An Interview with Compass Rose owner and event promotor, Brett Johnston
Interview by Jeremy Lux, article written by Eric Gasa
Say what you want about Springfield, MO but it is a city rich with great music. To be a young college kid in the Queen City is to be acquainted with the warmly-lit house shows rocking the night away on National Avenue and to know that familiar smell of Pabst and cigarettes outside the Outland Ballroom. And of course, there is the music. From the scrappy yet insanely talented local indie rock outfit to national headliners like Band of Horses and Elvis Costello, Springfield has a way of attracting top shelf acts far and wide.
So, it only makes sense that Brett Johnston, a longtime fixture of the Springfield music scene can tell you all about the scene’s past, present, and hopeful future. For the latest episode of Life in Motion, Jeremy Lux chats with Brett Johnston owner of the booking company Compass Rose, about his commitment to community, culture, and of course, music.
Probably not a surprise, but Johnston grew up in Springfield. As a boy he was always interested in music and spent a lot of time at choir practice, an experience that he says really touched his heart.
“When you’re singing as a group you’re really living the same experience. Its transcendent. Just being a participant, even just through listening, you realize that music is our lifeblood,” Johnston shares, “It changes your emotions; it manages them.”
Johnston attended choir at Drury where he had the great opportunity to travel to Europe and sing. He recalls feeling chills as he and other singers performed on the French beaches of Normandy during a memorial to those who gave their lives on D-Day. It’s with this same sentiment and respect for the power of music that Johnston turned his eyes to the college radio scene.
Towards the end of his time at Drury, Johnston picked up a gig deejaying for the college radio station. There he had many great opportunities to contact labels and speak with artists and guests.
“Back then there wasn’t the Internet to find our broadcast. It was just this tiny little station that covered about a mile of Springfield,” Johnston recalls, “But the whole experience really spurred my support and love for local music. The first big festival I threw was actually for that station on Drury campus.”
Johnston also remembers setting up shows for Polyvinyl-signed hometown heroes, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin back in the day.
“It was back when they were first starting so Phil Dickey had a milk crate for his drum throne,” Johnston chuckles.
But unfortunately all good things must come to an end. The college station lost funding, Johnston graduated then got a job as a sportswriter for the Springfield News-Leader. But with the 2008 financial crisis looming as well as the demise of conventional journalism, Johnston jumped ship with the newspaper and partnered with a former colleague to form Tag Media, a local magazine dedicated to the local arts. To drum up sponsorships and buzz, Johnston put together events and fests, and before he knew it he was hooked on promoting shows once again. Since then Johnston has also gotten involved with nonprofit work and works towards connecting public with its music scene.
As a promoter he can’t help but mention the great cultural capacity Springfield has.
“Most cities this size don’t have a symphony or live theater experience like we do. Plus the music scene here is just truly remarkable. I feel like our community sometimes even takes our level of performers for granted because we’re just so used to hearing great music all the time,” Johnston says.
He’s also more than humbled by the community he’s been able to touch through music as well.
A perfect example of this is Compass Rose's partnership with Springfield’s Eden Village, a program aimed to combat homelessness in the area.
“The longer I’ve been here the more I’ve realized that Springfield is a place willing to accept and help people,” Johnston says. “Eden Village is building communities of small houses for the chronically homeless. It’s part of their program to humanize their struggle, give them shelter, and a place to work their way back.”
Johnston is more than proud to have helped launch music events with benefit shows for the program. At the end of the day it’s a bit of a testament to what music can do to enrich communities both culturally and materially.
When Lux asks Johnston what can be done to build up a music scene, he’s simple and to the point: “Just show up.”
“The first thing is just to be present. Whatever your passion, your community can really benefit from your involvement. Even if it’s just making yourself available. Be conscious of each opportunity there is to build up your community.”
Sometimes you just got to show up and listen to the music.
For more info on Compass Rose check them out on Facebook for events and shows around town. As for the full interview with Brett Johnston including why you seriously need to start throwing shows in your living room, check out the Life In Motion podcast with Jeremy Lux on iTunes, Spotify, and Google Play.