Long live rock: A new generation of promoters keeps street-level music alive in Greensboro
Well, I promo groups when they come into town
Yeah, I promo groups when they come into town
They laugh at my toupee, they sure do put me down
“The Under Assistant West Coast Promo Man” the Rolling Stones, 1965
Things have changed quite a bit in the world of rock-and-roll booking and promotion since the Stones released their sneering attack on music business squares who understood little about the music they were pushing. Organizing shows in basements, art spaces, storefronts, student lounges, coffee houses and small bars, promoting them with flyers made by area artists, articles in the local alternative weekly or interviews on college radio stations, connecting to a scrappy, self-sufficient tradition that stretches back to Bill Graham’s Fillmore West, if not decades before, those who promote street-level shows in Greensboro are genuine fans of the musicians they book.
For the purists who believe that true, authentic music thrives only in crowded, sweaty venues far from the glare of MTV and the corporate record labels, it doesn’t get any better than this.
Musicians are tearing down equipment on the sidewalk in front of the Four Corners Market on the corner of Elm and Washington streets as passersby weave between guitar amps, drum kits and the crowd of music fans loitering outside the front door of the convenience store/coffee shop. It’s the last night of Greensboro Fest, a four-day event organized by John Rash, bassist for Greensboro hardcore band Crimson Spectre.
“Greensboro Fest is strategically planned to be right after school starts at the major colleges here in Greensboro,” says Rash, sitting in his office at Randolph Community College in Asheboro, where he works as an instructor in the photography department. “All the students are back in town. Everybody who’s been away for the summer maybe wants to see the local bands, because they haven’t been here for the whirlwind of touring that went on all summer. They may miss seeing the local bands that they saw when they were here in the spring.
“Of course, there’s a huge influx of new faces in town that have never heard these bands before,” continues Rash, who organizes the yearly festival with Zach Mull, guitarist for Dawn Chorus (Disclosure: YES! Weekly staffer Amy Kingsley plays bass in Dawn Chorus). “It’s a showcase to say, ‘Here’s a bunch of bands that will be playing in Greensboro a lot throughout the year and you can check them all out for free to find out what this town has to offer.’ For the venues, it’s the same thing. If people learn that their venue exists for live music, they’ll remember that throughout the year when they’re looking for things to do on the weekend. It’s really good for everybody.”
Though it bills itself as a market, the bulk of Four Corners’ inventory seems to consist of beer, wine, sodas, coffee and energy drinks. Two lonely shelves of dry goods and household items sit in the back, next to the pool tables. It’s the closest thing downtown Greensboro has to a classic Southern general store-cum-juke joint, an atmosphere further reinforced when a man in a wheelchair rolls up before the show and asks if they sell fish sandwiches.
But it’s not down-home Mississippi Delta blues that the audience has come to see tonight. Requiem, one of four bands on the bill, plays a set so powerful that drummer Steph lies exhausted on the floor behind her kit when the group finishes. In its austerity and passion, the show resembles the typical mid-’50s rockabilly performance described in author Craig Morrison’s Go Cat Go:
“The band is either bathed in white light or left in almost total darkness’…. During the break a band member sells a few of the self-financed singles’…. Although they have rehearsed, several songs sprout new endings in the confusion of two or three people giving cues’….”
“Greensboro Fest is a great representation of what’s going on in Greensboro every year,” says Victor Devlin, guitarist for the Anchor Comes Home, who also books shows in Greensboro. “There’s so many bands they can’t put them all on one bill. I just think that’s really great, not seeing the same bands every year.”
Bands have been performing in living rooms, basements and non-traditional venues of all descriptions for as long as anyone can remember, but what makes today’s shows different from those of the past is the combination of necessity and DIY (Do It Yourself) politics. Like the “chitlin’ circuit” that supported black R&B and blues artists in the segregated ’50s and ’60s, or the underground rock shows in Iron Curtain-era eastern Europe that challenged the cultural monopoly of totalitarian regimes, independently booked and promoted shows provide venues for artists that – for reasons of style, popularity or political stance – are unlikely or unwilling to be booked into mainstream clubs, particularly in a city like Greensboro.
“When I first came to Greensboro [in 1995], I saw that there were bands that I was really interested in [that were] playing in people’s living rooms, and there were bands that I was also really interested in that would play in Richmond and Atlanta but never come to North Carolina,” says Rash. “I realized that the only way that I would get to see these bands that were on the house show circuit was to e-mail or call them directly myself, and to offer to do a show for them. Eventually I was in a band of my own and once you’re in a band of your own you end up trading shows with people and you have to promote your own shows. At least in the punk rock circuit my band’s in, it’s not the type of thing where you have a manager that does that thing for you. Those were kind of the two avenues that brought me to where I am now.”
“It’s a little easier to do shows here in Greensboro, I’ve found, because the colleges seem to play a little bit more of an active role in the nightlife,” says Kemp Stroble, who lived in Winston-Salem and booked shows at the Werehouse, a performance space run by an arts collective in that city, before moving to Greensboro last year. “You’ve got the UNCG-Tate Street area, you’ve got Guilford doing stuff. There’s all these little pockets where all the schools in Winston keep to themselves. They’re all outside of downtown, and it’s a little tough to organize and centralize things and keep people informed about shows. Greensboro also has an independent record store and two college radio stations and Winston has neither of those. Here it’s easier to get the word out because people have access to radio and people keep up a little more and know what’s going on.”
Stroble has booked and promoted shows at the Green Bean, where he works, and the Flatiron.
Still, it can be hard, particularly with so much competition, to guarantee a good turnout for a show.
“Especially in this area, shows are up, shows are down,” says Devlin. “Most of the time it has very little to do with the bands, it just has to do with timing or what people are doing that night. There’s so many shows going on with so many different bands on the same bill. It’s not like one crowd’s going to go here and another crowd’s going to go there. Everybody’s tastes are just so scattered that you can’t say ‘Okay, we’ve got a solid amount of 20 punk kids that are going to the punk show and we’ve got 40 of the hardcore kids who are going there.’ You can’t divvy it up that way. It’s just always hard to figure out who you’re catering to and how to cater to them.”
“I’m a lot more picky about it than I used to be,” says Rash, when asked how he chooses which bands to book and promote. “If it sounded like a band I might be interested in, and I’d never heard of them before, I would try to do a show for them if they got in touch with me, because I felt like, as a person in the community of the punk and hardcore movement, it was my membership in the community to help make that kind of thing happen. But at this point I’m a little more picky because I feel like that community is really oversaturated with a lot of bands that are using it as a stepping stone to Fuse TV and this mainstream punk rock. If it’s a band that’s never been to Greensboro before, it’s going to take hours of my life to make flyers for the show and find a venue, and if only ten people end up going to the show and the band doesn’t make gas money to get to the next town, then it just seems like a waste of everybody’s time.”
“I think about what the students would appreciate, or what music has been really popular at the radio station,” says Andrew Freedman, the program director at Guilford College’s WQSF, who books bands into venues like the Underground, a student lounge on campus. “If there’s a band that’s been in heavy rotation, usually I can count on the fact that a lot of Guilford College kids will come to that.”
Once a promoter books a band, the real work starts: promotion, the printing of flyers and choosing of a venue.
“You have to figure out where to have the show,” says Rash. “The real process begins when somebody gets in contact, you look at the schedule and think about what day of the week is the show, is there anything else going on in town that night, does it matter if this other thing is going on in town? What venue would be the best place to do it? Would it be the Flying Anvil, where it’s a room intended for seven hundred people? If I know eighty people are going to come to the show, probably not. Is it better to be at somebody’s basement, where the show’s going to feel like it’s sold out if twenty people show up? After you do that, you confirm with the venue and put up the flyers. Sound can be an issue, finding a PA for the show, also deciding if it’s going to be a show you charge for or take donations. Some shows are free. There’s a lot to consider.” (Disclosure: I have done live sound for shows booked and promoted by those in this article.)
Devlin, who began booking bands in his hometown of Jacksonville before moving to Greensboro, agrees that booking shows involves a lot of effort, and that a lot can go wrong.
“A lot of things are mistakes that I’ve learned from over time,” says Devlin. “The first show I put on at the White House [a local private residence, not the one in DC] was six bands, four of whom were touring, which I knew was a horrible idea at the time. I just assumed the bands were going to battle, and [one band] play a song, then the other band play a song, or just back up their equipment with each other and go back-to-back-to-back, and it would be a really quick show. I was completely wrong.” He laughs. “The show ended up lasting until 3 a.m. on a Wednesday night. The housemates were not happy, and not that many people showed up. I’d put all this time and effort into the show and the people at the house were unhappy and it’s 3 a.m. and I had to go to work. That was really unsettling.”
Unlike the other promoters, Freedman has the advantage of Guilford College’s infrastructure and budget.
“We can get money to pay the bands from the WQFS budget,” says Freedman. “We don’t have to worry about money at the show. In terms of making enough money to pay the bands and pay sound people, it definitely takes a lot of heat off our backs if we’re able to get the school to take care of them in the first place.”
It also gives him the freedom to set up benefit shows for local progressive organizations.
“Since we’re able to get the school to pay the bands, usually that means we can have shows for free,” says Freedman. “Tons of people are going to come see these bands for free, and they would probably still come and see these bands if they had to pay three dollars for it. So why not charge a very low admission price and have all the money from admissions go to a benefit or organization? If we’re going to do benefit shows, it’s definitely with an organization that we like, and we get to decide and the school is really supportive of that.”
The key thing to a successful show, say the promoters, is to get the word out early and widely.
“I still think you have to make a flyer.” says Rash. “I know there are some promoters that don’t make flyers anymore. They just do all e-promotion, post it on MySpace and websites, but I think that it’s essential. The first thing that I do is I start thinking about the flyer and try to associate some sort of artwork with the show. I think about who the bands are that are playing and what will visually represent that show. That way, even if I am doing an internet promotion, there’s a flyer that can exist on the internet in a digital format that still has artwork and it’s not just posting something on a message board that says that this band is playing at this time. I also go around town and staple flyers up wherever I can.”
“Some people think I’m a little overbearing with promotion,” says Devlin, “and I tend to be, but I feel like it has to be done. I like to promote a show two times a week. It might be three weeks before the show, but that way there’s no excuse for anyone to say ‘I didn’t know about it.’ I think that’s the best way to go about it.”
“When I was still working with the Werehouse, I’d make sure to contact the radio stations,” says Stroble. “I’d do ticket giveaways. I’d make sure the show was announced on there. I’d make sure the publicist for the band has the radio station contact info, so the CD is at the station and gets played. I’d try to supply them with as much information to supply the people here with as much information, as well as guerilla marketing – flyers, word of mouth, the whole MySpace thing.”
“We run a concert calendar list,” says Freedman. “If someone sends us a public service announcement for a show they have coming up with put it in a special PSA bin and the DJs have to read one or two of them every show.”
Private homes have long been the venue of choice for those who promote DIY shows, due in part to the fact that many of the bands attract underage followings, making them less attractive to clubs who rely on alcohol sales to pay the rent. What started out as a reaction to circumstance, however, has mutated into a tradition, particularly among bands and promoters who adopt an anti-establishment stance.
“At this point, I just think people enjoy the [house environment] more,” says Devlin. “You don’t have to pay seven to ten dollars at the door, although, I guess it’s not very ‘punk’ of me to say it, it would be awesome if people donated that much at the door, because touring bands need it.
“You can be more interactive at a [house] show,” Devlin continues. “The band’s playing on the floor, they’re right next to you, you can hang out with them before the show. It completely breaks down the boundaries between someone being in a band and somebody [who’s] not. People feel more comfortable being in that kind of environment than there being security and bouncers and the bar. There’s a lot of people who are straight-edge who don’t want to be in a smoke-filled environment with tons of booze. I just think people feel more open to having fun in that situation.”
“The thing I notice is that house shows tend to be thought of as house parties, which means people come with a certain set of expectations that they’re going to hang out at your house, they’re going to get sloshed and they’re not going to toss in any money if there’s anything expected for touring bands,” says Rash. “If you try to ask for those things in terms of having any sort of house rules, or having any sort of expectations of ‘This is a band that traveled three thousand miles on tour and this is one night of their tour, and it might be nice to give them a little bit of money,’ there’s certain people who think that that’s an absurd request at a house show. That’s nothing against house shows – I love house shows because of the effervescence and feeling of being in a small room.”
Those who promote shows in houses have to walk a fine line between antagonizing neighbors, landlords and the local police with noise and crowds, while still drawing a large enough audience to support the artists. For that reason, some promoters are moving their shows into “street-level” venues such as the Flatiron, Four Corners Market and the Green Bean, which have more visibility while still preserving the “in-your-face” aspect of the house show performances.
“I really love those venues, because you have this element of street people who see the show unexpectedly, whether that’s people who live on the street or people who are in their fancy clothes who just got out of a play, that walk by and see this dirty punk band playing and turn their head and watch through the window,” says Rash. “You actually gain some audience members that way.
“[The Flatiron] is just a really fun spot, because at the very least you don’t have to worry about cops shutting it down, or a fight, or people getting their equipment stolen or anything like that,” says Devlin. “It’s a venue, but it doesn’t feel so much like a venue.”
“There have been shows at little places and stuff forever, but when [now defunct] Ace’s Basement opened up, local bands hadn’t really been able to play at a club [before then],” says Stroble. “It’s always been at houses or dive bars. I think that’s why the house show network got so strong in this town, because that was the only place to do it. All of a sudden you had a club to go to, and then Green Street and the Flying Anvil, and I think they’re all feeding each other. Now that there’s more consistent places to play, more official venues, Greensboro’s name is going to be on the map more with agents and bands. They’re going to know there’s something they can count on in this town, instead of it being a last resort.”
“The street-level venues give local bands a place where they can play and they can still be the headlining bands,” says Rash. “It’s a needed asset in any town that has a music scene. Any town can have a club that holds seven, eight hundred, a thousand people and bring in national acts and not have their own music scene. Spartanburg, South Carolina has Ground Zero that brings in all these huge metal bands that tour, but when was the last time you heard of an awesome music scene in Spartanburg? Never. They have a huge club, but they don’t have house shows or street level venues that support local musicians, as far as I know. We have the Flying Anvil, but that’s not going to be the place for local bands to play because it’s too big. We’re going to have to have places like Four Corners Market, the Flatiron and the Green Bean that are visible establishments that go beyond that level of ‘I’m playing in your basement at a party’ and it’s actually a place where it seems like you’re at a venue playing a show, but it’s not a room that only has ten percent of the crowd it was built to hold. It’s vital that we keep those places around.”
To comment on this story, e-mail Daniel Bayer at firstname.lastname@example.org.