Concert Venue Manager: Derek Kwan, Interlochen Presents, Interlochen, Michigan

Below is the results of an interview between Katherine Clements, an Entertainment Management student at Missouri State University and Derek Kwan, Director of Interlochen Presents in Interlochen, MI. The interview was conducted in the fall of 2011.


How would you describe what an average day was like for you? What you would do? On a daily basis, all of the different activities can really vary depending on the day. It can range with anything from meetings with different departments on campus, such as, the marketing staff, the finance office, the president’s office, or the advancement staff depending on what the hot topic of the day is. For example, with the marketing staff, I may have a meeting with them regarding the strategic marketing plan for a certain show, or for a series of shows. With the finance staff, we’re looking at the profit loss statement for the entire business unit, looking at capital purchases that might be necessary. If I’m meeting with the advancement staff, we might be looking at opportunities for alums who are performing at Interlochen to interact with some of our patrons and donors. Then, in addition to that, with the internal meetings, a lot of what I do is corresponding with agents and managers that are scattered across the country, because even while one of our major summer seasons is happening, we’re already booking ahead into the next summer, or even beyond that. It’s a constant dialogue and phone tag with a lot of artists and their representatives. If there’s a show day, there may be anything from making sure that all of the artists’ hospitality is set correctly at the right time, to making sure that the artists are as comfortable as possible with everything from bath towels to soap to the specific green tea that they need, and also making sure that, from a production standpoint, everything is running smoothly. We also, if it’s a show day, have a security meeting with all the tour managers and make sure that all the proper protocols are being followed. During a show, it’s the same kind of thing, making sure that everything’s running smoothly in the front of house, in the house, and back of stage, and making sure that the load-out is as smooth as possible, because honestly, if the load- out goes smoothly that’s the last impression that an artist and their team will have of your venue and your operation. That’s just as important as, oftentimes, the show itself.

You oversee every aspect of the artist, the behind the scenes, book, everything? Yes, under the purview of the department is the programming, the negotiations, the booking, all production, sound, lights, staging, rigging, and there are also the front house aspects and the box office, from the point at which the patron purchases their tickets to volunteer services as well. In addition to that, the department also oversees, for student theater and dance performances, the theatrical scenic design, lighting design, scene shop carpentry, and also the costume shop as well.

One of the thing I noticed when I was working front house was that you were very involved with what was happening in the box office, just checking up on sales and everything. Yes, definitely. Part of being in this position is just knowing the pulse of what’s going on, because on a daily basis we also, depending on who the artist is, report to them how sales are going. From a finance perspective, we also want to know how each of the concerts are doing and whether or not there have to be any shifts in the department budget throughout the year. We definitely have to keep a close tabs on what’s going on.

Leading into that, since the job is so varied and you’re going to do so much, what is one skill you would say is most valuable to you in the position you have? I definitely think the ability to be resilient and be able to think quickly on your feet. That’s something that is developed over time, because I don’t know if there’s a way to prepare for when, let’s say an act cancels on you, or you find out that an artist isn’t going to show up, or your software program somehow breaks down, and you’re dealing with either a ton of angry patrons or angry artists. There’s not much that can really, truly prepare you for that except for living through it. Basically, being able to maintain a strong sense of resilience, as well as thinking quickly on your feet.

I glanced at your LinkedIn account and noticed you worked at the Lincoln Center before coming to Interlochen. I wanted to know what the process was for getting a job like [head of] director for Interlochen, and how you managed to get your foot in the door? Well, starting at Lincoln Center, I felt a lot of it was luck and timing. I started out as an assistant in the education department there. The best advice I could give would be to not worry about what your title is. Don’t worry about what your compensation is. If you really want to work in this industry and you really enjoy this kind of work, then don’t worry about all the, I guess, perception kinds of things, like title and pay initially. Once you get your foot in the door you can get a chance to prove yourself, and like I said before, a lot of it was luck and timing. So due to natural attrition, more opportunities became available while I was at Lincoln Center. Obviously, a lot of it’s luck, a lot of it’s timing, but you also have to make the best of those opportunities. Really, that’s how I grew into being the Associate Director of the Programming and Concert Operations Department. That was over a five year span. From there, I realized that I wanted to have a career in this industry. One thing I also wanted to do, just from a personal standpoint, I wanted to get a graduate degree of some sort. After Lincoln Center, I pursued an MBA at the University of Wisconsin School of Business. They have a center there called the Bolz Center for Arts Administration, and it’s a unique program in the sense that it’s an arts administration emphasis, but it’s housed within an MBA program at a business school. It’s the oldest program of its kind in the country. The other attractive thing for me about that program was that, if you’re accepted it’s tuition-free. You work as a project assistant, a graduate assistant at one of many different organizations in Madison. You don’t incur as much debt as you would hypothetically at a normal graduate program. From there, one of my classmates suggested I apply for the position here at Interlochen, and everything worked out really well through the interview process, and I ended up coming here. I’ve been here ever since.

I guess one of the other questions I sent you was what steps would you recommend for someone looking to enter into your line of work? Like, any insider tips? Like I said before, if an individual really wants to work in this industry, initially don’t worry about—obviously you have to worry about compensation to some extent, but at the same time, don’t worry so much about title and what your job function necessarily will be initially, because there is always a chance for opportunity wherever you work, and there’s always going to be a chance for an individual to prove themselves beyond what their current job entails. I would encourage for that individual to really, just try and take advantage of those opportunities, and try to maximize as much growth as possible when engaging in those opportunities. Another thing, in this industry, you really have to want to work in it, and you really have to love it to devote your life to it.

That’s one of the things I noticed. It’s a lot about just having passion for it. Yes, definitely having a passion for it goes a long way. My first job out of college was at a place called Accenture. It was called Anderson Consulting; it’s called Accenture now; it was an IT consulting company. There’s a pretty normal path one would take to advance in that organization, or advance in that industry, but the arts industry is relatively small and not as prescribed, because there’s so many different kinds of organizations in the field. I wish there was a formula. I would just also do what you’re doing right now, take advantage of contacts that you’ve made and maintain an open network with them. You never know what could happen.

Yeah, the power of networking. Yes, definitely.

You talked about how the hiring process went really well with Interlochen. Can you just give me a taste of what the hiring process would be for a job? Sure. It would start with submitting a letter of interest, I guess what you’d call a cover letter, and also with that, submitting your resume and references. Initially, it would start out with maybe a couple rounds of phone interviews. Then if those end up going well, then it would be an in-person interview, and sometimes following the in-person interview or in conjunction with the in-person interview are the reference checks, just to see what other folks think of you in the industry. If that goes well, then there’s typically a meeting of the minds in terms of compensation, etc. Then it’s completed.

Yeah. Then you either get it or you don’t.  Yes, pretty much.

You talked about taking a job and just accepting the pay. Could you give me an idea of what range someone could make in an arts administration job? You can make as little as zero. No, honestly, a lot of folks will take unpaid internships just to gain experience—especially in more commercial ventures. Folks will take unpaid internships to simply be around certain individuals or certain artists, and hopefully that then develops into something. It can range from unpaid internships all the way to, in terms of the more commercial ventures, to heads of for-profit presenting organizations, or concert promoters, or large performing arts centers like the Kennedy Center, where you can make seven figures. That’s clearly not the norm.

Clearly. There’s really an extremely wide range of what compensation can be. Yeah, that’s kind of what I figured. There’s such a wide range of jobs and opportunities, that there would be just a wide range of pay. I’m looking for an internship this summer. Is there a specific experience you think would be most beneficial for someone to gain?  It depends on the individual, I think. What field or what specifically do you want to pursue?

I’ve always loved performing arts centers. As a musician myself, yet not wanting to be a performance major, I thought this was a great avenue for me. As I’ve continued in the major, I’ve just liked the idea of working specifically with a venue, a performing arts venue, or maybe an amphitheater, working with booking and the operations of those venues specifically.  Okay. That makes sense. There are a couple angles, I guess, that you should look at there. There’s the path of finding a gig with a place that folks have heard of, right?  Because sometimes half the battle is on a resume, right? When you’re applying to a gig or a job, the battle is having something on your resume that the reviewer may have heard of.

Like the John F. Kennedy Center?  Yes, something like that, the Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center. Or, depending on what region you’re in or what region you want to stay in, a well-known performing arts center or venue in that region, right?  I think its human nature; people will gravitate towards familiarity in a way. You can go the path of taking any gig that you can get with one of those larger, well-known venues, or you could go the path of finding a more meaningful, meaty position. Where you’re going to learn more. Where you’re going to learn more and get more exposure to all different kinds of things at a smaller venue, or a not as well known venue. There are pros and cons to both, and oftentimes it comes down to what the individual can financially afford to do. There are plenty of internships out there that are available at some of these larger venues, but I’m not sure whether you want to stay in a specific region. Do you want to stay in a specific region, or are you willing to travel to other places?

Oh, I’m very liquid, and I have the luxury of having a scholarship in college, which gives me a little more wiggle room in the summer to take an unpaid internship. See, there you go. That’s exactly the kind of dilemma that a lot of people have to deal with, and at least you’re in a position where you could take that chance, because of course it’s a chance; it’s a risk. Everybody, when they take on a position or sign a contract to do something, in a way, it’s all—there is some risk to everything. That’s kind of the fun of the industry, of any industry I guess. What do you think? To you, what is more important?

To me, learning is more important. I’d rather work 70 plus hours unpaid and learn everything I can than . . . Okay. And then, in a place that people have heard of, or a place that people haven’t heard of?

Honestly, it’s all about the experience to me. I’d hate to be stuck at the Verizon Wireless Arena and just be selling light-up glowsticks all summer.  Yes, that pretty much defines, I think, what path you should take. It’s to find an experience that will expose you to a lot of different departments, a lot of different functional areas, and then just try and run with it.

That’s honestly what’s so attractive about your job, because there are so many different venues and types of performances that Interlochen puts on every year.  There’s definitely a lot of variety; there’s no doubt about that.

Okay. So the jobs are all varied, but is there any specific con that you’ve found working in this industry? Anything you’d like to change? Every industry requires a lot of time, and I don’t know anything I would change about the job, but maybe it’s just something about the days in general.  I wish I could add more hours in the day.

Yeah, to get everything done.  Well, to get everything done and then in addition, to spend time with my family.

What’s the most rewarding experience you’ve had throughout your career? Rewarding experience? I would say, you could look at it from the perspective of one experience, or you could look at it from the perspective of a recurring situation. I’ll say both of them. From one, actual event or experience, I would say it was being on the team that planned and implemented the opening of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s new facility in October of 2004. We put on a three-week festival with three venues running simultaneously, every single night, for three weeks. It’s an amazing facility at Columbus Circle in New York, at the southwest corner of Central Park. There’s a 1,200 seat venue, a 500 seat venue, and then a club. Yes, and we programmed for three weeks this opening festival with events in each of the three venues for every single night. The first night was broadcast on TV on “Live from Lincoln Center” on PBS. The experience, at least the opening night, was able to be shared with the nation. But throughout the festival, everything ranged from spoken word with jazz, with these great poets like Sonia Sanchez and John Sinclair and Amiri Baraka, to some commissioned pieces that were narrated. We were talking about Jazz and the Civil Rights Movement, so narrators included folks like Morgan Freeman and Meryl Streep. Then we also commissioned some dance pieces, and I mean there was dance involved throughout the three weeks. We prepared for it for years. From an event standpoint, that was the one most rewarding event or planning of a festival or an event. Here at my current job, we have a recurring, rewarding experience in the sense that, when we’re able to bring an artist that works directly with the students here, and then see what kind of immediate impact it has on the students’ outlooks and perspectives, that in itself is priceless. Because oftentimes, the students have the same kind of positive effect on the artists themselves. A lot of these artists, they don’t necessarily get to work with young folks frequently. It helps to rejuvenate them as well.

And who wouldn’t be rejuvenated by the dedication of the students there? Yes, they do a great job. This is definitely a distinct, unique place.

Well, that’s all the questions I had. Do you have anything else you wanted to add, just about this job or your experiences in it? No, except for the fact that the landscape is constantly changing, so that arts administrators can’t do things the way they’ve done them for forever, over and over again. Delivery channels are changing, artists are constantly changing, of who’s interesting, who’s relevant, and that’s what helps to keep the job interesting, is that the playing field is constantly changing.