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Getting their acts together
What does it take to fill El paso’s premier venues?
By Lisa Kay Tate
El Paso will host two of the biggest performing arts events of the year at the end of this month: the Neon Desert Music Festival May 26-27 and the 12-day run of “The Lion King.” Such mega-events might have been unimaginable a few years ago, but thanks to the growing reputation of the Sun City as a market for big shows and its improved venues, El Paso is enjoying more and better known touring acts than ever before.
None of these acts, however, just happen by themselves. El Paso’s prolific promoters are hard at work bringing in touring bands and musicians of all genres, speakers, comedians, and Broadway shows. They range from festival organizers to managers of the city’s largest venues, as well as smaller clubs that also are enjoying a surge of touring shows.
El Paso Scene talked to a few of them to find out what are the keys to success in bringing these shows to the community.
One of the top success stories of the past decade has been the Neon Desert Music Festival in Downtown El Paso, which has grown from a one-day event in 2009 with just a few performers to more than 30 acts over two days on Memorial Day weekend.
The spring festival was created by Brian Chavez, Zach Paul and Gina Martinez of El Paso and Austin-based Splendid Sun Productions. This year’s event, set for May 26-27, features headliners like Martin Garrix, At the Drive In (formed in El Paso), Gucci Mane and Dillon Francis.
“If you look at the lineups over the years you can really see how it has grown,” Paul said of the festival now celebrating its 9th year. Last year’s event brought in audiences of around 40,000 each day.”
Unlike larger, nationally known festivals like Lollapalooza or Coachella that have big-name backers like Live Nation or others, smaller festivals must rely on factors like sponsors, ticket sales and volunteer support to make their events happen. In the case of Neon Desert’s success, Paul said they realized from the beginning growth and progress in developing a name and reputation takes time.
“We’ve been very diligent to not grow too big too fast, and to let the people of El Paso and Juárez dictate what they want this festival to be,” he said.
Planning what and who will be part of the festival requires good business sense, Paul said. Create a reasonable budget and stick to it, and as the festival grows so can the amount that can be spent on acts. He said music booker Lucas Conder and others have done a great job creating a lineup of national acts and locals.
“We want (audiences) to feel like they are in the El Paso area,” he said, noting the vast amount of local talent there is to tap into. “El Paso is a really smart artist community. There is just a great amount of talent and culture here.”
Paul noted that their Silent Disco lineup is almost 100 percent local performers.
Live performances are only one part of Neon Desert, Paul added. “Yes, it’s a music festival, but at the end of the day it is so much more. There’s food trucks, a skate park, lucha libre, and we have artists painting these incredible murals. What we’re trying to cultivate is the experience.”
The success of the Neon Desert experience leads to a great word-of-mouth reputation, which Paul said that can be better than any advertising.
It’s one thing if you see a flyer on a street corner, but it’s another when you have a friend say, ‘You really need to see this,’” he said. “You really take that to heart.”
Some of the biggest Neon Desert fans are the performers themselves, he said. “A lot of the artists are not only impressed with the festival atmosphere and the Downtown area, but also how amazing and into it the audience is,” he said.
The best way to assure good word of mouth is to put on a good show, as well as a lineup that appeals to a diverse crowd. There are families with kids of all ages during the daytime hours, many teenagers flock to the electronic dance music and hip-hop acts, Paul said, and adults have also found acts they want to see, like alternative rockers Third Eye Blind in this year’s lineup.
Paul said his personal “pipe dream” for performers that would be perfect for the festival would be acts like indie rockers the Strokes, or world beat artist with French and Spanish heritage Manu Chao.
The reputation of the festival also makes attracting talent easier.
“I do know agents now who reach out to us,” Paul said. “That wasn’t something that was happening in year one.”
But success doesn’t make the festival easy by any means, he added.
“Putting on the festival every year is quite an accomplishment,” Paul said, referring to all the “pieces of the puzzle” involved in the event. “Slow and steady wins the race. Here we are nearly ten years later and this is the most amazing thing I’ve ever been involved in.”
El Paso Live
El Paso Live General Manager Bryan Crowe said the number of shows coming to El Paso has definitely increased, and El Paso Live is lucky to have places to suit nearly everyone.
“We’ve been very fortunate we have a number of venues of different sizes,” Crowe said, adding the venues range from less than 200 seats with the Philanthropy Theatre to large capacity shows like Abraham Chavez Theatre or the Plaza Theatre, all on the same Downtown block.
El Paso Live also oversees events at the El Paso Convention Center, McKelligon Canyon Amphitheatre and Cohen Stadium.
“We have so much going on now,” Crowe said. “It is not uncommon now to have several events going on at the same time Downtown.”
Crowe said there are several factors they need to consider when booking a show from the size of the venue to the economics of the show. For example, will a show generate enough ticket sales to cover the cost of bringing in a particular show?
Most of the touring events are from acts contacting them looking for a suitable venue so they can add an El Paso date to their tour schedule.
“The majority of our shows now are people coming to us, but we do some active outreach on our own as well,” Crowe said, and added the success of the shows that come to the area, as well as the variety of venues, are some of the best ways of selling El Paso to future acts.
“El Paso has a great geographic location, and a lot of acts that are passing through here along 1-10 and I-25 are seeing reasons to stop,” he said.
This is one of the reasons Crowe said they want to make sure every act or event they create in the area is a good experience for everyone.
“It is important for us to do well today, so we can sell shows that come tomorrow,” he said.
Some of the most successful shows El Paso Live has are part of the Broadway in El Paso Series that El Paso Live presents in partnership with Chicago-based Jam Theatricals.
In particular, El Paso audiences have shown their enthusiasm and support for high-end productions with extended performance dates, such as “Wicked”, “Book of Mormon” and “Phantom of the Opera.” The long-anticipated El Paso premier of “Disney’s the Lion King” will play at the Plaza May 30-June 10.
Those successes mean even more El Paso premieres for the upcoming 15th anniversary season, including “Kinky Boots,” “Finding Neverland,” and “Something Rotten.”
Crowe said both Abraham Chavez and Plaza Theatre are listed among the top 200 performance venues in the world, according the Pollstar, with the Plaza in the top 100 at 81.
“This listing is very good thing for us having not one, but two venues listed that high,” Crowe said. “Plus our audiences are very supportive, and have such a great time at the shows.”
“El Pasoans are buying more tickets, and that means more shows,” Crowe said. “A lot of performers are surprised by how well they do here and they want to come back.”
Most successful promoters and venues in the area realize healthy competition is a good thing, because when one venue does well, whether it is the Coliseum or the Plaza, it benefits all the others. .
Sports Commission CEO Brian Kennedy, who is also facility director for El Paso County Coliseum, said around 100 live shows come through the Coliseum each year. While the needs of each performer or event may differ when considering the Coliseum as a venue, there are some things to consider for every potential act.
“First, we have to make sure we are the right size for them,” Kennedy said, stressing that every act has to be looked at for its own specific needs in terms of size, budget and scheduling. “We also have to look at what’s going on around town at any particular date. If we book one popular band of a certain type of music too soon after another has come through, it might hurt ticket sales.”
The Coliseum actively recruits acts for the venue, Kennedy said, but at the same time many acts and agents approach them.
“Ariana Grande is one example,” Kennedy said. “She could play anywhere she wanted in this town, but she chose the Coliseum, because she heard it was like a ‘rite of passage’ to play here.”
Performers want more than just a venue that’s the right size, he added. They want a place that has the right atmosphere that fits their personality. Pop-punk legends Green Day kicked off their recent tour at the Coliseum in March 2017, and arrived a couple of days early just so they could get a feel for the place and fine tune their own performance. Being able to work with performers in this way is one of the aspects of being a successful promoter.
“We have gotten the reputation of the venue that not only works well for the performance, but will work well with the you while you are here,” he said. Sometimes the fit becomes a long-lasting relationship. Disney On Ice has had such success with the Coliseum that they have already booked their annual stops at the Coliseum through 2020.
“We’re just the right size and type for them,” Kennedy said. “The know that when they come here they are going to do well.”
Likewise, champion bullrider Tuff Hedeman, an El Paso native, hosts his annual West Texas Shootout bullriding competition at the Coliseum each year.
“Some performers just really prefer us,” he said. “This is pretty much a home base for (Latin pop star) Chayanne, and Pepe Aguilar always performs here.”
Kennedy said he knows the importance of bringing performers into the area, not just into the Coliseum, and if they aren’t the right venue for someone, they are more than happy to recommend another location in El Paso or Las Cruces. Every successful performance in the area benefits the reputation of the entire community. A successful show at the Plaza may help the Coliseum, or even Speaking Rock. A successful show at the Don Haskins Center in El Paso may benefit the Pan American or Rio Grande Theatre in Las Cruces. When a performer remembers a show in a certain city, others will look to perform in the area, and the more venues available to suit different needs, genres and audience sizes, the better.
“If they do well,” he said of the area’s other venues, “we all do well.”
The increase in attention from touring performers isn’t just toward the arenas and stadiums, in its welcoming and growing night club scene.
Performance spaces and stages such as Tricky Falls and its adjoining venue, The Perch, and Lowbrow Palace host musical acts of all genres. Other venues such as Rock House Bar and Grill, Club Here I Love You, or Neon Rose focus on certain music audiences from metal to electronic dance music, hip-hop, country.
Tricky Falls and Lowbrow Palace are two of the most consistent venues for touring performers, with Tricky Falls and The Perch hosting 110 touring acts in 2017, and Lowbrow bringing in about 100 over the course of the year.
Tricky Falls owner Bobbie Welch is no stranger to the worlds of booking and promoting live entertainment, having once served as Special Events Coordinator for New Mexico State University. She said the primary factor in bringing in an act is making sure it is financially doable.
“Obviously, the biggest concern is money,” she said. “Do we think we will break even on a show, the old ‘expenses-versus-projected attendance’ formula.”
This doesn’t mean venues won’t take the occasional risk of bringing in a good show.
“Sometimes when we are fans, we just throw the formula out the window, run with it, and hope for the best,” Welch said.
Another major concern is whether a production will fit in the building, she said.
For Tricky Falls, there are varying audience capacities they can work with, from 200 in The Perch, 350 front-of-house downstairs in Tricky, 850 to 1,000 total downstairs in Tricky to a combined 1,500 full housey. Audience capacity isn’t the only “size concern,” said added. There are also issues of how well it will accommodate the act itself.
“Tricky Falls seems large, but it is a historic building (designed in 1914 by Henry Trost) that was constructed before modern day touring productions,” Welch said. “Because of this, we lack many of the amenities, including private dressing rooms, production offices, catering rooms, and the like, that many venues of our size do have available.”
In addition, the stage was configured more for film than live acts, so too big a set up with lots of equipment won’t work.
“In fact, we are not able to get some stage sets in the doors because they are too large,” she said, “and that has sadly meant being unable to book some concerts that we really wanted.”
Tricky Falls is still able to bring in a diverse group of performers, and actively seeks out performers while having agents contacting them on a regular basis.
“It varies,” she said, “lots of agents email us regularly, but if an artist that we are interested in is putting out new music, that generally means that a tour is in the offing so we usually reach out in advance. The upside is that you get into the mix early for a tour – the downside is that the agent knows you are interested which might mean paying more for a guarantee.”
Audience response is always the biggest draw for any touring act.
“I think that most artists that are successful in El Paso return because El Paso audiences are some of the most dedicated in the world, which artists frequently make note of,” Welch said.
Welch said having more venues of different sizes has helped the market.
“Artists can start their careers in a smaller venue, and then grow up to the largest venues in the market as their careers take off,” she said, adding catching an act earlier in their career is also beneficial. “It is much more difficult to entice an artist to play here when they are already hot if they have no history in the market.”
She said festivals like Neon Desert, Sun City Music Festival, and TrapFest also bring in multiple artists and expose them to the market, which often leads to return plays when the artists are scheduling their individual tours.
Although Tricky Falls has hosted everyone from up-and-coming performers to established veteran acts, there are always those dream acts Welch would love to see at the venue.
“I’d like a club date for Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Father John Misty, PJ Harvey, Grimes, the Residents, M.I.A….this could be a really long list,” Welch said, “or any El Paso play for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Florence + the Machine, or Björk, please!”
Welch said to assure area residents have a desirable choice of music, Tricky Falls also works with outside promoters to bring quite a few shows, including AEG, C3, Splendid Sun, SMG, TooZany, J & K Present, Pony Productions, and many other local and national promoters.
Splendid Sun Productions, the force behind Neon Desert, opened Lowbrow Palace on Robinson, near Kern Place’s busy Cincinnati Street in 2011.
Splendid Sun co-founder Brian Chavez agreed with other venue managers that budget, capacity and scheduling dates are the keys to booking any performer.
“Budget, to make sure you can afford to bring the artist you are bringing into the market,” Chavez said. “Some artists don’t always work for every market.”
Placing an artist in the right size room, one not too big or too small is next, and finally what is the best time of year for an artist to play. “Are there other events or holidays happening at that time?” are typical questions to deal with, he said.
Chavez said when Lowbrow first started booking acts, it was him reaching out to artist and agents, but now it is primarily them reaching out to him when tours are being booked. In addition, artists who come to El Paso often look forward to a return engagement.
Some artist know they have a huge following in El Paso and want to make it a priority to have a show there,” Chavez said. “Most artists that play in El Paso usually want to return due to how amazing the crowds are. The energy at shows in El Paso may be the best anywhere. Artists constantly make that comment.”
Chavez said the increase in artists coming through the area, both for the first time and for return shows, comes down to “consistency,” something he makes sure to maintain at Lowbrow.
“It is a combination of artists knowing there is a good venue where they can perform every time, knowing there going to be a good audience for them to perform to, and being able to be consistent about it,” he said. “We have tried to build that over the years, and the more consistent we can be, the more artists we can get who want to come to El Paso.”
Chavez said there are still tons of artists he would love to see perform at Lowbrow, but is also very happy with the many artists who could easily fill larger venues, but still choose Lowbrow for a show.
“It is amazing when there are artists who have gotten so big that they have no business performing at a venue the size of Lowbrow,” he said, “but they still do.”
The Comic Strip
Bart Reed, owner and founder of El Paso Comic Strip Night Club, said in his 32 years of booking acts, they have brought in more than 1,800 touring performers, with at least 52 a year for regular weekly shows, plus special one-or two night engagements from better known names.
“Arguably, over the years we’ve brought in more nationally touring acts than any other venue in El Paso,” Reed said.
Reed gets continual contacts from agencies looking for venues for their acts, as well as recommendations and referrals from other comedians.
“Comics from all over know about us,” he said. “We aren’t the oldest club in the country, but we’ve been at it for 32 years, and that’s almost unheard of in this business.”
One of the keys to success is knowing what plays well in El Paso, and what makes local audiences laugh.
“It’s a mix of things, but generally audiences here like the acts with high energy,” Reed said. “They also like to see names with an established brand.”
Many well-known comics have performed on the Comic Strip’s stage and Reed said he is always looking to bring in new acts to the area. He is hoping book TJ Miller soon, as well as bring back Craig Robinson, who performed at the Comic Strip before he became a major player on the comedy scene. Reed said he would love to see Margaret Cho play at the club as well.
Like the audiences for musical acts, Reed said he has almost never had a bad experience regarding a comedian, and many want to return once they perform in El Paso.
“Paul Rodriguez told me he will never not return to El Paso,” Reed said. “He loves performing here so much.”
Copyright 2018 by Cristo Rey Communications