In an industry that is notorious for its quick pace and volatility, Michelle Cable managed to make herself a necessary, thoughtful asset in the world of independent music.
Growing up in the small town of Eureka, California, Cable started Panache as a magazine and a banner for booking and promoting shows. She was just 15-years-old.
Today, Panache books and manages some of the biggest names in independent music including Mac DeMarco, Ty Segall, John Dwyer and his many incarnations of the Osees, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard and Bikini Kill.
Ears to Feed caught up with Cable, who recently became a mom two years ago, on an early-morning call when things were quiet in her home to discuss her life and humble, wunderkind journey in music.
Do you remember the moment when first became energized and involved in the music community?
I started Panache when I was 15. I started going to shows when I was 14 and there was this venue in the small town that I grew up in — Eureka, California — called The Vista, which was a seafood restaurant by day and a music venue by night. I saw At The Drive In there and Turbonegro. I wouldn’t say that it was one particular show. Something kind of exploded for me when I realized that I loved music, but also wanted to know the story behind the musicians and get to know the people making the music and doing these live performances.
Eureka is a small town in Humboldt County, nestled away in the middle of the redwoods off of Highway 101. You can only take that road to get out there. It’s really isolated. They call it the “Emerald Triangle.” It’s kind of this hidden, majestic place. So, I was really starved to have interactions with people.
I started a zine and interviewed bands at these shows. I put out the first zine in 1998 and just kept doing that. I saw a lot of smaller concerts. I saw the White Stripes there and interviewed them when I was 17. I saw them for $5. I saw a lot of amazing bands and some of them are still in my life today. This whole other world opened up to me and I took my focus from school and kind of put it into music and going to shows and starting this magazine and distributing it.
I ended up homeschooling my senior year and getting my diploma early because I was like, “Yeah, this is what I want to do” (laughs). It was pretty cool. It was definitely a big shift. I went to shows all the time. I was pretty young too! I would go to shows and spend the night at my friend’s house and then had bands stay at my house when I was 17 and 18. Those early years of being 15 to 17 and getting to experience music in a 150 capacity venue was really cool. I also got to meet people in this local scene. It was a really exciting time in the local music scene. There was a really vibrant and cool local scene in this rural town.
It was really fun to explore and when I started interviewing bands and going to shows, eventually I became friends with a network of people and I started bringing bands to that venue and other venues around town. So I kind of became a local promoter at the age of 17 or 18. I definitely wore the promoter hat at an early age and it influenced my career choice (laughs).
When did you start to transition to booking bands on a national level? Did it start when local bands started to get too big for the venues in town or did bands ask you to book big tours?
It was a mixture of both. Through doing the music scene and interviewing bands and contacting bands I met people in cities across the country, and I developed a network to distribute the magazine. It started at 400 copies and then it eventually grew to 40,000 copies when I moved to New York. And then I stopped doing it.
Through that network I created a community that I kept in touch with. One of the local bands, I think it was Audio Wreck — I was actually dating someone in the band at the time — they wanted to do a tour up the west coast and I helped them book those early concerts. It was back in the day when everything was done over the phone and written down in a notebook. There wasn’t a lot of emailing going on. You might show up at a venue and not know that the show was canceled. It was haphazard by the seat of your pants touring.
My real venture into booking happened with two different bands around the same time. This band from the Bay Area called Kung Fu USA, who I’d become really close to. They eventually became this band Shellshag. They asked me to start booking them full time cross country touring-wise. There were a few tours here and there. But the two real moments of “This is what I’m doing” was after I left Eureka, and moved to San Francisco when I was only 21. I was working in this retro sneaker shop and it shut down. Then this band offered me a job to book them full time across the country. They just wanted to be on the road all the time. I think I booked them 17 shows in New York in three weeks.
I was going to say, I think I’ve seen Shellshag more than any band…
Yeah! They’re still going and are still close friends of mine. They’re an amazing part of my rock and roll upbringing. When I moved to San Francisco, they welcomed me with open arms. Same with this band the Chantigs, who I booked a small tour with as well. The other band that was definitely altering for where I was and what I was doing with music was this Japanese band DMBQ [Dynamite Masters Blues Quartet] who I had met through John Dwyer. I was introduced through this Japanese rock scene led by DMBQ, through John, and they asked me to book them over from Japan.
That’s when I started booking a tour for them and this guy Craig Stewart from SXSW heard that I was booking a tour for them and asked me to bring them to SXSW. I think for me, at the age of 21, I was getting asked to book a showcase at SXSW and it was super exciting. It was a moment in my timeline as a booking agent where I had this goal to work around where I booked this showcase with all of these other smaller bands around DMBQ. That led to me doing showcases for the next 12 or 15 years consecutively.
Then I booked DMBQ around the country, toured with them in Japan with what became Shellshag. Then I booked Shellshag. They hired me to book them for an entire year and we ended with a show in Japan all together with DMBQ. It was really momentous.
I definitely explored the world of booking and getting to see venues and promoters. I started tour managing DMBQ, helping them out because they didn’t speak English very well. I started doing that at 22. I really got to see what it’s like to be on the road. I think anybody who is a booking agent, manager, musician or any one who works in that end of the industry should know what it’s like to be on the road and be in the artist’s experience because it’s hard.
By working on the road with a band like DMBQ, who had a language hurdle in the States, you probably had to face many problems head-on that most bookers don’t normally have to. Do you feel that experience was especially formative?
I definitely had a crash course in the music industry. It was very DIY, and I taught myself everything. I didn’t really have any major mentors. I’d say that Shellshag mentored me and encouraged me and seeing them inspired me to do everything independently.
The second or third year that I was touring with DMBQ, we were in a really bad car accident. I broke my neck and back and had to recover on the East Coast. There was a fatality with the drummer of the band, China. She passed away in the accident. So that was definitely a moment in my life where priorities shifted. I had been touring on the road a lot. A series of small stints and then long stints. I would go out with DMBQ for three weeks at a time, which is kind of crazy to think about because it would just be me and them.
After the accident I decided to take stock of what I was doing and put the magazine on hold. I was doing all of this simultaneously and it was physically a lot of work to distribute 30 to 40,000 magazines. I just focused more on the booking agency and just did it from a computer because that’s when everything shifted online. You could do so much from your phone or a computer and I could do it while healing from a broken back. So by the time I got back to San Francisco, I just went 100 percent into the booking agency as opposed to trying to tour manage and run a magazine. I was still promoting other shows, but I focused mainly on the booking agency.
During that whole time, Craig Stewart from SXSW gave me an opportunity to book a showcase and was very present in the situation with the accident. It was a very “full circle” thing with this crazy year and something altered the lives of everyone involved with that band. It created this shift that led me to focus on booking tours full time. I think when you go through something as impactful and tragic as that, it changes your frame of reference to everything in the world. For me, going into an industry that can be very volatile and unpredictable — there’s a lot of things that you’re not in control of when you’re booking for artists on the road — I definitely think I had a different headspace because I experienced one of the worst things you can experience on the road. I kind of came into that with a pretty positive mindset to just stay focused and help the people around me and not let the little things and stresses of the day to day of working in the music industry bother me. I also think it helped me to persevere as an independent company owner and also as a young female company owner. I think those early things that happened that were so tragic gave me the tools to strengthen the ways I saw the world and the way I handled saving my artists’ careers that I worked with to this day.
Touring is a very serious thing. It is a really amazing way to reach fans. It used to be the only way you could reach fans. Now you can play a festival without ever having to play a show. Now because of the pandemic, people aren’t really playing shows in real life. But back then it was one of the only ways to reach people. Being very delicate of how you handle booking a tour and making sure mental health is up and keeping tours shorter. I learned along the way that the best case scenario is to have a happy band at the end of a tour. And also [ending up with] a successful tour, but also ultimately mentally healthy artists.
You constantly hear horror stories of younger bands getting burned out with too many short turn around drives in between gigs and being dragged into the ground by their booking agents…
Short turn around drives, not enough days off, too long of touring. Of course it’s great to look at a country especially when you go to Europe and say, “wow, we should fit in all of these cities,” but it can be detrimental and exhausting. I’ve learned along the way through communication with artists that I work with. Now that I also manage bands, I communicate better with the agents to make sure that they’re not wasting their time. You can always do something and come back later and do more.
I think when you’ve been in that position and you’ve been on the road and you’ve seen the success and excitement of a tour — but also the wear and tear that a tour can have on artists mentally and physically — It gives you a different perspective when you’re working with an artist and trying to get them to go on the road.
I have been fortunate through the pandemic to not only be working on the booking side — that was more unfortunate because booking just stopped — but also on the management side just getting to be creative with artists and figuring out how they could sustain themselves as opposed to trying to make some sort of touring really work. It’s been really great brainstorming ways to let artists be active, have income and sustainability without being on the road during this uncertain time.
You and John Dwyer had really been changing the way bands could go out on the road with multiple nights in bigger markets instead of long drawn out tours. Do you see that as being the future even for smaller acts that you work with?
I definitely think even before the pandemic a lot of artists that I had worked with, especially someone like Ty Segall, had done the “residency,” which Osees had done in New York too. Ty had done 10 nights at Teragram Ballroom in L.A. It was every Friday because he lives in L.A. He did 10 nights and they were all sold out and they were amazing. Each night he did a different album and some nights he would do multiple albums. Then we did the same thing in New York and I think we did four or five nights in a row.
It was so cool because Ty is someone who I have worked with for a very long time, over a decade now. He’s an amazing artist to work with and someone who continues to grow and produce great albums. We did that as the only shows around the new album [2019’s First Taste] and also so he could play older material he didn’t play anymore. But the whole point was that people traveled to these shows and you would get deal perks if they went to multiple shows.
I know King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, a band I manage worldwide now and also book, they had already done residencies in Australia early on. We were starting to get creative with ideas doing that. It’s nice because it’s not as laborious for the bands to travel. They can fly somewhere and do multiple nights at one venue with no load in and load out every night. No multiple soundchecks. They get to enjoy a city. A lot of times when you’re touring, people think you get to see the world but a lot of times you only get to see the cafe down the street from the venue.
I think now, in general, the almost hamster wheel of touring of being in the music industry where it’s “go, go, go” with constant dates and returning to those cities where you really don’t have time to breathe and reassess, everyone was forced into this time off and some people were forced to vacation. I think it’s changed the perspective of the way people see things needing to be done.
Beyond touring, artists will have to do radio tours, promo tours, and fly in for TV and sessions. I think a lot of those things will be done remotely. I’ve talked to a lot of publicists and radio people who think that it could actually continue to be that way. There will be some stuff done in real life, of course, but I think there will be a little more room for negotiation of not having to travel and do those things all the time. Flying around the world can be depleting and it takes away from the time an artist can be creative and engage with their fans.
I think that’s a positive thing that will hopefully come out of the pandemic. More awareness of a relaxed pace and more awareness of mental health. An artist like Mac DeMarco, who I’ve worked with his entire career as booker and manager, this is the most time he’s ever had off. He’s really just gotten to be a normal human being in L.A. in a pandemic. For him, someone who has been on the road and consistently traveled the globe for eight years straight, it has been really nice for him to just be at home, enjoy his friends and his girlfriend. I think there have been a lot of positives from that, but I think a lot of people are excited to perform in a community of people again and get past this period because it has been so intense and dark in so many ways.
This interview has been edited for clarity.