Donnie Biggins is a linchpin of the Chicago live music scene. Beginning with his time with the Chicago Roots Collective and up to his current promotion/management company Harmonica Dunn, he has aspired to build a community that is centered around musicians.
His latest project is a 3 Day Festival called Dunn Dunn Fest, which will be taking place the 20th-22nd of February at Tonic Room, Schubas, and Lincoln Hall. I got the chance to have a long talk with him about his projects and goals, his band (The Shams Band), and his inspirational perspective on the Chicago scene.
I bet you’ve got a lot of great Folk/ Americana records in your vinyl collection. What’s one record that you’ve been listening to a lot lately?
Michael Trent – The Winner. He’s one half of Shovels and Rope. Honestly I listen to a lot of Chicago Music, so if it’s available on vinyl I try to get it as much as possible. A lot of oldies right now; I inherited my dad’s record collection. My band just came out with a record.
Cold City right? Why’d you decide to put that on vinyl?
We wanted to hear ourselves on vinyl. We only made 100 copies.
Where did you find somewhere that would print 100 copies?
We went through Rainbo Records. The problem we ran into with that number was they print a minimum of 500 jackets so we ended up having handmade screen-prints for the jackets. We hired a screen-printer to change our album cover from 15+ to 3 colors. It ended up taking a lot longer, but in the end it looks more like a handmade product and we think that people will like it more because it’s a piece of art.
On the Harmonica Dunn site you list a personal mission statement that says you want to change the promoter/ artist relationship in the city of Chicago. You go on to say you’re going to start small by changing the way shows work at Tonic Room. What are you doing for artists there at Tonic Room?
I’m trying to provide the room to artists for as cheap as possible. When you book at other venues, their production cost is always really high. Before I worked at Tonic Room it was basically a bar with music, but there was never a sound engineer or anything. I brought in a team of sound engineers and that’s our only cost. I don’t take a promoter profit because I want as much as possible going to the bands. I want to provide the room to touring bands that I can bill with local bands, and once they’re hitting 100 people (a sold out show at Tonic Room), then I think it’s appropriate for them to move on to a bigger club.
It’s great to be able to be on the road and say you’re playing at a big club, but you’re probably going to lose money. Being in a band that tours, the last thing you need is to lose money on a night. We only charge for sound, and we eliminate those costs at 100 people paid. Realistically it should be easy to get 100 people to a show between three or four bands on a Friday night. I don’t have any money to advertise, no way to raise money so I rely on booking the right talent that will promote themselves, that I can get behind and convince people that this is worth seeing. Also word of mouth. I don’t think you need to print ads in the Reader, or print posters and put them around town anymore.
How much do you think modern show promotion should be done online, and how much should be hitting the pavement, flyering, et cetera?
I think that everything can be done online. That’s what I concentrate on because it’s a free market, outside of Facebook advertising which I think is the worst thing that’s ever happened. It’s the worst for pages because you work so hard to build your numbers up and it’s limited at 10%. It’s really hurting us even more, and it’d be nice to not be the target of taking money away from something that people love.
What’s the next step for your mission of improving the promoter/artist relationship?
The goal is to maintain the relationship with the artists that I’m able to build. I have relationships with other venues to put on shows.
What other venues do you work with?
I book at Lincoln Hall, Schubas, Subterranean, Beat Kitchen, Empty Bottle, Fitzgeralds, more on a month to month basis: if I have something good for them and it’ll be too big for Tonic Room. Unfortunately, I have to work within their deal so there’s no real change I can make since I’m not in charge. The goal is that it can affect some of the bigger people to lower their costs. If a show is going to go to tonic room instead of elsewhere, I want those people to wonder why.
Then hopefully bands will create a loyalty to Tonic Room.
Yeah, if I keep the relationships everywhere I can, artists can do a show through me.
What about bands that are just starting out, that don’t have a great draw yet?
That’s even more reason to play Tonic Room: you can get started there and really find other bands to build yourself off of. If you can become friends with other bands, that’s the key to success.
Tell me a little bit about Harmonica Dunn.
It’s a made-up name my guitar player came up with and I took it as a promoter name. The goal is to be the contact for touring artists. I happen to enjoy roots music the most. It’s coming back in a positive way, with Mumford and Sons and such, but I think there’s a lot better artists that just aren’t known. My goal is to be able to get those artists in Chicago and get them known.
I noticed that, while they’re all completely unique, the artists you manage can are all at least vaguely folkish.
Songwriting is really important to me. I enjoy reading lyrics, and that’s sort of why I got into music: for the writing aspect of it. That style of music is really lyrically driven, good harmonies, good singing. I like working with Nashville artists because they can all sing really well. Even if they draw no people, I like to book them. I manage five artists, then there’s a lot of Chicago bands that typically work with me on all their shows. It’s never a contractual agreement or anything, but I’ll set up their release shows, build the lineups.
There’s this thing called the Chicago Roots Collective, which was a group of ten artists that myself, Danny Surico from The Future Laureates and Tate Troelstrup from How Far to Austin started. We had this idea of learning how to book shows together; that all ten of us would work together to promote our shows. We didn’t know anything about how to book a show at Double Door or anywhere really, so we started doing that. When Lincoln Hall opened I started hosting what was called the Chicago Roots Collective Showcase. Once a month we featured four Chicago artists that wouldn’t have had the opportunity to play there. I did that for twenty-two months straight. I got to know tons of people that way and got my name out there. It sort of turned into Harmonica Dunn.
What motivated you to set up Dunn Dunn fest?
Fitzgerald’s has something called the American Music Fest every July. Fitzgerald’s is my favorite venue ever, I grew up in Oak Park, their American Music Fest is blues, roots, everything. They’ve been having it for over thirty years and it’s one of my favorite fests of the year. I wanted to create something on my own similar to that where it’s not technically genre specific: I don’t want to pigeonhole but, you know, stuff based around a guitar. I can give it a silly name so that I can bring in new music, different artists every year. The idea is that this year will be three days and we’ll continue to build it. Hopefully to a week-long thing in the future at every venue I work with so that I’m not leaving anyone out and there’s a new environment every night. That’s the main idea of it, and this is the test run.
Every summer we have street fests every weekend, but there’s not much in the winter besides Tomorrow Never Knows and Chicago Bluegrass and Blues Fest. It’d be cool to have something that could build up into a South by Southwest. That’s the major idea in the end: something that people would really want to come in for or play it. I’ll probably never have the budget for something like that but everything starts small.
Awesome. What’s next from The Shams band?
Going on tour. We started working with an agency called Vulcan Army who were booking Shovels and Rope, a band that’s doing really well right now that are friends of ours. They helped us get into this small agency out of Nashville. We’re basically going out every month on weekend runs, Spring break tour, Summer tours. Trying to get to 100 shows in a year. I had a daughter in August.
Thanks. I had to chill out for a while, but the time is now. You don’t want to fall into the hobby-ness of playing Chicago every three or four weeks because you’ll kill your fan-base. We’ve got a February run. Cold City was our third recording, we recorded it in a cottage in Michigan with our friend Wes who turned the house into a recording studio. We love the quality of it, and we’ll probably do it that way in the future.
Why should our readers check out Dunn Dunn Fest?
It has some very good local and national talent. I’m thinking that the environment itself will be based on musicians so you’ll be in this community of artists that work together and promote each other. That’s what I’ve been able to build so far in Chicago. We can all make it if we work together instead of pitting ourselves against each other or creating bad relationships with one another. Chicago’s not considered a great music city from the national perspective.
Why do you think that is?
Some people consider Chicago artists hobby musicians and not trying to actually make it, that’s just not fair. People need to work, people have families. It’s a Midwestern characteristic that you work hard and provide.
Do you think we’re oversaturated?
Maybe, but we’re not more over saturated than LA or New York or Nashville or Austin. My friends in Nashville say that they can’t get people to come to their shows because everyone else is a musician. For the most part they don’t have the camaraderie that we do. At a given Shams show, there will be 25-30 musicians in the audience because we’ve built our relationships with people. We go to their shows, they go to ours. We absolutely do have a vibrant community.
You can pick up single day tickets to Dunn Dunn Fest for $10 each, or get yourself a 3-day pass for just $25. Next week we’ll be bringing you more details about the Fest as well as your chance to win a pair of 3-day passes!