Concert promoters take center stage

September 4, 2010

This fall, Indianapolis music fans will have the chance to see the Gaslight Anthem, a red-hot New Jersey band, at The Vogue Sept. 21. And Indianapolis native Carl Broemel, who’s gone on to the big time as a member of the band My Morning Jacket, at Radio Radio Oct. 7. And Band of Horses, fresh off their set at Farm Aid, at the Egyptian Room Oct. 17.

None of these artists are remotely household names, but their plan to perform in Indianapolis is an indication of how the city’s concert scene has changed. Rather than bypass our fair city, as used to be the norm, lesser-known artists are regularly getting off Interstate 70.

That’s due largely to the efforts of people like Craig “Dodge” Lile and Josh Baker of MOKB Presents, Matt Schwegman of The Vogue, and David “Tufty” Clough of Radio Radio. They are some of the local concert promoters who have dedicated themselves to bringing smaller and, it must be said, cooler acts to town.

The concert business is struggling nationally—the Top 100 tours of North America for the first six months of this year were down about 14 percent in total gross and 10 percent in total number of tickets sold, said Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar, the concert industry trade publication. Smaller venues are a different story. While Bongiovanni had no separate figures for clubs, he said Pollstar “did note that business at that level was much stronger—in good part due to the less expensive ticket prices offered.”

Lile Lile.

With few exceptions—like Snoop Dogg, Willie Nelson and Devo, all of whom played The Vogue in the past year—tickets to these smaller concerts are typically less than $20.

“We want to continue to bring up-and-coming young bands to Indianapolis that normally might not stop if it wasn’t for what we are doing,” Lile said. “We know to do that, and for it to be successful, we have to build this scene, we have to build this big network.”

What started as “a fun little project” for Lile and partner Josh Baker has grown into MOKB Presents, a business that’s now bringing 100 shows a year to Indianapolis.

The concert promotions business grew out of My Old Kentucky Blog, which Lile began in late 2004 as a place to write—mostly for his friends—about music he liked. Six months in, he noticed an increasing number of reader comments and 500-600 visitors a day.

Lile was going to concerts all the time and writing about what he saw. He made contacts with record labels, bands and publicists eager for his attention. He also noticed a recurring theme: A majority of young bands drove through Indianapolis but did not stop on their way to Louisville, Columbus, Cincinnati and Chicago.

In 2007, Lile helped Baker promote the Midwest Music Summit, an event to showcase groups from around the Midwest. The two found they had a lot in common, so they decided to work together. Their first show, Jookabox and David Moore, at Radio Radio, “was a big success,” Baker said. “We got hooked on the idea right then.”

They started out slowly, determined to demonstrate to booking agents that they were for real. The agents, in turn, began booking bands that normally bypassed Indianapolis. Radio Radio was MOKB’s “home” space, but now you might find its shows at The Vogue, the White Rabbit Cabaret in Fountain Square, and downtown at Earth House. This fall, Baker and Lile are working with Live Nation, “the largest live entertainment company in the world,” to promote Band of Horses and another breakthrough act, The National, at the Murat Centre Egyptian Room.

“The shows keep getting bigger and we’re doing more and more,” said Lile, who has parlayed MOKB’s success into a weekly radio show on Sirius satellite radio’s Sirius XM U (Channel 26). “We’re working with more than 50 booking agents that deal with indie bands.”

Baker, his partner, said what we’re seeing is Indianapolis growing up.

Baker Baker

“I’ve been involved in music in this town since 1994-1995, and the profile of the typical concert-goer has changed, in my opinion,” he said. “They’re a lot smarter.”

He attributes that to the availability of music online, which gives everyone access to more artists and variety.

“Back then, it was limited to what you heard on the radio or read about in magazines,” he said. “People really get it now, for some reason. It’s like the light bulb went off. People are out there seeking out new bands, taking chances on new bands, and it really helps the concert scene tremendously.”

Social media has played an enormous role in this change. Consider the case of Toro Y Moi, who played Indianapolis in August. You won’t hear his music, which is sometimes called “chillwave” or beach music, on the radio. Reaching his fans to let them know he was playing Indianapolis would be difficult, if not impossible, without Facebook and Twitter.

“Now I can go online and target a thousand people that have him on their profile,” Baker said. “As a promoter, that’s great. That’s how we market like 60 percent of our shows.”

Sometimes they don’t even have to target specific fans. Instead, they just put up a notice on their Facebook page and shoot an e-mail to their 1,300-plus followers letting them know who’s coming, when and where. Even if the artist isn’t well-known, fans of MOKB “know what to expect musically and socially,” Baker said. And if they prefer to trust but verify the quality, they can always visit YouTube or another site to listen to the artist.

“With the Internet, people have access to find new music,” The Vogue’s Matt Schwegman said. “You’re not tied down to tuning into your terrestrial radio.”

Schwegman celebrated his 10th anniversary as The Vogue’s talent buyer/entertainment manager on May 1.

Schwegman Schwegman

“When I first got here—and not being from Indianapolis—I had to get up to speed with the polarizing history of The Vogue and The Patio [which subsequently closed],” he said. “There were a lot of people who were very angry about what The Vogue would book.”

He took a less conservative route and started experimenting with hard-edged metal, punk, jam bands and hip-hop, knowing there were people who wanted that kind of music. And he worked to convince agents to do business with The Vogue again.

Schwegman said he takes a different approach to the job than his predecessors did. He decided, for example, that not every show has to be a sellout to make it a success. Sometimes The Vogue will close the balcony, keeping fans downstairs, which makes the room look busier. He did that recently with the band Black Joe Lewis, assuaging the booking agent’s fears that The Vogue was too big for his artist. Schwegman figured this would be a group that would grow its fan base each time through Indianapolis, so he kept the fans together on the main floor and ticket prices low ($10).

He also is willing to work with MOKB Presents and other independent promoters.

“It’s a good way to keep the Vogue brand going,” he said. “Throwing ego aside, I don’t need to be the person who says, ‘My name’s on the contract. Look who I brought to town.’” In recent months, that’s meant that bands such as Blitzen Trapper and Tokyo Police Club have played The Vogue.

MOKB’s Baker said Schwegman “is probably out there hustling harder than anyone for shows,” and praised him for bringing in a diverse lineup: indie-pop singer Ingrid Michaelson one night, hip-hop artists Methodman and Redman the next night. An MOKB show by the band MGMT one night, a Crush Entertainment event by hip-hop promoter Ron Miner the next.

“The scene has gotten some nice additions over the years, and people believing in it is also a contributing factor,” Baker said. “People are working harder to bring shows to town, but then people are buying more tickets than they have in the past.”

David “Tufty” Clough has noticed that, too. It seems Clough has been part of the Indianapolis music scene forever. He strapped on his bass 40 years ago to play with his band Attila at John Marshall High School. He’s seen the Indianapolis small-concert scene take off in no small part because of Radio Radio, his 250-capacity Fountain Square club that opened in March 2001.

Clough Clough

Clough works with MOKB Presents regularly, but he also does an enormous number of shows on his own. The actor Jeff Daniels performed there in August. Justin Townes Earle, son of singer-songwriter Steve Earle, comes to Radio Radio Sept. 16. And highly regarded folk-pop band The Weepies are there Oct. 29.

On a typical night, Clough makes his money from the bar; the artist takes 100 percent of the ticket sales.

“If we get 200 people through the door,” he said, “the artist makes good money and the bar does enough that I can buy another piece of equipment or something so it doesn’t feel like I’m an unpaid janitor.”

Clough said the biggest change in Indianapolis in the past 10 or so years is that people running clubs—he mentions the Melody Inn at 38th and Illinois streets, Locals Only at 56th Street and Keystone Avenue, and his own venue—are music fans.

And there may be more of them coming on board. Clough thinks Fountain Square, which already has Radio Radio and the White Rabbit Cabaret, can become a centerpiece for the Indianapolis music scene. He points to several locations that are, or could be, used for concerts: the Fountain Square Theatre, a 1,400-capacity venue that’s used mainly for weddings and swing dances at the moment; The Venue, a 300-capacity room in the Murphy Building; and La Revolucion, the room he’s opening across the street from Radio Radio. There’s even been talk, he said, of someone buying the former Dino’s Vino space and converting it to a theater.

If that happens, he said, it will create a scene to rival Seattle, Austin and other major music hubs.

“Obviously, people are moving downtown—you can see development everywhere,” he said. “This can be a spoke of the downtown. It seems to me like that puts Indianapolis on the map more than if the Colts won the next five Super Bowls.”•

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