Smile Politely

The Man Behind the Music: Ward Gollings Steps Up to the Mic

Ever wonder how the touring bands that play shows in Champaign-Urbana wind up here? Well, one of the driving forces in the C-U live music community is Ward Gollings, an independent promoter who books concerts for the Highdive. The Highdive’s big show this week is Thursday, when Robert Pollard’s Boston Spaceships come to town (here’s the preview that ran last Friday), but that’s just the latest in many years’ worth of great live music that he’s helped to bring to C-U.

Gollings took time out from his busy schedule to answer some questions via the wonders of email. Stick around after the jump for some war stories from the good ol’ days, an unexpected shout-out to the Black Eyed Peas and some love for the C-U scene in general.

Smile Politely: Are you originally from Champaign? If not, where are you from and how did you end up here?

Ward Gollings: I was born in Decatur, Ill., moved to Akron, Ohio, moved to Quincy, Ill., and then spent my middle school and high school years in the south suburbs of Dayton, Ohio. I came to Champaign-Urbana to go to college and have basically never left.

SP: Are you an employee of the Highdive, or do you work independently? If independent, how does your arrangement work?

WG: My arrangement with HD has morphed a couple times over the years. At this point, I do shows there as an independent promoter. But, I also get a paycheck as an employee for a hodgepodge of miscellaneous stuff such as maintaining the website, coordinating and planning special events, and so forth.

SP: How did you get started booking shows, and how did you start working with the Highdive?

WG: One of my best friends in college booked bands for a short spell (including then-unheard of bands like Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins). I helped him and worked at Record Swap at the time. The owner(s) of the newly opened Blind Pig (in the 6 Taylor Street building) asked me to book the bands, which I happily accepted and did so for 8 years. When Blind Pig was sold and changed hands, I too moved on and proceeded to book a small smattering of shows independently for about a year. Halfway through that year I was approached by the owners of Jupiter’s. They were thinking of opening another bar and wanted to have live music and DJs. Again, I was asked if I wanted to book some bands, and again I happily accepted. I have been booking shows at Highdive now for 9+ years.

SP: For a show like Robert Pollard, how long ago did the organization for the show begin? Could you take me through some of the basic steps for booking a show, not necessarily this one if it’s a bad example, but a standard deal?

WG: Four months ago perhaps. The band’s booking agent contacts me about holding certain dates. I hold the dates I have available until the agent solidifies most of the tour’s routing. Their agent then asks me to submit an offer and I do so. Their agent collects all offers for the tour and powwows with that info with the band and the band’s manager. After a potential negotiating period (which can be very quick or can become a stalemate) the gig is confirmed (or the date/hold is released). Contracts are issued and an on-sale-date for tickets is pinpointed.

SP: What’s been the best, most satisfying show that you ever organized? How about the best one you ever attended that you had nothing to do with organizing?

WG: That’s a difficult question since there have been a couple thousand. I’m pretty proud of the Black Eyed Peas show I did at Highdive back in 2001(?) When I see Will.I.Am onstage at the Super Bowl or Grammy’s I think, “man… I drove that dude to FedEx to mail a package”. Not to mention their show later that night was totally and absolutely AMAZING.

The GBV shows at Highdive in the past have always been extremely satisfying for me. Pollard’s ultra-catchy sing-a-long tunes coupled with his carefree attitude and manic stage presence combine for a truly awesome celebration of rock-n-roll.

Best I’ve attended lately that I had nothing to do with would have to be The Flaming Lips at Canopy Club’s “Summer Camp” festival. I didn’t really have any time to see other bands or camp or hang out cause we had our kids with us (their first Lips show!), but the whole event seemed to be seriously kick-ass and very well run from top to bottom.

SP: How do you feel about the state of local music now, vs. 5,10 or15 years ago? What are some similarities and differences? How do you feel about early live shows on Saturday nights with a DJ at 10:30?

WG: I like the early shows before the DJ night. I started them myself at Highdive shortly after it opened. I believe the first early show was The Promise Ring. It was somewhat odd and definitely more disliked back then, but I think it has grown on people. These days Canopy Club also does quite a few early shows too, which goes to show you that they’re not entirely frowned upon. More importantly I think there’s a decent percentage of people out there who actually PREFER the early show. It allows people to get home at a decent hour if they’re not night-owls, or relieve the babysitter, or head to another bar for more cocktails, or whatever.

The state of local music continues to be fairly consistent in my opinion. Bands come and go, venues come and go, the people who support live music come and go. There are some ups and downs here and there, but overall it’s the same from year to year. Whether you’re a band or venue or even just a customer, I say have fun with what you’re doing and enjoy the ride. Life is short. It’s a labor of love for all of us, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.

SP: You used to own (or maybe, manage?) the old Blind Pig, correct? This is more for my curiosity than anything, but can you tell me a little of the history there, how it became Cowboy Monkey, how the new Blind Pig came to be, etc.?

WG: Since Jupiter’s and Highdive were doing so well, the owners decided to start a third bar/restaurant in the building that once housed Blind Pig. After many months debating a name for it, the bar was finally christened Cowboy Monkey and opened in April of 2003. I took on the booking duties there in addition to also booking at Highdive. Meanwhile Chris Knight opened a pub over on Walnut Street and called it Blind Pig (he was the original owner at the Taylor Street location from 1990-1998).

SP: How often do you book a band that you have a personal history with the music of? Does that make it more or less difficult to work with them or their management?

WG: Since I like many many types of music, I often book bands that I admire or own one of their records (yes, vinyl LOL). The difficult part there is remembering to negotiate the money deal with your head and not your heart.

SP: In a 2005 interview with, you said that Highdive had evolved into more of a dance club. Do you still feel that way?

WG: It has evolved in many ways over the course of almost a decade. But to answer the question directly, yes it has evolved more so as a dance club, and I do still feel that way. It’s a fantastic venue for mid-size concerts, but it is often difficult to fill up adequately for smaller bands. That is where Cowboy Monkey provides a nice flexibility in regards to booking.

SP: It’s my understanding that Canopy used to book more “hippie” bands and now they’re more of a direct competitor of the Highdive, at least from my perspective. How does that change what you do, and how does it affect C-U’s music culture?

WG: I think it’s great for the overall music culture in C-U that Canopy is a bit less hippie-ish these days. But I don’t think it really changes anything I do. Personally, I don’t think we COMPETE with each other that much for shows though because both clubs have attained a niche of some sort over the years. It’s pretty rare for us both to be bidding on the same band/show. And if you look at their current ad that has Man Man, Lucky Boys, Gwar, Yonder, Atmosphere, Plain White T’s, Dropkick Murphys, Puddle of Mudd, etc… these bands can’t really play HD due to capacity and production and financial logistics. I’ve known Ian for ~20 years now, and I know Mike and Seth real well too. So if anything, I think it’s an extremely healthy relationship, and definitely NOT anything anywhere near a competition.

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