"Experience" is a relative term, and an arguable one at that. For instance, a professional pumpkin carver might have more experience with a knife than a neurosurgeon. Even if that's true, I'm not letting anyone near my brain if a jack-o'-lantern is his or her point of reference. It's not about experience, really. It's about expertise, which is much more rare, gained through many years of effort and wisdom, usually with a fair amount of trial and error. Show-promoter Arden Barnett, owner of Jackson-based booking company Ardenland, certainly has expertise.
Like many great show-promoters, Barnett is something of a ghost at events. While he is at nearly every concert and showcase that bears his name, he's often in the margins, busying himself with behind-the-scenes tasks that most concertgoers wouldn't think twice about. For the bands that he books, though, Barnett's hard work is greatly appreciated.
"He's done a whole lot for Jackson," said Hayden Boyd, lead vocalist and guitarist of local surf-rock band Dream Cult. "He's bringing people from all age groups into Fondren and into the music scene. The bands he books, like Black Joe Lewis, are stuff that I listen to, and at the same time, my dad would listen to. He just brings everybody together."
Boyd's band has performed at Ardenland events since it first started as The Weekend Kids. He recalls a time when Barnett shifted the lineup of an evening to help Boyd's friends who were travelling through Jackson.
"I had people coming in from Austin, and he happened to have a band from Austin that night, so he collided the shows," Boyd said. "He's just easy to work with and super nice. It makes the process of booking shows easier."
'It's Who You Know'
Barnett and I spoke in his office, which sits just above Rooster's in the Fondren Corner building. The space is unassuming for the frenetic business that goes on within. There's a simple white door at the entrance and a black chalk wall without much writing on it. The front desk, where office manager Angie Ladner normally sits, has a large cloth over it with a vaguely floral pattern.
Ladner was out on maternity leave, but Barnett and his music-promoting army of two, assistant promoter Britiny Breazeale and marketing director Jordan Harris, were hard at work, sifting through a ludicrous number of emails. Apparently, that's par for the course in Ardenland, though—building relationships and sending messages in bulk.
"It's a lot of phone calls and 300 emails a day," Barnett said. "These are long-term relationships we're making. That's what it's meant to be. I still talk to people that I did business with when I started, when I was at (the University of Alabama at Birmingham) in 1982. Those agents are people that I dealt with 30 years ago."
He scooted his rolling chair over to the desk and scrolled through the page of emails he received that day, some of which materialized onto the computer screen with a little digital jingle as we spoke. His desk had some sort of pneumatic system attached, which he activated as he scrolled. It made a soft, lilting noise as it raised and lowered the surface, a strange contrast to the violent swaying of his desktop computer. I was convinced that it would fall at some point, but it didn't.
While there's obviously plenty to be done on his side, Barnett says much of his job is opening doors for bands, rather than seeking them out. Luckily, with the amount of success that he's seen thus far, word is already spreading.
"It's flattering (to have artists contact us). That's where we strived to be from day one," he said. "From a promoter's standpoint, it's not as much calling an agent and saying, 'We want a date with The Lone Bellow,' as much as it is the agent trusting you and your business enough to say, 'Hey, we've got Lone Bellow coming through town. Would you like to pick up a few dates?"
I recognized the band that Barnett name-dropped instantly from Tommy Burton, Jackson Free Press's music listings editor and my perennial informant on upcoming shows and bands. Barnett had recently confirmed a concert with the folksy, soulful Brooklyn trio for Saturday, Nov. 15, about a two-hour drive south of Jackson at one of Hattiesburg's hipper hangouts, The Thirsty Hippo. The location is one of several out-of-town venues that Ardenland has started using for shows.
In the past few months, Barnett has also stretched his sphere of influence to include large festivals, such as this year's International Gumbo Festival in Jackson, Moonvine 49 Arts and Music Festival in Clinton, Bay Bridgefest in Bay St. Louis and the absolutely massive Sun & Sand Film and Music Festival, which takes place in Gulfport, Biloxi and Ocean Springs from Oct. 16 to 26.
"The festivals more come from word of mouth," Barnett said. "The Sun & Sand Festival came through the Film Commission, through Nina (Parikh, deputy director of the Mississippi Film Office). It's one of those 'right place at the right time' things, and it's who you know."
Barnett still maintains a hectic local schedule, however, with around three shows a week on average. Ardenland regularly brings in everything from folk and country to funk and rock to Jackson. His diverse musical preferences have served him well in choosing bands and determining which venue they should play. At this stage of Barnett's business, he has plenty of musical acts to select from, which gives him more room to be selective.
"To me, it's like putting on a pair of shoes: Either they feel good, or they don't," he said. "I don't think it's just me. I would say most people, especially in the business, you could get sent a demo tape or a video or whatever, and within 15 to 20 seconds, it's pretty much over. Maybe that doesn't sound fair, but it's usually the case."
Segue to Sinatra and Sabbath
With the number of award-winning acts that Ardenland has funneled through the city, it's easy to forget that the company has only existed for about three years. But Barnett's skill as a music businessman didn't spring up overnight. That connection started much further back, long before he ever considered becoming a concert promoter.
"I've always liked and listened to music—'weird music,' according to different people—just growing up, whether it was my dad playing Roger Miller and all that stuff, to high school when I was more into (guitarist Pat) Metheny ... and Beethoven," Barnett said.
Throughout high school, Barnett immersed himself in the sub-pop cultures of Idaho, his home state. He idolized the skateboarding rebirth that started in southern California's Dogtown, a poorer area near Santa Monica that became known for its punk-rock surfing and skating residents. Barnett and his friends would have parties, skateboard and playing Frisbee, and in their downtime, they would play music.
"It would segue from Frank Sinatra to (Black Sabbath's) 'Iron Man' to Beethoven's Ninth," he said.
While Barnett attended college at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, he began to form a career around his love for music culture. The company lasted from 1982 to 2005, when Barnett decided to call it quits due to a combination of harmful life choices, an ever-increasing stress level and a handful of devastating business failures.
"I took six years off. I reached a breaking point for several reasons. Drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll is the bottom line," he said. "It's a hard business, especially on the promoter side. It's a lot of pressure, a lot of ups and downs, and I had a couple of big deals fall through. I was just at the end of my rope."
In reality, only one big deal comes to mind: Hobstock.
Back in early 2003, Hobstock seemed like music Mecca in the making. Barnett, Jackson attorney David Brewer and the festival's founder, Jeffrey Hobgood, organized what could have been the largest festival in the state's history.
Advertising promised a double-digit lineup with performances from Widespread Panic, Gov't Mule and Taj Mahal. But when it rains, it pours.
After nearly $2.5 million dollars in spending, the festival's major investors bailed, leaving Barnett in the possession of lots of contracts, lots of unsalvageable expense and lots of unhappy bands. A Jackson Free Press article from July 10, 2003, pointed to the swirling rumors of financial problems and even questioned whether Hobgood had skipped town for Florida.
To be fair, Hobgood said his sudden trip out of town was an attempt to rescue his sinking festival. Regardless, he was gone, and Barnett was here, dealing with the consequences of dreaming big and failing to follow through.
"They pretty much left me holding the bag," Barnett said of the festival's investors. "It didn't sit too well, obviously. At that point, there was just a lot of other stuff going on, and I was pretty much like, 'F*ck it. I'm tired. I need a break.'"
'The Record Business Is Over'
Barnett closed his company and stopped booking shows for a time. He mowed fairways and eventually went to work for SkyGolf, a sporting company that specializes in positioning systems. Barnett focused on GPS for golf courses in Japan and Europe, working with mapping experts from around the world.
"There wasn't a day I was gone that I didn't miss what I was doing," he said, before changing his tune slightly. "Maybe the first two weeks were OK. But there's a rush (to music promoting). No question about it."
Barnett soon hit another snag, thanks in part to the stalling economy. After four years at SkyGolf, his employer informed him that he and many of his co-workers had been let go from the company. In the immediacy of getting laid off, though, Barnett needed a way to support his family. He and his wife, Heidi, a graphic designer and owner of Flynn Design, both have two children from previous marriages: her children, Lauren, 16, and Hayden, 13, and his sons, Gus, 17, and Arden Barnett III, 20.
If he was going to venture back out into the entertainment business again, he wanted to make a few adjustments and put some of those hard-won lessons to use.
"As with everything, you live and learn," Barnett said. "You know not to put yourself in situations like that again. Obviously that, for me, was one of the requirements of myself—to be more cautious. I still manage to (be reckless) sometimes, but I'm a little wiser, and there's a bit more maturity in the decision process."
He also considered the stress that dealing with ill-tempered touring bands brought him in earlier years. He needed Ardenland to be different.
"The days of dealing with assholes are done," he said. "If you're not a delight to work with, you don't need to call back. There's plenty of other music, and it's not worth it. Not at my age."
Barnett soon discovered that placing his name on the company made a difference in people's perception. There was a face behind every concert, and someone that would be held accountable, though the name apparently confuses some callers.
"A lot of people think I'm a realtor," he said with a laugh. "But I think the personal aspect is important to emphasize. There's a person behind the experience that wants to make it the best it can be."
Barnett also noticed a change in temperament since his early days as a show promoter, which he attributes to a shift in the music industry at large.
"The record business is over," he said. "You're not selling records to make a living. You're touring. These bands understand they have to treat their fans right (along with) the people that risk money and take a chance on bringing them to town."
Of course, it doesn't hurt to have a great venue to return to. A significant factor in Barnett's recent success is Duling Hall. Owners Mike Peters and Andrew Mattiace lease the former elementary school to Barnett, and it has quickly become one of the city's best choices for live music.
"To us, (Duling Hall) is pretty holy ground right now," Barnett said. "It's been one of the staples for our business. ... I mean, it's in the hippest part of town. It's just a chemical reaction of Fondren, the building and the magical sound."
Thanks in large part to the efforts of Ardenland and the numerous Jackson show promoters it has inspired, national and international acts no longer see Mississippi as an entertainment dead zone.
Instead, it's a fertile new territory for tour stops, a place where major bands actively perform, rather than just holding their breaths as they pass through.
So, where does that leave Barnett and company?
"We're still in business. I think that pretty well sums it up," he said. "There's no way we could keep going the way we are unless it's gotten better, and it continues to get better."