I had the great pleasure of interviewing Selena Rox about her time behind the scenes of some of the biggest punk shows in the world. We discussed many of the things she learned about people, music, drugs and popular culture while back stage at The Warped Tour and traveling with EDM act GRiZ.
Selena is 22-years-old and she is originally from Brunswick, which is where she started organizing and promoting shows. She has since worked for record labels, The Warped Tour, the House of Blues, and various acts out on the road. At present she is a freelance organizer for bands and musicians, which means she manages inventory, merchandise tables and related affairs while on the road. I met her a month or so back while we were both waiting at JFK for a JetBlue flight to Maine. She is sort of tiny and covered with tattoos and her personality is huge and absolutely magnetic. When I last saw her at the airport, an employee at the gate who was insisting that no, Selena absolutely could not take her unfinished beer on the plane. Selena was trying politely to negotiate an alternative arrangement.
We met up last week and discussed how she got herself into the business of music, some of the things she has seen on the road, and the lessons she has learned over the past 5 years in this business.
So how did all of this start?
When I was 16 I started booking shows around Bath Skate Park and also shows in Portland at Deering Grange Hall. There were also a few other shows around the city. They were just small DIY shows that I would promote through MySpace when MySpace was a thing. That was when those sites first started and people weren’t annoyed with them yet. I did that for two years with other people under the name Brunswick Hardcore and we stopped that when we had a falling out.
I feel like some sort of fallout is inevitable when you have “hardcore” baked right into your name.
Yeah, it was a really bad decision. But I was doing it at the time with Maggie and Katie Oliver who are doing Portland to Portland, that thrift thing. And there was this guy Dan who was in local bands. I thought that it would be cool to have a local musician in it but now he and I don’t speak anymore, Katie went off to school and the whole thing just went away.
But before that happened we had decided to book shows. Through that I booked festivals for Brunswick High School, the school I went to, because I was the only one who knew anything about it and I got service credit for doing so. That was exactly what I wanted to be doing. I wanted to be doing events. I booked all of the live music for that and did the advertising for Live Maine in 2008 and 2009. We had all of these nature organizations come and talk about the work they did with the kids who came out. It was a lot of fun.
One of the bands that I booked, they were from Rhode Island, asked me if I would go out on tour when I turned 18 and I said yes, absolutely. I was out kind of running their independent label while they were on the Warped Tour. That way my first tour ever and it was insane. I had never really left Maine let alone been out on tour living in a van with 8 other people. It was an experience.
What did you learn from that experience in particular?
I learned that while you may be friends with someone you can’t necessarily live with them. [Laughs]
That’s the quintessential “first travels with friends” lesson.
Yeah, as soon as we had to start traveling and working together and spending all of our time together we all got sick of each other. Everyone would get into really stupid fights. I remember one fight that we had over a granola bar. That was an experience in itself. It kind of showed me what kind of people I wanted to tour with and what kind of people I did not want to tour with.
I guess if you are touring with 8 people you have an opportunity to identify which of those people worked to tour with and which did not.
Exactly. So then I started going to school at Suffolk University in Boston to study Public Relations. That next Summer I went to Warped again, but this time I was working for Top Shelf Records which is based in Western Massachusetts. I was doing inventory for them and guest list volunteering, which is when you give out passes to people on the bands’ guest list. I got that opportunity because I noticed that the process was sort of hectic and since I only sold at certain hours I could be available so I volunteered to help. In my inventory job I was commission based and there were 8 of us and so I thought that if I were to do this it would be beneficial for me and it would help out the woman who was running the guest list tent.
Through doing that I met Kevin Lyman who started the Warped Tour and he offered me an internship slash job the next Summer working for him in the production office. It was amazing. I met so many great people in the industry through that and I learned a lot, especially about what happens on the production end to make an event like that work and last. Warped Tour is one of the longest running tours. It goes to an average of about 50 cities.
I am 30 and it has been around for as long as I have been consciously interested in music, I think. So what is the social dynamic of working behind the scenes of festivals like these?
At Warped there is a good sense of community, but then there is also a sense of it being like high school. A lot of bands will share busses to cut costs and so it is like a traveling town.
I always wanted to be in a punk rock band but never had any musical talent. That traveling food web series I produced Food Coma TV was my stab at doing a punk rock thing and it was great but the personal dynamics eventually tore it apart, largely because it was so unrestrained in too many ways. I can’t imagine these bands, which have been playing together since high school, wouldn’t be getting involved in dramas similar to what went on in high school.
These are people you spend weeks with. They become your family. You either love them, hate them or both. You have to go from being friends and doing what you love to business time where you have to talk with people about what is working or what isn’t working. Having to avoid burning bridges or hurting feelings… It is one of the only industries I know of where your so much of your personal life goes into it. It is crazy. There are people who won’t get jobs because people don’t want to live with them or don’t want to deal with them every day. There are also people who musicians or staff seek out because they are so good to be with. There are tour managers I not only like, but want to manage my life.
So in working with GRiZ, you recently switched from working in punk music to working in EDM music.
Yeah, I had never really worked in that scene. I had been around it sometimes when I was working at the House of Blues in Texas, but this was my first real experience being in it and at the merch table. Kids are so crazy these days. Drugs are bigger now, especially Ecstasy.
It seems like by way of popular culture, some drugs have had a renaissance.
Yes, absolutely. It is just a thing that happens and it is not even a thing. All of these kids are poppin’ Molly and sweatin’ and what-have-you.
You are in proximity to it much more than I am, obviously. I feel like drugs just weren’t a huge part of popular culture in the late 90s, probably because all of the drug heroes had died by then. The same goes for the 2000s. I feel like Tumblr plays a big part of that rise in popularity. Pop culture is peer-to-peer at this point. It doesn’t have to filter through a more conservative entertainment machine.
Oh yeah. I think now that kids have access to more information about it… I didn’t even smoke weed until I was 17 and people were surprised by that because I smoke so much weed now and because it is part of the culture I am in. But in EDM it is much more about designer drugs, ecstasy, Molly and all of that stuff.
And it exists to manufacture a very particular sort of experience?
It is all in that culture and can be sort of bizarre to me.
What have you learned about people while out on the road?
Generally? People are terrible! [Laughs] People are very selfish and they don’t think about the repercussions of their actions. They want to do what they want to do… People are just kind of awful to each other. Finding the people who aren’t awful to each other is what life is all about. It is about finding people that you kind of vibe with and that are good to others.
Do you find a lot of those people doing this kind of work?
There is a group of people in touring that have tattoos that read “GOOD PEOPLE.” All of my friends got these tattoos last summer — I wasn’t out for Warped last summer so I didn’t get one but they said I could get one if I wanted to. It just says “GOOD PEOPLE.” There are good people and bad people and it is all about sorting through which are which. There are the toxic people. You don’t want to be involved with them. They are going to suck the life out of you. You want the people who will make you flourish and expand your horizons and make you be a better person.
I like how on Warped we do charity stuff and give back. Every tour we have one day where we go clean up a location or do something to help out. We helped create a playground for kids in Baltimore. We give back so there is that Karma. MusiCares will also be out and they set up AA and other meetings for people on the tour with problems with drugs and alcohol or for people who want to talk about their problems because they have a lot going on. It is just like a support system. That is how you know good people because they actually care about you versus the people you are just getting drunk with. You won’t hear from them until you’re around. You know who your real friends are based on who makes the effort to come and see you. It is something so small but it means the most for us because we don’t really have a home anymore. Our home is a tour bus that travels city to city.
You are 22-years-old and you feel to me particularly grown up, even compared with people I know who are much older. It strikes me that all of the experiences I have had like the ones you are describing took me a decade to go through and you went through all of them in just a couple of years because of your proximity to this work and to all of these people. It seems like that has made you grow up rather quickly.
Yeah, you know I won’t do something unless I have the money to do it because I know what being under-prepared is like. You learn a lot about what you need when you are your own person. When you are out on tour, you have to learn how to watch out for yourself, especially when you are out in cities you don’t know very well by yourself. You have to become aware of your surroundings very quickly. I take that into everyday life.
I have also learned that it is a lot easier to be positive than it is to be negative. As my dad always says, you can get further with sugar than with vinegar. Being nice to people always pays off. Being bad and mean is fun sometimes but it is not as rewarding as being nice. That is part of why I have been able to sustain myself in this industry for as long as I have. I pay it forward. I help out. It is important to invest in others, to believe in other people. When you do that, people will invest and believe in you.
So for kids who are in a similar position to where you were in high school, kids who want to get involved behind the scenes of the music industry, what are your suggestions for them?
I think that getting in with organizations like Bowery Presents… I wish I had known this then. They do the productions at The State and Port City. Getting in with them now is important because then you can work your way up. You don’t need a college degree in this industry. Most of us don’t have one. I don’t. I am finishing up with online classes because I don’t want to have the loans and no degree. All you have to do is do it. Figure it out and do it. If you want to get involved with lights, get involved backstage at school plays. Take art classes so you know what colors look good together. Dive into it and let it consume you. Then you will be the best and way younger than those of us who are in the business now and people will want to take you on the road and we will all loose our jobs. [Laughs]