Amid an onslaught of garage-rock guitar chords, the biggest name you’ve never heard of in local music promotion waded through a crowd of nodding teenagers wearing ironic T-shirts and claimed a new kind of concert swag: a pair of jeans.
Mark Nussbaum (pictured) doesn’t usually leave with a new pair of pants after filling local bars with high school and college kids eager for the hottest local and regional indie-rock bands. But last week Nussbaum brought his operation to a new venue: a clothing store, Urban Outfitters on Broadway. He filled the second floor with a free three-band rock concert, reaching a new milestone in an decade-long rise in New Haven’s local music scene.
At 29, Nussbaum has been racking up those milestones as owner of Manic Productions, a music booking and promotions company. Last month marked 11 years since he put together his first concert, a punk rock show in a teen center. Next month he’s helping to bring David Byrne to the Shubert; it’s not the first Shubert concert he’s worked on, but it might be the most famous name he’s promoted there. And this week he’ll announce the biggest show he’s ever booked and promoted on his own.
Over the years, Nussbaum has built Manic Productions from a high-school hobby to a part-time labor of love and now to a full-time concert-creating operation, complete with three interns, an assistant, and two part-time staffers. He’s been working to make Connecticut more than just “fly-over” country for touring indie-rock bands going between Boston and New York City, and to move local bands into larger and larger spotlights.
“I’ve been going to Mark’s shows since middle school, said Cadah Goulet, Urban Outfitters store merchandising manager, who sported a a nose ring and a “Rock and Roll” tattoo on her left calf. She called Nussbaum when the store decided to host a concert. “He reliable. He’s legit. He’s established. He’s local.”
For last Thursday’s concert, Urban Outfitters paid Nussbaum and the three bands—The Furnss, High Pop, and The Guru—in store gift cards. It was, in other words, a loss leader for Manic Productions. Nussbaum said he’s hoping Urban Outfitters makes free concerts a regular happening at the store, and hires him to run them, the way BAR did a couple years ago. In 2011, Nussbaum started running a free Wednesday night concert series at the Crown Street pizza bar. BAR gives him a budget and free rein to book whatever bands he likes.
This week, Nussbaum will announce that he’s bringing two huge names in indie rock to play at an outdoor venue in Wallingford. (Check his website to find out who it is.) Nussbaum said he hopes it will be the beginning of a “huge leap” for the company, allowing him to hire more staff—a street promotion team and a manager.
Getting The Towels Right
Nussbaum learned the craft of booking and promotions largely through trial and error, with occasional tips from people in the industry. He also picked up a two-year business degree from Gateway. But his success seems to have come mainly from living up to his nickname.
“They call him Manic Mark for a reason,” said Steve Rodgers, one half of the New Haven band Mighty Purple and the head of a growing group of music venues over the border in Hamden. “He goes after it and he gets a lot of cool things to happen because he’s really persistent.”
“I’m, like, pretty neurotic. I’m kind of frantic,” Nussbaum said during a recent interview, an exercise in guided free-association. Nussbaum is affable and easily distracted, of medium height, with patchy stubble, and brown hair falling over his forehead. He’s partial to hoodies, flannel shirts, and band T-shirts.
Manic Productions now puts together between 15 and 20 concerts a month. “I’m at 90 percent of the shows,” Nussbaum said. He works five to seven days a week and has taken only one real vacation in the last decade. On Wednesday night, before the Urban Outfitters show, he was up until 5 a.m. working on promotions for other upcoming concerts.
Nussbaum rose at 11 a.m. on Thursday and was at Urban Outfitters a couple of hours later, wearing a ripped green plaid shirt over a black Strand Of Oaks T-shirt. By 3:30 p.m., he was setting up the merch table with Manic Productions pins featuring a photo of Nemo, his Schnauzer-Pug mix, wearing a cone collar. His iPhone started quacking, a reminder to move his car so he didn’t get a ticket.
On his way out to the parking lot, Nussbaum explained the many duties of a booking agent and concert promoter. “My job is basically orchestrating the whole night.” It starts before the show, when he or an assistant picks up “hospitality” for the bands: food, booze, towels to wipe off sweat between songs. Getting the right towels is important. You don’t want a cheap towel that will leave fuzzy lint on the bass player’s face. “Sometimes you have to go around to a couple stores.”
Nussbaum also has to go through all the band contracts and make sure to meet all the requirements on the rider. That’s the document notorious for prima donna requests like only blue M&Ms in the dressing room. “For the most part people are down to earth,” Nussbaum said. Sometimes bands will ask for sprouted wheat bread, or local beer.
Inside his Toyota sedan, the latest release from Unknown Mortal Orchestra was in the CD player. He continued: At the venue before a show, he usually oversees and helps with load-in, getting all the equipment in and set up. The headliners usually have a chance for a sound check and then will back line their gear, pushing it to the rear of the stage so it’s ready to pull out when they come on. The opening acts will often just get a few minutes to line check their sound before they play. Nussbaum has to stay make sure all the bands start on time, and also stop playing if they’re going too long.
And at every show, Nussbaum is pushing the next one. On the sidewalk outside Urban Outfitters, Summer Baxter, a bubbly Manic Productions intern, showed up with freshly printed quarter-sheet fliers for an upcoming concert, to hand out at the current concert.
Before the internet, fliers were the bread and butter of local concert promotions. “I would go to every show at Toads and pass out quarter-sheets for years,” Nussbaum said. “Toad’s got sick of people emailing saying, ‘Hey can you put Mark on the guest list.’”
Nussbaum (pictured with The Furnsss) grew up in Hamden. At age 10, his mom passed away after an illness and Nussbaum’s dad moved him and his sister to Guilford.
As a kid, Nussbaum had been obsessed with computers, not music. He taught himself Basic and C++ and could program simple video games. In middle school, after the move to Guilford, Nussbaum’s attention shifted to music. A friend in the seventh grade gave him a mixtape—Nirvana, Sublime, 311. It opened him up to a new world. Sublime led him to ska bands. Nirvana led him to indie bands like Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., The Pixies.
In high school, Nussbaum and a couple of friends started booking shows. The first-ever Manic Productions production was in April 2002, a punk show at the Madison Arts Barn, starring River City Rebels. At the time, Manic Productions was an offshoot of Kill Normal Records, started by a classmate who was in the Flaming Tsunamis, a ska band.
“Manic means uncontrolled by reason,” Nussbaum said. The company was initially about “booking crazy shows in unconventional spaces.” Nussbaum would find small indie rock and ska bands and set them up in old VFW and American Legion halls.
After high school, Nussbaum moved into a house on Porter Street in New Haven’s West River neighborhood. He ran Manic Productions still as a hobby, supporting himself with part-time jobs at pizza places, Wendy’s, two different Subways. All his spare money went into putting together shows.
He started to book shows for bigger and bigger names in the indie-rock world. In 2006, he booked a show at a Masonic Temple in Hamden for The Hold Steady, who had played a sold-out show at a larger venue the night before. But all the important music blogs showed up to cover the Hamden show: Pitchfork, Brooklyn Vegan, The New York Times. “That show was a super big breaking point.”
Nussbaum went from “reaching out to crazy bands” to having bands seek him out, looking for shows. He realized touring bands like to play the smaller venues in Connecticut, to have a better connection with their audience than they can in huge concert halls in New York.
Nussbaum also booked up-and-coming bands before they became more well-known in the scene—Ariel Pink, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, Dirty Projectors—and got them accustomed to making New Haven a stop on their tours.
Eventually he started doing occasional promotions work for production companies that were bringing big acts to the Shubert, acts like Wille Nelson and Jeff Mangum, the J.D. Salinger of indie rock.
But Manic Productions still wasn’t making money. Nussbaum tried to quit his day jobs, ended up broke, struggling to pay rent, and had to go back to part-time work.
Another loss came in 2008: Nussbaum’s friend Mike McDonald, who had been involved in Manic Productions in the early days, passed away suddenly. “It was pretty tough. He was my best friend,” Nussbaum said. Nussbaum had to take a break from the business for a little while. “I was pretty messed up.”
It wasn’t the last sudden and strange death he would be touched by. In 2011, Nussbaum’s friend Mitch Dubey, a musician and bike mechanic whom he’d lived with for years in East Rock, was shot and killed during a home invasion. “I was really depressed. I was really fucking torn up,” Nussbaum said.
The local music scene helped carry Nussbaum through. Friends of Dubey met at Redscroll Records in Wallingford for consolation and to share memories. “That was the place where everyone gathered.” Nussbaum was able to go on; Manic Productions kept booking shows.
“One Of The Players”
Another landmark show came in 2009. Nussbaum booked one of his favorite bands, Dinosaur Jr., to play in Milford. He ended up spending most of the day with the band, his heroes since middle school.
He was there for load-in at noon, and picked up some lunch for the band. “I got them lobster bisque soup,” Nussbaum recalled with a gap-tooth grin. “J [Mascis, the lead singer] really liked it.”
Every minute of the 14-hour day was enjoyable, Nussbaum recalled “That was the point where—‘This is definitely what I want to do’”
And it was “the first time we did really well in a financial sense.” The show was sold out in advance; it was written up in Rolling Stone.
Around that time, New Haven’s Cafe Nine and The Space, in Hamden, both hired Nussbaum to run their websites and social media, giving him some steady music-business income. He could finally afford to leave outside part-time work behind.
Nussbaum has built up Manic Productions the right way, said Brian Phelps, who’s run Toad’s Place for 36 years.
“You’ve got to move up slow and know where you’re going,” Phelps said. “The concert game is a tricky game and a lot of people have lost a lot of money doing it. … He’s doing it with foresight and intelligence. He’s making the right calls. … Eleven years in this business is a long time.”
Nussbaum’s stock and trade is still relatively small indie rock bands and local bands looking to build a following. He’s out of the VFW halls, and putting bands into smaller venues in and around New Haven like Cafe Nine and Lily’s Pad at Toad’s. He’s not booking amphitheaters. But “he’s one of the players in Connecticut,” Phelps said.
“He’s done an amazing job bringing people to the Space who would generally only play Boston or New York,” Rodgers said. “He’s built up a lot of relationships with agents who used to ignore Connecticut.”
“I really just enjoy the music,” Nussbaum said. “Our thing is bringing in bands that would usually skip Connecticut. … There’s bands that stop here every tour now. Connecticut is more on the map.”
After moving his car, Nussbaum stopped to take an iPhone photograph of a wheel of fortune Urban Outfitters had set up outside the store. He posted it to Instagram, one of several social media platforms that he’s constantly feeding. Manic Productions has 4,431 likes on Facebook, 2,565 followers on Twitter, and thousands of email addresses on his mailing list. “It never ends,” he said.
Heading upstairs, Nussbaum noticed with approval that someone had hooked the band’s sound system up to the store’s speakers. He was hoping for several hundred people to show up. He felt pretty confident, since Urban Outfitters had been pumping the social media hard and has a huge following online.
“Urban had our employees blasting it on Instagram,” said Goulet, the manager. She said the show had been thoroughly “re-tweeted” and “re-posted.”
Maybe most importantly, Urban Outfitters was giving away free cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, the hipster beer of choice. A giant cutout picture of a can of PBR was mounted on plywood above the counter in the center of the room.
At 5 p.m., The Furnsss took the stage, four fresh-faced fellows from Burlington, pounding out power pop. A dozen teens stood and watched next to racks of T-Shirts with graphic prints: “I’m Dope,” “Come At Me.” Nussbaum sipped on a beer, remarking how weird it was to have a show in a clothing store. “I’m drinking a PBR in Urban Outfitters,” he observed with a chuckle.
Nussbaum reached for a stack of jeans near the stage. “Oh cool, I can try some jeans right now,” he joked, then paused and looked again at the jeans. “I actually might get jeans. I think I’m going to go shopping.”
As the Furnsss charged through their set, Nussbaum was over at the sales rack. He set his beer down on the floor and tried on some plaid flannel button-downs, to replace the ripped one he was wearing.
By the time the second band, High Pop, went on, Nussbaum had filled a bag with two new T-shirts, a pair of jeans, a couple of flannels, and a hoody. And the store was filling up too. Several dozen teens and 20-somethings crowded around the indie-rock band in the corner, nodding along at another Manic Productions show.