May 15 2013 12:00 AM

How one local company is making Lansing a destination for live music

Photo by Monique Goch, Moxy Imagery

It’s easier to complain about a lack of local entertainment options than do anything about it, but Nate Dorough isnt going to get pissed if you start ripping on the local music scene — he’s too busy making it happen.

“If you're in Lansing and you think it sucks, you should shut your mouth and open your damn eyes,” said Dorough, head honcho of Fusion Shows, a Lansing-based concert promotion and booking company. “We're music fans first, and we happened to make a business around that.”

Since Fusion’s co-owners Dorough, 34, and Irving Ronk, 26, bonded in 2007 after sharing booking duties at Mac's Bar on Lansing’s east side, they dedicated themselves to making Lansing a destination for live music. They list 37 upcoming acts listed on its website — including the 9th annual Bled Fest music festival in Howell this month — and played a part in the booking for downtown Lansing’s 2013 Common Ground lineup.

“Why should we have to go somewhere else to do what we want to do?” said Scott Bell, Fusion’s “talent buyer” (he matches bands with their appropriate audiences). “Why should we have to drive to Detroit or wherever? Let's make it happen here."

Combining talents

Fusion Shows works with local and touring bands as well as a variety of venues around Michigan to host live music. If you've been to any packed concerts in Lansing recently, there's a good chance Fusion is behind it. Fusion is in charge of everything from finding bands to play, booking concert halls and bars for events, promoting the shows and making sure everything runs smoothly. Along the way, it’s given national touring bands a reason to come to mid-Michigan, up-and-coming bands a shot to headline a show and kept live music venues pumping with lifeblood — money-paying crowds.

Before Fusion Shows existed, Dorough and Ronk pursued the booking game in different towns on a much smaller scale. Howell was home to Dorough's Livingston Underground, which he said booked “punk, ska, metal and indie mashed into a sometimes great, sometimes awful show.” Ronk had similar experiences under the names of Sweater Weather and Northlawn Music, scheduling acts at the now-defunct Temple Club in Lansing’s Old Town district and hosting all-ages shows at Macs in 2007. The world of mid-Michigan music is a small one, and when their paths inevitably crossed, they decided to try out the concert business as a team.

“Ive always liked going to concerts — I got the bug, and I still havent managed to shake it,” Dorough said. “Now 1,300 shows later, here we are.”

Fusions headquarters is set up on the outskirts of Old Town, just down the road from Elderly Instruments, in a house that they share with the folks from Common Ground. The crew takes reign over the 2nd and 3rd floors which are filled with fliers, gig posters on the walls and a killer video game setup. But dont let the Nintendo collection fool you — these arent some kids booking shows in their parents basement.

This is their command base.

Knowing all the words

Fusion recently started working with national acts, such as Awolnation, Great White and the Wallflowers, giving Fusion Shows an interesting and powerful place in both the Lansing music landscape and the world of concert booking in general. While business is much better than it was when Doroguh and Ronk were throwing together bands in old halls, it’s still not on the level with the titans of industry, such as the national entertainment company Live Nation and its merger partner, Ticketmaster.

“Of course, were still doing the local shows,” Dorough said. “We never want to lose sight of the fact that music doesnt have to be played for the masses. We want to be the group that gets to do a local bands CD release show, but also do Owl City at the Loft. Why should those two things be separate?”

Not many businesses can boast booking Three 6 Mafia front man Juicy J in Pontiac one night and giving a Lansing band its first onstage experience the next. Jason Marr, of the Lansing-based Elliot Street Lunatic, said that Fusion has been a vital supporter of his bands first its first show in 2008.

“Fusion Shows was like our dad,” Marr said. “They took us from this little nothing band, and by working with us nonstop, have helped us become a somebody in Lansing.”

Marr said that thanks to Fusion, the band has slowly moved up the ladder in the Michigan music scene. It will play alongside Barenaked Ladies at Common Ground in July.

“Somebody like Live Nation isnt gonna give a shit about us,” Marr said. “Fusion Shows is booking bands who maybe need some help, and so they put them on the right shows and its good for everybody.”

Besides Dorough and Ronk, Fusion Shows in composed of a team of four Lansing-based employees, and a rotating crew of about 10 interns and street team marketers. For his part, Dorough said the last thing he wants his company to be viewed as is a “mini Live Nation.”

“Im wearing the shirt of the band that Scotts tour managing right now,” Dorough said. “And when they come to town, were there singing the words to their songs.”

Trying to make Lansing a B-market

Fusion’s ticketing system is fee-free — something that Live Nation cant claim — and mostly handled through its sleek website, Avoiding service charges helps entice younger crowds, who tend to be more engaging with the bands.

“We want Lansing to be a location where bands dont have to be convinced to stop by — we want it to just become routine,” Dorough said. “Bands that have booked with us have requested to play Lansing again because they remembered how good it was last time. I cant think of a better compliment for a city this size.”

But being a city this size does have its limitations. Ron Howard, designer and social networker for Fusion Shows, breaks down the types of cities in Michigan that bands come to, with Detroit (home of venues like the 24,000-plus capacity Palace of Auburn Hills) being an “A-market,” slightly smaller towns like Grand Rapids (which has the 1,630 person Orbit Room) being a “B-market” and Lansing getting stuck as a third option city. In the past, that has certainly seemed like the case. Specialty punk, metal and ska shows have always had a great place to thrive at Macs Bar, but for those who dont recognize Mustard Plug or the Queers as band names, Lansing has probably seemed a bit lacking.

By comparison, the city’s biggest, non-university, indoor music venue is the Loft, which has a capacity of about 400. The area does offer the facilities for large stadium shows, such as U2s stop at Spartan Stadium during its 2011 360 tour. But a lack of variety in venue size and an absence of a larger booking company has kept larger bands at bay. Which is what Fusion aims to change.

“Lansing has always been a maybe for bands in the past,” Howard said. “And the shows were doing now speak to how long weve been doing this, and trying to make Lansing a B-market.”

A lot of small parts working together

It would be a discredit to all the area’s hard-working bands, venues and promoters to call Fusion Shows a savior of a broken Lansing music scene, but the company has brought some relevance when it comes to touring acts. Notably, it’s bringing in bands that people have actually heard of — and how cool is it that maybe you dont have to drive to Detroit every time you want to see a band you like?

Instead, Fusion is winning bands over by showing off what Lansing has to offer. But how does that happen? As just about every member of Fusion put it: A lot of small parts all working together.

And that includes the venues that Fusion books that help create the thriving music community that their company aspires to build. Dorough and Ronks partnership with Macs Bar started before the company existed, and with The Loft joining the scene in 2010, Fusion has maintained a very tight relationship with Lansings venues. Howard, 25, likes to think of the venues and promoters united in a common goal.

“Most promoters will just book a show and let the venue do their thing separately,” Howard said. “But we like to be a team with the venue and give everything the proper attention it deserves, so we can help each other.”

Promoters and venues both need each other to make the music happen. Chuck Mannino, owner of Macs Bar, praises what he calls “a mutual trust,” and commends Fusion for bringing something to his bar — and to the city — that wasnt there before.

“Fusion has managed to get some big bands I would have never brought to this town, things that would never have come to Lansing without them,” Mannino said. “Theyve brought shows to Macs that I wasnt doing, and there was a demand for it.”

Competitors become collaborators

Loft partner Jerome White agrees, citing the smooth collaboration between his venue and Fusion Shows. White knew Dorough and Ronk before they formed Fusion, and said that the partnership has been one that has worked toward everyones best interests. Together, White said, Fusion covers a greater variety of acts that can represent the Lansing market. And as far as Whites booking of the Loft is concerned, he doesnt see Fusion as competition, but as collaborators.

“Theyve brought a mix of genres and a lot of great artists that we wouldnt see otherwise,” White said. “To a large extent, (the promoters and venues) all know each other and respect each other by working together and not damaging each others business.”

“Its really weird to think about because weve just slowly built up, and its not like an overnight thing where all of a sudden everythings changed,” Howard said. “Its just become a very natural thing, and its great to be working on shows at this level.”

Growing up by reaching out

But its not all national acts and festivals that Fusion is bringing to the scene. According to Mannino, the guys have also been pioneers of the all-ages shows in town. Dorough said these type of shows should be a given in Michigan, the effort seems to have made an impact on Lansing.

“Theyve created the all-ages market in this town lately, and its a huge contribution to the Lansing music scene,” Mannino said. “Its a market that wasnt here before, and its redefined Macs on some level, and its so important.”

Dorough said the business was built on humble, all-ages shows at Macs, which slowly transformed into the powerhouse it is today. Mannino says that by opening up this opportunity, Fusion has presented both younger bands and concertgoers with a place to go. On a national level, there are plenty of places where 18-and-up and 21-and-up shows are the norm; high school kids looking for a show can forget about it. But not in Michigan, because groups like Fusion and venues like Macs and the Loft are making a space for kids, and getting a new generation involved in the music.

These all-ages shows coupled with a stronger focus on college music fans has certainly gained Fusion credit for tapping into a younger market in Lansing. In fact, just getting students at Michigan State University to realize that Lansing is right down the road is an achievement in itself, let alone motivating them to actually come to shows.

“We want to break that line between East Lansing and Lansing,” Howard said. “We want to show them that theres cool stuff happening down here and youre not stuck in this little bubble on campus.”

The future of the scene

Live music in Lansing has been evolving over the past few years, and Dorough and the crew know better than anyone that if theres going to be a thriving music scene, it takes all kinds of folks.

“We dont need to do it all, but we encourage it all,” Dorough said. “We encourage the house show scene to keep going. We want the Green Door to keep doing what they do. We encourage shows to come to the Breslin Center. Its just cool to be a small cog in the machine.”

A small cog maybe, but Fusion has quickly become a central piece of the local entertainment delivery system — and it’s doing pretty well in a lot of other cities as well. Pontiac and Grand Rapids have already seen plenty of Fusion action, and Dorough said he naturally wants to keep the business building.

On Monday, Fusion announced a show in Kalamazoo with Philadelphia rockers mewithoutYou at the outdoor District Square, marking Fusions return to the city. And with plans to expand in Detroit and Ann Arbor, as well as efforts to make their mark on the festival scene, Dorough says he just wants to keep doing what he’s doing and build upon success, but he’s keeping his aspirations close to the area.

“Lansing is where we want to be and where we need to be,” Dorough said. “Were not going anywhere anytime soon.”

He acknowledges that other cities might always be bigger and busier, but the capital city is home for him. Its just a matter of making it a cool place to be.

“Yeah, kids come here to go to school, but maybe they want to stay,” Dorough said. “Maybe the kids going to high school here dont say I wanna go to Chicago because thats where the cool stuffs at.’ I love being a part of this place.”