It only seems as though the duo of Michael Hargis and Clay Nutting burst from nowhere onto the Sacramento music and restaurant scene.
In reality, the pair – first individually – have spent years building audiences for various events separately before combining forces in 2011. Since then, their contribution to the Sacramento music and cultural landscape has been pronounced: Their music festival Launch (now renamed TBD) has become a top-tier regional event, they’ve opened two restaurants and have a third announced.
To them it’s about building community.
“It’s a core principle of who Mike and I are,” Nutting said. “Community is why I do everything.”
On Friday, one of their community offerings, the TBD Festival, opens for a three-night run that features 75 acts. The event, held in a West Sacramento field adjacent to the city’s minor-league baseball diamond, also showcases art, architecture, design and fashion elements.
The men – who say they still don’t take a salary from the event – are betting big as they try to grow the event to national prominence. The show features nationally known electronic music artists Moby and Empire of the Sun, but also loads of bands on the cusp of making it big.
When the crowds clear out Sunday, the two will be right back at their day jobs: running Lowbrau Bierhal – among one of the hottest spots in town – the adjacent Black Butcher Bar and prepping for their forthcoming establishment slated to open in West Sacramento.
The men said they were born to create audiences and comfortable environments – whether they’re temporary concerts or standing restaurants. And they both took the roundabout way to where they are now.
Hargis and Nutting say they’ve forged a highly collaborative business relationship in which they each balance the other. Hargis said he offers more of the creative vision, while Nutting said he provides more of the needed pragmatism.
While working other jobs, including a run in marketing, Nutting cut his teeth promoting concerts in support of charities. Meanwhile, after a successful run as a self-taught designer, Hargis has been producing music events in the area since 1995.
“When you meet someone who is doing something similar to what you’re doing, it’s either competitive or you find a way to work together,” Nutting said. “It just made sense to work together.”
In addition to sharing the bearded hipster aesthetic, the men have a similar background in that they were born in Sacramento, grew up elsewhere and returned to the area as young men.
Hargis, 41, was raised in Dallas, where his father owned a construction company and was a partner in restaurants. After an abbreviated return in the early ’90s, Hargis began calling Sacramento home in 1998.
He said he joined his dad’s company “kicking and screaming,” but he eventually found a love and skill for computer-aided design.
That background in design – and what he said is an innate feel for style – has given him the confidence to make bold choices in everything from designing logos, handbills, layout and traffic flows. He fell out of love with commercial building design during the market crash, he said. What he never lost was his love of music.
While his shows predated the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, he said he was heavily influenced by the event, which draws many of the biggest artists in the world to a desert venue.
“I knew there was unfinished business,” Hargis said.
Like Hargis, Nutting, 37, was born in the Sacramento region but grew up baling hay on a small family farm in Massachusetts. He, too, grew up collecting a wide range of music, occasionally picking up gems based on the album cover alone. He studied community health in college but found himself a go-to guy for marketing events on campus at Worcester State University in Massachusetts.
While still enrolled, he and friends launched a nonprofit that used music to introduce audiences to charities. The effort lasted through the geographic disintegration of the crew, including when Nutting moving back to California.
Music promotion took a back seat to full-time work, but Nutting always had his hand in music and helping draw crowds. The Sacramento Electronic Music Festival (likely on hiatus) was one of the projects.
He said he had an appreciation of music since he was a child and remembers being pleased when he got to pick out his family’s dinner time music. His move into marketing – he worked for a major marketing firm in town – despite his lack of trained experience was logical, he said.
“When you’re throwing around fliers at 15 years old, you find out what works and what doesn’t work,” Nutting said. “I was always in that world of trying to activate parties.”
Hargis said he was always willing to bet big on himself. To book the band he really wanted for Launch in 2011, he cashed out his 401(k) and even sold a coveted piece of designer furniture only to have the band back out.
“I called Clay and asked what I should do,” said Hargis, who is single.
Nutting, who is married and has one child, was lightly involved in 2011 before becoming a partner in 2012, when they took the event from a one-day event to weeklong affair.
The most impressive thing about the partnership is their ability to follow through with the vision, said Mike Testa, a senior official with the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau. Ten times a year, people pitch him their great new idea for a Sacramento event, but very few are ever implemented, he said.
“It’s one thing to have a great idea. It’s another thing to execute that idea, and that’s where Clay and Michael have been successful,” Testa said.
The pair’s dedication and passion for making Sacramento a better place to live is inspiring, said Emilie Cameron, who chairs the Metro Edge young professionals group.
“It’s motivating for all the people who sat on the sidelines,” Cameron said. “It’s tells people, ‘You can do it here.’ ”
The two don’t expect to break up the band any time soon.
“I see us joined at the hip for some time,” Nutting said.