Introducing Justin Michael, Promoter of Music, Son of Felon
by Drew Mackie
There’s a lot that makes music promoter Justin Michael remarkable. Most noticeably, his face began popping up at Santa Barbara clubs with such frequency in the last six months that even those who rarely make the nightlife rounds have probably seen him. But it’s something you haven’t noticed — the fact that Justin Michael lives with dual identities — that makes his story worth telling.
You see, Justin Michael, who earlier this year became the head promoter for downtown restaurant and venue Rocks, has a family history in Santa Barbara that stretches back much further — and much more notoriously — than his recent days of booking singer/songwriters. His birth name is Justin Michael Slatkin, which makes him the son of EarthLink co-founder Reed Slatkin. And Slatkin, in case you’d forgotten, is one of Santa Barbara’s most infamous and despised criminals, the slimy shyster whose Ponzi scheme bilked buku bucks from investors all over Southern California — to the tune of nearly $600 million, according to some estimates.
After his father’s 2001 arrest, Justin Michael refrained from speaking with the press. Now, however, as he focuses on enlivening State Street nightlife with live music acts that he says are sorely needed, Justin Michael said he’s interested in fusing back together the two parts of his life: his existence as Reed Slatkin’s son and his return to Santa Barbara with a plan to help the city find its soul.
“It’s like having a double life,” he said. “I’m promoting bands as Justin Michael, but I feel like a lot of people don’t realize who I am.” He’s careful to explain that legally dropping his last name wasn’t just to distance himself from his father, with whom he still speaks. Michael began billing himself without the Slatkin surname years before his dad’s arrest, in hopes of sounding more in line with the other members of his former band Jet Pack Heroes. “It’s not hiding. I put everything out there. There are pages and pages of depositions out there documenting my whole life,” he explained, adding proudly, “Even Ralph Lauren used to be Ralph Lifschitz.”
Stage names aside, 26-year-old Michael acknowledges that his father’s arrest and conviction propelled his life in a different direction. Whereas he had previously been concentrating on promoting his own music career, he now hopes to use that energy to help establish the careers of others. “I don’t condone or approve what he did. But I do wake up appreciative of the fact that I’m free,” he said.
And what a wake-up it was when FBI agents raided his family’s Hope Ranch home in May 2001. “I hear this pounding at the door, and I think it’s my younger brother,” he recalled. “And I tell him not to knock on the door so hard, but when I open the door, it’s these FBI agents and I’m in my boxer shorts.” With that, family life changed drastically. His father was in prison. The family’s financial resources were drained. But music remained an outlet. Since arriving in Santa Barbara at 3 years old, Michael had always been involved with music — from playing in Isaac Jenkins’s jazz band at Santa Barbara High School to a one-year stint at the Manhattan School of Music. Following his departure from Santa Barbara after his father’s arrest, Michael played with the band Clockwork on Next Big Star, an Ed McMahon-hosted talent showcase in the vein of Star Search. Eventually, various circumstances — including an inspirational dream that left Michael waking with the notion “I’m a promoter” — convened in a way that brought him back to his hometown.
It’s here where Justin Michael, who has no formal training as a promoter, embarked on a mission to put some life back into live music. His relatively limited resources sent him to MySpace .com, where a 10,000-deep friend request marked the beginning of a social network that Michael uses to post info for Rocks shows. This, coupled with a print advertising campaign that projects paintings and pop culture icons onto images of his face, have earned Michael enough visibility to earn him a parodist clone of his MySpace.com profile that mocks his sudden omnipresence. “You’re nobody until somebody loathes you,” he joked before noting that he feels his status as a figurehead is crucial to uniting Santa Barbara musicians in the effort to increase their overall visibility.
From Michael’s perspective, Santa Barbara nightlife currently suffers from an overabundance of corporate pop, DJ-fueled culture: “There’s the saying that video killed the radio star. Well, we went from artists like Bob Seger to Britney Spears — from meaningful, spiritual stuff to something more candy-coated.”
Michael believes that a city where the live music scene once thrived with big-name bands such as Dishwalla and Toad the Wet Sprocket should be able to reclaim that glory. An important aspect that he finds currently lacking — as do most music fans in town — is an all-ages venue. “The heartbeat of a city is when a 13-year-old kid with a guitar can go out and see the kind of show that will inspire him to make his own music,” he said.
Through Rocks and freelance promotion for other venues — including a benefit masquerade ball for the Westside Boys and Girls Club on Friday, October 6, at El Cielo — Michael hopes to elevate the standard of going out in Santa Barbara, and for the long haul.
“My dream is to stay here. I want it to be L.A. or Nashville or New York,” said Justin Michael. “People tell me that I’m wasting my time here and that I should be doing this in L.A., but I wouldn’t stay if there wasn’t a compelling reason to.” Those who are headed out this weekend should look for signs that Justin Michael has been there or even scan the crowd for a young man shaking hands and working the crowd like it’s his job. It is — or at least that’s how he sees it. “I’m looking to give Earl Warren a run for its money,” he said, expanding on his long-range plans for the city. “I want to catapult all of us to a higher level.”
4•1•1 Justin Michael is promoting the Lunar Masque, a benefit for the Westside Boys and Girls Club at Hotel Andalucía’s El Cielo rooftop bar, Friday, October 6, from 9 p.m.-midnight. For tickets, call 705-7077. For the rest of his shows, see justinmichaelmusic.com.