AKA Production’s Dwayne Ulloa wasn’t sure where he belonged in the music industry, but he knew it wasn’t on a stage. He attempted playing the stand up bass in high school and bought a harmonica after seeing a production on the life of Hank Williams Sr.
“I realized I didn’t have the talent to be on stage, and I wanted to be around the music. I just wasn’t disciplined,” Ulloa told Amplify.
So Ulloa took his talents backstage and started booking bands for his community college. As his promotion expertise grew, he realized he needed to stop using various names like Jukebox Productions or Dwayne Ulloa Presents. He settled on the ultimate alias: AKA Productions.
“Probably not the smartest move because as a kid I had to hand somebody a check that said AKA on it and they’d get a little nervous,” Ulloa said.
But AKA saw a lot of initial success in the military entertainment market, bringing entertainment to the U.S. Armed Forces. When the combat lessened, Ulloa redirected his attention to another niche. Ulloa and his team at AKA led the charge to bring Mexican regional music into more established venues and the venture has paid off as the genre continues to grow.
Amplify caught up with Ulloa to talk about his career and the growing demand for Spanish-language music.
What does your job entail on a day-to-day basis?
It entails pretty much everything. Maybe not so much of the, you know, the clerical office stuff, but on a typical day I’ll book a couple of acts, a couple of shows. I’ll line up press and promotion. I do advance on production most of the time. I’m involved with the advance of the show itself. It’s a pretty hands on. We like staying involved in all facets of a show or tour once it’s booked.
What does AKA specialize in?
Domestically we do Latino music, specifically Mexican regional.
What do you specialize in internationally?
At one point, when there was a huge need, we were the largest private provider of entertainment for the U.S. Armed Forces. We’ve done shows in over 30 countries around the world where we have either U.S. bases or joint operated bases. When Iraq and Afghanistan were going on we were the largest private provider of entertainment going into those countries and we did everything from regional groups to A list groups that were going out at that time to perform for the troops.
How did you end up doing that?
I had a band that wanted to do a show at a local base out in the Twentynine Palms area and I took a meeting up there. They gave me some information and said ‘here are a couple of other bases that would also book the band. We know it’s easier for you guys when there’s two or three shows booked together.’ I took it and on the back page there was some information for some basses out of country like Japan. I never did book that local base. I started out in Japan. I thought it was really cool. What a great thing to be able to provide entertainment for the troops and do it in other countries. I went out to Japan and I just fell in love with it.
Was that a big operation?
At that time I booked the show, I’d go on tour, I mixed sound, adjusted spotlight and I’d sell a CD. It was a really tight production because there wasn’t a lot of money. We had to be very self-sufficient and then Japan led to Korea. Then some folks in Italy got a hold of me and that led to Germany then to the rest of Europe and Iraq. It was a domino effect. We had a really good reputation and the government would come to us first when something was going on. It became a very all-consuming type of thing at one point with both the wars going on. It was a 24/7 operation because we always had somebody somewhere performing.
Was this all Mexican regional music?
No, actually very little of that. It was mostly country, rock, some hip hop. A big Mexican regional show we did was Los Tigres Del Norte, a group that I work with. We took them to Germany, Italy, Japan and Korea and had tremendous turnouts. It blew the military away. In Germany they told us ‘You guys outdo Reba McEntire’ and that was when Reba was huge. But the first big name that we took to Iraq was Puddle of Mudd. It really resonated and, in fact, we made the cover of Stars and Stripes in 2004. They were huge with a bunch of radio hits and they did everything above and beyond what I asked of them. At one point the crowds were so big that the band leader, Wes (Scantlin) told the rest of the band to spread out and they climbed into the stands at a soccer stadium. My tour manager told me they were in the stands for a couple of hours after the show making sure everybody got a photo or quick autograph. That was really emotionally overwhelming.
When was this happening?
The majority of it was happening from 2003-2011, 2012. It got really busy because Kuwait became the jumping off point for Iraq. I actually bought a couple of sound systems (for the Afghanistan shows) and we had to station them out there because at that time the Taliban wasn’t into concerts so there were no viable sound systems in the country. We had to produce these tours from the ground up.
Did your company have to grow to accommodate all this?
It did and I had to let some things go which in a way was a drag but I also felt like a sense of obligation. I remember that first phone call where they said, ‘We wanted five bands and five comedians. We need sound. Can you do it?’ I hung up and my coworker asked me if I had a plan and I said no. The military ended up having to delay a little because it was still way too hot with the conflict going on. They said we’ll wait a couple of months and hopefully things will cool down. It was a really humbling and very rewarding experience. It was life changing. You haven’t done a show until it’s a 125 degrees and some of your equipment is melting in the sun and everybody in the audience is locked and loaded with an M-16.
How did you move from military shows to Mexican regional shows?
Just like with the military, we saw a need to do things at a certain level with the Mexican regional genre. We saw that a lot of these groups weren’t playing nicer venues and nicer theaters and casinos and performing arts centers. We thought that was a real void there. So that’s how we got involved and started working with some of the bigger names and being able to fill that void.
You’ve been doing this for over 20 years, have you seen an influx in demand for Spanish music recently?
I don’t know if this fact is still correct or not. but a few years ago, Billboard had reported that Mexican regional outsold all of the other Spanish genres combined. Mexican regional groups are selling out big venues and selling a lot of product. In some respects it’s caught up a bit although I’m not sure the Mexican regional groups get their props in the press. But I’ve had groups like Los Tigres playing the Kennedy Center and they had never had a Mexican regional band play there. We played the Walt Disney Concert Hall and sold that out.
We were doing these types of events, but I thought it was important for them to play for the troops. The music that goes over for the troops is supposed to be reflective of America, of home. Basically, we wanted good production and we wanted our fans to be able to go to beautiful venues and have a great consumer experience. I think we led the charge back then. It took me forever to get some of these groups booked in casinos. They didn’t see our demographic as the kind they wanted. It took me a long time to convince them that this is a very loyal public and if you program for them, they will come. Maybe we’re not going to gamble as much, but we’ll make up for it in sheer numbers.
Do you think it easier or more difficult right now to be an indie promoter?
I think both. It depends on a couple of key factors and, for me, it’s always what does the artist want to do. There are some artists that want to work with this individual promoter in this particular market because they feel they know the market best. And maybe they’re going to get a little more hands-on treatment and not that cookie cutter mentality. Then of course a lot of times that promoter has trouble getting the sale. If I can’t get what I want for my act and I know they can do well in a market, I put on my promoter hat. Why am I going to give the act away at a price that isn’t fair or to a promoter who doesn’t know the market? I have to be careful though because I don’t want to become the mechanic that has the bad brakes and the plumber with a leaky faucet. I’m so worried about the people who’ve bought shows from us.
Is there anything about the music business you wish you could change?
A few years ago I worked in country and it seemed to me that the country music industry was a little bit more laid back. They kind of seemed to network better, work better together, tried to stay out of each other’s ways. I don’t know if that’s an illusion, but I just think there’s enough business for everybody out there and it seems like some times in our business people get so aggressive and go with that scorched earth policy. Maybe if people worked a little bit more together and shared resources. I’ve been lucky where I’ve had some people help me in that way and say ‘here this is a good opportunity for you. I spoke highly of you.’
Did you have any mentors throughout your career?
I really didn’t. I was afraid of appearing too ignorant. I was afraid that in the process of negotiating a deal that if I let my guard down I’d be taken advantage of. So I would make sure that things I didn’t understand I’d make notes of it and then I go find the answers. I did something back in 2000 with Bill Silva that made headlines in 150 newspapers. Bill help put it together but I ended up producing and he didn’t even show up for the event. When I found out he wasn’t coming, I was like ‘What do you mean you’re not going to be here?’ He said he had other business and ‘You got it.’ Over the years I’ve always been able to go to Bill with a question as basic as ‘who do you use for this. Who do you trust.’ I know that if Bill is working with them that’s all I need to know. He’s always been gracious.
Lori Otelsberg from Signature Entertainment has always been very gracious as well. She’s very forthcoming with information whenever I have questions. A lot of this was later on. Those first few years I don’t think I really had anyone to lean on. And Rick Farrell over at ICM. He’s always been an asset to me when I’ve got a question or concern.
Is there a business leader outside of music that you admire?
It may be a boring answer, but Warren Buffett. You don’t hear people talking bad about him. I just saw this thing in the paper the other day where he was trying to buy this company in Texas and he got outbid by a few hundred million. His comment was, ‘I go after value and I think about what something is worth to me and my investors and I don’t get into these bidding wars and I don’t try to make someone pay more.’ He’s giving all his wealth away and people in his business always say that he’s a mentor to them.
Do you foresee any challenges in the next five years or so for the live music industry?
Obviously there’s always challenges. I wish I had that crystal ball so I could get out ahead of them. Unfortunately, it’s terrorism and bad people doing bad things. I can’t even comprehend what that means going forward. The bad guys are getting more sophisticated. That’s a huge concern. We’re counting on people smarter than me and more informed to come up with those answers then we as an industry will follow that.
On a more day to day basis, I’m always amazed at ticket prices. I just saw some reports that this year is ahead of last year and I’m just wondering what that threshold is. I like generating revenue for my artists and for the industry as much as anyone, but I wonder. I’m not going to be a naysayer I just wonder how long that trend can continue with the resale tickets and that’s starting to come into our market. Now the Mexican regional genre we see prices going up and it’ll be interesting to see how that how that continues.
Is there any music right now that you’re into?
I’m a dinosaur in a lot of respects. Even like my TV watching and stuff, I’m three years behind because I don’t like watching commercials. Music is something I’m going to have to really get up off my butt and make a point of listening to new stuff because I’m very very fixed in my lab. Some of my groups are going to start doing more festivals and I was looking at a show that’s going on sale and I didn’t recognize 70 percent of the groups and I thought oh no this is not okay. Check back with me in a year and I’ll let you know.
In that case, if you could go back in time and see any artist play, who would it be?
I’d go see Hank Williams. I was going to Canada one year with a friend and we were driving up through California coastal country and I saw this poster for the life story of Hank Williams Sr. It was that night and I convinced my buddy to go see it. After that show I bought his greatest hits. I bought a harmonica and I still have that album. There was something about him. He was one of the original rock’n’roll stories. He, unfortunately, died a rock’n’roll death, but he was an incredible songwriter. I would have loved to see him live.
Do you have any piece of music memorabilia that you’re particularly proud of?
I produced a fundraiser for Garfield High School auditorium. Some kid burned it down and Los Lobos came to me and asked me to help them put on this event at the Gibson. There were a couple of guitars that everybody signed. There was an auction and bidding. I bid on them and I got them. From that same show, they had a raffle for a trip to see this artist Vincente Fernandez who my mom was a huge fan of. Gibson provided their suite and their bus and I was the highest bidder. At the Gibson they treated me like a hero. I knew the people there and it was just incredible. I own that memory which is more important and we still talk about it, my family and I.