Concert promoter Todd Patrick (better known as Todd P) has come full circle since he arrived in New York in 2001. Long known for booking acts that eschew mainstream tastes in venues far removed from Manhattan's sterile clubs (and their laws), Patrick is now juggling the 100%-up-to-code reopening of the infamous Market Hotel, planning the SXSW-slaying Festival Nrmal in Monterrey, Mexico, and continuing to influence the independent music scene in Brooklyn.
We spoke with Patrick about why Mexico needs a popular, affordable, culturally significant music festival, his involvement with 285 Kent, and what it means to run a DIY venue in 2013.
Festival Nrmal is this weekend. At the moment, flights are under $400 and the tickets are only $25.
How long have you been doing these festivals in Mexico? This is actually my third year. I started a festival in 2010 that was separate from Festival Nrmal, and 2010 was a very difficult year for Mexico, especially the idea of getting people to go to Mexico, and we struggled hard because the drug cartel war situation really hit its peak back then. I didn't go back in 2011, I didn't do a festival but Nrmal did and they had been our competition the previous year when we did a festival called MtyMx.
I was really impressed by Festival Nrmal because nobody was doing anything in Monterrey in 2011. The realities were dark and the coverage in the media was even more dark. It just seemed like impossible to convince anybody—fan or band or anything—to do something in that town in that year but they did and they actually grew. And it ended up being kind of an inspirational—I hate to use that word—kind of thing because they were really bringing entertainment into their town right when their town was totally starved of it.
Right after that festival, the main guy behind Nrmal, Pablo Martinez, came to New York City and visited and came to some shows at 285 Kent and we got to talking. We had been somewhat unfriendly competitors before that. I was just really impressed with the fact that he kept it going even despite the uphill battle but he did it anyways. And he said "Hey, do you want to try and work on the next year's festival, together?" And I accepted his offer and we went from there.
Todd in 2007
There's alot of things that all I think are injustices both little and big that are propagated against the people of Mexico, or of what life is really like down there. That's in addition to the more direct injustices of the way we operate our border, you know? It's not easy to come to this country legally if you are from Latin America. And yet the people who are trying to come legally are exactly the people that the border is not supposed to be stopping.
That ends up having a cumulative effect that goes beyond just being a drag. It actually effects the economy—more importantly it effects the cultural exchange. And it serves to kind of perpetuate a lot of really ugly stereotypes people have about Mexico which causes them to just write it off as if there's nothing important going on there.
Monterrey is a very modern city, one of the wealthiest cities in Latin America. Even in its doldrums of this drug cartel situation, it's still a bustling, modern metropolis with buildings going up all the time. The architecture looks like something out of Dubai. It doesn't look like North America, it looks like another world. It's a very modern place. And I meet these people there who are more educated than me and are more aware of what's going on in music and throughout the states and Europe than anybody I know in the States or Europe. And I ask them, "So, are you going to go up the road to see South by Southwest?" which is only five hours away.
And some of them, yeah, cause they're wealthy enough that they can get visas and have attorneys and whatnot. But the majority of them, especially the ones who are middle class kids, they can't.
The requirements for getting a visa are pretty strict. You have to show a very responsible sort of lifestyle. You have to show that you have about ten grand in the bank. You have to show that you've lived in the same place, I wanna say, for six months. You have to show you've held the same job for about two years. These aren't absolute numbers but this is kind of the average that they ask for. And these may not seem like terribly burdensome hurdles to pass but what if you're 20? What if you're 25 and an artist or some kind of creative person living a creative lifestyle? How many people in Bushwick that you know pass that kind of criteria? And this is a real thing, it's an absurdity.
The kids down there have been building their own scene and the Latin American community has it's own version of the indie—I hate that word—but indie community. And it's got its own homegrown talent but its also has the same conversation going on among the acts and bands that trend and happen here.
Could you talk about the scene in Monterrey specifically? I feel like there is a perception that you are sort of taking Bushwick or Williamsburg and plopping it down in Monterrey. 100% not true. I mean, this festival is more than half Latin bands. Nobody ever does that, even in Mexico. And it's not divided from one English-speaking stage to one Spanish-speaking stage, everything's mixed up. If you want to watch music from one place you have to watch music from the other place, which is important to me.
So when you read an article about what's happening at this festival it's almost always the indie rock names from the U.S. You know we've got Ariel Pink, DIIV, Twin Shadow, Sky Ferreira—those are all amazing acts but there's a whole other line of folks on this bill that are from Argentina, from Chile, from Spain, many people from Mexico, a lot of people from Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
It's not just the fact that its a smorgasbord of cultures happening there also, it's a lot of different kinds of music, a lot of variety. Some are making music that has elements of what you think of is Latin music. And a lot of them adding a sort of deconstructive kind of punk element to what they are doing. It's a really dynamic community of people doing music. Some of it is very influenced by what happens here—you know, they got shoegaze just as well as we have it here, and they have garage rock just like we have garage rock here. But there's also people doing things where they take noise and they mix it with Cumbia.
I got to put together a bill of English acts that has some heavy-hitter folks that I like, and that come from what you might call the "buzz cycle." But you dig a little deeper it's a huge amount of variety. It's a lot of people that are definitely edgy, or on the edge, and haven't broken yet. Some of them have really taken off since we've booked them—Parquet Courts, MYKKI Blanco—who are really happening now but when we booked them a few months ago they may have seemed like obscure names.
You go a little deeper we've got people like Pete Swanson, Laurel Halo, P.C. Worship, The Dreebs—these are not exactly your average, indie rock, college rock, "buzz cycle" bands. I'm trying to make a statement about the booking here. And I'm pretty tired of indie rock and I'm pretty embarrassed of the cycle—the one hit wonder thing—that seems to be insisting that all the bands be nascent teenagers, that it's more important what they look like on the video than what their music sounds like.
I don't know, I came into this with the idea that independent music was about challenging music and about music for adults. As much as I believe in the idea of all ages, I'm not trying to cater to teens. I could give a damn what teens like. What I've always thought of was let's present good music and not exclude the teens who like it but I'm not gonna cater to what anybody with bad taste enjoys. And this festival is about that in a lot of ways. There's a lot of harder bands on this bill. There's a lot of noise bands on this bill. There's a lot of rock bands that are doing something just a little skewed.
I'm much more interested in where music is going than what's popular right now. In a lot of ways, what's popular right now is kind of a little more embarrassing than I remember it being a few years ago, and I don't think that's just because I'm old.
Tickets cost $25. How were you able to make them so cheap? I think it wasn't that long ago that all festivals were in the same price range as ours and it wasn't that long ago that sponsorship was more of the exception than the norm. And why did that change? No real reason, people just started to believe that that was the way it had to be. Do the numbers. It's not that hard to imagine this festival getting five, six, seven thousand people. We got between four and a half and six thousand last year. 6,000 people at $30 a head? That's $180,000—why shouldn't we be able to do it for that amount of money?
We're also selling them drinks. The simple economics are not the way that the festival industry, and the music industry presents things. Sorry, it's just the truth. They're ripping you off. Period. And the icing on the cake is the sponsorships. I've always believed that you don't prove points by being a martyr, you don't prove points by losing money, you prove points by making money.
You know why festivals are expensive? It's to lower the risk and to concentrate a certain brand demographic for the sake of selling it for the purposes of branding and advertising. I have no interest in that. In fact, I find that to be incredibly dull.
And so, you know, let them have their festivals that makes oodles of dollars doing it their way. I would rather have a scrappy little festival that makes a reasonable amount of money for its owners—and believe me, I'm not interested in losing money. I'm interested in making money and presenting a business model that functions, because if we can create a business model that works despite going against all these truisms that we don't care for, then we've proved our point. I'd rather lead by example in terms of doing things ethically versus doing something versus either being a not-for-profit martyr and saying "Oh its too bad that capitalism can't support this great stuff." I reject that. I'm not anti-capitalism. But I do believe in the idea that if you can make money doing it the right way, you force people doing it the wrong way to change, and that's the hope.
And honestly that's why I agreed to come back and work on Festival Nrmal because I feel like that was the point I wanted to make the first year I was down there with MtyMx. Unfortunately that festival had a lot freshman mistakes as well as a lot of very bad luck and bad timing with the surge in the drug cartel situation and it caused it to fail financially in a lot of ways. So I'm happy to return and I've been happy the last two years to come back because last year worked and this year will work even bigger and every time we do this and we do this in a tasteful way and our flyer isn't covered in sponsors and it's affordable to regular people, we've proven that such a thing is a feasible business model.
As a practical matter, do you know how much drinks are gonna be? I believe we sell a liter of beer, which is a huge cup, for something like, I believe it is 25 pesos. it might be 30 pesos. And that is the equivalent of about $1.80 or $2.25.
Good deal. Good deal. I think if you want to they'll put chilies or tamarind in there.
The continued proximity to SXSW both temporally and geographically: is that a logistical thing? To put it another way, why does the world need another music festival in the beginning of spring in the southwestern part of North America? Good question. We started out with the idea that it was a five or six hour drive from Austin. Five or six hours in the touring industry is the distance from one town to the next. You try not to drive more than that at night or you're getting to the show after dark which you don't want to do. We've always thought that people should be traveling over land into Mexico. The central point of my whole conceit is that that border is a construct and you should not let it hinder your sense of what the possibilities are for this continent geographically. So to me the reality of the fact that Monterrey is the next big city after Austin, it would be on everyone's tour manifest or tour schedules if it weren't for prejudices, is pretty blunt. And I wanted to draw attention to that.
On a logistical level it also makes sense, because when bands from the states tour to SXSW, their tour is often the worst tour of the year because everyone else is touring to SXSW.
So, to us it makes sense to call up bands and say, "Why don't you let us get your band into the region? We'll fly you from wherever you are, or drive you, or whatever you want to do, come down there, hang out in a warmer place in the desert? It's beautiful, come to Mexico, it's an adventure. Hang out with us until the day before SXSW and we'll send you on to Texas. And you get there, you still get to SXSW but you don't waste time playing in Nashville."
So let's say this festival becomes a massive success and more and more people show up and you start drawing bigger bands to play, is there a danger of it getting too big? Can you ever foresee a time when enough people wanna play it and thousands more people are buying tickets and AT&T or whoever shows up and says, "Hey Todd, here's a few million dollars, let's really make this a huge thing?" I'm not worried. Honestly, the festival economics make the most sense with the most number of people, which is how the economics should work to begin with. You're charging for entry; that is how the business is supposed to work. If your revenue field is coming from somewhere else there's something wrong and perhaps you should be in a different field. I firmly believe that. It's about how many people pass through the turnstiles.
People can buy tickets for Festival Nrmal on TicketFly, which is the service you use here for shows in New York, but ticketing companies are a stubborn middle man. Have you ever thought of coming up with your own sort of ticketing system so people don't have to pay their fees? That's a funny question. I've never been asked that question. Here's the problem. As we all know, internet transactions are an act of faith. It's this magical situation where people don't want to spend their money on anything sketchy on the internet. They don't want to put their credit card information on any site that doesn't look like you can trust it. But once they trust it, they don't even think of it as spending money anymore. Why do you think Ticketmaster is still relevant? It's because those individuals, I shit you not, find out about concerts that are coming by searching the Ticketmaster website. And that's true of Mexico too, because Ticketmaster is the monopoly there too. That's just ridiculous. [Laughs] In 2013!?
But online events tickets are a necessary thing unfortunately. I personally, would rather sell tickets at the door, but the amount of risk you go through when you do that is huge. And beyond that, there's a lot of people that just won't come. If they don't know ahead of time that they're not going to get sold out at the door, they don't want to come. That's not me, that's not how I am, or my peers even. But that's a popular attitude. So you got to do it. It's fine, I mean—
But "Todd P's Ticketing System," why doesn't that exist? Why? Because it would be hard to get people to believe that their credit card was safe. And this is one of the things where ticketing companies really piss me off. Because, what is a ticket company doing? They're running a credit card and keeping a list of names. So they're running your credit card and creating an Excel spreadsheet. That's their entire job! And maybe maintaining a small little webpage that has the show.
[Laughs] I mean, you work in the internet. That's not exactly high, like, maintainence costs. Yet they're charging like four, five dollars, for service fees? What is that money paying for exactly? Jack shit. Nothing, my friend. It's paying for nothing. It's paying for a monopoly. These people have monopoly on your sense of safety. I wish there was a way to challenge that, but unfortunately you will not sell as many tickets if you try to sell them yourself. If I just tried to start an e-commerce page on my website—
Really? You're saying, you wouldn't be able to sell tickets on your own— I'm saying you wouldn't sell as many tickets if you weren't using Ticketmaster, or TicketFly, because people trust them. And whatever, they do a fine job. But it's about people's sense of safety for their credit card information. Which is so funny because you think of the irony of the fact that once they trust it they don't think of it as money anymore.
Would you ever consider putting together a cruise? I wouldn't.
Have you been approached to do something like that? No. But my friend Michelle does the Bruise Cruise and it sounds amazing. The Coachella cruise sounded a little strange, little awkward. But I'm sure they'll pull it together, they have huge amounts of money to invest in it.
But no, a cruise doesn't interest me. I did once have a crazy idea of setting up a festival that was a camp at Burning Man or right on the side of Burning Man. Because everybody is a little curious about Burning Man from a kind of voyeuristic perspective. So I had this idea—this was a couple years ago so maybe less relevant now—to get Burning Man to finance a camp that was itself a crazy festival of my kind of music or do one on the outskirts so that all these folks who would never go to Burning Man but kind of wanna go to Burning Man had an excuse to go to Burning Man.
That's another sort of peripheral project, right? Aren't you sort of skimming off the cream of these other established, bloated festivals? I mean, I don't know. I take a little offense at the idea that that's whats going on here. I'm not doing this festival because Monterrey is a crazy place. I'm doing this festival because Monterrey is not a crazy place. And that's huge.
No I meant like SXSW. You're taking the choice elements of that festival for the people who care about music, let's say, and the Burning Man idea is similar. There's this huge thing that's already happening, but your ideas are to distill it down to something different yet dependent on this other event that exists. Well, SXSW is unique because it's an industry convention that happens to have a lot of rock bands. It's just like an industry convention for vacuum manufacturers. It's a bunch of nerds with badges on fucking each other in hotel rooms. For five years, before I ever went to Mexico as a festival promoter, I was doing a festival during SXSW just up the block taking advantage of the fact that all these bands were already there with all their expenses already paid for which meant that having them play something that wasn't douchey was easy to talk them into.
I did these shows where we'd have 100 bands over five days, with like 20 bands playing a day and I just picked the best people who were down there and booked them with crazy variety. The original MtyMx was meant to be picking that festival up that's happening in Austin and just move it to Mexico with all these Latin bands that can't play SXSW.
Do you mind if I ask you a few questions about New York? Sure.
Silent Barn has reopened, and there's been a lot of discussion about DIY spaces and what makes a DIY space. Earlier you said, "You prove points by making money," so— Well you prove points by not being a martyr, by not losing money. You prove points by getting some reward out of it. I don't think anyone should have to pretend that they are 100% altruistic.
Right. So does being DIY mean being self-sufficient, does it mean making money? Or does it mean operating on the periphery of the law? I think a DIY venue, personally, the goal, the whole thing, is about enfranchising the disenfranchised. A lot of industries, particularly the music industry, are based around barriers to entry, about how expensive it is to open a nightclub. A lot of it has to do with government regulation, how hard it is to pass through the hoops that it takes to follow the law.
For the last two and a half years I've been working on a legalization project for the Market Hotel. It's happening, it's moving forward. But it's damn slow. The things I have to do to make this thing legal are fairly insignificant. I'm not going to say you won't notice them if you come but it ain't going to feel like a different place. It's a slightly different configured staircase, it's more bathrooms, it's a wheelchair elevator, it's a little bit of sprinklering. If all I had to do was install this stuff, if they just gave me this checklist, and were like "Put this stuff in, we'll come by and check it out, if it's all cool, you're good!" If that was the rule, dude, I could have had this place open two years ago, for much less money! But unfortunately that's not how the city regulation works.
It is very byzantine, and it is in no way a model molded upon the idea that anyone would do this themselves. It's about enabling the professional class whose sole career is dealing with the government. Most architects are not design architects, they are guys that know code—and not just know code, they know a guy in the Department of Buildings who agrees with them about code. And that's their value. Regulation is abused. And it's abused to help the existing players in the industry to raise the bar to entrance.
And I'm not saying that the government's not well-intentioned. I'm not saying that these regulations don't in a lot of ways make sense. But I'm just saying that their application is done in such a way that creates more expense, and balloons the cost of opening a business from something that would cost you dozens of thousands of dollars suddenly costing hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. And there's something wrong with that. You shouldn't be building a system where you have to be part of the capital class, you have to be part of the blue blood elite to make decisions or have contributions to your national culture. And I firmly believe that. So to me DIY is like being, "We're going to do this, no matter what."
Now, I'm an older guy now, and I feel like my earlier career was about showing what you could do with nothing, and that's fine... this idea of DIY, "We're going to scrounge for wood in the street to build a stage." And I've done all that. The limit is, you can only go to a certain point, and then you're being really irresponsible about public safety. And I'm not trying to be irresponsible for public safety. It also means you have to stay in the shadows, you have to stay hidden. It's inspiring on one level but also, let's not mince words: it's elitist, it's secretive, it lends itself to a small crew of people in the know to the exclusion of others.
And that's cool, but it is not welcoming to the outside world, and it's also limited in its scope. So what's interesting to me now is not discovering what I can do with nothing, but to show what one can do with a tangible, middle class, amount of funding. The kind of money that someone who is in the comfortable, average, middle class, can imagine raising from amongst his or her peers. Without having to include the capital class, without having to get the endorsement of the very, very wealthy. Which is not only true of capitalist enterprises, it's also true of not-for-profits. Both those models require, essentially, the patronage of rich people. And I don't want anything to do with that!
So what I want to show is what groups of intelligent, ambitious—I have no problem with ambition, despite that being an ugly word in some kinds of anarcho-punk circles, I have no problem with that word—what smart, ambitious, organized people can come up with.
I want to see what you can do coming up with business models that work with the idea of real estate. Which is one of things I actually admire about the current Silent Barn, despite their very idealist, very sort of co-op, sort of kumbaya-vibe. They are also, very blatantly running a real estate operation. They are leasing out a lot of their property to bring down the cost of opening a music venue. That is smart. That is the way we should be thinking. If these things are not able to survive in the cutthroat world of real estate, then you find a way to make your real estate work for the spaces. And that's the kind of model I've been working with for a long time.
I mean, even when we were doing DIY punk, kids living in the venue—as warm and fuzzy as that is, as much as "Ohh the dudes from the band live there, and they're cool"— those guys pay rent and their rent is what brings down the cost to the point that the venue can take artistic chances.
What I want is something that will enable spaces that cultivate the sort of art and music that I enjoy. In certain ways, I prefer the community vibe and the hang out vibe of a space that's about selling alcohol. 'Cause you know what? There's nothing wrong with alcohol! Grownups can drink alcohol and you know what, kids can be near alcohol and they don't turn to dust! And you know what else? They are [drinking] anyway! So any attempt to keep the kids out of the bar is asinine and wishful thinking about our children by populists who don't know how to make effective policy.
But ultimately, a DIY venue is...I don't care! I don't care about the designation. What I do care about is whether a space is doing great work, and whether good music is coming out of it. And I want to find whatever model works best for that.
What exactly is your involvement with 285 Kent? 285 Kent. Um, I don't really book much at 285 Kent anymore. It's mostly booked by a guy named Ric Leichtung, but it was intended to be a sort of temporary space. It was a space that became available to me a few years ago, and, I have, over the years, I've sort of shared it with a couple of different folks, who did most of the booking. We were there with Babycastles for a while, we were there with Silent Barn, we were there with John Rambo who now has an independent operation at Bushwick, and now Leichtung, who now does Ad Hoc.
I have an involvement in the space, I help with the decisions and keeping it going but I'm not involved with it in a direct way. Partly because I have a little boy, because I'm very busy with these other projects—opening Market Hotel is a full time job, this festival in Mexico is a full time job, and I'm involved in other small businesses as well—but I am still involved with 285 Kent.
Does 285 operate on the up and up? What I'll say is that all venues—I've yet to find a venue that is obeying every law to the T. You know, most of the rooms I know are routinely allowing in many, many, many, many, many more people than it says in their certificate of occupancy. And they tend to be open hours when they're not supposed to, and they tend to sell alcohol to drunk people, and they tend to not have licenses for all kinds of manners of things they're supposed to have licenses for. And, it seems, that some places are less licensed than others.
But, it's not as if I've found a single place, except perhaps Bowery Presents venues which are always, of course, operating to a T. Or Live Nation venues.
Your name obviously carries a lot of cachet and you are able to do things like book this festival in Mexico and book good, "cutting edge" bands in spaces that, to me as a concert goer, are way more relaxing and entertaining to be in than, say, a Bowery Presents venue. I'll take that as a compliment.
But some people argue that you've in some ways cornered that market. That is, when you're the one booking popular touring bands in large venues, you're clearly taking those shows away from other DIY venues. Isn't that counter-intuitive to the scene you've worked so hard to establish? Well, it'd be pretty ridiculous to say that at this point, because I'm booking like six shows a year. There have never been more DIY venues in New York City, or more venues in general in New York City, at this point. And it is astounding, honestly, astounding, mind blowing, the amount of spaces that have been opening up.
To say that I'm cornering the market on anything would be pretty ridiculous. I'm really happy to have opportunities. I've honestly moved on from the days of having shows in Brooklyn and New York City just because I'm older now, and I'm focusing on getting these spots open that have all of their legal documents in order, because I'm a Dad. I don't want to be involved in anything that's even quasi-illegal. My goals are a little more in tune with the goals of a 38-year-old man.
I was going to show you my website. There's a list that I keep on it, I'm working on it a bunch. I know there's a lot of people from other places who may know the New York scene from a few years back, and their information from then gets old, so I maintain this list because I'm not booking many shows. This shows basically every place where you could possibly get this information online. I have to change and update this list constantly. There's so much. And all these new spots that have shows, many a couple times a week. The scene is wide ranging and nobody has control of it, and that's awesome. And I, I would say that it's a little false for anyone to claim that I have control over anything.
So competition is good in this case? Well I don't think it even is competition. It more friendly, just everyone doing something awesome. And yeah, every one of these people started their spaces because they wanted to be known for doing good work. And that's competition, and there's nothing wrong with that. But there's a ton of them. And the number of these places I've never even been to is huge, and the number of them that do excellent shows all the time is also huge. So, you know, it would have been ridiculous in 2005 to say I had cornered the market or anything in New York, but to say it in 2013 is kind of laughable.
I'm all but retired from booking on a day to day level. But that doesn't mean that I'm not involved in the ideas. Showpaper is still active. And Market Hotel is going to open. But when Market Hotel opens, I'll do some of the booking, but I'm also going to be inviting in a lot of other promoters. And that doesn't just mean promoters who work in this kind of scene. As much as I love the scene that's in Showpaper and the venues on my site, I want to go beyond it. Like I said, there are limitations to what one can accomplish with this DIY, underground, secretive thing.
Do you have a ballpark on when Market Hotel will open? Market Hotel is very close at this point. Market Hotel is just about to get its Alteration 1 permit which is the Holy Grail of what we need to begin construction.
So, we're talking like 2014? No no no, if all goes well we're talking like May, June, or July, very seriously. That's not bullshit. I don't guarantee that, because it's an old shitty building. We're gonna keep it as old and shitty as we can. [Laughs] There will be a second phase in the future where we'll do what I consider a renovation where we don't make it look new but instead make it look like it once looked.
There is amazing woodwork in there, just gorgeous detail. Hard to tell because it looks so shitty. It's very hard to find a space in New York City that has not been remodeled. we're not remodeling it. We're just bringing it up to code. Because it's important to me to show that you don't have to gut the whole thing. You don't have to tear everything out and start from scratch and have this whitewashed box. None of that is necessary. Contractors talk you into that because its more expensive but you can just do the things that are required for public safety. Keeping it as cheap as possible. The concept here is to try and keep this budget on or around $100,000. Which is unheard of for this kind of a project, for a space this big.