The Next Big Thing: Chyna Brackeen & Attack Monkey Productions, Part 1

CP Music, People, The Next Big Thing 1 Comment

I met Chyna Brackeen back in 2007 when she decided to help me launch a for-profit service organization, YPK. Right away I knew there was something special about her as she glowed with a fire to make Knoxville a better place. When it came time for me to move on, there was only one person I wanted as the next YPK president and that was Chyna.

Fortunately for me our paths have crossed again and Chyna is the first feature in the new series, The Next Big Thing (NBT). The NBT will feature people, places and businesses that are not only making an impact in Knoxville, but also on what I hope will be a national scale.

Part 1 will feature Chyna’s personal and professional life and part 2 will focus on her business, Attack Monkey Productions.

Knoxify: I have known you for about five years now. During that time you’ve had your hand in a lot projects. Talk about the professional journey you’ve taken from roughly 2006 to present.

Chyna Brackeen: In 2006, I was the Director of Marketing for AC Entertainment. In that role, I was responsible for the branding, public relations and marketing efforts of every ACE project – including Bonnaroo, Sundown in the City, the Tennessee and Bijou Theatres, every show we produced …. at any given point, I had approximately 30 active brands to promote. I was able to work on some really exciting things, like a completely internet-driven launch of a Nine Inch Nails album and some really cutting-edge promotions for new festivals. I grew the department from three people to seven. I absolutely loved my job and felt that I had discovered what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. The work was hard and the hours were long, the environment was incredibly intense, and I was essentially “on the clock” 24 hours a day … but there was such an energy to the work.

When I began working at AC, Ashley Capps (the owner of the company) had literally been involved in everything the marketing department did – from selecting fonts used in ads to determining how to allocate budgets. The company had been in business for fifteen years but the marketing department hadn’t been self-sufficient. As I took over the department, however, things changed. We were getting results and doing great work – and Ashley was able to let go and begin to focus on other areas of the company. This was a huge step forward – but it had some unintended consequences, too.

Around Thanksgiving, as worries about the economy began to impact the entertainment industry, there was concern that we might need to start cutting back in some areas. We hadn’t really been impacted by the economy – in fact, our revenues in many cases were higher than they had ever been – but the decision was made to let one of my staff members go. And then, a couple of weeks later, the decision was made to let someone else from the marketing department go … and this time, it was me. It turns out that I had worked myself out of a job – things were running so smoothly that surely they’d continue to do so without me, right? And, they could cut me, or they could cut several people with lower salaries than mine. There were so many projects going on that they really needed to extra hands.

I was completely shocked, and I honestly didn’t know what to do with myself. I’m a workaholic anyway, and I’d been so invested in that job that I didn’t really even know who I was without it. People kept encouraging me to start my own business, but my confidence had suffered a tremendous blow and I really didn’t think I could do it. Even though I knew I had done good – no, great – work at AC, I felt like I’d been let go because I wasn’t able to hack it. Looking back, I think I was seriously depressed for several months. I had a really hard time getting over it.

I started looking for jobs, and it became pretty apparent that if I wanted to stay in the entertainment industry, I’d have to move. I had job offers in Seattle and Washington, D.C., both with fantastic organizations, both in the entertainment industries, and both really solid offers. At the eleventh hour, I also received a local job offer from the Knoxville Botanical Garden. It wasn’t in the entertainment industry at all, and the job was in fundraising and marketing – but I was impressed by the potential of the Garden, which had been essentially abandoned for years but was trying to grow into a world-class facility. It was a really tough decision, but ultimately I was swayed by a couple of things: the opportunity to build something new, as opposed to continuing existing marketing campaigns (which I’d have to do in both Seattle and D.C.), and the opportunity to stay in Knoxville. I’ve lived here for almost fifteen years, and believed for at least ten of them that I couldn’t wait to move away – but when it came down to it, I realized that this felt like home.

I accepted the job at the Garden and began in the spring of 2010. I developed a membership campaign that raised over $100,000 in less than a month. My marketing efforts actually managed to bring people to a depressed neighborhood in East Knoxville to walk around a property that didn’t yet have any flowers but had some very big plans. I still had to have my hands in something related to entertainment, so I developed a concert series on the Garden’s Stone Terrace. The first show sold out in advance, and the second show sold out even faster. The series was a huge success, and we started doing shows monthly. The concerts were introducing new audiences to the Garden an we were able to turn many of those people into donors – and on a personal level, since I handled every single aspect of each show on my own, they both reminded me of why I loved working in entertainment and they helped rebuild my confidence.

Around the same time, I moved to a new house. My new next door neighbor was Cruz Contreras. I’d known of Cruz for years through Robinella and the CCstringband, and had met him once or twice while I was at AC (at the time, he played keyboards for Erick Baker, who was managed by AC Entertainment). He had just started a new band, The Black Lillies, and one day he asked my husband if I might be interested in managing his band. He never said anything to me, though, so I didn’t think he was all that serious about it.

The Black Lillies were scheduled to play Bonnaroo that summer, and my husband and I were going, so I thought we should be good neighbors and go see the band play. We missed their first performance, and their second was scheduled directly against Bruce Springsteen, who was headlining that year. Still, I felt we should be there – so we went to a tiny little stage, which was running behind schedule, and sat through two incredibly awful performances before the Lillies got on stage. I was ready to ditch them immediately if they sucked, but when they started to play it was obvious that there was something special about this band. People who were on their way to see Springsteen actually stopped as they heard the band and many of them stayed through the whole performance. It was fantastic.

Photo courtesy Carie Thompson

The Black Lillies. Photo by Carie Thompson.

After ‘Roo, I noticed that a Lexington, KY radio station deejay I’d worked with while at AC called the Lillies one of her favortie Bonnaroo discoveries on Twitter. I told Cruz about this and suggested that he send the station a CD. I mentioned a couple of other stations he should try, too. A couple of weeks later, I asked if he’d ever sent those CDs. He hadn’t, so I offered to do it for him. That resulted in airplay from some key stations, including WNCW in Asheville. The Asheville airplay led to a gig at the Grey Eagle, which I went ahead and booked for them.

In August, Cruz asked me if we could go to lunch to talk about the band. I agreed, and we had a two+ hour lunch meeting in which he told me the history of the CCstringband’s time on the Dualtone record label, all about the several managers and booking agents that they’d had, and gave me a laundry list of the many reasons he never wanted a manager again. And then, after all of that, he asked me if I might want to be his manager.

I told him I wasn’t sure, and that since he clearly had issues with the idea of a manager I wanted to put some thought into it before answering. Over the course of the next few days, I put together a ridiculously huge proposal outlining the ways I thought I might be able to help Cruz and the band take things to the next level. I seriously agonized over that proposal. I was concerned that I didn’t really know enough to be anyone’s manager, but I also knew that I was determined enough to figure out anything I didn’t already know. I also knew that he’d been burned in the past, and I didn’t want to be another person who either let him down or screwed him over. When I sent the proposal over to him, I also sent a very frank email message that basically said that if he was willing to take a chance on me, I’d work like crazy to make it worthwhile, and that if at any point it didn’t feel like a good fit we’d move on with no hard feelings.

By the next day, I was the manager, booking agent, and publicist for The Black Lillies. I’d go to the Garden every weekday, then come home and book gigs or work on projects for the Lillies at night until about three in the morning. On weekends I’d often go on the road with the band to whatever shows they were playing, unless I had an event at the Garden that I needed to work.

It was Cruz putting his faith in me that really helped me to rebuild the confidence I’d lost after leaving AC Entertainment. I really don’t think Attack Monkey would exist if it hadn’t been for him. I’m incredibly grateful to him for that. I think about fate sometimes, and whether it played a role in this – I mean, seriously, I happened to move in next door to a talented musician who happened to have a great band, and we both knew that we needed to be doing something more with our lives but we weren’t really sure how to go about it, and then we came together it all just steamrolled from there.

One of the first major things I did for the band was book them their first nationwide tour – 39 shows in 40 days, from Tennessee to Washington state and points in between, which was scheduled from mid-Novemeber through Christmas. The tour took them into Minnesota and North Dakota – yes, in the winter – and it was pretty brutal. The fact that the band both survived and still spoke to me after that was pretty amazing. I was supposed to go on at least part of the tour with them and had gotten approval to do so from the Garden – but ended up having to stay in town when some fundraising priorities at the Garden popped up. Through that time, it became more and more clear to me that while the Garden was paying my bills, I was really passionate about what I was doing with the band. I was happiest at the Garden when I worked on the concert series, and that excitement that I felt for the concerts was completely missing in other aspects of my job there.

In January, AC Entertainment actually referred a non-profit organization to me. The organization wanted to hold a concert as a fundraiser, and had tried to hire AC to produce it. Their budget was limited and AC was in the midst of several large projects, so they suggested that I might be a good fit. So, I had my second “client” for the side business I had started to call Attack Monkey Productions.

I’m the kind of person who thinks that sometimes, you have to force yourself to make things work rather than sitting around and thinking things to death. So, with two official clients, I started to think that maybe I should do something to make Attack Monkey more than just something I did in my spare time. I talked to my boss at the Garden and decided that I’d continue full-time with them until the end of February, at which point I would leave but continue to consult on a few fundraising projects and produce their 2010 concert series.

And that was it. By March 1, I was officially in business on my own. I had three clients and started out day 1 with two meetings that resulted in two new long-term contracts. I’m coming up on the first anniversary of the day that I took this full-time, and I can honestly say it was the best thing I have ever done. I have an office on the 100 block of Gay Street, I’ve had some incredible successes with my clients, I’ve got some tremendous partnerships with other businesses that have paid off in countless ways, and I am really just beginning to scratch the surface. It’s incredibly exciting.

Ben Sollee (center) and Chyna (right). Photo credit: Carie Thompson

K: How many different cities and countries have you lived in?

CB: Wow, let me see if I can count them . . . I think it has been 8 U.S. cities and three other countries. There have been a few stints of 2-3 months in one place or another that aren’t counted in there, though.

K: How long have you lived in Knoxville?

CB: I’ve lived in Knoxville longer than I have ever lived in any other city. As of last month, I’ve been here for fifteen years. Wow.

K: What is it about Knoxville that keeps you coming back for more?

CB: I never would have expected that Knoxville would be home. I actually spent summers here while I was growing up. My mom was raised here so my maternal grandparents lived here, and after my parents divorced my dad moved here as well. I moved around a lot growing up, because my stepfather was in the aerospace industry and we moved for his job. Knoxville was the one constant in my life – every summer, every Christmas, I was here.

After my grandmother died when I was 13, however, Knoxville no longer felt like home. I visited less, and I liked it less. I lived in large cities and other countries – none of them were in the south, and none were as small as Knoxville. When I came here, it always felt really conservative, not incredibly diverse, and kind of behind the times.

I left Kathmandu and came to Knoxville because my dad was here. I didn’t intend to stay for more than a year; this was really just meant to be a place where I’d settle long enough to figure out where I wanted to be long-term. Long story short, the combination of a great job opportunity and a guy from Maryville kept me here longer than I originally intended. I’ve had at least four opportunities to move – I mean, job offers with paid relocation – each to cities that I love, and every time I have ended up turning them down to stay in Knoxville. The first three times, I was absolutely shocked that I’d done that. The llast time, though, I wasn’t so surprised – because I have finally managed to realize (and more importantly, admit to myself) that I love it here. Yes, there are things that drive me insane, and no, we’re not a major city with 24-hour-a-day excitement, but when you get right down to it, Knoxville is a pretty cool place.

For me personally, a lot of this has to do with the fact that I both live and work downtown. When I lived in the suburbs, I didn’t like Knoxville as much as I do now. But downtown, there are locally owned, unique businesses that give this place character, There’s Market Square, which I think is one of our biggest assets. When I go to other cities (large or small) who don’t have central squares, I think they are lacking something – people don’t have an opportunity to connect with each other in the same way that we do in our public square. In Knoxville, if you want to make a difference in the community, you really can. You can jump in and make an almost immediate impact on your surroundings in a way that is much harder in a larger city. And, we have a tremendous entertainment and music scene. The talent here is seriously ridiculous. Our “local bands” are better than most chart-topping bands. We have world-class opera and jazz programs at UT. There is a wide variety of art, music, dance, and theatre of all kinds here if you look hard enough. We have center city neighborhoods with gorgeous architecture that are being revitalized, and tons of fantastic festivals, two restored and amazing historic theatres on the same street … it is really kind of amazing.

I produce the Rhythm n’ Blooms festival, and last year we had artists who have played all over the world who came to Knoxville and raved about how much they loved it. We have bands who play the Square Room all of the time who tell me what a great time they’ve had in Knoxville. There are musicians and artists from all over the country who have had gigs here and then decided to move here – they’ve either done it, are in the process of it, or say that they wish they could. I have been told by people from Austin, TX that Knoxville reminds them of Austin “back when it was cool, before all of the hype” and people from Asheville who’ve said that they wish Asheville was more like Knoxville. I’ve seen this city through other people’s eyes, and that has helped me fall in love with this town. This is a cool place, and we’re damn lucky to live here. You may have to look past the strip malls and the obsession with UT sports to see it, but there’s a lot to be proud of here (including the UT sports, if that’s your thing – it just isn’t mine).

K: Lastly, most people don’t know that you’ve been successful all while balancing family life. How do you find the right balance that keeps everyone happy?

CB: I have a six-year-old son, who is in Kindergarten right now, as well as three dogs (in a downtown loft, who require walks four times a day). And, I am incredibly lucky to have a very supportive husband, who makes it possible for me to do what I do. He is a stay-at-home dad and he essentially does everything related to the house – the majority of the cooking, the cleaning, the dog walking, the kid wrangling, the school volunteering, scheduling doctor’s appointments, making sure the car has regular oil changes, etc. He calls me every night around nine to remind me to come home and he makes sure that I have clothes ready to go in the mornings so I can get to meetings on time. I honestly could not do this without him.

And, though I do work all of the time, I think I am a lot better about balance now than I used to be. I’m able to be flexible enough with my schedule that I can make it to school events, or I can take a couple of hours to go see a movie with my kid. I never used to be able to do that, so having my own business has helped in that regard.

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