INDUSTRY: Drew Massey of Massey Booking Agency
If you’ve seen live music in a bar in Wilmington at any point in the past year, chances are Drew Massey made it happen. Last year, he set up 1,200 performances in the Cape Fear area. So far this year, he’s on track to book another 1,500. He started thirteen years ago, setting up performances at Dockside Restaurant, where he was a cook. But he didn’t go pro until 2015, when he formed the Massey Booking Agency, LLC, and shortly after, finally quit that kitchen job. I sat down with him to talk about his agency, Wilmington’s controversial noise ordinance, and what makes a good bar band.
DW: So, how many people work for the Massey Booking Agency?
DM: You’re looking at all of them.
DW: It’s just you?
DM: Yeah. It’s me on my couch.
DW: How many venues and artists are you working with?
DM: I work with about 12 venues, and I would say I have about 60 core artists—people I’ve been working with for years that I know are consistent, that I know the venue is going to love. But I’m always looking for new talent. Because people move, people have kids, bands come and go. I might be at a band’s last show and not know it, or I might find a band that I’ve never heard of that I’m about to book for the next ten years.
DW: How do you find those new acts? Do you scout?
DM: It’s mostly word-of-mouth. I hear about a new band, and then I’ll check out their Facebook page, and if it’s something I haven’t heard before, and if the sound quality is good, then I trust them enough to start booking them, on a trial basis at least.
DW: What does a band have to do to pass that trial?
DM: If I can tell that band is just out to make money, no matter how good they are, there’s no point keeping them around. I would always rather book a band that might not be great, but they’re going to bring fifty of their friends and have a blast. Those bands are diamonds in the rough. They might not have a Facebook page; they might not be able to play for very long, but I love it when I find them.
DW: Wilmington is really becoming kind of a live-music city. Or was that always the case? In your 13 years, what has the trend been?
DW: It keeps getting busier and busier and busier. Bars see other bars succeeding with music, and then they want to try it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But it seems like every bar in town is at least trying it, now.
DW: What makes an act a good match for a venue?
DM: Two venues I work for are Jimmy’s and Lagerheads in Wrightsville Beach. They’re practically next-door neighbors, so the crowd is very similar. But Lagerheads is so much smaller. So, if I book a full band there, it’s going to push people out the door. And if a four-piece band is splitting a percentage of that tiny bar, they’re going to get nothing. I have to consider not just the crowd, but also the size of the venue. Meanwhile, down at Jimmy’s, I could book a punk show on a weekend, and they’d be fine with it. It gets rowdy down there, so it fits.
DW: Do you consider the acoustics of a space?
DM: Yeah. Acoustics is tough, man. After I started at Edward Teach, people told me the acoustics are really tough in here, man. Because sound just bounces all around that place. But if a venue is serious about booking live music, eventually they’ll invest in soundproofing stuff.
DW: What’s the best-sounding venue in town?
DM: As a musician, I hate playing outside, but some outdoor venues sound great, like Rebellion downtown. The Whiskey has incredible sound. And an awesome light show. But what matters more than the room is the act. It’s about picking the right act for the room. It helps when bands have nice PAs.
DW: What’s the purpose of a bar band to you? Do you think you should be able to hold a conversation over the music?
DM: I love when people are fully engaged. I love listening rooms where people sit in chairs facing the stage and don’t say a word. But you can’t tell people they can’t talk. Still, I feel like I’ve done my job when a small crowd gathers around the musicians, when there’s a real connection there. Once, on tour with my band Groove Fetish, we saw a sign in a bar that said: “Be quiet; there’s a band talking.” But I think ideally, you can engage as much or as little as you want. Edward Teach is a good example. You can hang out downstairs at the bar and watch the band, you can go upstairs and watch the TV, you can go out on the patio and just talk. You have options.
DW: Have you run into any issues with the city noise ordinance?
DM: No, but everyone I work for has asked me if I could do anything about it, which of course I can’t.
DW: But there’s been a chilling effect.
DM: Well, you have to be done by eleven. You play inside if you can. Everyone knows that now. But it’s impossible to know if you’re going to get a citation. For a while at Dockside, the same person called the cops every week. Didn’t matter if it was an acoustic solo act or a full band. And the police department only has one device to measure sound levels. Most of the time, basically guess. It’s like getting pulled over for a speeding ticket without seeing the radar gun.
DW: One last question: what, to you makes a good bar band?
DM: A lot of venues ask for acts that bring a lot of their friends. Which I think is wrong. I think the best thing a band can do is keep people there. That’s my ultimate goal. I’m about building connections.
DW: You want people to have positive associations with artists and venues. They know what bands they like and they know what bars have good music.
DM: That’s the goal.
DW: But what about the music makes a good bar band?
DM: They have to be able to read the crowd. A lot of Wilmington is touristy, and so the people in the crowd will request covers. You have to be able to do that. You have to be able to do many styles, and you have to notice what styles make people head to the bar and what styles keep people over by the stage. If people start dancing, extend the song by a minute or two. Keep people happy.
DW: But that makes the music feel like a business transaction. If you’re just trying to optimize crowd size; don’t you think that’s at odds with what bands are trying to do creatively?
DM: It can be. I want the bands to do what they’re good at, what they’re comfortable. Covers bring in more tips. But if a band wants to do all originals, I want them to do what they want to do, even when people are screaming covers at them. I want to find them a venue where they have to change as little as possible to succeed. I’ll do whatever I can for a band. I’ve let bands stay with me for a week. One time, this great band from Florida called Ajeva was staying with me for a handful of days, and their rice cooker broke. I had the same exact rice cooker, so I just gave it to them, and the last time I talked to them, they are still using it two years later.
You can follow Drew Massey at Massey Booking Agency on Facebook.