Center stage: Concert promotion company settles into Sundance Square

Betty Dillard

Marc Engel eases back in his chair and gazes out the window onto the busy lunchtime scene in downtown Fort Worth’s Sundance Square. Engel, a performing arts professional with more than 25 years of experience in the management and programming of theaters and performing arts centers, is the founding president of the concert and entertainment promotion company 35 Concerts LLC. A full-service concert promotion business, 35 Concerts promotes music, comedy and entertainment events across the central third of the United States. The company celebrated its first year in business in September. In August, it made a strategic move to Sundance Square, the city’s award-winning 35-block entertainment and shopping district. “It’s been a great move, a perfect move. One of the best parts – I got a window,” Engel said.

Relocating the startup from another part of town – and from a building lacking windows – to Sundance Square was a no-brainer. “We’re an entertainment company. We should be headquartered in an entertainment district like Sundance Square,” Engel said. “Our company has experienced exponential growth this year. We’ve been wanting to find space in Sundance Square. This move was more about participating in the creative industry that exists here. The downtown area is full of creative energy, and it offers a safe and exciting work environment for our staff and an inviting reason for our business partners to visit us.” Engel likes to say that great concerts don’t happen by accident. He formed 35 Concerts with Dallas-based entrepreneur Phil Drayer to bring quality live shows to towns and cities across the country. They’ve featured some of today’s hottest headliners such as Tony Bennett, Bill Cosby, Alan Jackson, Martina McBride, Merle Haggard and The Beach Boys to name-drop just a few. Drayer may be better known as a pioneer in the world of high technology than as an entertainment producer. When he was 21 and fresh out of Lamar University in Beaumont, he developed a high-speed radio navigation computer for military aircraft while at Teledyne Systems Co. In the 1970s he helped bring Texas Instruments’ first handheld calculator to market. The electrical engineering department at Lamar University bears his name.

Drayer’s interest in family entertainment led him to start Red Tail Entertainment LLC, a producer of a range of live entertainment, including the Broadway hit A Night With Janis Joplin. Drayer is the lead producer for the interactive family show Erth’s Dinosaur Zoo Live, and he is a member of the producing team of Scooby Doo Live! Musical Mysteries. “He’s been an amazing partner to work with,” Engel said. “We’ll complete our 40th event before the end of the year. We’ve gone from zero to 40 in one year and we plan 60 or more events in 2015.” Engel brings both talent acquisition and concert promotion chops to the venture. A communications graduate of University of Tennessee-Knoxville, he worked his way up the ranks in theaters and performing arts centers nationwide, as an electrician, a photographer and stage manager. His career includes high profile, front-of-house management assignments in internationally recognized venues such as Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth (“Bass Hall sold me on Sundance Square,” he said), the AT&T Performing Arts Center in Dallas and the Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach, Fla. Engel also owned and operated his own talent acquisition and booking business for six years in Fort Worth. “There’s an honor in being a small business. Our clientele are looking for authenticity, for real people. They want to do business with real people, people they know, and they want to get paid fairly for what they do. “We’re always looking for the right act in the right place at the right time,” he said. “The key is building relationships with the agents and also with the venues.”

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Engel says the name 35 Concerts is evocative of their business strategy. The company promotes entertainment events in secondary and tertiary markets, including Wichita, Kan.; Omaha, Neb.; Richmond, Va.; Brookings, S.D.; Milwaukee, Wis.; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Dodge City, Kan.; Spencer, Iowa; and Park City, Utah. “We chose to stay out of the Dallas-Fort Worth area altogether. We’re headquartered here but we don’t actually book any shows here. We’ve found the area is oversaturated with entertainment options. There are many competitors here and they’re good at what they do,” Engel said. Major competitors include AEG Live, Live Nation Entertainment and Outback Concerts in Nashville. Then there are the local arts companies, professional sports teams, universities and casinos, “all vying for and working to get the limited amount of product here,” Engel said. “35 Concerts is named for Interstate 35. It’s the backbone, the center of the country. It’s the spine of the country,” he said. “We work primarily from Denver to Nashville and from Minneapolis to Houston. It’s why we use the car imagery on our website.” For now 35 Concerts has two full-time employees counting Engel and a contract support staff of marketers and production managers. Future plans include booking into larger venues, those with 4,000 to 5,000 seats; increasing the number of events to between 100 and 150 per year; and adding new artists. “We’re growing fast,” Engel said. “We’d like to be a larger company based in Fort Worth. We’ll never forget our roots.”