People Who Make NY Special

Erika Elliott’s Perfect Summer Mix

How the artistic director of SummerStage curates the soundtrack of the city.

The longest-serving artistic director in SummerStage’s 30-year history, Erika Elliott has spent the past 13 years booking lineups for one of America’s largest and most diverse music festivals. In any given season, Elliott must arrange for more than 100 individual performances, all in New York’s public parks. It’s a massive responsibility and one that she juggles while raising a young child.

Now that her busiest season has come to an end, Elliott had time to chat with WSWD about her daily grind, her life as a mother and as a music professional, and what it takes to land a spot on the big stage in Central Park.

Erika Elliott; photo courtesy of Martin Cohen

What Should We Do?!: How did you get into the music industry?
Erika Elliott: It was a process! I started out working in college radio at UC Santa Cruz. That got me in the door as an intern at a commercial radio station in San Francisco, which led to an internship at Loud Records. Loud specialized in hip hop: Big Pun, Wu-Tang Clan, Mobb Deep. I worked there for four years, moving into an assistant position in the radio promotions department, until I took the leap as a booking assistant at William Morris, then eventually artist development at RCA. My experience with what was then called urban music paved the way to the Manhattan nightclub SOB’s as its talent buyer. That led to SummerStage in 2004, and I’ve been here ever since!

WSWD: Do you ever have an “average” day on the job? 
Elliott: One of the great things about my work is that nothing is average. I suppose there are some seasonal shifts I can count on. In the fall and the winter, I am scouting for talent and starting to book shows; in the spring, I’m finalizing our lineup and planning the schedule; in the summer, I’m producing the festival and troubleshooting with our staff.

WSWD: What are your guidelines for figuring out if an artist is SummerStage ready? 
Elliott: I try not to approach the job as a cultural doorman or a taste filter. I’m looking outward to the communities we serve to see who is possible to get that serves that audience, who we have not yet had on our stages, or who is really interesting and on the rise. I am purposefully diverse in my booking and try to incorporate as much difference and eclecticism as possible, both in genre and in the community and country of origin for our artists.

A major goal in the booking is to think very specifically about placing artists who have connections to our many citywide locations in Staten Island, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens so that the shows are uniquely special to both performer and listener. Headlining a show in a neighborhood you grew up in can be a very meaningful moment. These are artists who perform all over the world, but playing in the community you came from and feeling love from an audience in the place where you were raised is an experience like no other.

WSWD: SummerStage puts on more than 120 shows each year. How do you even begin to manage that timeline?
Elliott: That is the most difficult thing, because SummerStage is absolutely about booking quality, but we also have to think about volume. To get the job done, I have to work swiftly with a strong team and make sure that I have artists, agents, and managers who can commit fairly quickly. When we’re exploring a concept like putting two very different artists together or mixing music and dance, that idea has to come more or less fully developed. The bottom line is that there is no magic formula; it just takes the full year to get to the finished product. Even before we are done with the current festival, I am already working on the next year’s.

WSWD: Any advice for dealing with difficult management or artists in the heat of the moment?
Elliott: Probably don’t work with them again! The trick is to always try to find and support agents and managers and musicians who deliver for you. The best way to come back to SummerStage is to stay professional and be nice. Bringing a full crowd helps, too!

WSWD: Do you get a chance to see any other shows during the summer?
Elliott: Yes, and it is crucial to see what other people are doing…it’s also always an honor and a joy to be a guest at a show where I’m not responsible for the outcome.

WSWD: Who else is consistently doing good festival curation work in the city?
Elliott: What Jill Sternheimer is doing at Lincoln Center Out of Doors is brilliant. Rachel Chanoff, whom I think of as both a mentor and an inspiration, does amazing work. I consider myself lucky to call them both friends, but they’re also stiff competition!

WSWD: What are a few of your favorite or most memorable shows that you’ve been responsible for?
Elliott: Some highlights that come to mind are Seu Jorge early in his career, Feist (who I am a huge personal fan of), The xx, Ibeyi, M.I.A., Laura Mvula (finally got her this year!), Alpha Blondy, Fat Joe, Gil Scott-Heron with Common, Willie Colon…I could probably go on all day if you let me.

WSWD: Where do you see SummerStage developing and growing between now and 2020?
Elliott: I think the work we do at SummerStage is ever more crucial for a city where access to great music without a big ticket price is becoming harder and harder. I hope we are able to expand and serve even more New Yorkers.

WSWD: What sort of music do you like to listen to when you’re not listening for work? 
Elliott: I mostly listen to the radio in the car: Hot 97 and Power 105. That means the commute is mainly hip hop, soul, and R&B, but I go out to see all kinds of live music.

WSWD: Who is one artist you’re listening to now that you’d like to recommend?
Elliott: I’m a superfan of Anderson Paak. I’m also loving Chassol, who is opening for Solange in NYC, and the Brazilian band Liniker e os Caramelows, one of my favorite discoveries of the year, which we were able to put into the SummerStage lineup.

WSWD: You’re also raising a child. How do you balance time being a mom and being an artistic director? 
Elliott: There is no balance; basically, you feel like you’re failing all the time. You have to give yourself permission to do the best you can. That was always my father’s advice, and it became my mantra. I love what I do. I love my son. I do the best I can for both.

WSWD: What are the benefits of raising a child who has so much exposure to great live performance?
Elliott: If you were to ask him, I’m not so sure he’d say it was a benefit. He’s 9, and that means he’s happiest when we stay home and play with Legos. Really, though, I’m sure he’ll be grateful in the future. My father used to take me out to see live music, arts, and culture all the time when I was young, and I distinctly remember not loving it…but look at me now!

WSWD: Plan out a perfect day for yourself in New York.
Elliott: I’d spend all day (or as long as I could) at Bliss Spa; take a long walk in the park with my boyfriend, son, and dog; and then maybe a nice dinner out.

Erika Elliott’s Faves…in a NY Minute

Charlies, my local South Bronx spot.

Milk Burger.

Del Frisco’s.

Orchard Beach and Promenade in the Bronx. Even though the water could be cleaner, at least they’re dog friendly and we can sit in the shade on the grass.

Date-night spot?
There’s always live music playing somewhere!