How do bands get time at Boston Calling? Does this great event have diversity issues?
Boston Calling, the giant, twice-annual, three-day music festival, runs throughout this weekend at Boston’s City Hall Plaza with headline acts including Alt-J, Chvrches, Alabama Shakes, Hozier, The Avett Brothers and Of Monsters and Men. When the festival arrived in May 2013, it was co-curated by Aaron Dessner of New York-based band The National and might as well have been christened Brooklyn Calling – and barring Boston’s Bad Rabbits, which inaugurated the whole event, it was a very white affair.
The Boston Calling that followed in September corrected that a bit with appearances by performers such as Kendrick Lamar, Solange and Major Lazer, and more recent ones have featured Nas and The Roots, Childish Gambino, Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals and Run the Jewels, but the festival – as good a time as it is, drawing some 45,000 music fans of all kinds to peaceful weekends now being billed as among the top 10 music festivals in America – has persisted in being a bastion of the white male. (See a graphic breakdown of this year’s 77 performers at the bottom of this post.)
Now that booking is being handled (as of the May festival) by Trevor Solomon of Crash Line Productions, it seemed time to ask: Just how is this thing booked?
Solomon spoke by phone Sept. 17. Questions and answers have been edited and condensed for publication.
The first band of Boston Calling is always local. How does a band get the gig?
“You could email me. That’s one way to do it, and bands do that. But you can gain attention lots of different ways. Maybe you’re a local band working with a booking agent, and the agent’s reached out to me. Maybe I read it in a local magazine or newspaper. Maybe I saw them play a show. There’s a band called Pile – I haven’t booked them yet, but me and my wife saw them and we were both just sitting there going, ‘This is an awesome band.’ If you’re a hardworking local band and you’re getting your name out there, eventually people that book working clubs or working festivals will see your name one way or another.”
And what about those midlevel bands from around the country?
“Around the world. We send out an email. We ask for ideas from various sources. I start talking to other festivals, I talk to the booking agents, I talk to the managers, and the ideas just start filtering themselves. A band will say, ‘Hey, we’re playing this D.C. festival in September, we would like to be in your festival.’ All right, let me go look at your history. You’ve sold out X, Y and Z venues, you have a record coming out, you’re getting a lot of spins on YouTube, all right, cool.
“A good example would be Sturgill Simpson. He put out my favorite record of 2014 and played one performance on ‘Letterman’ and after that performance I sent an email to the core group that works on this with me and said, ‘This guy is awesome. We should do this.’ Everybody agreed. Another example is Doomtree, which is a bit smaller of a band and sold out The Sinclair here in January. Great band, and we had them play in our Eaux Claires festival in Wisconsin. I’d seen them and I just knew they were a great band.
“I’m not creating something as a talent buyer that reinvents the wheel. I’m following a pattern that other festivals are doing and other talent buyers are doing, and we’re looking at things like social media or news content and people who are getting a lot of attention. ”
How do you book the headliners? What’s the math?
“The top six bands are probably the ones we start working on anywhere between six to 10 months out, but there are smaller things that we’re just interested in and might book early because as a group we all love it. You can’t bust the bank on headliners. Granted, we spend a little bit more on some things because we get excited, but we’re not in the business to just start throwing out money. At the end of the day you realize if you overspend, you can only sell so many tickets, and you might not make the money.
“It’s a festival – it’s a little different price than playing a regular venue – and the bands have an idea of the price in various markets. The other festivals are awesome, they’re out in the middle of the woods or they’re on farms and it’s beautiful scenario, but that this is an urban festival helps make this work, for sure. That’s appealing – playing in the middle of downtown Boston, why not? It’s something different. This is a great city, probably one of the top 10 metropolitan cities in America, and you get a lot of value for that.
“You get a lot of college students, probably more than any other place in America, but the festival has a lot of different people. You have people who are working class, you have people who are going to college, you have people who teach college. Our demo is probably 18 to 45. It draws a good healthy crowd, people are excited, and they get really into it. That’s the appeal also.
“If you look at the lineups, there are a lot of similarities between The National and Hozier and Alabama Shakes and Of Monsters and Men. You see a theme in that they’re very indy, but the marketable ones to see. They’re playing similar festivals around the country, they’re playing House of Blues or Blue Hills or maybe TD Garden. At the end of the day, the market and the consumer is helping drive what the festival is looking for.”
How does that affect the diversity of Boston Calling’s lineup? Why not more acts such as Santigold or Janelle Monae?
“If you talk diversity and you mean African-American diversity, I think we have a lot – I mean, not a lot, but we definitely have acts that are performing like Doomtree, the singer for Alabama Shakes, [and Dominican-American] Twin Shadow. I think that there is diversity there. I actually think acts like you mention, Santigold, Janelle Monae, they’re awesome acts, they’re acts that we look at, but they just might not be available for this particular festival, and you can only book what you can get.
“I can’t speak for the market. I can speak as someone who books and someone who sees the shape and form of festivals. I think I know what people want here, absolutely, and I think we book diverse. We definitely mix it up. We try to have radio bands, indie-rock bands, we try to have jam bands. Festival to festival, it’s different. And I don’t think the city of Boston is saying they won’t accept certain acts or certain things and they’re not into it.”
Are there bands you wouldn’t bring in?
“I don’t think there is one. Anything will work. You have to be a little bit eclectic to try to book a festival in this day and age. Now, are we booking a lot of country and western? Probably not. But we do have a country artist playing the festival. And we just had another one. Do we do a lot of hip-hop? We don’t, but we had Nas play, we’ve had Childish Gambino play. We’re having Doomtree play, and we just had Run the Jewels play. We haven’t really had a metal band, necessarily, but we’re not opposed to it. I wouldn’t say we’re trying to alienate one genre.”
“Every festival you’re relearning the wheel as a talent buyer or as a producer, and every festival you try to improve from the last one. Even if you sell out you try to do better the next time.”
Are there other voices asking about this? Or is this question an outlier?
“Nope. I would say it would be an outlier. I haven’t heard it much. The one thing I’ve heard is that we’ve been praised for booking a ton of women, actually. We had a lot of women play the last festival, and we’re having a decent amount this time. Two, actually three, really, of our top six bands are female – or have females in the band. It’s pretty awesome.”
(The number of women performing at the festival in May was around 10, similar to the current festival.)