Let me just start this off by saying I’ve never been happier to be completely wrong about something. I started this piece with the idea that, at least on some level, when it comes to booking shows, the Upstate’s concert venues and clubs are in cutthroat competition with one another, desperately trying to carve out their own territory on our music scene.
Yeah, none of that is true. In fact, in talking to the bookers for four Upstate venues, Gottrocks, The Firmament, Radio Room, and The Spinning Jenny, I discovered that this system works on exactly the opposite philosophy. But more on that in a bit. Let’s start by talking about HOW different venues around the Upstate create their concert schedules. Since all four of the venues I looked at differ in capacity, there are some obvious differences. But there are some basic similarities, as well.
For places like The Firmament in Greenville (capacity: 825 people) and The Spinning Jenny in Greer (capacity: 650), local bands aren’t on the schedule as often as they are at Gottrocks and Radio Room, whose capacities are in the 150-250 range. Nationally known artists like Rhiannon Giddens, Sam Bush, and Jim Lauderdale (at the Jenny) and Sevendust, Paul Oakenfold, and Billy Strings (The Firmament) are their priority, simply because they have to sell more tickets.
Booking national acts means dealing with national booking agents, which wasn’t always easy for either Sharon Murry, co-owner and booker for The Spinning Jenny, or Andrew Peek, co-owner and booker for The Firmament, since both venues are relatively new.
“In the very beginning, we’d reach out to national acts and they didn’t even acknowledge us,” says Murry, who will celebrate the fourth anniversary of the Jenny’s opening this summer. “When we were finally able to book some artists like The Lone Bellow, Rhiannon Giddens, and Jim Lauderdale, then they noticed us, and at that point, they started contacting us. I don’t have to contact a whole lot of the national touring acts anymore; they contact us. And it’s because I’ve developed a working relationship with some of the agents.”
Peek’s experience at The Firmament, which has been open for a little over a year, was similar.
“I think a lot of agents wanted to see how we would do before they started putting people in here,” he says, “and people realize now that we do a good bit of variety, from hip-hop to cover bands to metal to bluegrass. It’s definitely a music venue and not a club.”
Once the two of them established relationships with booking agents, they were able to figure out their respective processes for bringing in bands, which mostly involves a whole lot of work.
“I look at all of the submissions that come in and try to do a little research on them,” Murry says. “I look at everything that comes in. A good fit for us is an act that will draw at least 150 people, just because of the room size. A really good showing for us is 250-300. I love a sold-out show, but that’s not easy to do at 650 and still be able to afford them.”
“As far as the process, I just answer my emails, put feelers out there, call agents, and go from there,” Peek says.
Radio Room and Gottrocks can focus more on local artists, with Radio Room leaning toward more indie-rock bands like Hugger Mugger and Tom Angst and Gottrocks booking more folk and jam-rock artists like Matt Fassas and Darby Wilcox, though there is some crossover. But they also bring in national artists like The Reverend Horton Heat or SUSTO. And the level of hard work is just as high at these smaller locations, though the budget is typically a lot smaller.
“You have to do your due diligence,” says Wes Gilliam, co-owner and booker for Radio Room on Poinsett Highway. “We can’t just throw money around; the first thing I ask myself is, ‘Will it be successful with the criteria I have laid out in front of me?’ My goal is for playing my room to be a win-win for everyone. Sometimes you might come up short, but you try to not shoot yourself in the foot up front. There are a lot of Excel spreadsheets in rock ‘n’ roll these days.”
“It’s not a gratifying job sometimes,” says Alisha Zellner, who books the schedule at Gottrocks on Eisenhower Drive. “I spend hours every day going back and forth with agents and bands, and then you have your website guy and your poster person; there’s a lot to do. It’s a process, trying to see what’s a good fit. There are 100 people a day that message me saying their band wants to play here, then you get national acts that want over $1,000 and they’ve never played in the area before, and that means that people might not come.
“This is something I used to always want to do,” Zellner adds with a laugh, “and now that I’m doing it, it’s kind of like, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore!’”
I knew already that booking is hard work, that when a show works, it’s great, and that sometimes shows simply don’t sell. What I didn’t really think about is that bookers don’t just have their own schedules to worry about; they have to keep an eye on everyone else in town, as well.
“You have to look at what’s going on in the area,” Murry says. “It’s about more than just an open night. Whatever else is going on that night might affect your turnout. If there’s a music festival going on, for example, I’m not booking anything resembling the music they’re having.”
Zellner agrees. “Whether it’s the Albino Skunk Music Festival or Fall for Greenville, you always have to look ahead and see what’s coming, because that will KILL your weekend if you have the same kinds of bands.”
“If I see that the Radio Room has a heavy metal band that night, I’ll probably do an electronic-music night and vice-versa,” Peek says.
That’s where we get back to my opening statement; the biggest, most welcome surprise I stumbled upon in talking to these bookers is that every one of them, independently, expressed admiration and respect for the people working at the other venues in the Upstate. In fact, all of them said they will often refer bands that don’t seem like a good fit at their venue to each other.
“I have a good relationship with Wes and those guys at the Radio Room,” Peek says. “We try to work around each other. I have a lot of love for those guys and the groundwork they’ve laid in this community.”
“I pass along a lot of stuff, especially to Gottrocks,” Gilliam says. “I refer bands that might not be a good fit for us to a room that does it more regularly and has the crowd for it.
“It’s not a competition,” Zellner says. “I’m for them, too. There’s enough to go around. Sometimes there’s some crossover, but mostly we all of us do different types of music anyway, so some of the national acts, I’ll point them towards The Firmament because that’s where they should be. It’s all about working together at this point instead of looking at it as competition. We’re all in the same business, and we’re all in this together.”
Meanwhile, at nontraditional concert venues around Greenville, the agenda is very different. Horizon Records at Stone Avenue and Main Street has hosted four in-store performances in the last month, by blues musician Seth Walker, dream-pop band Frances Cone, instrumental music guitarist William Tyler, and Upstate roots-rockers Excons. Around the corner on Rutherford Street, Joe Shirley’s Cabin Floor Records has one of the most eclectic concert schedules in the Upstate, hosting an album-release performance by Charleston’s SUSTO and bringing in local artists with a more experimental approach.
Since these shows are usually free or have a very low ticket price, the criteria for booking shows are entirely different. Personal musical taste can enter into the equation.
“When we look at putting a show in Horizon, I look for an artist that interests me or inspires me or means something to our collective clientele,” says Horizon Records owner Gene Berger, “and of course someone I think that I could bring people to. Doing a so-called in-store, or a less formal gig, does give you some relief from certain pressures. My idea of a really good gig is a really fascinating, quality performance, a happy artist, and a modicum of attendance. I don’t have quite the same metrics, like needing this many seats sold at this much ticket price to cover the contract. I’m more interested in the ambiance, the sound, and the artist bringing the best quality delivery they can in the moment. And rather than dealing with booking agents, I’m working largely with the artists directly, or their record labels and managers.”