For Jake Woodard and Dylan Harley, 2016 kicked off a tumultuous and satisfying journey — a seven-year span in which the two friends evolved from enthusiastic music fans to passionate podcasters to popular festival founders, and most recently founders of an alternative booking promotion company, which schedules shows spotlighting local and regional independent bands in two rapidly growing markets: Charlotte and Greenville, South Carolina.
At ages 24 and 26, Woodard and Harley might seem young to be the masterminds behind the annual three-day Welcome to the Family Fest, which has become a genre-transcending celebration of the Queen City music scene each October at The Milestone.
In January, the pair drew on the expertise and experience gained in mounting the festival to begin booking other shows featuring local artists year-round. Continuity between the inclusive festival and the partners’ business direction is stressed by the name of their promoting brand: Welcome to the Family. As Woodard sees it, he and Harley’s expansion into booking is driven by a desire to lend a helping hand to the bands and music they love.
“Bands … in Charlotte have never been hungrier,” Woodard says. “They’re starting to go out on tour; they’re playing hometown shows and packing them in, but there is not much room for growth in the city. We want to change that.”
Harley, who collaborates with Woodard in hosting Welcome to the Family Fest in Charlotte, has branched out to booking shows for their promoting organization across the state line in South Carolina.
“There has been massive growth of the Greenville hardcore and heavy music scene,” Harley says. “Jake has a vast calendar of shows he’s working on, but I’m starting to dip my toes in [Greenville] so we can be developing two markets at the same time.”
“We call on each other [to book] these individual shows,” Woodard offers. “If there are any recommendations or suggestions that either one of us feels we need to make, we collaborate. But as far as the shows themselves, I take care of Charlotte and Dylan takes care of Greenville.”
A warped beginning; a welcome success
Though both Harley and Woodard grew up outside of Cleveland, Ohio, they did not meet until years later after both had relocated to the Carolinas. Woodard’s family moved to Charlotte in 2007, and at an early age he developed an affinity for bands playing at the local level — the antithesis of national stadium and arena acts. By the time he was in high school, Woodard had become both fan and friend of acts like Winter’s Gate and Discoveries, which frequently played The Milestone.
Attending high school in Raleigh, Harley got into heavy metal and harder edged rock, playing percussion and drums. While in college at Appalachian State in Boone, Harley’s attention turned to local bands, and he became friends with members of the now-defunct all-women Charlotte hard rock band Reason/Define. In January 2018, Harley landed in Greenville, where he works as a project manager.
It was Reddit and Warped Tour that brought Harley and Woodard together. On the cusp of attending his first heavy music show, Woodard, then still in high school, asked for advice. Harley responded with band recommendations. The two future business partners subsequently met in person at a Chapel Hill concert headlined by metal act Vanna.
As the two men’s friendship grew, they each delved deeper into the local music scenes in their respective cities. Then, in early 2019, Woodard posted online about wanting to start a podcast featuring interviews with local bands and reviews of local music.
In May 2019, Woodard and Harley, along with a third partner, launched the Alt Talks Podcast. Interviewing local bands for the weekly podcast, Harley and Woodard saw an unmet need emerge. Queen City artists were playing gigs with three or four performers on the bill, but nothing larger that could bring bands before bigger and more diverse audiences.
“That podcast … jumpstarted us to get the festival going,” says Harley.
The partners saw a market niche they could fill in Charlotte’s music scene, while bringing performers and audiences together. They came up with the notion of a festival that would feature the hard-hitting heavy metal they loved, along with a broader alternative bill that would broaden support for the event.
“At the time, everything seemed corporate,” Harley says. “There was no support for local bands besides themselves. During our … brainstorming for a [festival] name, we ended up with ‘Welcome to the Family,’ because our goal … was to bring people together.”
There was only one catch. Though Woodard had booked a few Charlotte shows for two metalcore bands from Louisiana as part of a package called The Bayou Beatdown Tour, he and Harley had no experience booking a festival. Still the partners persevered, learning the process by trial and error.
“We said, ‘We might lose a bunch of money on this. It might flop, but at least we can say that we tried,’” Harley says.
Looking back at the inaugural Welcome to the Family Fest, Woodard and Harley realize that they did things backward.
“We had bands … committed to three dates, before we had the venue,” Woodard says.
Luckily, Milestone owner Wyley Buck Boswell proved supportive of the pair’s plans. Boswell locked in the dates for the fledgling festival, and in November 2019, Welcome to the Family Fest became a reality.
Realizing that a festival based on the extreme metal they loved would be a tough sell to a broader audience, Harley and Woodard came up with an autumn theme to brand the fest. They also split up the event over three days according to genre, tempting music lovers who might only want to invest in a single day ticket rather than a full weekend pass.
“One day would be lighter music within the alternative scene,” Woodard says. “Then a middle day would be a little bit heavier, but more accessible. Then, the third day would be the heaviest music. That way there’s a little bit of something for everybody.”
Though their festival themes have changed each year, Woodard and Harley’s business model for the event has shifted little since the fest’s inception. After paying operational costs, which is staff and venue rental fees due to Boswell, the partners split everything the festival earns between themselves and the bands.
Based on attendance alone, the first Welcome to the Family Fest was a hit. The inaugural event drew an average of 85 people a day, so the partners decided it was a no-brainer to do the festival again. The following year, the festival was again scheduled at The Milestone, but set for October. This time, Harley and Woodard secured the venue before lining up bands.
“We put money into it,” says Harley. “We were in it for the long haul.”
In the end, however, the partners canceled the 2020 event due to the COVID pandemic and ensuing shutdown. It’s a decision they insist was the right call.
The mood leading up to the festival the following year was just as uneasy, Harley says.
“Thankfully, we were able to have the festival, but it was way more restricted,” he continues. “We had a lot of safety [measures] in play.”
Despite the extra precautions, the festival, following a nighttime cityscape theme, ended up drawing close to 120 people per day. Its snowballing success set the stage for the 2022 festival, arranged this time around a film noir theme.
It was the first Welcome to the Family Fest where Woodard and Haley sought sponsorship. Harley secured a Monster Energy sponsorship, while Woodard netted one with Enderly Coffee Company. The partners are currently securing sponsorships for the 2023 festival. In the meantime, Boswell has made improvements and expansions to The Milestone Club.
“Buck put a large amount of effort into the facility,” Harley says. “The outdoor area is massive now. You’ve got multiple areas for tables and pop-up tents. Last year we had an area for a disc golf set-up.”
In the course of the three annual festivals, the partners have perfected their working methods and division of labor. After agreeing on a bill for each day of the fest, each partner now contacts and signs up whichever bands they have personal relationships with.
Most of the planning is done remotely with Woodard in Charlotte and Harley in Greenville. Several weeks before the fest goes up, Harley comes up to Charlotte. Drawing on his background as a project manager, he takes a boots-on-the-ground approach to nailing down nuts and bolts details before the show goes up.
The partners’ ability to work separately has proved to be invaluable to their efforts to launch their booking and promoting business this year. Woodard has even launched his own record label, Carved From Stone Records, in 2019. He currently works with three bands on the label, Empty Atlas in Mississippi, Northern Weather in Ohio and Charlotte’s heavy metal juggernaut Den of Wolves.
Room for improvement
A recent show booked by Welcome to the Family at Bart’s Mart in the Eastway Crossing shopping center illustrates the bookers’ facility with crafting eclectic bills. Touring band The Warhawks, an alt-rock outfit from Gloucester City, New Jersey, shared the stage with Charlotte art punk band Ink Swell, Queen City post-rock/math rock combo Swae and local artist Josh Allen of Halloween Costume Contest.
Welcome to the Family’s March 24 show at The Milestone featured a mix of local and regional indie bands, including Slackjaw from Augusta, Georgia; Greenville’s Parris Bridge; Charlotte’s Beauty; and Weymouth from Pinehurst.
In addition to shows at The Milestone and Bart’s Mart, Welcome to the Family has also booked an eclectic bill at The Spoke Easy in Elizabeth on April 15. Woodard says he’s also looking at the possibility of booking shows at The Blackbox Theater in north Charlotte.
For shows booked by Welcome to the Family as bookers/promoters, the payout varies, Woodard says. Some shows require a split, while others come with pre-determined percentages for bands and/or venues.
In the meantime, Harley and Woodard’s podcast has fallen by the wayside.
“Now that we’ve transitioned our time in the music industry to booking, we felt we couldn’t give [the podcast] the time it needed anymore,” Woodard says.
That doesn’t mean the partners aren’t still devoted to tackling the issues that spurred the creation of the podcast in the first place; Woodard and Harley aren’t afraid to articulate the continuing challenges local bands face in the Charlotte and Greenville markets.
Woodard laments a current shortage of all-age shows in the Queen City, the kind of bills that fostered his love of Charlotte’s vibrant music scene when he was in high school. Harley has his own reasons for advocating that all-ages shows lead to a healthier music environment.
“A deep challenge that the Charlotte market [faces] is a severe lack of all-ages venues, plus the lateness that shows tend to start in Charlotte,” Harley says. “A problem that has come up after COVID is [many of us] decided we want to have a healthier home life, which doesn’t mean starting shows at 9 or 10 p.m. We want to be able to bring everyone to a show, start it at a reasonable hour and get home and go to bed.”
Another drawback in Charlotte is the lack of a mid-tier venue that accommodates local artists, Woodard says.
“A lack of venues that hold 300 to 400 people really hampers the local scene. We see shows announced in other markets, like Greensboro, Raleigh and Columbia, SC, where these tours are completely skipping Charlotte,” Woodard says.
He maintains that many of these shows feature a local opener, thereby giving a hometown band the opportunity to play for 300 to 400 people who may not have heard of them before.
“It’s another opportunity that I feel is being squandered in Charlotte,” he says.
Despite these setbacks, Woodard and Harley see reasons to be optimistic about Charlotte’s music scene, and they stress how that scene can be bolstered by the transformative power a great show can have on performers and audiences.
“[A show] should be everyone coming together to support music, because at the end of the day, music is ingrained in our DNA,” Harley says.
“At the end of their set, I want each band to say, ‘I want to come back to this city. I want to play this venue again,’” Woodard adds.
He hopes local and regional bands get the message that Charlotte is a market that cares about them, and that Charlotte audiences want to see new and underexposed bands and hear their music.
“It’s all in our entire moniker: Welcome to the Family,” Woodard says, “and we want everybody to be a part of it.”
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