God Save The Scene: Independent booking agents are the unsung heroes of Boston music
Jason Trefts is not one of those people; he’s a part of a growing community of independent booking agents bringing DIY ethics to traditional Boston venues and club spaces.
“I’m against capitalism on a fundamental level so I even feel weird about working for a venue. I feel weird about room cost,” he says. “I feel like being an artist, especially now, it’s not about money. It’s not to me, at least. I made [booking company] Illegally Blind happen with no money. Part of it is just believing — I lost money on shows a couple of times, but it’s just believing in what you do and making it happen.”
The independently-operated Illegally Blind has become one of the most recognizable booking agencies in Boston in the year since its inception, with Trefts booking five, six, sometimes seven shows a month under the moniker at various venues around town. He’s responsible for a slew of killer shows from both local and touring bands including, among many others, this upcoming weekend’s Fuzzstival at the Middle East (a 15-band, all-day psych and noise-rock extravaganza that’s Upstairs in the day and Downstairs at night, complete with visual effects and food vendors), and recent shows like NOBUNNY, Perfect Pussy, and that insane, sold-out Mac DeMarco show this past April. His work has led to a full-time gig: booking Fenway rock club Church.
But regardless of the impressive string of accomplishments Trefts has, he’s the last person willing to boast about it — and the last person to refer to himself as a “promoter.” He prefers the idea of working behind the scenes and focusing solely on getting the good bands out there.
“I’m never gonna say, ‘Look what I’m doing!,’” he adds. “I don’t believe I’m doing much. I’m having a good time and it’s just putting some puzzles together, that’s it. I feel like anyone could do it. And I want more people to do it. I don’t want ownership over a lot of things. It’s not even about me.”
Trefts has a booking philosophy that’s informed by both his experiences as a social worker and teacher, as well as his own experience pursuing music. He stresses the importance of making sure musicians know how to advocate for themselves in a business where too many non-musicians are working, and also the importance of building a solid arts community. Trefts also celebrates the idea of booking and working within music with a DIY ethic—something apparently shared by a number of other independent bookers within Boston, most of which don’t operate within a single venue.
While in-house bookers like David Virr at T.T. The Bear’s Place in Cambridge and Ryan Agate at Allston’s O’Brien’s Pub can make up for a bad show on Friday with a strong one on Saturday, many independent promoters walk the line of “make-or-break” with each event, and paying artists from that night’s door take.
DIY powerhouse Sam Potrykus is upfront about the most challenging aspect of being an independent booker in Boston, explaining flat-out: “There is no money for the independent, unbacked promoter who is doing it for the right reasons — getting a touring band paid and uniting them with your community in a one night celebration of life and music.”
But that doesn’t stop him, or Trefts, or any other independent booker.
Potrykus got his start in basements. And the man who has done a stupid amount of good for local music, like creating and heading the entirely volunteer-run Boston Hassle and Boston Counter Cultural Compass with veteran DIY supporter Dan Shea, as well as night after night of solid shows, started young.
“I started going to underground shows in the suburbs of Massachusetts when I was 13 or so,” says Potrykus. “My incredible mom would drop me off and pick me up or eventually I’d get in the van with one of the bands. This was my first glimpse at DIY culture, booking your own shows, bringing bands from out-of-town and building a scene with rad local bands.”
Similarly, Sonam Parikh’s own first glimpse into DIY booking mirrors Potrykus’.
“It started off as booking in houses, and I prefer booking in houses,” says Parikh. “I think there are some house show ethics that I align with a lot more strongly than booking at venues and that’s why they’ll always be my first choice.”
Although she prefers houses, Parikh books her fair share of venues as the wonder woman behind Fast Apple and Mondays at Charlie’s Kitchen. Her thoughts on basement ethics are echoed by a large number of other independent bookers working within Boston, although few have become as prevalent in the DIY scene as she—someone who is known by both musicians and show-goers alike as just Sonam, who needs no last name to be recognized for what she’s done.
“The one constant in my life, and the one thing that always reminds me of who I am and who my goals are, is being at shows and booking shows,” Parikh says, which explains how she’s grown to be so recognizable around town. As of late, she’s been getting more involved with the national booking scene, but is steadfast in her alliance to Boston and the inclusion she’s found in its music scene.
“I’ve been really lucky and so many people in different scenes around America have welcomed me without question, and I’ve gotten a really cool look at all of them, but Boston has the best music scene in the whole world as far as I’m concerned,” says Parikh.
She adds: “I feel like in a lot of other places, people make music to achieve a goal like getting famous or traveling the world or going on tour with a friend’s band. The focus in Boston is on the catharsis of making music. And I think that makes it more pure here.”
Ian McGregor was immediately taken by the same scene upon moving to town six years ago. Eye Design, a Boston-based booking company, arts supporter, and event promoter, began as a hobby for McGregor, who was new to the city and intrigued by the thriving independent arts and music scene throughout the neighborhoods. What started with an inkling of an idea and media shot at local shows under the name Eye Design grew into a partnership with McGregor’s coworker Eric Donoghue and eventually Great Scott’s monthly art and music event, Treat Yo’ Self! From there, Eye Design has expanded to host events at multiple rooms around Boston and Cambridge, including O’Brien’s and Cambridge’s Middlesex Lounge.
“There is a freedom that comes with a DIY approach to booking that I don’t feel like exists with some of the bigger companies,” says McGregor. “We operate on a first-name basis, and try our best to form relationships with the bands that we choose to work with. We operate the old school way of a hand shake agreement versus long drawn out contracts. We also like to be creative with our events, introducing different elements such as, art, comedy, food, and games.”
McGregor cites one of their Treat Yo’ Self!s as a stand-out memory, remembering the Halloween Trick or Treat Yo’ Self which involved turning Great Scott into a haunted house with bands in costumes, live illustrations, custom horror/zombie jewelry and art, and comic artists. That kind of creativity and willingness to create a space for local artists shows the impact booking a venue can have on getting names out there.
Like Eye Design, the partnership behind pRIMORDIAL sOUNDS didn’t set out with goal of becoming an independent booker in mind, although they’re also one of the most recognizable names in Eastern Massachusetts; “pRIMORDIaL sOUNDS Presents” appearing on a flyer guarantees a solid bill. The booker and small record label instead started as a “product of boredom” for Noah Bond: a blog revolving around his favorite bands that he updated at random. Once he and collaborator Spenser Gralla began booking a monthly night at Middlesex Lounge, Gralla suggested tying the blog with the event.
“We were just inspired by folks like Dan Shea, Sam Potrykus, and John Allen; friends of ours that we considered to be putting on the best shows in the city, and we thought that we had an opportunity to contribute to a growing scene,” says Bond. “Everything we’ve done has essentially been to help our friends and favorite groups and hopefully give Boston’s underground scene a more national identity.”
Bond and Gralla have both been in Boston since 2008 and in that time have seen their favorite bands achieve national and international successes, the flourishing of the local scene, and the boom and bust of house shows, all of which influence their bookings.
“We’re essentially trying to take the positivity and energy of a basement show, that feeling that you’re participating in something special, and bring it somewhere that’s much less likely to get shut down by the cops,” Bond says. “We try to create a unique environment for our shows, but what has ultimately made our shows successful has little to do with us and more to do with the bands and the excellent scene we have that supports them.”
Parikh has also found that support within the Boston scene, and hopes to put forth that support for others—whether it be musicians or local artists in general.
“All I want is for everybody to have a place to say something,” says Parikh on her booking philosophy and her desire to create safe spaces with her shows and events. “I try to make shows inclusive. I think it’s important to consider people from different cultural backgrounds, sexual backgrounds, everything. I try to get as many people of color and people who identify as female up to go to shows and to play them because we are underrepresented and that’s important.”
Like Trefts, Parikh, Gralla, and Bond, Potrykus also places a huge emphasis on the aspect of community building that goes into booking a show. Potrykus has been familiarizing himself with the local scene within the city and New England in general, and while he takes into consideration cohesion, touring bands, and other aspects while booking a show, the community is what’s most important.
“I think of myself as part of this living, breathing ecosystem of artists in New England,” Potrykus says. “I’m always thinking about it and having new ideas on how we can grow and create a more sustainable culture here, so I feel a certain responsibility to my community to carry out those ideas the best I can.”
“Whether it’s uniting artists, distributing a newspaper, starting a non-profit or just throwing cool shows on a regular basis, everyone can contribute to and benefit from this radiant culture of ours,” he adds, echoing Trefts’ earlier openness to more people being involved.
Trefts credits the bands he works with for any success his shows have.
“I’m really lucky that bands wanna play the shows I put together,” says Trefts, still refusing to take any credit for all the good he’s done in Boston. The second installment of Fuzzstival is a stellar example of what Trefts is doing for the city.
“With something like Fuzzstival, it’s exciting to me that people rally behind it and want to be a part of it. Because that’s what I want to create. I mean, it’s all about the community,” Trefts says. “The scene is doing all of this stuff. I’m just — I don’t know what to call it.”
We’ll call it doing a pretty damn good job.