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Independent Influence: The double life of GYK Antler’s Luke Garro

Luke Garro, EVP, GYK Antler / Photo: Jeremy Weiss

There’s a thing in the entertainment industry that everyone wants to be something else. Musicians want to act. Actors want to sing or direct. It’s the kinetic creative energy that fuels their dualities — and those “other lives” they want to lead. But what about a double life?

To wit, one rarely sees musicians wanting to be agency guys. But if you think about how creatives approach their respective crafts, having a punk drummer become a leader of an independent agency doesn’t seem too far off — and it’s a double life that actually makes a lot of sense.

Luke Garro is EVP of content at Boston and Manchester, NH independent marketing agency GYK Antler. He’s also the drummer for indie rock band Piebald, which just wrapped up its “You’re Part of It” reunion tour this year after their initial breakup in 2008.

One might say that the rock ‘n’ roll notoriety wasn’t part of Garro’s original plan. He started playing music as a hobby when he was 14 years-old, eventually playing with hardcore bands Fastbreak and In My Eyes. In 2000 he graduated from Boston’s Northeastern University and went on tour with Piebald, never thinking it would be the way he earned a living. Garro doesn’t even bring it up in his professional life outside the music realm.

“I think it's true to the type of music I play, being more punk and indie where you don't necessarily get out and boast about it. You just do your thing and hope people are attracted to it and dig it. If you're in the know and you figured it out, I'm more than happy to talk about it,” said Garro.

The fact that Garro founded Street Attack (which would later morph into Antler) while still in Piebald shows that he never thought rock stardom would last forever.

“I actually started the agency as the side hustle, so put that complex situation together. I was a full-time musician maybe from 2001 until 2006 or so and I had the agency as something I'd come back to when I was in Boston. We were a guerilla marketing grassroots agency back then — setting up a band, going and making posters, doing borderline illegal stuff like spray-painting stencils and doing all kinds of stuff like that,” he said.

As Garro aged, the road didn’t have the same draw. He wanted a wife, house and all the trappings of a more “normal” life. So, he stopped being a full-time musician and went all-in on the agency. By the time Garro stopped drumming and started concentrating on the agency, Antler had multiple employees and a dedicated office. Things went well, then the band was being asked to do reunion shows. The crowds were bigger than the shows they played just before they stopped playing. While he doesn’t rule out any future shows, he also has plenty of fulfillment within the content studio he runs within GYK Antler. Garro refers to the content studio as his “playground,” since he is often re-skinning the content kitchens, sifting through his library of props, and making concoctions and BBQ donuts for clients like Sweet Baby Ray's. The space is a massive stand-alone studio in Western Massachusetts that's been completely renovated for content creation.

GYK Antler works with brands like ESPN, PayPal, the aforementioned Sweet Baby Ray’s and Harpoon Brewing, but the road to working with top brands started on the street and rose up to the board room.

Street Attack was indeed more guerilla, so when it rebranded and became Antler it dealt more with the online elements of marketing. Then, Garro met Travis York, president of GYK, and they hit it off and merged the two companies, “hence the funky name that no one could ever make up on their own, GYK Antler,” said Garro.

Authentic indie music success to authentic indie agency success

The scene in Boston at the time Piebald came into prominence – the band formed in 1994 but Garro didn’t join until 2000 – was edgy and fairly hardcore. Piebald had both of those traits, and they made sure that they didn’t play music that was designed for the masses or popular radio.

“We used a lot of odd time signatures and we were a little more aggressive and changed the parts and were a little bit more punchy and in your face. I think at that time there was just a craving for it and a lot of those people have grown up and we've stood the test of time with our fans. We've had people that say they saw us 15 years ago, come out and see us again who are in their mid to late 30s and they've said, ‘We've never stopped listening to you and in fact we have gotten our little brothers and sisters and their friends to listen to you guys,’ so I think it just naturally stuck because we're a part of this bigger, broader scene that existed that was a very defined and concentrated thing.”

Piebald played with bands that went big, including Jimmy Eat World, Dashboard Confessional and Dinosaur Jr., but they stayed below the radar for the most part, filling a more niche fan base. They got radio play regionally but never hit the big-time and remained road warriors. Garro and company toured so much they essentially lived out of a van or crashing at friends’ houses. But the reality about actually earning a living would kick in on occasion, which was one reason for starting an agency. The same sort of independent thinking that leads to bands like Piebald is the same that fuels agencies like GYK Antler.

“When you're a band out there trying to play music there might be some other stuff that sounds like you, but what's your story and how does that resonate and what made you authentic?” asked Garro, who added that Piebald always stuck true to their authenticity. “We really always had this unique story that a lot of other bands would look to us and say, ‘Wow. You guys are great guys, great to play with and your music is just so inspirational in the sense that you're writing songs that are different from everyone else.’”

Garro said that having that authenticity, that storytelling aspect, is what every brand wants to put out there. To be able to engage in conversations with people, to be true to their founding and have people connect with them is key to brand success.

“That's a huge part of what we do and especially what I concentrate on with my team, the storytelling aspect of what's there. I've always recognized that once you have that authentic story, there are ways that you want to be able to get it out there and there are ways you want to be able to connect to an audience around it that leads to this long-term growth with them. I always felt like the parts that I used to tell our story as musicians can very naturally be used for brands,” he said.

The second part of the indie success equation, according to Garro, is the networking side of it; “making connections and figuring out how to work with people you've met or leverage different relationships to do collaborative marketing or work together on various levels.”

As he travelled with the band, Garro met people involved in different aspects of the music business, much of which required feet on the street to deliver the marketing message, which is where the idea for Street Attack came from. He was able to relate to people in different markets because he knew them and knew the vibes in cities all over the country. That helped him with the collaborative efforts of the company and the clients he works with to create success for GYK Antler.

“[It’s about] really looking at an audience as something to value, foster, nurture and grow — not just something you're hoping gets some visibility to your one-sided message. It's got to be a win-win,” he added.

Looking at the ultimate win makes the collaboration easier, especially if a client knows the parameters up front and the relationship between agency and client is strong. Ultimately, Garro said that having a long-term vision and plan, then following through on it with the end goal in mind, is good for both bands and brands, even if it takes hard work and a ton of time.

"Nothing that's truly amazing, that you're hoping that's going to last and have a duration happens immediately,” concluded Garro. “Anything that takes a long time to achieve is going to last for a lot longer too. I think as quick as it comes it can go just as quickly, but anything that you really want to be, just go into it knowing that it's going to take some time but the end result will be that much more permanent.”

Additional reporting by Doug Zanger.