Michael Schmitt is the man behind Ruthless Hippies, organizing poetry readings and music events in Encinitas and North San Diego County. I met up with him at a Charles Bukowski poetry reading he was running, and asked him for an interview. He was super cooperative and gave some great responses. This one is a must for anyone who is thinking of starting their own open mic, or otherwise running live events. You can follow Michael by clicking the links near the bottom.
In your own words, what is Ruthless Hippies?
Ruthless Hippies is simply the name I started doing events under. I wouldn’t quite call it a promotions company or an organization. A company would probably imply that I’m making money…and I’m not. An organization would imply that there are several people working for Ruthless Hippies. And while there are many people who’s help I am grateful for, it’s mostly me running the show. I think the mission statement sums it up rather succinctly: “The Ruthless Hippies of Leucadia are dedicated to forging new frontiers in live performances of all varieties. They are motivated by fun, art for art’s sake, community, and the possibility of a cleaner world. Through the mediums of poetry and music and this blog the Ruthless Hippies will help cultivate community awareness and involvement in local events, small business, and environmental care. We strive to promote the vibrant cultural community of San Diego County.” So you see, it’s vague and can encompass many things, but hosting live performances of music and poetry in north county San Diego is at the core of it.
What kinds of events do you run?
I host an open poetry reading at Ducky Waddle’s Emporium called the Poetry Ruckus. It usually features a great guest poet from San Diego and we’ve even been lucky enough to have some internationally known poets such as Rae Armantrout, Jerome Rothenberg and Tao Lin. I produce a free two day music festival in Leucadia called Summer Fun on the 101. Leucadia 101 Main Street Association (L101) has been instrumental in helping me grow that event which is going on it’s seventh year. I also host a monthly concert series at the Encinitas Library with help from L101. There’s also occasional concerts I put together at Mr. Peabody’s, Zenbu and all ages shows at Duck Waddle’s Emporium.
How long has it been around?
Ruthless Hippies is going strong into it’s seventh year now.
When did you really decide you were going to start it? What inspired you?
When the economy crashed in late 2008 I got laid off. I took a hard look at my life and realized I was totally unfulfilled with the corporate jobs I’d been working since graduating college in 2006 and I decided it was time to pursue this dream I’d been kicking around in the back of my mind to throw concerts as a career. Some fortuitous changes in my life helped things fall into place. I was on unemployment which gave me time to work on passion projects while I looked for work. I moved to Leucadia and lived in a house with a professional djembe player who got me back into playing music and I started volunteering for San Diego Indie Fest. Pretty soon I had a poetry night and was booking the music for Leucadia Artwalk and making plans to start my own festival. While it’s not yet a career for me, I’m very happy with the decision I made to pursue live events.
How did you find venues in the beginning, when no one knew you? Has it gotten easier?
The first venue I found was a weird little storefront in Leucadia called Too Much Tutu’s Beach Culture Boutique. It kind of found me actually. Around the time I was wanting to produce concerts, I walked in to check this new shop out and this woman behind the counter was telling me about all the music and poetry readings they planned on having there, and I said, “Who’s going to run them?” And she said “Maybe you?” This very lovely and eccentric Hawaiian woman who went by Tutu (Hawaiian for Grandma) let my friends and I start a poetry night there and left a very drunk and tweeked out individual in charge of watching her place while we held the poetry reading. It was extremely chaotic but beautiful to me. After about three readings there I decided to talk to Jerry Waddle about using his book store and art gallery, Ducky Waddle’s Emporium. There’s really no place as cool to me on the face of the earth. Jerry curates an amazing selection of books and has some of the craziest pop cultural artifacts you can find in a shop. But when you find a good venue it’s important to stick with it. Ducky’s is one of the first places I used as a venue and it’s still my favorite. It feels lively and intimate no matter how small the crowd is and I can’t even name a time Jerry said no to an event I wanted to host at his store. But a small room and not being able to sell beer or food legally means it’s hard to turn a profit. And in that regard it hasn’t gotten easier for me to find good venues. I’d rather rent the library out for a couple hundred bucks than do a show at a bar usually.
What was the turnout like in the beginning?
Jerry had a huge e-mail list and good contacts with San Diego Citybeat. So with a good lead time before the first event, we packed his shop to the gills with poets and listeners for the first one we ever did. The earlier ones usually had about 15-30 people. That’s still what it’s like actually.
Did you start with poetry, music, or both?
The poetry came first and then I jumped right into creating a festival without ever having hosted a concert in my life. That was very well attended for a first time effort too.
When did it really take off?
It really did jump off from the start. If it hadn’t, I maybe wouldn’t have stayed with it. I’ve really lucked out with the talent that comes into my poetry readings and I worked hard with help from lots of friends to book a killer line up for the first festival.
Were there any difficulties with getting it started that you hadn’t really considered? Have they gotten easier as time’s gone on?
The poetry is easier now and the festival gets easier every year because you figure out what went right and wrong each year and improve on that. But I didn’t really know the first thing about hosting any kind of events so there’s been many things I’ve learned along the way. I was pretty floored by how difficult it would be to get permits for a small scale festival the first time around, so I just took a chance and fortunately the cops didn’t stop any part of it. Wanting to legitimize the event and make permitting easier was a big reason for teaming up with L101 at first. And while the event has gotten better, there’s plenty of tensions I didn’t expect with having a separate organization take on my event. I’ve had to make a lot of compromises.
In recent memory, is there one event that stands out as your favorite?
The first Summer Fun on the 101 was great and it can never happen under the radar like that again.
Ruthless Hippies TV seems to be pretty new. How did that get started?
Basically my good friend Steve and I are big fans of Wayne’s World and he’s been getting really good at video production. It was all Steve’s idea. It was a lot of fun to make and our friends have been stoked on the first episode. We work well together. He’s got the technical skills and I’ve got the creative direction. It’s an extension of the RH mission to shine a spotlight on the best artists in San Diego and we’re hoping it will help spread the word to the wider world. San Diego has so many great bands, artists and poets but it almost seems like there’s a ceiling to how much the artist can grow their fan base without moving to LA. We’re just trying to have fun with it all and help the artists. The first three episodes are all based around interviews and live footage we took at a show last summer. Subscribe to our YouTube channel and flex those attention skills. It’s kind of long form but we really think people who tune in will have a laugh and discover some amazingly talented artists. https://m.youtube.com/channel/UCihi5Gz5BkXU6ZyYlPw4sxQ
Let’s talk about you: When did you really discover your love of poetry? Who are your favorite poets?
In college I first became obsessed with the Beats and started writing tons of poetry. I took some poetry classes and really loved Blake and Yeats. Saul Williams was the first slam poet I ever saw and that certainly left an impression.
How about music? Everyone loves music, but when did you really fall in love with music? Same thing here, your favorite musicians.
There’s always various turning points. Discovering a new generation apart from my parents’ music when my brother got his first Pearl Jam CD (Vs.) was pivotal. Going to punk/ska/emo shows in high school really solidified my love for live performance, as did playing in my high school jazz band and in garage bands with my friends. Then in college learning how to DJ and discovering electronic music, turning onto jam bands and finally learning to appreciate jazz and classical music as high arts.
Sadly, everyone with a passion needs a day job. What’s yours?
I’m a lifeguard and a substitute teacher. I was a cab driver for four years and making good money at it. Uber ruined everything.
What have you learned from running Ruthless Hippies?
It’s more important to have fun than to achieve some set level of success you’re going for. I wanted to be the biggest baddest rock promoter ever before I even started, but your goals change as you learn from experience. I think I’m happier doing shows the way I want to do them than I would be having the pressure of doing it to feed myself. Live music is such a risky business.
What is the best part of running it?
Getting to watch amazingly talented people perform their craft all of the time. And when people show an appreciation for what went into putting the event together. People always take for granted how much work goes in to get somebody on stage and have people in the audience.
What’s the most difficult part?
Getting people to show up. Making money. You have to pick the right performers to bring the people in. Your friends aren’t going to show up every time when you throw four events a month. Also, so much of making money in hosting events is alcohol sales. I wish it could just be about the music, but people are way quicker to part with a $5 bill for a craft beer.
How are poetry events different from music events? How are they the same?
Poetry events are a lot easier to run simply because we don’t usually have to pay anybody. I don’t even bring a sound system. Ducky Waddle’s is an intimate venue and we don’t really need one. Music events are difficult. There’s costs with a venue, promotion costs and the band needs to be paid at the end of the night even–if they didn’t bring that many people. I’ve had a Pulitzer Prize winning guest poet and she performed for free! Also, poetry events are more participatory. Half the crowd usually comes to perform.
How regular are the regulars? Do you see the same people at every event? How often do new people show up?
The poetry readings definitely have their regulars. There’s the folks that come almost every month, the ones who come every other month and the ones who show up a handful of times a year. And that’s great. I couldn’t have a regular event like the poetry Ruckus without a dedicated crew, but we usually have anywhere from two to ten new comers and it always helps keep things fresh. With music it’s usually the friends of the bands so it changes with each band.
When and where is the next Ruthless Hippies event?
I’m hosting a concert with two of my favorite bands, Steep Ravine and Second Cousins. Steep Ravine is from NorCal and they play a contemporary style of bluegrass and folk that is out of this world. Second Cousins is from Encinitas and they make some really beautiful folk pop tunes together. These guys are seriously some of the best musicians out there, don’t miss it! https://www.facebook.com/events/1664820230434814/
How would we follow you on social media?
Head right over here https://www.facebook.com/Ruthless-Hippies-358959857448035/ and like us on Facebook!
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Thanks for featuring me.
Image Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bonzersurfer/