LEADING QUESTIONS: Music promoters grow gig schedule

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Welcome to the latest installment of “Leading Questions: Wisdom from the Corner Office,” in which IBJ sits down with central Indiana’s top bosses to talk about the habits that lead to success.

Josh Baker and Craig “Dodge” Lile often got frustrated when their favorite bands bypassed Indianapolis on treks across the Midwest. Groups would play Cincinnati or Columbus, Ohio, only to gas up in Indianapolis on their way to Chicago. Or vice versa. Either way, it was a drag.

So, Baker and Lile decided to do something about it.

“I said, ‘Why don’t we just bring them here? Let’s make a couple calls,’” Baker said. “We were nobody at the time. And we just keep calling and kept calling. And finally they started to listen to us. And we’d get one band, we’d get two.”

The concert-promotions duo now expects to stage and/or promote close to 150 shows in 2012, predominantly in Indianapolis, through their firm MOKB Presents. Roughly four years after first begging indie bands to take a chance on small local venues, MOKB Presents is a near-ubiquitous name on theater marquees across the city, from cozy Radio Radio in Fountain Square to the expansive Lawn at White River State Park.

The 150 shows slated for this year are a 50-percent increase from about 100 MOKB events in 2011, according to Baker. The shows mounted through the first six months of this year recorded about $220,000 in gross ticket sales, already doubling MOKB’s ticket sales in all of 2011. (It’s a profitable business, Baker said, declining to provide details on the bottom line.)

One easily could assume that Lile, 35, and Baker, 37, now live like rock stars. They certainly know a bunch of them. Specializing in groups still building a following, they’ve shared post-show beers in just the last few months with the likes of St. Vincent, Alabama Shakes, Sleigh Bells, Vampire Weekend, and Margot & The Nuclear So and Sos.

In truth, MOKB Presents is still a time-guzzling sideline—albeit, now with its own small staff—for two guys who hold down full-time day jobs in online marketing, while tending to several other related side projects.

“We both have families with kids,” Baker said. “So factor all that into your time in a day. We’re usually in that window of 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. when we call each other, when we have our conference calls.

“We both have day jobs to provide for our families. That’s the tossup. … We’re kind of to the point now where [MOKB Presents] can’t get much bigger and have us still give our employers what they want from us.”

Lile is a senior producer for Indianapolis-based Raidious, where he develops marketing strategy and content for major clients such as Walmart Stores Inc., Finish Line Inc. and Bass Pro Shops. Baker focuses on project development for Indianapolis-based World Media Group Inc., which manufactures data-storage mediums such as CDs, DVDs and USB drives, and offers inventory fulfillment and warehousing for clients.

But it’s not as if they were starting from scratch in the music business. Lile created of the taste-making music blog MyOldKentuckyBlog.com, which accounts for the MOKB acronym.

Lile founded the site in 2004 while staggering through a quarter-life crisis. He didn’t know how to take the next step in his career. He was having a tough time in his marriage. He waxed nostalgic for his hometown—Louisville, Ky.

He listlessly surfed the internet, casting about for diversions. He gravitated to music blogs. With a background in Web design and ears filled with tunes all day, he gave it a try.

“I said, ‘I can do this. I love talking about music. I love music. I listen to music all day long when I’m designing,’” said Lile, who at the time worked as a graphic designer for HHGregg.

In a nod to home, Lile named it My Old Kentucky Blog. He scoped out new bands and sought out their shows. He noted new releases. Soon, labels took notice, and he developed an impressive list of industry contacts.

Baker has bounced around the music industry for more than a decade, holding sales and/or executive positions at record labels, concert promotions firms, and a radio station. From 2001 to 2006, he founded and ran the annual Midwest Music Summit in Indianapolis, which featured more than 300 performers in 20-plus venues, as well as a dozen seminars related to the music industry.

In 2005, Baker invited Lile to help promote the Summit. They became fast friends and decided to work together on local shows. Their first event, staged on Jan. 18, 2008, included Jookabox and David Moore at Radio Radio. “It was a big success, which was the addicting thing about it,” Lile said. “People showed up. People came.”

“A couple hundred people showed up,” Baker said, laughing. “We weren’t standing there, looking at each other, with an empty room.”

Together or separately, Baker and Lile since have embarked on a number of side projects. They co-own Do317 Media LLC, which produces the local online events calendar Do317.com. Lile also co-owns Laundromatinee.com, a website that features live music sessions, music videos and interviews with indie rock groups. And once a week, he records a two-hour radio show on Sirius satellite radio’s SiriusXM U (Channel 35) that airs at noon on Tuesdays.

In the video at top, Baker and Lile recount the history of MOKB Presents, their early successes and failures, and how the concert-promotions business model works.

Lile and Baker say they both like to “win,” but they’re accustomed to taking different paths to success. Baker is more deliberate and process-oriented, which Baker credits with making MOKB Presents a more consistent business. Lile thrives on the social aspect of being “the face” of MOKB Presents and building relationships. In the video below, they discuss how they’ve learned to mesh their strengths.

As far as growing their roster of events even further or making a serious move into another market, Baker and Lile are torn.

"We have a lot of trust issues," Lile said. "Not with each other, luckily, but we’ve worked very hard over the last year to train [MOKB] team members to run shows. But still it’s like taking the training wheels off. It’s very hard to do, to let somebody else handle the money or the promotions or the settlement. There are just so many things. We're trying and working harder on letting go and feeling good about the people we have in place."

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