Thrasher started putting together shows as a side project at EJ’s, a club he worked at in the mid-90s while playing in local bands. Growing up in Portland, he says he always knew he wanted to work in music and for himself. “I was better at business than playing guitar,” he says.
The Dutch metal band Epica rocks the house at the Hawthorne Theater during a typically packed show organized by Thrasher. Thrasher Presents specializes in punk, metal and indie artists.
EJ’s didn’t have live music when Thrasher started but the alternative scene was starting to pop up in Seattle and Portland had its own cumulus of alternative bands on the verge of breaking. Thrasher brought in the Cherry Poppin’ Daddy’s, Hippo and Heavy, and the bands brought in customers. As the bigger live venues in town booked up, Thrasher started signing national bands that couldn’t get in elsewhere.
Slowly, he started booking bands at other venues around town, and three years after his first show at EJ’s, Thrasher set out on his own. At EJ’s, the goal was always to get people in to buy drinks at the bar. When he switched to full-time promoting, the goal became selling tickets to shows. To attract the widest audience possible, Thrasher started throwing all-ages shows, something that’s remained the majority of his business.
He’s also stuck to working with under-the-radar bands at smaller venues, something that has allowed him to take advantage of changes in the music and promotion business over the last decade. The biggest musical acts these days are selling fewer records than ever before and touring has become one of the main ways musicians make a living. That means the concert business, once dominated by big acts playing — and selling out — the biggest venues in town, is now cluttered with not-so-big acts that tour more than ever and play smaller clubs. These days, selling more tickets means booking more shows to a large extent.
The indie band OK GO has built an ongoing relationship with Thrasher. The band played the Hawthorne Theater in May and returned to film a commercial in Portland in July.
“He’s the first one I’ve ever seen that became a strong independent presence based on starting from that format,” says David Leiken, owner of the Roseland Theater and Double Tee, Portland’s longest-running promotion company. Leiken started in the 1970s and has focused on bringing in the biggest acts. “Mike, I think, was the first one to develop his niche in the smaller rooms and create a business model that worked. I would have never wanted to do that necessarily. For me, I look at it and I think, ‘Jeez, that kid works his fingers to the bone.’”
Thrasher has done it by focusing on specific genres and building up his street team so that the Mike Thrasher Presents name is recognizable to devoted fans of indie, punk, metal and electronica music looking to hear the latest buzz band.
“He’s got the best street team in Portland,” Solomon says. “If you’re a punk rock kid you know Mike Thrasher shows. If you’re an indie kid, you go to see what’s the next hot thing coming up.”
The biggest part of Thrasher’s business is promoting, or what he calls community outreach. When he started, selling tickets meant buying print and radio ads. These days it means reaching out to audiences where they are — blogs, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter — and partnering for ticket giveaways with local businesses and groups like Bishop’s barbershops, roller derby team Rose City Rollers and radio stations.
Thrasher prefers to work with smaller bands playing smaller venues that fit 1,500 people, not 10,000, particularly in this economy. “I’m gun shy on arena shows,” he says. “It’s a lot of risk.”
It also allows him to grow with a band, as he’s done with the Killers and the White Stripes, two groups he brought to town when they were largely unknown and worked with again once they hit big. When the Killers first came through town, Thrasher did their show at Dante’s, a small downtown club in Portland. Then they broke and came back, again working with Thrasher, this time for a show at the Rose Garden. When lead singer Brandon Flowers came through Portland in November on a tour for his solo effort, Thrasher put on his show at the Roseland.
Picking the acts on their way to fame and not headed for obscurity is an art in itself, particularly as record sales, which once were a reliable guide, continue to slide. Thrasher says he partly bases it on relationships with agents he’s worked with before and trusts, partly based on record sales and radio play, and partly on Internet success and blog traffic the band generates. “The best indicator is past track record, then solid representation, a good label,” he says.
A promoter’s job involves everything from negotiating with band managers and agents on musician fees (which can range from $100 to $100,000 depending on the group and the venue), selecting venues and setting ticket prices to the smaller details involved in putting on a concert such as getting the band dinner. In the early years, Thrasher was a one-man operation, handling every aspect.
“Early on Mike was at every show. That’ll burn you out quick,” Leiken says. “I have respect for it. I’ve been there and done that. I understand what it means to be in Medford, to close a show, get up at 5 a.m., drive to the next place and do it again and do it six nights in a row like that.”