In 2007, recent UCSC grad Thomas Cussins was learning the ropes of concert booking at the Catalyst when he had a breakthrough with Bermuda reggae act Collie Buddz.
The artist had been dropped by Sony, and Cussins was enlisted to plan a tour that eventually led to his own Oakland company Ineffable Music Group, which now represents acts like Buddz, Hieroglyphics, Citizen Cope, and Stick Figure.
It’s fitting that Cussins, who still books shows at the Catalyst and venues like Petaluma’s Mystic Theatre, is also the new owner of the Felton music venue previously occupied by the short-lived Flynn’s Cabaret. The new Felton Music Hall will host its first show on July 3, and it’s the legacy of the former Don Quixote’s that Cussins hopes to revive with co-owners Buddz and L.A. musician Citizen Cope (of “Let the Drummer Kick” fame).
In an interview with GT, Cussins shared what he misses about past Santa Cruz music scenes, how San Francisco still siphons off big-name artists, and what to expect at Felton Music Hall.
How did you end up in Santa Cruz?
THOMAS CUSSINS: I toured UC Santa Cruz, and as soon as I saw the redwoods and the beach, I wanted to be there. I studied history and economics. I absolutely loved it, because I felt like my job was to learn.
Were you into the music scene back then?
I stumbled into music. I was renting apartments at Cypress Point to pay for school, and I rented one to a guy who said, “I have a lot of friends, I’m really good at music, but I can’t get a show.” I said, “Well, how hard can it be to get a show?” I figured out it was actually pretty hard.
We did a show at what used to be called Club Caution, and after a while I finally realized that the main game in town was Catalyst. I worked my way into an internship there for Gary Tighe.
What did the Catalyst teach you about the music business?
When I showed up, I said I’d do absolutely anything. I was setting up parking horses, driving bands around, hanging out, running errands, whatever. I just really wanted to get into that booking office.
I think the best thing I learned from Gary was to never burn any bridges. He was really big on that. He’d take phone calls from really big agents, then also take phone calls from people that, you know, never had done a show before and just talk them through the process.
Your company Ineffable now blurs the lines between an agent, a festival organizer and a music venue operator. Why did you start your own company?
It was always musician-centric. How can we allow these musicians to make a living doing music, and then we all get to do music every day?
We started our business on Myspace, so we found out you need to be very versatile and move quickly from one thing to the next. I really think we only got an opportunity because of the demise of the CD. There was kind of the business crash, so to speak, with people not buying CDs before streaming in the Napster and LimeWire days. That’s where we got the opportunity, because people needed to figure out new revenue streams. Our take at that time was to put music anywhere you possibly can.
Fast forward to streaming being so big. It’s really nice that a lot more artists can afford to do music as a career, as long as they control that music and they’re not on a label.
You also recently bought into the Fremont Theater in San Luis Obispo. Do you see reviving older venues as the next frontier?
With big festivals and big corporate companies doing a lot of bookings, I was always like, ‘How can I try to get somebody to come play the Catalyst?’ It’s a lot easier if I can also give you San Luis Obispo, Berkeley and Petaluma, you know? The thought process was to be able to offer people a run that would be a little bit more enticing.
How does Felton come into the picture?
I would go to Don Quixote’s shows all the time. I always felt there was a magical vibe there. There’s a certain feeling you get when you’re up there in the woods. The thought of that space and that location going out of business and somebody coming in that didn’t make music the central focus, I was like we have to figure out a way to do this.
In terms of how it relates to Santa Cruz and the bigger picture, certain types of shows work in different rooms. There’s a certain type of show that I just couldn’t book at the Catalyst.
What kind of shows do you think will work well for Felton Music Hall?
Paul Thorn, who’s playing our first show on July 3, I think that’s a good example of something that I’d love to be able to book, and it wouldn’t necessarily be ideal at the Catalyst. A lot of Grateful Dead-type stuff is great up there, a lot of blues, reggae—well, reggae’s great everywhere. But rock ’n’ roll, and everything—I don’t like to book based on genre. I like to book more based on vibes.
I really hope that we can continue to have a situation where the Santa Cruz area is considered a separate market from San Francisco. That’s always been the biggest battle—to say, “Hey, no, you can still play San Francisco.” The Bay is far enough away, with a buffer zone in San Jose.
How much work are you doing on the space?
We have done ADA work that needed to be done. We’re augmenting the sound system. Other things will happen as it goes along. We really want to keep the vibe the same as it was with Don Quixote’s. That’s why with the Felton Music Hall logo, there’s a small picture of Don Quixote in it. We want to pay homage.
What will be the food and drink setup?
It’s going to be a limited menu. We’ll be focusing on about eight items that will do really well, and working with local folks to craft that. There’s the main bar and a shop bar on the venue side. We’ll be open seven days a week, 4 p.m. to after dinner.
How do you hope to impact the music scene in Santa Cruz County?
I really want the default fun activity to be going to see live music, and that’s what I always kind of try to push. The more that we can encourage and develop local talent and take the leap to be part of a band and get out there to play, the better that everyone will be. That’s where the next great Santa Cruz band will come up.
We’ve got such a great tradition with bands like the Expendables and Devil Makes Three. When I was in college, there was a band called Sourgrass and a band called Wooster. Those bands don’t exist anymore, and that bums me out. You have this great talent, and it’s very difficult to make it.
Felton Music Hall opens July 3 at 6275 Hwy. 9, Felton. 704-7113, feltonmusichall.com.