to have that show."
Capps isn't as frustrated as Smith about Knoxville's concert-going habits. Though Capps sometimes gets his feelings hurt (as with the Africa Fete), he isn't as harsh on Knoxville.
"There are a number of artists who do better in Knoxville than they do in Nashville. The Offspring sold 6,000 here versus 1,500 in Nashville. The Goo Goo Dolls sold more here than in Charlotte, Atlanta, and Nashville," he says.
Smith, however, says Knoxvillians don't realize the good things they're missing out on.
"It's unreal the amount of shows we get. How many towns get Jeff Beck, Dwight Yoakam, Ted Nugent, Africa Fete, Jewel in a month? There are not many towns that can say that," he says. "I just see great things people in this town are ignoring. It's only going to be here for so long and then you're going to be crying in your Wheaties."
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