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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Going Big and Going Broke: Promoter Robbie Kowal on 15 Years of Putting on Concerts in S.F.

Posted By on Tue, Mar 8, 2011 at 2:17 PM

Sunset Promotion's John Miles (left) and Robbie Kowal
  • Sunset Promotion's John Miles (left) and Robbie Kowal

Tonight, with its Mardi Gras Ball at Mezzanine*, Sunset Promotions celebrates 15 years of putting on parties and concerts in San Francisco. Its resume includes the Sea of Dreams New Year's Eve parties, the North Beach Jazz Festival, and SF Weekly's own All Shook Down Music Festival, along with a slew of other events. Sunset has done shows with James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Janelle Monae, and many more big and small artists. But Sunset is still run out of apartments, and counts only four full-time employees, including its founders. Curious to find out what the S.F. music scene is like for those who don't get up onstage, we sat down with Sunset co-founder Robbie Kowal for a conversation about picking shows, losing money, and why S.F. is special. (We're interested in talking to other behind-the-scenes people, too. If you or someone know you know has an interesting perspective on the S.F. music industry, hit us up at

What do you do?

I'm the co-founder and director of Sunset Promotions. We're an S.F.-based boutique music promotions company. We specialize in two things: Music that makes people dance -- and I don't mean specifically dance music, because there's a connotation that it's all electronic. The other thing we do is help emerging artists ... get from places like Mojito and Cafe Du Nord and the Elbo Room to places like the Fillmore, Mezzanine, and Regency.

Explain the process of putting on a show.

You want to do a show. You grab a hold at a venue. You put in an offer for the artists you want put in that venue. You negotiate the price, you confirm the artists at the venue, and then you start promoting the heck out of the show to hope that you make the money you need to pay all the expenses that you entail. The promoter gets paid last, takes all the risk. Typically we'll walk into a show knowing we have to sell 60, 70 percent of the room just to break even. And if we lose [money], we still pay everybody.

What's the most you've ever lost on a show?

Double six-figures. Over $200,000. That wasn't a show in S.F. It was another -- Aretha Franklin in Washington, D.C. We got murdered. We got our butts kicked. That said, we paid all our bills, and we lived to fight another day.

How and why did you get into this insane business, and why was your first show a Mardi Gras night?

I had lived in New Orleans for five years, and [co-founder] John [Miles] had been a [production assistant] on New Orleans Jazz Fest. So we were both brass band junkies. Most people grew up, they were into hip-hop or whatever. I was completely owned by Rebirth Brass Band. We got into funk from the brass band scene, because in New Orleans, the brass band nights were the only places where all the races could get together in a really egalitarian happy medium. There was a lot of segregation, racism, in New Orleans, but it does not translate to the dancefloor. John I think was the same way. Both of us were just New Orleans music junkies. We founded the company to bring New Orleans bands out here, and we're still bringing Rebirth out.

You're from Boston originally and you've lived in New Orleans. Why start your company in San Francisco?

What makes S.F. so special is what really glares at me when I go back to Boston: the fact that everybody gets along here in general. You just don't see people get in fights, or act like idiots. In Boston, you go out at night, you see people get drunk and get in fights -- that's just what they do. Here we go out and we get into each other. We meet people, we connect with people, we dance with each other, we talk to each other. This is really a city of very interesting people who seem really interested in getting to know each other. A really open city. I think the Burning Man experience has a really good effect in that regard, but it also goes all the way back to this ethos of what S.F. means to people, the myth of S.F.

How has the city's scene changed since you started Sunset in 1996?

People that were here in the '90s will tell you that it was a better time, because the underground was incredibly powerful then. People were breaking into warehouses and throwing parties, and that was a very beautiful and innocent time. That's not really possible anymore, because there's no space anymore, and because of all the crackdowns on that sort of thing. On the other hand, there are so many great clubs, so many great facilities. Why do you need to break into a warehouse when you could just go do a show at Mezzanine or Public Works or Mighty?

What's the hardest part about this business?

The hardest thing is putting it aside when you lose badly. If [a show is] a failure, if nobody comes, we've let the artist down, we've let the community down, and we've also lost money. So it's like a triple nut-punch. And then there's that morning after. It used to be, when John and I lived together out in the Sunset, we had a big apartment out there ... We'd always have that inevitable Sunday afternoon where we'd order in Chinese food and just hide from the world because we were so miserable.

Do you have a mantra when it comes to doing shows?

The thing I've learned from doing this so long, it's always going to be a gamble. So you have to ensure two things. One, you don't want to lose on something you don't care about. We never book a show that we don't really believe in. The second thing is you have to be able to walk away from that event knowing that you did an excellent job for the artist and for the attendees. So if you lose money, at least you're proud of the work you did.

*Correction: This post originally stated that tonight's Mardi Gras Ball is at Mighty. It is actually at Mezzanine. We regret the error.

Follow us on Twitter @SFAllShookDown, follow Ian S. Port @iPORT, and like us at

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