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Published: 1998/10/15
by Dean Budnick

The Gamelan Game Plan: Andrew Stahl on Managing, Promoting and Supporting Jam Bands

Andrew Stahl formed Gamelan Production in 1993. Gamelan currently serves as a management group, booking agency and promoter for a roster of artists that share Andrew’s love of improvisational music. Gamelan concert series, Get On To The Bus (previously known as Road Trip) has become a Boston area fixture, offering some tantalizing music bills while also raising money for earth-friendly charities- information on the series and his environmental efforts can be found at the Gamelan web site www.gamelanproductions.com. This past summer Gamelan partnered with the High Sierra Festival to produce the first annual Berkshire Mountain Music Festival. Andrew took some time out of his to schedule to rap on a number of topics including the lessons he’s learned, the arc of a jam band’s career and his own highlights as a music fan. The results should prove enlightening to anyone interested in supporting and promoting individual jam bands as well as the scene in general.

Q- Let’s begin at the beginning. How did Gamelan come about?

A- I’ve been playing music since I was nine years old and I’ve been in business since I was nine years old, I used to sell my dad’s carpets at the auction and I have a good knack for both of them although I am much better on the business side of things in the music world than I am as a performer. I went to a ton of Dead shows and a ton of concerts in high school and college (laughs) Actually most of college career I spent in arenas and different venues. I kept a close eye on what was positive and negative about the concertgoing experience and what concerts had to offer, and I was studying economics in college, along with philosophy, anthropology, sociology…I had this dream of trying to bring people together through music and in the short run try to provide a service for local musicians that I was friends with. In this house we’re sitting in now {the home of Gamelan Productions} there were 14 hippie freaks living here. There was a band called Ukiah, they were very popular, just under the size of Shockra and they traveled in the Shockra and Phish circles when Phish was getting big and there was a scene here. So I was helping them out, I wasn’t really managing them, just as a friend, someone who cared about the people and the music.

Q- And you had no prior experience in booking bands?

A- Hell no, I knew nothing. I’ve been doing this shooting from the hip since day one, just using my senses. I think I’m a perceptive person, I learn quickly. Pretty much I try never to make the same mistake twice…although sometimes I have (laughs). So then I needed a name and someone suggested Gamelan. Gamelan is a form of Javanese/Indonesian bell choir and its the Indonesian form of a drum circle except with cymbals. One hundred people, two hundred people. Soon afterwards someone had a CD, I listened to it, I thought this is killer I’m all about Gamelan, that’s great.

Q- How did you build your roster?

A- I took out an ad and I received a response from a band in the scene, the Groove Tubes. So I did a show with them at Barmuda Triangle which was this club near Lansdowne street. I gave the band the door but I took ten percent. The band earned one hundred fifty bucks, I made my fifteen dollar commission…and I got a twenty dollar parking ticket. That was first month’s worth of gross. Negative five dollars.

In the months to come I started getting some gigs for the Groove Tubes. One night I got them an opener at Ed Burke’s for Stub Junkmen. And I looked the owner in the eye and told him look this what I’m doing and said I have access to some bands, he gave me some openers and within three months I became the Thursday night booker. I did that for a year and a half and we built a good little scene, actually our night was the most successful but the club was in somewhat of a shady neighborhood and it closed. Then I slowly started doing shows around town in different venues. It took me a few years to learn. I put in a lot of heart and soul road managing and managing and booking Elements Watson- great band weak name. At the same time I was independently, non-exclusively booking some other bands in the scene.

Then Elements Watson started growing and playing New York City, Upstate New York, and Connecticut. So I used the doors that were opening to slide in other bands that I liked and believed in. When Elements Watson broke up, it hurt. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do this anymore and I was thinking about quitting but I looked into my heart and realized that this was what I wanted to do with my life. I figured I was young, I had nothing to lose, and if worse comes to worse, I’d move on. Jiggle The Handle had been asking me to manage them for a while, and I had a really good rapport with them and I really loved the people involved especially Gary who was the staple in the band and has been ever since. Once I committed to managing the band, there has not been a question as to whether I would stay in the business.

Q- Let’s take Jiggle as an example for other people out there who may be working with rising bands. What approach have you taken with them?

A- It’s interesting. Before I started working with them, their previous booking agent would often give them killer openers but neglected to build foundation so that when the band would come back to a smaller club they didn’t draw. When I took over I took them a step back and concentrated on building a foundation in Boston. We started with maybe fifty people and now we’re up to six hundred plus.

Q- How important is building foundation?

A- It’s the key, one step in front of the other. You’re constantly moving three steps forward and two back. It’s the cycle of development. That’s why the more steps you skip the further you have to fall. I love bands that understand the concept of foundation and I hate bands that draw a few hundred people in one market and then it goes to their heads and they start demanding too much money in another market when they have no foundation and nothing to cling onto and grow from. If a band’s doing well in Boston focus on that. Then build Northampton because its close and then Burlington or New York City. But stay focused on a region and once a region is happening then go on a southern tour or a Colorado tour or a tour out west.

Phish is a great example. Greg From Jiggle used to be in Max Creek. Max Creek is very good friends with Phish. In fact Phish used to open for them and then all of a sudden they’re selling out the Garden. Anyhow, someone from Creek went to Mike Gordon and said “How did you do it?” Mike responded with a three page letter that is just mind-blowing about artists development. He explained how they focused so much energy on each show, to make each show special. Mike constantly talked about building froth and excitement.

Strategy is crucial too and you have to stick to your strategy. There are very few overnight successes in the business and any one you see who seems like one has probably been doing it for eight years and nobody knew it. If you believe in what you do and you really want a make a career from it, then you must remember that its slow and steady growth and you continually eat dirt. But stay true to your focus and develop so you can have longevity.

It’s important to put a team in place. It doesn’t have to be experienced people, it just has to be honest people who know to communicate, who know how to network, who have personality enough to build relationships. Integrity, of course that goes a long way. It’s important to have promotional team behind a band; a booking team behind a band; a road manager- although a lot of bands can’t afford one, that’s a hard one; an engineer; somebody who’s pushing the on the web; someone who’s dealing with the band’s merchandise; a mailer person; someone who can keep in constant contact and communication with the fans. All of these elements, it’s important to build foundation now and a family of people. At first you may not understand the personality and dynamics of the people, you learn what works and what doesn’t. You learn everybody’s quirks and strengths, So if you discover that the guitar player isn’t one to settle a show because he doesn’t know how to communicate in those terms then have the bass player settle. As a side note, a lot of shit comes with settling a show. Bar owners are constantly trying to nickel and dime or not give the band what’s agreed upon.

By the way, in terms of building a team, let me just say that the people we have working here are incredible They’re great souls and I couldn’t have done any of this without them. Of course I also have to attribute a large part of my success to the fact that there are a lot of people out there who give a shit about good music.

Q- Along those lines why don’t you tell me a little about your evolution in terms of promoting shows

A- I started out doing local shows with local acts and it just started growing, one step in front of the other, just like the way I try to develop acts with foundation. I was developing my promoter abilities, one foot in front of the other. When I discovered that I could rent rooms and promote then I stared considering doing bigger shows. I was developing bands like Strangefolk and Moon Boot Lover. At the time these bands were drawing 75 people in the market max and now Strangefolk for instance is doing thousands in this market. I don’t take all that credit…moe. is another example. We took them from their second gig, third gig in Boston when they were doing about 50 or 75. Their next gig we sold out TT’s {TT The Bears Place} which is about 300 people. Then we moved to the Middle East and did about 450. It’s a very slow process with these acts.

Q_ And now moe., for instance, is at the Somerville Theater on November 5. That must be gratifying

A- Absolutely. And originally we were going to do two shows. I’m fairly confident in saying they would have sold out both of those but they didn’t have the extra date on their tour, they have a very tight tour. The turning point as promoter for me was when I put in a bid for Medeski Martin & Wood. There were a bunch of people bucking for that one. Their last show had been 350 people at the Middle East, things started to pop for them and I had been a fan of theirs for a while. So I started crunching numbers. I had never done a show at the Somerville although I had always wanted to. Jordi (Herold, of Iron Horse Productions) got the show and I told him that he needed to do this with me. After I did that show, and people saw Gamelan up on that bill, all of a sudden we had quite a bit of respect coming our way. We worked out asses off and sold out the room, and the scene started to grow from there.

I suppose the next big step took place a short while later. I was the promoter of record for moe, and Strangefolk. I had enjoyed my experience and learned a lot from working with Jordi at the bigger venue. It turned out that the planets were in alignment where Strangefolk and moe. wanted to come in a day apart. We were going to go with a small room for both, and I think it hit me that night in my sleep. I woke up and thought “why don’t we do moe. and Strangefolk in the same room.” That morning I got on the phone with Topper and Brett {the bands’ respective managers} and apparently we all had the same revelation at the same time. We said let’s do it at the Somerville. And it turned to be an incredible event. We just about sold it out. The vibe in the room was insane, the music was great, and people were freaking out. The MMW show was the turning point but this was the show when people started to recognize that there was a unified scene and that there was something going on here.

Q- As far as you know was that the first time moe. and Strangefolk played together?

A- I’m pretty sure. That’s when the two bands became great friends and where it all started to evolve. That was important not just to our local scene here but I think that was a monumental point in terms of unification of grassroots in the northeast which overflowed nationally. That was when Road Trip was born, Jordi and I combined forces and that following spring we had the first series. The concept was Boston is the biggest city in northern New England, let’s try to bring people in and let’s see some unification within the scene. Chickenman did a phenomenal job with the posters and things just started to roll. And I tell you it’s worked out, there is a scene. People will go to the Middle East, or Somerville Theater or the Orpheum and see the same faces. There are many people who know each other by name and they’re friends and they’ve met at these shows and that’s very gratifying.

Q- Your current Series is Called Get On To The Bus.

A- That’s because while Jordi is co-promoting three of the shows, he’s not working with us on the whole series. Jordi became not only the talent buyer for the Iron Horse in Northampton but also Pearl Street and the Calvin Theater plus a number of other shows in New England, so his time became limited. We have a great relationship though, we try not to compete with one another and currently we partner about ten national acts.

Q- Another hallmark of your series is your commitment to social issues.

A- One of my goals from the very start has also been to raise consciousness about a dying planet. That’s where the Arbor Day Foundation and the Milagro Foundation {editor’s note founded by Carlos and Deborah Santana- www.santana.com/milagro} come into play. We donate some of our proceeds to those organizations. It’s slow and steady right now but as we continue to grow we hope to continue to feed financial resources to these organizations. We also hope to continue to educate people to what they can do.

Q- Let’s move on to talk about the genesis of the Berkshire Mountain Music Festival which debuted this summer {editor’s note- this event took place on June 12-14, 1998 in the midst of the worst weather to hit New England all summer with record-setting rainfall-www.berkfest.com}.

A- I had been wanting to do an outdoor festival for quite some time and I had a dear friend of mine who spent the last twelve years of his life becoming a marketing guru. He had the knack for it and he also plays music, he’s a phenomenal guitar player. Unfortunately the first time we put on a major festival we had a major weather disaster but let me go on the record and say I have no regrets. I’m still digging out financially but it was worth every cent. The spirit came alive out there, from the fans to the volunteers to the staff. We co-promoted the event with the High-Sierra Music Festival and let me just say I attended that event the past two July 4ths and it is by far the greatest festival that anyone could ever attend. We’re building a bridge across America with them, west coast to east coast. They share the same spirit and vibe and attitude as us. They have the same goals as us and they are much further along in the game. After I went out there the first time I said this is the type of festival that I want to do. and I approached them.

If the weather had been cooperative we would have had three stages of music going on, movies under the stars, we had all sorts of goodies planned. Unfortunately due to the weather we had to cancel some acts and all the music on the outdoor stages had to move indoors under the tent. It was an amazing thing as a promoter to arrive at this farm in the amazing rolling hill out in the Berkshires and turn it into a festival. And the music that took place and the vibe in that tent was fucking insane. Every act from Rockett Band to Galactic to Charlie Hunter to the Meters to Los Lobos- the only band that got to play outdoors. It was nonstop for three days {editors note along with these acts other personal favorites included Jiggle The Handle, Lettuce, The Slip and String Cheese Incident}. I didn’t sleep and I didn’t want to sleep. The only time I ever had an experience like that was at Jazz Fest in New Orleans where there is just so much great music, energy and people. For those of you were there I tip my hat off to you and thank you dearly for coming and for those of you who weren’t you missed a remarkable event. Come next year, you won’t be disappointed.

Q- So in terms of Berkfest 99?

A- We’re working on getting permits right now. We’ll probably change the date to sometime later in the summer to possibly avoid that type of weather. We hope to announce a date in the next 6-10 weeks so check in at the web site.

Q_ One thing I admire about you is that you promote these shows because you love the music. I can always spot you on the side of the stage or out in the audience working a groove. What are some of your highlights in terms of the shows you’ve produced?

A- Well you put me on the spot. Highlights, there are a lot of them. I’m sure I’ll forget a few but I’ll start spewing: The Ascensions Boston show- at the time in the moment I said it was the greatest show I ever put together and it’s certainly in the top 3 for sure- Medeski, Bob Moses, the Fringe (editor’s note- one member of the Fringe is Bob Gullotti, known by many Phish phans for his appearances with that band), Stan Stricklan and more. These are all the best of the best, and they did a tribute to Coltrane. Other favorites include the recent Scofield All-star Groovathon with Charlie Hunter opening; the Maceo/MMW funk fest with Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise; moe./Strangefolk that we talked about; Charlie Hunter/ The Slip last summer; Mark Ribot/Dr. Didg/Gordon Stone an incredible eclectic bill; Jiggle The Handle/The Slip/Abdoul Doumbia and his African Drums, Baba Olatunji/Abdoul Doumbia- we all went to school that night; here’s one that was poorly attended but in the top five- Jazz Mandolin Project with Jonas Hellborg/Jeff Sipe/Shawn Lane and Buckethead that one was sick; The Slip/Greyboy Allstars/Dr. Didg; Berkfest obviously…

Also, two shows that I didn’t promote but were two of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen were Trilok Gurtu last spring at Berkeley- I heard him, saw him with Planet Drum before but this was by far the greatest musical experience of my life. For those of you who don’t know him buy his new album the Glimpse or buy John McLaughlin Live at The Royal Festival Hall with Trilok on drums. Anybody who likes the spirit of music, these are the masters, they take it about 50,000 steps beyond much of the stuff we may be used to. The other great one was Ben Harper, who did a solo acoustic tent performance at the Great Woods HORDE this summer in front of about 300 people. He just poured his heart and soul out to us for about an hour. He just radiated energy.

Q- That’s quite a list. I know that many people out there would be excited just to have seen a handful of those shows.

A- Well one of the great driving forces for me getting into this business was for the perks, like killer seats. Many times I have put on shows for myself and my family, the Gamelan crew, that were poorly attended. But sometimes I book out of selfishness because there are things I would like to see in town.

Q- A very enviable position to be in.

A – I know it’s great (laughs). It’s great to always be able to get a free ticket.

SELECTED UPCOMING GAMELAN SHOWS

Oct 15- Galactic, Deep Banana Blackout- Middle East
Oct 17- Jiggle The Handle, John Brown’s Body, The Phoids- Middle East
Oct 22- Vince Welnick’s Missing Man Formation, Silas- Harper’s Ferry
Oct 25- Bela Fleck & The Flecktones, String Cheese Incident- Orpheum
Oct 31- Percy Hill, Oteil & The Peacemakers, Addison Groove Project, Keller Williams- Somerville Theater
Nov 5- moe, Moon Boot Lover- Somerville Theater
Nov. 6- Miracle Orchestra, Gordon Stone, Living Daylights- Middle East
Nov. 12- The Slip- Paradise
Nov 14- Deep Banana Blackout, Bloque, Addison Groove Project- Middle East

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