As a musician, I love absorbing the culture of the mountains we play. In one town, we’re full throttle at après in front of a loose-boots crowd, in another we take on a mellow tone at an inn or tavern. And in the next, we’re hearing “ONE. MORE. SONG!” at 1:30 a.m., after last call, wondering how the hell these people are still standing.
The blessing and the challenge we face in both the entertainment and lifestyle industries is: the joy of others is our business. We work to please. Inherent with music are the considerations of budgets and logistics, not to mention choosing which songs to perform. But when it all comes together and a musical act gels, it leads to increased time spent in the venue and larger draws, which yields higher tabs, and, equally as important, creates a heightened guest experience.
Regardless of the occasion or the venue, for performers, playing at mountain resorts provides an opportunity to reach an enthusiastic, transient audience. But for resorts, choosing the best act to play the most suitable music for a range of guests at different venues isn’t always as simple as putting a quarter in the jukebox.
Name That Tune
Having to appease many tastes and vibes raises the question: what do you book? Despite the shared spirit of patrons who are all there to enjoy the mountain life, the grandfather from Ohio’s CD collection rarely lines up with the Long Island college student’s Spotify playlist. Yet both are equally important.
“There’s no singular genre we’ve found that goes best,” says Deric Gunshor, director of events for Aspen Snowmass. “Our focus is to bring quality bands with engaging stage shows. During X-Games we booked toward that crowd. During our Spring Jam Festival, we focus on a wider-range demographic. We’ve had success with everything from electronic to alternative to classic rock.”
A solid entertainment planner knows his or her environment. A pub, for example, might call for an acoustic duo playing a combination of hits and originals at a volume permitting conversation. A nightclub, where people are there to see the show, can turn up the dial a bit.
Gunshor points out that it’s also imperative to put yourself in your customers’ shoes to help make informed decisions. “As much as I love music, I don’t book to personal taste, I book for entertainment value,” he says. “When watching video of a band’s live performance, we give it a feel test—what would it be like to hear this group in the Snowmass Base Village or Gondola Plaza while on family vacation with grandparents and kids? What would the reaction be? Is everyone going to agree to check it out, or will it disinterest some of them and turn people away?”
Also, says Gunshor, consult the people who are at the resort all the time. “We get as much feedback as possible during the booking process, mostly from our staff who have a wide range of musical tastes, as well as an understanding of guest demographics.”
Mount Snow events director Tim Dolan taps the resort’s most vociferous—and diverse—resource: the guests. “We always try to give people what they want,” says Dolan. “Nowadays, with the Internet and social media, we receive feedback about EVERYTHING! And like every aspect of business, you weed through feedback and apply it thoughtfully.”
What’s the Scene?
What’s après ski without music? In my opinion, it’s not après ski at all. Having solid tunes to entertain the rosy-cheeked masses who have just come off the hill is vital for success. Many resorts have it dialed.
“Our most successful après acts are engaging,” says Dolan. “We’ve had Bruce Jacques on Saturdays in Cuzzins [après bar at the base of the mountain] for more than 15 years. He does an amazing job with a variety of covers and has different outfits for every song. From the other side of the base lodge you’ll hear the crowd singing ‘Friends in Low Places’ or ‘Like a Virgin’ at the top of their lungs (yes, he wears a pointy bra).”
A musician himself, Sierra-at-Tahoe GM John Rice finds acoustic (but amplified) cover/original groups in the Americana, string, and jam band genres work best at the resort’s Sierra Pub. “We’re an après mountain with an audience spanning young adults all the way to seniors; most being active skiers and snowboarders,” says Rice.
The après scene is the resort’s bread and butter, because nightlife really isn’t a thing. “Our bar closes at 5:30-6:00 p.m., because we don’t have lodging, but nightlife can be found in South Lake Tahoe where casinos are open all night.”
Beyond base lodges and venues, resorts rely on entertainment to augment winter and off-season events, such as Mount Snow’s Brewers Festival and Sierra-at-Tahoe’s Boarding for Breast Cancer. In some cases, music is the focus, like it is for Aspen Snowmass’ free Bud Light Hi-Fi Concert Series.
When booking music for events, sometimes there’s more to consider. “Who we book depends on the application, because we also book based on an event’s theme,” says Dolan. “For example, the Oberlaendler Hofbrau Oom-Pah Band were just at Mount Snow Oktoberfest for the 20th year. The lederhosen, chicken dance, and ‘ziggy zaggy’ toasts create a very authentic German feel.”
For the Bud Light Hi-Fi Concert Series at Aspen Snowmass, Gunshor says, “We try to find an act that engages and entertains an entire family. Our Bud Light Hi-Fi Concert Series speaks to a wide range of guests: locals, families, visitors, couples, and friends.”
Mount Snow is also home to Snow Barn, a live music nightclub that occasionally hosts nationally touring acts, but mostly books a mix of popular cover bands and bands that are up-and-coming. “Some bands bring fans that haven’t skied a day in their life,” recounts Dolan. “The hope is a positive concert experience brings them back to try skiing, attend a festival, or enjoy one of our summer activities.
“Ideally, we provide enough live music so our guests don’t go elsewhere to be entertained,” he adds.
Indeed, keeping ’em there—and coming back—is what it’s all about. Make sure the person booking music understands that. An inexperienced music manager might try to shake things up by putting their “artistic stamp” on the year’s roster, using it to fulfill a wish list, at the expense of the resort and staff’s gratuity.
Successful music managers find harmony between budgets and value. Hiring mediocre ensembles to save a few bucks might look good on the accounting invoice, but it doesn’t to the F&B director if register rings take a nosedive an hour-and-a-half before closing. Similarly, booking an act off the festival circuit might look cool on a young manager’s resume and generate local buzz, but if the price tag can’t be fiscally justified to upper management in the season’s overall profitability, someone’s not fulfilling an obligation to his or her employer.
Dolan elaborates, “Budget is where we vary from a standalone nightclub’s business strategy. The nightclub here is just a piece of the puzzle. Skiing is still king, so there’s more wiggle room if we feel an act positively impacts skier visits.”
This intuition is why many resorts allocate talent buying to an event director or F&B manager—they understand an artist’s accessibility, intrigue, and influence affect the bottom line. Of course, booking entertainment is a time-consuming job, especially when paired with the duties of inventory, staffing, licensing, sound—the list goes on.
Grammy award-winning artist Norah Jones once said, “...making music is part social, part interaction, part collaboration.” Paul McCartney consistently acknowledges his production staff (sound, lighting, pyro, rigging, roadies), stating the show couldn’t exist without them. Likewise, acquiring musicians can be a collective effort.
“We’re entering our tenth season of partnering with the local music venue, Belly Up Aspen,” says Gunshor. “Working with them has many advantages due to the tight-knit nature of the music industry. They book 300+ nights a year and work with a wide range of agents, artists, and managers, which has allowed us to benefit from their relationships. They also have a good sense of what acts have appeal and draw in the local market.”
“The hope is a positive concert experience brings them back to try skiing, attend a festival, or enjoy one of our summer activities.”
Sierra-at-Tahoe’s Rice incorporates a combination of internal contacts and external agencies: “If it’s a large event like Boarding for Breast Cancer and we want talent from San Francisco or outside Tahoe, we’ll use an agency to play off their network,” he says. “Occasionally, a past employee handles local events. If it’s weekend bar entertainment, we book it.”
Dolan adds, “Both have their advantages: there’s more direct contact with a band/manager when we book in-house, but third parties can open the door to acts we wouldn’t be able to access ourselves.”
Music Is a Must Have
“Aspen Snowmass feels live music is a critical part of the resort experience,” says Gunshor. “Not only have we focused on our free concert series as critical event programming, but we’ve also worked with multiple venues to ensure music is throughout the resort,” including bands and DJs during happy hour five to seven days a week.
At Mount Snow, Dolan is singing the same tune. “Music is very important in creating an all-around positive guest experience,” he says. “As a full-service resort we want to provide our guests with it all, including great entertainment, so they’re excited to come back not only for the snow, but also the good times they share with friends and family after last chair.”
A few years ago, a well-known national news anchor and I were talking over drinks after my band’s show at The Red Lion in NYC. Somewhere in the conversation he confided, “If your job is to make people happy, you can’t lose. We might not knock it out of the park every time, but you can’t lose with that intention.” I believe that’s what many of us musicians have in common with those of you in ski area management.
In the end, whether it’s a nationally touring act, regional Jimmy Buffett tribute, or local jam band, what matters to those of us on stage and behind the scenes is that we send the audience home happy. Lucky for us, their happiness usually correlates with ours.
We’re also lucky that John Rice’s sentiment is widespread in the ski business: “I’m a big believer in live music,” he says. So am I, John. So am I.