Women in Jam, Part I: Annabel Lukins – The Artist Whisperer
Photo Above Credit: Jason Charme
Music is the beating heart of the Jamband scene. But its soul, for so many of us, is its sense of community and family. Through most of its history, beginning with The Grateful Dead, it provided an inclusive refuge for people of all stripes who share in the power of music to bring them together. It’s also a scene where great musicianship and pushing boundaries of the many genres it encompasses are exalted and encouraged.
As fans, we like to think that it’s immune to the harsh -isms plaguing the outside world – racism, ageism, sexism. You get the picture. But, for myriad complicated reasons (enough to warrant an entire separate discussion and article), the jam scene remains dominated by men. Not to say that the scene does not provide a welcoming environment for women; it does.
Statistics aren’t available for the percentage of women in jam, including artists and those behind the scenes. But to get a sense of how lopsided the music industry is, we can turn to a recent 2018 University of Southern California report. Conducted by Professor Stacey L. Smith, the report examined 600 songs on Billboard’s “Hot 100” year-end chart between 2012-17. Of all performers, 22.4% were female. Female producers were even more outnumbered at 12.3%, and female producers registered a dismal 2% across 300 songs.
Based on anecdotal evidence, it’s a similar story across all genres of music, including jam. A quick peek at most festival lineups will show that female representation still has a long way to go to achieve parity. For instance, Bonnaroo’s 2019 lineup is 26% female, a 3% improvement over 2018, and Sweetwater 420 Fest’s 2019 lineup comes in at less than 16% female. No one is saying that sexism is the sole culprit behind exclusion of female talent at big jam-centric festivals. Budgets, scheduling conflicts, and fewer female performers are just some of the factors behind the imbalance.
While female artists and industry professionals are growing in number in jam, more can be done to increase their presence, including exposing them to jam fans (an incredibly accepting and open bunch) who might still be unaware of their talents.
That’s where this series comes in. “Women In Jam” is an attempt to shine a spotlight on talent both on stage and behind the scenes. The women featured in this ongoing series are not novelty acts. They are fiercely talented musicians, singers, songwriters, and industry leaders who stand shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts. They are the ones who channel the power of the divine feminine to produce art that is cutting edge and sometimes mind-blowing. Some are household names on the jam scene. Some are not. But all are worthy of our attention and have earned their place in the music industry. They are, quite simply, badass.
We’ll begin the first of this series with a woman who has spent 20-plus years behind the scenes in the music industry nurturing talent and helping to create some of the best festival experiences in the jam world – Annabel Lukins.
Her current title is Artist Programming for Cloud 9 Adventures, but she started as the Director of Artist Relations and Marketing when she joined the company 17 years ago. Lukins and her team are behind highly successful destination events such as Jam Cruise, Strings & Sol, Holidaze, and Closer to the Sun. Cloud 9 was also behind Brandi Carlile’s Girls Just Wanna Weekend, which featured an all-female lineup and drew thousands of fans. It’s also worth noting that Cloud 9 Adventures’ full time employees are 65% women.
If there are such things as fairy godmothers, Lukins is one for certain. She is the artist whisperer who has been known to shift musicians’ careers into high gear after appearances on Jam Cruise, whose denizens call themselves “The Jamily.” Once artists win their affection, the ripple effect is undeniable, with hundreds of enthusiastic Jam Cruisers showing up to shows around the country. They also often create new fans out of uninitiated friends and family. The same is true for fans of many Cloud 9 events, many of which sell out year after year.
Lukins along with the Cloud 9 booking team possess innate gifts for choosing monstrously talented musicians whose epic collaborations are things of legend aboard Jam Cruise. The memorable lineups she helps curate are akin to a star DJ mixing the perfect set of tunes. She is also keenly aware that even world-famous artists are only human and come with all the same vulnerabilities and insecurities as the rest of us. It may be why so many let their guard down, trusting her to guide them through the world of Jam Cruise and other events.
A native New Yorker, Lukins has spent years cultivating friendships with musicians and relationships within the music industry. A graduate of Lehigh University with a degree in journalism, she credits her drive toward her chosen career to her professor Jack Lule, who was a fellow Deadhead. She recalled how he would giggle every time she came back from a Dead show and left the set list on his office chair.
Her resume includes stints at MTV, Koch Records, Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival. She has worked just about every aspect of the music business, including hospitality, artist relations, marketing, and promotions, earning the respect of hardened industry professionals and musicians alike. Instrumental in exposing talented musicians to broader audiences, she even received a Grahamy Jammy award in 2002. Named for legendary promoter Bill Graham, the award was given to the jam world’s most influential people for their work behind the scenes.
Like many women struggling to balance a professional and personal life, Lukins encountered her share of hurdles. One that was life-altering occurred not so long ago after her mother died. At the time, she was holding down a strenuous work schedule at Cloud 9 with little time to pursue other goals, including starting a family. Suddenly realizing something had to give, she came to an epiphany.
At the pinnacle of her career, having accomplished all the things she set out to do professionally, she decided to back off to part-time – a decision fully supported by her boss, Mark Brown. Today, she is still a dedicated music professional who has achieved that rare work/life balance we all strive for and spends her free time with her husband, Peter Stelling, and 6-year-old daughter Lyric at their home in Boulder, Colorado.
I had the pleasure of talking to Lukins just prior to Jam Cruise 17, which took place January 15th to 21st which once again was an unmitigated, raging success. (You can read more about Jam Cruise by clicking here for MFN editor Scott Hopkins’ rundown of the music and magic that happened onboard.) The following interview draws on our conversation about her role in the Jam world and the state of women in Jam in today.
MFN: Thank you for speaking with me today, Annabel. Last we spoke we covered a lot of your life and work. This series is about women in Jam, and there’s no one I’d rather start the series with than you because of your distinct, marked and undeniable influence on the Jam world.
People have called you Jam’s fairy godmother, muse, artist whisperer. The bottom line is that you’ve launched careers and you’ve introduced some of Jam’s best-loved acts to wider audiences. You are an integral part of the jam scene and have been for more than 20 years. So, how do you see yourself and your place in the Jam world and the music business?
Lukins: I had a conversation yesterday with an artist who is coming on Jam Cruise – Chris Spies. He is the bandleader for The Tribute to The Band.
There was a small issue that I had to fix really quickly. And he said to me, “Thank you so much for making it happen.” I said, “I love being a part of making the magic happen!”
And he said, “You’re so good at it.”
I had this feeling of pride and accomplishment because I get to help turn these visions into reality. I care so much that it was just a moment of like, “Yes! This is worth it. This is worth every hiccup, every headache, every change, every apology I need to make.” I go above and beyond to do whatever I can possibly do to make these projects happen.
Just the other night I had a team dinner with two of my proteges who are two of my assistants on board. I have helped influence them by giving them both job opportunities and providing them with knowledge and information that I have had over the years in my career. To watch them succeed on their own and develop is incredible. I am starting to hone in that I am sort of a mother figure and an affirmative influence for these younger women, and it just feels really good.
I don’t actually think of myself like this, but people come up to me and are like, “Hi! You’re Annabel. We’ve never met, but I just want to say thank you for all you do.”
Or, I’ll introduce myself to someone and they’ll say, “I know who you are.”
And I think to myself, “Really. That’s who I am?” I don’t really try that hard. I am just being me, but I guess it permeates into the jam scene.
Another thing is I think that for so many people who work in the business, it becomes their job. This is still my job, but I see more music than most people in the music business do. I truly actually love the music. A lot of it probably has to do with the personal relationships that I make with the musicians, because I fall in more in love with the music if I fall in love with them.
MFN: You have this innate gift for spotting talent and then bringing that talent to the fore. An example is the jam sessions that you help put together for Jam Cruise. You help to curate these amazing lineups. Can you talk a little bit about that instinct and the process that goes into creating these magical moments?
Lukins: I look at the lineup and for example: George Porter, (Jr.); you know he is the king of everything. So it’s easy for me to have him do The Jam Room. And as you know well, Ivan (Neville) is someone who just takes his piano set very, very seriously.
Just the other day it was crazy because I was looking at a lineup of a tour and these bands met on Jam Cruise. It was just so exciting to see how many bands have formed because they met on Jam Cruise.
So I’ll take an artist like Kelly Finnigan from Monophonics, whom I love with all of my heart. He’s just so talented and so humble, and I’ll say, “Okay, Kelly. I’m not giving you a piano set this year. I want you to do the Jam Room.”
And he’s like, “Ohhhh, kay (sighs).”
I’m like, “You’ll be great. Don’t worry about it.”
I’m like a coach. I help these musicians work through their fears. I want more people to people to pay attention to some artists that might get overlooked for whatever reason. Erica Falls asked me at Jazz Fest – sat me down – and said, “So, I really want to do a Jazz Set.”
I’m like, “Oh my God. This is going to be so good. You’re perfect to do a jazz set.” They know they can come to me and ask. If I think it’s right, I will help guide them through the experience. Witnessing the final product is one of my greatest joys on board Jam Cruise. It’s especially rewarding when it’s a female. Giving these women a chance to shine feels so good. I mean, Jennifer Hartswick is doing the super jam, and we all know she is going to destroy it!
And then there’s Chris Spies. Not only is he doing a piano set, but he is the leader of The Tribute to the Band (and plays in Matador! Soul Sounds). I said to him, “Look, dude! You’ve never even been on Jam Cruise, and now you’re already hogging two of my sets!”
I quickly followed up with, “I’m totally joking. I think this is wonderful. I love that you think ‘Jam Cruise’ and then you think ‘opportunity for collaboration’.”
He already gets the essence of what Jam Cruise is all about before he’s even ever been on board. It’s great. They come to me, and I love that they love to bring their ideas to me. I also try to give artists that have not done things before a chance to experience the joy in vulnerability.
I also try not to repeat sets. I mean, I repeat Ivan, and I repeat George. But I try not to repeat because there is just so much exploration to be had. We don’t like to do the same things over again. That’s why, for the most part, we change up the bands every year.
I also love that there are so many fresh bands in the scene that we are on the pulse with – bands that nobody has even heard of. It’s so great that we get to present these new artists that fall in love with Jam Cruise, jump in on the Jam Room, do sit-ins. I mean, look at Andy Frasco. He took Vince Herman (Leftover Salmon) to Europe with him. They have created this incredible friendship literally because of Jam Cruise.
I remember when Andy jumped in on piano for Vince’s bluegrass jam last year. And it’s like – wait? Andy Frasco is jumping in on a bluegrass jam with Vince Herman? I’m like, yes. Yes, he is, and it was perfect.
MFN: You’ve already mentioned some terrific collaborations on board ship. Can you name some of the artists whose careers you’ve help launch that you’re most proud of?
Lukins: First of all, Jam Cruise has an affect on all who experience it. So every artist that plays ends up gaining a whole new level of fans at their shows around the country. It’s not just that the jam band scene envelopes the bands they love, it’s that Jam Cruisers cheerlead for the bands they discovered on board all year long.
However, there are a few that stand out. Andy Frasco tells me every time that we talk how we helped shape his career and gave him the intro into the scene that he couldn’t find anywhere else. I am proud of that.
I am positive that Turkuaz has immense gratitude for our event. I have watched their band grow over the past three years to a different level. They just sold out the Ogden in Denver which has a capacity of 1,600!
And would you believe the Revivalists? We started booking them when no one knew who they were. Now they are selling out Red Rocks, playing arenas, and they still ask me when they are coming back on board.
I think the last I want to touch on, even though there are countless more, is Nathan Moore. Nathan is one of the most unique musicians I’ve ever met. He’s a brilliant nomad, a wanderer who is not lost — one with the people. He created his own venue called The Spot, which is outside on one of the decks. It’s all acoustic, it’s all-inclusive, and it’s completely wonderful. It doesn’t start ’til way after midnight, and the sun rises way before they are done each morning.
One year Nathan was reluctant to accept my offer. He said he needed a break from it all — not just Jam Cruise, but from the scene. I pushed him, which is something I have a knack for doing. It wasn’t comfortable for either of us, but I explained just how valuable he was to all of us and how he could take any breaks around the country he wanted to — just not from Jam Cruise. He gave in, and it’s never been mentioned again. In fact, I think the thought of it going away for him invigorated him to work even harder every year. I’m really glad that something like Jam Cruise can have such an influence on people’s lives.
MFN: There is a genuine affection for you in this industry among artists, among fans, among the professionals in it, and the people that you touch. People trust you. How do you account for that?
Lukins: I don’t know, really. It’s so beyond me. I think I help change people’s lives, and it’s not just the music fans. It’s the musicians. I help make people’s time on earth better and fuller. I think that’s part of my purpose here. I am so fortunate that this is my chosen path. Or maybe it was chosen for me. Who knew this is where I would have ended up?
One of the other things that I know that I’m good at is telling people “I love you.” I’m really good at expressing my feelings whether they’re negative or positive. I’m always there to tell you how I feel. And I’m not afraid to do so. My words are genuine.
MFN: I’d like to talk a little bit about your experience coming up through the music industry. You’ve mentioned some fantastic men in your life who were mentors, including Dave Schools of Widespread Panic. As a young woman, were there any women who were mentors coming up?
Lukins: No. I never went to women. I never felt comfortable enough. The people I was going to were Andy Bernstein (HeadCount), Jason Colton (Red Light Management), Mike Luba (co-founder of Madison House Presents), Marc Allan (Red Light Management), my dear friend Matt Hogan and Dave Schools. Women weren’t around 20 years ago.
But now they’re rampant. Look at Alicia Karlin (Madison House Presents). It’s so cool. Alicia was an intern for me when she first moved to Boulder. And she had this little basement apartment, and I had her doing spreadsheets for Jam Cruise. And she was like, “Whatever you need me to do, I’m happy to help you.”
And look at her now. She’s been nominated in multiple publications as one of the five most influential women in the music business. It’s like, go Alicia! And she’s in her mid-thirties. It’s fantastic.
So, I know I definitely helped her in the beginning. I can’t say that I was a huge influence for her. Maybe I was. I have no idea. But I definitely gave her some experience over the years, and I am just barreled over with pride at how successful she is.
But no, I didn’t have female mentors. Madison House’s Nadia Prescher is most definitely a colleague that I love, respect, and have leaned on over the years, and so are my Cloud 9 co-workers Kelly Viau, Mary Chamberlain and Kristen Schneeloch. I have also had strong connections with and sought advice from Bonnaroo’s Kat Tooley & Jasper Gacula, but there’s not many more. In fact, the women whom I had in my life back in the day when I was starting in the music business were actually put off by me.
There was this woman that I worked for at MTV Events. She just hated me because I was a free spirit. I used to come in with my hair in braids and wear tie-dyes, and she just wanted someone different. And she was really mean to me every single day because I think she was repulsed by my positive energy.
So if anything, I didn’t want to turn to women to help raise me in the business, because all these women I had as bosses were sucky. At least the men I turned to were like family, in a way, and were open to answering my questions and guiding me. Thank God my last job at MTV was the assistant to the head of MTV.com, Rick Holzman. He is an incredible human and was nothing but wonderful to me every day in that office.
I remember when I was trying to come up. I had to come up with a salary for a job, and I remember talking to Jason Colton about it at New York’s SummerStage. I sent him my proposal. I have done the same with Mike Luba, too. Both said I was worth more. Asking for what I am truly worth is harder than I could have ever imagined.
I’m so glad they were open to supporting me, but I’m so glad that I had the courage to ask them. I’m not afraid to ask for help, and at that point I was desperate for somebody, and they were important to me. I valued and respected what they had done and just figured that that’s who I had. It never did me wrong, ever. If anything, you think about where I am now, and these men helped me. They were like big brothers.
MFN: What were some of the most valuable lessons they taught you?
Lukins: The main one was stand up for what I believe in so when I ask for something I want, I should have complete conviction and confidence.
That leads me to the second lesson: figure out how to have more confidence in myself, because it was a key factor to my progressing in the business. I needed to earn respect, and I certainly have done that.
MFN: You tell this story about an encounter with Steve Miller when you worked for Polygram Records that illustrates a human connection you discovered with artists early on in your career. Can you tell us about that?
Lukins: When I was an intern at Polygram Records, my bosses sent a memo out saying Steve Miller is coming into the office tomorrow and nobody should approach him. When I saw that, I saw it as an opportunity and brought in my (Steve Miller) Greatest Hits CD. I happened to be walking by the president’s office when (Steve) came out and said, “Does any one have a garbage can? I need to throw out my sandwich.”
And I said, “I’ll take that for you Mr. Miller.”
And he was like, “Thank you. Who are you?”
I said, “I’m Annabel.”
And he said, “Well, I’m Steve.”
And I said, “Yeah, I know. Would you sign my Greatest Hits CD?”
Well it was like I had kicked a puppy. Everybody in the office was like “GASP! You talked to him?” I skipped down the hall to get my Greatest Hits CD, and he signed it. I knew right then and there that I was going to make it in the music business on some level.
Because musicians are just people. It’s hard for musicians to have friends because people don’t treat them like they are normal. They revere them. I just treat them like they are my friends, so it’s easy for them to trust me.
MFN: I think it was Bill Gates who said he failed more times than he succeeded. But when he did succeed, boy, was it was huge! What lessons do you draw from failure, if that’s even the right way to describe the experience?
Lukins: It is. I failed. I got fired so many times. I was in the wrong job. My position had been eliminated. It happened multiple times. I never gave up.
Sometimes it’s hard to listen to the voice of hope and the voice of reason when the other voice of negativity and failure overrides them. We all have those voices in our heads – doubt, fear, shame.
I remember that I wanted to get Col. Bruce Hampton on KOCH Records, and my boss told me to shut up and do my job. And then it turned into a hip hop label, and I was a tour marketing coordinator. They eliminated my position, because they said hip hop artists don’t need tour marketing. It’s not like they replaced me. They actually eliminated the position. That was not my home at all, but it taught me so many lessons. It was basically never to give up no matter what.
I had a job at Planet Bluegrass that did not work out. I had left my friends and family in NYC and moved out to Colorado. My father called me a failure. He said, “Just come back to New York and be a teacher.”
I said, “I can’t. I just can’t. And I’m sorry you feel that way. I can’t come home.”
That’s when I sent my resume around. My dear friend Aaron Schimmel (Rock Star Promotions) was the one that said Jam Cruise needs a marketing director.
MFN: What piece of advice to have for young women today trying to break into the music business?
Lukins: I would say to never give up, and it’s not so much even to follow your dream. I didn’t even know what my dream was. You know, I never would have thought my dream was this. I thought my dream was Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Then it wasn’t.
So never give up and listen to that instinct. Listen to that inner voice. Get quiet, and don’t be afraid to listen to what that voice says, because the universe guides us. If I think about all the things that have happened in my life that have led me to where I am now, it is because, one way or another, I paid attention to a sign or a person or something inside of me that guided me toward the next thing in my life.
MFN: So, what types of positions should women look for to start their careers in the industry? You mentioned internships.
Lukins: Right. I feel like women have to be open to starting as interns. It just depends on what part of the industry you want to get into. I think that everybody needs to have a couple different jobs in the industry to see where they fit in first. The festival world is so big now. I didn’t have the festival world when I started. It didn’t exist.
I get to mentor an ex-tern at Bonnaroo every year and be the artist liaison for the sponsorship department. They let me hire a girl every year, and I basically teach them everything I know. They’re with me 24/7 while we’re on site. Not only am I teaching them the job, I’m also teaching them everything about the industry and about the scene – how to be a righteous member of the music business. It’s wonderful that I have that opportunity and that Bonnaroo empowers me to do that.
There weren’t festivals when I started, so I was a handing out flyers for Wetlands in New York City. I was the first American street-teamer for The New Deal. And I was one of Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe’s first street-teamers, which is so funny because he went on to play every Jam Cruise, play at my wedding, is one of my best friends, and is Lyric’s favorite uncle. So to think about the progression of that friendship is just crazy.
So as I was saying, besides slinging pieces of promo paper around or being an intern at record labels, there wasn’t a ton I could do. Now the industry is great because people can do hospitality; they can do artist relations; they can do production; they can do operations. There are so many areas in the live music scene now, because it’s really hands-on experience.
When you’re running a festival, and you’re in a live situation, it’s go, go, go, go… whereas when you’re an intern at Polygram Records calling radio stations, you’re sitting at a desk. And then you’re like, “Okay. So you have any papers for me to file?” It’s much different these days. It’s much more exciting. There’s a lot more opportunity for creativity within the live scene.
MFN: Despite the growth in the industry and more opportunities for women, your position is pretty unique. Can you think of anybody in the industry doing what you do?
Lukins: Well, I created my position by being me. So, I really don’t have a job title anymore. We say artist programming, but it differs with each event I help run. And one of my most treasured roles is not only doing the welcome toast, but also being more of an “event hostess.” It’s really unique for an event company to have someone that is in the crowd, getting to know the fans as well as working behind the scenes. One might say “I ride both sides of the rail.”
There was this time that I was afraid to step back from my role running artist relations for Cloud 9, because I was afraid I would be forgotten because I wouldn’t have the title of Director of Artist Relations.
But then my dear friend Dave Schools said to me, “But you’re Annabel.” The point being… I am who I am.
So now I’m trying to teach people who would be great in the artist relations role. But, no. Nobody does what I do, because I am who I am.
MFN: In your opinion, what do you think a woman brings to the industry as that quite possibly a man doesn’t?
Lukins: We are good listeners. We handle things with grace. We have a nurturing instinct about us that makes us care even more. We are more empathetic and compassionate. We are more authentic. We don’t want to win as much as we want to connect. We are great leaders.
MFN: What’s next for you?
Lukins: I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing. I already told my boss, Mark Brown, that I’m never going to have another job in my life. And I’m just going to keep being a part of the growth of Cloud 9. I love the events that I get to be a part of. I feel connected to the musicians, and I feel connected to the fans.
Because I can’t be away from Lyric for too long, I showed up two days into Closer To The Sun, and all the fans were like, “Where have you been? Why didn’t you do the welcome toast? We’ve missed you.”
When I told Slightly Stoopid that I wasn’t going to be there for the first two days of the event, at first they were a little bit like, “Um, but we need you. It’s a new resort. The fans need you.”
And I’m like, “You guys are going to be fine. Don’t even worry about it.” And they were fine. But I didn’t know I’d be missed.
Literally, people were like, “Welcome! We’re so glad you’re here!” It made me feel so good.
Then, for Holidaze, when it moved to the Dominican Republic, I didn’t go for five years, because it was just too far away. But then when it moved back to Mexico, I wanted to come back. The first day I was out of sorts, because I thought, “I don’t know these fans. They don’t know me. I’m so happy to see the band, but I don’t know what my place is.”
I didn’t know what my purpose was, and I was feeling insecure. And then the universe was like, “Your purpose is you’re Annabel.” By the second morning I felt a part of it. I started going up to the fans and started reintroducing myself. I just started immersing myself in different ways – showing up to all the activities, talking to everybody, connecting with people I haven’t connected to in years.
All of a sudden it was clear to me that this insecurity was just in my head, and I let it go. I actually said to my co-worker, “I found my groove, I found my place back at this event, and I am so grateful to be here.” It was really nice.
MFN: If you could sum up the philosophy of your life in one sentence, what would that be?
Lukins: To be happy, to spread joy, to love deeply.