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Industry Insider: Josh Bhatti of The Bowery Presents Boston

posted by Maressa Levy on September 06, 2013

Boston, Massachusetts -- We spoke with Josh Bhatti, head of The Bowery Presents' Boston office and one of the talent buyers behind the city's first (and only) large-scale music festival Boston Calling. During the festival's inaugural event in May, festival organizers announced a follow-up event to occur only four months after BC's freshman edition.

Just two days before the start of the September 7-8 festival, Bhatti spoke with Cultivora about how the idea for a Boston festival was conceived, how he finds new music, and his own must-see Boston Calling artists.

How did you first get involved in the industry?
I first got involved with the industry by helping out some friends' bands in high school and college - helping them book shows, market them, load gear, do whatever was needed. I guess I called it "managing" them but I was basically trying to figure things out. Also in college I was on my programming board and got a chance to do some bigger production shows, and that really pushed me along to look at this as a career.

How was the idea for Boston Calling first conceived?
I wish I could take credit for conceiving the idea but our partners in the festival, Brian Appel and Mike Snow of Crash Line Productions really came up with the idea. They pretty much looked at Boston being such a strong music town but not having a real full-blown music festival, and looked at it as a huge void that luckily [Crash Line] has been able to fill.

Boston Calling is unique in that there are multiple smaller festivals rather than one large event. Why did you choose to structure the festival in this way? Do you think more festivals will start utilizing this method following the success of Boston Calling's first edition?
Boston is almost like two different cities, the city with college students, and the city without college students. The May festival happens when most colleges are out of session and the September edition is while school is in session, so there are definitely different crowds for both of them and the booking skews in that direction. Also, Boston Calling is much smaller than a Bonnaroo or Coachella, both in terms of capacity and number of bands, so it's much less ambitious to host two of them a year rather than just one. I think you are starting to see more and more festivals hosting multiple fests a year, Coachella does it with the same line-up, Sasquatch! is doing it with different line-ups and ACL is doing it with some of the same bands and some different bands.

Any other festivals planned for this year? What are your top picks for Boston Calling's September installment?
Nothing else confirmed for this year, but who knows what 2014 could bring!

In terms of top picks for September, it's tough - I love what I do and I get to book acts that I'm really excited about which is great, but since you're making me choose, I'd have to say up-and-comers Lucius and Flume are really exciting, Deer Tick have always been a personal favorite and capping both days with Vampire Weekend and Passion Pit is going to be pretty great.

How does booking for a one-off event differ from booking for a festival or other large scale event?
A one-off date or even booking one date on a tour at a venue is really different from booking a festival. The bands and agents are all the same, but with a festival so much more goes into how a whole day shapes up - you want enough diversity, but not too diverse that you alienate core fans, you need to get bands excited to be part of something that isn't their "regular" show in town, and you need to make sure that you are budgeting the whole way so you have enough big bands but still leave some money to round out the bill!

How do you find new music? Do agents bring artists to you, or do you scour blogs and websites for emerging acts?
It's definitely a little bit of both and a lot of everything. Agents definitely bring lots of the new artists our way but it's also on us to find the bands as they are coming up and really try and get a show with them. I'm really lucky as I think our company has the best talent buyers out there and everyone is really good at tipping everyone off on a great new band. It's not just the talent buyers either - everyone from our interns, to our bookkeeper to our security staff are always sending new music and bands around. At the end of the day, all of us are just huge music fans so finding great music is the easy part, its all the other stuff that can be tough.

How has the live industry changed since you began working in it?
For sure, I think the music industry as a whole is always changing, but more so than changing, I'd say that the live industry is evolving. The live side hasn't been rocked by the same shifts in business that the recording side has dealt with at this point. That being said, I think we're seeing changes in how people are consuming live music - it used to be you'd have to go to a venue to see a band live, bands could put out VHS tapes or DVDs of live performances but now you have it at your fingertips by pulling up live shows on YouTube or streaming a festival or show live on your computer. For now, nothing can replace the live experience. I'd love to think the excitement of walking into a venue can never be replaced, but I think it would be naive to assume that it's completely irreplaceable, so always trying to provide the best experience in a venue or festival is so important.

There are also less exciting things that have changed in the live world, like scalpers - (ahem) ticket brokers - it just seems crazy that something that used to be so hush hush and conducted around the corner outside of sold out shows has morphed into seeing scalped tickets for sale right on the primary ticket sellers website. It's such a drag when you see an unsuspecting couple walk up to our box office and their tickets don't scan in because they are fake and they look at our staff confused and say "But we bought them on StubHub," as if that was the primary place to buy tickets, and we're the ones forced to be the bad guy at the door.

How do you strike a balance between booking bands you like versus booking bands you know will sell tickets? While these aren't mutually exclusive, do you lean toward one or the other?
Well, at the end of the day if I only booked the bands I like we'd probably go out of business pretty quickly! But truthfully, I'm lucky because so much of the music I book I really do like or at least really appreciate and respect what the band is doing. The great part about the shows we present is we don't try to be everything to everyone with what we book. The mega pop-star that has their single played 500 times a day on pop radio is usually a show we aren't doing. That's no knock on that artist, and those shows make our competitors lots of money, but we like to stick to what we are excited about and what we know. Also, we book venues big and small so if there's a band we really like, hopefully there is a venue we can put them in that's an appropriate size and the ticket price is affordable enough that they can play a show for an audience and everyone can be proud and hopefully make some money.

How does the music scene in Boston differ from that in New York City or LA? It seems to me the Boston/Cambridge scene is a bit more "home-grown," a lot of folk influences. The music community there also seems to be more tightly knit than others, similar to Austin or Nashville.
I feel like most cities differ from New York and LA in so many ways, based on those both being the epicenters of the music industry. You get lots of bands in [those] cities who are moving there from other cities and towns outside of them. Because of that, a city like Boston will naturally have more home-grown bands and a strong local scene. For a number of reasons, Boston has a great wealth of bands coming up locally, whether it's bands forming at the colleges in town like Berklee, or [Boston] being a pretty progressive town, there is a great local scene of both artists and a population that comes out to shows and supports live music.

What role do you think festivals play in the industry? Why are they important to the music business as a whole?
I think they are a great way to help create a culture of going to see live music and they are a great new music discovery tool for fans. I think younger bands have an amazing opportunity to gain new fans and headliners get a chance to really cement their place in the upper echelon of bands. A decade ago everyone talked about how Europe had all these music festivals but they'd never takeoff here in the States, but as we've seen in the last 5-10 years there is a really strong festival scene developing here and it's not just festivals that are genre specific (folk, jam, etc). I think there's a number of reasons for it - one is there aren't enough headliners to fill a summer series at the amphitheaters like there used to be. I used to go to Great Woods (Editor's Note: Great Woods is now known as Comcast Center) 10+ times a summer, now I may go once or twice a year to an amphitheater. I also think we are competing with so many other entertainment options and ways for people to spend their disposable income that it's so much easier for people to take one weekend to see 30 or 40 bands than it is to go to 20 different shows over the summer.

Until Boston Calling, Boston was lacking on the festival scene, despite having a large student population. Why the delay in launching a festival?
I don't know! From our end, we've been doing concerts in Boston for a little under four years now and it's always been a goal of ours to host something similar to Boston Calling, so we've always thought it was a great idea. It certainly wasn't an easy feat for our partners to pull off when they put the concept together but they stuck with it when others may have walked away from it. Now, between things like Outside The Box and the Summer Arts Weekend here in Boston we're seeing more and more music events popping up, and I think its a great thing for the city.

Why did Bowery decide to open a Boston branch? How does having venues in both Boston and NYC improve routing opportunities?
As a company the partners never looked at it from a "We need to open in Boston" mentality, nor have any of the other cities (Portland, Philly, Atlanta) come about that way. Rather, it came from a good opportunity presenting itself, and it seemed like something we wanted to do. In terms of routing opportunities, everyone in the company stays in touch on who is touring and when and we work to make sure that we have dates available in all the cities we work in for bands. Ultimately we try to have the best venues and offer fair deals to bands and treat them right and make it so the bands want to come play our venues.

The Sinclair is Bowery's first restaurant/venue combination - how is booking for an eatery different than booking for a venue alone?
We really look at the restaurant and venue side as their own unique spaces. What's right for the venue may not be right for the restaurant and vice-versa, but they are separated by sound proof walls. You can be sitting in the restaurant having a bottle of wine with dinner and have no clue that Damian from the band Fucked Up! can be running around on the stage with no shirt on in the venue, it's pretty great! That said, we definitely have lots of fans who are coming to shows come and grab dinner in the restaurant before or after the show.

If you're heading to Boston Calling this weekend, consult our Boston Calling 2013 Festival Guide for helpful tips and recommendations on places to eat, sleep, shop, party, and explore nearby the festival site.

Follow @maressal, @boston_calling, and @boweryboston on Twitter

See Also:

A Look Ahead: September 2013
36 Hours in Boston
Three Affordable Ways to Catch A Ride to Summer Festivals