Independent Industry Figures is a weekly column at IMP where we do a feature on a different music industry figure every week and try to better understand what they’re all about. With each installment we try and get a better sense of what it means to make a living in the music industry and how people can get involved. After all – what can we do but work hard and try to help each other live the dream?
Nate Carson is one of the most important people in metal, but you’ve probably never heard of him, or his company Nanotear. Yet this is the man who books Rolling Stone’s favorite metal band of 2014, who books legends like Agalloch and Nik Turners Hawkwind and who has played shows in almost every state in the continental United States with his own band, the critically acclaimed Witch Mountain. Carson represents a new wave in heavy metal professionals, having figured out how to make a living in one of the most obscure corners of the genre.
While it may have taken him several years, Nate Carson has become one of the most respected booking agents in the industry. In his words “There are thousands of record labels and dozens of booking agencies. There are lots of great bands with no representation who want to go on tour.” Recognizing this very real need Carson decided to step up to the plate and deliver quality representation for a roster of thirty two bands, many representing the best and brightest in metal and outer sound.
Getting to this point wasn’t an easy task though, when I first started hanging out with Carson back in June of 2014 he made it very clear to me saying “I think it’s always good to have a backup plan, as passionate as we all are about music, there are millions of people who are interested. I’ve seen people put all of their eggs in that basket and then they hit thirty or forty and they are unskilled. I think having a separate career path to fall back on is always smart. If music is your livelihood that’s when you’re going to be in a position that you’re going to have to make compromises at one point. The more you have another method of paying your bills, the less you have to compromise your art.”
One thing I’ve always admired about Carson, and that we don’t really get into in the interview, is his willingness to help others get their start in the music industry. He’s already become a mentor to me, and he has helped to guide other music industry types work out their place in the scene. Basing his career on integrity and the value of his word hasn’t been easy but it has established him as an almost universally lauded ‘good dude’. He is living proof that the music industry has a place for self-made men who manage to bend the fucked up environment to their will.
What I’m trying to say, and what the interview will hopefully reveal, is that Nathan Carson is perhaps one of the key trendsetters in the music industry – simply because he gets what the entire thing is supposed to be about. He brings the industry back to its basics and proves that there is still integrity in a world of jaded dudes and grim executives. Carson provides a smiling face even in the bleakest scenarios and shows that as the industry starts to recover we’ll all be able to profit off what it will become.
So Nate to start – how did you become a booker?
Well, I started by booking tours for my own band. When I first started playing music when I was a teenager I was the one guy who had the gumption to take our demo cassette and go up to the door guy and say “Hey, please leave this for the booker” and then I would follow up with telephone calls. I was in the high tech industry in the 90’s and was online fairly constantly before a lot of people were online at all. There was a booking corporation out of Chicago called Billions Corporation, they’re still going, and they’re highly respected. They booked bands like Nic Cave and the Jesus Lizard, really great stuff. At one point they needed a webmaster and they didn’t require much more than updating tour dates. So I got the job as their webmaster and for a couple of years I just got to see how one of the best agencies in the industry was routing tours and the kinds of circuits they sent bands on and the venues they like to send bands too. Through osmosis I absorbed some of that and then started booking my own tours for Witch Mountain and started being successful. Then this fledgling band called Yob asked me if I could help them get around the country and I booked two tours for Yob and they started coming home with money. At that point it dawned on me that I was actually good at this and should start charging people for it.
To what extent do you think your success is due to Yob? Did that kickstart everything?
They weren’t huge at the time but they were definitely growing. We weren’t asking for crazy money because gas was still cheap. It was all pretty underground. The fact that they were growing so rapidly and they were so well loved helped. I can’t say they were so tremendously successful in the beginning that it made my career in any way. It was more just encouraging to see my friends experiencing this growth. I feel like the relationship between Nanotear and Yob has been very symbiotic. I don’t think we would be in the same position if they hadn’t started at that point. A lot of the hard work that we did ten years ago has really come into fruition for them. I’m not taking away anything away from the fact that they write brilliant albums and put on an incredible show. It’s a real joy that my very first clients are still with me and we’re working on really cool stuff for the near future.
Can you give me a timeline for all of this?
I guess Nanotear started technically eleven years ago, it was the tail end of 2003. The agency started in 2004 for most practical purposes. I had already done two Yob tours by that time and several Witch Mountain tours and I was in a place where Witch Mountain was sort of going into hibernation and I had started another band called Point Line Plane which was also kind of going into hibernation. All of the sudden I had a bit more free time then I had had when I was touring more constantly. I started exploring a lot of my contacts. Really the week I decided to start a booking agency I looked around and just amongst my friends, bands who had slept on my floor, and there were dozens of artists on really good labels who had no representation. I was a little it ahead of the curve when it came to the artistic underground metal scene that was happening in the state and also as to how many women were involved. It was never a purposeful move, it was largely based on personal taste and friendships but the roster has always had a pretty high percentage of bands with female membership. In the past you always heard about what an uphill battle it was for women to get representation in metal and I just wanted to make sure that the people I liked and respected were getting the opportunity for others to hear them.
How long did you have to build Nanotear until it was your full time gig?
I was definitely doing a lot of freelance computer animation and graphic design simultaneously for the first couple of years that the agency was going. I had been DJing that entire time to supplement it and I write for various magazines so I won’t say it was ever my only full time job but there definitely was a point when I stopped pursuing any of the computer graphics gigs because they were too time intensive for me to do music and tour. That’s money that I miss sometimes because obviously that industry pays much better. But I don’t like having a boss and I don’t like having a day job routine. I kind of like how every day is a different challenge. It was a process that happened over years. It’s getting better all the time. If anything my biggest problem is that there’s only one of me and I have to turn down bands I would like to work with all the time because I’m stretched too thin.
So would you say that for someone trying to make a living in the music industry they’d have to diversify their interests and wear a lot of hats?
Well it depends on what part of the business you want to get involved in and what your cost of living requires. I’ve always kept my cost of living really minimal. I got into a really great rental deal eleven-twelve years ago. I don’t drink much, I don’t need a lot to live on, and I have an old car that doesn’t break down, knock on wood. Everyone has to find a path that works for them. Portland is also a place that was, until recently, a really affordable place to live. I’ve managed to lock into a place where it’s still affordable for me. But I think it would be difficult to just move here, quit your job and work full time in the music industry unless you have a job for someone else. I kind of had to build this very organically over time and I don’t know that it’s a process that someone else could repeat just because times change and I don’t know what the future will bring.
I can say that there is a vast shortage of talented booking agents. There are thousands of record labels and dozens of booking agencies. There are lots of great bands with no representation who want to go on tour. I could build an entire roster of excellent bands in a weeks time if I all of the sudden had the manpower or unlimited time. The fact is, it’s a hard job, it’s a frustrating job and unless you have a very specific set of competencies and interests it’s going to either drive you insane or get you to piss people off. So having integrity and knowing how to negotiate and knowing how to treat venues and promoters like people too is important. I don’t like to lose people money and I feel like a lot of other agents really don’t seem to mind if promoters lose money time and time again. It’s not anyone specific it’s just industry wide.
I think that a lot of agents just think “This is how much I want to get, and this is how much I should get” as opposed to “This is how much is fair for the time of the year, the day of the week, and what the room is” I always try to treat everyone very fairly in every aspect. Of course, it’s my job to push the promoters to do their best. That guarantee is meant to be incentive for them to work hard and do their job to promote the show. If there isn’t a little bit of fear as a motivator people get lazy. It’s really my job to say “Here’s the most we can really be worth” and get it for the band so the promoter will do whatever it takes to get the audience that we need. I’m not one to vastly overprice a package just for the heck of it. I really like everyone in a situation to be a winner.
Could you explain to us how your business model works?
Basically it starts with the bands. I’m a musician as well, I’ve toured extensively. I think that there’s a lot of insight that comes from being someone who does this. I’m not someone who says “You’re going to drive 12 hours this and and 16 hours this day and zig zag back and forth across the country” I’m trying to think of things in very artist friendly ways.
It starts with an idea, the band says “We have an album coming out at this time and we would like to be on the road for this time” We discuss what is in the bands best interest and then I come up with a proposed itinerary which is something I’m very good at at this point. I’m very proud of that since North America isn’t known as the most profitable place for underground bands touring. I make sure we’re working with the weather not against it. I make sure we’re not wasting time in valueless markets where there’s no people at the shows or no interest and making sure we’re in the right places on the right days of the week. If I know there’s a Metal Thursday in Worcester, Massachusetts then it’s better to be there on the Thursday than the Tuesday. I’ve been doing this for long enough that I know where a lot of those are. I’ve gotten very good at targeting weekly events that are on the other side of the country from me.
Once we have an itinerary we like I send out holds throughout the country. This means I write emails to promoters and venues around the country saying what dates we would like to be at their town. And we try to do this far in advance so we can get the best venues and the best local support. For an agent like me this means we need to do this 5-6 months out. Less than that and it starts being really competitive. However if you’re just a band sometimes 6 months out is too far out for the comfort of a lot of promoters. If you don’t have professional representation it’s easy for you to get a night at a club and then break up or flake out. Nothing against DIY bands, they’re great. A band like Shellac books themselves and nobody worries about whether or not they’re going to show up. If you’re a brand new band with no history chances are they’re going to be a lot more comfortable giving you that night 4 months out rather than 6 because they don’t want to tie themselves up and lose something big.
Once the holds are in place we start negotiating and once we have arrived at a deal that everyone is satisfied with then we either confirm the show or we have to challenge to get the date. So for example if there’s a club we want on a certain date and I’m the fourth hold, if I’m ready to lock it in and confirm it, we issue a challenge that goes to the first hold. Standard procedure is they get about 24 hours to either confirm a deal or get out of the way, and often bands have multiple dates booked anyway. So, if they’re not ready to lock in their tour oftentimes our challenges are won. There have been times where our challenge loses and hopefully that’s a situation where we have multiple venues in that city and I have my bases covered.
Once the shows are confirmed there’s a contract phase. We work with publicists who announce shows at a certain time and in a certain order and then of course there’s supporting the bands when they’re out on the road. If they have questions or problems I need to be available. I am constantly berating friends and partners for calling and texting me at 9 in the morning. I work in sort of a swing shift industry. Usually I’m DJing or at musical events, so I’m out until two or three in the morning most of the week so there’s no point in me being an early riser. If someone on the East Coast texts me at 8:50 in the morning I say “Hey man, don’t do that!” and if they ask me “Why don’t you turn off your phone?” I tell them that the reason I don’t turn off my phone is because I have Ufomammut, a band from Italy, on the road right now and I need to be on the line 24/7 for them in case they need me. I don’t want to say “Oh I only have office hours from 8 to 5 so if you’re driving into Texas and it’s flooding… too bad for you!” (Laughter) That’s my defense for when I get crabby at people for texting me early in the morning!
How do you deal with something like what Ufomammut are facing in Texas right now with the flooding?
The first thing I did was reach out to the promoter and ask “How are you feeling?” they were definitely nervous but they didn’t want to cancel. Usually the deal is, if the promoter has to cancel the show for any reason there will be some sort of kill fee. They’re pledging to give us some money even if they pull the plug on the show. As long as they’re in a position that people can physically get there, they probably are going to take their chances and have the show. There was flooding in Texas but I checked on Google and I looked at the traffic and it seemed like it was reasonable for them to get to the venue. Then I posted on Facebook, I have thousands of friends and followers on there and we’re all a connected hive mind. I asked “What’s the deal in Houston, is it safe to get too?”
I have had bands in the past who were driving into tornado country and we decided it wasn’t a good idea to go on. I’ve had bands who were stuck in a blizzard and couldn’t get to a gig. Sometimes that happens.
Personally I’m of a mind to just get there and make it work. We had a Witch Mountain tour that began the day the tsunami happened in 2010. Many of the roads we needed to take were washed out, and the band we were on tour with decided to take the day off and didn’t go. But we found an alternate route that involved us towing our trailer down a one lane mountain road for miles. I can just imagine what would have happened if we had come upon another vehicle. But it was a beautiful drive through a national forest and the weather was great. I took us 10 hours to do a 7 hour drive but we made it and played for the people that came.
Likewise we played in New York the day after Sandy hit. We were in Vermont when it hit and the next day we had to be down in Brooklyn and there where gas shortages and the buses weren’t running. We stopped in Connecticut and gassed up and bought groceries. We drove into what seemed like a war zone, it was like a zombie movie. People were walking in the streets with gas canisters and the only people we played to were the 50 people who walked to the St Vitus bar that night. It feels kind of badass to be the band that manages to show up and make it work anyway. It’s too bad that maybe we played to only a third as many people as we should have but it was still cool. So I was happy that Usnea and Ufomammut were gung-ho enough to make the best of it.
What’s the next step for Nanotear and your career as a whole?
The agency is growing and I’m having to turn down bands constantly. The trick would be to grow and be able to take on more talent without overwhelming myself and going insane. I’m trying to run a business but I’m also a creative artist myself and I have other endeavors. So do I try to plateau at this level and keep growing the bands? That’s what’s been happening for a long time, it’s not that I have that many more bands that I’m working with but they’re getting bigger. That’s what happens when you’re serious about your art and go on tour. Most of the people I work with I would not consider hobbyists. Keeping the same number of bands but having them grow to where they’re playing for more money and to more people is a great business model for me. The idea of hiring more people and taking more bands… I’m nervous about. I’ve seen so many businesses go through those growing pains and then collapse. I feel that my business is so much based on me and my word so I feel that putting someone between me and my clients makes me a little nervous.
I have had an assistant for the last five years and she is rock solid and amazing. Her name is June. I am so fortunate to work with someone who is as on top of shit as she is. We still have different skill sets. I’m a lot more of a diplomat in the spotlight and she’s a lot more of an administrator in the shadows. It’s a really great partnership that we have there.
Whether or not I could have another agent… It’s been discussed. I’ve had several agencies ask to absorb me into their businesses. My view is “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” There was one person who I really got on with and I asked her to join forces with me but she decided to move to New York instead and I’m happy for her and she’s doing well. We saw eye to eye on many things and had similar tastes. But she had her own name and business going and she didn’t want to be under my banner and I totally respect that and I feel the same way.
It’s hard to say though. The landscape keeps changing. When I first started this business it was fortunate because it was right at the beginning of the e-mail era. I never had to book national tours over the telephone the way Black Flag did. I would be able to accomplish 10% of what I do, maybe less if it was those days. The internet, social media and texting has made things a lot easier. Who knows what’s coming next though?
I feel like I’ve seen an era come and go though in the last few years when Facebook was a free for all with tons of people and get news to tons of people and now they’ve changed their model so that you have to pay to boost the post so people can actually see it. I think my business has suffered from that. Who knows what’s coming next, maybe it gets easier maybe it gets harder but you have to roll with the punches!