High Notes

Morty Wiggins is a musician's best friend

Behind every great rock star, there’s a Morty Wiggins.

In a career that spans more than four decades, Wiggins has worked with and for the biggest names in music as an artist and a record company manager, as well as a concert organizer and promoter.

Formerly a VP of Bill Graham Presents and general manager for A&M Records, Wiggins is now the CEO of Sonoma County–based talent management and promotion and booking agency Second Octave, which represents several local bands and hosts the SOMO Concerts series in Rohnert Park.

Working alongside a young and hungry staff at Second Octave, Wiggins revels in sharing his lifetime of experience with a new generation and reflects on how his journey in the industry is tied to the North Bay.

WITNESS TO THE WALTZ

Born in Toronto to a Canadian father and an American mother, Wiggins spent his childhood moving back and forth between Toronto and several spots in New York and New Jersey. There was virtually no music in Wiggins’ home, as both his parents were deaf.

“I started working in music more as an offshoot from an original interest that I had for theater,” Wiggins says. “I just loved the liveliness of theater.”

Coming of age in the early 1970s, Wiggins made the transition from working in live theater to live concerts, seduced and enamored by what he calls “the alchemy that happens in concerts.” In New York, Wiggins first hooked up with an organization called the College Coffeehouse Circuit, booking and touring with folk-rock bands on college campuses.

In 1976, at 19, Wiggins joined a band he was working for on a Midwest tour. From there, he hitchhiked to California and landed in Santa Rosa at the suggestion of the band’s lead singer, whose brother worked in town for IBM. “That’s how I ended up here,” he laughs. “It was a series of events that had nothing to do with me.”

Shortly after Wiggins arrived in California, legendary San Francisco concert promoter Bill Graham produced the Last Waltz at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom on Thanksgiving Day, 1976. Wiggins somehow snagged tickets and sat in the cheap seats for the event, which was a farewell show for iconic outfit the Band and featured guest appearances from Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Ringo Starr and many others.

“I was blown away, just blown away,” he says.

From the vibrant atmosphere to the incredible Thanksgiving dinner spread, Wiggins took it all in, including seeing Graham running around with a clipboard and wearing white tuxedo tails and a top hat. “That’s when I decided, I’ve got to work with this guy,” says Wiggins. “It took a few years, but I finally got there.”

In the North Bay, Wiggins immediately went about organizing shows at the various veterans halls in Sebastopol and Petaluma. A year later, the River Theater in Guerneville became available to lease, and Wiggins brought in acts like John Prine, the Jerry Garcia Band and a young Tom Waits, a big coup for Wiggins.

“He was one of the first people I met when I came up in ’79,” says Bill Bowker, the longtime on-air personality for the Krush radio station. Bowker had relocated to Sonoma County from Los Angeles and was at KVRE when he first worked with Wiggins in promoting shows at the River Theater.

“My first meeting with him, he was a guy in overalls and extremely long hair,” Bowker laughs. “But there was something about him. You could tell right off he knew what he was doing. He had a love for music and for artists, and was knowledgeable and caring about the community. I liked that.”

Wiggins found some success in Sonoma County, but the Bay Area was Graham’s territory, who enjoyed a near monopoly on booking concerts in the region.

STARTED FROM THE BOTTOM

“I was hitting this glass ceiling, so I applied for a job at Bill Graham Presents, and they hired me,” recounts Wiggins. “Somewhere right below the receptionist’s position.”

Between schlepping in the office and running lunch-order errands, Wiggins started at the bottom and worked his way up through sheer conviction, eventually signing and managing bands for the company. His first signing at Bill Graham Presents was the Neville Brothers in the early 1980s, and he helped usher the New Orleans R&B icons into the decade by landing them a spot on Huey Lewis & the News’ massive U.S. tour and brokering a record deal with the Rounder/EMI label. From there, Wiggins’ roster of acts over the years would include Gin Blossoms, Sheryl Crow and others. Wiggins credits Graham’s unwavering support for helping him succeed.

“First of all, he had incredible musical taste,” says Wiggins. “He was definitely one of those larger-than-life guys. In most cases, he was the biggest celebrity in the room.”

Professionally, Wiggins describes Graham as a dedicated entrepreneur. “He was very concerned about the customer experience,” says Wiggins. “If someone sent a letter in complaining about this or that at a concert, Bill took it seriously and would find out what the cause was.”

In addition to managing bands, Wiggins joined Graham on the road for the Amnesty International tour, even bringing the event to Delhi, India. For that concert, Wiggins and the team had to truck gear in from Hungary, some 3,000 miles away. “With all the people at Bill Graham Presents there was definitely a bond,” he says.

While working with the company, Wiggins made friends with engineer, producer and longtime Petaluma resident Jim Stern. “Morty was always very professional, very honest, a great heart and a great humanist. He’s quite a mover and shaker in the industry, I think,” says Stern, whose own 45-year career includes building and running Fantasy Studios in Berkeley in the 1970s and recording artists like Van Morrison, who joins Stern in the studio next month for a new album.

When Graham died in a helicopter crash in 1991 at the age of 60, Wiggins was a VP at his company and one of those who bought the company from his estate. Meanwhile, he’d developed a relationship with A&M Record Company through his work with Graham’s company. He took a job as an executive with A&M in 1996 and moved to Los Angeles about six months before Bill Graham Presents was sold to SFX Entertainment, which later became Live Nation. Wiggins is still on the board of the Bill Graham Memorial Foundation.

Throughout it all, Wiggins eschewed the egomania that often comes with “being in the room,” as he describes it, when million-dollar meetings are taking place. “I like to think that I wasn’t that identified with power, and that’s why I was able to walk away from that aspect of the business,” says Wiggins. “But I could see, and I got a little taste of why people hold on to power and why they don’t want to give it up.”

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CHANGING TIMES

At the turn of the century, the music industry changed, and Wiggins saw the former cash cow A&M fold in the wake of Napster and file sharing. “Even though they saw it coming, no one wanted to make the transition and give up the money and the power,” Wiggins says.

Whereas his work at Bill Graham Presents involved developing artists and taking time to hone success, companies like A&M demanded quarterly results. “Selling albums is not like selling vacuum cleaners,” says Wiggins. “You could see there was no climate for anyone to say, ‘Well, we need to transition [to digital], so we’re going to take a hit for a few years.’ No one had any tolerance for that.”

When A&M Records ceased operations in 1999, Wiggins moved back to the Bay Area with his family and ran 33rd Street Records and Bayside Distribution, both of which were owned by mega-retailer Tower Records.

Since the dawn of digital music, Wiggins has seen the music-industry revenue model change from buying music to using music as a vehicle for advertising online, like the ads that pop up on Youtube or in between songs on streaming services like Pandora. “The whole treatment of the music has become secondary,” says Wiggins. “Like music should be free and ubiquitous so that we can make money off the technical side of it or the advertising side of it. And it rubs a lot of people the wrong way that music is not at the forefront. And to this day, that’s kind of a drag.”

NEW OCTAVES

Tower Records went the way of A&M in 2006, liquidating and closing all of its U.S. stores. Wiggins found himself starting over, and he was determined to build a new company in the North Bay.

“I love Sonoma County; I hope I never have to leave again. I love the beauty of it, the culture, the progressive politics. I think it’s an evolved place,” says Wiggins.

Wiggins also loves the music scene. He teamed with music licensing and sales guru Steve Senk to form Second Octave in Sonoma County, first to book jazz and blues acts in the region. The scope quickly expanded to booking and managing an eclectic array of Bay Area rock, folk and indie acts like roots-reggae group Sol Horizon, soul swingers Royal Jelly Jive, songwriter the Sam Chase and laidback rockers the Coffis Brothers.

“We’re trying to break an act out of Sonoma County,” says Wiggins. “And we’re determined to do so. Just like Austin or Seattle or other markets that bands have popped out of, because there’s a scene or a sound in that city, I think that can happen in Sonoma County.”

And he’s got a plan to do it. “I have my ‘big three’ for acts that I want to work with,” says Wiggins. “First and foremost, they have to be great live. They have to have a star onstage and they have to have great songs, or at least the potential for great songs. We’ve been working with some of these bands for two or three years, and it’s a long runway, but we see progress.”

Through his work in Second Octave, Wiggins has also connected with a new generation of music professionals in the North Bay, including North Bay Hootenanny founder Josh Windmiller, who is Second Octave’s production designer. Second Octave’s marketing team, director Bryce Dow-Williamson and assistant director Isabelle Garson, are also North Bay natives who cut their teeth booking and/or promoting local shows on their own.

“It’s been so interesting to work with [Wiggins] because there’s so much wealth [of experience],” says Dow-Williamson. “There’s one wall in the office that’s entirely full of his platinum albums, gold albums and Grammys, and he brings them in because he knows there’s a value to the younger bands he’s working with to see that.”

The display also inspires the young staff, though Dow-Williamson notes that Wiggins is dedicated to building Second Octave with a balance of professionalism and mutual respect.

“Morty is always asking, ‘How can I help you?'” adds Garson. “He treats you as someone who’s working for him, but also as his peer, which is electrifying because I know what he’s done.”

“I never thought I would get an opportunity to work in the entertainment industry staying in Sonoma County,” says Garson, who handles Second Octave’s social media accounts, digital marketing and the SOMO Concerts box office. “The whole concept behind the company is that they’re mentoring young Sonoma County professionals on how to be music executives.”

“Morty is very into bringing in new, young people into the business, just like Bill [Graham] did,” says Jim Stern. “He’s mentoring young professionals and building a pretty good business here for them.”

Three years ago, when Second Octave again expanded its scope and began holding a series of concerts at the SOMO Village Events Center in Rohnert Park, Wiggins did so with input and ideas from his young staff. The industrial space was turned into a sustainably powered 3,000-capacity outdoor venue that often combines headlining musical acts with local talent onstage, and features art and food vendors in the courtyard for a pop-up festival vibe.

This year’s SOMO Concert schedule opened with the venue’s first sold-out event, a double bill of reggae with Dirty Heads and SOJA. The rest of the season includes the upcoming Sonoma County Blues & Arts Festival with Blues Hall of Fame headliner Charlie Musselwhite on Aug. 19. SOMO Concerts will also host the annual Earlefest, a benefit for Santa Rosa’s Earl Baum Center for the Blind, in September, with headliners Los Lobos and the Funkendank Oktoberfest beer and music extravaganza in October. Each of these shows is also packed with North Bay bands on the bill.

“Everything that he does is at a high level, and it shows,” says Stern. “I think he’s brought a dynamic thrust of the music industry into Sonoma County. Not that we don’t have a lot of people who are professionals on a high level, but he’s added a lot to the ambiance of the community and the viability of the music business in this area.”

Bowker and veteran talent booker Sheila Groves-Tracey have worked alongside Wiggins and the Second Octave staff on the blues fest and the Earlefest for the past two years, and Bowker says that Wiggins’ commitment to music is as strong as ever. “It’s a calming influence to have him around,” says Bowker. “You feel everything’s going to be all right if you’re working with him. It’s good that he’s in our court.”

Bowker also commends Second Octave’s young staff and says that Wiggins is a natural mentor. “Under his guidance, they can learn the right way.”

In his laidback way, Wiggins says he’s the lucky one to be able to share his experiences with the next wave of North Bay music professionals. “You know, I’m on the tail end of my career,” he laughs. “I’m in my 60s, and no one in their 60s should be in the music business—it’s ridiculous.”

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