Industry Profile: Doc McGhee
By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess MediaWire)
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Doc McGhee, CEO, McGhee Entertainment.
Doc McGhee’s life story is a movie.
Over three decades, rock n’ roll’s Cool Hand Luke has blustered, bullshitted, bamboozled and brilliantly strategized against all comers in his blood sport world of personal management.
Through the years, he has overseen the careers of Kiss, Bon Jovi, Mink DeVille, Night Ranger, James Brown, Diana Ross, Hootie & the Blowfish, Scorpions, as well as the baddest of rock ‘n’ roll’s bad boy bands, Mötley Crüe, Skid Row, and Guns N’ Roses.
It was McGhee who got busted for conspiracy in 1988 for helping one of world’s largest drug-smuggling rings import 45,000 pounds of marijuana into the United States.
It was also McGhee who brought 641 people, and 64 transport trailers and landed two 757 airplanes in Moscow without a permit for the two-day Moscow Music Peace Festival in 1989 that featured Bon Jovi, Mötley Crüe, Scorpions, Skid Row, Ozzy Osbourne, Cinderella, and Gorky Park.
McGhee was also cast in the 2006 VH1 reality series called "SuperGroup," which also starred band members Sebastian Bach, Jason Bonham, Scott Ian, Ted Nugent and Evan Seinfeld.
McGhee Entertainment, operated by brothers Doc (chairman) and Scott (president), is today one of most successful management firms in entertainment. Scott opened the Nashville office in March 2006; Doc joined him there in 2008, taking residency in nearby Brentwood.
The company handles Kiss, Guns N’ Roses, Ted Nugent, Night Ranger, Darius Rucker, Chris Cagle, Jypsi, Drew Davis, Meghan Kabir, Jeremy Lister, the Carter Twins and others.
Jon Bon Jovi sang out McGhee’s praises to Melinda Newman in Billboard in 2000, "There was an old Doc McGhee saying that this band will play a pay toilet and use its own change, and anywhere you have electricity, we would show up, and if you didn't have it, we'd bring it. That's how we built our reputation.”
In a 2005 Billboard interview with Deborah Evans Price, Bon Jovi credited McGhee’s global thinking for the band’s international success. "We built a fan base around the world that a lot of American bands didn't take that time to do," Bon Jovi said. For acts that did not build an international base, "if and when America turned its back on [them, they] didn't have anywhere else to go. In our case, when the lean years came in the States, we were always able to go to Europe or Asia, South America or Australia. We'd go to Africa or anywhere," he adds, noting that this broad appeal was the key to selling 100 million records.”
Though Kiss was certainly a successful and identifiable band when McGhee began managing it in 1996, he has since successfully re-positioned the band in the global marketplace.
Today, Kiss sits, alongside the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and AC/DC, as a merchandising music giant. Live Nation Merchandise oversees the band's merch and licensing business that includes: mugs, comic books, a fragrance, bingo games, motorcycle helmets, pool cues, dart boards, and mobile phone covers—nearly 300 products in all.
Kiss started the European leg of its "Sonic Boom Over Europe: From the Beginning to the Boom" on May 2010. On July 23rd, Kiss will kick off "The Hottest Show on Earth Tour" in the U.S.
You have worked with bands known for their excesses. Why have you worked with these types of acts?
Probably because I am a lot like them; low I.Q., high RPM. Maybe, that’s the case because for some reason I am attracted to excess.
Still, at 59?
Oh, I always have been. My whole life. If I smoked a cigarette today—I don’t smoke now—but, if I smoked one tomorrow, I would be smoking like I was going to the electric chair.
Is there an act you’ve passed on and thought, “This is too crazy for me.”
The only one was G&R (Guns N' Roses), back when I had so many problems with everybody else. And now I’m working with them, which is just as crazy.
You have been quoted as saying that every rocker wants to die.
I think they all do. They all have the fear of failure. So when they have success they know that it is not going to last. So they think that the best way out is to die.
As a manager, you obviously try to control their behavior.
That’s what you try to do. Some people listen; some people don’t. You have kids with less than a high school education who, all of a sudden, are standing onstage in front of 20,000 people who are the same (as they are). They can push the envelope. What I say to them is that I will do anything for artistic talent; I will do nothing for autistic talent. I try to stop that shit (outrageous behavior) as much as I can. It puts me at odds with them most of the time.
A manager of these types of acts is always apologizing.
That’s what you do for a living.
How long is Kiss out on the road?
They will be out until the end of the year. They are in Europe now, and they come back to America. Then they will do Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and China. That’s it for the year.
Do you stay out on the road with them?
I have been.
It is just one of those things. You have to be here. It’s hard to understand. It’s a little bit like what Irving (Azoff) has with the Eagles. Neither one of us goes out with any other act, really. I’m always out with my (key) act. Bon Jovi, I was out at every show. The same with Mötley Crüe.
The show is what drew many of us to the music business.
When I saw Mötley Crüe’s New Year's Evil concert (at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in 1982), I couldn’t understand one thing they played. But I saw 500 kids going crazy.
After you saw Mötley Crüe you began co-managing them with Doug Thaler.
Doug was my partner then. I met him at Leber & Krebs (the high-powered management firm, operated by Steve Leber and David Krebs, which guided the early careers of the New York Dolls and Aerosmith) and became friends. I really love Doug. He’s back working with Mötley now.
You didn’t start working with Kiss until 1996, when they did a full-fledged reunion tour. Everybody said you were crazy to take them on.
Everybody says I’m crazy about everything. And I am. If you listen to people, if you listen to what goes on and, if you believe in something, you will never become big at anything that you do.
What appealed to you about Kiss at the time?
What it was, was that people were tired of looking at shoe gazing bands that weren’t going anywhere. Nothing came out of the ‘90s. Hardly anything. Dave Matthews, Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine came out; and those acts I couldn’t sign. They all had managers. I wasn’t going to go sign some bullshit band that I knew couldn’t go the distance. So, I didn’t sign anything in the ‘90s.
My brother (Scott) signed all of the hardcore stuff like Orange 9mm, Quicksand, CIV, and Tracy Bonham. That was great stuff at a very low level. There was nothing big coming out of it. I just sat back. When Kiss came around, I went, “I get this.” We went into a meeting and people (in the group) were saying that they should first do theatres and see how that does. I said, “Okay, here’s what I want to do. I want to rent the USS Intrepid (in New York City), have a press gathering, and we put up Tiger Stadium. How’s that?” Everybody went, “You are fucking crazy.” “Cool,” I said. “If this doesn’t work, I’m not doing this (management) anyway. Let’s go for the elephant.”
[On June 28, 1996 the Kiss Alive/Worldwide Tour began at Tiger Stadium in Detroit, Michigan, with Alice in Chains and Sponge as the opening acts in front of a sold-out crowd of 39,867 fans. The tour lasted for 192 shows over 11 months, and earned $43.6 million, making Kiss the top-drawing concert act of 1996.]
In what condition was their career at that point?
They weren’t doing really well. They had just gone through that whole grunge thing that had killed almost every (hard rock) band that had any kind of following. We went from “rock and roll all night and party every day” to “have a great life” to “kill you mom” and “piss off, everybody.” I don’t know why but it happened. There were no production values; there was no nothing (in the music); and people were leaving rock to go to hip hop because there were no rock stars out there. Everybody was the same. So I said, “Let’s put this back up.” Everybody had (Kiss) T-shirts with a little cat on it or some symbol. I had (T-shirts and merch with) four bad guys with make-up on top of the world with their hands in the air. People went, “I get it. I want to have fun.”
Today, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, AC/DC, and Kiss are the acts that really move merch.
How important is merch to their overall revenue?
It is a very important part because it gives me a guide that Kiss is coming to where I want them to come as part of pop culture. It has become an American kind of band. I have M&Ms because their face is on them. Just recently on (ABC-TV’s) “Dancing with the Stars”, they had one of the dancers dressed up as Kiss, dancing to “Rock And Roll All Nite." My goal has always been to bring them up in the pop culture of this year; where people like them as though they are like Doritos’s. They might not mean that musically, because they have never really had a hit. The biggest hit was “Beth” which was #7 (on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1976).
[Last year, Kiss signed a deal with Mars for co-branded Kiss M&M’s Limited Edition chocolate drops. On May 18, 2010, Melissa Rycroft and Joey Fatone (in a Kiss-inspired costume), tangoed to "Rock And Roll All Nite" on “Dancing with the Stars.”
[Kiss has sold over 40 million albums in the U.S., and their worldwide sales exceed 100 million albums.]
Is it true that you use a stop watch at the concession stand to see how fast merch moves?
Absolutely. For 35 years. And I will hold the show if I have to. If I’m 20 (people) deep. I know what I’m making. I would rather pay a $5,000 (overtime) penalty than not do $40,000 more in merch. You have to understand how fast they can sell. I have fired so many people that can’t sell merchandise fast enough.
So you stay at the concession table, checking?
To see how long it takes them to do a transaction. That’s when I go crazy. You only have a certain time to sell.
How do you take being fired yourself?
I have never walked in and somebody said, “You are fired.” It has never happened.
In 1991 Jon Bon Jovi fired you, and created Bon Jovi Management.
It was a process with Bon Jovi. It was a lot of me and him not getting along and not understanding the same plans that we all wanted to do. At some point, you don’t have that option. They made up their mind; you’ve made up your mind. You stood your ground and, right or wrong, it happens. I have managed some of these artists much longer than some people stayed married.
Mötley Crüe fired you in 1989.
We are still all good friends. Whether you work with them again or whether you won’t work with them again you remain friends with them. I can’t think that any of them have an ill thing to say about me.
You stay friends with bands you no longer work with?
All of them. I talk to Jon at least once a month, and we email each other every week.
When you began working with Bon Jovi, you were quoted as saying, “Our bands will play pay toilets, and use their own change. They play anywhere.”
That was their motto. They played everywhere. And look where this guy is today because he had the background. He had the backbone to do this. That’s what people don’t do now.
So many acts today have a first album, no touring experience, and are suddenly playing in front of 18,000 people.
That’s the greediness of our business to kill artists. There used to be 15 labels that we used to go out and work. There was Elektra, and Atlantic. You can go on and on with all of the different labels (then) because they were all specialized. They each had a feel for what they were doing. Nowadays, it’s conglomerates that only have a certain amount of time. They champion something like Lady Gaga and Live Nation jumps in, pays stupid money, and then puts tickets out for $180. But nobody knows three songs by Lady Gaga. We’re burning acts out.
Of course, none of (these acts) are like Bon Jovi, Mötley Crüe, Scorpions, Skid Row and all that stuff. We grew up in the ranks. We played in front of Ozzy (Osbourne) and everybody.
Bon Jovi and Bryan Adams were two of the first acts from North America to develop solid careers globally. How did that happen with Bon Jovi?
We didn’t have any other place to play. We just said, “Let’s get them out to where somebody could appreciate them.” One thing about Bryan and Bon Jovi, they didn’t have huge hits out of the box. They had some recognition, and then they became big. Bryan got to go out with a little bit of recognition and, all of a sudden, he started to play (internationally). Bryan would play Viet Nam, everywhere. The same with Bon Jovi.
Bon Jovi broke out of Japan.
We had done so many dates over there from ’84. ‘Slippery’ (“Slippery When Wet”) was (released) in late ’86, and didn’t break until ’87 in the States, then it blew up. They (still) weren’t huge. We had the #1 record in America and we were selling 125,000 records a day--which at that time was crazy—and we were opening for .38 Special.
Why not have them headline?
I was never comfortable in headlining someone until they could headline. Until I felt that they were good enough; that they could command the audience; and they could give a great show. If a kid pays $20 for a ticket at that time, they got a $40 show.
For the Moscow Music Peace Festival at Lenin Stadium on August 12-13, 1989, you took over 641 people, 64 transport trailers, and landed two 757 airplanes on a tarmac in Moscow without a permit.
Is that the biggest show you have ever been involved in terms of backline?
Correct. Plus, it was my show. I produced it and broadcast it (on TV) to 51 countries around the world. The key issue was not so much the venue, because that’s what I do, but it was at that time when perestroika (economic reforms) were just coming into effect. We had no permits for that show at all.
[The Moscow Music Peace Festival was a unique two-day event in Moscow, August 12-13, 1989 produced by McGhee, the Make a Difference Foundation and several others in the Soviet Union and the U.S.. Among those performing to the audience of 120,000 were: Bon Jovi, Mötley Crüe, Scorpions, Skid Row, Ozzy Osbourne, Cinderella, and Soviet metal band Gorky Park.]
How long did it take to set the show up?
About two years to set it up. Actually, it all really came together in the crunch time, during the three months that I had to get everything together. It was pretty crazy.
There must have been problems getting people and equipment there.
We landed in a plane in Moscow and we had a press conference on the runway. You couldn’t do that in New York. I got an entire hotel because I gave the guy who ran the hotel a Mercedes--with beer, cheese, wine and salami-- that he could drive all night. An entire hotel.
Did you have any concerns of taking such volatile rock and roll bands into such a conformist state?
Well, there were always concerns, but those acts were all I had. I didn’t have Billy Joel or Elton John, who can walk in like kings and queens and play piano and sing songs. Like an idiot, I had bands that made great rock music. To me, they were putting people in jail (in Russia) for listening to this music as I was putting together this show. It was a dream of mine to do it. It came into a reality and it kind of changed things. You had to be there. Actually, it is the music that changed the world. It was the first rock event ever shown on Russian television. So that would be like somebody who listened to baseball in Hawaii on the radio and, all of a sudden, got to see a baseball game.
[The event inspired Scorpions song “Wind Of Change”, which now accompanies practically any documentary coverage on the fall of communism.]
Stories of the event have become part of rock lore. Like Tommy Lee punching you.
I think it’s all probably exaggerated a lot. Tommy didn’t punch me, he shoved me. Tommy is like my son. Was Tommy crazy? Of course, he was crazy. Everybody was nuts then. But they all wanted to play Moscow.
The drug bust in 1988. How difficult was it getting past that? It has followed you over the years?
The whole thing is that 99% of the perception of what happened was not there. But that is only me saying that. Nobody said, “Hey Doc, if you do the first rock show in the Soviet Union and help bring the Wall down, we’ll let you off.” They don’t say shit like that. It had nothing to do with anything that had to do with that. It just happened to be part of what I was putting together at the time. What I was convicted for? Conspiracy. It was something that happened in my life. I don’t regret anything that I have done.
[McGhee got busted in 1988 for helping a drug-smuggling ring, which had connections to former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, import 45,000 pounds of marijuana from Colombia to North Carolina. He pled guilty in 1988 but didn’t go to prison.]
Scott opened the Nashville office of McGhee Entertainment in 2006; you moved to nearby Brentwood two years later. The company has since been working with such country acts as Darius Rucker, Chris Cagle, Drew Davis, and the Carter Twins.
It is just sort of a natural progression for us. I saw Rascal Flatts five or six years ago, and it was a reflection of a Bon Jovi show in 1989.
Kenny Chesney’s stage show somewhat recalls Kiss.
Exactly. Country acts have gotten into the entertainment business.
Why move to Nashville and work in country?
Here’s the thing. My wife and I love change. I was fighting LA and New York in the pop world and not getting it. If you have a pop hit, you still don’t make any money. Also there was nobody coming out that was touring like we used to and doing the business.
What’s your take on country music today?
Country music is now rock music of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. There’s the storytelling tool that writers use. There’s also that sense there that we don’t see in the States anymore (in music). We don’t see any loyalty to artists. We don’t see a grand appreciation, whereas in country there is. They still have that fan base. The fans are very close to the artists.
Nashville music executives aren’t the types to be much impressed by a full contact management style.
But I like to listen more than I like to talk. (Country) is a whole different way of life. It’s hard to explain the culture. It may be equivalent to hip hop. You have to be in that culture. You have to know what drives it. You just can’t go down there and say, “I’m coming into Nashville.”
No other musical genre is centric to one city.
Country people are respectful; and they really try to keep a culture. You have to remember that they only have one format that is country. They don’t have old country. They don’t have alternative country or rock country. So country (radio) is a very unique thing that has 127 (reporting) stations. The playlists are very small, whereas with a single at pop radio, it takes you six weeks before you know if you have a big record or not. In country, to have a #1 single, you have to spend 28 to 34 weeks working it.
[With over 2,000 country stations, country is the most programmed format in the U.S. after News/Talk.]
You handle Darius Rucker who began his solo career in country in 2008 and became a huge success.
We are going on sales of two million albums (for “Learn to Live”). We are just getting to launch his first single of his second record. To break a (then) 42-year-old black guy in another format was not the easiest thing.
[Darius Rucker's 2008 Capitol Records Nashville album, "Learn to Live," topped Billboard's country album chart and peaked, at No. 5 on the Top 200 Album chart. Three singles from the album reached #1 on Billboard’s country singles chart, and Rucker was named New Artist of the Year by the Country Music Association.
On June 7 (2010), Rucker unofficially kicked-off the 2010 CMA Music Festival with his inaugural "Darius and Friends" St. Jude benefit concert raising almost $50,000.
The event, which featured performances by Radney Foster, Randy Houser, Jamey Johnson and Jake Owen at the Wildhorse Saloon in Nashville, raised $48,720 for St. Jude cancer research.
During the night, Rucker performed his new single, “Come Back Song,” for the first time. The single will impact radio on June 28 and will appear on his sophomore album which is slated for release in October.]
Are you shifting the focus of the company to country?
We have country artists but it’s not like it’s a (sole) priority for us. We have a girl (Afghan American singer) Meghan Kabir coming out on Warner Brothers this year that we believe will be the next big thing. We are really working on her. We have Jypsi on the country side that we feel the same way about.
Much of your current management roster are unknown acts that will be hard to break.
Yeah. But we treat all of them the same. We are very committed to our acts. We turn every stone. I’m not here to practice.
You haven’t been tempted to create a label to launch these new acts?
Here’s the thing. I am really good at being the manager. I’m the record label for Kiss. We have our own record label (Kiss). I had my own label with Hootie (Sneaky Long Records).
You can’t do a label with newcomer acts?
The concept is what do you want to risk? There’s a lot to risk on a new artist.
You’d rather play with other peoples’ money?
Yeah, and labels are set up for pushing the button to a certain extent. Warner Bros., EMI and so on. (With Darius Rucker) I needed to have someone that was connected in the community that was respected and who worked there. There’s a place for everything. (Capitol Records Nashville) are very, very good.
In 1994, you launched Eleven Records in a co-venture with Geffen Records and released God Street Wine. Why didn’t that label happen?
I did the deal with David (Geffen), but he sold the company two weeks after I made the deal. David had no affiliation with me and, at that time, everybody was into grungy pop stuff. They had Nirvana and a couple of other things, and that was that.
It was a strange period in the music industry.
It was a strange time. I think that there are more opportunities now than there have been.
For breaking newcomers, it’s still hard.
Ahhh, there’s no delivery system. Unless you are Lady Gaga. First, we had Duffy, then Amy Winehouse, then Lady Gaga. Now, there’s Ke$ha and everybody else with same thing. Go over to Europe, and if you watch Vevo, the whole continent is (into artists) like that. There’s 85,000 of them.
Consolidation in the concert world doesn’t offer many choices either.
Here’s the scoop. We (once) dealt with 35 promoters in the United States. Those 35 promoters were our partners. Then, (we partnered with) the artists by building them from clubs to stadiums. That’s what we did. Now there are no promoters out there. You have a couple of big conglomerates that want to buy and chew up everything. They have no idea why, where or what they are doing. It’s fucking crazy.
In my interview with New Jersey concert promoter John Scher last year, he said there aren’t many promoters who operate like they are stake holders.
You are not going to play with your own money. If I’m going to do Cleveland and I’m talking to Jules Belkin, and I say that I want to do the show on Thursday the 7th of August, Jules would come back to me and say, “Doc, bad timing. There’s a rodeo,” or this or that. “There’s too much going on in the marketplace. You can’t do it.” Cool. And there was Danny Zelisko in Phoenix, Bill Graham in San Francisco, Harvey & Corky in Buffalo; and all of the different promoters like Wilson Howard, Ron Delsener, and Cecil Corbett (Beach Club Promotions and later C & C Concerts), an amazing character out of South Carolina who helped me more than you could ever know.
In 2005, Clear Channel Entertainment-owned Bill Graham Presents lost $2 million on shows by your bands.
At Billboard’s Roadwork '05, you said, "If Bill Graham would have lost $200,000, he'd have been sitting on my chest at my house, beating me for a reduction. And these guys never even showed up to say, 'Boy, we took a beating.' They went, 'Yeah. Okay.’”
Bill would have beat the shit out of me. Man-to-man. Are you kidding me? Bill is probably the best promoter that I’ve ever worked with in my whole life.
What made him great?
The passion. It wasn’t a Bon Jovi show. It wasn’t a Journey show. It wasn’t a Van Halen show. It was a Bill Graham show that you got a chance to play. That was the attitude. That was the mind-set.
Managers had to often fight him for fair payment.
With our accountancy then, he hated it. It wasn’t you that he was fighting for the money. If I came in and fought with him, he’d be ready to fight. You send some little prick in there, it’d cost you more.
Bill fought against 90-10 splits.
Bill wouldn’t know what a 90/10 was. No fucking 90-10 split.
[At a panel at Billboard’s third international Talent Forum in New York in 1977, Bill Graham asked, “If the first time we promote an act, it’s a favor, and the second time, we make a little money, how come a manager hits us with a 90-10 the third time around when the act is really huge and the promoter finally stands to make some money?”]
He never got over Michael Cohl taking the Rolling Stones from him in 1989. He later wrote, "Losing the Stones was like watching my favorite lover become a whore."
That was the hardest thing in his whole life to get over. I spent a lot of time talking to him talking about it. It was the single hardest thing in his life.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up on the south side of Chicago. You grew up in the ‘60s, you saw the Beatles, listened to Larry Lujack (on WLS), and you wanted to be in the music business. I loved R&B. R&B was where I was at.
You had a record deal when you were 17.
With a group called the Rising Four on Mercury Records. (Philips' national product manager) Lou Simon was the guy who signed us. We released a single, “Shapes Of Things,” originally by the Yardbirds, in 1967. That is what they wanted us to do, so we did that.
How long did the band stay together?
We were together for about four years. It was through high school. Then I got drafted, and went in the army.
What was the first band you managed?
It was a combination of the Average White Band (with Hamish Stuart and Steve Ferrone of the AWB, as well as Howard Johnson, Sandy Torano, and Phyllis Hyman).Then, I had Phyllis Hyman, the Brecker Brothers, David Sanborn, and this group called Nightflyte on Ariola that had a bunch of hits.
Why did you get into management?
Nobody would hire me. I needed a job. In the mid-70s, I started working with Pat Travers. I moved down to Florida and (the management business) just started taking off. Rick Stevens became my partner from ‘79 to ‘81 (as Stevens-McGhee Entertainment). He had been vice-president of A&R at PolyGram. We signed Mink DeVille, and I managed James Brown and Isaac Hayes.
I was 26 years old. I’m not sure if I managed him or he managed me.
Larry LeBlanc was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. 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, the London Times and the New York Times.