Latin Grammys 2018
Spotlight: Event Producer Neil Maris on the 'Controlled Chaos' of Setting Up SXSW
"This time of year, it's kind of just finding out, like, 'How do you need help?' Or, 'How can we help you reach your goal?'"
As South by Southwest hits its stride with industry types and fans filling the streets of Austin, Neil Maris has been witness to the city's transformation into a music mecca and has had a hand in a good deal of this week's action.
In total, Maris and his company Duty Now for the Future have been involved in producing some aspect of nearly a dozen events throughout SXSW, ranging from production managing to setting up bars and bartending services to helping events navigate necessary permitting processes. He worked to design and build the entire Fader Fort setup from conception to completion; he helped COLLiDE take over Rainey Street for the week, providing backline and other miscellany for a slew of different daily events with over 100 acts in all; for HBO's popular drama Westworld, he helped book bands and source vendors in a ghost town about 20 minutes outside of Austin; and the list goes on.
Maris describes his approach to a regularly busy March by saying it's basically anything goes. He explains, "This time of year, it's kind of just finding out, like, 'How do you need help?' Or, 'How can we help you reach your goal?'"
Maris is in a good position to approach these different SXSW events' varying needs, having established himself locally producing the annual Fun Fun Fun Fest from 2011 until it ended in 2016, and now -- with his partner Johnny Sarkis -- filling out different roles year round, ranging from production to point-of-sale systems and more on a handful of happenings within Texas -- including Texas Monthly's BBQ Fest and Edge of Texas events, Fortress Festival in Fort Worth and the Levitation festival in Austin -- and around the country, such as MO POP Festival in Detroit, Hangout Fest in Gulf Shores, Ala., and coming up this summer a series of activations hosted by Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Los Angeles.
A Michigan transplant who moved south to attend the University of Texas at Austin, Maris got his start in live music when he started booking events at a local skate park in 2003. He went on to cut his teeth with the Chaos in Tejas heavy metal festival and as an intern at Transmission Events, where he rose to become one of Fun Fun Fun Fest's leading producers. Along the way, he built connections with enough local contractors to get about any job done, as well as build a business as one of Austin's go-to independent event producers based solely on word-of-mouth recommendations.
"With all of the different vendors and contacts I made along the way, it's [helpful] now because I definitely know who's good and who's not -- who can be trustworthy with certain things and who can't be," he says.
That element of camaraderie is essential to Maris' work, noting Austin is small enough that it's typical he'll run into his contractors around town. As a manager, he is tasked almost daily to handle the sort of tactical challenges most offices can only dedicate annual team-building retreats to recreate. Maris recalls that while producing Levitation one spring a few years back, weather forced a total change of plans. With the event set to start on a Friday, on Tuesday the site was hit with a downpour and by that night the grounds were completely flooded. Maris and the rest of the team had to entirely relocate the festival setup -- tents, stages, everything -- to another side of the field in less than three days. "And as stressful and as horrible as it was," he says, "at the end of it, like once a week passed, I think everyone appreciated the teamwork that went into making that event happen."
It's not uncommon for things to go awry like this, which Maris says is part of the excitement of his job. Looking back at Fun Fun Fun Fest, he remembers when ticketing issues resulted in a line about a half a mile long leading to the box office. (By the next year, he and the rest of the team had studied extensively about how to better manage queues and make them move quicker, or at least appear to do so.)
For that same festival, which was held at Austin's Auditorium Shores urban park, he says the production team had to figure out how to move stages and all the equipment onto the lawn without any wheels from the trucks or trailers touching the grass. Or, sometimes its a matter of fixing things on the fly, such as one year when a water pipe burst. Every different event, venue and audience brings new challenges, and as Maris' stories illustrate, despite all the planning, there is only one chance to get things right -- otherwise, it's better luck next time, which could be next month, year or maybe never. But that element of constantly being challenged is part of what Maris says he likes most about his job.
"A lot of it is just being able to see something from a creative design part and actually creating it and then it's either going successfully or, if it didn't go successfully, learning what to do next time and applying all of that to the next show," he says. "The speed of which everything happens, I enjoy -- it's kind of chaotic, but a controlled chaos can be fun."
When you're coming up work hard, have a good attitude and treat everyone with respect.
When I strategize, I first think of ways to change and improve the basics of events.
I've learned that growth comes from failure.
The best advice I've received is don't take yourself too seriously and that this job should be fun.
Something I never thought I would see is Run DMC and Refused on stage at the same festival within a five minute walk of each other.
Spotlight is a new Billboard.biz series that aims to highlight those in the music business making innovative or creative moves, or who are succeeding in behind-the-scenes or under-the-radar roles. For submissions for the series, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.