Chase Wessel, Talent Buyer & Production Director for Levitt Pavilion Denver
MEET CHASE WESSEL
Chase has a passion for music that has manifested into a myriad of opportunities. From considering a degree to become a music educator to getting a gig working on the Conan O’Brien show in Los Angeles, Chase’s career has run the gamut in the music industry. While the live event industry is enticing for many, it’s not just about hosting your favorite band and serving booze! Learn the in’s and out’s of what it takes to be the Talent Buyer and Production Director for a large-scale venue like the Levitt Pavilion Denver.
LEVITT PAVILION DENVER
The Levitt Pavilion Denver is a non-profit established with the purpose of building community through music. Levitt believes in embracing the local, including the musicians, architects, construction company, staff, artists, and sponsors. More than being just another music venue – it is a nexus for local non-profits and arts groups across the Rocky Mountain region presenting fifty free concerts annually with local, regional, national and international acts across a spectrum of music genres. The pavilion is family-friendly with a relaxed, open lawn setting featuring local food vendors, state-of-the-art sound, and lighting.
LET’S DO THIS
LDT: What path led you to Denver?
CW: I’ve always been a musician.
I started playing trumpet in 5th grade. I loved it so much in high school that I really thought I wanted to be a music teacher. So I actually went on scholarship to the University of Northern Colorado to be a music education major and once I started student teaching I realized I definitely didn’t want to do that.
I played in a lot of different bands, both on trumpet and bass guitar. I found myself coming down to Denver from Greeley a lot, but once I realized I didn’t want to be a music educator, I realized I still wanted to work in music – that had always been my biggest passion. I realized CU Denver had a great Music Tech Program. I changed schools and majors to be a Music Tech focus and at the time that program was specific to recording studios.
But that’s not what I wanted to do. I was all about live music. Once I learned the basic tech stuff, I started working at the Meadowlark, doing sound over there. The Meadowlark got me into Larimer Lounge. Then I changed my major from music tech to music business. I wanted to expand myself more, to what I didn’t know, which was the music business side of things.
I started interning over at Larimer Lounge as a Marketing Intern and after that first semester, I was hired as the Marketing Manager. So I was able to do a lot more than just the marketing at Larimer. I was able to dabble in sound. At the time, James Irvine was the Talent Buyer over there and was one of my best friends. He started letting me book some of the local shows over there. I really enjoyed the booking side of it, even though at first I had no idea what I was doing. I had so many friends in bands. I played in bands and when bands came through I saw where else they were playing so maybe next time they came through I could help them get a show.
After being in that small rock club scene, I kind of wanted a change. I had lived in Colorado my entire life but had always wanted to check out the west coast, so I moved to LA. I picked up little jobs here and there and was working on the Sunset Strip club scene doing stagehand and tech work. And from there I started working with a local backline company (Lon Cohen Studio Rentals) and that company was supplying all the backline for the Conan O’Brien show. I spent most days at the Conan show through the backline company and then was just working on Conan almost full time from there – which was awesome.
I also got the opportunity to do the Jimmy Kimmel show. Basically, any late night show that had music, I had the opportunity to set up the bands on that show, which was incredible. The backline company that got me in with Conan was also the same backline company that supplied the Levitt Pavilions in Pasadena and Los Angeles.
Levitt LA and Levitt Pasadena were previously two separate entities. In 2010 they became one entity, Levitt Pavilion Greater Los Angeles and Pasadena. The idea was to get some block booking. Because of that, they needed to hire new staff and someone to oversee production at both venues. And that had always been my goal – to have my own venue that I could handle the sound and artist, and have my own venue to put awesome music in. Working with Levitt was the first step in the direction to being able to do that.
I came on full time as Production Manager. I was just handling production, advancing shows, audio, lighting, security, day of logistics… The job was a little overwhelming for the current talent buyer because he went from 50 shows to 100 shows. The whole point of merging was to be able to block book the venues because they were so close together. On Friday you could have an artist at Pasadena then Saturday at Los Angeles.
The issue with that is they are completely different demographics. Pasadena is wealthy/ caucasian. Las Angeles was in MacArthur Park, which is a huge melting pot of cultures. You have everything from Mexicans to Cubans to people from Panama, Colombia… so a very large Latin American community. But you also have a big African American community there.
It was much different programming because they’re completely different culturally. So the idea of block booking didn’t work nearly as well because you’re booking folk rock for Pasadena then you put that in LA and no one comes to see it. Same thing in LA – you could book an incredible cumbia band and you bring it to Pasadena and it tanks. Even though they’re close in proximity, the culture and demographic is completely different.
The talent buyer was overwhelmed and wasn’t able to oversee the end of the season. Me being willing to help and be a team player – I had done the booking stuff on a local level, so I knew how to do it but I just hadn’t done it on a national level. That was something I had to jump into because we didn’t have another choice as an organization.
The following years it was me, the executive director Renee Bodie, and another incredible talent buyer, Anya Siglin, who books the Ark in Michigan. The three of us booked those two venues for the following years.
Flash forward four years… I met Chris Zacher, the Executive Director of Levitt Denver. In doing his due diligence, he toured all of the Levitt Pavilions. Denver is the seventh. Before Levitt Denver, there was Pasadena & Los Angeles, California; Arlington, Texas; Memphis; Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; and West Port, Connecticut.
He met with all the production managers and said — what do you love? What do you hate? What do your artists wish they had? What do production managers wish they had? What does security wish they had?
He was able to learn from all the Levitts and was able to build the biggest and best one based on all the feedback from other pavilions.
One thing I had really wanted at Los Angeles and Pasadena were actual showers for artists. It seems like something so little, but a warm, hot shower is like gold when you’re on tour. When an artist sees that, their eyes light up and it’s just something as simple as a shower. Next time they roll through it’s like, oh yes! We’re going to Levitt they have a shower, a professional green room with full-sized mirrors and reclining couches so we can really make them feel at home. Our venue should be a home away from home for the artist.
I was able to talk with Chris over the years while he was in the building phase and fundraising for the venue. We were constantly seeing each other at conferences: Folk Alliance, APAP, Pollstar… We were able to see each other a few times a year. I was able to see how everything was coming along with the venue.
Half of the reason I left Denver was there wasn’t an opportunity for me like there was in Los Angeles with Levitt. Levitt in Denver is really filling a void for the city. There is nothing, outdoor venue-wise in Denver city proper. Since I lived in Denver for five years before I moved to Los Angeles, I loved it here and once we got closer and closer to Levitt Denver being open, Chris approached me and said, “Hey! Would you like to come back to Denver and run production and buy talent for this thing?”
It was a no-brainer. I loved LA and it gave me opportunity but I always viewed Denver as my home. And having the opportunity to come back and do something I loved was an incredible opportunity. I went to Los Angeles for a new adventure, change of scenery, and because that’s where the work was.
No regrets though! I found my beautiful wife there and gained a lot of experience to bring back to Denver.
LDT: What is a typical day in your life?
CW: My day to day varies during concert season and offseason. During concert season we do fifty free concerts and another dozen to twenty ticketed shows per Summer. We run from the end of May to early October with concerts.
Outside of those months, I am scouting talent and taking holds for the calendar for the next Summer and getting the following Summer all booked up with artists. It’s a tedious process – each date is going to have four to eight artist holds and that artist will be holding four to five other dates as well to keep routing options open. It’s really figuring out the jigsaw puzzle to see where everyone can fit and be routed the most efficiently. Outside of concert season, the days aren’t too stressful – it’s more of a 9 – 5.
Concert season is a different beast. A month or so before the season starts is when I start advancing shows with artists. Artists are constantly on the road so they will call or email when it’s convenient for them when they’re driving from city to city or done with soundcheck at a certain place. I can get a phone call during the day or at 8:00 am or 8 pm. What’s difficult about that is keeping your sanity and finding a healthy balance of work life and family life, because of the always changing, erratic hours.
There are so many things that go into keeping your sanity during the season because there are no normal hours. During the off-season you’re 9:00 – 5:00 or 10:00 – 6:00, but during the concert season you really have to find that healthy balance for what works for you.
It’s about rolling with the punches with a good crew that is willing to adapt to other people’s schedules. The biggest challenge is adapting to touring schedules. As much as we would like to keep things formulaic… it would be so simple – sometimes we are able to do that, depending on the routing with the artist, what city they were in the night before what city they’re going to be in next, whether they have an off day.
It’s about adapting to the artist and trying to keep your sanity. You might have to load in at 7:00 am, load out at midnight then be back the next morning at 7:00 am for the next load in. But maybe you won’t…
Or maybe the artist’s bus broke down and they’re going to miss soundcheck so you do a simple line check and keep your fingers crossed. It’s about being able to adapt to an ever-changing daily schedule and being able to communicate that to your staff and crew.
A typical day… my crew rolls in around 1:00 in the afternoon. The headlining artist rolls in around 3:00 for a 4:00 pm sound check, sound check for an hour then 1 to 3 support acts load in and sound check. Maybe there is an Artist VIP Meet and Greet. The headlining artist will have a couple hours of downtime that can be dangerous because then the artist has two hours to drink beer, whiskey, eat dinner, they have the opportunity to go offsite if we don’t have catering. That can get dangerous too… they’re supposed to be back by 8 for an 8:30 set and 8:20 rolls around and they’re not there, they’re not answering the phone then they come back.
You have to cross your fingers and hope for the best sometimes. Sometimes it’s the opposite, sometimes they’re proactive and watch the opening band and they’re ready to get on stage before you call them to go out there. You have all ends of the spectrum from the artist.
I like to get my advance started with my artists thirty days before my show. If in that thirty days time, they aren’t ready, then two days before they reach back out – chances are they will need more monitoring and hand-holding than the artist that reaches out to you before you even send the advance. You get an idea of which ones will be responsible and on the ball. And you get an idea from the amount of tour experience they have. A new artist will need more hand-holding whereas a group like 311 that’s been doing it for 20+ years has it all down to the minute and they come with twenty crew people and it goes really smoothly.
LDT: What is your rose? Thorn? I.e. what frustrates or challenges you in your work? And what is the most valuable, exciting part?
CW: The thorn is communication and timing. What’s crazy about musicians is they have this incredible sense of time because of how they write their songs. Their sense of time, like you need to be here in an hour is not nearly the same. I would say timing and communication is a huge one because a lot of times, you’re communicating through channels. You communicate through an agent, who communicates to the artist manager who communicates with the tour manager who communicates with the production manager then it goes back through the chain.
Just like you play the game of telephone what started as a 3:00 pm load in, 4:00 pm soundcheck, somehow becomes 4:00 pm load in and 5:00 pm soundcheck. So that is absolutely the thorn. All of the channels you have to communicate with and the timing with artists.
The rose is when I see families and patrons dancing with a huge smile on their face having a great time. After the show saying, I haven’t heard of this artist they were incredible! Oh my god, these shows are free?! I can’t wait to come back.
Those regular rewards you have from a successful event and successful show.
Once the band starts… Everything leading up to it is a thorn. Once the band starts – the sound hits and the lights turn on and the crowd is screaming. That’s when the rose blooms. That’s when you get to see that work come to fruition. There’s no better feeling than that.
LDT: What do you feel most proud of in your current role?
CW: The most rewarding part is being able to offer high-quality music and high-quality production to families and patrons that normally wouldn’t be able to afford to go see it and experience it. The average ticket in the US is just over $80. So when you take your family of five, just in tickets you’re looking at 400 bucks. Then if you want food, beverages, and a shirt be ready to spend $600 by the end of the night. For some people, that’s a vacation. For me to be able to offer a show that patrons would pay a good sum of money to see at Gothic or Ogden, to be able to offer that free of charge is super rewarding.
LDT: For them to come up and say they got to be in the front row with my wife and son for a show they have wanted to see the last three tours but couldn’t afford a ticket.
CW: The other cool part is I’m able to take some calculated risks for artists that have never come through Colorado or emerging talent that is up and coming. The coolest part about free shows is there are no tickets sold so we don’t have to necessarily have to worry about recouping costs through ticket sales. We have to worry about providing a great experience for patrons.
So our priorities become a little bit different because we’re not as concerned about the sell out of tickets as we are about the end patron experience. At Levitt, we consider ourselves the launching pad for artists and Red Rocks is the landing pad.
For example, take a band like Hippocampus. Last year we had them at Levitt. There were a few thousand people out and this year they’re at Red Rocks. Is that going to happen to a lot of bands in one year? Absolutely not. But it’s pretty damn cool to see that happen and to be able to say all of our patrons got to see this up and coming band completely free of charge.
A lot of times when you’re talking with the agent about a band you like to look at their history in the market. Last time they played the Bluebird and had 604 tix sold and grossed this amount. Maybe they’re up and coming, but they’ve never come through Colorado before. What’s cool is we’re able to take that risk on that band because we’re not concerned about the tickets sold, we’re concerned about end user experience.
LDT: How do you think your market or industry is going to change in the next 5 years? 10 years?
CW: I don’t see it changing a whole ton because right now what works for all parties involved is live music. And live music isn’t going anywhere.
What I see changing is the user experience – having more opportunities to engage with the actual artist. That is coming.
Everyone talks about record sales dying, streaming is where it’s at… That’s true, you have artists using platforms like Spotify to announce concert dates. Music isn’t going anywhere, neither is touring. If anything it’s getting bigger and bigger.
The artists want to be able to connect with their fans on a more personal level so I think you will see more artist meet and greets and a lot more from the artist to the fan – promotions like “buy a T shirt”, “get a meet and greet”, and “buy our cd and get a concert ticket”.
There’s so much content now. You’re getting unreleased videos and audio tracks. You’re getting limited edition T-shirts, hats, and posters. It’s geared more to what the fan wants and the fan wants as much content as they can get from the artist. You’re going to see the artist offering more to the fan, whether it’s merch, meet and greets, sitting in on soundchecks, even as far as traveling with the band from one stop to the next.
You see bands getting creative saying, “Hey! Be a roadie with us for the day.” So the fan gets to see a concert from start to finish, from loading in to sound check. All the dirty nitty gritty stuff you don’t get to see as a fan.
Each interview on Let’s Do This features a guest question from a previous collaborator. This question comes from Alex Schwarz, the Founder of Shoestring Adventures. Shoestring Adventures offers opportunity for people to connect with individuals who share a love for the outdoors. They offer guided weekend camping and backpacking trips across California, as well as group hikes on our local trails outside of Los Angeles.
Alyx Schwarz: Would you do it again? Taking that leap of faith to build your brand or whatever it was that was calling you. Would you do anything differently?
CW: I would 100% do it all again.
I reference this a lot, but the movie “Yes Man” with Jim Carrey – I try to live my life my professional life the same way that he did in that movie. You never see what doors or opportunities are open to you unless you say yes and try it. So I took a chance moving to Los Angeles. All I had was a couch to stay on but I knew there was opportunity there so I took it.
First I’m tech’ing at the Roxie and I say yes to tech’ing for this band who rented their gear from a backline company, which I later end up working for. The next thing you know, I’m working at the Conan show then Levitt Pavilion comes around because of the backline company. Then Levitt asked me if I want to run production on a couple of these venues. It was just like a crazy snowball effect!
One thing has led to another to another to another… all by taking calculated risks on things that have worked or may not have worked. That goes back to the motivation of people – wanting what they’re risking. You can’t dip your toe in, you have to jump in with both feet and fully apply yourself to be the best you can at it.
Whether you’re going to be a roadie tech, tour manager, or production manager, do your best and don’t half-ass it. Did you give everything you really had to try to make it work, or did it seem too hard and you gave up?
The music industry is a cutthroat business and it is not for most. A lot of people think it’s this glamorous thing – Like I’m just going to throw a concert and people are going to drink beer and have lots of fun. But that’s just not the way it is, and until you start working in it, you don’t really understand that.
If a door is open, you never want to close it before you see what’s behind it. And you have to walk through it to know maybe I should walk out of it. Until you fully go in there and see what’s going on and apply yourself 100%, you never really know.
LDT: What’s your question for next interview? What do you want to know?
CW: Is your current passion what you’ve always been passionate about, or did it spawn from something else?
LET’S DO THIS! STOP COLLABORATE & LISTEN
If you’re interested in a future collaboration or learning more about Chase Wessel & Levitt Pavilion, you can connect and follow them using the links below.
MAKE A DONATION
The Levitt Pavilion Denver’s mission is focused on building community through free music and education, increasing access to the arts, and finding common ground in a diverse audience. These events are made possible by the generous support of sponsors and donors. You can make a donation here.