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The Talent Booker: Brandon Crumpton '03 keeps a cool head to make sure events go off without a hitch

by Chuck Gordon

The Talent Booker

In the middle of the biggest gig of his life, when he was responsible for performers at a dozen venues in one night, ignoring the developing blisters on his feet as he made sure the various bands, singers, DJs and comedians were comfortable and ready to perform, all while remotely managing a 40-show festival across town, Brandon Crumpton ’03had an artist go all diva on him. A promised wine-bottle opener was nowhere to be found, and the performer was stomping his feet.

“He said, ‘Until I’m made whole, I’m not going to go on,’” the affable and normally unflappable Crumpton recalls. “I said, ‘OK.’ At that point, I’m like, I’m fine with that. I’ve got 11 other shows to do. ‘You see all these people sitting out there? Have your people go out there and tell them you aren’t coming on because you couldn’t open your bottle of wine.’”

The gambit worked. “He went on,” Crumpton says. “And we did get him his wine-bottle opener.”

It was a rare moment of conflict for Crumpton in an industry that presents the potential for nightly contretemps. The easygoing, hard-working Crumpton is ideally suited for dealing with even the most temperamental artists and harried tour managers – and it’s a big reason that his business, Key Signature Entertainment, is so busy these days. Between April and September, barely a weekend goes by that Key Signature isn’t handling at least one festival or event, and year-round he works weddings, corporate parties and other private events.

Crumpton has managed to claim a big chunk of the entertainment-booking business in Charlotte and the surrounding region. Crumpton’s company is on retainer with Mecklenburg County to handle all county-owned events at Romare Bearden Park, in uptown Charlotte – which translates to close to 30 events a year. He also puts on three jazz festivals at Freedom Park and other events at festivals and parks throughout the region.

He books the acts out of his bulging roster of musicians, magicians, comedians and other performers. He rents the sound boards, lights and stages and arranges to have them delivered and set up. And he makes sure the artists reach the site and have everything they need to put on a good show.

These days, Crumpton and his staff can take all of that on without batting an eye – even at multiple venues – but in 2012, Key Signature was still a one-man band. Crumpton had to be virtually arm-twisted into signing on for what has essentially turned out to be a career-making event: the 2012 Democratic National Convention, held in uptown Charlotte. Crumpton, as practical as ever, knew taking on such a high-profile, extensive gig could stretch him nearly to the breaking point.

Having been made an offer he couldn’t refuse, Crumpton and his Key Signature Entertainment made the most of it. Key Signature handled the entertainment for seven delegate parties and all aspects of CarolinaFest, a Labor Day festival on Tryon Street at which James Taylor, Jeff Bridges and Jonelle Monae performed.

But the most challenging part of the week, for Crumpton, was the customary party for members of the media, being held at the North Carolina Music Factory, on the edge of uptown Charlotte. It involved 12 shows at a dozen venues, with each show featuring multiple performers.

“When I sit back and think about it, I think, How did we do that?” Crumpton says now. That weekend, he also served his biggest regular Labor Day customer, the Matthews Alive festival, so he does have a point. How did he do it?

Well, the extra work did land him the hospital, but there’s always a price to pay for success.

Finding his passion

Like many people who toil in the background of the entertainment industry, Brandon Crumpton started out as a performer. He sang in a four-person a capella group at his middle school in Columbia, South Carolina, where he grew up. He and his bandmates crooned hits from Boyz II Men and other ’90s-era harmony groups, and Crumpton continued singing in choruses and choirs throughout his high-school and college years. “I have trophies for each stage as my voice was changing: Outstanding male ensemble member. Best tenor. Tenor I. Tenor II. Baritone.”

But by his senior year at Richland Northeast High School, Crumpton knew he wanted his career to involve making the moment happen, rather than being in the spotlight when it does. He was considering a couple of other schools with music-business programs – the University of Miami and Full Sail University – when he decided to visit Wingate. It was (pardon if you’ve heard this one before) love at first sight. “They get you once you see the school,” he says. “Once they get you on campus, it’s a done deal.”

In the now-defunct music-business program at Wingate, Crumpton learned the ins and outs of recording and managing. He stood out for his ability to think outside the box. “He loved to create things,” says Dr. Ken Murray, former professor of music, now retired. “His creative assignments in class were always outstanding.”

It was through Murray that Crumpton took his first steps into the entertainment industry. Doug Daniel, a Charlotte-based talent booker, was looking to expand Daniel Entertainment Group, and he called Wingate looking for interns. Murray suggested Crumpton.

Crumpton proved so useful that, after graduation, he continued working for Daniel, in addition to interning at a recording studio and working a retail job, at Kohl’s, in the evenings and on weekends. (“My closet is pristine,” he says. “I can fold shirts like nobody’s business.”)

Crumpton had arrived at Wingate with designs on a career as a sound engineer, but working in a recording studio convinced him otherwise. “It’s like working in a cave,” he says. “There’s no windows. In some, there’s no clocks. It doesn’t matter what time it is. It really doesn’t. You’ve just got to get it done.

“It’s really cool what they do, but I realized it wasn’t my passion,” he adds. “You make your money on startup bands, commercials, movie redubs. So you are sitting in there listening to some things you probably wished you could forget.”

Eventually, Crumpton hooked on full-time with Daniel, but after a few years his relationship with the owner frayed. One day, Crumpton found himself suddenly out of a job.

“I didn’t understand it then,” Crumpton says. “I was 26, 27 at the time. I was very bitter. I helped him build that company. That’s how I felt about it.”

With 20/20 hindsight, Crumpton gets it. He’s learned from the experience. “I was immature, entitled,” he says. “I think I got to the point where I felt like he needed me. You realize in business that no one needs anyone.

“My head got too big. I was good at it – really good at it. But if you don’t do what you’re being asked to do when you’re asked to do it, that’s a problem. … I was an employee. I should have acted like one.”

“And I got fired the year I was getting married,” he adds later. “I’ve got a wedding to pay for. I’ve got this and that. What am I going to do?”

Crumpton leaned on people he’d met in the industry to get by for the next 12 months, until his non-compete clause expired. To pay the bills, he worked for a couple of hospitality-industry publications, writing articles and selling ad space, before emerging from exile to start Key Signature.

Once Crumpton formed his own company, he plumbed his contacts list, joined industry organizations and even taught himself to code because he couldn’t afford to hire a web developer. “Slowly and surely I started to grow this thing,” he says, “and then all of a sudden, 2012.”

National spotlight

Crumpton didn’t really want the DNC contract. Well, that’s not quite accurate. It’s more that he was reluctant to bite off more than he could chew, and he is loyal to his repeat customers. For several years he’d been handling Matthews Alive, a community arts festival that featured more than 40 performers over four days. But even having several years handling the festival under his belt, it wouldn’t run itself. “At the time, I was a one-man company,” Crumpton says.

It took multiple phone calls from former classmate Stacey Harris ’00 to persuade Crumpton to listen to a pitch from Harris’s boss, Mary Tribble, a longtime event organizer in Charlotte who was handling the convention for the DNC host committee.

“They sent out requests for proposals, and I guess they just didn’t like the ones they got back,” Crumpton says. “I didn’t send one because my plate was already full. I had 40 shows to do, and it’s just me. Also, this (Matthews Alive) is my repeat business. I don’t want to neglect them for a one-time thing.”

Tribble convinced him that the DNC was more than just a one-off challenge; it could take Key Signature to a new level. “This was huge, and I’m being asked for the third time, and this time by Stacey’s boss,” Crumpton says. “I said, ‘OK. I’ll figure it out.’ And I did.”

Leaning on his nine years of experience, Crumpton planned meticulously, knowing that the logistics would be a nightmare. He hired friends in the industry to be on-site at Matthews Alive and then wrote out a mini instruction manual for them. Then he created an instruction manual for himself for the DNC, leaving nothing to chance uptown.

The planning paid off, but Crumpton worked himself so hard that he wound up spending a night in the hospital in the middle of the DNC. After Crumpton started feeling a weird pain in his hip and becoming nauseous, his wife, Rosanny Crumpton ’05, rushed him to the hospital. He was dehydrated. “I was running on adrenaline, to get me through that weekend,” Crumpton says. “To get me through Matthews Alive, to get me through Carolina Fest, to get me through all those delegate parties – I mean I was everywhere.” He was hooked up to an IV and forced to rest. “I needed to sleep it off,” he says.

The episode taught Crumpton a lesson: “Work smarter, not harder.” Soon after, he hired his first employee: Wingate graduate Audrey Robinette ’13. “She’s a Wingate grad,” Crumpton says. “How bad can she be? We turn out a good product. She wound up being my right-hand person for two and a half years.”

When Robinette decided to leave the industry and move into interior design a year and a half ago, Crumpton hired Carlton Burt ’16. Burt and Robinette both majored in music.

“He knows the kind of training Wingate students have had in musicianship and the kind of discipline they’ve developed to be able to complete that degree,” Murray says. “Having that in common with him, I think, helps things go well in the workplace.”

Working the DNC also enabled Crumpton to expand his business. Most of Key Signature’s pre-DNC work was small in nature: country-club parties, weddings, that sort of thing. Matthews Alive was his biggest event each year.

After the DNC? “Like this whole explosion went off. OK, people know who we are now,” he says. “It springboarded us. I honestly think it pushed the company ahead five years.”

Suddenly, in addition to the weddings and corporate events, Crumpton was managing the Romare Bearden events and larger concerts.

Handling the unexpected

Crumpton grew up listening to hip-hop and R&B, so it’s interesting that about the only type of act he doesn’t book is hip-hop. “For our part, there’s no market for it,” he says. “Our corporate clients and festivals are not looking for that.”

They’re after just about everything else, though. “We’re all over the place: bluegrass, classic rock, southern rock, Dixieland,” Crumpton says. He’s worked with the rock bands the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Train, the Spin Doctors, and John Mayall and the Blues Breakers, country bands Blackhawk, the Band Perry and Little Texas, and jazz artists Stanley Jordan, Kim Waters and Branford Marsalis.

And he’s dealt with all kinds of people, such as the jazz musician who drew Crumpton a diagram detailing how the green room should be set up. But Crumpton understands musicians, and he gets why they and their managers are a little prickly in the pre-show hours.

“They’re focused. It’s a job,” he says. “They’re getting paid to be there. They want to go to the green room. As long as everything there is how they want it to be, they’re fine. You start off on the right foot. You start to build that trust. You’re there when they need you.”

In a way, Crumpton is in the customer-service industry more than the music industry.

“I’m sure they’ve had enough bad experiences: incompetent sound people, incompetent lighting people, and things go wrong,” he says. “It’s almost like they’re bracing themselves for, ‘How is this going to be jacked up?’ And when it isn’t, and everything goes well, all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Brandon, you’re great. Your staff’s been great.’”

That’s not to say things don’t go wrong. Weather interference is a big problem, but Crumpton has learned to roll with it. And although technological advancements have made setup and take-down much less time-consuming, mechanical failures still occasionally throw a wrench into things. For years, even before Key Signature, Crumpton assisted with pre-race shows at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, where time is of the essence.

“People don’t even think of the logistics it takes to make some of this stuff work,” he says. “Somebody might turn on the TV and go, ‘Hey, such-and-such is doing a concert.’ They don’t realize that it is on the track. Then they cut to commercial and come back and the stage is gone. We’re doing that stuff.

“At a race, same situation, concert happened, cut to commercial. You’ve got two minutes to get it all off. But the trailer hitch to the semi broke. Truck goes off, stage stays there. And everyone saw what needed to happen and pitched in. Even the pit crews ran to the stage. Everyone got a piece and drug it off the track.”

The key, Crumpton says, is staying composed. “There’s no manual that teaches you how to do this,” he says.

No, but there is experience, smarts and planning. Rest assured, Crumpton will get you your wine-bottle opener, and the two of you will put on a heck of a show.

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