Industry Profile: Michael Cohl - Part 1
By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess MediaWire)
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Michael Cohl, founder and chairman, S2BN Entertainment.
Even his harshest critics acknowledge Michael Cohl as the genius showman of our time.
If the public is unaware of Cohl, everyone in showbiz knows his record of productivity, if not profitability, which is unmatched by any impresario in entertainment history.
Career highlights for the 65-year-old Canadian include: Piloting the first global treks of the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and U2; strategizing national and international tours; creating enriched revenue streams from merchandising, fan clubs, VIP ticketing DVDs, television programs, and films; and being an aggressive player in music, sports, theater, film and television sectors.
Cohl’s 5-year-old S2BN Entertainment, based in New York City and Toronto, is a diversified event entertainment company that specializes in the acquisition, development, and production of touring exhibitions, live music tours and events, theatrical performances, and consumer and multimedia product offerings.
This isn’t quite a new persona for Cohl. Or even an evolution.
To the contrary, Cohl’s portfolio is jammed with triumphs from all sectors of entertainment over the years.
For example, Cohl has produced numerous concert film and documentary projects, including: “Isn't This A Time!” featuring Pete Seeger and the Weavers; “Pete Seeger: The Power Of a Song”; “Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune”; the Harry Belafonte documentary, "Sing Your Song”; and Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Stones concert feature, “Shine a Light.”
In theatre, he was involved with Toronto runs of “Beatlemania,” “Man From La Mancha,” “The Lion King,” “Hairspray,” “The Producers,” and the $27 million stage adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's “The Lord of The Rings” that debuted in Toronto in 2006.
Cohl co-produced Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Bombay Dreams” on Broadway; and was involved with the Monty Python musical, “Spamalot” in New York. He is one of the lead producers of the “Rock of Ages” stage musical.
What the public does know, via ferociously scandalous media reports, is that Cohl is Broadway’s biggest gambler, ever.
Along with veteran producer Jeremiah J. Harris, Cohl oversaw the launch of the most expensive Broadway show in history, “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” with a price tag that reached $75 million by its opening night on June 14, 2011.
U2’s Bono and the Edge--the first-time theatrical composers for “Spider-Man—had contacted Cohl to try to salvage the show from a premature death when money ran out.
“Spider-Man” then had to clear a virtual minefield during its extended 182-performance preview period.
Actors were hospitalized for injuries, machinery malfunctioned; and director Julie Taymor was sacked.
“Spider-Man,” however, conquered Broadway.
Now in its 3rd year, it is one of the Top 20 highest-grossing Broadway shows of all time alongside “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Wicked,” “The Lion King,” and “Cats.”
Cohl’s’ career as a major concert promoter began when he co-founded Concert Productions International (CPI) in 1973.
For the next decade, with some 250 shows a year, CPI was mostly a Canadian live music player.
This changed in 1989 after Cohl wrangled the tour and merchandising rights to the Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels Tour from San Francisco-based promoter Bill Graham. CPI’s linkup with the Rolling Stones was made possible by Labatt Breweries of Canada reportedly investing $25 million in the company.
Next CPI oversaw David Bowie’s first global tour. Then came further large-scale international tours in the ‘90s with Pink Floyd, U2 and others as CPI became a major player on the global stage.
In 1996, MCA Concerts Canada, and Molson Breweries purchased the concert divisions of Cohl’s BCL Entertainment, including CPI, Perryscope Concert Productions in Vancouver, and Donald K. Donald Productions in Montreal.
Cohl then launched The Next Adventure (TNA).
Based in Toronto and Bermuda, TNA became the largest promoter/producer of international tours, including those with the Rolling Stones, U2, Pink Floyd, David Bowie and others before being sold to SFX in 1999.
In 2006, Live Nation acquired a controlling interest in the touring division of CPI, as well as a 50% interest in the Grand Entertainment division of the company. Cohl, joined Live Nation’s Board of Directors, and began serving as Vice Chairman of the company as well as CEO for Live Nation Artists.
In 2008, Cohl was elected the Chairman of the company's Board of Directors.
However, after steering Live Nation's unprecedented mega deals with Madonna, U2, Jay-Z, and Shakira, Cohl, resigned his position as chairman of the Live Nation board, and vacated his post as CEO of Live Nation Artists
How are you?
I’m having a better life than I thought I would have in high school.
How old are you?
I just turned 65. 65 it’s a bit weird for me. At 60, I thought I was still a young punk. At 65, I realize that I’m not.
Will you ever retire?
I don’t know. I’m having fun for now. So I will say the answer is no.
What would you do if you retired?
I don’t know. I’m going to do another show. We are working on “Transformers” for arenas.
What staff do you work with at S2BN?
It’s not that small. We have two dozen people here. It’s not far off from what we had at CPI in the good old days.
You aren’t as involved in the rock and roll business today.
I have a foot in it through Mike Luba (S2BN’s president of music and family entertainment) and M Theory that represents managers and provides management services. So in a way, I am still in it. We just won a Grammy Award for "Big Easy Express" with Mumford and others. M Theory has 40 different acts they are working with. So we keep our hand on the pulse that way. No problem. But, boy it’s different. Between AEG and Live Nation, I wouldn’t want to be a young promoter today.
[During the pretelecast segment of the 2013 Grammy Awards, the award for Best Long Form Music Video went to "Big Easy Express.” The film features Mumford and Sons, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and Old Crow Medicine Show.]
I’m not sure you could come up the ranks today as a young promoter. It’d be tough.
You probably can. C3 Presents (in Austin, Texas) are younger, and they have built a nice business; and there’s The Bowery Presents out of New York. It’s such a big world now. It’s such a big country. And it’s a big business. But, you are right. It’d be so tough. It’d be tough to think that you could ever build a Live Nation or an AEG today.
Critics often regard you in unflattering terms; as a caricature of a sharp businessman. Has it been challenging moving into different sectors?
Well, the truth is that I was always in other areas. When I was younger I bored much more easily than I do now,so I tried different things. I was never just a businessman, but, early on, I thought that was a difference that could be meaningful. So I was pleased with, and happy, for people to think that way.
I did my first show in 1969 or 1970, but very quickly there was Donald K. Donald (aka Donald K. Tarlton) and Michael Cohl working together. Donald was flashy and he had showbiz panache and flare. It worked just fine for me for him to be the guy up there dancing, smiling, and pitching away and for me to be known as the businessman because when you put it together it was a perfect team.
Over the past decade, you have worked on projects celebrating American folk icons, Phil Ochs, Harry Belafonte, and Pete Seeger. Are you a folkie at heart?
I love their music. I love the stories. I have liked almost all types of music for my whole life. I used to play a little banjo when I was younger. I have admired Pete Seeger forever and a day. I did two films on him. I also did the (90th birthday) concert at Madison Square Garden in 2009. Phil Ochs, I used to go and see at Bernie Fiedler’s club, The Riverboat (in Toronto’s Yorkville Village), all of the time. I got to know him down there. When you had to go outside for a smoke, there I was standing around having a cigarette, and there was Phil Ochs chain smoking.
With the Phil Ochs’ documentary, we started out thinking that we were going to do a film on his life; mostly focusing on his music, his singing and his songwriting. But we ended up with a film about bipolar disorder along the way.
[New York documentary filmmaker Kenneth Bowser’s 2011 film “Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune,” which Michael Cohl co-produced, tracks Ochs’ artistic development as well as political movements that motivated him and that he, in turn, inspired. Ochs suffered from manic-depression that ultimately led to alcoholism, and to his suicide in 1976. Bowser’s previous works includes PBS documentaries on filmmakers John Ford and Preston Sturges, and several “Saturday Night Live” retrospectives for NBC-TV.]
I remember you being behind the Toronto production of Steve Leber and David Krebs’ musical “Beatlemania” years and years ago.
I was. That had to be in the ‘70s.
What attracts you to theatre?
I’ve just always enjoyed it. My bottom line is a simple one. I definitely am a big believer in the business and the art; and the art of business. That’s what it’s about for me. At the end of the day, I was best known for the rock acts, but that’s because the rock acts are best known. I liked--how do I put it?--- anything that would make people smile and laugh and cheer and enjoy themselves, I was interested in presenting to them. I was interested in making that connection. So wherever and whenever I could find it, that’s what I always was interested in. That’s what I always I perceived myself to be. A producer; and a promoter.
We always had our hand in a film here or there or a sporting event here and there. Boxing with (Toronto boxing promoter) Irving Ungerman year in and year out on closed circuit. Theatrical productions all over the place, constantly. Listen we were the first to take theatre to a different level. We took” Cats” into arenas and into places it had never been.
Still, you didn’t connect with Broadway until later in life.
No. You would be surprised how many times that we invested with (Toronto-based theatrical producer) David Mirvish, or we did summer theatre series. We did series after series at O’Keefe Centre in the summer. If you go back to “Man From La Mancha,” which was coming to O’Keefe Centre, we got involved with (American musical theatre composer and theatrical producer) Mitch Leigh.
Through Mitch Leigh, we got involved with bringing computer ticketing to Toronto for the first time. That’s how BASS came to Toronto. Best Available Seating Service.
That’s being on the fringe of the theatre world. Broadway is Broadway; the world of showbiz venture capitalists. Where you are fooling around with $75 million for a show like "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark."
That wasn’t fooling around (laughing). That wasn’t fooling around. Listen that was never intended to be what it turned out to be. Let’s face it. And, I got involved quite late in that project.
After a lot of the money had already been spent.
Well, they were bankrupt. I think it was already 5 years deep (into development). I was the new kid on the block, the Johnny-come-lately.
Who got you involved in “Spider-Man?”
Originally, Arny Granat from (Chicago-based) Jam Productions. I was chairman at Live Nation at the time. He said, “I am part of this show with Bono and the Edge and Julie Taymor. It’s ‘Spider-Man,’ and we are short on money.” I thought it was a terrific idea, and invested some of Live Nation’s money. So, to that degree, I became involved early on.
Your involvement grew?
They kept going back for money. Ultimately, I was out of Live Nation and I took that investment with me as part of my parting package.
["Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" had been in development since 2002. Cohl and veteran Broadway producer Jeremiah J. Harris came aboard in 2009 after the original production ran out of cash.
Cohl already had a modest stake in the $30 million that original producers David Garfinkle and Tony Adams had raised for the show. The pair had secured the rights to the characters, and attracted the big-name production talent. However, the veteran Adams then suddenly died, felled by a stroke. The inexperienced Garfinkle was left at the helm. Nearly four years later, the production remained in development and was apparently nearing bankruptcy
According to several reports, Cohl raised 70% of the show’s record-setting budget from investors in the media, film development and oil industries and also renegotiated a slew of production details.]
Bono reportedly telephoned you to try to straighten things out with the show—saying "The house is on fire. You need to come in, and put out the fire." Is that true?
It’s true that he called me. I use the word “fire” because it was a 15 minute conversation. It is much easier to sum it all up in 20 seconds and say, “He needed a fireman, and I was it.”
[U2’s Bono phoned Cohl in Aug. 2009 while Cohl and his family were just starting a long-planned, three-week vacation in Spain. Bono pleaded with Cohl to take over the troubled show.]
You entered a world of “Spider-Man” being bashed by New York critics day after day, and you put off the official opening. During previews, the show built momentum. Perhaps, people who had seen the production told others to see the show. Was word of mouth a factor in sparking interest in the production?
Yeah, I think that’s the crucial element. It’s not the only element. Some people start with, “Any publicity is good publicity.” I’m not a believer in that at all. There was publicity on “Spider-Man” that we wished that we never had. The interesting thing is that I would talk to people in Brazil or Europe and all they heard about was “Spider-Man.” They didn't hear that “Spider-Man’ Sucks” or “Spider-Man is a piece of shit’ like the New York press were all over it. They just heard, “Spider-Man.” So one of the side effects about the publicity in New York was that we got more publicity than any other new Broadway show ever. I’m sure of that. In history. It created a momentum.
Quite frankly much of what was going on with the show led to those headlines. The injuries, and the firing of Julie Taymor.
Absolutely, it led to some of those headlines. Hey listen, some of them were unfair headlines. First of all, one kid broke his wrist, right? One of the most difficult shows in town is the opera at The Met. They have people that fall there, There are all sorts of other (theatrical) shows that have had people fall. None of them ever made the front page.
Not one of them ever made front page.
And I thank them (the media) for putting me on the front page, believe me. I used to see Michael Riedel (theater columnist for the New York Post) and say, “I don’t like some of the stuff you write, but just keep it on the front page, please.” We knew that we were fighting an impossible, uphill battle. Some of them (headlines) were deserved and some weren’t. It’s part of the business. But then I read the very first piece in the New York Times (by its chief theater critic Ben Brantley) that Spider-Man is a vulgar show.
Vulgar. Hold on. Are you are ready for this? We haven’t finished the script. We are not in rehearsals yet. There’s no human on earth who knows what this show is going to be. These turkeys, who review theatre down here, are calling it vulgar. Give me a break. Julie was the one who pointed it out. I hadn’t even seen it. It was a vulgar comment because it came before the show even existed.
Did the New York critics figure that it was going to be overly ostentatious?
Who knew what they thought? Whatever they thought were the dreams in their brains. It was hallucinations in their brain. I saw that quote and it was long before they or anyone had any clue of what the show was. That was, let me say, a vulgar comment. You know what? It’s a fun show. People like it. It’s different from what traditionally goes on Broadway. So is “Fuerza Bruta.” So is “Rock of Ages,” which is doing great business. We have it everywhere. This week, I went to an after drink party for “Rock of Ages” because it became part of the Top 50 longest-running shows in the history of Broadway.
[Prior to its opening, the New York Times’ Ben Brantley wrote on Feb. 7, 2012, “Spider-Man” is so grievously broken in every respect that it is beyond repair” and “Spider-Man” is not only the most expensive musical ever to hit Broadway; it may also rank among the worst.”]
You don’t have a high opinion of the press.
Not true. I’m just brutally honest with them because I think that they take too many short cuts, and don’t present a fair balanced position too often.
Journalists are inherently lazy?
Yep. Too many of them. Some of them aren’t.
How tough is it to fire a director?
Ahh, it’s the worst thing ever. It was one of the worst things ever. All of these comments about “worst thing ever” are in the context of business. Within the context of business, it’s terrible. The best quote was from Bono at the meeting when we had to talk about it (firing Julie Taymor). He said, “Oh my God, I can’t fire Picasso.”
I got involved in “Spider-Man” because Bono asked. Because I had some money in it. To work with the (U2) people again. But, the number one reason was to work with Julie Taymor. I thought that “The Lion King” was one of the most amazing brilliant pieces of entertainment showbiz. When I first saw “The Lion King,” ignorant as I was, I didn’t know who Julie Taymor was. I wasn’t five minutes into it when I turned to my girlfriend Lori (McGoran), and I said, Who made this show? We have to do something with the person.”
So it was a horrible firing her?
The truth is that it was a pretty good lesson in my life. I was decent, pretty good producer when we started “Spider-Man.” I think that I am a terrific one now, because I have been through the gamut of things that one has to deal with (in a troubled Broadway show). I knew for the longest time beforehand that we were not going to get this show finished in any successful way, if we could not get it (the firing) done. I took forever to do what I knew had to be done, and to start convincing people that it had to be done. When I finally started, they took forever to be convinced.
[Julie Taymor was removed as director of “Spider-Man” in March, 2011. She sued the producers, saying they violated her intellectual-property rights by making changes in the show without her permission, and didn’t pay royalties due her as the musical’s co- author
In Aug. 2012, the two parties agreed to settle a lawsuit over royalties and creative control, according to a court filing.]
It must have been then difficult dealing with a company of actors and production crew that had bonded behind a vision that Julie Taymor had created. Then she left. You were the outsider coming in.
Yeah. It was a tough. It still sucks, but it had to be done. I am absolutely convinced that without that we would have closed, and we would have been out of business.
Are there plans to take “Spider-Man” to arenas?
Yes. Not exclusively. We are going to Las Vegas and play in a theatre. We are going to go to Germany and play in a theatre in Hamburg. We are going to do those kinds of things. It’s not the type of show like “The Lion King,” or “Wicked,” or any of these other fantastic theatre properties that you can go for two or three weeks. That kind of touring in a theatre is just never going to happen (with “Spider-Man”.)
Because you have to adapt the theatre to the production.
"Spider-Man” would continue running on Broadway?
Well, we hope forever, but you never know.
You once indicated that "Spider-Man” would need to run for more than 7 years before it would break even. Only a quarter of Broadway shows ever recoup their production costs, and only 18 shows in the history of Broadway have ever run for seven more years.
If we last 7 years, we would have broken even. That’s for sure.
Meanwhile, the New York run of “Fuerza Bruta” has been extended.
It has been extended. I think that it’s five years now. I thought it was done. I’m going to tell you something that a lot of people don’t, and that it is that I think we know our business, but there are times none of us know what the heck we are talking about.
It (the show) was dwindling; it was losing its edge; it was losing its audience; and it was losing money. All a good combination to announce in October (2012) that we were closing. And you know when you announce a closing you always get a bit of a rush. You get some extra sales, and then you close. But our sales started going through the roof. We couldn’t figure out why. But one of the things that we did learn long ago is that when your sales improve, feed it. So we started marketing the show again, and marketing even tougher and wider and bigger than we had. Suddenly, not only is it back but January was the best January that we had since we opened. Something happened.
[“Fuerza Bruta,” created by Diqui James with music by Gaby Kerpel, originated in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2005. “Fuerza Bruta” (the title is Spanish for “Brute Force”) is akin to such no-language-barrier works as “Stomp” and the Blue Man Group shows in that the audience becomes part of the overall experience. The show has been running Off-Broadway at the Daryl Roth Theater since 2007.]
Was it Mike Luba who introduced you to the children’s TV show “Yo Gabba Gabba!” that led to “Yo Gabba Gabba! Live.”
It may have first been my nephew Paddy Scace. I have had four kids with Lori in 5 years. So we had a household of young kids. I remember watching TV, watching cartoons, taking them to movies, taking them to 'N Sync.
The whole gamut.
When Luba came in and said, “Why don’t we try this?” I had already left Live Nation. I had a non-compete in music, except for certain groups. I wasn’t ready to go and lie on the beach. I was focusing on what we will call broader demographics—some people call it family shows—I like to call it broader demographics. Luba and Paddy, they are two of my young guns that I was trying to build my company in a whole different vein.
You had no idea of what Yo Gabba Gabba!” was?
I had never heard of it. I had never seen it. I said, “Come back and pitch me. Tell me about it.” I started watching the show whenever I could see it. I’m a late night bird. So every now and then at 2 A.M. or 2:30 AM I’d watch.
Obviously, it impressed you enough to consider a live show.
It just clicked. It made a lot of sense. It just seemed like a great idea. There was this terrific show. All of my little nieces and nephews and the younger people in my life, thought it was terrific. Everybody I talked to who had kids five or under said, “That show is driving me crazy. My kid won’t turn it off.” We took a look at the other kids shows that were on the road. It was clear that there were production values that could be brought to these types of shows that could make them much more exciting and interesting and keeping with the times. That was clicker for me. I saw that we could help to create a much better show. I said, “Heck. Let’s do it.” It’s been great. I think that we are on our fourth tour now.
[The TV show “Yo Gabba Gabba!,” was conceived by Scott Schultz and Christian Jacobs (aka MC Bat Commander of Huntington Beach-based superhero-themed band the Aquabats). The touring show has rock show production values, and a substantial video element.]
The stage show of the animated TV series “Super Why!” goes out for the summer.
“SuperWHY" Live” goes out April 2nd.
The show was a long time in gestation.
Yeah, that’s one that has been much longer. We ran 4 or 5 shows, and learned about the show. You learn about the audience a bit ,and you learn a lot more about your show and the audience’s reaction. But we think that we’ve got it to be something that people are going to really enjoy.
[“Super WHY!” is a CGI animated series produced by New York-based Out of the Blue Enterprises, and Toronto-based DHX Media through its Decode Entertainment division. The show debuted on PBS stations in 2007. “Super WHY Live,” written by Super WHY” creator Angela Santomero, will stop in 27 cities across the U.S. in April and May.]
What were the challenges with "How to Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular" that recently toured North America?
Well, that was different (for us). I was back to being a promoter. RZO really did the producing. We helped with some marketing and promoting, which is kind of back to my old job (as a promoter) from years ago.
The challenges for all of these different kinds of shows are infinite. What the heck do you do with something that has already been a movie? It’s young and it’s addressing a different audience. How do you market to them and how do you get them to come in droves. That was a very interesting project. Towards the end, we all finally got it.
[S2BN Entertainment served as promoter for "How to Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular" tour with producers Dreamworks and RZO Productions, the latter being GM for the tour, labeling themselves as RZO Dragons. The production featured 24 larger-than-life dragons with wingspans up to 40 feet wide that flew and breathed fire.]
Today Canadians are principal players at both Live Nation and AEG Live. Canadians really changed the live music business.
It’s fantastic. I think that it’s one of the proudest things (of my life). Most of the great ones came through Donald’s (Donald Tarlton) and our shop. I’m terribly proud about it, and I love it. I knew (about the caliber of Canadians in live music). I didn’t know it until Michael Jackson and his brothers’ (55 concert) “Victory” tour in 1984. I didn’t. People would come through Canada, and they’d buy us dinner and give Donald and I gifts. They’d say, “You guys are the best” or “Your company is the best” and “Your people are the best.” I thought they told all of the girls that. But I went on the “Victory” tour, and I watched the local promoters at work, and I saw what they did. I came home, and I said to everybody in our Toronto office, and to people at Donald’s office (in Montreal) that, “At a minimum, we do it as well; and, at a maximum. we do it better than these guys. There’s nothing that they do that we can’t do. And there are things that we do that they don’t. We actually do it better.”
But wasn’t it the massive Rolling Stones’ worldwide “Steel Wheels” tour in 1989 that was the big learning curve for your company, Concerts Productions International?
No it wasn’t. The Jacksons in 1984 was. I did all of the U.S. dates for Chuck Sullivan after the first five weeks. Taking that around really laid the groundwork for knowing what to do on the Rolling Stones. “Steel Wheels” really just came out of the “Victory” tour in 1984.
“Victory” was a huge tour at, for one, the time.
It was huge. Michael Jackson was probably the hottest act in the history of the world at that point. I’m not sure anyone has been as hot as he was.
One of the most in-demand shows for that period too.
Still “Steel Wheels” went outside North America where you hadn’t worked previously.
Of course. How do I put it? “It’s the same, but only different” to steal a phrase from Joe Rascoff (the Rolling Stones’ business manager). Maybe, it’s like driving on the other side of the road, but it’s still driving. We essentially knew what needed to be done. I used promoters and partnered with promoters in most every market, save one or two who were so offended that we took on the whole tour that they said too many horrible things.
There were many regional promoters unhappy with CPI’s involvement with the Rolling Stones. Alex Cooley, for one, would have little good to say about you.
Yeah. Neither did John Scher or Bill Graham.
[Prior to making a trip to Barbados, where the Rolling Stones were recording and entertaining touring pitches, Cohl reportedly spent months courting the band through its Bavarian financial adviser for 40 years, Prince Rupert Ludwig Ferdinand zu Loewenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg admits. Cohl reportedly offered an advance fee of $70-million for a 55-city tour, including all merchandising rights. Eventually, a deal was struck. Cohl went on to be the producer of all the Rolling Stones’ tours following “Steel Wheels” through to the $558 million-grossing “Bigger Bang” tour of 2005-07.]
Well, it was shortly afterwards that CPI’s Arthur Fogel ran into Bill Graham, who confronted him, and said CPI was ruining the live music business.
I wasn’t there. I know Arthur’s version. I’ve been told by all sorts of people that Arthur more than held his own. In terms of the screaming and shouting, Arthur held his own. If you analyze who said what, he clearly won the argument, period.
Listen, Bill was like a lot of people. He was a hippie on the basis of give me all of the money, and I will be nice to everybody with it. The truth of it was that Bill was into the money. His act worked better if he was “of the people,” and he was “for the people.”
Did Bill ever confront you about losing the Rolling Stones?
No. Absolutely not. I saw him a couple of times. In fact, I saw him at the Oakland shows on that tour, but he never confronted me. He was kind of sheepish around me.
What did you think in reading his autobiography (“My Life Inside Rock And Out”) when he talked about wanting to commit suicide after losing the Stones?
I hated it. I hated it. I really felt bad, and I hated it. On the other hand, hey, I didn’t do the Stones dates, that just happened. Everybody has their day and everybody has their window. Back then, I wasn’t going to let mine pass. Period.
If Bill Graham had lived he would have likely fought you to take back the Rolling Stones.
Who knows? Why speculate?
[Bill Graham was killed in a helicopter crash on Oct. 25, 1991 while returning home from a Huey Lewis and the News concert at the Concord Pavilion in Concord, California. Gusting winds blew Graham; his girlfriend, Melissa Gold; and pilot Steve Kahn into a 200-foot electrical tower outside Sonoma, just 20 miles from the concert site.]
Did you meet with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards about the 50th anniversary concerts?
We had the odd phone call, and some emails a long time ago.
Everybody has their day. Perhaps, you had your day with the Stones. Do you now feel like the guy on the outside looking in the window?
If you want to put it in the framework of the Rolling Stones, clearly that’s true. Within the Rolling Stones’ touring world, that’s absolutely true. It’s (Paul) Dainty’s turn. He did the recent shows, and he’s going to do the tour, and it will be his day. Good luck to him, and good luck to them. I’m a very positive person. I don’t beat myself up a whole lot. I have a rule. Bad news better be gone in 24 hours, and don’t talk to me about it.
[Australian promoter Paul Dainty with the Virgin Group in a new touring venture – Virgin Live—recently oversaw the Rolling Stones' five 50th anniversary concerts in London, Brooklyn, and New Jersey. Virgin Live has apparently won the bid for a full-scale Rolling Stones global tour.]
Well, you do have a lot going on as well.
I do have a lot going on. I’d rather be doing their tour than not doing their tour. But holy shit! I did the Rolling Stones in Canada, starting in ’74. Then, starting in ’88 and ’89, we worked together on everything. I did everything that existed until 2013. I’ve never added it up, but I guarantee you, that it was 6 or 7 tours and 600 or 700 shows. It’s probably 60% or 65% of all the shows that they have ever done. If I was to beat myself up I’d be looking at myself in the mirror going, “Schmuck, don’t be so greedy. That’s a pretty good run with one of the great bands in history. Move on.” I keep looking for the real sadness, and I don’t find it.
Did you attend any of the recent Rolling Stones shows?
No. I wasn’t around. I watched the last show (Dec . 15, 2012 in Newark, that also featured John Mayer, Gary Clark, the Black Keys, Bruce Springsteen, and Lady Gaga) on pay-for-view. I thought it was terrific. It’s really hard on TV to come across with a rock show, but I thought they were great.
Could Virgin Live be the first real threat to Live Nation?
No. I don’t see it. I’m sure that they are going to try and do more. They are trying to put together stuff. Let’s face it, he’s (Dainty has) got some people working on the tour that are older than us. That’s not the future. We are the past.
Speaking of the past. In 2006, Billboard’s Ray Waddell has suggested that your legacy will be that you significantly raised concert ticket prices.
Here you go. I’m going to attack your profession. Are you ready for this? If people pay attention that won’t be my legacy. But the press, who are lazy, won’t want to pay attention. That very well may be my legacy. The real truth of the matter is at various times with various acts who weren’t making a lot of money, I got involved and helped them to not only make a lot of money, but they continued careers that otherwise would not have been continued. You might have 5 or 6 tours and 30 or 40 or 50 million people who may never have seen those acts, and had all that fun.
Forget the money. The real legacy is precisely that.
And I took these bands to places that no one on earth would take them. Everybody was terrified. They looked down their noses. Didn’t think we could go to South America. Didn’t think that we could go to the Far East and do all of these things. I think that’s more the truth.
["(Cohl) brought $100, $200 and now $500 tickets to rock and roll, whatever kind of legacy that is," Billboard’s Ray Waddell said in the 2006 CBC-TV documentary, “Satisfaction: The Life & Times Of Michael Cohl.”]
Music fans are exhibiting a healthy appetite for concert tickets so far this year, but bands and promoters are still smarting from 2010 and 2011 when high ticket prices and lackluster fan interest led to several money-losing tours. Nowadays, discussions of every tour and concert begins with, “Are we pricing this right?”
I think that you always have to be sensitive to ticket prices. When things are going well, people do sometimes lose sight of it (pricing). Once they get into difficult situations they ask, “Have we overpriced ourselves?” From time to time I think that we have. I think that most of the time that we got it right because most of the time we have been really successful. Let’s face it the tickets are never as cheap as the fans want them to be.
Scalpers continue to be a headache for promoters. Does paperless ticketing hamper scalping?
I don’t see why that would be the answer. As long as you can transfer the ticket from your phone to my phone, how do we stop it?
Let me give you an example (of trying to hamper scalping).
One time with the Rolling Stones, we were playing a small theatre in Europe, a 1,900 or 2,000-seater. We decided to have some fun and see if we could stop scalping. So we made the people come and buy the tickets, post the photographs, and come back the night of the show with the photograph they were allowed to go in, and there were no pass-outs. What I then realized was that I tripled the (ticket) price for the scalpers because a scalper came in and bought two tickets. His buddy came in, and bought two. So they had four tickets.. They then took the two girls who paid triple or quadruple (for their tickets) and off they went. So the seats weren’t unused. They were used. There’s no stopping them.
Artists often contribute to the secondary ticket market through their fan clubs, and giveaways.
No question about it.
But what’s the true value of a ticket? Is it the face value or what it can be sold for later? Maybe, the concert promoter priced the ticket price too low.
No question about it. And, maybe, things change. Maybe, at the time that he priced it’s not selling at $150 but five weeks later it is because the band has a #1 hit. Who knows? Then there’s all those $75 tickets that go unsold.
At the end of the day, the promoter works for the artist who may have a varying view of what they believe is the right price for their fan to pay. That generally sets the ticket price.
No question. The act, the manager, and the agent, they all are a contributing factor. The bottom line, ultimately, is that the public is the real driver of the ticket price. As soon as they stop buying tickets, the price goes down.
You are renowned for staying clear of the media. Prior to this interview, I was asked by several friends, “Why is Michael talking to you?” What’s the answer?
I don’t know. I will tell you it makes sense. I wouldn’t normally do this. I rarely do this. But I’m getting a bit older, and it’s toward the end so why not? Why be such a little grinch? The other thing is that I am doing an interview with you at Canadian Music Week (in Toronto on March 22nd, 2013).
Why did you agree to that?
My answer is simply that they asked. You had been hounding me about doing an interview. It just made no sense to go on the stage, and do an interview with you (there) while snubbing you on your (CelebrityAccess) website. I’m not that kind of a person; although people say Cohl this and Cohl that. They have always got me wrong in that respect.
Well, you can also take care of yourself in an onstage interview.
I’ve been onstage enough times; I’ve done enough speeches; and introduced enough shows that if you ask me something that I don’t want to answer, I’m not going to answer it. But there’s very little that I can’t talk about, and that I can’t put into a positive perspective because I consider even the bad things that happen a learning experience.
With Canadian Music Week, you return to your hometown.
Canada and Toronto are near and dear to me. I still think of moving back to Toronto every now and then. My mother is there. I lived there for 40 plus years. My sister’s there. One of my sons is there. I still consider it the town that I came from.
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 1970-89. 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, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”
The recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry, Larry will be honored at the 2013 Juno Gala Dinner & Awards on April 20th in Regina, Saskatchewan.