Shaky Knees founder Tim Sweetwood's rise to the top
How an aspiring Atlanta concert promoter became the biggest thing to hit Atlanta music in decades
Tim Sweetwood stands up from his desk and walks a few steps across his office. He leans over and runs his fingers along a foot-shaped dent that's been pounded into the side of another nearby desk.
"Do you see that?" he asks. "That is what you get when an unnamed headliner decides to cancel on us 18 hours before a lineup is announced."
He pauses for a second before bursting into a barrel-chested laugh.
Sweetwood's loft-like office space at Bowery Presents South is tucked away amid the boutique shops and galleries of Highland Row. The walls are lined with crooked fliers and aerial photos of the swarms of concertgoers in front of stages during the last two years of Sweetwood's Shaky Knees Music Festival. Boxes of T-shirts, wristbands, and other merch and festival supplies are stacked around the room. Ziploc baggies stuffed with candy, and short bottles of whiskey and energy drinks, or some concoction of the two, clutter open surfaces. This is the office where the biggest intown festival to hit Atlanta since Alex Cooley and Peter Conlon launched Music Midtown in the summer of 1994 takes shape. But on this day it's as quiet as a tomb.
Three employees stare quietly at their computer screens as they type with mechanical rhythm. Sweetwood laughs about the unnatural stillness that fills the air.
"It really is kind of a rare thing for it to be this calm in the office this time of the year," he says. "It isn't always like this."
It's a Friday afternoon in April — just two weeks before the third installment of Shaky Knees takes over Atlanta's Central Park May 8-10. Sweetwood anticipates the music festival will draw some 30,000 people each day. More than 80 indie rock bands are featured on the lineup. Neutral Milk Hotel, Wilco, TV on the Radio, the Dead Milkmen, the Avett Brothers, Spiritualized, the Mountain Goats, Tame Impala, and dozens of other acts will spread out over the five stages placed around the 17-acre park in the lesser-known neighborhood of Fourth Ward West.
Sweetwood is all business when it comes to booking music. He remains behind the scenes for the most part. He's the guy who makes sure the club's bills are paid. He's the one answering the phones from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m. every day. Standing six-feet, six-inches tall, his presence is imposing and his words and mannerisms are brash and direct. In the office that afternoon, while listening to one employee discuss her roles as a festival assistant and coordinator, he interrupts.
"I'd say 'coordinator' is a bit strong," he says. "What exactly have you coordinated?"
Over the years Sweetwood has developed a reputation as a polarizing character. There is an intensity and arrogant humor behind a lot of what he says. He's quick to size you up, and when asking him questions it's difficult to tell whether he'll give you a straight answer or bust your balls with a smart-ass jab.
But he is a self-made man and a professional, albeit one who comes across as calloused to some. He's OK with that.
"There's going to be people out there that don't like me, but you have to have thick skin in this business," Sweetwood says. "It's all business, and if that rubs some people the wrong way, so be it. There is nothing perfect in this world."
While explaining his day-to-day responsibilities, Sweetwood makes one thing perfectly clear: Shaky Knees is his project.
"I own Shaky Knees," he says. "I started working with Bowery one week after I did the first Shaky Knees, so they have always been different things."
If he hears complaints from the public about Shaky Knees it's not about the lines to the porta-potty being too long — something that has stung Music Midtown every year since it returned from a six-year break in 2011. What he mostly hears about are scheduling conflicts. On Friday night of this year's Shaky Knees, the Mountain Goats, Death From Above 1979, and TV On the Radio are all slated to hit separate stages at the exact same time. Festivalgoers must choose, and choose wisely, or just stick around and catch a few minutes of each set before moving on to the next. Such tough decisions are necessary when 80 bands are crammed into three days.
"If that's why people don't like me — I'm happy," he says. "But I get a sense that people appreciate what I bring to the table, and that's the most important thing."
Sweetwood has worked in Atlanta music for more than a decade. The three years since he founded Shaky Knees and joined Bowery Presents as the company's Southeastern rep have afforded the most visible personal success of his career. His work helped instigate the current era of healthy but intense competition amid the upper echelon of the city's music promoters and foster a world-class booking environment. But in the world of concert promotions, business and emotions are constantly at odds. The old adage about art and commerce not making good bedfellows is a dynamic he confronts on a daily basis. And when a promoter such as Sweetwood works his way up to become the king of Atlanta promotions, covetous eyes are always watching the throne.
"It's a creative industry," Sweetwood says. "You have to have some vision, but bands get paid, and it costs money to put up a festival. If you try to be in the music industry and think it's just arts and vision you're not going to succeed."
IN THE EARLY-TO-MID AUGHTS, small clubs such as the now defunct Lenny's Bar and the original Eyedrum provided a petri dish for young and inexperienced local bands. They earned their chops, made mistakes, and built fan bases on these stages. Drawing a lot of money at the door wasn't a major factor in whether or not they landed a gig. A wave of artists that includes Yelawolf, Deerhunter, Black Lips, and Janelle Monáe benefitted.
"The way things were, say, 10 years ago, when you had a lot of promoters tied in with a particular venue — there was me at the Earl, Randy Castello from Tight Bros. booking the Drunken Unicorn, Bean Ben Worley was at Lenny's, and Alex Weiss from OK Productions at the Echo Lounge — is not really the case anymore. Whenever you have more people trying to purchase from the same already limited pool it will change the dynamic of how things work," says Patrick Hill. From 2001 to 2014 Hill worked as the in-house talent buyer for East Atlanta indie rock anchor the Earl, booking shows as Word Productions. "There are a million bands on tour right now, but there are only so many clubs in Atlanta."
Atlanta's music scene is driven by promoters now more than ever. With each new show that's added to the calendar, money is always on the line. As a result, young talent is increasingly forced to develop on the house show scene.
"Right now Atlanta is a very competitive market, and Bowery is here as a result of that," says Hill, who now works under Sweetwood as a talent buyer for Bowery South.
Bowery Presents is a New York-based live concert promotions company that books both established and contemporary indie rock, metal, and middle of the road songwriters. It also operates in Boston, Philadelphia, and elsewhere on the East Coast. In May of 2013, Bowery set its sights on the South and created a network for bringing shows to Birmingham, Ala., New Orleans, La., Athens, Ga., and most venues within Atlanta's perimeter — aside from the Tabernacle.
"For me Bowery coming to Atlanta hasn't changed a ton," says Brannon Boyle, who runs Speakeasy Promotions and largely books underground and more psychedelic-leaning hip-hop that occasionally lands on Sweetwood's radar. Speakeasy has co-promoted shows with Sweetwood, including Run the Jewels, Death Grips, and others. "Bowery has been pretty good for all the venues in town because they book shows pretty much everywhere," Boyle says.
A healthy market means that promoters are forced to become better at their trade. Competition among the more mainstream organizations such as Live Nation, Windstorm Productions, and Rival Entertainment has forced the smaller promoters such as Tight Bros. Network and OK Productions to tighten their focus and step up their respective games.
"When Bowery South moved into the market it became apparent very quickly I was booking less and less shows and losing bands I had history with, which forced me to reassess my approach to booking," says Randy Castello, who books shows for Tight Bros. Network. "I started seeking out more metal, hardcore, comedians, and experimental events — stuff Bowery typically doesn't book."
Sweetwood's consortium with Bowery has quickly become one of the most powerful entities in Atlanta music.
"Live Nation doesn't let me in their building because they see me as a competitor," he says. "And then again, you see other venues, whether it's Rival Entertainment or Masquerade, they all step it up because they want shows but don't know if they'll get it in their building."
SWEETWOOD'S RISE IN PROMINENCE was a long time in the making. After earning a degree in marketing and business law from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in 2001, Sweetwood joined the corporate world. He took a job as an account executive with AT&T, mostly because he wasn't sure what he wanted to do with his life. The job didn't suit him.
"I was miserable," he says. "So I talked with a few friends about what I should do. They said, 'Well you're into music, you're always telling us what to do, and bringing us to shows for bands we've never heard of.' To sum it all up: I was just a dork about music."
He channeled his interests into booking and managing a handful of local bands and throwing parties around town. Bands such as Good Friday Experiment, Bishop Don, the Futurists, and Gringo Star, along with a few other out-of-towners came under the tutelage of Sweetwood Presents.
Singer, guitarist, and banjo player Blair Crimmins, who now fronts the ragtime and hot jazz outfit Blair Crimmins and the Hookers, recalls his early experiences working with Sweetwood when the promoter managed the alt-rock group Bishop Don circa 2003.
"We worked together during my first days as a touring musician," Crimmins says. "He was there for all of the leg work that gets a band off the ground. He helped me find a tour van, drove it around the country with me, loaded gear in and out of clubs, he slept on people's floors, all that stuff. Tim understands the amount of work that a band has to put in. That's a good trait for a promoter to have — that knowledge and respect for the touring musician."
Likewise, Mathis Hunter, who played drums with psych-rockers Good Friday Experiment, and is an occasional contributor to Creative Loafing's music section, speaks of the band's time working with Sweetwood with similar praise.
"Tim approached us about being our manager at a Brash Music showcase we played at Smith's Olde Bar in 2004," Hunter says. "He was just getting started back then, and didn't really have the kinds of connections that he has now. But he was always determined. You could tell he would be successful once he figured out what he was trying to do."
Over the years, however, he found that booking was a more natural fit. As an independent agent in 2004 he started bringing in groups such as Cartel and Norma Jean to the Masquerade. Soon he was pulling in nationally touring acts such as Crystal Castles, Refused, the Mad Decent Block Party, and RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan to the venue. Sweetwood attended the Westminster Schools. He recalls sneaking into the club and watching bands such as Nirvana, Primus, Radiohead, and the Flaming Lips play when they were all still on the upswing.
As the '90s gave way to the new millennium, the Masquerade began to fall of out the public's favor as one of the city's premier rock venues. At the same time, Atlanta's changing indie, dance music, and hip-hop cultures were adapting to the changes as well. While suburban pop punk settled into the Masquerade, new venues sprang up, and trends in the music scene shifted crowds to different parts of town. East Atlanta established itself as a viable nightlife district for local indie rock bands. Groups such as Snowden, Deerhunter, and Mastodon graced the stages and hung around in the crowd at the Earl and the now closed Echo Lounge.
The Masquerade endured and ultimately reinvented itself, thanks in large part to Sweetwood. He became the venue's talent buyer, booking a regular roster of quality national and international groups on the rise. Acts such as Run the Jewels and a fledgling Kendrick Lamar graced the stage at the Masquerade for now legendary performances.
"Indie music in general just takes a little more tender care, it's not something where you book it and it's done," Sweetwood says.
Sweetwood spent a long time nurturing his relationship with Austin, Texas, psych rock outfit the Black Angels, for instance.
"Tim Sweetwood has been pretty helpful with our upward movement as a band," the Black Angels singer and guitarist Alex Maas said in an interview with CL prior to the group’s February 2014 Atlanta concert. "I don't usually buddy up with promoters in different towns — I don't think bands have really done that sort of thing since the '60s. In Atlanta we had been playing at the Earl and the Star Bar. He came to one of our shows and said, 'I would love to see you guys play in front of more people.'"
Since then the group has returned to plays shows in Heaven at the Masquerade and at Terminal West.
"That kind of mutual growth is from developing a personal relationship with them," Sweetwood says. "They had always done well at the Earl, and were taking it to a different level — for the better. That's kind of where Shaky Knees came from — from the relationship I've built with all those bands and managers."
During his time at the Masquerade, Sweetwood also booked occasional shows at other Atlanta venues, including the Earl and Smith's Olde Bar, always searching for ways to expand his repertoire.
"Maybe some bands believed in me. Maybe they didn't want to play the Masquerade but they wanted me to do the show," he says. "I was growing and learning, too."
SHAKY KNEES IS THE CULMINATION of all the years Sweetwood has spent building relationships with managers and artists. As his business acumen grew, so did the cachet of the bands he was regularly booking. Shaky Knees' first lineup in 2013 included the Black Angles, Dr. Dog, Joy Formidable, Kurt Vile, and Jim James.
"If there's no trust you can't do it," he says. "That's how I think in year one Shaky Knees was able to come together so nicely and get the respect it did."
Now that Shaky Knees is in its third year, Sweetwood's efforts have started gaining national attention. This year, the festival has been praised by publications from Paste and Consequences of Sound to USA Today and Jetsetter.com. The range of acts playing the 2015 fest is more diverse than past years. Up-and-coming acts such as Viet Cong share the bill with a handful of staple acts from the '80s and '90s (the Pixies, Social Distortion, the Dead Milkmen) and contemporary festival circuit heavyweights such as Wilco, the Strokes, and Tame Impala.
Each year people travel from around the world to attend Coachella in Indio, Calif., or Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tenn., because of the communities that have established themselves around each respective festival. People can go from Wednesday through Monday and immerse themselves in music and arts.
But when it comes to Shaky Knees, "Ours is a little bit shorter. It's more of a punch you in the face and go home with a tattoo on your forearm vibe," Sweetwood says.
By the way, if you do get a Shaky Knees tattoo before the fest, you get in for free. Hop on Instagram and do a search for #ShakyKneesFest, and you'll find images of fresh tattoos of Shaky Knees' lightning bolts and circular SK logo on forearms, ankles, and ass cheeks.
"People told us we were fucking crazy, but the economics can work out to be half the price of a ticket," Sweetwood says. "Talk about the best permanent branding and marketing of all time!"
Shaky Knees' musical range encompasses top tier acts and rising indie rock newcomers, but there aren't a lot of risks on the bill. Neutral Milk Hotel and Panda Bear bring the most edge to the lineup. Sweetwood's personal taste threads the weekend together. When talking about this year's bands, Sweetwood reaches for his phone and begins scrolling though his music.
"It's indie music in the truest sense of the word," he says. "None of these bands are regularly spun on the radio. A few of them have singles out, like Milky Chance, but the majority of them are not put into regular rotation. 'Independent' used to be independent of a major label. All of these bands have labels, the word doesn't mean what it used to mean. It's really bands on my iPod — shit I like to listen to."
Sweetwood has been criticized for Shaky Knees' lack of hip-hop. He says he's a fan of old-school hip-hop music and that he can't get enough of Run the Jewels, but "There's something to be said about a true rock listener wanting to listen to more rock music," Sweetwood says. "If someone is coming to see Neutral Milk Hotel or Wilco I want them to come to the festival and also see Viet Cong who is playing earlier that day."
Shaky Knees has changed locations each of its three years. In 2013, Band of Horses, the Lumineers, Kurt Vile and the Violators, the Black Angels, and more played stages spread throughout the Masquerade, the outdoor Music Park, and the adjacent Historic Fourth Ward Park. Heavy rain fell during the fest and attendance hovered at around 10,000 people each day. The following year, the festival moved across town to a massive concrete expanse behind Atlantic Station. Performances by the Hold Steady, the Replacements, Modest Mouse, and more brought steady growth to both the stage and the attendance, which doubled to nearly 20,000 attendees a day.
This year Central Park will host the anticipated 30,000 attendees a day. Central Park sits one block behind the old candy factory on North Avenue and is hidden from the view of traffic. (Remember where DEVO played Music Midtown in 2005?) The North Avenue and the Civic Center MARTA train stations are each about six blocks away. It's about a block away from the Civic Center parking lot.
"It's called Central Park!" Sweetwood says. "By the map it's about as central as you can get."
When Sweetwood approached Councilman Kwanza Hall about finding a new location for Shaky Knees, Hall saw the Civic Center and Central Park area as a match for the festival's needs and a way to steer intown festival traffic away from Piedmont Park.
"We connected the organizers with the neighborhood association for the area and accompanied the two groups on their first joint site visit of Central Park," Hall says. "After that, we let the association and the organizers take it from there."
The biggest challenge Shaky Knees faces with Central Park is relating the festival to the local community. "I want to inform the community that festivals are good things for the city because they create revenue and an artistic outlet," he says. "The one thing I like to push back on is this: If it's too loud by your house you shouldn't have moved Downtown. There's a reason these festivals don't happen in Gwinnett. If you're on 10th Street and you're complaining about the noise, then move to suburbs. This is what happens in the city: noise, music, traffic, not going to bed at 7 p.m. It's part of the city."
Sweetwood is talking with the parks department and the Fourth Ward West neighborhood association to help pay for improvements to Central Park after the fest. The details of those projects have yet to be unveiled.
His journey from sneaking into shows at the Masquerade in the '90s to instigating a wave of change in Atlanta's music business has been long but methodical. Shaky Knees is creating real competition for massive regional music festivals such as Bonnaroo and Hangout Fest, and it's growing at a natural pace. This year Sweetwood introduces Shaky Boots, Shaky Knees' country music spin-off featuring Brad Paisley, Blake Shelton, Sara Evans, and more at Kennesaw State University's Sports and Entertainment Park May 16-17.
Sweetwood's passion for the music is clear. But at the end of the day, it's all about the business. "Alex Cooley became a very successful promoter in Atlanta and was able to make a healthy living, maybe I can be there one day," Sweetwood says. That understanding, and that sense of patience is what has carried him to the top of Atlanta concert promotions, expanding his legacy one show, one relationship, and one festival at a time.