HighLucyNation celebrates 11 years | Q&A with Dustin Dohrman

Ask longtime show promoter Dustin Dohrman to recall some of his landmark shows, and he can rattle off a healthy list: Bassnectar, Pretty Lights, Twelfth Planet and a slew of deejays. Ask him for a date, though, and there’s just one that sticks out.

May 16, 2007.

That was the last operational date of the Chatterbox before it converted to Box Awesome. It was also the first time Bassnectar played in Lincoln — before he was an EDM giant. With no liquor license and no advance ticketing, Dohrman pumped 30,000 watts of electricity into the club under the bridge and 350 people celebrated.

“You talk to any of the big promoters, that was a huge change all over,” Dohrman says. “Everyone wanted to hear that huge wobbly bass sound.”

Suddenly, HighLucyNation, Dohrman’s fledgling promotions company, went from putting on deejay sets in front of Spindle Records to draw in customers to the forefront of a massive music industry sea change. More venues eschewed the “rave party” stigmatizations and bought in to the popularity of electronic music and the crowds it attracted. It’s what has allowed HLN to operate for more than a decade, booking everything from up and coming deejay and jam band acts to nationally touring artists.

When I reach Dohrman via telephone, he had just gotten off the phone with his lighting designer for this week, HLN’s 11th anniversary party. He tells me how interesting it has been to watch these downtown venues grow as his company grows, putting on a free pre-party at Bodega’s Alley tomorrow night (RSVP here) before launching the main events at Slowdown Friday (RSVP here) and The Bourbon Saturday (RSVP here).

“Back then, when I first came around, I was kinda just some kid that wanted to put on DJ parties,” Dohrman says. “Now, I have access to three or four or five different sound systems. We didn’t have The Bourbon, that has a rocking sound system in it. We had to rent the sound ourselves. There were only a few places you could get that from.”

In advance of HLN’s annual shindig — which will feature Wookie Foot, Kris Lager Band, A Ferocious Jungle Cat, Pleiades & the Bear, Ro Hempel Band, DJ Blac and much more — Dohrman and I chatted about shaking the early raver stigma, the evolution of electronic music and what HLN is doing to help improve and promote the local music scene.

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[Editor’s note: this interview has been edited for content and clarity.]

Hear Nebraska: How’s set-up for this weekend coming?

Dustin Dohrman: Everything is coming together really good. This year has been real chill, real easy-going on putting it all together. After doing a few of these anniversary shows, it’s been really fun to see these venues really anticipate and understand what it takes to make those happen and to be able to work together some of the kinks of fitting together so much in one night at one venue, and then another night at another venue

Dohrman asks if we’ve met. I humbly tell him I contacted him about HN’s two part Box Awesome oral history last year.

I read what you put together. Crazy memories from that whole era. I know it used to be really crazy for the music scene here, even before Box Awesome, and then it died out for a little bit. It seems to go in waves. You’ll have these waves of people who are really into indie rock and then the metal scene around here use to be really solid. Even the touring hip-hop scene, a bunch of acts came through that have really blown up.

HN: Let’s go from the beginning. How did HLN come about?

DD: I worked at the Federal Building [in 2004] and I met a couple of people who were into making electronic music. We basically had a couple aspiring local DJs [like]  Travis Villanueva aka djBlac. That was about when I met [former Chatterbox owner] Nick Fitch [aka Nick The Quick]. I went to this really huge party in Kansas City and this awesome jam band festival in Minneapolis. Once I saw those things, I was just like, “Why is this not being done here in nebraska?” I didn’t even realize those things happened. I had some form of internet in 2004 but it wasn’t the same as it is now. You had to pretty much get a flier to go to some of these rave parties and festivals that were way before Electric Forest and Summer Camp. It blew me away.

We approached Nick, who had owned Lincoln Sound & Disc/Spindle at the time. He and his dad were just getting into owning the Chatterbox. We started doing some events there, all of us chipping in where we could. He would let Matt Man and djBlac deejay in front of his store to try to attract business. After they did that a couple of times they were like “Dustin, you should go and talk to Nick and see if he would let us do shows at Chatterbox.” We started getting that going and it was a struggle. We had our group of 30, 40, 50 people that would come out. It wasn’t about making money. It was never even supposed to be a business. The bar loved us bringing people to their place, so they kept their doors open to us. But most other places that I contacted were not into it.

HN: Why not?

DD: There was still some overshadow from the previous underground warehouse era. The word “rave” was a huge no-no. I remember having to constantly tell people in my street team to not call it a rave, because at the time a lot of people had perceived ravers as just a bunch of druggies. We just wanted awesome electronic music shows to happen. It wasn’t always well received.

HN: So you were working against a stigma at that point?

DD: Yeah. Nebraska is fairly conservative as it is. And people wanted to protect their businesses. I understand now. At the time, it was almost like a rebellion. “We’re gonna make this happen anyway.” Now, the whole world is pretty much embracing electronic culture.

HN: When do you think that changed? Is there a time you can point to from HLN where you felt it change?

DD: Our small group effort started being more of an actual business was when we first brought Bassnectar through in 2007. May 16, 2007. It was the last event of the Chatterbox before it became Box Awesome. The Chatterbox didn’t have a liquor license. I don’t believe we served any alcohol. And it was awesome. 350 people came out, I put 30,000 watts of sound in there in that small 300 capacity room. We sold it out.

A lot of those legendary DJs have made their mark on the community, but they’re not getting booked as much today. There’s all these dubstep guys and they’re pulling ridiculous money. You talk to their agent and they want 20-K right off the bat. Back then, if I hit up a DJ, they’d say “Oh, 15, 20 grand,” without [understanding] our market. You realize the room only holds 300 people right? The market was still developing again here and not often able to get the turnouts needed to support that.

But finally we brought Bassnectar. We brought Glitch Mob. We brought 12th Planet. I was getting put on by a few other promoters in Omaha and Lincoln, and Omaha Nightlife was a huge website at that point. Those guys started coming out of the woodwork, they were supporting us, we were supporting them. It really just started changing. For me as a promoter, booking DJs at the time, I didn’t know what i was doing at all. I just wanted to have DJs play and would go and see what other people were doing and would take some of that back and try to recreate aspects of that show. Working with a DJ is easier than trying to book a band, because a band is five different people — five people to be hospitable for. Financially, it was easier to work with DJs. It made more sense. It gave us a chance to get a footing. 2006-2008, you talk to any of the big promoters, that was a huge change all over. Everyone wanted to hear that huge wobbly bass sound.

HN: So you’re on the cusp of that, right at the beginning of that. Booking artists right before they become big. When you think about it now, how did HLN change at that point?

DD: It breathed new life into my ambitions and the rotating cast of people that would chip in a little money to help. I think it really kinda revitalized us. That’s when there was a weekly that Nick would put on that I would help out with every once in awhile called Revival. It was at Box Awesome. It wasn’t a money-making thing, but I dont know if I would’ve kept doing it if we didn’t have that pick me up.

To put it in perspective, when we first booked Bassnectar, he was less than $1000 and a hotel room. He crushed it, and he blew up. He’s getting upwards of $100,000. It’s 2015, he’s been getting that for four or five years. To watch somebody go from less than $1,000 to $100,000-plus in just a few years shows you how the market changed. People were gobbling it up. So yeah, that was a lot of fun.

HN: Switching gears, it’s been a decade since you’ve started. Technological changes are involved … how have they changed you booking and promoting shows today? What’s the biggest thing that’s different today?

DD: Aside from having a little bit more … well, a lot more resources, because of the years being able to develop relationships with people. Back then, when I first came around, I was kinda just some kid that wanted to put on DJ parties. Now, I have access to three or four or five different sound systems. We didn’t have The Bourbon, that has a rocking sound system in it. We had to rent the sound ourselves. There were only a few places you could get that from. The Waiting Room just put in a new sound system, plus you have places like Slowdown that didn’t exist then. All I have to do is book the artist and make the marketing and make sure people know about it. The ticketing and everything is built in. Box Awesome didn’t have a ticketing system. Unless you printed [physical] tickets, you were flying by the seat of your pants when the show came.

I talk to alot of artists, and a lot of artists tell me on their own without asking that they love playing in Nebraska because people just eat it up. People are a little bit more open minded here over the last few years. I’ve actually seen people becoming more snobby and more picky about what they’re listening to, and that’s because they have so many opportunities to see so many different things that they can be. Back then, we were happy to get what we could get.

HN: So are you a little bit more selective about what you’re booking.

DD: This year especially. Last year, I tried to book as much as I could, with it being the ramp-up to the 10th anniversary. HLN10 was not just the anniversary show, it was the whole year. It was too hard for me to try to fit 10 years into two nights. This year, I’ve taken a little backseat to reformulate some ideas and take a breather myself. Ten years of running around like I do … I like to have a lot of fun. After doing that for so long, it was nice to chill a little bit and help people with their shows, help out with some other festivals and keeping my social network alive.

I own a party bus here in town called Safe and Sound Productions, and I am partnering with a few others to get that whole thing going. Omaha people don’t come to Lincoln as often as I’d like them to. Lincoln people don’t always go to Omaha as often as I’d like them to. In order to remedy that situation — along with helping with weddings and birthday parties — we have now been doing a lot of concert runs.

HN: What else have you got coming up, what’s on the horizon?

DD: The goal is to get these markets [Omaha, Lincoln, Kansas City] all working together so that we can compliment, rather than work against each other. This market is too small to have too many people working in it, but there are so many people with great ideas. My goal has always been to get us to work together as much as possible. It benefits my side of things as well as their side of things and we can all be successful together.To watch us have 20-30 people coming to our shows in 2004 to helping with the larger shows like The Life In Color at Pershing and then the brand new arena with 6000+ raging electronic music fans in 2015 … I’d have never, ever thought that would happen. I thought it would be strange that it wasn’t happening already, because electronic music shows are a lot of fun and a fun, happy group to be around. I never understood why that wasn’t happening already.

HN: If you could change one thing about the music climate today, what would it be and why?

DD: Locally, there is a lot of inspiration for younger artists, a lot of opportunities for them to grow, but I do think that there’s not as much focus. I remember back when you’d first see a local artist come out, they’d be practicing forever inside. Finally they’d come out and be like “I’m DJ-ing,” and they’d put a lot more effort into their craft. Now, I think that it’s a lot easier to get the technology that allows you to produce music. So there’s more of a rush for people to get themselves out there and playing a show, rather than honing their craft first and coming out really strong and having it dialed in from the get-go.

Regionally, there’s not as much ability for regional acts to travel around because there are so many new acts, and people are so focused on their own market that they forget that there’s a market two or three hours away that they could be strengthening.

Nationally, there’s a huge money grab right now. It’s something that’s turned me off a lot to even putting on shows. This isn’t the same for all the agents out there, and I’m sure that they’re all working to do the best for their clients, but there is definitely a lot of people I don’t even try to work with because we’re not big enough for them. They ask for too much money instead of building their artist up in our market. Yes we’re a small market, but all of these small markets could create a framework for people to discover new things

HN: What do you think is the solution for our market? What can you or anyone else do to attract that?

DD: On some aspect, I think that it’s been great to get some of these bigger touring acts to come through. The Life in Color tour, Skrillex in the Streets was really cool. Those things kind of help give an opportunity for the bigger acts to come through. I talked to Skrillex and he had a blast playing here. I did the official after party, and we had them all on the same stage at the Bourbon and they had the time of their life. I felt like when I talk to some of these people, they come here and remember why they started playing music. I think we’re doing a lot of stuff, but to see the city embracing new stuff [is great]. Having good groups of people and cross-pollinating aspects, promoting this music to different people. This year with HLN11, I have a lot more focus on bands that are having to work harder to be impressive because the DJ thing was taking over for a long time. I just wanted to put a little more effort into highlighting acts with stage presence and actual performance. even the DJ people and electronic followers will really enjoy the performances.

HN: Do you think that will be a focus for HLN going forward, highlighting hardworking acts that you feel deserve more attention?

DD: A lot of these people I have been paying attention to for awhile. I think it’s giving them a little more of a chance in our circle of people, and I do think that I’ve always tried to reward people who work hard and show ambition. Some of these acts come to me and say “Dustin, we really wanna play a show for you.” A lot of times I tell them I’d love to come see them. And when they say “Oh I’ll just send you a couple tracks,” I’m not gonna book somebody until I see them or see a video to get a feel for their live performance. If someone asks what they should do, I wanna see people coming to the shows they see themselves fitting in with because if you’re not going to come to the shows, I don’t really wanna book you. We want people that wanna be involved in every aspect of the show.

HN: Right. You’re trying to cultivate a community.

DD: Yeah. I want them to come there and make friends. We connect with people by talking to them, seeing their eyes, high fiving them or having a shot. Those are the things that build real local fans, when they see an artist being a person as well as a musician. It builds a stronger community of people. After they build a following, a weekly or monthly at a place like The Bourbon, then I’ll start to try to put them on a door-opening slot. Do they show up on time? Do they come in prepared to play on the stage that they’ve asked for? Are they taking it seriously and pushing the show? Yes, it’s my job to promote the show, but if you’re not willing to promote the show too then why are we working together?

HN: You mentioned the Skrillex in the Streets show earlier, and you did the after party. Rad Kadillac and The Bourbon did the show itself. In my mind, it seems like one of the ways that you can build an audience or a landing spot in Lincoln and Omaha. Do you think that kind of collaboration is part of the future?

DD: You know, I’ve worked with Rad Kadillac on several shows over the years. One-Percent, HLN and Rad Kadillac teamed up and brought Bassnectar to the Pershing, which I never thought would’ve happened [back in 2007]. They brought me in to help do some promo stuff. HLN brought Pretty Lights here the first show in 2008 at Box Awesome. We worked with Rad Kadillac on marketing when they came to Westfair Amphitheater.I’ve always been about collaborating with people. I’m not a very competitive person when it comes to business; I’d rather work with everybody. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Lately, I haven’t been working with Rad Kadillac because they have their own thing. We are still friends, I help out here and there, doing some busses to their shows. Even with Skrillex in the Streets, I wasn’t a part of that show. They wanted to do that, so I found a way for us to work together. I’m not going to sit on my hands while something huge like that is going on that I want to support. It gave me an opportunity to get a little piece of the pie and complement their show as something that was awesome. I have a lot of fun trying to show people that we can all work together.

Andrew Stellmon is Hear Nebraska's managing editor. Reach him with news tips and story ideas at news@hearnebraska.org.