Given how music opens the connection to the soul, artists and their fanbases must represent the body. Promotional companies, then, are the heartbeat of the music industry. These are the local street teams, the social media hustlers, the business negotiators, the backstage bookers, and talent scouters — all working tirelessly at their tiers with management teams, venues, press, and so on to bring fans their favorite music. However, promotional companies often get overlooked by music goers, outshined by big names and line-ups. They don’t much care for the spotlight though, and they definitely don’t do it for the money. They do it all for the love of music.
That’s why CE is proud to present our Promo Spotlight series, where we scour the United States for local promotional companies to shine a light on the people working behind the scenes of music. They are, for all intents and purposes, music’s beating life force.
With humble beginnings and a passion for dance music, Texas’ iLLfest has ballooned in the past few years to become a must-attend event for electronic music fans across the state. The folks behind the two-day event, taking place September 17-18 in Austin, have been steadily building the event over the years to get where they’re at today, and faced many hurdles along the way. Boasting a stellar 2021 line-up with REZZ and RL Grime at the top, and star-studded second and third-tier artist offerings, iLLfest is poised to be Texas’ top summer festival.
On the eve of releasing their final phase lineup, CE got the chance to sit down with iLLfest’s founder, Robert Brooks, to discuss a range of issues, including the evolution of the event, the many hurdles the booking/promotion company faced along the way, and curating their impressive line-up in 2021. For anyone interested in a career in booking and festival production, Brooks drops plenty of valuable Easter eggs throughout the conversation.
Originally starting off in 2017 as ILLectric River in Waco, Texas, Brooks began booking the event under the Good Vibes Presents banner alongside his partner and co-founder, Jason Millsap, who he describes as a lifetime fan of dance music and art. “We wanted to create a festival to bring both those worlds together,” said Brooks.
“At the time, I was brand new to Texas and moved from Atlanta to take a chance with him on building something great. Even though I struggled for years trying to get ILLfest to where it is today, taking that chance on Jason was the greatest decision I have ever made in my life.”
– Robert Brooks
Brooks said finding artists to play was extremely difficult because of event like Euphoria, Middlelands, and Something Wonderful and their radius clauses—all of which are no longer in operation. “So we did the best we could,” Brooks told us, “and we somehow got 3,000 people to come to Waco that year.”
When it was time for 2018, the partners moved the event down to White Water Amphitheater in New Braunsfels, right outside of Austin, and were able to land bigger acts like Getter, Jai Wolf, Liquid Stranger, Party Favor, and more. “That was also the year I met Alex, and without us meeting, I don’t think ILLfest would be where it is today.”
In 2019, the festival brought on one of Texas’ powerhouse booking agents, Alex Reid, who CE has featured in our Promo Spotlight before. Reid owns Prime Night Cult/Prime Events and buys talent for Lights All Night, Wobbleland Dallas, and many more large-scale North Texas events. “Alex came on as a partner in the festival and brought his years of talent buying experience to the table,” said Brooks, “and he was able to really bring us to the next level.”
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During that year, Brooks also left Good Vibes to begin his own production company, Mark My Words, alongside partners Jules Durel and Jason Millsap. They began booking a couple of club-night events a month and stressed the power of collaboration over competition, which is always the mark of a veteran booker/promoter.
“For us, we’d rather work with other promoters than compete with them. It makes it so much easier when everyone isn’t trying to sabotage each other and letting their egos control how they do business. For us at Mark My Words, it’s simple, we like to do cool stuff with our friends and never have to work what we consider a ‘real’ job.”
– Robert Brooks
With plenty of large-scale event experience and a deep roll-o-dex now under his belt, Brooks is a seasoned independent booker who has good advice to any aspiring talent buyer: “be patient and find your own way into the industry.”
Brooks speaks to his most memorable interaction back at iLLfest 2018 during Liquid Stranger’s set on the main stage: “My best friend and business partner Jason and I stood on the stage, saw all those happy people, looked at each other, and at that moment we knew this was exactly what our calling in life was. We cried so much that night because we realized that we were going to make it.”
Now that iLLfest has delivered their final phase line-up, with Chris Lorenzo, Nightmares on Wax, Phantogram, PEEKABOO, Mersiv, Nitti Gritti, Charlesthefirst, and many more on the line-up, there’s no question that the team behind iLLfest are among Texas’ most expert curators. Brooks also promises the production value is going to be insane, so be sure to grab tickets now!
2021 tickets are available now on the iLLfest website.
CE: Wow, what a line-up. This one is definitely going to be a destination event for Texans from all over. How did you go about securing such a killer roster this year?
First off, thank you so much for all the love on the lineup this year! I would be lying to say I did this all by myself, so I have to thank my best friend and partner Alex Reid for helping me pull this one-off. Our partner and founder of ILLfest, Jason Millsap, really was the architect behind this lineup. He came to Alex and me and told us he wanted to be different than the average EDM event. He wanted to bring in new acts and genres and introduce dance music to a whole new demographic. He was the driving force behind us bringing in indie/alternative legends Phantogram to do a special DJ set, as well as Washed Out, and Texas hip-hop legend Devin The Dude. He also really wanted us to bring some real OG DJs in like Nightmares on Wax and DJ Craze who spin vinyl sets, not just CDJs.
As far as the rest of the lineup, Alex and I really focused on acts that were often overlooked by major festivals like Charlesthefirst, Mersiv, Tsuruda, SoDown, PhaseOne, etc. We really wanted to bring these amazing and talented acts to Texas because we love their music, and they are also CRUSHING it on the club scene. With covid throwing us such a curveball, we, unfortunately, couldn’t host Zeds Dead anymore, but we were very very fortunate that Rezz was willing to step in and take on the co-headlining role with one of my favorite producers of all time, RL Grime. Honestly, we were so lucky Henry stuck with us the entire time and stayed at our event, because trust me, it changed like 2 times during 2020.
As far as securing festival staple acts like Chris Lorenzo, Peekaboo, What So Not, Ekali, Malaa, Snakehips, and the legend himself Liquid Stranger, it was a long and tiring process. But in the end, the agents & managers know us from our club businesses, Mark My Words & Prime Night Cult/Prime Events, so they knew we would be able to pull off a super successful event with their biggest clients. We are just so blown away by the incredible response so far, and we are so grateful that people support our independent festivals, and we are just happy to bring amazing music & art to the community.
CE: iLLfest started from humble beginnings a few years back and has really grown pretty fast. Can you walk us through your growth trajectory and how iLLfest exploded so quickly.
We originally started off as ILLectric River in Waco, Texas. Our founder Jason has been a lifetime fan of dance music and art, and we wanted to create a festival to bring both those worlds together. At the time, I was brand new to Texas and moved from Atlanta to take a chance with him on building something great. Even though I struggled for years trying to get ILLfest to where it is today, taking that chance on Jason was the greatest decision I have ever made in my life. But to take you through the process from 2017 to now, it was a long and hard road. Our first year we couldn’t find artists to play because of Euphoria, Middlelands, and Something Wonderful and their radius clauses. So we did the best we could and with our partner Sean Choi doing the marketing, we somehow got 3,000 people to come to Waco to see A-trak, Borgeous, Party Thieves, Riot Ten, Arius, and one of my closest friends in the industry, Jayceeoh. After that, I started throwing club shows with a company called Good Vibes Presents and began building my name in Texas.
When it was time for 2018, we moved the event to White Water Amphitheater in New Braunsfels, right outside of Austin. Through my relationships doing club shows with the agents and managers, they trusted me more and we were able to land bigger acts like Getter, Jai Wolf, Liquid Stranger, Party Favor, Dr. Fresch, Said The Sky, & more. That was also the year I met Alex, and without us meeting, I don’t think ILLfest would be where it is today. In 2019, Alex came on as a partner in the festival and brought his years of talent buying experience to the table. He buys for events like Lights All Night and Wobbleland Dallas, and owns Prime Night Cult/Prime Events, so he was able to really bring us to the next level. We had Seven Lions headline with acts like Gramatik, Deorro, G Jones, Riot Ten, Manilla Killa, Ghastly, and so much more that year at our new home in Austin.
I also think that one of the biggest reasons we grew so quickly was because of our art installations. Jason literally flies in some of the world’s top graffiti artists to paint walls for us, as well as other visual artists to create amazing art. People come for the music, but leave talking about how amazing the art is. I really think that is what sets us apart from other festivals around the world. With all that said, we are in 2021 with our biggest and best lineup, and Alex, Sean, Jason, and I are ready to make ILLfest the biggest and best event it can be, but we also know to always stay true to the music and art.
CE: Tell us a little bit about your promotion company – where it started and where it is now – for those not familiar with you guys.
My company is called Mark My Words. I started it after leaving Good Vibes Presents in late 2019 to start my own project with my partners Jules Durel & Jason Millsap. We started out just booking 1 or 2 shows a month, and now, Mark My Words books events all over Texas with our partners at Prime Night Cult & even Disco Donnie in the Austin market. For us, we’d rather work with other promoters than compete with them. It makes it so much easier when everyone isn’t trying to sabotage each other and letting their egos control how they do business. For us at Mark My Words, it’s simple, we like to do cool stuff with our friends and never have to work what we consider a “real” job. 2021 is going to be our biggest year yet. We have amazing projects that, unfortunately, I can’t talk about yet, but I promise you, everyone in Texas will love! Mark My Words on that 🙂
CE: Any advice / tips for success for aspiring booking agents/talent buyers who are looking to break into the scene and build a rollodex?
My biggest advice to an aspiring talent buyer is to be patient and find your own way into the industry. Instead of just overpaying acts to play your events and taking hard-earned history away from other promoters who have been working with those acts for years, find new acts and genres and start small and slow. My first club show in Texas was in July of 2017 with Liquid Stranger, Luzcid, Perk0lator, & the widdler, and at that time no one was really throwing events with artists in the weird or as we call it, “wook bass” genre. But look at that genre now! Liquid Stranger is one of the biggest acts in the world, has his own festival, label, and has launched the careers of countless acts. But at that time, he was still a small act and we took a chance on him, and he and his wonderful manager Loper took a chance on me.
CE: Throwing events seems like a fun and stressful career. How do you balance and stay sane with everything this job throws at you?
This industry is the most stressful career ever, but also the most rewarding. There’s always a problem or issue coming up, but I have been doing it so long, finding the solution is just natural to me. If it wasn’t for my mom or dad, I would have quit years ago. My parents are my everything. They are my biggest supporters and my heroes. They call me everyday to just listen to me vent and to give me advice on how to be a better person and businessman. Also, I owe everything else to my dog Josie, my friends, and my business partners. Without them, I don’t know how I would get through a single day in this career.
CE: What are your funniest/most memorable interactions at one of your events?
My most memorable interaction was in 2018 during Liquid Stranger’s set on the main stage. My best friend and business partner Jason and I stood on the stage, saw all those happy people, looked at each other, and at that moment we knew this was exactly what our calling in life was. We cried so much that night because we realized that we were going to make it. I honestly wouldn’t be where I am without Jason, and I owe him everything. He took a chance on me and helped me become the successful talent buyer and promoter I am today. He is literally the best person I know, and without him, I would still be freelancing jobs at festivals, not owning one.
CE: Tell us what we can expect from this year’s iLLfest? Any new offerings? What are you most excited about?
The production is going to be INSANE! We have my close friends Dan & Justin at CPD cooking up some of the craziest stuff for us, and I can’t wait. Also I can’t wait for Pez to return to do live painting for us. He designed our flyer this year, and is my favorite artist. I can tell you that the art and installations this year will be NEXT LEVEL, and super special. But I’m most excited to see Nightmares on Wax perform live, as it’s a rarity these days, and I’m so fortunate he took the booking!
CE: Anything you think I missed that’s worth mentioning?
Nope, I think you covered it all. I just want to thank my partners Jules Durel and Jason Millsap at Mark My Words, and our amazing team Justin Benedict, Katie Czap, and Austin Crye, for always working so hard to make our events the best they can be. Also, thank you to my ILLfest partners Jason Millsap, Sean Choi, and Alex Reid for all they do to keep this thing going. It’s a team effort, and I just play a small role in it.
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Information seeker. Dog lover. Ph.D. drop out. Avid collector of pashminas, plants, and experiences. College professor by day, EDM photographer by night.