Stoned Cobra | Photos by Mateo Montoya
Black Tongue Books Birmingham
By Jonathan Patrick
Birmingham has been slowly inching forward, trying to surface as a regional presence in popular music over the past decade. Its sluggish pace has less to do with the city lacking local potential and more to do with available resources, which until recently were scant at best.
With Communicating Vessels' emphasis on touring the hell out of bands on their roster and a variety of venues--The Firehouse, The Syndicate Lounge, and Saturn, to name a few--giving a stage for local music and D.I.Y. art in general, Birmingham's music scene is the most focused it has been in years. A new, quintessential element the city has been waiting on, one found throughout neighboring powerhouses Atlanta and Nahville, has finally landed.
Black Tongue Booking, founded by Amber Ritchie, LaShunda Simpson, and Lindsey Shante, launched last Saturday. Solid booking is the difference between a profitable tour and a band going broke. It's founders are no lightweights, either. The femme headed company plans on taking the southeast in a tour de force, leading their largely male roster out of regional and national obscurity by properly touring and exposing them to a broader audience. Black Tongue Booking's roster boasts a broad variety of acts, spanning from genres such as stoner metal to hip-hop. We interviewed Amber Ritchie to get a better idea of how this crucial resource came to fruition and how exactly they will be serving the bands on their roster.
How did Blacktongue booking come to exist? How'd the three of you come to the conclusion that you were the ones to make it happen?
I actually had the idea to start a small agency on my own sometime last year when I really felt there was a need for it in Birmingham. I gave a lot of thought to who I wanted to ask to join me. I always admired Lindsey’s resilience and hard work and was constantly impressed with the great shows and tours she’d book for herself at some venues it took me FOREVER to get in with, haha. She really is a talented artist and understands the struggles of being a musician more than I do.
I’ve known LaShunda for a long time when she was booking shows around Tuscaloosa and managing Dirty Lungs. She took a step back to focus on school, but she’d always done a really great job and never took no for an answer. I really admired her a lot and once she graduated, I knew she’d have a lot more time to devote to this endeavor.
I wanted to create an all-women company as well, to have more of us working in the scene and hopefully inspire younger gals to be involved in this “boy’s club” as well. It can be frustrating being the only girl working on a certain project or being on tour and every venue asking which band member is my boyfriend, so it’s always so empowering to work with other gals on the road.
What is it exactly that you guys are going to provide the bands with, and at what cost?
We offer full tour management. All three of us have different management styles. Personally, I first determine the bands’ goals and availability (creating a sharable band calendar is the easiest way to do this), set up a route and (of course) work with venues and other bands to book the shows and negotiate “show swaps” – obviously a lot of promotion is involved afterward. I also set up the budget, itinerary and schedule, calculate mileages and gas costs, draft and send contracts to secure guarantees, commission graphic design, secure lodging as needed, conduct complete correspondence with venues and bands sharing the bill for set times, technical specifications, hospitality, etc., and provide our bands with day-of-show contacts and information they need in our absence. If a band has a record label, I also do a lot of communication with them as well in determining budgeting and ensuring that everyone is in the loop, so to speak. I personally answer emails for my bands and pretty much run their social media pages myself. I also give bands access to our collective, somewhat extensive contact database, which can be really helpful in a pinch.
Media outreach and publicity is a huge deal to me, being a journalist. I always try to at LEAST get the show on alternative or college newspapers’ calendars, but I prefer to have an interview or radio spot for each city the bands play in. These show/album reviews are also good opportunities to grab good quotes to maintain bands’ EPKs. It allows the bands to meet “tastemaker”-type folks in different cities to create a recognizable name for themselves on the road. People don’t give journalists nearly as much credit as they deserve!
And there’s also a lot of little things. For instance, if news sites need high-resolution images, then I’ll just grab my old Canon Rebel and take a few shots in a cool location. Or if I can’t commission an artist quickly, I’ll draw a little sketch and scan it to share on social media.
I also go on tour with the bands whenever possible. That part of the job is usually a lot of merchandise selling and inventory, time management and making sure no one dies or gets arrested.
I also love booking local shows as well, allowing the bands to meet great touring acts. Sometimes you have to be a good judge of what opportunities will really benefit the bands and which to turn down.
Who is on your roster?
The Green Seed
Secret Midnight Band
We really strived to have a diverse roster, to encompass all the little pockets of the Birmingham music scene.
When does the first tour kick off?
We’ll be booking weekend runs for most of the bands starting out. I’m setting up shows for Dirty Lungs surrounding SXSW, Lindsey will be booking shows for herself during that time as well. Holy Youth will likely be our first tour though, as their album will be released in the spring!
The southeast is a broad, but culturally rich while simultaneously culturally thirsty place. Where do you consider the booking agency's hot spots and what is the importance of playing a smaller town like Birmingham or Tuscaloosa versus Nashville, Atlanta, or New Orleans?
We run into a lot of DIY booking agencies when traveling to bigger cities, and often large booking agencies at times, which admittedly can be somewhat intimidating. We hope that Black Tongue can create a hype and legitimacy to have our Birmingham bands taken more seriously in their efforts.
Playing Tuscaloosa and Birmingham can be extremely beneficial in broadening bands’ horizons. Both cities work very differently since Tuscaloosa is a college town, so getting on a good bill at a good spot on a good date can be tricky, but will definitely benefit bands on their future tours through the South. If anything, I always hope we can provide these bands with good hospitality and a good time while they’re here.
I’ve heard a lot of bands hate on Birmingham pretty hard, having bad experiences with clubs, bands and less than great crowds, but since moving here, it’s definitely growing and becoming a destination spot on bands’ routes. Tuscaloosa isn’t always as widely known, so I usually try to help bands coming to Birmingham get a spot at Druid City Brewing as well if time permits. My boyfriend, Ronnie Gipson, has lived there his whole life and really has great insight whenever I need help. The scene is a bit smaller than Bham’s, but the people involved are so kind and work extremely hard. Baak Gwai and Looksy are a couple of my favorite bands and Egan’s, Green Bar and Druid City Brewing are all fantastic venues and I hope they continue to gain popularity among touring acts.
To follow up with that question, what will the booking agency's beat be? What cities will see a lot of Black Tongue bands come through?
The sky’s the limit! Dang, Linsey is booking shows in Canada and South America! Routes I’ve always liked are Chicago and back, middle-Texas and back, and of course up along the East coast to New York is always pretty easy. Getting to the West Coast is more difficult because you have to calculate just days of driving through the dang desert, haha. A lofty goal of mine is budgeting to book a European or UK tour someday.
There's an opinion out there that the reason many Birmingham bands couldn't quite break through in the southeast was because they simply did not tour enough. Having a booking agency like you dudes around, making the pains of scheduling the right venue on the right date in the midst of practice and the musicians' day to days, is a huge deal. It could mean better connections for bands who might have otherwise gone unheard. It's also so rad that you're working with relatively small acts. Even though we exist in an internet age, playing other cities and making a personal connection and impression with listeners is essential. Would you agree? What are the end goals you as a booking agency see, outside of band finances, in touring?
Thank you so much for saying that. Our goal is to help bands break through and gain as much notoriety as possible. The internet is great but also so saturated that a lot of great bands can get lost. Jeffrey Cain at Communicating Vessels has always maintained that touring is of high importance in a band’s success and I agree – personal relationships will always mean a lot more. Dirty Lungs dudes are like my brothers. They’re always down for anything. We’ve worked together forever and traveling to Southeastern cities we’ve never been to before on weekend runs can be pretty fun and we usually have a great time and meet a lot of cool folks. Our bands can all pack out a venue in Birmingham, like at TrimTab this past weekend, but sometimes the out of town shows aren’t as wonderful, but you gain a lot of important relationships if you work hard and maintain a good attitude about it. It’s definitely a labor of love. I know we all have day jobs, relationships, families and other commitments, so I hope that Black Tongue can help make each tour (even if it’s only once a year) really worthwhile.
Amber, you've been involved with venues for quite some time. I believe we first met when you were coordinating interns and a lot of promotion at Bottletree (I was one of those little interns, throwing up posters, etc), five or six years ago. What have you been up to since then?
Aw, so long ago… After BottleTree, I was still in college, so I took a little break to focus on graduating. After that, I started taking over LaShunda’s responsibilities for Dirty Lungs so she could earn her master’s degree. That was right when they were first signed to Communicating Vessels, and I consider it a blessing to work with someone as committed as Bekah Fox there. They experienced lineup changes and took a step back from playing shows to work on their newest album. During that time, I was doing a lot of writing and had a podcast through Vulcanite Radio that involved a lot of local artists. Other than that, I was planning a lot of local charitable/fundraising-type shows, and started doing some shows in Tuscaloosa, but Ronnie and I had to take a break from music stuff while he was recovering from being shot. Last fall, I booked a run with Dirty Lungs and Bad Cologne together and hit a lot of weird, unlucky snags that I’d never experienced before, so around that time is when I really wanted to take all I’d learned and seriously pursue starting a small agency. I was pretty nervous and unsure if anyone would care for the idea but our launch has been pretty successful and I’m so thankful for all the people involved in helping us start out.