In Any Event 

How to plan the band

Chyna Brackeen
Chyna Brackeen

Entertainment can make or break an event. We checked in with local expert Chyna Brackeen, who understands entertainment from every angle.

Brackeen, founder of Attack Monkey Productions and manager of the incredibly popular band, The Black Lillies, handles every aspect of entertainment from artist booking to marketing to event logistics.

“Because I understand exactly what goes into each aspect of an event, I know how to avoid some common pitfalls,” Brackeen said. “It also helps a lot at crunch time, because if something goes wrong I can jump right in and fix it.”

Choosing the band that matches the nature of the event is essential, so Brackeen advised planners to understand from the start who will attend. Entertainment should differ based on whether the event’s focus is social, festive, business, political or a mix.

The first question Brackeen gets answered from an event host is how will the entertainment be presented – as a focal point or background ambiance?

“At political and business events, you usually need the focus to be on the politician or business leader, a presenter, rather than a band or other entertainer,” she said.

For those types of gatherings, Brackeen recommended unobtrusive background noise, like a jazz combo. Brackeen advised planners to avoid picking entertainment that will overwhelm the event or take attention away from the presenter or speaker.

“You’ve got a goal of some kind with this event, so you need your attendees to stay focused,” she said.

On the other hand, the entertainment can be the draw for social events and nonprofit fundraisers.

“That’s when you can really have fun with the kind of entertainment you book,” Brackeen said. “Maybe you have fire-eaters and aerialists, or maybe it’s a really fun band or a comedian. You can actually craft the entire event around the entertainment if you want.”

As an example, Brackeen mentioned a gala she attended that was held as part of the Dogwood Arts festivities at the Knoxville Museum of Art, known as Dogwood After Dark.

“A lot of times, you hear the word ‘gala’ and you have an expectation as to how things will unfold … there will probably be your standard cocktail hour, maybe with a silent auction, then dinner and then a perfectly inoffensive band will play while the guests are expected to dance,” Brackeen said. “You’ll stay about as long as you’re reasonably expected, and then make a break for it.”

This particular gala was different – and completely engaged the attention of the attendees.

“The Dogwood galas usually have a twist – something that sets them apart from the usual gala event,” Brackeen said, in a salute to the group’s planning committee. “And the one at KMA stands out in my mind because the entertainment was really over the top. Everything was proceeding basically according to plan. During cocktail hour, there were a few details that were a bit quirky and fun, but nothing too outside the box … and then the entertainment began. It was not at all ordinary.”

"Michael Jackson" thrilled at a Dogwood After Dark gala in 2012.
“Michael Jackson” thrilled at a Dogwood After Dark gala in 2012.

Brackeen vividly recalled female impersonators and a Michael impersonator and zombies doing the “Thriller” dance and appearing from all different directions so that people couldn’t help but watch it all unfold.

“The crowd went wild – everyone was laughing and taking pictures and really getting into it,” she said. “It was completely unexpected, caught everyone off-guard and made everyone really get engaged in the event. By the time the band took the stage, everyone was ready to dance.”

And then those zombies arrived.

Brackeen, whose career began at AC Entertainment, went on to create the Rhythm N’ Blooms Festival and now co-produces the successful event with Dogwood Arts.

“I want the audience to be blown away, so my major focus is on finding the acts that will do that and then promoting those acts to our audience so that they choose to take a chance on someone they’re unfamiliar with,” she said. “I think people really love the fact that they can discover ‘new’ artists at the festival before the general public understands what’s special about them.”

The Rhythm N’ Blooms festival has taken on a life of its own and much of that success is due to the combination of outstanding bands and vigorous promotion.

“You’ve got to promote!” Brackeen said. “It doesn’t really matter how great an act is, or even how popular, if no one knows they’re coming to town. So promoting is just as important as selecting the right entertainment.”

Rhythm N' Blooms is so successful because it is well-promoted.
Rhythm N’ Blooms is so successful because it is well-promoted.

Brackeen’s number one tip for area planners who are scheduling entertainers or a band for an event is to pay them.

“So many times, people call me and ask me to find them a band that will play for free because they’re going to get ‘great exposure’ or because it’s a good cause,” she said.

“Here’s the thing: you’d understand if the caterer presented you with a bill, or if the venue charged rent, or if you had to pay to print your invitations. Musicians, comedians, dancers and other entertainers have spent years training and rehearsing; they’ve spent a lot of money on their instruments or other gear, and they are going to spend an entire day and/or night at your event.

Chyna Brackeen, top left, also attends many events and is shown here with husband Darrien Thomson. Seated are Polly Ailor and Brackeen's father, Laurens Tullock.
Chyna Brackeen, top left, also attends many events and is shown here with husband Darrien Thomson at the Knoxville Museum of Art. Seated are Polly Ailor and Brackeen’s father, Laurens Tullock.

“Even if they only play for an hour, they still have to get set up, sound checked and then wait around until it is time to go on stage … they aren’t going to be able to play anywhere else that evening.”

Another tip Brackeen offered is to be realistic about the caliber of entertainment your budget allows.

“I can almost guarantee you that Dolly Parton isn’t going to play your fundraiser for free because, ‘she doesn’t need the money and this event saves the lives of puppies,’ ” Brackeen said, noting the reasoning that sometimes misleads people into hoping top entertainers will perform gratis.

“Yes, she’s wonderful and may love your cause, but she still has a band and crew who are likely under contract and have to be paid a certain amount regardless of what she makes.”

Local musicians that play for reasonable costs and have crews with a background in entertainment are viable programming options for event planners.

“The bottom line: If you’re paying everyone else who is involved in helping you have a great event, you should be paying the entertainer who is going to make your event successful,” she said.

“A caveat of this tip is that if everyone is donating their time and services, then it’s OK to ask someone to play for free … but your first approach should be to a musician who actually has a connection to your organization, so it at least makes sense that they might want to donate their services.”

Finally, Brackeen advised planners not to be afraid to think outside of the entertainment box. The Dogwood gala is a great example of creative thinking that triggered fond memories for attendees.

“It was successful because the organizers made bold choices,” she said. “The result was a truly memorable event.”

Brackeen exited the stage with one final tip for planners.

“Make your event stand out from the crowd. The easiest way to make people talk about your event for years to come is by doing something different!”

Kelly Ryan, a fall intern at Moxley Carmichael, is a senior at the University of Tennessee studying public relations. When she’s not riding a camel in Egypt, you can find her worshiping Stevie Nicks, watching marathons of Criminal Minds and relaxing on the sunny little island of Hilton Head.

2 responses to “How to plan the band

  1. I was at that Dogwood After Dark, Chyna, and you are absolutely right. It was such a surprising and memorable evening — due to the entertainment. Great job. And thanks for the other tips, too.

  2. I echo Cynthia’s thanks – thank you Chyna Brackeen for being interviewed for the EventCheck Knox blog. Great advice!

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