Boston Bookers Empower Local Music from Behind the Scenes

Metal band Ramming Speed performing at the Great Scott.

By Joe Difazio
BU News Service

On any given night at one of the clubs or basements of Boston you can find a talented musicians of every stripe giving their all on stage. Working behind the scenes of these shows are the bookers or promoters.

Boston band Nice Guys at their practice space .

Boston band Nice Guys at their practice space .

Bookers are responsible for putting shows together, culling bands for bills and renting venues for shows. Independent third party bookers, who aren’t tied to a specific venue, are a driving force in introducing local acts to wider audiences.

“That was my whole point in being a third party booker,” says Sam Potrykus,” who has booked shows for several years. ” The job of third party bookers is to book more marginalized bands that aren’t getting recognized.”

“When I started booking shows I did it because there was a major void, where as now I see bands that I like getting booked and I’m not even doing the shows.”

Potrykus is also the founder of the monthly Boston Compass Newspaper, which lists and covers local shows, and the cofounder of the Boston Hassle, a website that covers music, film and art, and organizes concerts.

He says that while still rare, he is seeing more independent bookers, some of whom don’t even take credit by putting a name to their shows.

Third party bookers like Potrykus work as liaisons between bands and venues, independent of either group. In addition to scheduling and promoting the shows, the bookers will put up the money–typically $75 to $200–to rent the room.

Perry Eaton, an entertainment writer for and cofounder of music blog Allston Pudding, says that if the cover charge collected at the door doesn’t cover the room cost, the booker “might be on the hook for the rest of the money.”

Some venues have in-house bookers who select the lineup of live music for the venue. Jason Trefts books at the Middle East in Cambridge, but also sets up shows with his own independent booking company, Illegally Blind.

“Illegally Blind is totally separate. It’s almost like I work for the Middle East as my day job, and Illegally Blind as my band,” says Trefts. “I book the upstairs. I have to fill the calendar. With the Middle East Upstairs, … it’s the only club its size and type that takes in a whole bunch of outside promoters, so it’s the room that everyone can use if they have a show that works there.”

For many of the independents, the job is a labor of love.

Former Boston band Pretty and Nice performing at the Boston Music Awards.

Former Boston band Pretty and Nice performing at the Boston Music Awards.

Ryan Agate books at a variety of venues and is responsible for live music at O’Brien’s in Allston. During the day he works in marketing at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

“I don’t keep a cut of what I do. That’s why I have the day job essentially,” says Trefts, who used to do social work, looks at booking as a way to foster community. “As a booker, my main focus is community organizing. (With) Illegally Blind, I just want to organize people mainly, just to be around each other. I’m very interested in helping people meet their neighbors,” says Trefts. “It’s actually resulting in people becoming friends, and good vibes being around town, I really love that. That’s why I’m okay with all the stress.”

The stress comes from a variety of issues like the difficulty of finding the right acts and the tension of hoping to get a crowd to recoup the money put up for shows. “I have to risk money a lot on shows, and I don’t have any money,” says Trefts.

Matt Garlick, who plays in the Boston band Nice Guys, knows that staging shows can be a gamble.

“It’s hard to fill the Great Scott on a Tuesday night on a bill of all locals. We’ve played tons of shows to nobody there and have gotten paid nothing. I don’t even know how much the promoter loses on the room cost.” he says.

Some independents make their living through booking. Ned Wellberry, who runs Leedz Edutainment, concentrates on hip-hop, which has helped him carve out a niche.

“It’s a tough racket for independent promoters. I’ve been established for almost 12 years–because of that I’m able to sustain–but it’s tough for new people to come out and do it,” says Wellberry. I wouldn’t want to start in this day and age.”

Independent promoters also face difficulties in dealing with big entertainment companies such as Live Nation, its subsidiary Crossroads Presents and The Bowery Presents.

These larger promoters not only book clubs, they also own them or hold exclusive rights, making these venues unavailable for local acts. The Bowery Presents owns the Sinclair, has sole booking rights at The Royale, and does some booking at The Great Scott. These bigger companies don’t tend to bring local acts into the fold.

Nice Guys performing at Zuzu.

Nice Guys performing at Zuzu.

“Boston is very competitive because you have Crossroads that works with Live Nation directly. They’ve got Brighton Music Hall, Paradise, House of Blues and bigger. And they’re nationwide. Crossroads in Boston is very powerful, they’ve got Don Law who’s been working in this city for 40 plus years. And then you have the emergence of the Bowery Boston,” says Wellberry.

“It’s tough if you’re a local band to get into big venues. Most of them are controlled by Bowery and Live Nation so you rarely see local bands headlining these,” Eaton says. “I think it is tough for local promoters. It’s like the small business going up against the giant business, and it can be tough for local bands.”

Garlick thinks it would help local bands if they had access to larger venues. He mentions the band Pile as a local group that could thrive if give the exposure of a larger venue.

“It’d be really beneficial to have more bands play to bigger audiences. I was talking to Pile and they’ve never been to the Sinclair and played there. Which is totally [messed] up because they’re the best band. They should be playing there. They sold out the [Middle East] downstairs on an all local lineup. If you can do that, you definitely can sell out the Sinclair,” said Garlick.

Despite all the dirty work, for the people that book, it’s all about putting on a show. “I like music a lot and I want people to have the opportunity to have as much fun as I try to have,” said Agate.

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