For October’s Arts & Music Issue, we sat down with local music promoters to talk about the state of Northeast Florida’s music scene.

From left to right: Tim Hall (Owner & Operator, Jackrabbits, Jax Live Presents); Dianya Markovits (Marketing and Community Relations Manager, St. Augustine Amphitheatre & Ponte Vedra Concert Hall); Geexella (Singer-MC-DJ, Founder of Duval Folx); Kat Layton (Founder, Güd Music Company), Keith Marks (Founder of Avant Music Series & Avant Radio Hour); Christina Wagner (Singer-songwriter, Owner & Operator, Rain Dogs.); Cara Burky (Owner & operator, Blue Jay Listening Room) Photo: Jesse Brantman

What’s the best thing about the music scene right now in Northeast Florida?

Geexella: For me, being an artist, there’s such a variety. There’s noise. There’s rock. There’s hip hop. There’s something for everybody here.

Cara: From my experience, we’re all about community over competition. There’s an incredible community that I believe has always been there. I’m a newb. I’ve been open for a year. But I think this whole community of different artists from different genres are coming together. They’re going to each other’s shows and promoting one another. From what I’ve heard it the past, I think venue owners might have been more in competition with each other. I think we’re the next Nashville.

Kat: I think it’s alive and breathing more than it has been in years. Just seeing people supporting each other and all the venues popping up, I’ve seen a lot of acts who usually go to Orlando coming here. Smaller acts and bigger acts. I think that’s a huge opportunity for this region.

Christina: I think it’s a multitude of things going on right now. Going back, I remember when Tim [Hall] moved here from San Diego 20 years ago and all of the sudden we were getting all these great shows. He came during a lull. After the Milk Bar closed, it was really slow. There was like three years of no great live music. He revitalized music here. Then Ryan [Murphy, St. Augustine Amphitheatre] came in and revitalized St. Augustine’s scene. Now we have Maverick’s and Ponte Vedra Concert Hall. We were teetering on like a B or C market. Now we’ve been pulled back to an A. It’s because of people really believing in it.

Tim: I think 99.9% of the people that are in this crazy music business here in Northeast Florida, absolutely live and breathe it. That’s kind of the reason things grow. People are doing it for their heart and not their pocket book. I don’t think anyone is sitting here thinking they’re going to get rich. We were just trying to figure out how to get our A/C working for a show that 50 people had bought tickets for [laughs]. Ryan Murphy said to me a few months ago, “the rising tide lifts all boats.” I’ve seen that over and over in my career. Every time there are a lot of places open, I look at our numbers and they’re better. When Jackrabbits was the only place open, we were struggling. Now there’s something to do every night of the week. That’s what I like about it right now.

Keith: So the thing that I think is great about the scene here, is that there is so much hope and positivity right now. For years it was like, “oh this place sucks.” And how much talent have we lost because of that mindset? So, the thing that makes the music scene great right now is a shift in mindset. It’s still a lot of work. Artists still aren’t represented the way they should be. But the mood and energy is really positive. The momentum now feels like you can’t destroy it. If a place goes out of business, we’re not going to feel it as much.

Dianya: We’re on a cusp. I come from a town in Florida [Gainesville] where we constantly had shows. When I came over to St. Augustine, it got quiet at 10 p.m. Now we have Nobby’s and Sarbez and Tradewinds, just to name a few. There’s this rising energy and its palpable now. People are talking about it. The more you can reach those people who say “I don’t create, but I’ll spectate,” and let them know there’s all this going on, and engage them. That’s what is important. What’s great about it right now, is that energy is rising and people are talking about it. Our pendulum is swinging up right now.

Photo: Jesse Brantman

What’s the biggest challenge to growing the region’s music scene, or taking it to the next level?

Geexella: The hardest part is showing people what’s going on. I’ve taken to having a photographer and videographer at all my shows now. And when I market my shows, I try to do a photoshoot. I ask other artists to help me put myself out there. So just getting others involved has been really important and I’ve seen my shows grow from that. Other artists will say “Oh, I can’t get this venue to book me.” I’m like, “OK, what do you have to show them?” I think learning how to promote ourselves better as artists is a challenge that I’m trying to take on.

Dianya: The challenge is the promotion. We have shows at the amphitheatre that take care of themselves. Widespread Panic? We’re not worried about that. But educating people about why this artist matters, for smaller or lesser known artists, is really a challenge. I still believe in the street team. I still believe in hanging flyers. The audiences are elusive and smart. So you have to use your community partners to get the word out. Our venues have had to help people trust us. So the challenge is getting people to trust you, that you are going to show them something F***ing awesome. And you’re going to be moved.

Cara: That’s a good segue to my challenge. Being in Jacksonville Beach educating people on who we are and what we’re doing is tough. Our shows are typically $20 and people show up to the door every night and say, “For what?” My biggest challenge is getting people out of their cover-band, night-out-for-free bubble. I’m not dissing cover bands because I love me a good cover band. But I want people to trust that they will see something unique, they’ll be moved, and they’ll have a good time. The listening room concept is not new. There have been plenty of listening rooms before me. Mudville is a great one. But introducing this concept at the beach has been, by far, the biggest challenge. Also, I’m telling people to be quiet for two hours [laughs].

Kat: That’s the hardship. The people who don’t want to pay for acts they haven’t heard of. They are the same people who wonder why we can’t book bigger, nationally touring acts. How do you think we’re going to bring them in if you won’t buy a ticket to a smaller, local show? You have to pay for the five, ten, fifteen dollar ticket to get the bigger stuff.

Tim: The absolute biggest challenge is selling tickets. Northeast Florida has grown in population and visibility. And I think a lot of that has to do with the Jacksonville Jaguars. That’s the reality. But getting people out has been the challenge forever. Before social media and email newsletters, it took me the entire day to flyer Orange Park to the beaches. I came form San Diego—same problem there. It’s spread out like Jacksonville. If you live in Orange Park and there’s a show at the beach, it’s really hard to go.  

Keith: I will have a conversation with anyone who will listen about Avant. I want people to know what I’m doing. I had a conversation with Kevin Stone [VP of programming] at the Florida Theatre and told him about the shows we’ve done—how we had 400 people at a show for someone who most people had never heard of. He said, “Jacksonville wants name brand candy. The Alice Coopers, we can sell tickets.” We as a community need to take risks. When we spend money we are supporting the growth of the scene. The tagline for Avant is “Curious music for curious minds.” So I’m trying to get people to take risks.

Photo: Brantman

How do you find out about new local music? And how can people support local music?

Geexella: I find it by doing shows with others, or collaborating. You’ll see me at shows on a Monday night. I like to take the risk, like Keith said. I’ll spend my last to give to another artist. When I play with an artist from out of town, I’m buying a t-shirt. I try to promote others and they end up promoting me. But I’m also a Soundcloud person at 3 o’clock in the morning.

Cara: I’m lucky that I have a lot of people come to me. But also I’m a Soundcloud, Spotify, NPR: All Songs Considered person. I try and reach out to three new people everyday. I’ve gotten a lot of people I thought I’d never get that way. People who I thought would never play a little 80-person venue. I think there are two different goals in music. Some people want to be Dave Grohl and play to sold out stadiums. Others want to play in an intimate environment where you can hear a pin drop. So if people get that, they tend to want to play Blue Jay. Also, I try and treat the artists really well and I’ve found that artists talking to artists, sharing that they had a good experience, has been really beneficial.

Kat: If it’s not through the grapevine, I’m all over it. I’m on Facebook, Instagram, all over the Internet. If it comes through town, I’m finding it.

Tim: I just look at what other people are booking and book that [laughs]. But seriously, for local bands, if I see a picture or video of a band or artist that’s packed a place out, I look and go “Holy s***. I want to book them.” You have to keep your ear to the ground. I talk to Jason Hunnicutt [1904 Music Hall] a lot. National acts are usually finding me. Nothing makes me happier than somebody pitching a band to me, me being unsure about it, and then that show sells out. Then I’m like, “Wow, I’m so old.”

Keith: I’ve got two young kids, so my life is different than it was. Coming from the street team era, I do look at flyers and take account of what I’m seeing often. I don’t really like the AI world of Spotify and algorithms spitting out recommendations. I will say that they’re mostly right [laughs]. But I really miss the friends-sharing-music thing. It happens less and less because a lot of my peers are not talking about the newest record they bought. But I really appreciate social media, especially when I see an artist really do a good job promoting themselves. I pay attention when people are cutting through the chatter.

Dianya: We’re in the third year of Sing Out Loud. And I like to think of it as trick-or-treating for live music. I grew up going to The Fest in Gainesville, which was the same idea. You can bounce around to multiple venues, you know the genre, but you’ve never heard of the band. You just trust it. That’s the whole thing. That taught me a lot about how to find new music. Trust the people that put it on, or your friends that brought you, that they have some knowledge that I might not have. That’s how I continue to learn about new music. But then also when artists share with one another. That’s the coolest thing when somebody is like, “I’m not playing tonight, but we’re going to see this band.”

Photo: Brantman

What’s Northeast Florida’s musical identity?

Dianya: I lament the fact that I think our identity is the Florida Man. Like this non-cerebral, punch you in the face kind of music, where it’s got to be hard or reggae. I lament that. I think that’s on the surface. I was so ingrained in the Gainesville punk scene, and that’s all I knew. So, now being here, I see a place that’s changing so fast. People are going out on a limb to see stuff that’s not played on mainstream radio. It’s evolving. We might have been known for Southern Rock or beach-y reggae stuff, but that’s changing. There’s more diversity and more people being more vocal about what they like and what they don’t like.

Keith: I think we do live in the shadow of .38 Special and Skynard and all of that. Maybe Limp Bizkit [groans from the panel]. I think that our rap scene has made its mark in the country. But I don’t think any of that makes for an accurate picture. I think it’s developing. From the inside I wouldn’t say it’s <developed.> I think we should aspire to be an Austin or Nashville. These are places that were considered country music strongholds. But anybody who has been there knows that’s not the case. People are out hearing music of all genres every night. I think as we aspire to grow our music scene, those are good examples—lots of choices, lots of people taking risks, club owners and promoters making a living. That’s where our musical future, as a culture, that’s what we should aspire to.

Tim: I think if you asked someone on the west coast, “What’s Jacksonville known for?” If they know anything about it, it’s what Keith said—Skynard. Which is not entirely a bad thing if you know their body of work. They were a great, great band. But, the reality is we have a lot of great musicians living here. Derek and Susan Trucks, JJ Grey from Mofro, Ben Cooper [Radical Face],  that kid Yuno who just sold out Jackrabbits—he was great. I was blown away. You have this awesome record on Sub Pop. You live here. This is amazing. Limp Bizkit, I don’t think will be revered down the road. We’ve had a lot of acts that have come out of Jacksonville, but most of them don’t do well here. Yellowcard was huge and they couldn’t do a small arena here. That sucks.

Photo: Brantman

Christina: Florida is just a weird place, musically. Gainesville and Tampa I call “I-75 rock.” Everybody’s in jeans. They all have beards. They all have really grovelly voices. They probably have Chuck Ragan tattoos on their a**es. I-75 rock! Then reggae on either coast. Country all over the place. Latin music from Miami. Florida kind of just doesn’t make sense musically. It’s hard for touring bands. They don’t know where to go in Florida. I think our identity, here in Jacksonville, is that we’re a bunch of stubborn people trying to make it work in this strange place [laughs].

Kat: The biggest shows we have, at least that other people have heard of, are like Rockville, the Big Ticket, Skynard shows. It’s hard rock. Heavy rock. I think that’s our identity. But lately I’ve been traveling to other towns and when I tell people I’m from Jacksonville, I’ve had people say, “Oh, that’s really cool.” It’s a new thing. With our growth comes bigger shows. Rock and alternative rock are our big platforms, but that’s not our identity. Our identity is evolving.

Cara: I’m with Tim on this. The Allman Brothers are my favorite band of all time. And I love Skynard. I’m proud that those bands are from here. With a listening room, I see a lot of bands who come from that Southern Rock, blues lineage—Bonnie Blue, the Melody Trucks band. I think that that identity is something that is really f***ing cool. A lot of places don’t have that.

Geexella: I would say it’s a super eclectic scene. I’ve been to so many shows. I was a Hip Hop Hell [a long-running local promotion] youngen, before it fizzled out. The Hip hop scene has grown so much. Now it’s this Hip hop rage scene, which I’m down for the Hip hop show mosh pit! I think social media has a lot to do with it. A lot of my friends from out of town are like, “What’s going on there?” I’m like “I don’t know, but there’s something new all the time [laughs].” From Yuno to Lannds, you have these really talented people that are working so hard and doing big things. I want it to stay that way, where you can’t put a finger on what the scene actually is. I want it to stay eclectic and weird.