Bringing the Festival Experience to Venues in Dallas
By Charles Scott
Originally Published: 3.13.2013 SMU Daily Campus
Republished: 4.2.2013 Pegasus News
It was 2002 and Texas native Josh Smith had just graduated from Flower Mound High School. He’d heard about this thing called Bonnaroo, some new festival that was making a huge buzz. So that summer, he and some pals made the long drive to Manchester, Tennessee. It was the festival’s inaugural year and Smith wanted to figure out what all the hype was about—a dose of something new, perhaps. He was one of more then 70,000 people who purchased tickets to the sold-out event.
Over a decade later Bonnaroo is still in full swing. Since 2002 upwards of 90,000 people attend the annual event, which is held in a remote fielded area off the highway. Bonnaroo isn’t alone; behemoths like Coachella and Burning Man, along with a number of others, have a similar draw.
“There is an obvious interest and there was an obvious interest,” Smith said of the evolution of festival culture one recent afternoon as the smoke-like vapor from his electronic cigarette escaped his mouth. “You don’t get 80,000 people to these remote locations without a general interest.”
While in college at the University of North Texas, Smith would go on to attend the second Bonnaroo in 2003. He sensed the festival scene was gaining momentum, which sparked his profound interest in music festival culture.
For millions of music fans across the country, summer marks the start of festival season. Tens of thousands flock to remote locations to attend days-long festivals where they get to experience dozens of concerts. To a majority, this is their pilgrimage. Acts range from the well known to the unknown and everything in between. The people come for the music, yes, but also for what goes along with what has become the new age of hippy culture: There’s the camping, camaraderie, stupidity, nonsense, laughter, mystery, love and a whole slew of other things that separates the music festival experience from what you’d get on an average night at your local concert venue.
As is typical in the lives of many college students, Smith was also working in the service industry at the time, where he bussed tables and tended bars. There was a girl named Amanda from China Spring, Texas who was on staff with Smith. Over time, the two discovered they shared an interest in the emerging festival scene. Smith began working locally on some low-level street-team promotion by doing things like handing out fliers in exchange for free tickets to shows.
In 2008 the couple married and by early 2009 Josh had gotten to a point where he wanted to turn his passion for festival culture into a career. He started by booking and promoting a number of shows, a far cry from his formal training in commercial real estate while at North Texas. He quickly noted a gap: Many good acts he saw on the road weren’t well known in Dallas. “You’d go to these festivals and come home and there wasn’t any of that going on,” he says. “And if you think of that in the grand scheme of Dallas Fort Worth, you’ve got to think there were more than just us that were craving that.”
That discrepancy is what led Josh to launch the Dallas-based company Banjos.to.Beats in 2009. Since 2011 it has been his full-time job. The company is now the driving force that brings acts widely known in the festival scene to the local venues of Texas.
The 28-year-old exhales another drag from his e-cig, a gust of air sucking the vapor away. Josh isn’t in the business of promoting a specific genre of music, a point he is adamant about. “Our thing has always been, as had been the case with most of these festivals, to stay diverse and adaptable and never have anyone be able to say ‘Hey, that guy’s a hip hop promoter,’ or, ‘Hey! He’s a jam band promoter.’” Instead, Josh is a promoter “of the festival culture.”
Diversity. Adaptability. These are some of the crucial elements needed to make music festivals successful. They’re also traits you see in Josh. In addition to the marketing and production aspects of Banjos.to.Beats, the company also has an artist agency. Josh is responsible for booking, promoting and routing tours for an eight-act roster, which includesGovinda, Ishi, Ugly Lion, Psymbionic and D.V.S*. It can be difficult. “I’m dealing with super dynamic personalities on a day to day basis who are always looking to [me] for answers and for leadership,” he says.
Nathan Lovelace helps handle marketing for the Banjos.to.Beats team. This is his nineteenth year working in the business and his second year working with Josh. No matter the challenge, Lovelace knows Josh will take it head-on and get things right. “I’ve never worked with anybody that is on top of his game like this guy is,” Lovelace said of his boss outside the House of Blues on a recent Saturday evening minutes before Big Gigantic took the stage. Banjos.to.Beats intern Madeleine Kalb, an SMU student, nods in agreement. Lovelace pipes back in, smoke emanating from his lips: “[Josh is] a really smart cat, that’s the only reason I work with him.”
Like a doctor in an emergency room, Josh is on call around the clock. There isn’t a normal day at the Smith’s home, which is Banjos.to.Beats headquarters. Some days he’d spending hours upon hours on the phone, scouring through email and making sense of spreadsheets. Other times he’s out in the trenches dropping off fliers and producing shows. There’s a good deal of sweat equity. Many times his alarm will be set for 1:30 a.m. so he can get up and drive down to the concert venues right as the shows are getting out around 2:00 a.m. Why? Because there’s no better time to promote the next big gig.
To many outsiders, the state of Texas carries a notoriously conservative air. Amanda thinks that reputation is what kept many festival going acts away from the Lone Star State.
Josh takes one last drag from his electronic cigarette and, gazing through his Ray Ban sunglasses, as if reflecting, stares up at the cloudless blue sky. One thing is certain: The efforts of this man are beginning to reshape the landscape of Dallas’ live music community.