Marx Entertainment Stays a Step Ahead of the Public’s Vibe
When Mark Ashe started his career in the DJ entertainment and event services industry, he’d walk into a job with two milk crates full of albums to spin.
Today, his digital music library includes more than 500,000 songs, with plenty of room for more. He suspects the computer-based system will continue to expand, not unlike his repertoire of services overall, which has grown from a one-man operation that began in the early 1980s to an all-inclusive event-production business, Marx Entertainment, based in Enfield, Conn.
The company now provides DJ services, live entertainment, video production, party rentals such as tents, tables, and chairs, and a number of ‘fun extras,’ including virtual reality and carnival games. New products and services are being added continuously, due to the ever-changing requests of the public and, subsequently, the changing face of the traveling entertainment sector.
Ashe said his business — once called Mark’s Rolling Dance Revue and since updated to have a more contemporary feel and better reflect its diverse services — has grown as it has adapted to the gradual changes this industry has seen.
“The learning curve never ends,” he said. “There are constant changes and new ideas, and what I do is look at all of the ideas out there, and decide what I think can work.”
Put the Needle on the Record
Ashe, an East Longmeadow native, first got the bug for disc jockeying and event production in 1979, when he was working as a self-described “gopher” for the Springfield radio station WAQY. He said at the time, DJs were few and far between, and usually relegated to dance clubs and bars.
“I was driving around the area, doing promotions, and I just got the itch,” Ashe recalled. “At the time, DJs were hard to find; it wasn’t like it is now.”
With no real path to follow, Ashe began blazing his own trail, by studying the club DJs of the late 1970s and early 1980s across the Northeast, sometimes with a pad and pen in hand as others partied around him. He then entered the dance clubs in Western Mass. on his own, and in early 1981, he’d acquired enough equipment and expertise to begin bringing nightclub-inspired entertainment to outside events.
Most of those early gigs were birthdays, anniversary parties, or school dances. Weddings, he said, had yet to become a major player in the DJ entertainment sector. Soon, that trend began to take shape, and Ashe was poised to capitalize on the new market.
The volume of couples seeking DJ services for their wedding day began to increase in the early 1990s, and has risen steadily ever since. Demand for such services has since escalated in other arenas, including the corporate and family markets, which have opened new doors for Marx Entertainment.
“I always knew I didn’t want to be a one-man show forever,” said Ashe. “I wanted to stay involved and working, which I do, but I also wanted to be known as a company that could provide basic DJ services as well as big, dynamic productions.”
Ashe said a number of business moves in the past have helped shape Marx Entertainment into the company it is today, and that focus on growth continues.
“We’ve gradually changed along with the industry,” he said, “but we’ve also taken some big leaps along the way.”
On the Road Again
One of the first was the formation of the Commonwealth’s first DJ training school, which Ashe opened in Agawam and operated for four years in the early 1990s. The endeavor eventually proved to be too much of a draw on his core business, but Ashe noted that several of his students later came to work for him, boosting his staff as well as the breadth of services he could offer.
“It was a great way to identify and train talent,” he said, “and in the end it benefited Marx. We started to develop a reputation in Massachusetts, and from that our Connecticut business began to grow.”
To capitalize on his reputation in Western Mass. and a new set of clients in Connecticut, Ashe chose to move his business from Agawam to Enfield in 2004. He now serves clients in both states as well as New York, New Jersey, Florida, and beyond (services for ‘destination events’ are also part of the Marx business model).
He also continues to study the industry and its trends across the country and the globe, both on his own time and at national industry conferences, and constantly adds new offerings to the Marx repertoire.
These include theme decoration and event-planning services, a wide variety of specialty event production such as simulated drive-in movies, and full video production for all types of events. Ashe is now in the process of incorporating ‘green-screen’ technology into his business as well, to offer simulated movies and music videos featuring event guests.
Some of these event-production developments have been major hits for Marx, like interactive games such as Dance Revolution, virtual golf simulators, and a ‘micro-reality’ racetrack that puts party-goers in the driver’s seat — sort of.
Others have been middle of the road in terms of client interest, such as casino tables. But Ashe keeps the service listed in order to serve those customers who are interested, and to remain prepared for a sudden boom in casino party planning — a possibility that isn’t farfetched.
Some ideas, he admits, have flopped. He’ll be doing away with foam pits for kids or college students, for instance, because interest wasn’t as high as he’d hoped, and maintenance of the apparatus can be time-consuming.
But the process of building a multi-faceted event-production company from a solo disc jockey service is one that has been characterized by trial and error, as Ashe carves a niche in an industry he has also helped to define.
While still learning new tricks of the trade, Ashe has shared his own insights with fellow event producers and DJ services. He’s served as a contributing editor for well-known trade publications such as Mobile Beat and the DJ Times, and also serves as a speaker at industry events such as the two largest national DJ conferences in Atlantic City and Las Vegas.
That national presence might have offered some of the inspiration Ashe needed to make another of those big moves he spoke of often with BusinessWest.
He said that about five years ago, he noticed an emerging trend toward more family-centric events in particular — a desire to create larger, more memorable affairs with unique entertainment, including elaborate themes, live dancers, and sophisticated games.
The problem, which Ashe saw as an opportunity, was that Western New England had few, if any, such event-production companies handling get-togethers of that magnitude.
“There were no resources for high-end parties like that,” he said. “People were going to New York to find talent in that area.”
So, Ashe said he followed suit.
“New York City is teeming with out-of-work actors, dancers, or just people who were born to do one or both,” he said. “There are plenty of people looking for work down there, so I went to find the talent, and brought them here to come work for me.”
His staff of 28 is now comprised in part by professional emcees and ‘dance motivators,’ who perform at events but also work to keep guests active and engaged. Since this aspect of the company took shape, Ashe said his bar- and bat mitzvah business has skyrocketed. Now, so-called ‘extreme 16’ parties, popularized by reality shows such as MTV’s My Super Sweet Sixteen, are taking both 15th and 16th birthday parties (usually among teen-aged girls) to a new level, and further boosting Marx’s client list.
“We’re offering New York-style productions that aren’t over the top,” he said, noting that this still-new aspect of Marx Entertainment has also spurred some cross-over into the corporate market. “Apparently, the big kids want to play, too.”
Not content to rely on this emerging trend, though, Ashe has recently made another move, this time teaming with a partner, Andrew Jensen, to form a sister company to Marx called JenMark, which will focus on producing corporate conferences and trade shows.
His first foray into this market will promote his own industry. Ashe is preparing to roll out a vendor show at the Connecticut Expo Center on Oct. 7. The show will resemble a wedding expo, but will center on the super-sized events for kids and teens that Marx has already seen growing in popularity.
Ashe said he is sending invitations this month to potential vendors, ranging from caterers to novelty providers to fellow DJs, and hopes to secure 150 booths for an anticipated 2,000 visitors. He’s already working on hiring an MTV VJ for the event, and the Jewish Ledger has signed on as a media sponsor. Other sponsorships are in the works, too.
The venture is a daunting one, but one that Ashe said has a market, and fills a need — or at least, a strong want.
“One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that entertainment always seems to survive,” he said. “Through depression or recession, people still find a way to throw great parties. I think it’s something that keeps us connected.”
And while Ashe’s record albums have taken on a new function, serving as art on his office walls instead of entertaining a crowd, they provide a link to the past and vivid reminders that, in this business, one can’t get ahead by standing still.
Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]