A collective groan filled the room like the most lowdown Janis Joplin note as Kimberly Gottschalk recalled the time an unnamed rock star mistook her for the caterer backstage.
“I was asked for more mashed potatoes,” said Gottschalk, who responded, “Actually, I’m the one who’s paying you tonight.”
As the president and talent buyer for concert promotions company Sue McLean & Associates (SMA), Gottschalk lines up many of the musicians who perform at the Minnesota Zoo and other venues around town. She hammers out the financials and sees to musicians’ needs before concerts, then “settles” the ticket money and expenses with them afterward.
In between, she puts up with their crap — which there’s a lot more of when you’re a woman in a job usually filled by men.
Not in the Twin Cities, though. Minneapolis and St. Paul have an inordinate amount of women serving as concert talent buyers.
It’s true of both First Avenue and its soon-to-open competitor the Fillmore. Same for beloved smaller rooms such as the Cedar Cultural Center, Icehouse, Amsterdam Bar & Hall and the Warming House. Not to mention two of the biggest venues in town, Target Center and the Minnesota State Fair grandstand.
We brought together a baker’s dozen of these women on a recent afternoon to talk about their collective experiences — and to pin down the singular ways they have shaped the Twin Cities concert scene, which seems to stand alone in having so many women running the shows.
“When we go to industry conferences like Pollstar, it’s still mostly male talent buyers scattered everywhere,” said First Avenue lead booker Sonia Grover, one of the rare women to be named best nightclub buyer at the national Pollstar Awards (in 2017). “But the few female talent buyers who are there all stick together.”
As she and her peers sat around a table at the Aster Café’s River Room — yep, another venue booked by a woman, Jen Whittier — Grover pointed out that she’s even pals with Tamsen Preston, the former Sue McLean associate tapped as senior promoter at First Ave’s new Live Nation-run competitor the Fillmore.
“We don’t talk shop anymore, but I’m still obsessively following Tamsen’s daughter’s dance career,” she said.
While they shared laughs and niceties, there was a serious tone to the meetup.
For starters, many of the participants miss McLean, their mentor and an industry pioneer. She ran one of the country’s most successful independent concert promotion companies for three decades before her death of cancer at age 63. Her niece Patricia now runs the company with the help of Gottschalk and fellow booker Shayna Melgaard.
The discussion also turned serious over what went down at Icehouse last winter.
The south Minneapolis supper club’s former talent buyer, James Buckley — a prominent bassist around town — was fired after at least five women accused him of improper nonphysical behavior, and using his position to try to garner dates. Buckley declined a Star Tribune request to respond to the allegations.
Diane Miller wound up getting the job and has helped Icehouse earn back its reputation as a progressive space. The club has posted a code of conduct on its Facebook page pledging “zero tolerance for sexual harassment or bullying.”
“There was a denial, which can happen when something that sensitive happens that’s hard to talk about,” said Miller, “but I’d hope if I was in the position I would be brave enough to come forward.”
Known as D Mill, Miller is also a gigging musician — same as another participant, Molly Maher of Hook & Ladder Theater, and one who couldn’t make our meeting, Nona Marie Invie of Moon Palace Books, who’s on tour with indie-rock maven Angel Olsen.
One upshot of the Icehouse situation is it got people talking, and spotlighted just how many women bookers there are in town to help make sure this doesn’t happen elsewhere. Here are highlights from the group discussion.
What are the benefits to our concert scene of having you all running things?
Grover: We all started at different times and have different levels of experience, but I guarantee you all of us have faced sexism or some kind of negative issue like it. And having that experience makes us more empathetic with other women trying to get their foot in the door.
Renee Alexander (State Fair): Looking at it programmatically, those of us that book a series or season, we make sure we have diversity and balance in a way that maybe our male counterparts don’t always look for.
Maher: I was going over a calendar at a venue and had to say, “There are no women in any of these bands.” I don’t want it to be like a mandatory thing. I certainly don’t want to have to book a “women’s songwriter night” or anything like that. But I think all of us here will notice whenever there’s a discrepancy right away.
Miller: I don’t think any of us got into this thinking, “I’m here because I want to be a woman on the scene who makes a difference.” I don’t think of myself as a “female” musician. I’m a musician. And I do what I do as a musician and as a booker because I [bleeping] love music. That always comes first.
How did we get this many women in this role?
Grover: We’re not the first wave by any means. The “Purple Rain”-era First Ave had Chrissie Dunlap, and obviously Sue McLean started around then, and then Maggie Macpherson took over the Uptown Bar. So none of us started this.
Gottschalk: I feel lucky because I came up in the ’90s. Maggie was already big on the scene, LeeAnn Weimar and Amy Arnold were at Compass [Productions], Kim King and Lynne Bengtson at the Fine Line and Linda Davis at the Cabooze.
Maher: Sue was such a force for me. I still feel her spirit everywhere.
Grover: Sue wasn’t just one of the top promoters in Minnesota, male or female, she was also a top promoter nationally. Pollstar lists the top promoters in the world by ticket sales, and Sue was always in the top 50. And I think she was usually the only independent female promoter in that top 50.
What do you think the benefits are from having women talent bookers?
Gottschalk: Hands down, I think women are probably better at maintaining good relationships and handling details. There are other areas of the industry where we still don’t see a lot of women, and I think we should, like stage production and tour management. Those are two detail-oriented jobs I think women would excel at.
Stacy Schwartz (Stone Arch Bridge Festival): It also helps that most of us aren’t egotistical a-holes.
Brenda Karunya Peters (Amsterdam Bar & Hall): Most of us! [Loud laughs.]
Preston: We support each other more. I really support other women in the business, and I feel that support myself. Which benefits everyone.
Grover: We talk to each other more than a lot of the male agents do. I don’t think that happens in other towns. We feel comfortable talking about problems in the business or whatever comes up.
Alexander: I’ve had many situations where a booking agent [representing an artist] will say to me, “Oh, there’s another offer in the market.” And I’ll say, “Oh yeah, it’s so-and-so,” and that’ll just shut them down. The agent’s plan is to get us to bid against each other, and a lot of times it doesn’t work.
Gottschalk: I’ve had that from agents, too: “Who are you people in Minneapolis? You put in competing bids against each other and then you go out for drinks together and talk about it?!”
Let’s talk about female artists. How do those of you at bigger venues deal with the lack of support in many mainstream circles, especially country and rock radio stations? Can you risking book a woman, knowing there won’t be that support?
Amy Rahja (Target Center): We’re dependent on what the promoters are bringing to town, and at that level there’s not a ton of women coming through. So it’s important to support them when we do get them. We also pay attention to the openers and try to elevate women there.
Alexander: At the [State Fair] Grandstand, we have to put butts in the seats. I don’t want to put an artist in front of 2,000 people in a 13,000-seat venue, which is often what you get if there isn’t radio or other mainstream support for the artist. But then you look at someone like Brandi Carlile, she knocked it out of the park there this year. Stevie Nicks did the year before. So we definitely aim for those artists whenever we can, and we also try to maximize our free stages as another way to elevate female artists.
Melgaard: There are statistics that clearly show women are not getting played on country radio stations. If you have a venue of a certain size, you need to have radio support to sell those tickets.
Brianna Lane (Warming House): But it’s true at a tiny venue like the Warming House, too. We need to fill those 40 seats. People need to show up. There’s a big movement over in Europe, the 50/50 movement, where festivals and venues are pledging to have their lineups evenly split along gender lines. We tried that for a long time at the Warming House, but we had to meet the bottom line, too. So then we started thinking: Are there just more male musicians than there are female in the world? And I really don’t think that’s the case. Are there just more male musicians asking for gigs? Maybe. It’s a complicated puzzle, and I wish it were easier to fit the pieces together for gender equity.
Gottschalk: Amy, Tamsen and Shayna have all booked for Sue McLean & Associates. Last year we took a lot of flak about not booking enough women on the zoo lineup. But those people didn’t see the 15 offers I had out to female artists that didn’t come through. It was not intentional by any means, and obviously our company — of all companies — did not want it that way.
What are some of the most boneheaded instances of sexism you’ve endured?
Gottschalk: On my 34th birthday, we had a show at the Cabooze, and the artist asked me to come on their bus to settle. [More groans from around the table.] That’s never a good idea! I went on, and right there on the TV they had porn showing. They didn’t even think about it. I was like, “Is it possible to turn that off?”
Melgaard: I had an older gentleman who’s a venue owner who always responded to me with, “Thanks, sweetheart.” Finally, I just told him: “Pet names are for my husband. Could you not respond that way?” He was very apologetic.
Karunya Peters: You have to pick your battles in those cases. Do you make a big thing out of it, even if it’s just a one-word thing like that? But usually, it’s better to say something.
Alexander: I was settling with a guy who was like, “You have really pretty toes.” Great, a foot fetish! Weird things like that happen all the time. And then I still have agents call up Nate Dungan, who books our free stages. These are male agents I’ve done shows with before who know I book the grandstand, but they still call up Nate for a grandstand show. I’ll be like [in a seething voice], “Send him to me!”
Grover: I get that even with the male bookers at First Ave who are younger than me and have been there a fraction of the time I have. Agents will call them up instead of me just because they’re dudes. Or I’ve had it happen where I’ll be dealing with an agent and hand them off to one of our male bookers, and the agent will sign off on the e-mail to them saying, “Thanks, bud.” And they never do that with me. How come I’m not a “bud?” Who do you think has to sign off on your offer, bud?! [More laughs.]
What are some of the lingering issues or lessons from the harassment charges that had to be corrected at Icehouse?
Miller: If [a woman] tells you something like this is happening, listen to them. Don’t tell them they’re being crazy or push them away.
Rahja: Women in that position for sure need to speak up. They don’t need to be afraid to do so. Any of them can reach out to any one of us in this room, and I’m sure any of us would help.
Brianna Lane (Warming House): We don’t have HR departments in our line of work. So we have to be our own HR department.
Grover: The new codes of conduct need to happen from the top down and the bottom up. Policies and standards need to be set by the people at the top at a venue, and then when they hire somebody new they need to accept those policies — even with a signature — and understand there can’t be any discrimination or disrespectful behavior.
Schwartz: None of it should really be that difficult. Treat women like a professional like you would any other place you work at. Avoid the words “baby” and “sweetheart.” Avoid unwanted touching and grabbing. Don’t be a jerk. It’s not hard.
Lane: Again, being a small venue, we’re where a lot of musicians start out, so we try to raise the bar from the very beginning so those [bad] habits don’t stay with the artists — like porn in the tour bus.
What can audiences do to make the industry better for female artists?
Alexander: Vote with your dollars. Go buy tickets for women artists. Call your radio station to play more women.
Schwartz: Buy a T-shirt when you go to their shows. Go to the Electric Fetus or other record stores and buy their vinyl. Those things do make a difference.
Melgaard: And fans now can do a lot of promotion themselves. They can share, post, repost any song they like.
Gottschalk: At the end of the day, though, the artists — like us — are all mainly in the business of filling the seats. Showing up really is the best thing you can do.
What do you all love best about your job?
Gottschalk: The best thing about the live music business is we get to be there and enjoy those two to three hours of music, no matter what. Other areas of the music industry don’t offer that, like my friend at [the label] Big Machine who had Taylor Swift’s record go to No. 1. They celebrated with champagne, but then they all went back to their desks.
Karunya Peters: I love listening to people as they’re leaving, when the lights come up and you can hear how jazzed they were about the show, and they go line up for merch. It’s exciting when they’re excited.
Preston: It’s gratifying to watch the audience members enjoying themselves during the shows. A lot of them maybe only go to a few concerts per year. Especially when it’s an artist they love, it’s a special moment in their lives. We know we had a big hand in making it happen.