Do you ever wonder how all of the shows and events make it to the Erwin Center’s stage? When you host everything from Lady Gaga to Fleetwood Mac to Sesame Street Live, booking events is no small task! We sat down with the venue’s two most important decision makers, Executive Senior Associate Athletics Director John Graham and Senior Associate Director Jimmy Earl, to talk about work, music and why they love what they do.
Applause Blog (AB): You’ve been working for the Erwin Center for a combined total of over 50 years. Tell us about your career paths within the events and entertainment industry.
Jimmy Earl: John and I both had similar paths. We both have event management backgrounds and started in the event operations area. I worked as an executive assistant and was the events manager here, then I managed a convention center in Fort Worth.
John Graham: For me, I started as an event manager at another arena. The events side is where the rubber really meets the road. Then, I became assistant director and associate director. I did that for about ten years and then came to Texas. Progressively, I started doing more and more things. I started out as an event manager, then booking some things and then doing all the things.
AB: How would you describe your specific roles?
John: Our product, at the end of the day, is what happens between the show and the fans. That’s our product; that single moment when the fan and the show come together. Everything else we’re doing—marketing, selling tickets, housekeeping, setup and tear down, concessions, lights, seating—it all comes into that single moment when the audience meets the show, that live experience. You have to have a very good awareness of what’s happening when it all comes together like that.
Jimmy: And not only that, but this particular position touches all of the other areas, from a coordination standpoint. What time are doors going to open? When are tickets going to be on sale? How many stagehands do we need? How many ushers do we need? Security, police, EMS, food and beverage; the whole thing.
John: At the end of the day, you’re the traffic controller for everything that comes into this place. Like Jimmy said, all this stuff is coming in and you’re the coordinator.
AB: The Erwin Center houses events from a wide variety of genres, interests and cultures. What are your priorities when booking a show?
Jimmy: We all have our own individual tastes, what we like and don’t like. If what we booked was only what John and I liked, that would be kind of limiting. There’s a really diverse community here and if you look at our calendar, you’ll see that we’ve been all over the place with the things that we schedule.
John: Some of it’s sort of pre-selected too. There are events and artists that are appropriate for our size arena. When you get down to the types of shows that are appropriate for this type of venue, we go after everything that’s out there. We’re trying to get every single event. We have to match up our calendar with the tour calendar. If we have basketball games and graduations, those sort of annual things that are already in place, we can work around that and still get that event in here just fine. If we can’t, then we always try to make it work later. Then we figure out how to make that event work, financially, for the artist and for us.
AB: What is the process for booking a show? Who makes the final decisions?
John: A promoter or agency will contact us and we’ll send out our availability for the time they request. We do try to keep some space between certain types of events—it wouldn’t be good for anybody to have two country artists in the same week. We have to make sure that it’s an event we can do, it’s not too big and there aren’t any issues that we can’t deal with, if there’s something that’s beyond our capacity to do.
Jimmy: And we’re always up against the clock. More than likely, our biggest challenge is time. We’ve got so many events—basketball season, established events—that always occur. Time is our biggest challenge when it comes to putting things on the books.
AB: How do you find out about new artists and events?
Jimmy: Well, in a number of ways. We’re actively engaged in the event producing community. There are not very many secrets in this industry. If there’s somebody out there who’s a rising star, then we usually know about that.
John: The reality is that while it looks like a big business, it’s actually a very small business. There are only three or four major agencies that handle most of the artists and there’s a fairly small number of major tour producers and promoters. There are literally a dozen people that are involved and engaged in most of the touring industry. Knowing those individuals, having experience with them, and them having experience with us… that’s how we find out about new things. I remember specifically when Lady Gaga was coming out and hers was a fairly quick trajectory. Her rise was pretty spectacular. At first we were like, “Lady what?”
Jimmy: Remember when we used to say, “Taylor who?”
John: It’s stratospheric. Taylor Swift was opening up for George Strait on one of his tours that played here and I was talking to one of the guys working on the tour and he told me, “Taylor Swift is going to be spectacular.” And it turned out to be totally true! I remember going to a showcase in Nashville and it was a guy named Garth Brooks, and it was just him—he played a couple of songs. Another guy who was up there was Alan Jackson. This guy was driving a beer truck in the afternoon and came in there to play a song.
AB: What has been your favorite experience or event at the Erwin Center?
Jimmy: Asking me my favorite event is kind of like asking me to choose my favorite child, but I think I really liked the shows we had here in the early days of the venue—Earth Wind and Fire and one of my idols, James Brown. But the one that really stands head and shoulders above the rest was when we booked the Dalai Lama. That just speaks to the diversity of things that we do here. We had 16,000 people come to that event!
John: One time I brought my parents to a Tom Petty show. Now, my dad didn’t know Tom Petty from petty theft, but he loved it. I had just had a frustrating conversation with the tour’s accountant about money, so I was having a rough day on the job, but when I went back to my dad he kept telling me that I had the best job in the world. What he said really impacted me. He told me, “All these people are having a great time, and you helped make that happen. You know how hard it is to get one person to have a good time, let alone 14,000?”
Jimmy: We get to do this and it’s a privilege; no two days are the same.
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