Promoting independent music in unconventional spaces can be a headache.
You have to pull permits with the city and ensure that the space you're partying in is in compliance with municipal code (or deal with the consequences of not doing so). You have to make sure things stay safe, legal and don't get out of hand. You have to convince people to show up with IDs and pay the entrance fee. After all that legwork, you have to show them a good time. And there isn't much, if any, financial reward.
When things go wrong, costs add up fast. The entire endeavor is risky.
However, if you have done it for as long as Peter Blick, the founder of Below Radar — a boutique, Denver- and San Francisco-based, electronic music promoter — all that risk comes with a big reward: the satisfaction of fostering rising talent and building a community to support it.
Organizing shows since 1997, Blick has booked artists such as Bassnectar, Bonobo, STS9 and Seth Troxler at venues in San Francisco, Sun Valley and Colorado. But through Below Radar, he's focused on promoting lesser-known artists; throwing parties in secretive venues while occasionally booking bigger acts at clubs like Bar Standard, Tracks and the Black Box.
In advance of Below Radar's show with Stavroz, a Belgian four-piece that dabbles in an amalgamation of house, techno, world, jazz and psychedelia, Westword caught up with Blick to discuss the perils and pleasures of promoting.
Westword: Which came first for you: deejaying or promoting?
Blick: They pretty much started around the same time, which was 1997, but I think deejaying was first.
I bought a couple speakers and an all-in-one mixer and CDJs unit with the tiny jog wheels. I mixed between trip-hop, downtempo, acid jazz and some funky stuff. Then got turntables a couple years later and was able to beat-match finally, after shattering my heel snowboarding and then locking myself in a room playing records all day and night, since I couldn’t do much else.
In both high school and college, my friends had fun bands, so we would do silly house parties and get a bunch of friends together and rock out. And then I got involved with promoting at the end of college and put on a Greyboy Allstars show in Chico, California, at Brickworks. I remember watching Karl Denson play Sesame Street to his baby girl that was on the road with him. Those shows kind of started everything. I think I even made $100 on the first one, which of course was canceled out by the bar tab — but was still a success.
For the majority of your career, you have concentrated on San Francisco, working closely with iconic clubs such as Public Works. Do you notice any differences or similarities between the scenes in each city? What lessons could they learn from one another?
I feel like the Denver scene is much more appreciative at this point. There is so much competition in San Francisco on any given night these days that people take it for granted there and want set times and can’t just enjoy a good party and local support. Not always the case, but sometimes it feels like that. I have seen and been a part of some really nice events there where production value is top-notch with decor, sound, lights and the extras that make people really feel like the event is special. I think Seifhaus is doing a good job with some of these elements here in Denver, but the venues could put a little more effort into the details. I do like minimalism at times, too, so it just depends on the party and budgets.
Resident Advisor published an article awhile ago titled “The Promoter’s Dilemma,” where the writer posits, “At times, promoters from such distinct places as Dublin, Istanbul, Lisbon and Los Angeles seemed to be reading from an identical cue sheet of complaints: rising fees; a fixation with a small elite of in-demand DJs; ever-fiercer competition, both between local promoters and with an international network of festivals and other large events; and a large-scale professionalization of the underground, meaning more middlemen, more incidental costs, and less flexibility for those operating on a tight margin.” Do you find that these complaints are warranted in Denver? If so, can you give some examples of this? If not, could you explain how they aren't?
Yeah, Denver is a tricky market for independent promoters right now, and most markets are. There is essentially a list of artists that everyone is trying to book, and artist management knows this and can take advantage of that. If the demand is there, then it’s warranted and it’s just business. And then you also have exclusivity, radius clauses, venue limitations and the corporate factor in the mix, and that makes it difficult at times.
There are a lot of things going against us, but also it’s ripe for improvement, and that’s something positive I see. You just have to adapt, be passionate and make things happen on your own. For me, it means trying to get ahead of the game and finding the unknown and lesser-known acts, building them in the market and having that relationship. A lot of the artists, management and agents are conscious of this, and it’s nice when they are loyal once the artists blow up.
And, yes, for the risk and time spent with promoting parties, oftentimes the upside, even on a sell-out event, is not so great. I enjoy the challenge of it and watching my favorite artists succeed, though.
What is the most absurd thing you've seen on an artist’s rider?
Back in the early 2000s, we wanted to book a famous country act at the Hailey Rodeo south of Sun Valley, Idaho. The rider was about 25 pages. The weird thing on it, though, was the six gallons of George’s Always Active Distilled Aloe Vera Gel. I don’t really know why anyone needed six gallons of lube. Show never happened, and I will probably live an extra five years because of that.
What are your opinions about the fire department and other city departments' presence at events? Does this have a positive, negative, or neutral effect on the longevity of events and artistic incubation?
I lived in San Francisco and had friends who passed in the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland. It was a really tough time and an eye opener for venue safety across the country. As far as club and event safety, attendees need to look at it as exactly that and for everyone’s good. I think the scene here is always looking for unique spaces and events, but it’s really hard to make that happen at the moment. There's a lot of gray area for what is legal and not. So that inevitably does affect the local scene and artist incubation.
Aside from keeping parties exclusive to positive people, what do you think can be done at more public events to keep them in good order?
It’s a tricky one, for sure. Obviously, intimate word-of-mouth and minimal-promotion parties are the ideal, and you basically get friends and friends of friends. However, one of the issues with that is you end up with a general lack of diversity, and I want a nice mix of people at my parties.
As far as public events go, it’s a tough one unless you start a club that truly caters to the underground. Most clubs have to mix it up with music styles and types of parties to stay in business, and inevitably that can mean undesirable people or crowds at times. There is also the idea of the screening process at the door with security, which you see a lot with the Berlin clubs, and I get it. For some parties, you can sell pre-sales, and you get enthusiastic people for the artist or party specifically. It’s nice when you can sell out of pre-sales and not deal with a walk-up crowd, as that’s usually where the issues lie. Some of the Berlin clubs basically will make sure you are on someone’s guest list or just make judgment calls at the door on who they want in the party. It’s an interesting concept and can work well, but also upset a lot of people. In a lot of the U.S. clubs, they need that door money and thus are not worried about the paying crowd unless they are too drunk or under 21.
Do you find that there is a sense of collaboration or competition in Denver among promoters?
I think there is a lot of room for collaboration, which can help with building bigger parties, extra promotion and minimizing risk, but also usually means less money for the partners, so it can be sensitive. It’s also quite competitive with promoter offers for artists, and usually not a lot of behind-the-scenes discussion between the promoters, for obvious reasons. And it gets especially tricky when you add the big promoters like AEG and Live Nation in the mix. You can have a really solid booking, and then all of a sudden something gets announced for Red Rocks, Mission Ballroom or the Fillmore, and can impact your party pretty severely. It’s nice to have so many options for events on any given night, but unless the crowds are strong enough, there will be winners and losers.
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You have an upcoming event with Stavroz, which is making its Denver debut at Tracks. Why Stavroz?
Stavroz is basically everything. They are a four-piece live electronic act from Belgium and play a really fun and eclectic set. They have an amazing energy on stage, get weird and do a whole lot of improv to keep it interesting. Both years I have been to Garbicz Festival in Poland, they were the highlight set.
I am also quite excited to have Ramona Wouters back from Europe to play. She lived in Vail for a long time and has been touring and playing all over Europe at some of the best festivals and parties the last couple years, and it’s really exciting. As a Below Radar resident, she plays a lot of my best parties.