The show runners
Three of Sacramento’s top music talent buyers talk success, failure and how a light drizzle can change everything
Imagine the local music scene in motion. What do you see? Bands of passionate part-timers doing their best to bring their art to whatever bar or nightclub will put up with their noise? While that image might seem complete, there’s a crucial person who often gets left out of our conception of the music scene: the talent buyer.
Some call them promoters or bookers, but whether they work for the house or approach venues independently, they’re the ones responsible for putting together a bill, finding a time and place to play and ensuring that everybody else in town knows that they’re supposed to be at that place at that time.
Take Chris Lemos as an example. The primary booker for Starlite Lounge for at least a year-and-a-half, he manages the venue’s calendar. As such, he’s in a position to decide what bands do, and don’t, make it onstage, and his years in bands such as the doomy Chrch and the weed-grindy xTomHanx show his devotion to the metal scene.
The shows that get people to Starlite the most are Lemos’ metal bills, which often lean toward his tastes in the doom, black and death subgenres. It helps that, for whatever reason, Sacramento is a metal town and that there’s such a strong pool of diverse extreme bands in the area, he said.
“Metal shows do better than almost anything else in Sacramento, as of right now, at least,” he said.
Of course, metal isn’t all that happens at Starlite, and Lemos works to get more diversity into the calendar.
“Not everyone can go to a metal show every night of the week,” he said.
The taste factor is something that Mark “Gonzo” Gonzales, of Old Ironsides, explains as a necessary part of booking. It takes being a fan of music to know which bands can draw a crowd, and the good bands that you know about likely reflect your tastes to begin with.
That’s why you’ll see more hard rock and alternative options at Old I: partly because it sells there and partly because the talent buyer’s first record was Kiss’ Alive! The personal informs the professional, and the professional end is far more important, Gonzales said.
“If I don’t do a good job of what I do, we could be another statistic here in town, another club that closes down,” he said.
The venue’s goals shape scheduling decisions as well. While Lemos and Gonzales are both working for venues that see themselves as bars with live music, Gabi Garcia treats Blue Lamp as a venue that happens to have a bar, a smaller Boardwalk or Ace of Spades, she says.
She bought Blue Lamp with her husband Ben in 2013, and although live music factored largely in their vision for the bar, it wasn’t until 2015 that they shifted entirely to a music-first perspective, Garcia said.
“If we don’t have live music, we’re closed,” she said.
That venue-first orientation has some noticeable differences, like the sound system that cost thousands to get up and running. It also shows in the calendar, which hits more eclectic notes: art shows, hip-hop, death metal, ska, variety shows and more.
Garcia books the shows (and tends bar, and mops the floor, and so on), and she spends maybe four hours a day responding to inquiries in her email and Facebook account to get her calendar square.
“You have everything from [classic punk band] the Queers, who wanted a $3,000 guarantee, to a band from Indiana that’s got 53 Facebook likes hitting you up and wanting a date or to play a show,” she says.
Not to say that the calendar doesn’t reflect her taste as much as other venues, but Garcia says she learned quickly to shy away from personal preferences that could lead to taking on big, risky shows that cost a lot but might not pay out so well. She often works with independent promoters, particularly in the hip-hop scene, to keep her calendar packed.Rolling the dice
Booking bigger bands is a gamble, a fact not lost on talent buyers. Both Garcia and Gonzales admit they prefer to stay away from the crapshoots of big-guarantee acts in favor of smaller, less demanding groups that are content with the usual arrangement of splitting door proceeds between the bands.
Lemos gambles a little more frequently. He recently put up a hefty guarantee to bring underground stoner metal legends Bongzilla to Starlite on March 7. And while more than 100 people turned out to the $20 show, he still lost a few hundred dollars.
Worst of all, that loss is totally on him.
“The bigger the deficit, the harder it is to come up with,” Lemos said.
He has no regrets about it, though. First of all, “that show fucking ruled,” he said. And second, it’s not like every guarantee goes south. More often than not, he seems to break even.
“It hurts but whatever,” Lemos said. “What am I gonna do, quit and get a real job? Boring.”
Even then, that’s a show that was relatively successful, as in, both listeners and the band actually showed up. It can go deeper south with little to no warning.
The first show Gonzales booked back in 2011 nearly came to a screeching halt after his headlining band got waylaid in Mexico due to a tour bus malfunction the day they were supposed to play. On top of that, the second band on the bill had its drummer unexpectedly quit. With just one band left, Battalion, of Davis, it looked like he was destined to fail before he even got going.
It wasn’t over, though. Thanks to some sharp wrangling from Battalion and assistance from friends in the band Blvd Park, Gonzales somehow had about 70 people show up that night for just those two bands, turning a crumbling disaster into an overwhelming success. When other promoters called him to see how his first show went, Gonzales says they couldn’t believe what they pulled off—but he certainly doesn’t take too much credit for himself for what happened.
“I got lucky,” he said. “It could have been over for me.”For the love
Booking shows wouldn’t be such a gamble if Sacramento wasn’t in a unique position. Unlike other big cities, the city doesn’t have the same kind of clientele, the sort that wanders around at night and will show up anywhere on a whim, Lemos says.
“It’s not like Oakland or San Francisco where I can just do a show any night of the week and people will probably just come because they’re out all the time,” he said. “Sacramento’s a working town. Most people work 9-to-5, or they work in the industry and they’re working while the shows happen.”
Sacramento audiences need a reason to come out, which means house bookers look to promote each show less like a regular concert and more like a big event. And even after all sorts of hard work such as Facebook outreach, hitting up local media for ink and sticking fliers all over town, sometimes a light drizzle or an unexpected competing show at Sleep Train Arena can still leave you with a band playing an empty room.
So with all of the labor, the night hours and the constant threat of poor attendance, why keep doing it?
“It’s definitely not the greatest paid [job], but I’d rather live frugally and have a job where I can see the bands and book the bands and see a scene that used to be nonexistent, that people used to pass by, just grow and be a part of it and be right in the middle of it,” Lemos said.
Garcia and Gonzales are in the same camp: The money’s not exactly great, but the thriving scene is reward enough.
And if you still have questions about whether talent booking is a cushy job, Garcia can set you straight:
“All I can say is that it’s so much harder than you can imagine or than anyone could ever tell you.”