A Conversation with The Storytellers’ Storyteller
In 2018, The Storytellers, the self-described “indie-folk band,” burst onto the LA music scene seemingly out of nowhere. After only one year together, they appeared on stages of some of the larger clubs in Los Angeles, as well as regional music festivals including a career defining performance last week at the Huck Finn Jubilee. Lauded by the L.A. Weekly and by legendary folk music promoter Bob Stane, we sat down with the manager of The Storytellers to get the inside story of this fast-rising roots band. And what a story it is …
FolkWorks (FW): How did you become the manager of The Storytellers?
Michael Garcia (MG): The Storytellers started as a duo: me and Scott Diehl, the guitarist. When Lance Frantzich was added as a second voice and bassist, I heard their harmonic blend and thought it was special. When I started trying to book us, I realized how much time it would take to do it right. So I fired myself as fiddle player, replaced me with the young man we call “the amazing” Jonathan Sheldon, added Steven Stelmach on percussion and Dave Ryan on mandolin and I’ve been loosely managing ever since.
FW: What do you mean “loosely manage”? Did you have experience managing a band?
MG: I just mostly book the band. They manage themselves. We try to run the band like a flat organization. There is no leader. Nobody is in charge so to speak. We believe that if we stay calm and pay close attention, the situation guides us. The situation is in charge. Because we’ve gotten so good at it, in the 20 or so months we’ve been together, we’ve never had a single problem as far as getting along with each other.
As far as having experience, no. Not really. But I do come from a heavy marketing background, which has helped some. But what’s mostly helped is learning to be organized and knowing how to organize data by using spreadsheets. That’s the skill a booking manager needs more than anything to be successful.
FW: Would you say you’ve been successful?
MG: Well, by the end of this year, the band will have been together for two years and we will have played 80 shows in those two years. That’s if I don’t book any more shows before the end of the year. Odds are I will. So as far as booking shows, I’ve had some success. As far as other aspects of managing, there have been signs I’ve made good decisions and some signs that I’ve made some not so good ones. The band just got into the Huck Finn Jubilee Bluegrass Festival after being together for a relatively short while. They’ll be on the main stage of the California Avocado Festival, which is one of the largest music festivals in the state. I had something to do with shaping the perception that the band is good enough to perform on a large stage. I send the emails and make the calls, but the guys are the ones doing the part that takes an immense amount of work and discipline. They’re producing the music and the harmonies and it’s good. I really admire them.
FW: The Storytellers sort of exploded onto the scene seemingly out of nowhere. You mentioned your marketing background. Was this some grand plan?
MG: It was our grand plan to have fun. It was our plan to transform our lives from consumers of art to creators of art. Scott, who is my partner, and I used to spend a fortune on live concert tickets. At some point we asked ourselves, “What is a more rich life? Is it consuming music or is it creating it?” We very deliberately set about answering that question. Scott started learning guitar. I had played violin as a kid. Pretty soon our evenings were filled with creating music together. It was so joyous and fun and inspiring that at some point, we thought, how far can we take this story? Can we start an actual band? Can we play live shows? Can we have a cool website? Can we have trippy concert posters? Can we record CDs?
Well, the jury is in and the answers are clear. We can take the story as far as we want to. We can find others to create with. We can play live shows. We can have a cool website. We can have amazing concert posters. We can record a CD. We’ve done it all. It’s been a very rich experience and we’re only just starting.
FW: So you approached it from a sort of “Law of Attraction” direction?
MG: Yes, you could say that. But it really has more to do with a Zen-like approach. From the start, I encouraged the band to try to stay present as far as everyone individually and together focusing on what’s right in front of us. You know, what are we doing now? There was this one time we had a train wreck kind of concert early on. One of the guys said, “We should go over what happened and talk about it.” But we never did. Why? It’s in the past and all we can do is work now, in the moment. Why talk about the past? And as far as the future goes, I’ve encouraged everyone to not expect success, to not think about far off goals, to not have expectations of what’s going to happen. If we focus on the task at hand, that’s going to take us somewhere. And that “somewhere” it has taken us so far has been a state of joy and fun we could never have imagined. The band is sounding so incredibly good right now and everyone is having a blast.
FW: But obviously a sure handed marketer has played a part in the evolution of the band?
MG: Yes, absolutely. You can call it marketing or you can call it promotion. Bands need it, no matter what you call it. I call it, telling the story of the band. So in a sense, I’m a storyteller like the guys are. I’m telling their story. The band definitely has a brand based on who they are. Scott and Lance are both hippie Deadheads. Steven is a hippie surfer beach bum. Jonathan is a rocker and Dave Ryan comes from a Deadhead/bluegrass background. Where they all relate, personally and musically speaking, is their mutual love for these great folk songs and bluegrass tunes and Grateful Dead tunes. It’s all very smart music, it’s classy stuff and the band has transformed into these cool-looking, great sounding indie-folksters. They’re exceptionally kind and positive people and very talented and very hardworking. I’ve had a front row seat to this evolving story and I’ve been there to tell it to the public because I believe it to be a profound story of some depth.
FW: And the story is being told through the social media and posters, as you said, and videos?
MG: Right. And photos. Because the truth of the matter is, high quality images and videos are extremely important nowadays. Bands have to think of themselves as a business entity that requires investment of time and money. Especially if the band wants to make money. I’ll tell you a story about that. I had taken all the early band photos. I thought they were pretty good. But I was having trouble booking us at the type of venues we really wanted to play. They weren’t responding.
We had the good luck to meet Bob Vitti, who is one of the greatest music photographers on the planet. To make a long story short, he shot the band. He took these incredibly provocative images that captured all of the band’s best qualities. I went back and resent all the emails I had sent out before but with Bob’s images attached. Guess what? About three quarters of those venues responded the second time. Images are that important to telling the story.
Same with videos. Same with a website. Just being a great band isn’t always going to be enough. There has to be provocative, interesting imagery documenting what you’re doing and capturing your vibe, because not everyone is going to just listen. This is the age of reality TV and people want to identify with and be part of a good story. This is one of the really cool things about social media is the community-building part of it. It’s become bigger than just music. That’s a good thing.
FW: How do The Storytellers afford to operate what seems like a turbo marketing machine?
MG: Good question. Marketing like The Storytellers have would be cost prohibitive to most beginning or intermediate bands. Maybe even larger acts as well. Scott and I have been successful in our careers and, as I said earlier, we have more disposable income to spend on The Storytellers because we’re not giving as much money away to Jackson Browne and Tom Petty and the Grateful Dead guys. We’re buying DI Boxes instead of tickets. One of the great things about this approach has been the fact that we all attend more concerts of local bands we’ve met and worked with. It’s much more rewarding, I must say.
But if we’re talking about what really makes the marketing “turbo”, the truth is that money isn’t the most important factor. The Storytellers isn’t just a band. It’s a creative commune. A creative artist cooperative. Music is only one thing we do. There’s the five musicians, there’s me, there’s a small handful of extremely creative and gifted artists who work with me on the posters and graphics. There are a few gifted photographers who capture the band. There are writers and there are poets and there are vegan cooks who feed the band and they are all of our friends.
Everyone is compensated but not always with money. They aren’t working for the band. They are working with the band. They are in the band, so to speak. They aren’t on stage but they don’t want or need to be. They’re creating at high levels too and they’re appreciative to be part of this creative commune of likeminded people eking out some joy in a fast moving life that gets shorter every day.
Communal is the way to go. It’s the way of the future. Why? Because like I just illustrated, it’s the creative commune that is the turbo charge. Bands and musicians can’t do it alone. There are too many of us and we have to find ways to work meaningfully together because if we don’t, then it’s too easy to think we’re all in some competition and we know that sort of thinking and approach doesn’t work.
We’ve been fortunate because we forged friendships with many of these creative people before The Storytellers even existed. But we’ve also formed a few new relationships. What always blows my mind is how serious everyone takes it. Because they love The Storytellers and the music, sure, but also they are just so dedicated to doing their creative work at a high level for the sake of doing it at a high level. That’s what these people are like. The band is the same way.
I find it all deeply inspirational. That’s a lot of power right there. That’s a lot of positive, creative energy being generated that is driving the band in a certain direction that is fun and joyful. Nobody should be waiting around hoping someone else is going to come and create his or her joy. We’ve got to do it ourselves.
FW: That’s amazing. So you would call your approach “communal marketing”?
MG: Yes. That is what I call it. It’s the way to go if you can do it, if you can find the right people to do it with. But it’s worth trying to do it because it’s so deeply rich and enjoyable. Whether you’re the poster artist or the manager or the mandolin player, you do your thing. You create. You practice. You keep doing it without thinking of some end result because with art, there is no end result. It’s all practice. It resets every day or every hour or every minute. You never arrive at anything except maybe death and then you look back at that point and you feel good because you did something. You were creative. You didn’t just consume culture. You helped create it.
That’s communal marketing and it works on every level if you can make it work. And it can make up for a lack of money to invest in your band. There are talented people out there who are able to invest time in “someone else’s thing” because they don’t see it as someone else’s thing. It’s everybody’s thing, whoever wants in, even if they’re not actually singing and strumming on stage. That’s The Storytellers in a nutshell.
FW: What are your thoughts about booking and venues and getting paid?
MG: That’s hard to articulate because there’s so much complexity to it. Simple answer: I think the musician and band gets shafted a lot by the venue managers, but not all of them. I went to a show last night in a bar located in a strip mall. I’d never been there before. I walked in to see a friend’s band perform and I couldn’t believe it. It had a raised stage. It had a great sound system. It had an amazing collection of lights and a disco ball and it had a soundman that appeared to really care about the sound.
Now, for all I know, the band didn’t get paid at all or maybe they got fifty bucks or a hundred and a half, but even if they got nothing but a pitcher of beer, the band still got something of value. Good venue management knows there’s value in what they’re providing if what they provide is high quality. That translates into a higher quality experience for the band. They get to feel like stars and put on a great show for their friends and family and fans if they have them. They can get great pictures and video that will earn them higher quality bookings.
I mean, that’s the kind of experience we’re looking for and if we get $200 bucks, all the better. Because some rich, deep and meaningful experience is really all you can hope for. Once each band member has spent their $20 or $50 on something forgettable, the memory of that great gig lasts a long time and it’s inspirational to a band if they can get an experience like that from time to time.
The problem is that most venues aren’t providing that experience. Good sound is rare. What’s happening far too much is the venue that’s dealing with some promoter who is going to book bands for “free nights” or “community nights” and the bands get nothing for performing. The promoter gets any money made, as does the venue. Then the band’s friends and families are hit with a two drink minimum. That promoter isn’t going to take the time to find acts that make sense performing together. They’re going to demand 3 or 4 acts per night to ensure that each band brings in people so the venue can make as much money as possible on drinks and the band will get only 30 or 45 minutes to play.
We won’t perform at those places. We’re past that. Even so, these unscrupulous venues are still providing something of value for these entry level bands. I mean, you’ve got to start somewhere and it may mean you’ve got to bite the bullet and invest in this type of experience until the band gets better and is able to book at a better venue that provides a better experience and gives you a little cash, too.
At this point, we know which places are wonderful to deal with and which aren’t. We have a little list!
FW: David Burns, the renowned banjoist of Sligo Rags is listed on your website as a band member and performs with you from time to time. Is he a full-fledged band member?
MG: Dave is a full-fledged band member. He’s just very hard to nail down because he’s in two notable bands and he’s always performing. I’m glad you asked about Dave because he’s been so important to our story. He’s really been a mentor to the band. At some point early on in the game I contacted him through an ad and persuaded him to come and rehearse with us to see if he wanted to join us for a performance. I had no idea the guy was a virtuoso player. I didn’t have enough information to do my homework because I do believe it’s always important to know who you’re talking to.
He showed up and of course he just shredded like he always does, while still playing, well, down to our level. He was so kind and so generous and so honest. He gave us a lot of valuable feedback about showmanship and arrangements. Of course, we didn’t think we’d ever see him again but he kept coming back. He loves the guys and the guys adore him. He’s super funny and has this hilarious self-depreciating humor that’s all the funnier because he’s so incredibly good.
He performs with us at all our big shows and at some of the smaller shows if he has the day open. One thing for sure, he’s one of those fabulous musicians that brings the playing of the entire band up to his level. I think that’s what makes everyone want to perform with him. He’s always so pleased with the progress of the band when we do get together.
Bill Birrell of The Rattlesnakes bluegrass band is another musician who has been there for us. He’s a phenomenal singer and mandolin player and he’s also performed with the band. When you get really good players to play with you, it’s like the proverbial shot in the arm of adrenaline. It’s inspired the band. It’s one of those signs that show you you’re on the right path.
FW: You mentioned The Storytellers brand earlier. Can you sum up what the brand means?
MG: Yes. Absolutely. The message of The Storytellers and the music is to do. To decrease the consumption of culture and increase the creation of it. If you consider yourself a music lover and you don’t play an instrument or sing, then you might be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t try to do some creating. The self-discipline is so rewarding. The commitment is rewarding. Creating in and of itself is rewarding. Collaborating with people you care about to create music is rewarding and if you don’t try, you never get to find out what it’s like on that side of the story.
We’re not leaves at the mercy of the wind. We have a say in our stories, which is just another word for our lives. Make that story a good one.