Pop singer-songwriter Anna Nalick stands in a hotel parking lot somewhere in Des Moines, giddily clutching an armload of cold white powder. "I only experienced snow for the first time last November, and now I'm obsessed," the California native explains via cell phone. "It's really putting me in the holiday spirit."
Seems it's that time of year: The first snowfall, the eggnog hangovers and the annual onslaught of holiday shows presented by local radio stations. From coast to coast, FM powerhouses are decking their local concert halls. And while ticket holders may view the events as just another opportunity to rock out (albeit rockin' out while wearing reindeer antlers), it's a different story for those behind the scenes. Logistics for holiday shows are trickier, promotion is more intense, and lineups must coax audiences away from stuffing their stockings and roasting their chestnuts to brave long lines and freezing temperatures.
The River (101.1 FM) has presented seasonal shows for the past eleven years, first at Westport Playhouse and then, beginning in 2000, at the newly opened Pageant. Program director Marty Linck cites booking bands as the biggest challenge for the station's "River of Toys" show. "I have to start calling around in June," Linck says. "I'll go after about 30 bands knowing that most aren't going to work out based on how their tours are routed."
The Point (105.7 FM), meanwhile, begins booking its "HoHo Shows" in August or September. "We try to find a date that works for the headliner and build around it," says marketing and promotions director Kyle Guderian. "Because Fall Out Boy was available on the twentieth [of December], the rest fits into place after that."
The Point also lucked out this year by booking artists already traveling to other holiday shows as they normally do for months-long regular tours: via bus. For some events, bookings can hinge on whether stations arrange and cover artists' travel and lodging, as they typically fly in and out within twenty-four hours for the one-off show dates.
"It's a lot of flying," says Nalick, who boasts four such shows on her December itinerary, including Saturday's "River of Toys" show. "The air on the planes is so dry, it makes it hard to sing when you get there. But the advantages are that you get exposure, you meet a lot of different artists, and you meet the people at the radio stations who play your songs."
Nalick has been on tour for more than a year in support of her April debut, Wreck of the Day, and she estimates that nearly half those dates have been radio shows. "I think it's important to say thank you," she says of DJs who continue to spin her hit single "Breathe (2 AM)," which has ultimately propelled Wreck to gold-selling status.
In turn, stations view the concerts as thank-yous for continuous audience support. "The bands will show their appreciation for all we do by playing for cheaper, and we pass the savings on," Linck says. "It's cool to have 2,000 of your listeners seeing five bands for cheaper than they'd pay to see them separately." (Linck estimates that when the River has to cover travel expenses, it pays artists half of what they would normally earn from a concert.)
With most of the Point's holiday-show bands already on tour, program director Tommy Mattern says his station merely agrees to pay artists' required talent fees no travel costs, no ongoing negotiations. "It's not like we say, 'I'll spin your record if you give me a favor or drop the price on the show a little bit,'" he explains.
Bassist Michael Todd of the emo-prog quartet Coheed and Cambria (which performs Tuesday at the Point's second "Ho Ho Show" of the season) confirms that their holiday-show paycheck isn't "too different from a regular show. We're on a medium-level, but I've heard it gets blown up for bigger bands."
What blows up must also be stripped down, however, as shorter sets, shared equipment, cramped backstage areas and less-elaborate stage productions become the norm when several groups of musicians share a holiday bill. For example, Coheed and Cambria have toured for three months behind Good Apollo I'm Burning Star IV, Vol. 1: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness, the third album chronicling lead singer Claudio Sanchez's sci-fi tale of two doomed lovers and their equally doomed offspring. The band's elaborate stage set includes a working version of the winged guillotine featured in Apollo's liner notes, but owing to time and space constraints, the piece is conspicuously absent during their half-dozen holiday gigs.
Fans may take issue when favorite musicians play truncated sets, but an upside remains to the keep-'em-moving mentality: When more artists share a bill, the likelihood audiences will discover new talent to embrace grows exponentially.
"A station has the opportunity to introduce a developing artist to an audience, such as in the case of British sensation Joss Stone on the River of Toys 2004 bill. She stole the show," says Jesse Raya, public relations and marketing director of the Pageant. "[This year] they're introducing St. Louis to British newcomer Natasha Bedingfield, a huge star in the UK looking to make her mark in America."
Raya also says the high volume of tickets sold for holiday shows is a trend that rarely wanes: "Once the shows are announced, tickets sell out pretty quickly, sometimes within days, others within hours of the event going on sale." But relatively cheap tickets and a wide variety of bands not to mention heavy on-air promotion aren't the only reason holiday shows tend to sell out quickly (Coheed's HoHo show did so in an hour).
"Right now there aren't a lot of other shows out there," says the Point's Guderian, alluding to the reduced number of shows bands play late in the year so members can spend time with their own friends and families. "December is kind of a dry concert season, so that contributes to shows' success when the concert dollar isn't spread out all over the place.
"No one's making bags of money on these shows, that's for sure," Guderian continues. "We just try to put together a good show for our listeners. Other than that, it's all about everyone enjoying one great, final, blowout concert of the year."