This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Gary Chetkof, owner/president Radio Woodstock; founder of Mountain Jam; and co-founder of Taste of Country.
In the face of recent business improprieties, it’s easy to believe that every top executive is only out for personal profit maximization.
But Gary Chetkof was quoted in Billboard in 1994 saying, “You don’t get into [a modern rock station] to make a lot of money. To me, you should keep it cool and hip.”
Chetkof has continued to follow this guiding principle as a radio station owner as well as a festival and concert promoter.
In 1993, Chetkof–then a lawyer specializing in communications law–purchased 3,000-watt Radio Woodstock 100.1 WDST that had started broadcasting in 1980, and which mirrored the eclectic nature of the Woodstock, New York community.
Radio Woodstock evolved to become one of the first alternative radio stations in the United States. By the late 1990s, it was a pioneer of the Triple-A format (Adult Album Alternative) with music programming aimed at an adult audience.
Tagged “the coolest radio station on the planet” by its admirers, Radio Woodstock is one of remaining independently-owned and locally operated radio stations in America.
Chetkof’s laid-back business criterion has also led to Mountain Jam and Taste of Country becoming two of New York State’s flagship summer music festivals. Their location at Hunter Mountain, high in the Catskill Mountains, creates an idyllic and picturesque backdrop to camp, and to soak up music.
With both Mountain Jam and Taste of Country happening over June weekends annually you seem to have a unique relationship with the Hunter Mountain resort.
I’m not sure how unique it is. I guess that it has…
Well, there’s a stability with the relationship.
Yes, from that standpoint. They are a ski resort. Let’s start with the fact that what I think makes festivals really different than a concert is the atmosphere. That is what really separates it. It is not your normal indoor/outdoor shed. I’m not crazy about festivals that are in parking lots.
The wife of Barry Dickins, co-managing dir. International of Talent Booking Agency in London, had a wonderful line about festivals. She said, “I’m too old to stand in a field. I don’t care where the field is. I’m not standing in a field. I’ve done all that for years. I’m not doing that anymore.”
(Laughing) Well, that’s a festival to me.
How about a muddy field?
Oh a muddy field, okay. I understand that one. That’s the problem with festivals but you just need to be prepared.
Prior to becoming a festival promoter, you had attended Woodstock ‘94, and Woodstock ‘99, as well as Bonnaroo, coming away thinking a festival was “the coolest thing in the world.”
A festival to me is multi-day and where you can get lost in a weekend and experience things that I think are magical. Why festivals have grown so successful is that it is not your ordinary experience. It’s almost like going to Disney World. You are getting away for a weekend, and you lose your inhibitions. You make new friends. You wake up in the morning—whether you are in a tent or in a hotel room–and have a cup of coffee with somebody that you might see throughout the weekend; who you are going to talk to. There are connections and bonds made and then, when you are in this environment until late at night, the whole dynamic of the festival changes from day to night. Again, there is a different social aspect to it. All of that happens only in festivals. It doesn’t happen when you go back to your bed at night, and your day is over.
A festival provides escapism.
Absolutely. There’s a form of tribalism to it. You are also unplugged to a certain extent from technology. This really is the original social connection and human interaction. Some people dress up. Some people paint their faces. Some people get inebriated. Whatever they might do some kind of transformation is happening if you are sitting around in nature, hopefully, and in Hunter Mountain, you are under the stars. There’s, maybe, a fire going on. There is a certain kind of magic, and it’s about the experience. The overall experience. And the music is what brings everybody together, and the venue has a very special place in creating that unique experience.
Hunter Mountain is a gorgeous ski lodge up in the mountains. Not only are we in the Hudson Valley, but we are in the Catskill Mountains. Very high attitude with beautiful scenery, and wildlife running through the woods. There are lakes, and there are streams. Then there is infrastructure. There’s a building. A lot of festivals are in the middle of a field, and you are in tents all weekend. There’s something very good about having a building that has real bathrooms. Probably the worst part of a festival is the porta potties
[During the mid-50’s a group of local businessmen, including Orville Slutzky, Karl Plattner Sr. and Israel Slutzky, created the Hunter Mountain Development Corp., which was the first operator of Hunter Mountain. Headed by James Hammerstein, the son of Oscar Hammerstein II, the group included many Hollywood and Broadway figures of the time. With Orville and Izzy Slutzky providing most of the land, and their firm I. & O.A. Slutzky providing the construction, ground was broken to develop the ski area in the summer of 1959. On January 9, 1960, Hunter Mountain opened. In 2016, Peak Resorts acquired Hunter Mountain for an estimated $36 million, ending more than the half-century run of the original owners.]
You have a problem wedging yourself into a plastic enclosure?
Not a good experience.
How much camping is available for the festivals?
Half of the area is camping. Half the people camp.
Last year Mountain Jam attracted how many people?
Last year we had over 40,000 people over the three days. A lot of them were repeats. Some three-quarters of them are festival goers and one-quarter are single day people.
The camping aspect of Mountain Jam would be under 10,000 people?
Camping is more 5,000 or 6,000 people. We are actually running out of camping because one of the downsides of being in the mountains is that there is not a lot of flat land. So we are running out of camping spaces which is a problem. On the other hand, there are plenty of hotels, ski chalets and Airbnbs. Being that it’s a ski resort a lot of the homes nearby were built to lodge 10 or 12 people.
For this year’s Mountain Jam, the focus seems to be less about headlining acts then pairing notable acts to accompany each other, whether they are headliners or not. All of the artists, except for Alaska’s Portugal. The Man, are newcomers to the festival. Still there are certainly some notable acts among the 50 booked including Jack Johnson, Alt-J, Sturgill Simpson, Rag’n’Bone Man, the War on Drugs, Father John Misty, the Decemberists, Chicano Batman, Jenny Lewis, and George Clinton & Parliament-Funkadelic.
In recent years, you have changed the festival’s focus from when line-ups were heavy on jam bands and classic rock. This is a different festival.
Yes, it is. We did make a conscious effort to try to bring more contemporary rock into the festival, and into our (year long) indoor shows than to rest on the jam band and the classic rock laurels because we saw that their audience was shifting, and a lot of the classic rock bands are literally passing on. We had Gregg Allman and Tom Petty and, of course, we lost them both of them this past year. The Dead had broken up. We really didn’t envision that they would continue on as Dead & Company with John Mayer (and former Grateful Dead members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann along with Oteil Burbridge, and Jeff Chimenti). We looked at the future, and we said, “We should probably get a little bit more contemporary.”
Does owning Radio Woodstock provide you with feedback about what artists would be relevant?
Absolutely. Because the station is such a supporter of these bands it is hard not to be influenced by the radio station’s programming and to see what the fans like. So absolutely the radio station informs our decision on (festival) programming quite a bit.
You launched the Taste of Country festival in 2013.
My partner and co-founder is Townsquare Media, the third largest radio company in the U.S–small and medium-sized radio markets. They also became my partner in Mountain Jam at that time.
[Based in Greenwich, Connecticut, Townsquare Media is the third largest AM–FM operator in the U.S. owning over 310 radio stations in 66 markets.]
How did Taste of Country come about?
That’s from when one of those light bulbs went off (in my head). It used to be that it took us two to three months to recover from Mountain Jam. When it started it was five of us working on it. I was running the festival, and I needed the rest of the summer off. Every year Mountain Jam got easier to do, and my recovery time was down to less than a week. I said, “Maybe, we can book this place (at Hunter Mountain). Instead of tearing everything down why don’t we think of another show that we get to come in here that is totally a different audience.” Taste of Country used to take place the week after Mountain Jam. Mountain Jam has since moved to being after Taste of Country.
Your wife must be ready to kill you leading up to a pair of June festivals. Taste of Country (June 8-10), and then Mountain Jam the following weekend (June 15-17).
She’s used to it by now.
You only did two years–2015 and 2016–of the one-day festival Speed of Sound that took place in August at Hunter Mountain.
Speed of Sound is on hiatus at the moment because of what you just said. My wife was like, “You are doing another festival in August. Are you crazy?” We did it twice, and I said, “You know what? I’m in the same position (as with Taste of Country). It doesn’t pay to build something one day, and then tear it down. If I’m going to keep continuing it will have to go to two days.”
[The inaugural Speed of Sound festival in 2015 featured the Avett Brothers, Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Hot Tuna, Amy Helm & The Handsome Strangers, Connor Kennedy and Minstrel with guests Kate Pierson, Jackie Greene, Mercury Rev, Buffalo Stack, Elijah Wolf, and Upstate Rubdown. In 2016, the Lumineers, Simone Felice, Rayland Baxter, Swear and Shake, Nicole Atkins, and Fiction Of The Future performed.]
What is the weekend and day pricing for Mountain Jam?
You are looking at around $220. Camping is another $30. Per day pricing, it’s $99.
What is the pricing for Taste of Country?
I actually think it is too reasonable. (Festival) prices have not kept up with concert prices. I’ve been complaining about that because if you split it up between the bands on the bill that are notable by the ticket price, you (attendees) are getting a bargain.
Certainly, when you see individually-priced events.
Yeah. Absolutely. I pay this kind of money for just one show. It’s crazy.
Tickets for Bruce Springsteen on Broadway have been red hot despite a recent average ticket price being a whopping $507.60.
I know. And this is Springsteen who has always been for the working man. I don’t care about any of that. People say that a festival costs money because they are going for the weekend. If they are staying in a hotel or whatever it adds up. But overall the prices are less, and I think that it is a bargain for music lovers.
How do you stop the two festivals colliding with each other? Despite being different genres, you nevertheless are still taking money out of the marketplace.
Totally different audiences. It the red versus the blue states. It’s the Democrats versus the Republicans. It is a different audience as there is in America.
What are the headliners of Taste of Country this year?
We have Florida Georgia Line, Sam Hunt and I forget the third guy. You can tell I’m not a country fan. Is it Luke Bryan? Let me look it up. I can’t believe I can’t remember it. Oh, it’s Eric Church. Also, LeeAnn Rimes will be there.
Eric Church is akin to John Mellencamp. He could easily play Mountain Jam.
That’s the thing. There’s a lot of crossover.
Go back 14 years when you approached the people operating Hunter Mountain for Mountain Jam. What was their immediate reaction to your request for a music festival there?
To my surprise, they welcomed it. They said, “We used to do festivals here.” I was shocked because I had then lived here in the Hudson Valley for 12 years, and had never thought to go to Hunter Mountain, except to ski in the wintertime.
Hunter Mountain’s owners were obviously seeking an offseason revenue payoff.
Absolutely. So they are smart to try to use their facilities for the offseason. The first year was a one day festival to celebrate Radio Woodstock’s 25th anniversary. I had purchased the station in 1993 and had moved up to Woodstock. It wasn’t until 12 years later that it was the radio station’s 25th anniversary.
For the first year, there were four bands?
Gov’t Mule, Robert Randolph & The Family Band, Medeski, Martin & Wood, and Xavier Rudd were the name acts, yes.
You started off fairly modest.
It started off very modestly. I had only produced concerts that were in inside venues. I had never done an outside concert before, but when I grew up as an avid radio listener to both WNEW-FM in New York City, and to WLIR in Long Island, I used to go to their summer concerts.
WLIR was one of the pioneers of the new music/modern rock format.
WDST is modeled on both of those stations. WBAB, I also remember (then having an album-oriented rock format). So I had this idea that if this was the 25th anniversary of the radio station, why don’t we throw an outdoor concert like I used to go to when I was a kid? People can throw frisbees, and drink beer in the sunshine. I knew nothing about bringing in staging, sound, lights, fencing and porta potties. But I learned awfully fast. This is where the unique relationship was. Hunter Mountain was very accommodating, and said, “We will help you with the stage,” and “We used to do festivals here.”
How about dealing with the local authorities who had kept the original Woodstock Festival in 1969 out of the community?
At this point in time, we are talking about a small event. We had 3,300 people the first year.
The first Mountain Jam was also viewed as being supportive of a local business, your own radio station.
Yeah, the radio station. It was a one-day event. It wasn’t looked at as a big to do. But after the festival was over so many people came up to me and said, “That was amazing. Are you going to do this again next year?” I was like, “I have no plans to do this next year. It was for the 25th anniversary of the radio station. Maybe in five years for the 30th anniversary.” But I had so many people come up to me with comments. Then I did some accounting, and we made some money on it. I was like, “I can’t believe that you can do this event and that you can have so much fun, have so many people involved, and make money on it too.” I was shocked.
You had only been looking at a way to celebrate the station’s anniversary? The festival was also a way to further brand the radio station, and also put something back into the community?
It was all done for those reasons. There was no profit motive at all. My whole goal was not to lose money.
Obviously, since that first festival, you have developed relationships with numerous booking agents. Have they been supportive of you over the years, or has it been a case of “If something is coming through, I’ll see what we can do?”
The agents are pretty much supportive because it is another outlet for their artists. But, in some respects, they were more supportive in the earlier years. Now that there are so many festivals….
June itself has become a significant live music and festival month with the likes of The Governors Ball Music Festival, Bonnaroo, Electric Forest, and Summer Jam happening.
Then there are countless municipalities and towns with music-based events.
Also with past revenue streams from their recordings now sapped, musicians look at June, July, August and September as their peak touring period. Maybe do dates in June in the U.S.; July or August in Europe; and then return to America for Fall dates.
With you doing a pair of festivals in June, you are right in the period when acts are most in demand.
Yeah, well where that makes it difficult on the booking side is with the headliners. There are so many bands out there that can fill all of the other slots. They are never in short supply. The headliners are what drive you crazy. And I know that they drive other promoters of my size crazy. They can’t get the proper headliner. There are so many obstacles. I would say it’s demand. They (the act) would have to be touring. Or have to be in the United States instead of Europe where they are all running to in the summertime. And then they have to be in the Northeastern area. Then we are competing against the sheds that are in this area. We have the Saratoga Performing Arts Centre (in Saratoga Springs, New York–74 miles away). To the north, we have Bethel Woods (The Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in Bethel, New York–72 miles away). Both of are controlled by Live Nation. We have two festivals in New York City, The Governors Ball, and Panorama, and they both have radius clauses that their headliners can’t play.
Have radius clauses become more constricting?
Yeah, even though I am 100 miles to the north with a wholly different programmed festival (Mountain Jam) with a completely different feeling.
Meanwhile, artist fees have skyrocketed even for mid-level acts.
The prices are astronomical, and they make no sense. The thing is that when I first got into the business—since you got the story about me–everything is organically that has happened. For business, I look at Pollstar and CelebrityAccess and I see the (fee) numbers, and I say, “Well, this is what they (an act) normally get for a concert, but this is a festival. I don’t understand because they are playing to more people (at a festival) who are not their fans. Why am I paying for that? Aren’t I helping to promote them to new fans? I would think they would wish to play festival.”
Are higher fees why you have more new acts this year?
Not really. The new acts we have are pretty much in demand too. What we did was that we went after the top names in this genre of music. Believe me these bands are not easy to get either.
For the festivals are you using RFID access control, and cashless payment systems yet?
Funny that you should mention it. Taste of Country uses the RFID, but Mountain Jam doesn’t. I think that with the RFID wrist bands, there are a lot of downsides. They are very expensive. I think that they are a luxury item. If you have a really big festival where you are at 20,000, 25,000 or 40,000 people attending it’s a good thing to have. For a small festival, unless you are doing cashless transactions which we aren’t doing, they aren’t worth the costs.
How about dedicated high bandwidth connections or routers, data hubs, and Wi-Fi receiver-transmitters?
We have IT specialists. TOURtech takes care of all that. We can do the tickets. If I do a whole separate network, where you have to bring in different scanners, then we just don’t bother with that part of it, but everything else is totally wireless.
If the Wi-Fi connection goes down, it can hurt things like bar sales.
Yeah. It’s always crazy to me when the technology goes down, and you are standing in a bar on the site with $10 in your hand, and you can’t get what you want. “C’mon, rea-ll-ly? You haven’t figured out a way to accept cash if you have to?”
Safety has been an issue at festivals of late. Are you are familiar with Jim Digby’s Event Safety Alliance?
[In 2011, following the Indiana State Fair outdoor stage roof collapse, Philadelphia-based production veteran Jim Digby joined with other event industry professionals to launch the Event Safety Alliance. ESA’s focus is centered on identifying, and distilling the standards and codes that apply to the live event industry; as well as teaching the best in operational practices, and decision-making criteria–from building scaffolding, setting up large outdoor stages, to establishing evacuation plans, and planning for inclement weather–that would allow those working in the industry to work safely.]
Under tort law, you or your festival workers could be personally held responsible in case of a mishap or injury. Nor would any of you likely be indemnified through a work contract.
Sure. That’s why insurance is so high. We live in a very litigious society and everybody gets blamed. Everybody needs insurance, and everybody gets paid out. You are held to some kind of responsibility at the end. It is definitely one of the risks of being a festival concert promoter.
[In tort law, a duty of care is a legal obligation imposed on an individual requiring adherence to a standard of reasonable care while performing any acts that could foreseeably harm others. It is the first element that must be established to proceed with an action in negligence. Breaching a duty may subject an individual to liability.]
Given what’s happened in recent years have you tightened safety at events?
Absolutely. Your number one responsibility is the safety of your attendees. You mentioned talent fees earlier, I think that security costs have just ballooned over the years, but you can’t skimp on it. It’s crazy what has to be done, but all it takes is one missed search or one flaw in the system for some crazy guy to sneak in.
How about if bad weather suddenly develops?
We have a weather service. We have a manual everybody (the staff) is aware of. We have safety meetings. We have practices where everybody is on an emergency channel listening for instructions. We have a very well-oiled machine. We also monitor storms online. We can watch the radar in our production office, and talk to the right people. We have been very much commended with our track record by all of the local authorities.
Promoters have to be able to make tough decisions at a moment’s notice like considering the speed of an approaching storm to shut down a festival.
Weather has always been a factor. I have done 14 Mountain Jams, 6 country festivals, and a blues festival. That 21 festivals and you are going to get a lot of bad weather. We have dealt with some crazy things. We did a blues festival Bluestock (August 26 – 27, 2011) at Hunter Mountain during Hurricane Irene. I was the producer of that event, on behalf of the promoters, Steve and Jeff Simon. That really taught me about…
How fast did you close down?
We tracked that storm for days. We actually didn’t close down until a certain time on Saturday where we had both headliners, Robert Cray and Buddy Guy that were due to play Saturday and Sunday, play on Saturday. It was one of the best concerts for blues. Then we closed down around 5 o’clock in the afternoon and moved the rest of Saturday’s bands inside the venue. Got everybody inside or home. Took down the stage, and the lights in perfect timing. Then it started raining literally 30 or 60 minutes afterward, and then the hurricane hit us.
Then it was a fiasco.
The power went out. The bridges went out, and people were stuck up there for a night. It was very interesting. But that is why you must buy rain cancellation insurance. Afterward, it cleared up, and people were upset that we had closed down. Everybody second guesses you, but I would rather be second-guessed for closing when we didn’t[‘t need to than be second-guessed not closing when we needed to.
[As reported by Estela Ponce in the Chicago Blues Guide, “The rain came. More than 12 inches of it would be recorded in the Hunter Mountain area over the next 24 hour period. The bridge over the large creek that connected the festival with the main street in town would eventually be closed. Bluestockers on the festival side couldn’t cross over to get to groceries, gas….”]
You are also one of the busiest concert promoters in the Hudson Valley throughout the year.
Yes, I have been booking shows all throughout the Hudson Valley for years. The reason I got into doing that is that my radio station WDST is the modern rock progressive station. It was the smallest of the rock stations in the market, and the powerhouse classic rock station, WPDH out of Poughkeepsie, would always get to announce the concerts. One time I called the band’s record company and I said, “We were the first to break the band. How come we aren’t getting to announce the band?” And they were like, “Nobody wants to piss off the big guy in town, but if you really want to get onstage to announce the band why don’t you buy the act?” I was like, “What do you mean buy the act? What does that mean?” He was like “You rent the hall, pay the artist to come, and you put on the show as the promoter.” So I said, “I’m going to do that.” So that is how I got into the business.
When would that be?
That was probably in the late ‘90s.
WPDH is a 50,000-watt classic rock station that also broadcasts from four repeater stations.
And we are a 3,000-watt station
You do on the average 24 shows a year?
Yes. Most of our shows now are at the Bearsville Theatre in Woodstock which is right next to the radio station.
You’ve had some great acts including Govt Mule, the Wallflowers, Rickie Lee Jones, Robert Randolph, Moe, Phish, the Jayhawks, Martin Sexton, Guster, Aimee Mann, Stephen Stills, Natalie Merchant, Hot Tuna, and others.
Yeah, we have had incredible people. We recently did the Dixie Dregs. They just a 40th-anniversary reunion of the original band. This shows our diversity. We did the Dixie Dregs and it was followed by the Felice Brothers playing. Both shows were sold out. Again, it goes to show you that sell both the old rockers and the new rockers.
WDST is one of the original alternative music stations in America.
You are right. We have always been freeform.
Public radio with commercials.
We are. Listen to us now. We have gigantic playlists. The one constant in everything that you just said is that we always have played a lot of new music. We have always been proud to break new musicians. And that is the constant theme from the beginning even before I bought the station. The station supports emerging artists that we feel don’t get enough exposure, and it is our duty to turn people on. We have a microphone. We have a pipeline and if you don’t keep the new musicians going where is this all going to end up? I can’t think about classic rock music stations because I equate that to people sitting at home watching “I Love Lucy” re-runs all day.
This is from the guy who grew up championing U2 and Elvis Costello?
That’s right. They were breaking new ground. I almost got beat up for supporting Elvis Costello. Somebody once went up to me and said, “There’s only one Elvis in this world and don’t you forget that.”
How big is the space of the radio station?
It is quite large. It is almost 10,000 square feet.
Are you the sole owner?
I am the principal owner. When I bought the company (now called CHET-5 Broadcasting) I had friends and family that gave me money to help me buy it, and there are still limited partners in the station.
How hands-on are you?
I’m not really hands-on day to day, but I do go to the weekly meetings with each department.
How much staff do you have?
I‘d say I have 13 full-timers, and probably 7 part-timers for the radio station.
How many people are on the air?
I have four on-air Monday through Friday, and I have a whole bunch of weekenders on the weekend.
Do the weekday announcers pick their own music or is the music playlisted for them to choose from?
Two of the main announcers are the programming people. The program director and the music director. Greg Gattine is the PD, and host of the morning show, and MK (MaryKate “MK” Burnell) is music director and the afternoon drive. Justin Foy does middays and Dan Cahill does evenings. So on the morning, and the afternoon drive shifts there are the programmers who pretty well set their own playlists.
But WDST’s format isn’t freeform with an expanding playlist?
No, no. Not for everyone to follow a playlist. We have a couple of (freeform weekend) shows where the people really play what they want to play. One is Dave Leonard who does a show called “Radio Unleashed,” and Ida Hakkila who does the Saturday night party show (“Ida Hakkila’s Heavy Light Show”). They both have incredible taste, and they are all over the place.
In 2016, CHET-5 Broadcasting filed a trademark lawsuit in U.S. District Court, alleging that Birds of a Feather Media Limited’s 100 watts Pacifica affiliate WIOF-LP had infringed on the Radio Woodstock trademark by using “Woodstock 104” to identify itself. After 18 months with no prospect of a settlement, U.S. District Judge Frederick J. Scullin Jr. granted CHET-5 Broadcasting’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit “with prejudice,” meaning the trademark infringement complaint cannot be filed again. What was that all about?
The case should never have gone to court, but we couldn’t work out a rational solution.
[WDST had trademarked the brands Radio Woodstock in 1994, and Woodstock Radio in 2002.]
What was the problem?
There was just so much confusion. People would call us thinking that it was them. “What did you just say on the radio station?” We’d say, “It wasn’t us.” In the local community, there was a little bit of confusion. We were doing it more to protect the fact that we didn’t want anyone in the United States to be able to call themselves “Woodstock Radio” because the whole reason that I bought this radio station in 1993 was to have the synergy of being the “Woodstock Radio” station. This could have opened up a can of worms. In the end, they didn’t have any programming that would get outside of Woodstock. So we just had to let it go.
You are originally from Long Island?
How did you end up at Emory University in Atlanta studying political science, and psychology?
I wanted to go as far away as I could, and into hot weather. Very simple.
Did you graduate?
I did with honors. I was pre-law.
You became a lawyer?
Yes, I was a lawyer. I went to the American University Washington College of Law. I graduated in the top of my class. I got a job at the biggest law firm in the country, Skadden Arps (Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom).
What type of law did you specialize in?
Communications law (the regulation of electronic communications by wire or radio). I wanted to be an entertainment lawyer, but I was in Washington, D.C. and there’s no entertainment law there. Trust me. Because I was there it was broadcasting. I interned at the Federal Communications Commission, and I interned at a law firm that did FCC work. Then I was I hired in the communication department of the law firm (Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom) because I had communications experience.
How long did you work there?
I was there two and a half years. The first client assigned to me was Metromedia Radio in New York. John Kluge was selling the radio station group to his management team of the radio stations. It was one of the first leveraged buy-outs in the radio business. Unfortunately, Michael Milken and his “junk” bonds (high-yield bonds) were behind the deal. But I was the lawyer representing the management group that Kluge was selling to. They spun off the radio stations into a separate company (which took on the Metropolitan Broadcasting name before being sold to various other owners by the early 1990s). After the deal closed, I was the associate attorney at the firm. Then, after two years, they asked me to come to New York to become their general counsel. I ended up moving to New York which is something that I wanted to go back to and worked in WNEW’s offices and studio on 42nd and Third Avenue.
You didn’t have to take the MTA in from Long Island?
No. I walked 20 blocks every day. It was the best job ever. That’s how I got the radio bug. I loved it so much. Then Bob Sillerman, who started SFX, he bought the company because they couldn’t finance the junk bonds.
Bob Sillerman’s SFX Broadcasting bought up enough stations to become America’s seventh largest radio chain.
That’s right. He rolled up hundreds of stations. He rolled that group up. He rolled me up with it. I moved to his office, and I worked for him for five years. I learned how to buy, and sell radio stations. Then I heard that there was a radio station in Woodstock, New York for sale. I thought. “Wow. Woodstock, New York, I could have a superstation because one day there is going to be satellite radio, and I could have the “Woodstock Radio Station” beaming all over the world. So I came up here. I trademarked “Woodstock” for many businesses associated with music and broadcasting. We were one of the first stations to broadcast on the internet back in 1995 if you can believe that one.
What was it like working for Robert Sillerman?
It definitely shaped my whole business acumen. Seeing Sillerman and his general counsel Howard Tytel was something to be really inspired by, and be in awe of, but they were seriously flawed personalities. That was the downside of it. There was arrogance and there was a lot of just behavior that by today’s climate would be controversial, let’s just say. It is interesting. Fantastic on one side, and a little disconcerting on the other side.
What was your take on Sillerman, under the SFX Entertainment banner, spending about $2.5 billion In the late 1990s rolling up promoters in North America and Europe? Then Sillerman sold his promotion properties to radio conglomerate Clear Channel Communications for about $4 billion.
Once again, it’s Jekyll and Hyde. His timing was impeccable, and he had the vision to roll up the radio business, to roll up the concert business, and he wanted to roll up the management business at one point. Then he tried to roll up the EDM industry. Nobody is 100%. He’s two out of four. He hit big twice, and then he had a couple of failures. I wonder why people just go on and on. To me, once you cash out at that level, good for you for selling.
[Robert Sillerman’s first acquisition after SFX’s revamping was Louisiana’s Disco Donnie Productions. Sillerman later acquired the Miami Marketing Group; Chicago-based EDM promoter React Presents; and Beatport, the largest dance-music download site in the world, for reportedly more than $50 million.]
The rise and fall of Robert Sillerman, including the troubles facing his new company Function(x)–now converted into a Chapter 11 bankruptcy which allows him to continue to operate while the proceedings take place–are well documented. His move to bring a large swath of the EDM industry into one company in a short period of time, and to go public with the company was an immense miscalculation.
Yeah, that was totally bizarre to me. I don’t know why he did that. Just to go to one specific (musical) genre. I guess if you really felt that was going to be the future. Like if you were in hip-hop 20 years ago, but nobody really had that same vision that he did. It turned out to be an awful decision.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-80. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”
He is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry.