The Dropkick Murphys’ Ken Casey Talks Rise From Bar Band to Touring Giant at Billboard Live Music Summit
"Our first two shows, there was nobody there but friends," said Dropkick Murphys bassist Ken Casey at his Billboard Live Music Summit panel on Wednesday, "who were strictly there to make fun of us."
“Our first two shows, there was nobody there but friends,” said Dropkick Murphys bassist Ken Casey at his Billboard Live Music Summit panel on Wednesday, “who were strictly there to make fun of us.”
Twenty-two years and roughly 4,000 shows later, the band Casey co-founded to win a bet is one of the most successful punk bands in existence, with a global fan base passionately devoted to their rowdy live shows and what Casey calls their “ugly mix” of British punk, American hardcore and Celtic folk. How they got from basement band to beloved touring juggernaut was the subject of The Business of Being the Dropkick Murphys, a rollicking discussion between Casey, manager Jeff Castelaz of Cast Management and Billboard Touring and Live Entertainment Senior Correspondent Dave Brooks.
The secret of Dropkick Murphys’ success was perhaps best summed up by Castelaz. “Ken never walks offstage at the end of a show that way,” he said, pointing to the wings. “He always walks out that way” — and here he pointed to the audience — “over the barrier. It’s not a theoretical connection with the fans; it’s a real connection.”
“I’d say 90 percent of the people that listen to Dropkick Murphys have met us and know us and feel like they’re part of the whole deal,” said Casey.
Forging those close bonds with their fans has clearly paid off for the band. Castelaz noted that even though Dropkick Murphys have never had a Hot 100 hit, they’ve sold over 7 million albums, initially though punk indie label Hellcat and, starting in 2007, their own Born & Bred imprint.
Given their now-massive fan base, Brooks wondered, “Is it hard to give yourself to people that much?”
“It is, but … I have to keep in perspective,” Casey replied. “They’ve given me a job for 22 years.”
Casey and his bandmates don’t just pay lip service to that working-class mentality. The band has been a longtime labor union supporter and insists that all their merch be made sweatshop-free in the U.S. — a rule so ironclad that when Castelaz inadvertently violated it early in his tenure with the band, Casey devised a creative punishment that their new manager would be sure to remember.
“He says, ‘Get in the bag,'” Castelaz recalled. “He’s got this thing that boxers use. It’s like a punching bag that goes over [your] shoulders.” Then Casey performed some boxing practice on his hapless manager, while someone filmed the whole thing for posterity.
So how does it feel to pummel your manager? “I recommend it to all bands,” Casey said with a mischievous grin.
That early mishap aside, Casey and Castelaz clearly have a close relationship, and their affectionate ribbing of one another throughout the panel provided many highlights. When Brooks asked Castelaz, “Is Ken manageable?” the Cast Management and Dangerbird Records founder thought about it for a beat too long before grudgingly answering, “Yes.” (Both Casey and the audience laughed approvingly at his comic timing.)
“It’s a lot of texts and a lot phone calls and a lot of emails,” Castelaz said. “Ken has a lot of ideas.” Those ideas have included everything from a failed attempt to play a show in every state in New England in 24 hours to a much more successful venture into boxing promotion. Casey’s company Murphys Boxing has promoted nationally televised fights and developed several world champions — and now even piggybacks events on Dropkick Murphys shows, like a recently announced St. Patrick’s Day 2019 stop in Lowell, Massachusetts, that will feature both music and boxing.
Selling ticket packages to the all-day event, which will feature a daytime “matinee” Dropkick Murphys set, followed by a boxing match and a second Murphys performance, proved difficult. “We’re always pushing ticketing systems beyond what they were ever built to do,” Castelaz said. “So if there’s any ticketing people out here, if you want to hear our ideas, we have them.”
Ticketing has been a challenge for the Dropkick Murphys in another way: The band is so dedicated to keeping their ticket prices low that their concerts are a popular target of the secondary market. “Ironically, one of the kids I grew up with is a ticket broker,” Casey said. “And he always says, ‘You guys make us the most money because you sell so cheap.'”
Even so, Casey said the band has no intention of ever pricing their blue-collar fans out of shows. Castelaz calls them “the most price-sensitive band” he’s ever worked with. “We grew up liking bands that when they went from [charging] $5 to $7, we were like, ‘No!’ Casey explained. “So we try to remember what was important to us.”
It’s all part of Dropkick Murphys’ broader ethic of staying true to their roots. To this day, Casey noted, he still lives in the Boston area with his wife and three kids. “To us, not that much has changed,” he said. “I didn’t move to L.A. I live in Boston and I hang around the same people I grew up with” — far from, as he called it, “the crap of the music industry.”
Looking out at the industry crowd at the Montage Beverly Hills, he added with a smile, “No offense.”