Kelly Gray & Andrew Parsons (Seismic Dance Event)
Meet Kelly Gray and Andrew Parsons, Founders of Austin, Texas’ Seismic Dance Event. Also known as owners of RealMusic Events, an Austin-based electronic music event production company, these two have done everything from DJ’ing and running a label, to costume design and managing performers, to producing events. As we feature more industry figures and dig into what they’re working on behind the scenes, it couldn’t be a better time to chat with Kelly and Andrew as they move forward with their festival and announce a new venue.
Seismic, a DJ Mag Best of North America nominee, is the only boutique house and techno music festival of the Southern US and holds a reputation for its crowd culture and vibe. As they gear up for the third edition next month from May 21-23, it was an absolute pleasure to learn more about how they got involved with the industry and shape everything they’ve created today, including their story of starting the festival and facing the challenges of hosting it coming out of a pandemic.
It’s really important to talk to and share the stories of people like you who make things happen. How did you get started with events?
■ Andrew: My brother went off to college and he started going to raves and things, and I was like, “What’s this?” and he said he’d take me to one. I was like 13 went to my first rave. That ignited my passion for dance music as a whole and by the time I was 14, I started DJ’ing. I was playing gigs when I was 14-15, played a few festivals and things, and I played the first-ever EDC in Texas and a few other big festivals. Back then, those festivals were huge, even bigger than dance music festivals out here now. When I was in high school, I was really into trance music and started RealMusic Recordings, which was pretty popular and one of the first labels on Beatport. After that, I progressed into doing one-off events here and there but didn’t officially call them RealMusic Events at the time — it was like RealMusic Recordings Presents. When [Kelly and I] officially got together and started dating in 2008-2009, we started doing our own events under RealMusic Events.
■ Kelly: It was consistent ever since then. Our only break has been because of Covid in the past 11+ years. I think my core inspiration behind a lot of the things we do is that I’m passionate about this and I have a perspective. I grew up in San Antonio but went to college at UT here in Austin. We both happened to come to Austin in 2005. I had my first experience with an electronic music event and that whole scene my first semester of my freshman year and I was immediately enamored and wanted to digest as much as possible, so I’d go to every single event, which you could do that the time — now there’s more variety and something going on every night — but at that time, everyone in the scene was at the same show because there was one event happening every night. I immersed myself and got really into the self-expression side of it and the dance and the dress-up aspect, so about a year or year and half later, I started my own dance group and we started performing for events. We would promote and DJ or dance for the same entity that was doing club shows and our team was focused on electronic dance music events and shows. Once we got together, we each wanted to bring more artists that weren’t coming here because there were a lot of the same big mainstream names but not much variety and not more of the up-and-coming acts [Andrew] liked and other acts that we both liked, so we started doing our own events again in 2009 and never stopped.
Once you were consistently doing those events, what sparked the idea of something bigger like a festival?
■ Kelly: We had that tick inside of us. We’re event attendees too and we go to certain festivals ourselves. As you’re growing your own event business, you’re always thinking, “What’s the next step? How can I do more or how can I make this even cooler?” so you start thinking on a grander scale. In 2018 we did our first festival-type of execution where we partnered with Dirtybird BBQ and Anjunadeep Open Air and we did a Desert Hearts takeover. That was all in the same year we launched Seismic. We’d been thinking for years what the name would be if we did a festival, but there’s always something that already exists. Eventually, I came up with a name that really worked and from there was able to grow stage concepts, creative concepts, and aesthetics. We knew we wanted to do a boutique festival that was intimate and not too big because we really enjoy that kind of experience. We also wanted to bring a lot of the acts we wanted to see so this one was focused on the house, techno, melodic techno, progressive kind of area so we basically say it’s a house and techno festival and it spawned from that.
■ Andrew: We knew we wanted to do a festival eventually…
■ Kelly: … but we wanted to be ready for it.
■ Andrew: We basically got into the 9 or 10 year mark — even though it was scary as hell — but we were like, “Fuck it, let’s just try it and hope we make it out.”
What was the biggest challenge making the jump to such a large scale production?
■ Kelly: How spread thin you are. I was working for Google full-time until the end of 2019. I was super busy there along with my dance group and costume design and the logistics of planning the festival and all of the different facets, and I left Google because it was time to take the leap and fully focus on this. We’ve always been a small team and we both handle a lot ourselves, so the biggest thing is building up a core team that you can trust to delegate things to — we’re still working on that — and it’s great and necessary to be able to do that. You don’t want to let things go unattended. I can cover a lot but it’s very wear and tear on yourself. We need to be solutions-orientated and figure it out when things are complicated. Our first edition of Seismic was supposed to be outdoors, and week-of, the forecast was straight rain and the venue was already a mud swamp so we moved the entire event within four days of the festival to a different location. We were restrategizing and replanning within that close timeframe, but we excel at doing things really fast. Rolling with the punches is the core attribute you need to be able to hone in on when you’re doing festivals, and obviously with Covid we’re having to reformat, readjust, and make things the way they need to be based on the environment.
How is your team structured?
■ Kelly: Andrew does the talent buying and I’m usually handling the overall event logistics, the creative direction (branding, designers, social media), and production. The production is based on my creative vision and what aligns with the brand, so we have a production company we use to source the lighting, sound, and all of that. We also have a production manager now who is going to help facilitate and coordinate all of that so it’s a team effort. We have festival teams that aren’t necessarily our ongoing teams, and our media team with photographers and videographers from our RealMusic events but we expand on that for the festival. Then we have the on-site hospitality team, box office, and merch. Now we have a little customer support team — which is our social media manager and one of our former promoters who also worked box office — helping with emails so we’re growing the roles and responsibilities for a select few because we’re very detail-oriented, particular, and don’t just trust anyone; we want to embody the right vibe and culture fit but also the mentality and vision so we usually end up throwing them into the roles we had been doing ourselves.
Did you find it hard at the beginning to pass off tasks to others?
■ Kelly: Still dealing with it…
■ Andrew: She’s a lot better at it than I am…
■ Kelly: I’m just accustomed to managing teams having done it in my other full-time jobs like training folks and figuring out where they can help. I do that for RealMusic Events and Seismic, and our new venue.
Is this The Concourse?
■ Kelly: Yes, this is a dream project and it’s very special. With this we’re finally able to bring on some of our team members full-time and we’ve never had any other full-time employees. Even I wasn’t full-time until 2019 just because there are a lot of high costs and we wanted the security of me having another job but then we decided we needed to focus.
■ Andrew: Especially with the festival, the statistic is that it takes three years for a festival to even be profitable and you’re still dealing with your losses from the years before so it’s hard to sustain and that’s why a lot of festivals don’t stick around.
■ Kelly: We’re just kind of building this little empire. The important thing with Seismic is that it’s at the new venue so it’s going to be a phased rollout of it — we’re going to be using the outdoor component and over the summer we’ll be using the patio and then finally you’ll see the inside. They’re all interconnected brands but now that we’re going into this phase with the venue, it’s going to help a lot and is allowing us to find full-time positions for some of our team members who have been working with us on a part-time basis or on a contract basis. It’s already helping and you’re able to do and achieve a lot more as you grow your teams because you’re really stunted if you have too much on your own shoulders.
■ Andrew: Even as she was saying earlier, we have a small customer support team now which is other people helping us. Normally we don’t get a lot of emails but with Covid going on, we’re getting bombarded with questions and we’re trying to help people move their tickets over and deal with ticket scammers. A lot of people don’t do that but we’re trying to go above and beyond even though it’s a lot of extra work.
That must be something people recognize and appreciate.
■ Kelly: Since we were already allowing transfers we’re not going to change that mid-edition so we’re helping where we can and our team members are trying to help the customer experience.
■ Andrew: We’re also letting people transfer their tickets to November if they don’t feel safe coming in May and we’re giving more people refunds to help them out.
■ Kelly: With Covid, things are complicated and there’s a spectrum of where people align and how they think things should be. It’s rough because you’re dealing with aggressiveness on both ends of the spectrum.
There are a number of safety protocols and guidelines for Seismic next month — how has it been putting everything into place on your end?
■ Kelly: It’s a constantly changing environment so you just need to make sure you’re staying on top of those changes and adapting but keeping it safe. We need to skew safer than not safe enough. I know we’re all getting tired of this but we can’t be reckless and we’re one of the first festival executions coming out of this pandemic so we need to make sure we’re buttoned up. We have it on our side that we’re a smaller boutique festival. We reduced the capacity and aadded that attendees can upload their proof of vaccine, or if they didn’t do that or don’t want to, they can get tested prior to entry. That’s a pretty strong couple layers of mitigation to ensure you’re hosting a safer event. Nothing is fail-proof; there’s still room for error with testing so we’re still requiring masks which is complicated because there’s no mask mandate at the Texas state level anymore, but at the Austin level there is a mask mandate. Regardless of that, we’re proceeding with the mandate because we’re hosting a large gathering of folks so we need to make sure we’re not being reckless. If we had no rules or parameters, the shitstorm that would entail is just something we’re not trying to sign ourselves up for. Plus, we don’t want to be hosting an unsafe environment and even though people are saying they don’t want to wear a mask, we’re doing what we need to do to get past this edition as we’re lucky we’re able to have it. We originally needed to do pods, but with the testing element, we removed the pods so there’s more freedom and freeflow.
Do you have a separate team on the grounds dedicated to testing and enforcing masks?
■ Kelly: There’s a group called Code 4 — they’re health, safety, and medical pros. We’ve already worked with them for all our festivals prior and with Covid they’ve pivoted and have done some other events here like David Chapelle shows where they test everyone who attends; they’ve helped facilitate that for other events and they’re working with us to make the best possible logistics to keep it a safer event. I’m very involved in what we need to do but we have them to ensure it’s the right plan and that everything goes with the regulations and beyond.
■ Andrew: This whole time we keep pushing forward. There’s a lot of work but we want to show that it can be done.
Right, I don’t think anyone has really shown this can be done yet.
■ Kelly: You can do it without throwing all caution to the wind. There are ways. Our industry has been hit very hard with not having events or revenue from the producer side of things to the venues, to the artists, to the musicians, to the people who work them like production and security and bartenders. People like to say a festival or music thing is a privilege and not a necessity, but restaurants are a privilege and not a necessity too, and they’ve been open for a while because they found perimeters that work. If we find parameters that work and can adhere to, we should be able to let people’s livelihoods sustain. Forcing folks to have no means to feed themselves or let their businesses and dreams die, that’s not good either. If you can find ways to do it and find the middle ground, it’s good that we can adapt.
I’m so happy to hear someone say that.
■ Kelly: There’s a lot of gratitude. People say music is a form of therapy and it really is. That’s why we’re all in it because it’s changed our lives and is something that helps keep you going. There are the folks that only see it for negative assumptions and you have to deal with that which makes it hard, but I’m just looking to the light at the end of the tunnel.
Putting the spotlight back on you guys, what’s your favorite part about what you do and about Seismic? What are you looking forward to doing?
■ Kelly: I would say my favorite part has become the creative vision and being able to apply that to not just the branding but also the production because that’s something I’ve always been really interested in. I’ve always looked for a cool production and being able to bring that to life is super cool and it’s different from what I’ve done in this career path — all the other years I’ve been focused on the creative on other sides of things. People thought I was just dealing with performers and costume design but I’m not limited to that. I actually now find myself more focused on the event execution and production than the performer side. I’m looking forward to having a bigger team where I can do all the things I love in the manner I love. We’re really passionate about the sound and types of artists we’re bringing, especially being in the south in Texas where there used to be more bass-driven festivals. Seeing that tide turn and being able to facilitate that is cool. The vibe and community aspect is something we’re really proud of because there’s something really special about Austin and our scene here and in Texas, so people getting to see more of that shows how special it is here.
■ Andrew: Pretty much the same. I definitely love the vibe. I think we’ve curated it even just for our regular events and think that’s something that really sets us apart. Obviously I really love the aesthetic and the way the festival is headed with production, and of course I really like the lineups. We try to do something different than anybody else is doing and I think we’re usually a little ahead of the curve there. I’m always trying to strive to be better in that realm and do something different and have a cooler lineup and try to do it first.
What advice do you have for somebody who would like to be an event producer or work on that end of things?
■ Kelly: Always find where the hole is. What is something you can do that’s unique and different? Don’t just rinse and repeat what’s already out there. Of course there are going to be similarities and you can be inspired by other things, but find a way to pivot towards satisfying a need or missing element in your area and hone in on that. You have to pay attention to the small details because when you don’t pay attention to that, that’s when people start to notice. They may not notice it if it’s all right, but they will notice it if it’s wrong.
@SeismicTX was a freaking vibe. Can’t wait for 2020💚
— emi (@DreamingEmiily) November 19, 2019
The fam was everywhere last night ☺️ it was a blessing to watch every one vibe tf out
— Gabby J Hernandez (@Gfabgab) November 17, 2019
Honestly trying to wrap my head around how fun @seismictx was last night- too many friends to count. What a vibe!
— HotBOi (@option4music) September 23, 2018