Behind the Scene: Dan Smalls
photo by Warren Linhart
In 1988, during one of Dan Smalls’ first nights as a student at Ithaca, N.Y.’s Cornell University, he went to a fraternity party where a new band called Blues Traveler was playing. He quickly befriended the four musicians and, as they grew from frat house parties to actual venues, the group started calling Smalls when they were looking to book a local show.
As graduation loomed, Smalls set a goal to work for legendary promoter Bill Graham who, by that time, had added Blues Traveler to his roster of management clients. Unfortunately, Graham passed away in a tragic helicopter crash on October 25, 1991, which led Smalls to eventually launch the Ithaca-based Dan Smalls Presents.
Outside of the college town, he now promotes shows throughout New York at venues like Cooperstown’s Brewery Ommegang, Pawling’s Daryl’s House Club, Homer’s Center for the Arts and The Smith Opera House in Geneva, as well as around New England. Last year, he also collaborated with local heroes X Ambassadors to create the new annual festival Cayuga Sound, which was held in Ithaca over two days this September.
By the time you graduated from Cornell, you had been putting on shows and building contacts for about two years. What happened next?
My goal at that time was to go work for Bill, and Bill died during my senior year. At the same time, I was working at The Haunt, and John Peterson and I were at a company called Two Just Men Productions. We put on an early Pearl Jam show—it was crazy what we did at that tiny club. After graduation, I stayed in Ithaca and I ran the club with him for a couple of years.
We did a lot of Phish shows and everything from Burning Spear to The Samples to Blues Traveler. All the big blues and reggae acts played there because we had this reputation for being perfectly routed in the middle between the major markets like New York, Toronto, Boston and Philly. We were a great Monday night gig—there was no conflict. So I was booking bands like Soul Asylum at the beginning of the alternative scene in that era.
This is my 10th anniversary at DSP. I took a few years away from the music business and, when I came back in 2005, I had a fresh perspective. I always believed that Ithaca was this great market to either warm up for a big city show or find a place on an off night, and that’s how I built the reputation of the company here. The audience is starved for music so this town has always had great crowds. Joan Baez kicked off her tour here last night. When she came off stage, she said, “This town never ceases to amaze me; it’s always one of the most ridiculous crowds that I ever see,” and she plays all over the world.
When you came back to Ithaca, what were your plans as far as music?
When I left Ithaca, I took a job at Columbia Records in New York, but I didn’t fit into that world. It was a little too corporate for me and a little too bean-counter—“How many units can we ship?” It didn’t feel right; it didn’t last very long. I wound up in Boston and worked for Dave Werlin at Great Northeast. We did the first Phish festivals together and a lot of other shows. I learned a bit from him as well on the concert promotion side.
When I moved back to Ithaca, there were really no plans or visions for what to do, but The State Theatre was close to closing and I figured if anybody could give it a roll, it’d be me. I got a job as the director of The State Theatre in 2006. I had a long battle with the current board of directors and, out of that, I formed DSP in August of 2008 and started renting the Theatre, knowing that they’d probably go bankrupt.
I worked with some local business people to start a new not-for-profit to take it over when—and if—that happened. It never got to that point. We negotiated with them and swung a new deal that DSP would manage the building and book it until we found a director to take it over.
How did your company evolve to begin producing shows outside Ithaca?
When you first start, its financially challenging, but you want to try and grow. I made the mistake of trying to grow too fast to groove with other markets and I had to really fold it back in 2009 and rethink things. That’s when I decided that any growth for my company would be completely organic and then the next thing that happened was Ommegang.
That was a big step—having that outdoor summer place. There was nowhere in Ithaca that made sense, but Ommegang is sort of centrally isolated in Cooperstown. Then, one day in 2015, I got a call from Daryl Hall about booking his club. I didn’t know if I had the capacity, personally, to do it, but I said, “Let me think about it.” That same afternoon, John Sanders, an old friend who had been booking Iron Horse in Northampton, Mass., called me and was upset about his current situation. I woke up at 3 a.m. that night with this thought: “Daryl’s House is a lot like the Iron Horse, with 200 seats. It is perfect for John.”
So that was how I developed the business idea to bring John on board, with the goal that we would be in order within a couple of years, and we’re currently partners. We fit together perfectly as a team—our visions are the same, and the growth has just been absolutely organic but absolutely unexpected. He’s the yin to my yang.
What do you think is still untapped for Ithaca?
The club could definitely handle more shows. It would be great if we could turn our State Theatre in Ithaca into what Maine’s State Theatre looks like—take the seats out and have more open-floor shows. There are thousands of students in this town, and they’re underserved for sure. The music they listen to will change—it won’t just be DJs. It’ll come back to rock bands, and I’ve got the room for that.
This article originally appears in the October/November issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.