Sharing Country Music’s Best-Kept Secrets: An Interview with Western AF Co-Founder Brian Harrington

by Clayton Edwards
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If you’re a country music fan who isn’t subscribed to the Western AF YouTube channel, you’re missing out. Their goal is simple: promote good music. They take an independent country artist, put them in a cool location, and let them do their thing. In the last few years, they’ve hosted artists like Colter Wall, Riddy Arman, Willi Carlisle, Charley Crockett, Vincent Neil Emerson, and plenty more.

Brian Harrington and Mike Vanata posted the first video on the Western AF channel eight years ago. However, their friendship, collaborations, and passion for music go back further than that. Recently, I spoke to Brian Harrington about the origins of the channel, what goes into creating their videos, and, of course, music.

The Origins of Western AF

Brian Harrington: Mike and I met in college. We met on the first day because Mike was helping folks move into the dorms, pretending to be an RA despite being a freshman. He and I just kind of stuck together since then. We were both going to school for camera sort of things. Mike was in a broadcast journalism program and I was in a photography program. After leaving school, we both just did what we could to keep cameras in our hands. For me, it was a commercial photography business and for Mike, it was a commercial video business and some journalism and things like that.

Our collaborative projects together, a lot of the time, centered around featuring music that we love. It was mostly like our friends that were in bands or whatever. We would do what we could to feature those guys. That sort of slowly evolved and kept growing. In 2019, we shot a video with Colter Wall that built the base level of our platform that allowed us to continue to do this and to do it with more regularity and intention.

The genesis of it all was that Mike and I wanted to work together. Sharing good music was the thing that we both really wanted to do. So, Western AF is the logical conclusion of those two things.

“Cowpoke” – Colter Wall

Location, Location, Location

Brian Harrington: We put a lot of effort into our location selection. It’s really important to us that the locations match either the substance of the song or the vibe of the artist. More than anything, the location really has to match up with what you’re hearing. The visual needs to be representative of the audio. That’s what we always try to keep in mind.

We may pick a spot and it’s like a dot on the map and be like “Okay, in this building, we’re going to do a shoot.” But, as far as what corner of the room we’re going to shoot in or where the light is good, those things are kind of shoot-time decisions. That might hinge on something little like what color the artist’s shirt is or something like that. More often than not, it comes down to where the light is of good quality and where we think we can make it sound good.

It’s Hard to Pick a Favorite Spot

Brian Harrington: I feel like there are so many and they’re so different. You could think of Riddy Arman playing in that train car up in Montana, that’s a very cool location. There are other ones that I think rise to the top. We try to formulate an environment for something cool to happen. Then, we just point our camera at a musician and they make something cool happen. They make that magic moment.

“Spirits, Angels, or Lies” – Riddy Arman

There’s another Western AF video of Riddy playing in front of a campfire that I think is terrific. That scene is incredible. When the location matches the feel of the video it’s hard to place a value on one over another because it’s just a magic moment when it happens.

Capturing the Sonic Magic in the Moment

Brian Harrington: It’s a balance. Our audio techs are Will Ross and Curtis Harnish who are both longtime friends that joined us on this project. We use one of them for almost every video. At times, we bootstrap it and do the audio on our own which I think we pull off alright.

We try to keep things as light and fast as possible. Our whole shoot process is meant to be more like you’re hanging out than you’re showing up for a video production. So, we try really hard to keep the microphones out of the shot. We use a little Sennheiser lav mic for a lot of stuff because it’s so close to the guitar and the vocals. Most of the time, there are a couple of microphones right out of frame.

I think our audio folks would like there to be more microphones and want them closer. But, they deal with our bullshit and put them a little further out.

Willi Carlisle playing “Van Life” and showing the power of a lav mic, three chords, and the truth

Finding New Talent for Western AF

Brian Harrington: It’s sort of like we’re on a path and the folks just keep appearing in a couple of different ways. First, we ask the musicians that we love who they’re listening to and who they think we should shoot with and we take their word for it and go track those people down. Mike and I listen to a ton of music and that helps. We also have a form on our website that folks can submit music and we get a handful a day. And we listen to all of those. So, if you send us music we’re going to listen to it. We used to respond to every email but we’re falling off. But, we do give them the time of day. On occasion, we find somebody that we really love from the website or through an Instagram message.

We started Western AF because we love this music that nobody is hearing. So, that will always be an important part of what we do. We’re never above shooting with an artist just because they don’t have a ton of Instagram followers or something dumb like that. We try to keep it as egalitarian as possible.

Passion Meets the Pandemic

Brian Harrington: In March of 2020, we were two days away from heading to SXSW when it got canceled. At that time, our channel had something like five thousand or ten thousand subscribers or something like that and we were over the moon. We were dying, thinking “We’ve made it now,” because we had that many.

Then everything went on lockdown. All the venues closed, all the musicians had a hard time making it. At this point, we had befriended a bunch of those folks. So, we’re watching these friends of ours not be able to make rent. At that point, we started our Cabin Fever Sessions. That was our way of meeting the moment. We just let people play. We’d put together shows over Zoom and live stream them. It was always super stressful because you never knew if the live stream equipment would work. And there was some inherent risk of being in a room with other people, even our super small crew.

We were doing that hoping to get artists paid. We were using the revenue we made from YouTube streams and New Belgium Brewery sponsored us to pay artists. So, between those we were able to pay artists to be on and pay our technician who was doing the audio and keeping the live stream up. We never left with any money but the artists did and that was the whole goal of the thing. We now had this albeit small platform and we thought that we should use it for the thing that it’s conceptually for. We’re here to promote music. But, that early pandemic was money where your mouth is for us. Like, “So what we’re not going to have any money left at the end of the month in the bank account? We’ve got to keep artists making music.”

It Never Hurts to Ask

Brian Harrington: New Belgium made the heavy-lift happen. We’re in Laramie, Wyoming and they’re based in Fort Collins, which is just an hour away. So we just cold-called and they said, “Maybe not as a corporate thing but talk to our Texas branch.” So we talked to their Texas team and they said sure, just bring some Texas artists on. They were mailing people beer so they had beer to drink while they played. It was a good partnership for everyone.

Celebrate 307 Week with Western AF

Brian Harrington: Right now, we’re prepping for a thing we call 307 Week. Wyoming is a big state with no people. The one area code is 307. So, March 7th is 307 Day. It’s not an official holiday but we all like to celebrate. So, we celebrate at Western AF with seven videos. It’s the only week of the year where we release more than one video. We release one every day starting on March 1st until March 7th. All of them are Wyoming acts.

More Good Music

If you love good country music, you’re going to love what Western AF does. So, go check out their YouTube Channel. As I write this, they’re three days into 307 Week. So, you can go check out some great independent Wyoming-based artists.

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