Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Orange County Event Architects: A Q&A with Ashley Eckenweiler and Luke Allen of OC Music Awards

How did you end up in Orange County?  How did you two end up meeting and starting your work together?

Luke Allen: I moved here from Vermont, 8 years old, to Oceanside, then to Orange County at the age of 10.  Just played in local bands, went to Woodbridge High School, and lived in Irvine.  Then I started a music rehearsal studio, Gemini Studios, right out of high school.  I’ve been doing that since July of 2001.  That’s kind of how I got involved in music, and eventually the OC Music Awards.  Gemini Studios was a sponsor in 2008, and the Producer at the time was taking off and moving to Spain. He asked if I wanted to do this awards show that we have, and I told him, ‘You know what, I think I do,’ just because of years of meeting bands and helping them with rehearsal space.  The eternal question of the bands was always, ‘What do we do next with our music careers in Orange County?’  I didn’t have any answers other than just play shows.

A lot of the time, the answer seems to be, go to Los Angeles.

Allen: I would certainly say the same thing as everyone else, you know, go play LA.  Silverlake or Sunset, it’s part of the way of getting more exposure.

So when and how did you and Ashley get connected?  When did you decide that you wanted to work together?

Allen: Ashley has an extensive music career in Orange County that goes back a long ways.

Ashley Eckenweiler: I was working in LA, I had my own business up there for four years for PR, mostly for art institutions and galleries.  I got hired as the Director of Special Events at Orange County Museum of Art in 2005.  I started a music series called Orange Crush.  It was the first cultural institution to bring Indie 103.1 down as a radio partner.  So we did a monthly concert series.  We had Silversun Pickups, Matt Costa, The 88, Ozma, Sonic Youth—we had a really great lineup for about two years and they were all free shows.  Then I left the museum and started my own business in 2008.  I met Luke that year at OC Metro’s 40 Under 40, which he and I were both a part of.

Are you from Orange County originally?  Did you grow up going to shows in the area?

Eckenweiler: I grew up here until I was 16, then moved to New York.  I was a dancer with New York City Ballet.  So I joined the company really young, and I finished high school in New York.  I stayed there until I was 20, decided I wanted to do other things, tried to stay, was broke, and left.  So I went home and then moved to LA about a month later.  I can honestly say that I never went to a show in Orange County growing up.  The Orange County Performing Arts Center was one of the first stages I danced on professionally when I was eight years old, and now they are a client, so it comes full circle.  And then Luke and I met, and he asked me to lunch.  At that time he had the Awards, and for the first year he produced, and I came on as mostly PR and Talent.

Allen: I just had experience in the rehearsal space. I hadn’t booked shows—just played in shows in a pop-punk band back in the day.  I had had some experience with bigger bands that we were friends with that practiced at my studio, and ones I was a fan of.  I wanted to be able to help with the platform that could actually advance bands that are looking for more, and are actually motivated to do it themselves—what can I do next, what’s the next step, and how can I do it here?  I wanted to help fill an answer for that question.  I thought the Awards could do that, and when I took it over, I knew that I needed help.  Ashley was the best person, probably in all of Southern California, and I just happened to luck out and meet her.

Eckenweiler: Well and he was very special too.  I mean, a typical county awards show model isn’t necessary successful and doesn’t activate the community or give something back to the artist.  He had the right mission and vision and direction for the event.

Everywhere I go, people have this inclination to tear Orange County down when it comes to the music scene.  But it’s all about the way that we treat it.  If it’s going to be negative, of course it will be viewed negatively.  But once you start supporting, all of a sudden, everything changes.

Allen:  Yes, it is manifest destiny against the headwind of preconceived notions about all of Orange County; not just in music and art, but everything.  The county usually gets the ‘ridiculous’ wrap, not to be taken seriously.  And sure, maybe there is an aspect of it that isn’t as deep as other cultural epicenters of the world, but, you can find whatever you’re looking for in Orange County--talented artists, painters, musicians, and writers can be found everywhere you look.  There is the perception to overcome, but you could also not really worry about it and just do what you think makes sense, and try to help the people who are excited and want to do it themselves.
Ashley, you have now officially bought the OC Music Awards.  What made you and Luke want to take it on in the first place?

Eckenweiler:  Well, Luke purchased it from Martin Brown while Gemini Studios was a sponsor.  I think Martin was looking to sell it, and Luke saw the potential.  I’d never been, so I didn’t even know what it was.  Luke decided to buy it from Martin before I even knew him, so that was his decision.  Then we met, I think it was pretty shortly after he bought it and he was looking to kind of refresh the format of the event, so that’s why I got involved.  He was really passionate about giving musicians opportunities in their own town—so expanding what’s going on in Orange County, and kind of highlighting the local talent.

How would you say the Awards have progressed since 2008?

Eckenweiler:  I had been working in local music for a long time, and I remember a lot of the bands had never heard of it, or they had mixed reviews about it because there were some pay-to-play options—like pay to submit and be a part of, and pay to attend.  There were more barriers of entry basically, so I think the reputation of the event has definitely developed to become known as an event that is looking out for the best interest of local bands, and really looking to help them grow and succeed in their hometown and beyond.  As far as from a branding perspective, we’ve reached a much larger audience than it used to.

Just within the Best Live Band and Best Acoustic events, the audience has grown considerably.  Which of the bands are you most excited about right now?

Allen: Young the Giant.  So proud of those guys.  I saw them perform at the Irvine Heritage Cultural Center in their teens as The Jakes.  They were practicing at the studio, and now they have done a worldwide tour, opening up Weenie Roast, having a great time in life, as far as I know.  So it’s really cool to see that.  Obviously, our OC Music Awards artists have gone through the showcase series, been nominated, participated in many ways.  I think that’s a really wonderful thing to see them excited about that.  Hopefully it’s giving them a chance to network with other bands, create shows, and feel some sort of energy and community through that.  It’s great.

Eckenweiler: It’s tough to say.  I look at local music as kinda having an umbrella, so that certain favoritisms don’t develop, but I was really excited to see a lot of new names in our showcase series this year.  A lot of those bands that are just starting I’m excited to see what they do next.  I’m obviously really proud of the bands that have made the jump this year—Young the Giant, Kiev getting a Rolling Stone interview—there’s a lot of progression that has happened for a few of the artists that have been involved, so that’s really fun.  One of my OC Music Awards interns was asked in an interview, ‘What’s your favorite local band?’  She said, ‘The Jakes! I mean, Young the Giant!’  It was so cute.

That shows how far back she has been listening to Young the Giant.

Eckenweiler: I know, dedication!  I think it’s great to see that progression.

Ashley I want to ask you more about—I’d call it your side project, but it’s more your main job—the ACE Agency?

Eckeweiler: ACE is not a side-project, it’s what we do everyday, and it’s what allowed us to take over OC Music Awards.  I started ACE in 2007, but I started my own business 10 years ago in PR in LA and it was mostly for art and live music.  I represented a few galleries and worked in different live music spaces like—back then—Cinespace and Vanguard, Beauty Bar and Star Shoes, which doesn’t exist anymore.  I did a lot of PR and live music/art events.  This was back in about 2001 or 2002.  That led me to taking a position at the Orange County Museum of Art in 2004, and I was their Director of Special Events.  That was my first Orange County job, if you will.  We implemented live music programs, which were very successful and kind of paved the way for that time when museums started really looking at music as a way to bring in new audiences.  We were the first to partner with Indie 103.1 and bring the station down to Orange County.  That was the time on the radio when they were calling out that they were from LA and Newport Beach.  It made no sense because they never came down to Orange County, why would they call out Newport Beach?  But we were in Newport Beach, so I saw the tie there, so we brought the station down to do shows with Silversun Pickups, Sonic Youth, Pavement, Matt Costa—we had great, amazing bands.
This was all at the Orange County Museum of Art?

Eckenweiler: Yeah, and they were all free, so it was a really exciting time.  Those programs were around 2006, so I was at the museum for two years, and then I decided to go back on my own, and I continued to work with the museum as a partner for a while and did some more music.  Then Segerstrom Center for the Arts became my second client, and that’s when we started what we called the Off Center Festival.  It was the first time that the center was welcoming in alternative music.  We had Peter, Bjorn, & John, The Walkmen, Coldwar Kids, Jose¢ Gonzales, Rogue Wave, and Camp Friday.  So that kind of paved the way for ACE.  Our initial mission was to implement PR and Marketing through alternative event environments, and experiential marketing—how to find your new audience, and how to create an experience that will cultivate them and bring them to you—that’s kind of our philosophy. That was in 2007-2008.  We’ve continued to do that, but our business plan has really expanded, so we handle PR, social marketing, media, special events, and brand partnership.  We have about 12 permanent clients right now, and then others come to us for one-time services and one-off support.  It’s not just music and art focused, because PR is PR, and once you understand one avenue, you can figure out another.

So I would say OC Music Awards is more of your side-project.

Eckenweiler: We look at it as a client.  We treat OC Music Awards just as we would treat Segerstrom or Burke Williams, or anyone that we’re working with.  We have to manage it day-to-day and treat it like a business, otherwise, they’re going to fire us.

Fire yourself?  I’d say you’re doing a great job and won’t need to worry about that.  Tell me more about the prizes that are being offered this year, not to just bands, but to the fans as well?

Eckenweiler: We haven’t announced what the showcase series prize-packs are going to be yet.  The first year in 2008, we didn’t offer any prize—it was just the title and the opportunity to perform at The Grove of Anaheim.  We wanted to make the participation more about the notoriety—just being involved in the experience, and let the prizes be announced later.  So we haven’t announced those yet, but we will at the beginning of February.  We have more partnerships this year than ever before.  Farmer John is a very exciting addition to the event, and a presenting-partnership is a big deal to the Awards, and it’s very helpful to keep the event going.  We’re looking for ways to activate our partners onsite, and help to connect with the audience and the musicians.  That’s where the guitar giveaway came from.  Farmer John, KROQ, and Ernie Ball wanted something that the fans could take home that would remind them of OC Music Awards and their involvement, so Ernie Ball and Sterling by Music Man are donating one guitar per showcase series, and KROQ designed a custom pick-guard.  We’ve also got the Farmer John Fan Vote, so fans log on to vote for their favorite showcase series artist, which moves one artist on to the finals, and by voting, you’re entered to win a guitar per showcase.

Someone will win that guitar at each individual showcase then?

Eckenweiler: Yeah, and we announce the winner on Facebook the next day.

What details do you have about the participating venues?

Eckenweiler: It has become traditional to kick-off the Best Live Band Showcase at Detroit Bar.  I don’t know if we’ll ever change that as the kick-off to the event.  The District is also a partner, so we always kick-off the Acoustic Showcase there, so again, those are our two, kind of, reoccurring, consistent spots.  Malone’s—we always like to add somewhere new, maybe a venue that you don’t frequent or think about necessarily.  We kind of did that with Tiki Bar last year.  We hadn’t been there before.  At Malone’s, Mike Concepcion (of Gypsy Lounge) is doing the sound there.  We wanted to keep our Gypsy Lounge tribute, and work with Mike again, so that’s why we’re going to Malone’s.  Slidebar has become a great venue partner, so there was no question about going back there again.  Continental Room—we didn’t go last year, but the year before, so we thought we’d revisit.  To make it different, we’re doing an Acoustic Showcase there ‘cause we thought it might be fitting for the stage size.  And then Constellation Room is one of our newest venues, so I’m excited to go there for the last showcase.  And then the Finals—we’re going to Coach House on Wednesday 22nd (February) for the Acoustic Finals, and then Friday 24th will be at Segerstrom for the Best Live Band.  We’re going back to the Samueli Theater, so that will be fun.

It was amazing watching Kiev’s 3D show that you put on at the Samueli Theater, plus you already have a great relationship with the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, and that theater is huge…

Eckenweiler: Yeah, we’re excited about that, and we’ve never been to Coach House and that’s a staple venue in Orange County.

That should help get South Orange County involved a little more.

Eckenweiler: Yeah, we went to OC Tavern one year and that’s a far South as we had been.  I was in traffic thinking, ‘Where are we going?’ I forget how big Orange County is.

Past San Juan Capistrano, it seems like a different county almost.  How do you feel about the bands that have expanded out of Orange County?

Eckenweiler: I think it’s great.  A lot of people don’t want bands to leave, but I don’t really have an opinion on that.  I think that everyone should be proud of where they came from and call out Orange County if they’re from here.  If they need to move or they want to move, that’s fine.  I think OC Music Awards definitely helps bands reach new audiences and hopefully connects them with some industry professionals that will help their careers.  Some may still need to move.  I think it’s pretty typical for people to want to move from where they came from—whether it’s that they came from LA, and they want to move out of LA, or if they came from Orange County, they might want to move out of Orange County.  Obviously LA is a bigger place, and there’s more going on, but there’s enough down here to keep things going.  You see that with some of the larger bands that still have homes here, still work here, still record here.  All the things that you can do here, they do, so it’s totally possible.

Allen: The cool thing about a place like Detroit Bar in a place like Orange County is that, you can play LA and be a small fish in a huge pond where you could swim forever to get bigger.  But, you come down and play a venue like Detroit, and you have an instant new audience immediately.  You’re playing a concentrated area in a geographically huge county.  If you do a residency at Detroit Bar, you just got Orange County.  And it can take you years to get LA, if you’re good and you promote correctly. 

There’s more to be proud about these days in Orange County.

Eckenweiler: There is.  I don’t think Young the Giant will ever cover up where they’re from, so that’s good.  And look how successful they became, I mean, how great is that?

It shows every other band that it’s possible, as long as you’re going for it and stick to the plan, keep making contacts, and work hard.

Eckenweiler: That’s really important, it was nice to see that happen for two different Southern California bands this year, Foster the People and Young the Giant, and almost Grouplove—they’re right there.  From all the music all over the world, that happens to these two Southern California bands—it’s cool.

What do you see in the future for the OC Music Awards?  Are you always thinking of adjustments and new additions?

Eckenweiler: Yeah, we definitely see room for expansion and improvement.  We continuously look to involve more of the local community, whether it’s through artists, or partnerships, or businesses—we’re constantly working to expand those relationships and continue to give more opportunities and connections to the artists.  We’re looking at how to expand the Awards, whether it’s through venues, or more dates, or being able to involve more people in some of the shows is a key goal for the future.  We kinda kept the categories the same as last year, but we’ll always look at how those reflect on the music that’s being developed, and you know if we need to add more genre categories…

Maybe Production categories?

Eckenweiler: Yeah, that’s been a big one that keeps coming in through our radar.  This year we were really about growing our partnerships, and continuing to make sure that the Awards are a stable and respected platform, and continue to provide things for musicians.  We didn’t want to expand too much, ‘cause we had a lot going on with the transfer.

I can’t imagine sitting down to organize every last detail.  There’s so much that goes into creating one event, let alone 10 events.

Eckenweiler: Yeah, there’s a lot of moving parts, and it’s important to us that we keep all of our partners happy, all the bands happy, all the venues—there’s a lot of people involved, so this year is really about sustainability and making sure that this is a viable event that continues to provide opportunities to the community, and then we’ll look at how to expand it next year.  There are tons of possibilities.  We’ve brainstormed about licensing opportunities, or how we can sustain the brand, the presence that it has throughout the year.  We have the season and we need to focus on that, but how do we get the name out, who do we partner with in the Summer and the Fall.  Potentially SXSW presence in 2013, I could go on and on and on.  Every year we hope to add to it and build it, and I think the presenting-partnership with Farmer John is our biggest add-on this year.  Our partners help sustain the event and make sure that it actually happens, so without them we couldn’t do it.

I’m sure the artists appreciate all that hard work.

Eckenweiler: It’s great to see them come back.  It’s so interesting to see who comes to each show, and the familiar faces throughout, who kinda has gotten busy, and those who wish us their best via email (laughs).

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