There are two types of music fans: those who prefer to attend live shows performed by acts they already know and like, and those who prefer to discover what they like by seeing new acts perform live.
Barney Byard has always fallen into the latter group.
Byard, a longtime music promoter who in September took over the role of theater director at the Orpheum, 200 N. Broadway, found that his new job would allow him to put together shows that catered to music fans with tastes like his.
In April, Byard launched the Orpheum’s Emerging Artist Series, which puts one new act-on-the-rise on the Orpheum stage each month. The acts are up-and-comers who perform music in a variety of genres. In most cases, they’re too popular to play bars but haven’t quite broken through to large venues. The lineup Byard has put together so far has included indie rock band the Tontons in April, folk rockers Jared & the Mill in May and Oklahoma City singer-songwriter Graham Colton last week.
Byard gives those acts a stage and gives Wichita music fans a chance to check them out for a $15 general admission ticket.
“It’s entirely possible some of these artists are going to have careers that continue to ascend, and it’s good for the bands and good for the Orpheum to get them while they’re just starting out,” Byard said.
Byard, a musician himself who plays guitar with local band Good Question, has long been a supporter of live music.
He and his wife, Linda Cunningham (also a member of Good Question), used to frequently put on intimate concerts by artists they liked in the living room of their College Hill home. They called it the College Hill Concert series, and all money went directly to the artists.
Byard’s last job was working as event manager at Century II, where he often dreamed of booking new artists, but that venue allowed only “four-wall rentals,” meaning the acts rent the building and present the shows themselves. At the Orpheum, Byard is able to recruit acts and present concerts himself. An emerging artist concert series was one of the pitches he made during his Orpheum job interview last year.
“There’s something inherently gratifying about finding a new artist and presenting them to someone who appreciates their talent,” he said.
Many of the acts Byard has recruited for the series are acts he’d seen and loved elsewhere.
He and Cunningham, who attend the South By Southwest music and film festival in Austin every year, saw the Tontons, Jared & The Mill and Wild Moccasins, booked for August’s show, at the famous event.
“For the last 20 years, my wife and I have gone to South By Southwest, and we see all of these amazing acts,” he said. “We would also see these bands too big to play in our living room but still really amazing. We’ve been looking for a forum where we could present some of them.”
The first few shows have been decently attended, Byard said, with crowds averaging around 300 people.
Local music fan Kendra Nguyen went with her sister to see the Tontons in April. Her sister, Alexandra, is a fan of independent music and had heard of and liked the Tontons.
The show was great, she said, and she’s now also a Tontons fan. The Emerging Artist Series is the type of thing Wichita needs more of, she said.
“I enjoy being able to see bands when they’re small and to have a more intimate experience as opposed to a big stadium,” Nguyen said. “And these series are something that’s common in a lot of cities like Lawrence and Omaha. A lot of artists kind of blow up after that.”
The series also is earning good word of mouth among music booking agencies, who are always on the lookout for showcases for their newer acts.
“When I started thinking about how to get bands for this, I thought I would have to do all the work myself,” Byard said. “But major booking agencies almost without exception have new bands on their rosters that they’re trying to break. They love this. They’re more than happy to send information about new bands to us so we can check them out and see if they’ll fit.”
Colton, who performed as part of the series on Thursday, said that advocates like Byard are essential to new artists trying to build a following.
His gigs are mostly in clubs and small theaters, Colton said, and though he has a growing fan base, finding venues actively seeking new artists for performances is rare.
“There certainly over the years have been different clubs and promoters and organizations that really put an emphasis on artist development,” said Colton, who released his new album “Lonely Ones” earlier this year. “It’s amazing when you get someone like Barney and the Orpheum who really are putting an emphasis on building a music community. In any size market, it’s amazing what an impact that has.”
Byard has an act booked for almost every month for the rest of this year and says he plans to continue the series as long as Wichita supports it.
So far, he said, he’s heard from music fans and musicians thanking him for putting the shows together.
“The first purpose of the series is to present cool new acts to folks in Wichita whose musical tastes are going somewhat underserved and to present them in a sit-down venue with good acoustics and the whole nine yards,” Byard said. “The second is to help these new acts get a growing following in Wichita. So far, the response from both camps has been in our favor.”