Like many concert promoters, Sascha Guttfreund, 25, has a gift for managing egos. His job is catering to young rappers, mostly — J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Big Sean, Chance the Rapper; stars of the genre still hurtling toward a peak — but his schmooze mode doesn’t have an off switch. In mid-March, inside an uncharitably small black Kia on a warm Wednesday in Austin, Guttfreund, who is about 6'3" and built like a college linebacker, indulged a chatty Uber driver who happened to overhear what he does for a living. “What’s the deal with Iggy Azalea canceling her North American tour?” asked the driver, a self-described Slacker Radio junkie with Costanza-pattern baldness and a five-o’clock shadow. For reasons unknown, he used the exaggerated vocal inflections of a drive-time radio DJ. “Why is Lil Wayne suing Birdman for millions of dollars?” he asked later, as a follow-up.
Guttfreund parried both questions with admirable sincerity, offering up a number of reasonable and informed theories as if a better use for his time had never occurred to him. “You ask great fucking questions, bro,” he said with gusto. That’s another thing you learn quickly about Guttfreund. He calls everyone — even people he has just met — “bro” or “brother.” To interact with him is to be unwittingly adopted into an ever-extending family.
Guttfreund lives in Austin with his business partner (and, for the last three years, romantic one) Claire Bogle, also 25, with whom he owns a house near the city’s idyllic Barton Creek. Together, they own 100% of ScoreMore, a boutique promotions company that operates in markets across Texas and Louisiana. In the world of concert tours, promoters are like matchmakers, pairing artists of differing scales with suitable venues in a given market. A good promoter knows the ins and outs of her market better than an agent or manager parachuting in from out of town, and maintains smooth relationships with a variety of desirable venues. As touring has remained one of the few consistently growing sectors of the music industry in the 21st century, promoting has become a crucial and lucrative business. The world’s largest promotions company, Live Nation Entertainment, which creates tours for A-listers like U2, Madonna, and Lil Wayne, raked in $4.7 billion in concert revenue just last year.
If Live Nation is Chipotle, ScoreMore is like an over-performing taco truck. The six-year-old company, founded before either Guttfreund or Bogle could legally enter most clubs, now has seven full-time employees, plus dozens more street-level promoters on contract in each of the cities where it operates. It promotes about 150 shows per year, most in underserved markets at venues with capacities ranging from 100 all the way to 6,000 people, and takes an industry standard 15% cut of ticket sales, plus bar returns, after artist fees and expenses. Since it started in 2009, the company has also launched two festivals — JMBLYA in Dallas and New Braunfels, and Neon Desert in El Paso — and seen 22x revenue growth, bringing in just shy of eight figures last year. Its fast rise, based largely on super-serving markets that bigger companies have overlooked, has made it a paragon of the new decentralized music industry.
Those who have worked with ScoreMore say the keys to its success have been identifying promising talent at an early stage, and going above and beyond to keep its clients happy. It promoted some of J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar’s first shows in the South — before either artist had a record deal — and both have remained loyal to the company, even as they’ve gone from the mixtape circuit to the top of the Billboard 200. “Of all the promoters I deal with across the country,” one hip-hop agent told me, “no one has a better relationship with artists than Sascha and his team.”
Back in the black Kia, Guttfreund and Bogle are discussing a small clan of young women in halter tops and minuscule denim shorts walking along the sidewalk. Each wears an array of colorful plastic wristbands stacked from wrist to elbow as in a ring toss. It’s the middle of SXSW — Austin’s annual 10-day music, film, and interactive conference — and the city is overrun by variously credentialed music lovers and industry flacks hoping to rub shoulders with artists at lavish showcases that run day and night. “They’re trying to get chose,” Bogle concludes dryly.
The chatty driver is taking us to St. Elmo Soundstage on Austin’s south side, about five miles away from the central hub of downtown. Starting tomorrow, it will be the site of the Illmore, ScoreMore’s five-year-old SXSW party thrown in conjunction with the hip-hop blog IllRoots, on which both companies have staked their name. Among hip-hop fans in the know, the Illmore is often discussed in near-mythical terms — a hyper-exclusive after-hours pop-up soiree with a reputation for attracting the who’s who of the genre’s new vanguard. Not officially sanctioned by SXSW, the Illmore is like an underground postscript to the conference, usually stretching from 11 p.m to as late as 6 a.m. Performances at the parties, which are somewhat improvised, are always a strictly protected secret and never announced beforehand. Illmore alumni to date include many of the biggest names in hip-hop and dance music: Lil Wayne, Skrillex, A$AP Rocky, Kendrick Lamar, Steve Aoki, Lil Jon, Big Sean, Diplo, Macklemore, and Kid Cudi.
Since it started in 2011, the Illmore has grown from a passion project into ScoreMore’s most high-profile event of the calendar year — the calling card on which it telegraphs its ambitions and growing cachet. At SXSW, where the world’s biggest brands go to farcical lengths in pursuit of buzz, the Illmore is a genuine phenomenon. On the day before this year’s event, a record 22,000 people have RSVP’d online for a chance to gain entry (compare that to the total number of official registrants to SXSW Music this year: 30,000), with fewer than 1,000 slots available for each of three planned nights. When the official Illmore Twitter account announced guaranteed three-night access, +1, to the first person to get a tattoo of the party’s logo, multiple submissions beamed in within 90 minutes.
En Route to St. Elmo, Guttfreund and Bogle take a call with VFiles, the avant-garde New York fashion boutique and amorphous lifestyle collective, which is hoping to become one of the Illmore’s sponsors this year. A regal blonde in black Audrey Hepburn sunglasses, smoky eyeshadow, and white high-top Vans, Bogle seems more weary than enthused by the call. She leans her head out of the window and smokes compulsively from a vanilla marshmallow vape pen. It’s a cherished vice. Neither she nor Guttfreund drink or take drugs.
Major brands like Beats by Dre, Red Bull, and Bud Light — all jockeying to siphon street cred from a ready-made reservoir — have already signed on to help foot the bill for the Illmore, which, unlike a ScoreMore concert, is invite-only and generates no ticket sales or other revenue. With building costs, security, stage, lights, sound, porta-potties, and insurance, among a long list of other line items, the party costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce.
Guttfreund has a round, boyish face and permanent puffy bags under his eyes that give him the impression of a teenager who missed curfew by six hours. He’s a gleeful negotiator with the useful ability to make you feel like he has nothing but your best interests in mind, even when he’s shutting you down. On the call with VFiles, a representative for the company starts pressing for backstage access in order to film interviews with Illmore guests. Guttfreund’s response is gentle but relentless.
“I just wanna make it clear, Jake,” he says, using the rep’s first name. “The whole reason why the Illmore exists is for artists to get away from everything feeling like a media tent. We’re where they can go without having cameras in their face, so doing interviews and stuff would actually be the opposite of the vibe we’re looking to establish. We’ve gotta be strict when it comes to maintaining the integrity of the vibe.”
After a few moments, Jake seems to have gotten the message. “No, no need to apologize, bro,” Guttfreund tells him.
Claire Bogle and Sascha Guttfreund at the ScoreMore office in Austin.
Photo by Drew Anthony Smith for BuzzFeed News
In 2007, Guttfreund was a freshman at the University of Texas with no particular ambitions in the music industry. He majored in communications and paid his tuition by selling ads in newspapers, or cable door-to-door, or working as a waiter in a ranch-themed steakhouse. He had a reputation around campus for throwing parties — a skill that mostly served to support his fondness for illicit substances, especially weed, and alcohol, with which he first became acquainted at 15. Hip-hop was a passion. “It was conducive to the lifestyle I was living,” he says now. And in 2008 he decided to try his hand at throwing shows, instead of parties, for which he could sell tickets to students like himself. One of the first was with Afroman, a one-hit wonder whose 2000 song “Because I Got High” has had an enduring appeal among stoners.
Bogle, a New Mexico native who grew up preferring Tupac to bows and barbies, came on board shortly after the Afroman show. At the time, she was taking music business classes at Austin Community College and met Guttfreund through his roommate. ScoreMore grew by recruiting an army of like-minded students who were as proficient at selling tickets on Facebook and Twitter as they were on the street.
A half white, half El Salvadorian son of filmmakers from L.A., Guttfreund found that he could gain the trust of his favorite developing rappers by leveling with them, rather than posturing. Instead of promising more money than other promoters, he promised a better experience, and an opportunity to take their music to new horizons. It helped that he was a true believer — an enthusiastic champion and ally — and Wiz Khalifa and Wale signed up with ScoreMore early on. “I never pretended to be something I’m not,” Guttfreund says. “I’m not a gangster or anything, just a kid who loves the culture.”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Even as the business was taking off, partying as an occupational hazard was taking a toll. At 20, Guttfreund’s drinking had begun to consume him, and in three separate incidents in February 2009 he was arrested on campus, woke up in a hospital, and came to in his apartment missing his two front teeth — with a gash in his jaw — and no memory of what had happened to him. After a few false starts, he got sober in October of that year. “I just couldn’t live my life that way anymore,” he says now. Bogle, whose father was an alcoholic, followed two years later. She was 22.
“I was really good at getting fucked up and I wasn’t happy,” she says. “I used drugs and alcohol to escape life, rather than enhance it. I didn’t like the person I was. So yes, going sober was a choice, but it was a choice I knew that I had to make. It was, Do you want to be happy? Or not?”
Turning down a desolate, tree-lined road off the highway, we finally arrive at St. Elmo, a sprawling, hangar-like compound with metal siding in an anonymous, grey-blue business park at the end of a long driveway. Compared to the bustle of downtown or the east side, the location is utterly remote — the kind of place where Walter White from Breaking Bad might set up a clandestine meth lab. Guttfreund, cell phone still on his ear, gives me the grand tour.
The first Illmore was in 2011 and took place at a modernist glass and concrete mansion in Rollingwood, a well-manicured sliver of Austin’s hilly west side. Guttfreund and Bogle teamed up with Mike Waxx, then an 18-year-old blogging prodigy who had launched IllRoots four years prior, to rent out the house as a sort of crash pad for their mutual industry friends visiting from L.A. and New York. The living room and backyard pool were converted into ad hoc performance areas, and Mac Miller, Big Sean, The Cool Kids, Khalifa, and Kid Cudi stopped by as both performers and guests. If SXSW had become a circus with brands and media herding artists at the crack of a whip, the Illmore was conceived as the opposite — an off-the-grid no-spin zone where performers and their publics could have organic interactions. “It’s where artists can be fans,” Guttfreund likes to say.
The inaugural Illmore was a smash — and then some. Several days of partying left the mansion nearly destroyed, resulting in $30,000 worth of damage that the undergraduate organizers struggled for months to repay. The dilemma has shaped their thinking ever since: how to arrange for the ingredients of any great party — spontaneity, atmosphere, and a lack of inhibition — in a way that’s sustainable rather than self-destructive?
Last year was the first time the Illmore didn’t take place at a house, descending instead on the Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex, a 55,000-square-foot events center with a bowling alley and a skating rink. The extra space solved the event’s ballooning capacity needs, but many complained that the magic of the old house parties — the all-important “vibe” factor — had been lost in the expansion. During his performance that year, A$AP Rocky felt compelled to raise the ghost of Illmores past, addressing the crowd to challenge the palpable sentiment that the party just “ain’t the same.”
Though he’s reluctant to admit it, Guttfreund knows that the pressure on this year’s Illmore is higher than it’s ever been. He can’t have a repeat of last year, which he acknowledges may have been too big and felt too much like a traditional concert. More than a party, the Illmore is a critical forum for fortifying relationships with existing clients, and a demo tape that helps drum up new ones. A flop would be an embarrassing and costly ding to his reputation. In the music industry, any misstep can turn today’s wunderkind into yesterday’s news.
Sascha Guttfreund at the ScoreMore office in Austin, TX.
Photo by Drew Anthony Smith for BuzzFeed News