Getting Your Favorite Band to Your Town: A Conversation with Justin Bridgewater
Artists have been playing concerts for hundreds of years, but how have things changed recently? I spoke with concert promoter Justin Bridgewater to find out.
A few weeks ago, my friend Seamus invited me to see the Death Cab for Cutie/Postal Service reunion show at Madison Square Garden. Before the show, we met up with some other people at a bar near the venue. One of those people was Justin Bridgewater. After hearing him talk for 10 seconds, it became clear that his knowledge of live music was much deeper than anyone I had ever met.
Bridgewater has been an agent and concert promoter for the last 20 years. He’s booked shows for everyone from Sufjan Stevens to Dashboard Confessional to Juice WRLD to Old Dominion. Rather than chew his ear off at a bar before a concert, we decided to connect a few weeks later. We spoke for an hour about how live music has changed in the last decade, controversies in the ticketing and live event spaces, how he chooses what bands to book, and what it’s like running a venue in Cleveland when he lives on New York.
A Conversation with Justin Bridgewater
You can study music in college, but most people that I know in the music industry learned their jobs on the fly as they were doing them. How did you get into the live event space?
In high school, I worked at a record store that's based outside of Boston called Newbury Comics. When I got to college, I looked for things to do related to music because music wasn’t my major. I saw there was a student run radio station, WXJM, and decided I wanted to get involved with that. The way a DJ chose their time slot was based on a points system from the previous semester. You had to work live shows, review CDs, and do other things to earn points. However, I was fortunate enough to land a slot my first semester because they needed someone to fill it. That ended up being Mondays from 6AM to 8AM. I continued to DJ through all four years at WXJM and also held the positions of Assistant Program Director as a sophomore and was the station’s Business Manager my junior year.
In addition to DJing, I immediately got involved with MACRoCk, or the Mid-Atlantic College Radio Conference as the Label Expo Coordinator. My job was to get zines, distributors, independent record companies, and others all together for this big expo. So, I was cold calling and emailing companies to get them to this conference. I joined the volunteer committee who oversaw MACRoCk my sophomore year and was a Talent Buyer for the conference for the next two years. Then my senior year I oversaw the entire conference as the Festival Director.
By the end of college, I had been involved with booking tons of acts, some of which became famous, like Sufjan Stevens, Dashboard Confessional, Of Montreal, The Dillinger Escape Plan, Fugzai, and a bunch more. We had 4,000 people coming to this conference in this little town in Virginia. I used the connections that I made during those conferences to get my first jobs.
It seems like you were baptized in fire, learned on the fly, and then slowly built that into a career where you eventually worked for some of the biggest booking agencies in the world.
Live music is a relationship business. It's one of those businesses where if you crossed somebody the wrong way, you could get blacklisted for a long time. You don't want to make enemies even if someone is difficult to work with.
So, that was a little over 20 years ago. Over the last two decades, what have been the biggest changes in the live event space? What things are still sort of the same?
I think the big difference is accessibility. Back then you’d have record labels find artists, sign them, pay them an advance, set them up with producers, book them a studio, and then promote their record. The gateway into the industry was smaller and more protected. Once people could download ProTools and record a song in their living room, things changed. First, there was so much more music. Second, you could have a song blow up without a label and never have even played a live show.
So, when you’re booking bands now, you have to understand if a popular song will actually result in people coming to shows. You can have a fan base that isn’t a concert going fanbase. Like I said, there’s also so much more music, it becomes hard to choose which concerts to go to.
Plus, the live event space seems to have gotten more expensive.
Exactly. If you want to see four shows at smaller venues, you need to get tickets, dinner, parking, and maybe a babysitter. That could run you hundreds, maybe even thousands of dollars of month. People have to pick and choose what they want to see because there's so much stuff out there.
I should mention that the role of legacy media, like radio, has changed too. It’s not as prevalent for promoting shows in large cities, like L.A. or New York, but it’s still important in getting the word out in smaller markets. It also remains important for certain genres, like hard rock, classic rock, and country. People who live in smaller markets might not be finding out about concerts on Instagram, TikTok, or Facebook.
You’re touching on a few topics that I’d like to explore more. First, as you noted, it’s much cheaper and easier to record a song than ever before. Do you also think it’s easier for an independent artist to book a tour now than it was 20 years ago?
I would say from the artist perspective it's probably easier right because you're not relying on your song going to radio to be heard. Things can just go viral. This wasn’t a new act, but we saw that a few years ago with music from the TV show Stranger Things, That exposed 1980s music to whole new generation of people. It led to Kate Bush having a huge hit decades after it came out.
How can you tell if someone that is going viral will actually get people out to a show?
It's a little bit of a gut feeling. Beyond the numbers, I look at if the artist has toured. Is there a real team behind them? Do they have a manager? Do they have an agent? How is their engagement on their social media? Do they have more than one song?
Beyond sweeping changes over the last few decades, the COVID-19 pandemic shook up the live event space overnight just a few years ago. Since live music has returned, have you noticed any sweeping changes?
There are definitely fewer meet-and-greets with artists. More artists are doing VIP programs, which usually include stuff like exclusive merchandise or an acoustic performance. Basically, artists are upselling the live experience for their fans without having to do full meet-and-greets. For a while, there was a lot more investment in masks and PPE, but that’s sort of ended since the federal government declared an end to the pandemic.
During COVID, many artists live streamed events, so fans could watch from home. I feel like people kept saying that was the future of live music. A few years later, that doesn’t seem to be the case. It seems like most artists prefer to be on the road. Does that align with what you’ve seen?
I worked in that space at that time and was a believer that it was the future. But the issue was that it was really expensive, especially if an artist wanted to do something cool. Plus, it often doesn’t make sense from a revenue perspective. You might pay $75 or $100 for a concert, but you aren’t going to pay that much for a live stream.
There were some really great ones that happened. Adele did one on CBS that had a multimillion-dollar budget. But specials like that have existed forever. HBO has been doing stuff with live concerts for decades. So, it can work for a superstar, but it is just too time consuming and costly for developing artists now that live touring is back.
Right up until COVID, you were working at AEG Presents, the second largest promoter of live music and entertainment events behind Live Nation. In the last year, Live Nation and Ticketmaster have come under a ton of criticism from all sides. Fans say ticket prices are too high because there is no competition. Artists say that you can’t negotiate with these companies because they own every venue. Do you think much of that criticism has been fair? Or is it overblown?
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