Hello my little Pariahs! My apologies for the radio silence. Earlier this month, I spent a week in Los Angeles to celebrate my 21st birthday. I had a lot of fun, partied a bit, and got a chance to play at Space Yacht. I even witnessed the beginnings of the election riots outside of Donald Trump’s Hollywood star.
While I was in Cali, I had the privilege of interviewing Brandon Owen, founder of White Rabbit Group. White Rabbit Group is a premier event company based out of Orange County, California. White Rabbit is renowned for their Thursday night weekly, Havoc at the Yost Theater in downtown Santa Ana, and Friday night weekly Control at the Avalon in Los Angeles.
Sean Moloney–one of my business partners here at Pariah–linked me up with Brandon. Sean and Brandon ran club events together back in the mid-2000’s OC. Brandon met us at a bar he’s renovating, right across the street from the Yost.
This dude is seriously awesome. In this interview, Brandon covers:
The role of leadership in a promotion company.
Why starting artists need to bring more to the table than just their music.
Why promoter’s are always to blame for failing events.
The importance of recognizing your ego and keeping it in-check.
Promoters he admires and think are doing a kickass job.
And so much more.
Please enjoy this interview with Brandon Owen.
Pariah Reign (PR): What’s the story of you breaking into the music industry? How did you get your start?
Brandon Cloud Owen (BCO): The love for nightlife started in high-school. I used to drive to clubs and charge $3 for friends to ride with me. If I packed my car, that would give me just enough gas money and entry money to get into the clubs in Portland. My town was so quiet and boring that clubs were a cool escape.
The first time I got into nightlife business-wise, I was working at Jungle Cruise. My co-worker and I were working grad night, and he’s like, “Hey man, I have a business proposition for you. Let me take you to breakfast.” And I just heard, “Free breakfast”. He said that he had been a part of some raves, and told me, “I want to start a club. I want to start a house music club.” And with a mouthful of pancakes, I’m like, “What’s house music?” Remember it’s 2003.
Honestly, I wasn’t that great of promoter as far as getting people to come out. I was mediocre at best. But, I really liked it, and it really bummed me out that I wasn’t better.
I picked up promoting again years later because a friend of mine had left his club. There was an opening for me–it was just timing. At the time, I thought that I never finished promoting in the way that I wanted to. I always felt like I left it as a failure or unfinished.
That’s how it started, at first it was fun, then it was an opportunity. I couldn’t let it go this time without seeing it through.
PR: What have you noticed to be smart and impactful promotion techniques? Perhaps the tactics that few people want to do?
BCO: Individual tactics and pointers, not really, but I have a few ideas on how to think about running your promo. Nobody wants to do the inglorious work, but it’s so much of that! I love that meme that’s like, “If you can’t support at this show with 5 people on the dance floor, don’t call me for tickets on this show that’s all packed.” I spent years flyering parking lots and standing in front of clubs at 4am. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.
The first time I threw a decent-sized show, it was a total clusterfuck. Like embarrassing nightmare. I’m glad the crowd didn’t know that, but if you were watching me, you would say that clearly this guy has no idea what he is doing. I was running from the back of the house to the front of the house for this and that. This wasn’t working, and I didn’t have a plan for that. Meanwhile, I was having a drink between every errand, like an idiot. That event was so bad that, the next day, I forced myself to sit down and be real with myself to list all the places that we went wrong.
If you’re a promoter that has ambition to do any size event, whether it’s a bar night or a huge festival, you’re the conductor. You need to have good musicians on your team and let them play their instruments. You have to position people right. Don’t be a one-man-army.
After that night, I should have quit. Most normal, reasonable people would say that, “I’m not good at this.” How you react to failure is the second lesson I got from that. I think there is a lot of intelligence on how you react to failure, and the honest criticism you give yourself or you listen to from other people.
Those days were bad for me because I was living off promoting. If an event didn’t do well, I was literally shitting my pants on how I would pay rent. But, I always made sure that everyone got paid before me. That’s why people were always okay to work for me or work with me at any given time. Even if I didn’t get taken care of, they did.
Once, a club scammed me for $7000. The owner literally packed up, bankrupted, and left. Nobody could find him. It was the first successful month of me being a promoter. $7000 might as well have been a billion. I got left holding the bag having to pay people. It wasn’t their fault.
But I paid everybody. It took me months but I paid everybody. I let them know the situation and even if I was giving them 30 bucks towards the hundreds I owed them, I gave them what I could. This story is a good example of leadership. Promotion has so much to do with leadership, especially when you’re basing your night around culture. So many of the nights are based around culture and how you work with people. Even if you don’t remember everyone who was nice to you, you will definitely remember everyone who fucked you.
So I guess don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty, build your team, fail well, and pay everyone.
PR: I resonate with what you said about leadership. It’s such a rarely spoken topic in the industry. I’m a believer in it, but until this conversation, I’ve never heard another industry professional utter those words.
BCO: I always say that you are worth what your last event was, and your next event is. But, even more than that, your value is in the relationships you build. You can throw a bad event and then throw a good one, and then the world, crowd, and scene will forgive you.
But people don’t forget getting fucked.
You can never forget that. Your chances of throwing that good event go down infinitely when you burn people. You never know who somebody is gonna be. So many little DJ’s I booked in the side room ended up being huge!
PR: Speaking of the side-room talent: what do you look for in local talent? How do you book openers?
BCO: I won’t lie: That is handled by my event manager Paul O’Laughlin and my promoters Corey and Fonzy these days but when I did it I always looked for people I wanted to work with. The only times I didn’t listen to that, I’ve regretted it deeply.
I want people to be happy and stoked to be playing my show. That energy is just going to result in dollars and cents down the line. If they’re fuckin’ pumped, it’s the show of their life, and no matter what space they’re playing in, then they will get people to show up. That means I will make more money, the show is going to do better, and it will be more fun for everybody. If someone thinks they’re worth more than I’m willing to pay, I don’t want them to take the gig because they’ll feel shortchanged. It is literally the worst case when someone harbors resentment and talk shit for getting a show that they asked for.
Artists: know how to conduct yourself. If you’re asking for something from someone, appreciate what it is for. Until your name is selling tickets on the flyer, don’t think differently. Be happy to play. I’m not going to ask you to play for free or for “exposure”. I’m not that kind of promoter. But, know that you’re the little guy. Play the part of the Little Engine That Could. Work your ass off. Make me tell a good story about you because I’ll be doing the same. If you want that proving ground, that testing ground, and are grateful for it, we can work something out.
“For everything you want in life, there is someone who can give it you.”
I remembering having the thought that for everything you want in life, there is someone who can give it you. That doesn’t mean wait for people to give you things but it does mean that relationships are absolutely everything. Your relationships are worth way more than money, especially in the beginning.
It behooves you to learn those practices and play for the long-term. If you plan just for this year, you’ll lose. People’s memories will last longer than that.
PR: One trend I’ve noticed with promoters is this talent trap where the success of a night is almost solely based on the names on the flyer. Some brands like Space Yacht have created such a name for themselves that they can get away with putting question marks on the flyer and hitting capacity that night. How do you get out of that talent trap?
BCO: The best promotion ever is word-of-mouth. You get to that point of people talking about you by surprising them. If I only give what I’m promising, you won’t talk about me. We need to create that excitement, that customer trust. That gives the ability to get away with having question marks on the flyer. You’ve got to give more. That comes down every single business, but if you’re in entertainment or the arts, you have to deliver.
PR: Boise’s a pretty small market. Promoters out here often look towards big markets like Los Angeles to borrow ideas and ask if the same concept would work here. What do you have to say to that? Can certain fringe concepts be profitable in larger markets only because of sheer population, or is there merit in looking elsewhere for new ideas?
BCO: Arguably, California is the biggest, most competitive EDM market in the World. The little fringe things happened because there’s a lot of people, and they are musically educated.
You see these little subcultures pop up, and they’re not borrowing it from anybody. There’s enough musicians doing enough weird things and hanging out in enough communal space that great things can start. They see it when something doesn’t exist, and they want it to exist. They are the creators. They are the genesis of it. They create something new and weird that hasn’t been seen before, and it spreads. It’s theirs. They have the ownership and the passion to promote it. Their friends are supporting it.
If you were to borrow the concept–that’s not the way to go. If you were going to approach it, find the musicians in your area and see what they are up to. Create a new genesis.
Hip-hop did it best. They made each of their own places cool. You loved where you were from, and that’s what you rapped about. It made places like fucking Missouri seem exotic with Southern artists like David Banner and Nappy Roots. It was like, “Oh shit! It’s the Dirty South.” Now that’s a thing.
It’s easy to imitate. Although imitation is flattery, it is inauthentic. You have to figure out what your sound is–and if there isn’t a sound, you need to ask yourself why. Find other people that have a voice and want to start something together.
When you create your own sound, it’s yours. Then people are excited about it. Then your town is fucking proud of it.
I’m not saying that it couldn’t work the other way, but it’s not as probable and not as fun. It’s not yours.
PR: What are some thoughts on the risk of running a club or event?
BCO: I had an investor early on in White Rabbit. I used to go around every single bottle service table, introduce myself, and ask if they were having a good time. I used to get made fun of for doing this. One of those bottle service regulars was this well-off business guy who enjoyed just coming out. Through the weeks, I’d have conversations with this complete stranger. He invested in my company. I promptly lost all the money in my company. He was on-board for a year and a half
Even though the loss wasn’t that significant, way less than most college educations, that was my college education. That failure, and being responsible for somebody in that way forced me to look at myself and learn as fast as possible.
“We don’t lose money here. We just invest in what not to do.”
I tell people in my company that, “We don’t lose money here. We just invest in what not to do.” It’s a risky game, and you’ll probably lose at some point, just don’t lose for the same reasons, and get an education out of it.
PR: I love that phrase. It’s so true.
BCO: We’ve definitely lost a bunch of money on some things. I did a block party last year. Although it was a great success from the guest perspective, I still lost a pretty significant sum. That time it was all of my own money. Still, from that, I learned. As painful as it is, you have to watch the tape and see yourself get sacked business-wise. Realize when your mistakes and then take ownership of it.
PR: What are some of your favorite ways to create guest hospitality at an event?
BCO: In the beginning, I was overly ambitious. I just really wanted to put on a great show for everybody. I used to run a real three ring circus. Maybe the lesson here is in the intention and mentality, and not exactly the execution.
You just have to make it fun for everybody. It’s hard to do, but you have to think about it from all angles. You have to make it worth it for the guests. You have to make it worth it for the people who bring the guests. You have to make it worth it for the venue.
Another thing I have always done, and will always do, is that no matter how ridiculous an artist’s rider is, we get all of it. That has led to some really weird-ass stories. But, we do. A lot of promoters just provide the bottle of Ciroc or whatever. Most of the time, buying the entire rider is a giant waste of money, and they’re not going to use all we get. But, it shows the artists that we’re fucking stoked you’re here, and it’s not some glad-handing. It shows that I’m putting forth effort, my team is putting forth effort.
Make it worth it for everybody. Make it fun for everybody. In the beginning, it’s likely the money won’t be there. Even if it is, you’re just reinvesting it anyway. That’s the really important thing: the mentality that you have towards everyone, because it translates to the guest experience.
PR: I really like that. That idea of providing value to everybody who interacts with you is massive. I see promoters go off and buy the talent they want to see, instead of thinking who their guests want to see. After the show flops, they get sometimes get angry at the scene, blaming the masses for their bad outcomes. It doesn’t seem like a good system.
“As a promoter, you’re an entertainer, but you’re also an educator.”
BCO: I know when we’re not doing our job. I can feel it in the air. As a promoter, you’re an entertainer, but you’re also an educator. If you have Diplo, you just need to get the word out, no crowd-education needed. But 99% of the promotion population isn’t a promoter who can get Diplo. We’re getting those artists that we have the finances and access to. These artists are still majorly talented and sometimes get missed out on because we didn’t educate our crowd. We should be sharing their tracks, creating videos, and introducing our guests to the artist.
There are no excuses these days because you can put the artist in your guest’s pocket. Do Snapchat takeovers. Do meet & greets. Have the artist make a video from on the road and link a song.
If you’re smart, you’ll have a PR list. We hit up the blogs continuously. If our fields are dry, we’re not waiting for it to rain. We’re rerouting the river. We’re hitting them up and are like, “Please do an interview with this guy so that our market gives a shit. He’s a really talented dude but people don’t know it yet. He’s underrated.”
If your crowd is not getting it, and the artist is quality and applicable to them, it’s your fault. You can’t be shitting your pants on the morning-of. You booked the guy months ago, so what are you doing?
If the flyers aren’t getting response, it’s because they don’t know who it is. Go another route. You can’t do Einstein’s definition of madness and do the same thing and wonder why your life is not working out. You have to change your tactics.
Granted, it’s a hard thing to constantly keep up and you’ll want to rest on your laurels. I did that with Havoc for a while. We got into a little slump and I knew that we had to get back out there again. “We’re not that cool that we don’t have to work anymore.”
PR: I like what you said about that ownership-component. At the end of the day, it’s your fault.
BCO: Everything is your fault. ESPECIALLY when you’re the promoter. Of all the people in the world who it is their fault, there is nobody more at fault than the promoter. If something bad happens to the artist, it’s my fault. But when it sells out, it’s because the artist is awesome. You are never going to get all that credit. If you’re buried in that ego, you are going to burn.
PR: This is super tactical, but what is your opinion on Snapchat Filters?
BCO: It’s so cheap there’s no reason not to. It’s like $5 for a club night. If it adds that much cool of an experience, then it’s totally worth it. Remember what I talked about value, and word-of-mouth? That’s one of the surprises. “Oh they have a Snapchat filter.” And then they are going to use it. Your best promoter is your ticket-buyers. Once the show is over, they are going to bury you or keep it going. They are going to support you or go elsewhere with their money. Snapchat filters? I say all day.
I will do anything cheap that will add to the guest experience. Sometimes, I’ll just toss out a couple of shirts. You might have a merch booth, but selling merchandise is less important than getting people to wear the brand. I don’t even care if we make zero dollars on the merch we make. When I go out to a festival and see a kid wearing a Havoc snapback, I think it’s awesome. If he liked our shit so much that he’s willing to wear it in the world and do some free advertising for us, that’s amazing.
The minute you start treating your guests like the masses, that’s when it is fucking over. You can get away with it for a few years, but it’s the beginning of the end for your company.
PR: I definitely know some promoters who are like that. It’s unfortunate that often the only choice people have are these bad promoters.
BCO: What that actually does is create opportunity for whoever can take their place. That’s how empires work. Businesses are miniature, shrunken down empires. It’s a group of people bound together to get one role done.
There’s phases of empires. There’s Foundation, usually started by revolution of replacing some other empire. Then there’s Frontier, which is where they expand. There’s Advancement and Technology, where they get really good at what they do. And then there’s Decadence where they get fat and lazy. The elite start separating themselves from the people that keep them in business or the people they are ruling. And then, there’s the Fall. You can look at these phases Constantinople, and with the European empires. They all tend to crash really hard.
It happens with businesses too. You have that separation. I’ll admit, this is a nice thought I had and I have been wanting to do it but haven’t yet: stand in line at your own events. Go and stand in the back of the line, and talk with the people in the line about the event, and just wait. Wait for the hour-and-a-half. Or go, and don’t go backstage. Pay for some drinks and walk around. It will open your eyes to what’s going on in your show.
PR: So go Undercover Boss in your own show.
BCO: Yea go Undercover Boss it.
PR: Who are some upcoming artists that you’re particularly stoked about?
BCO: There’s this dude who’s like seventeen and still in high school called Whethan. I think he’s cool. I tried to book him when his high-school buddy was his manager. It’s a bummer, but I’m almost proud of it: a week later, he got picked up by AM Only. At least I know my head is in the right place with A&R.
I like a lot of stuff in future bass. I put my SoundCloud Cashmere Cat and a bunch of other shit comes up. Chainsmokers (just kidding.) That shit’s insane.
PR: Are there any club nights, promoters, or festivals who you believe are doing it right?
BCO: I feel like the brains behind EDM are so strong. Who’s doing it right? Henry, Rami, and Ollie at Space Yacht. Those guys know how to brand like no tomorrow. A lot of the people I know who are doing it right put their identity and guests first and finances second and it shows in the experience.
Insomniac is of course killing it and doing cooler and cooler stuff. I even wanna go check out Middlelands.
PR: Middlelands looks so cool.
BCO: It’s one of those things where you’re happy, but you’re also pissed that it wasn’t yours. It’s like, “FUCK that’s cool. God damn it.” I think they’re doing it right.
I completely love what LED did with CRSSD Fest. They proved everyone that you can have a successful EDM festival that’s not ravey and be 21 and over. Their cocktails were seven or eight bucks. They didn’t extort their crowd at any given opportunity. They just made it a really cool-ass, mellow event. The venue was beautiful. You could walk all the way up to the stage and have room.
The laissez faire of the market is just elevating all of the events. I think Splash House is way too much fun.
Now, electronic music is so popular and people are so into it that you get to see these different manifestations. It doesn’t have to be a rave. It could be this cool little basement party. It could be Space Yacht on Hollywood Blvd. It could be Middlelands. It could be CRSSD Fest that’s 21 and over. It could be Splash House that’s 21 and over. It can be Vegas clubs.
You get so much more of a color palette to paint with. It’s just cool. It makes things fun.
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