The gears of our great city are definitely in motion. It is through the countless shows, festivals, showcases, concerts, and tours that Atlanta's music scene has cultivated the brimming vivacity that attracts so many takers. This culture of music in the forefront, after all, must have people in the back of it; making room for the opportunities, taking chances and working the long hours to give players and patrons that single and justly vital reason to embrace the city back. Liz Sowell is a person where those characteristics are commonplace, and it is through people like her that Atlanta has continued it's love affair with varieties of music on each and every level. Serving as one of the talent buyers/booking agents and promoters at The Masquerade, and with The Masquerade Musician's Showcase final round approaching on August 24th, Sowell spoke with BANG! about the intricacies behind the scenes (and in the process we got some serious wisdom expounded all over our faces.) Here is what she said.
BANG! Do you find your booking/promotions strategies differ from that of surrounding cities because of Atlanta’s position in the Southeast? What indicators do you pull from to adjust your marketing techniques in order to stay competitive?
Liz Sowell Absolutely. Atlanta is considered a major market and what that basically means is that bigger shows with bigger named acts frequent this city as opposed to a smaller city because you can draw from a larger pool of concert goers in the Metro Atlanta Area due to population. As a matter of fact it is a regular occurrence to hear a fan say they drove from neighboring states even to attend one of our concerts. Though these days it does not seem to be too abnormal for a lot of larger bands to frequent lesser known markets depending on the tour routing, the promoter, and the venue relationship in each town.
As for Marketing techniques, there is, in general, an allotted budget per show depending on the ticket sales and how much money can be made per room due to capacity, not to mention the value of the act itself in a given market. If we can afford to utilize major marketing tools and it makes sense to do so based on previous play history, popularity, or even previous experience in other comparable rooms, we will most definitely do so.
As far as the competitiveness in Atlanta for promoters, well, it depends on who you talk to. I think it seems to be mostly friendly, especially locally. I cannot speak for all promoters in town but the majority of them I hope the best for them and want them to succeed personally. Though I have definitely had competing shows with people in town no doubt. In a perfect world we’d all sync our calendars, and every tour coming through would work exactly the same. But that’s never going to actually happen.
In order to stay competitive, however, we (The Masquerade) try to offer a multitude of shows expanding through all genres and try our best to take care of the talent when they come through as well as the ticket holders. We know that without the people buying the tickets none of us would have jobs. It is the general consensus of the Masquerade staff to be helpful and friendly, so that is what we try to do. And each genre is different in how they are best marketed to in some ways, but in general people want to see a good show and have a good time. If we can offer those things through booking and in house staffing we are already ahead of the game. Nobody’s perfect, but I know my club and the staff who work here are definitely some of the coolest around. I am obviously biased, but I work with these people all the time and I know a little bit about them and how hard they work to provide a great show for the public. I think it is also because we have a lot of musician’s and music lovers working here.
BANG! While the market certainly does go through changes, what are some steadfast guidelines you find essential for a band/artist to garner some success?
Liz Sowell I’d say leave your ego at the door. Though television shows like American Idol and The Voice have made it appear as if people become instant rock stars overnight, that is certainly not the reality of 99% of musicians. It takes a lot of hard work and diligence to make music a career. Some of these locals cause more headache than national touring bands because they have no idea what they’re doing and they have no idea how to talk to people. It is a good idea for people trying to make it in the business to remember that it is, in fact a business. That means send professional emails, addressing people appropriately, understanding that they are one of many, many emails a person like me gets daily, and that just because you filled up your high school auditorium in 2004 at the battle of the bands or whatever, that means absolutely nothing in the real world. But as for true essentials, I’d say mind your manners, be punctual, express gratitude in another person’s ‘house’ and the most important, in my opinion, they need never forget why they love music. If a musician can keep that in mind while “climbing up the ladder” they will be 10 times more successful than the next person. Once it is no longer a love then it is a chore. And I think most people hate the idea of anything being a “chore”, you know?
BANG! Big “no-no’s” that bands commit when they are trying to get booked?
Liz Sowell Oh jeez, this question could fill a books worth of writing, haha. But there are a couple of things that I consider pet peeves. One of them is sending emails with no links to their music. Please do not ask for a gig without music for me to listen to. Another is when a band just stops by my office unannounced. I have a lot to do every day and no matter how many times I politely ask these bands to let me know if they intend to come by, there is always one or two that arbitrarily stop in. I cannot nor will I just stop what I’m doing to tend to a band that I don’t even know, or that hasn’t followed simple directions given in the emails I send. Another big no-no is being late for load in. It is very unprofessional. I advance shows, duh, IN ADVANCE, so there is absolutely no reason why a person should be strolling in five minutes before doors like they own the place. I know the owners here, and even they don’t act that way, and they have every right to, haha. Oh, another thing is when a band uses social media to try and book a show. I have a life outside of The Masquerade. Crazy, I know. But when a band, messages me on Facebook, or Tweets me on my personal accounts, it’s really unprofessional. Unless you are a personal friend, and I have an existing relationship with you, thus making us friends, please use my work email for booking. Besides, so many bands do this that their email will no doubt likely become lost in the pile and I will never see it anyway. This is why I have a work email. Please use it. Again, there is a large need for a set of guidelines for these bands. Kids or adults alike seem to have real difficulty understanding the process of booking shows locally.
BANG! What do you think is the difference between bands that stay popular within their own sub genres as opposed to bands that gain notoriety across the line? And in turn how does a band stay relevant without over saturating itself?
Liz Sowell Wow, these questions are really in depth. I will have to emphasize that this is only my opinion, but what I can see across the genres I have had the pleasure of working with is that a band is relevant as long as their message lasts. Some styles of music are strictly following local trends, where other genres seem to not only cross genre lines but create a sense of timelessness which keeps their music relevant. Honestly no matter the genre when I hear a good catchy song I can pretty much tell if the band has succeeded in making it palatable for people other than their target audiences. They say there's a formula for creating universal popular music and I agree. But regardless of the formula, if it's a good song, it's a good song.
As for over saturation, when a band in the current pool of bands plays more than once a month (in the same area) they lose value to the venues. If you can only bring "x" amount of people because you played a show a week before the. Why would I want you to come back? It looks like the bands don't care about the show they're doing with me and if they don't care, why should I waste my time? I like to suggest the rule of not playing ten days to two weeks before or after a show you have booked in the same area. A lot of bands ignore this and in some venues if you don't do this you are in breech of contract. This is where the disconnect happens with local bands I think. I think they fail to consider it's not all about them, but it is also about employing a staff who depends on their draw to survive. And it's also true that some people who book in town don't seem to care if their band plays somewhere else three days before, which is kind of weird to me, but as a person who works in a major market venue I have to remember the arduous task it is to fill the dates some times and the smaller clubs don't have to book as many shows as I do most of the time. I think a lot of the time these locals just throw another show out there without communicating with the agents also. It's,kind of messed up but it is true, like any other thing in life, communication goes a very long way. If a band just lets me know what is going on I can figure out other ways to market or at least not be surprised when I read the Creative Loafing.
And you better believe I read the paper and the Internet and I watch the bands I'm currently working with. It is very difficult for bands to get away with over saturating themselves thanks to Facebook. Not that they don't do it anyway, but the truth is there will be another crop of bands right around the corner, and if they don't figure it out they too will become a "risk" for the clubs. The worst thing for a band is to have a reputation between the booking agents. Many of us talk to each other regularly.
BANG! What do you think The Masquerade offers in terms of transition between local/regional/national platforms that other venues do not?
Liz Sowell We have four different sized rooms from one smaller, more intimate listening room holding 250 people, our "Purgatory" room, the next sized up is the "Hell" room holding 550 people, the "Heaven" room which holds 1100 people, and even an outdoor music park holding 4,000 people. There is no other place in town with these four spaces under one roof. Basically we can help bands develop from the beginning of their career and carry them while the grow. Other clubs cannot do this all in one house. The owners are also former musicians who have toured the world so we offer some amenities that other clubs don't necessarily offer because they know first hand what it's like to need a laundry or hot shower or simply a nap not on a tour bus.
BANG! The Masquerade Musicians Showcase is on its second run, have you seen a change in the type of bands that are submitting?
Liz Sowell Well, the way the Musician's Showcase works is that I start out by inviting locals I've been either working with or that I want to work with, then ReverbNation helps me create an event submission page and artists who meet the criteria can submit to play and then we listen to the artists and contact them if we think they work for the event. Both years I've received an overwhelming amount of acts through ReverbNation and it has been difficult to get through all of them as a result. Next year I think I will get a volunteer committee to help me go through the amazing talent I received. But I would definitively say that the talent is equally as good but that this year I had a lot more support locally and even through local media. Because this event has a limited budget, and is mainly artist centered I am incredibly grateful for the support I've received. There is no where to go but up, as the local talent in Atlanta is amazing through all genres.
BANG! How did the Masquerade Musicians Showcase come into fruition? Was there a void to be filled, in your opinion?
Liz Sowell Well, as a venue that caters to national touring acts, we depend a lot on touring. And in the Summer it's not really touring season, it is Festival season. Though we did begin the Festival Season with the inaugural Shaky Knees Fest, the amount of time and work that goes into an event like that cannot be recreated on a whim, nor could we pull something of that quality off but once a year, so the next best thing to fill Summer dates was to see how creative we could get on a much smaller scale. So from a fiscal standpoint it was started to have something interesting happening in the Summer time so that we could keep relevant and interesting while continuing to create revenue. Though you can plainly see in the summer we did in fact have many national acts come through, it is not quite like it is in the Spring and Fall, so we had some space open and the owners asked me to think about how we could creatively fill some of that space. When you have a potential to do three shows a night, that leaves a lot of room to get creative, so I tried to think of things that could benefit us of course, but that could also benefit the people and bands in Atlanta. And though there are similar events known as "battles of the bands" or "locals showcases" happening all the time, there was nothing that offered these bands a serious opportunity like the Masq Showcase. The void was that people who participated in similar events never really got an opportunity to get the information they needed to move on to the next level of their careers.
Other differences between these events and the Masq Showcase is that there is not only a substantial cash prize but many local industry people and local businesses have donated their products and time mainly because they are supporters of local music and believe in community support. I looked for help from local businesses who would benefit from advertising through our media outlets and through our massive reach. I also really wanted to help these companies get the word out about what they offer in our community and it never really mattered what they brought to the table, just that they loved music and wanted to be helpful to these artists. These last two years we've had support from some of the most amazing sponsors and though there are a few national sponsors, the majority of the sponsorship comes directly from Atlanta.
BANG! What do you think a venue as fully inserted into the community as The Masquerade can bring to a competition like the showcase that other venues could not?
Liz Sowell Well, because we have been in business for 25 years we have been though a lot of change in the city. The Masquerade is known world wide as a staple in Atlanta for touring bands to play, the promoters have helped develop a lot of bands through out the years and it is not impossible for the local bands competing to get recognition they might not otherwise get because of who we are in the community, as well as nation wide. The Masquerade has given many many local bands opportunities to play in front of huge audiences coming to see national shows, as well as showcasing local talent regularly even without a competition like this. We offer local bands the opportunity to play shows year round and even in the case of this competition, I will most certainly be working with all of these acts again even if they do not win the final.
BANG! What would you like to see evolve and what would you like to see diminish in the Atlanta music scene in the future?
Liz Sowell Well, I have seen a lot of changes over the years, some good some bad, but I'd really like to continue to work with the Atlanta local scene to help the bands get to wherever they want to go. I can't say specifically what I'd like to change, as this business seems to evolve on its own and usually when I personally don't like a trend or proposed 'guideline', all I have to do is wait and it will go away soon enough.
I think once upon a time there were folks that had opinions on how segregated the music scene was but in my world it doesn't seem that way. I'd like to keep it that way if possible, as I work with so many genres and people that for me, it is definitely not segregated. I'm one of the lucky ones I guess.
BANG! What do you think your place in all of that is?
Liz Sowell I just want to produce good quality shows and help bands wherever I can to achieve their goals in music. My place in Atlanta probably depends on who you talk to, but for me, I am earning a living in a really fun and rewarding industry and I am fortunate to be able to work with some amazing talent. I think I am one of those people in the industry who wants to help people either get the recognition they deserve or get to the places they can potentially go if only someone would take a chance. The Musician's Showcase is just one way of many opportunities the Masquerade has allowed me to offer musicians here in Atlanta, and it is my job and my pleasure to find ways to create and to help create memorable shows that leave the audience walking away enjoying their experience with their music of choice and leaving them a memory that lasts long after the final song is played. If I can do that for Atlanta concert goers then I've done my job.