Joe Litvag, senior VP, AEG Presents
For 25 years, Joe Litvag has been a pivotal figure in presenting live music in Midwest America.
He started as an unpaid intern at Contemporary Productions in St. Louis after graduating from the University Of Kansas. At Contemporary, he survived an SFX Entertainment roll-up, and a Clear Channel Entertainment buy-out.
Litvag moved to AEG Live in early 2003, seeking an entrepreneurial homeplace under the live entertainment division of the Anschutz Entertainment Group.
Today, from St. Louis, Litvag oversees AEG Presents’ presence in the Midwest, covering 12 states with the boundaries of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas in the West to Michigan and Ohio in the East.
You are in charge of a significant chunk of territory.
It is a lot of territory. When I joined 15 years ago, Tom Miserendino, the long-time chief operating officer for our division who is a great mentor to me–and who is now running AEG Europe–he came to St. Louis to meet with me. We pulled out a map at this first meeting, and he circled this middle part of the country, and he said, “So here is where we don’t have anybody, Joe. What do you want to take?” And I said, “Shoot, I will just take the whole thing.”
It’s been great.
It is a big territory. It’s always been a big territory. There are a lot of markets, and I have a lot of competition in different markets, but we’ve got a great team of people set up in the key cities throughout the territory. Listen, no disrespect to the Dakotas or Nebraska or Kansas, but you have to be really careful about the number of shows that you do in those types of places. It’s not like I feel I could just feast on those types of markets on an ongoing basis. It’s nice to have markets like Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis as part of this portfolio that I am focused on.
As a St. Louis native, what’s so special about the Midwest from a musical perspective?
I like to think that the Midwest is really where acts break. Not that the coasts are easy because they certainly are not. Obviously, the industry has either been based first in New York and then in L.A. It seems like the Midwest has always kind of been a little forgotten. Over my 25 years in the business, I have seen a lot of acts that have broken out of the Midwest. That is where you can really develop a loyal fan base. A lot of times, if you are considered the flavor of the month, you don’t get any attention in places like L.A. or New York, but you can build a following, build a fan base, in the middle of the country, and eventually the coasts catch on.
There are acts that have been huge in the Midwest but never broke in New York or L.A.
There are a lot of great artists out there. A lot of great music that never ends up breaking through that ceiling of getting exposure in those “cool’ markets. For a lot of years, an act didn’t think that that they had really made it until they had gotten notoriety in the big cities. Over the past 20 years, especially, it has become known that, “Hey, you can have a career by being something in the middle of the country, and never even break the surface in New York or L.A.”
Both St. Louis and Cleveland have rich musical histories. Located at the crossroads of America, St. Louis was once a hub city where, like Memphis and Chicago, musicians from all over the South assembled. Later on, Chuck Berry, Miles Davis, Ike & Tina Turner, Albert King, and Little Milton honed their craft in St. Louis as did such locals as David Sanborn, and Michael McDonald, and Missouri native Sheryl Crow.
Cleveland is home to DJ Alan Freed and his Moondog Coronation Ball, but also to Frankie Yankovic, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Jimmy Scott, the Moonglows, the Outsiders, the Raspberries (with Eric Carmen), and the James Gang. WMMS-FM played a key role in breaking David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac, Roxy Music, Rush, and Bruce Springsteen.
Both cities have incredibly rich music histories. Cleveland is the one that gets all of the notoriety. St. Louis is probably a bit overlooked these days than, maybe, it should be. Cleveland is really starting to put itself back on the map. There’s an incredible renaissance there downtown like what is happening in downtown Detroit. People are discovering the city again, and with that comes discovering its music history and its musical roots. It is an incredible time in Cleveland right now. We are excited about everything that we have going on there. St. Louis has had its moments along the way but never really has popped to become a major music mecca in the past 30 years or so, unfortunately; but, maybe, that will change. There is still incredible talent in this town. It is just a matter of getting it noticed.
Cleveland looks reborn these days.
It’s a gorgeous city. The revitalization that is happening downtown is really nothing short of amazing. All of the hotels, shops, the restaurants and the live music venues, it’s really an incredible time in that city. I have been there constantly for the last couple of years, and I love going there.
There’s always been significant live music competition in Cleveland, but AEG has never had real estate there. Now AEG Presents has purchased the operating rights to Cleveland’s historic Agora Theatre and Ballroom.
Right. When I joined and looked at the territory, I identified some key markets that we wanted to focus our attention. Kansas City was the first one because it seemed like Live Nation was not investing a whole lot of energy in Kansas City at the time, and I saw an opportunity there. So did Phil Anschutz, and Tim Leiweke because they invested a lot of money in the Sprint Centre, and I identified the Midland (the 2,800 seat Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland) as a potential opportunity as well. We started focusing on Kansas City. Once we were off and running there, we noticed that there was probably an opportunity in Detroit. For a long time, Detroit had been sort of a one-horse town, and we feel that competition is a good thing. So getting involved first with The Emerald Theatre (in Mount Clements, Michigan) which is now closed, and eventually, The Royal Oak Music Theatre (in Royal Oak, Michigan) was a key step for us. Then Cleveland was also another market…..
You engaged with the people running The Agora Theater and Ballroom for over 5 years.
Actually longer. It’s probably been 6 or 7 years. The first tour that I got of The Agora was alongside Larry Vallon, another mentor of mine in AEG, who introduced me by phone to Hank LoConti.
Who then owned The Agora, and who had founded the first iteration of The Agora in 1966.
He did. Another legend in the business. Hank said, “Would you please come to Cleveland, I want to show you the place? “So I jumped on a plane. This has to be 6 or 7 years ago. Hank picked me up at the airport. The incredible stories he had, as soon as I got into the car, lasted the whole day. What an incredible guy, and the stories that he had of The Agora.
[Talent buyer Chris Zitterbart, who shares 50% ownership of the property itself with AEG Presents, began running the Agora Theater and Ballroom in late 2013.]
There have been several venues in Cleveland under the name The Agora. This is the 3rd theatre under that name. This building first opened in 1913 as the Metropolitan Theatre. Between 1950 and 1975, it served as radio WHK’s studio and auditorium. After being vacant for several years, except for sporadic movie screenings, it was remodeled in 1985 to become The Agora Theater and Ballroom.
Not the original, but Hank was the original owner of The Agoras, and what a character. As he walked me through The Agora for the first time he said, “I’d love for you to try and do some shows here. We’d love to try and figure out a deal.” The place had so much history, but it definitely needed a lot of work. I asked if he was going to invest some money to clean the place up. He said, “Well, it functions just fine.” I said, There’s no air-conditioning here, Hank.” He said, “It’s Cleveland, we’ve always got that lake (Erie) breeze. It never gets that hot here.”
I said, “Oh, bullshit.”
That was the first time I saw the venue and my first introduction to Hank. We had some conversations that didn’t materialize into much. Then, unfortunately, he passed away, and the theatre changed hands. It went to Chris Zitterbart. Chris reached out, and said, “I really love if you would try doing a show or two here.” So we did. That is how we dipped our toe in. We booked a couple of shows there. Saw the potential in the venue. I alerted our executives in L.A. I said, “Guys, this is something we should be taking a look at.” Fortunately Shawn Trell our COO is from Ohio, and he knew The Agora really well, and he agreed that there was a big opportunity there. He said, “Okay, let’s do this.” That was the beginning.
The $3 million renovation included air-conditioning.
(Laughing)That was number one, number two, and number three on the list.
Also, there’s new heating, improved sound, and lighting systems, and the restoring od seating, and the lobby. Old bars were replaced, bathrooms renovated, and safety improved. When wood flooring was torn up it revealed the original ceramic tile. And there’s now Internet access.
An extensive renovation but I’ve got to say that when I went to the official re-launch party recently—it has been a construction zone for the past six months—so to see it finished is incredible. What we didn’t get rid of was that charm and tradition. We just updated it for it to be a functional facility for 2018, and beyond. We kept all the charm there. The thing that was most amazing to me—because I spent a lot of time in Cleveland over the last couple of years with both The Agora and in developing The InCuya Festival—is the amount of pride that the people of Cleveland have not just for their city, but for The Agora. Everybody has a story. Every single person that I talked to has some sort of story. Of a show, a memorable show that they went to at The Agora. So it’s a proud moment for me, and our entire company to have this place where it is right now.
Meanwhile, the Masonic Auditorium, another historic music venue of similar size on Euclid Avenue in downtown Cleveland, has become part of Live Nation’s portfolio.
A little ironic the timing of that announcement (July 16, 2018). but it’s alright.
Well, Cleveland is a great music town. Live Nation currently operates the House of Blues and Jacobs Pavilion in Cleveland.
It is a great town. It is a vibrant music community. Michael Belkin (the head of Live Nation’s Cleveland office) is a friend of mine from when we worked together and more power to him. Competition just makes us all better. We have a great venue. We think we have a must play venue. You want to compete, okay, that’s fine.
Meanwhile, the inaugural InCuya Music Festival launches Aug. 25-26th in the heart of Cleveland’s downtown on The Malls. The event is being produced by AEG Presents with support from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the city of Cleveland, Destination Cleveland as well as the newly-formed Cleveland Concert Company, Two stages will features such acts as the Avett Brothers, SZA, Awolnation, New Order, Cake, Bahamas, Yuna, Daniel Caesar, the Jack Fords, Booker T. Jones, K.Flay and others.
InCuya was really the brainchild of a group of local investors in Cleveland, a group of guys who put together a company called Cleveland Concert Company. They are all incredibly successful business people in other sectors, and they have a lot of influential and wealthy friends in Cleveland and, as I said, there’s this incredible sense of Cleveland pride. The investors are all music lovers. One of the guys plays in a band. The other guys go to shows all of the time. They have spent years going to festivals in other cities, and they’ve had this dream of creating a festival Cleveland can call its own. They started this for no other reason than they wanted to do something great or the city of Cleveland. They think Cleveland deserves its own unique brand.
When I started talking to them about 2 ½ years ago, when we started brainstorming and talking about other festivals that they liked and respected, the one that we kept coming back to was New Orleans’ JazzFest. Not that they wanted to replicate JazzFest, but because that festival has come to be this cultural phenomenon over decades, and that’s their goal. They want to create something distinctly Cleveland. that celebrates the culture of Cleveland and Ohio.
From what I see InCuya is starting off quite modestly.
I do a lot of festivals, and I convinced the guys in the Cleveland Concert Company that it’s all well and good to have a festival, but you have to start small and grow it organically. Those (festivals), for the most part, which try to swing for a home run right out of the gate usually end up striking out. Not always, but usually. The festival business, as we all know, has gotten very challenging in this country because we have gotten oversaturated. I said, “My advice is that you are better off starting this small, and being manageable, and build a solid reputation for yourself, and then grow it over time. Let’s put a three to five year plan together.” And that’s what we did. This is just step one. We want something that grows to a point where it takes over the city in a good way and welcomes people from all over the country, and from all over the world into Cleveland. So you have to crawl before you walk before you run. This year is about establishing ourselves, making sure we deliver a great experience to the fans, and to build a solid foundation. Then we can start, hopefully, and grow on that in year two.
There’s a lot going on with AEG these days. AEG Facilities, a stand-alone division, has been selected to manage and operate the Buenos Aires Arena set to open in mid-2019; AEG UK, teaming up with Birmingham-based Made Festival, will launch a new, two-day music festival in Birmingham, October 12th and 13th; and AEG Presents has purchased all of the Firefly Music Festival from Chicago-based Red Frog Event.
AEG Presents has also signed an agreement to purchase a four-acre parcel of land to develop a new mixed-use entertainment district at Nashville Yards in downtown Nashville. The planned mixed-use entertainment district will be anchored by a 4,000-capacity music venue, a theatre complex, a club, and a hotel
Finally, with the $1 million renovation of Detroit’s 105-year-old Majestic Theatre now underway, AEG Presents will exclusively book the venue.
A significant growth spurt going on at AEG?
Well, I think that we have been on a growth spurt. I just celebrated my 15 year anniversary here. It’s still hard for me to believe that I have lasted anywhere for 15 years without getting fired, but here I am. One of the reasons why it was so exciting to join this company back in 2003 was hearing Tim Leiweke’s, Irving Azoff’s and Randy Phillips’ plan about how they wanted to grow the company, and being part of that explosive growth was really, really exciting. It was a whirlwind, but a lot of fun. Over the past 15 years, the company has matured in a lot of ways, but we are still growing. There are still growth opportunities out there–whether it is in this country or abroad–to build out the company’s footprint. With the guys that are in the control of the company now, from Dan Beckerman, Ted Fikre, and Jay Marciano on down to Shawn Trell and Rick Mueller, the guys who run Presents on a daily basis, it’s a lot more methodical in the approach, but the growth opportunities are still there. With what we are about to develop in Nashville with Nashville Yards, or with The Agora in Cleveland, we’re still picking our opportunities very carefully in the U.S., but those opportunities still exist and there is a lot of opportunity outside the U.S. Fortunately, we now have tentacles in pretty much every continent, and we are just sussing out each of those opportunities where it makes sense. Mr. Anschutz has said that he’s not afraid to spend his money if it is a sensible idea.
The sudden departures of Tim Leiweke and Randy Phillips from AEG Live five years ago followed by Jay Marciano, who had returned to Los Angeles earlier from Europe where he had overseen live entertainment operations, becoming chairman, was that a difficult transition? Tim and Randy are people you were in the trenches with while building the company.
Difficult is probably not the word. It was challenging. There were moments of challenge along the way. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the group of people that are in place now. I genuinely like and respect all of these guys. They are super smart and have a different vision, and different voices, and I embrace that. All of them had been with the company for a while. Jay (Marciano) was at the company before he went to MSG (Madison Square Garden Entertainment). He was with AEG Live for a few years as our chief strategy officer. I spent a lot of time working with him. Then, he left and went to MSG, and then he went over to run AEG Europe, and then came back to L.A. So between Dan Beckerman (president and CEO of Anschutz Entertainment Group), and Ted Fikre (Vice Chairman), Jay (Marciano), Shawn Trell (COO), and Rick Mueller (president) on the Presents side these are guys that I have worked with a lot over the past 15 years. So it wasn’t like anybody new. Yeah, it was a little challenging at times because I’m the first one to admit that when I decided to take a leap of faith and join AEG 15 years ago, it was with Tim, Randy and Tom Miserendino. Those were the three guys that I said, “This is the team that I want to be on.” For various reasons they are all gone though Tom is still with the company in Europe (as AEG Europe president and CEO). but he’s not part of Presents anymore. So it was a transition for sure.
Getting through the departures of Tim and Randy, along with UK head Rob Hallett leaving, as well as the 5-month wrongful-death civil trial brought by Michael Jackson’s mother Katherine Jackson, and his three children over the singer’s death in 2009, showed how resilient AEG was. Those moments could have gutted the company, but they didn’t. Phil Anschutz never wavered.
He’s a very patient man. He is. We’ve had challenges since I’ve been with the company, but he has never wavered, and the company has never wavered. It is due to that fact that we have an incredible team of people, and he believes in our abilities. We may not be as big as Live Nation in terms of manpower or staffing, but we are every bit as good and every bit as strong. That is something that we take tremendous pride in
The roll-up of American regional promoters by SFX Entertainment in the late ‘90s, and the subsequent sell-off to Clear Channel was followed by further consolidation and empire building by the new Live Nation, and by AEG Live, but many local independent promoters continued to flourish. They were left alone for years. We have since seen a roll-up of a lot of many those independents recently as Live Nation and AEG came to recognize that there was money to be made in the secondary and tertiary markets in America.
Absolutely. Starting for me while at Contemporary Productions, we had a big presence in St. Louis and Kansas City, and a bit in Minneapolis, but our bread and butter was really in a lot of those secondary and tertiary markets in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota, and North and South Dakota. The number of shows that we would do in some of those markets was immense, and that was what we attributed a lot of the success we had back in the old days. Of course, the big amphitheater shows in St. Louis and Kansas City, along with stadium shows and arena shows, took a lot of the attention, but the number of shows that we did in those secondary and tertiary markets far outweighed what we did in the majors (markets). I agree with you about the early consolidation of the business. That the big companies were really focused on the major markets, the Top 50 markets understandably. Over the past 10 years, everybody has sort realized that there is a whole other set of 20, 30 or 40 markets out there where you can do some decent business. You have to be smart about it.
Prior to the emergence of SFX Entertainment in the late ‘90s, there were only a handful of promoters doing extensive or, perhaps, national American tours: Bill Graham, Jerry Weintraub, John Scher, Barry Fey, and Michael Cohl.
AEG might not be the global live music player if not for Britney Spears’ “Dream Within A Dream” tour in 2001. Concerts West beat out both Clear Channel, and House of Blues for the “Dream Within A Dream” tour. A big deal at the time. Randy Phillips was tight with Spears’ booking agent David Zedeck, and with her then manager Johnny Wright. Also, Britney had a movie “Crossroads coming out, and Phil Anschutz owned United Artists Theatres.
Today, any national tour will likely include secondary and tertiary markets. That is a fundamental change in the live music business in the U.S.
I agree with you. Back to the days when I started in the business, when it was still Contemporary before the SFX roll-up, for the most part, it (national booking) worked on the (Premier Talent Agency’s) Frank Barsalona model. Promoters had their territory and other promoters, out of respect, for the most part, didn’t infringe on that. That is how about 95% of the touring business was split up across the country. Everybody got a little piece, and everybody was happy. When SFX started rolling up, and then became Clear Channel, and then AEG sort of followed suit along a slightly different path but the same general model, a lot of the agents and managers out there starting looking at it as, “This isn’t Irv (Zuckerman) and Steve’s (Steve Schankman) money anymore. This is a bigger company.” So the loyalty aspect of it (the relationship) kind of went out the window. I think that once agents and managers started reacting that way, that is when guys like John Meglen, Paul Gongaware, and Randy Phillips on the AEG side–and there were similar guys on the Live Nation Side–all started to say, “Swell, we are just going to take advantage of the fact that if they are only going to look at who is going to write the biggest check, and loyalty is out the window, then we might as well get in that game.” That worked well for awhile, and we saw an explosion of national touring. It seems like it has swayed back a little bit more toward loyalty these days but, at the same time, whoever ultimately is going to write the biggest check is going to get the tour because acts are so pressed to make their money on the road nowadays that it is hard for them to pass up a deal someone else is waving more money at them.
The fact is it’s about the money being available. The barometer was the Rolling Stones’ bombshell moment choosing AEG money over the offer from a coalition of promoters including Australia’s Paul Dainty, and Richard Branson for their North American tour in 2013.
Well, it was a messy moment right there, and I think that we were in a position to capitalize on it. Obviously, it’s been a great relationship since then, but you know we definitely stepped up with the check. When you are talking about an artist like the Stones, that’s important.
With AEG and Live Nation squaring off against each other to attain national tours, agents were gleeful. “Oh, boy, are we going to make money now.”
Once there was sizeable outside money on the table, once it became evident that promoters were playing with other peoples’ money that didn’t have any emotion tied to it, many agents, managers, and artists took a different view of their relations with promoters.
For the longest time agents didn’t really didn’t think very much about the amount of risk that we have to deal with on a daily basis. To echo what you said, some of them are better at it than others. Some of them are really out to be a hero to their client and to show their client how much money they can make them, and take no prisoners. It doesn’t matter how many bodies they leave in their wake.
There are agents who curry favor with their clients with, “Let me show my artist how I can really smack around this promoter.” On a national tour, you’d have to go along with that. When it’s a singular show in your own market would you be reluctant to deal with that type of agent?
Yeah. Quite frankly there’s this brilliant word in our language that a lot of forget about a lot of the time. It’s “no.” There’s nothing wrong with passing on a show if, for whatever reason than we don’t feel good about it. That is the only commitment that I have made to Mr. Anschutz that I am going to try and make the best business decision for the company. Sometimes saying “no” is the best answer. Sometimes it’s a hard word to say because we get so emotionally invested in what we are doing.
There will be times you know the act is right for the market but you cost it out and the deal doesn’t make sense.
Yeah, the deal doesn’t make sense. Quite frankly Mr. A has always operated with the philosophy that he has passed on to all of us out in the field. He’s not all that focused on quantity. He’s more focused on quality. We are a for-profit company. We are a net company. Our goal is to make money. We aren’t in this for the exercise. We love doing shows, and we want to do as many quality shows as we can, but sometimes you have to sit on the sidelines because you just don’t feel good about a deal. You may be wrong. You may end up looking back, and think, “Aw, I should have given him the money. I should have given him what he asked for.” But a lot of times, you are sitting on the sidelines thinking, “I made the right decision here.”
If the agent gets turned down enough, they more than likely will return with a deal that makes sense.
It is definitely is happening more and more. There are still agents, however, interested in only trying to get as much as they can for their client as quickly as they can. Listen, the agents don’t have an easy job right now either because they are constantly changing teams, and poaching artists from each other left and right. So the agents feel that they have to over deliver for their client or they are going to lose them to the guy across the street. I can certainly understand that, but there is something to be said for making the right deal. I never enjoyed subscribing to the (artist manager) Howard Kaufman’s philosophy of the business where if the show goes into percentage, the agent didn’t do his job, didn’t jam the promoter hard enough. It’s a great thing when shows go into percentage because that shows we can all make money together. But there is an incredible amount of risk that we take on a daily basis. In a club show. In a theatre show. An arena show. A stadium show. A festival. I do think a lot of time agents, managers really choose to ignore the amount of risk that we are taking to help break their artists.
[Howard Kaufman’s management company, H.K. Management, had an artist roster that included Aerosmith, Stevie Nicks, Jimmy Buffett, Chicago, Lenny Kravitz and Def Leppard. In 1974, Kaufman teamed with Irv Azoff to form Front Line Management, which guided the careers of the Eagles, Steely Dan, and Jimmy Buffett, among others. Kaufman passed away in 2017 at age 79.]
Is there more of an understanding today by agents and managers of the level of risk by the promoter? The promoter margins on most shows are pretty thin and have a couple of poorly-attended shows, and that’s a big net loss.
And they (margins) continue to shrink. When I started 25 years ago promoter profit deals were still regular thing across the business. Then it started shifting more to 85:15 net deals, and then to 90:10. Now 90:10s are starting to go, being pushed aside for 92.5 or 95.5 deals to artists. We continue to get squeezed because the artist wants to make more and more. But that is the business that we are in. We work really hard, and that is why we are in the venue operation business so we can take advantage of the beer sales, the ticket royalties, the facility fees, the merchandise sales, and the parking.
The landscape is littered with bodies of agents, managers, and artists who tried to squeeze promoters.
We have long memories. We don’t forget those things. We all have stories of how we were wronged one way or the other. Myself included. I won’t mention any names now but I have a long memory. I don’t forget anything. I forgive, maybe, but I don’t forget.
You talked about the U.S. concert market being oversaturated. There’s been such high-profile departures of such festivals as Fyre, Pemberton, Sasquatch! Music, FYF, and Lost Lake. However, last month (July, 2018) AEG Presents decided to acquire the remaining ownership shares from Red Frog Events of the Firefly Music Festival, held annually at The Woodlands of Dover International Speedway in Dover, Delaware.
Yes, I think we are seeing a saturation point. In the U.S., it’s been an explosion of festivals over the last 10 years which is a great thing for the business but at the same time, I guess it can be a negative for the business too depending what side you are sitting on.
There have obviously been some significant black eyes on the business like Pemberton and Fyre, but I think those were the exceptions. There are certain festivals that we think are built to last, and Firefly happens to be one of them. When we had the opportunity to buy the remaining interest, we jumped at it. I think strong unique concepts are going to survive, and the less strong concepts may fall away. That’s okay. I do a lot of festivals for the company, and not all of them that I have done have survived or are going to survive. Nobody wants to admit failure, but they don’t all work. No professional baseball player bats .1000. So we sort of rode the wave as every city was hungry for a festival, but what we have started seeing this year, and which will we probably will continue to see next year, is that you are going to see more festivals falling away.
The credit for much of your festival success may go to you working with some strong partners including Danny Wimmer Presents, Entercom, Columbus Crew, and Sporting KC. You have some exceptional partners.
I do. I thank my lucky stars every day for the incredible partnerships and friendships that we have built up. We sort of set out on this mission 11 or 12 years ago that we were going to focus a lot of attention on creating festivals. Festivals are an expensive proposition to take on, especially nowadays is where you don’t necessarily see any sort of return the first year or two. In most cases, it takes a good three years to really turn the corner and start making money. Mitigating risk is something that is always top of mind.
Nothing beats working with a promoter with an ear to individual markets like Danny Wimmer. With 14 annual festivals in 13 American cities, Danny Wimmer Presents is the largest independent festival producer in the country. Under DWP are such events as Monster Energy Carolina Rebellion, Chicago’s Open Air, Northern Invasion, Rock on the Range, Fort Rock, Aftershock, and Louder Than Life. Danny can say to you, “Joe, that’s a great idea for a festival, but not here.”
For sure. Danny and I have developed such a close relationship over the past 12 or 13 years, as well as with Gary Spivack who is with Danny. We’ll say that to each other. There are certain markets that they know, and there are certain markets that myself or my team know. We check each other a lot of times, “Danny, great idea but not there.” And sometimes we make some really great decisions in that way. Sometimes, I will say to Danny, “I don’t believe in something there. If you want to go ahead and do it yourself go ahead,” and he will. And vice versa. Sometimes he will say to me, “I’m not going to get involved,” and we will do it ourselves. The great thing about that partnership is that there a spate of festivals that we do with DWP, and they have their own additional slate of festivals they do ourselves. We also have our own other slate we do ourselves or with other partners. So it works really well. More than anything, it’s a friendship. We sort of look at each other as comrades in arms especially when it comes to the rock stuff. That is a genre that not a ton of people have paid attention to over the year.
Rock and roll has been proclaimed as dead, but not in many of the markets you work.
It is alive and well, and it always has been. Back to our earlier discussion, it wasn’t “cool” so L.A. and New York weren’t paying attention to it, but in the middle of the country rock and roll has been alive and well the entire time.
Rock and roll is really is the meat and potatoes of live music in North America.
With new rock and country acts promoters have to grind them through the clubs, theatres, and arenas for several years before they emerge as major acts. Pop acts can’t follow that path. Country and rock acts can still follow a touring route carved out in the ‘40s and ‘50s. A pop act needs a hit record as well as significant TV, and social media exposure.
I agree. With rock, the most important thing is that the audience is very loyal. When the audience invests itself in an artist, they are more than likely fans of that artist for a long time and will follow them from the clubs to the theatres to the arenas to the stadiums and to the festivals.
Much like with country fans.
Yes. Country is the same way. The thing with country that is very interesting, and I think is intentional–I don’t spend too much time thinking of the radio side of the business these days, but it’s there–the country genre is the only genre that has maintained one single radio format; whereas all of the other genres have all splintered off. A case in point is rock. We had Active Rock for awhile. We have Mainstream Rock. Classic Rock, Adult Rock, and Triple A. You have all of these different splinters that started fragmenting the audience in rock that can make it more challenging for us. With country, there’s one format. You have the country chart, and the country chart plays old and new artists.
Not only do you have radio fragmenting the rock genre, but there’s further fragmentation of the genre caused by social media and streaming.
Spotify, Apple, Google and other platforms present rock spread over decades and multiple sub-genres. Little wonder that the Zombies, Journey, Styx, and Foreigner are all touring.
Yep, it’s a great thing for a lot of the acts that have been around for 20 plus years. I agree with you that the streaming music services have brought new light to some of those acts with new audiences again because those services are mixing it up. They are playing new stuff. They are playing old stuff based on your musical taste and that can certainly open up new audiences for a lot of the more established acts.
If an act builds up its online presence it can get the news out to fans quite quickly about a tour. Quicker than a promoter.
Oh yeah. Social media is a blessing and a curse. We have all seen where it can work against us if you say the wrong thing but it is also an incredible blessing for artists. For me, growing up in the business, it wasn’t possible as a fan to communicate directly with the artist. You had to go through the record label or go through the radio station. Nowadays artist and fans are able to communicate directly and that is an incredible opportunity for artists. It is also an opportunity for us as promoters because we can take advantage of the fact that artists are their own mouthpieces, and they are talking directly to their fans. So if we get an artist talking about the fact, “Hey, I’m coming to St. Louis in two weeks. Come check me out.” They can say that directly to their fan base in St. Louis, and hopefully, we can get them energized.
You had been doing the High Elevation Rock Festival at the legendary Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre but…
We didn’t do it this year because we couldn’t get the headliners that we thought made sense.
Colorado has always been a stronghold for live music of all genres. The competition there…..
It’s insane. I’m good friends with Brent Fedrizzi, Don Strasburg and, and Chuck Morris (of AEG Presents Rocky Mountain and Northwest Regions). I marvel at what those guys do on a daily basis. When I look at the show volume that plays Denver, it is just absolutely insane, and everything sells. You and I could get onstage and do a Q & A, and probably we could sell out Red Rocks (Amphitheatre). That is how insane the Colorado market is.
The bidding wars in that market are legendary.
Oh for sure, but the shows do the business. We had our AEG Connect Summit in London recently, and I was talking with Brent Fedrizzi about the fact that they are holding dates. They are holding dates, not only holding dates confirming shows right now but for 2020 at Red Rocks because acts are planning their entire U.S. tours around their Red Rocks date.
They have to book it or lose it.
Exactly. I marvel at the work Brent, Don, Chuck and their incredible team do in Denver. The amount of output they have. The show volume is absolutely insane and everything sells. I rarely see a show report of a bad show in Denver.
Lessened recording revenues coupled with the explosive rise of secondary ticketing, perhaps, are some of the reasons behind higher ticket prices today. If a ticket’s face value is $100, but it re-sells for $300 or $400, what is its true value? I can understand the artist asking, “How come we haven’t got a piece of that $350?”
Sure, it’s today’s world problem The technology has brought this opportunity of the secondary market to light, and it’s not some guy on the street corner scalping tickets anymore. These platforms are really advanced and quite frankly…
The unfair part of it is that scalpers are purchasing tickets with the help of computer programs or bots.
Well, agreed. I’m not on the ticketing side of it but I can imagine the frustration those (ticketing) companies are all dealing with on a daily basis. But, at the end of the day, I think that dynamic pricing (reflective of available market information, as opposed to static pricing) is becoming more of a factor on all levels (of live music); whereas a couple of years ago it was just focused on the arena and stadium sides of the business. You are going to start seeing more dynamic pricing models come into play in the theaters, and even clubs because you are exactly right. When a ticket’s face value is $100, and you go onto any one of the secondary sites, and you can see it selling for $350, we as promoters, and the artists, and the agents, and the managers all have to ask ourselves, “Have we undervalued this ticket?” What can we do to get in on that so that the artist can capitalize on that revenue?” It’s only fair. They are the artist.
Taylor Swift pioneered a tactic for Ticketmaster in placing resale tickets for her tour on the same sales seat map where primary tickets were still available.
Right, exactly because if there is a market for it, let’s be upfront about it. There’s no reason that it has to be kind of a shady practice. You get some of these legit platforms, and it (reselling) doesn’t have to be an under the table type business. From our perspective as long as the artist can share in it, I think that is what the future is. Let the market determine what the tickets should be priced at. They (fans) are the ones that ultimately are going to decide, so let them decide. It’s not like the old days where we sit in an office and says, “ Okay, we are going to price tickets a $100 and that’s what we are going to make people pay. “It is an exciting time but you have to try and stay on pace with the curve because it is constantly changing.
I have some concerns of artists like Jay-Z and Taylor Swift utilizing the practice of slow ticketing, setting seat prices higher and selling them over a longer period of time. This can lead to seats still being available on the night of the show. Performers should care if they have potentially empty seats.
I wholeheartedly agree. The goal is that we want to sell every ticket. We are still in the business of trying to help these artists build long-standing fan bases. The only way to do that is to get people at the shows. Not to leave seats empty.
You started out in live music as an unpaid intern at Contemporary Productions in 1993 while just out of college. You attended the University of Kansas?
I went to the University of Kansas. It was the ‘90s. You could still work for free just to make a name for yourself to get your foot in the door. I was so determined to get into the business.
What had you been studying at the University of Kansas?
I was a business communication major.
Did you graduate?
Within a year of graduation, you were working for Steve Schankman and Irv Zuckerman at Contemporary Productions in St. Louis.
I did several internships while at university to kind of get a taste of the business. I worked at a radio station writing PSAs. I worked for a booking agent, Steve Ozark in Lawrence (at the Ozark Talent Company in Lawrence Kansas), who is still there and doing great things. An incredible guy. One of my earliest mentors. I spent a summer interning in Washington, D.C. at the Recording Industry Association of America. I worked for Virgin Records as a college rep. So I had my feet in a variety of different areas. I grew up in college learning about the business. I was really enamored with David Geffen, and Richard Branson. I read every book and every article on either of those guys. It was the late ‘80s and the early ‘90s. The record labels were still kings. So my vision was to get into the label business. Thank God, I changed that direction, but that is where I wanted to be. I still remember that I was getting ready to graduate, and I went to Chicago before Christmas because my serious girlfriend at the time was from Chicago. I had interviews set up with three record labels. I had really great meetings with all three. They each offered me an entry-level job, and I had sort of narrowed down which one I was going to work for. Then the day before I was leaving town to go home to pack my things to move there, my girlfriend dumped me. It broke my heart. That sent me back to St. Louis licking my wounds, and deciding, maybe, I don’t want to go to Chicago because, if she just dumped me why do I want to be there?
You could have worked at Mercury Records
That was one of them. I’m not going to say which one it was. It was a major, and it was on the distribution side with a pathway to get into the radio promotion department which was still going strong at that time. Anyway, I went back to St. Louis heart-broken, and just on a whim, I got an interview, scheduled through a family friend, with Steve Schankman. I had a good meeting with him. He said, “Well, we aren’t really hiring anybody right now, but if you want to come in as an unpaid intern we will put you in the special events division.” I said, “Sure, let’s try that. I started two weeks later as an unpaid intern. Spent about two months just toiling away, and then I was lucky enough that Steve called me into his office, and he said that they were going to put me on salary at a whopping $12,000 a year. That was in April 1993.
Steve, as you well know, is first and foremost, a trumpet player.
(Laughing) Oh absolutely. I won’t share whether I think he’s any good. But I will tell you the real sort of defining moment for me. At the point, Contemporary was a pretty big company with offices in St. Louis and Kansas City, and a marketing office in New Jersey, and all of these different divisions, and two amphitheaters. I’m thinking to myself, “How am I going to get noticed by these two guys because I’m just like the low man of the totem pole, and there’s a bunch of people clamoring to get their attention to prove their worth?” I realized very quickly that with Steve, his first love is playing in his band. So I had an opportunity to step in and start booking Steve’s band, the Fabulous Motown Revue, and it worked like a charm. Probably within six months, I was exclusively booking his band, getting him gigs, corporate gigs all over the country, and I got on his radar. He was like, “You are going places Joe.” He and I got very close and developed a great friendship. Then, eventually, I decided that being a booking agent, and working in the corporate events side of the business was—I love it—but I wanted to do something more. So I started gravitating more toward the concert side of the business. I set about getting Irv Zuckerman to pay attention to me because he was the one that was booking all of the shows.
Steve continues to run Contemporary Productions; Irv retired from music. He’s in the pizza business today.
He is. He and Rodney Eckerman (a fellow executive at Clear Channel) and their two sons (Nick Eckerman, and Jeff Zuckerman) got into the gourmet pizza business (with PizzaRev, a choose-your-own-ingredients chain). I talk to Irv maybe once a year but he’s still in L.A. and I think the pizza business is going quite well.
[A leader in the build-your-own pizza sector, PizzaRev operates more than 45 locations in the United States and Mexico.]
In 1995, Contemporary purchased U.S. Concepts in New York, and began promoting Jerry Seinfeld throughout the country, and later the world. Contemporary also helped develop Tim Allen, Louie Anderson, Roseanne Barr, Chris Rock, and Drew Carey.
That was all Robin Tate’s doing. Robin came to Contemporary before I did. When I joined the company, he was running the production department, and he started booking comedy. He found a lane in comedy and ran with it. Those are all relationships that Robin brought to the table, and he had incredible success.
Contemporary was booking Jerry Seinfeld not only locally but then nationally and internationally
Absolutely and Robin was looking for someone to go out on the road with Seinfeld and he asked Kevin Dochtermann who, at the time, was our VP of concerts to cover some shows with Jerry. Kevin agreed and he and Jerry hit it off and became best friends. Fast forward several years later, Kevin ended up leaving Clear Channel to start JS Touring with Jerry, and he is still doing all of Jerry’s touring business, and he is partners with Jerry to this day. So great things came out of Contemporary back in those early days.
In the late 1990s, consolidation hit the concert business as SFX Entertainment spent about $2.5 billion rolling up promoters in North America and Europe. That included Contemporary being sold to SFX Entertainment in 1997. You were there for the SFX roll-up and the Clear Channel acquisition?
I was there. I started in ’93 and I was there through 2003 so I was there for the SFX rollup, and then the Clear Channel sale. When I left that company it was Clear Channel Entertainment. It was a couple of years before the Live Nation spin-off.
There were continual executive shakeups at the top under Clear Channel Entertainment.
Oh yeah, it was a pretty crazy time. That was part of the problem. Steve ended up leaving the company (after two years). Irv stayed, and he moved out to L.A. where he ran the music division and eventually got shown the door as many of the guys did then. It seemed like every six months to a year that there was somebody new taking over and wanting to change the way the company was running. They really weren’t embracing the entrepreneurial spirit. It was more, “Here’s your box. Stay in your box. Joe, we want you to book the amphitheaters in St. Louis and Kansas City, and don’t really do anything else.” That wasn’t what was making me happy. I could do that in my sleep. I still loved booking shows and working with artists, but I wanted to do more.
That was the territory for you.
That’s right. Fortunately, they finally took a chance on Michael Rapino well after I was gone, and he’s done an incredible job of continuing to grow that company and to get it on the right track. They are a lot more entrepreneurial with their approach now than they were back then.
A lot of the conflict originated with SFX Entertainment’s roll-up of the regional promoters.
It was totally understandable. You had these independent pioneers of the live business.
Look at how many left the fold along with Steve and Irving; Larry Magid, Danny Zelisko, and Louis Messina.
Sure. Some of them who stayed ended up becoming really good friends. They all had to sort of retrain themselves. Guys that they competed with for years and years where their territories touched or overlapped all of a sudden they were thrown in bed together. It takes an adjustment.
Under the banner Just Listen Management you manage the two sisters Bella & Lily, and the rock band Cavo. Both are from St. Louis.
Cavo is about ready to go back into the studio and make another record to put out next year. They released their third record (“Bridges”) independently.
You have managed Cavo since 2002.
Yeah. They are like my little brothers. It has been a long fun run with them. They had their 15 minutes. They had a #1 rock track in the country (“Champagne” reaching #1 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Chart) and had major company record deals, and they have settled into who they are. They are still having a good time playing and writing together which is the important thing.
I recall Bella & Lily’s album “Count To Ten” In 2013.
That is all they have released publicly. I have had them focused on writing and demoing for the past several years. We are just waiting until we can get the right batch of songs together that we can take it to a label. They’ve got incredible talent and are going to go far. But in this day and age, it’s really hard out there with YouTube and everything else. Everybody wants to be a star. So they have to become incredible writers. The new material is just incredible but, as you know, labels can be finicky, especially with a pop act. So we have been focused on waiting for the right time to try to get a label on board as a partner.
Why do management? What’s in it for you? Is management at that level financially rewarding?
Oh God, there’s nothing financially. I do it because I love doing it. Before Cavo, I managed a rock band out of St. Louis called Mesh which changed their name to Mesh STL and eventually to Modern Day Zero. That was my first foray into management. I started doing that in ‘98 or ’99. I wanted to exercise a different part of my brain. I love working with artists and helping to develop them. Working on the live show, and working on the songs. But really it started out–and to this day—as a hobby. Then, at various points along the way, it has become sort of a second full-time job. I get to use a different line of creativity when I am wearing my manager’s hat. It is something fun, and different. To wear multiple hats in this business in this day and age is a good thing, as long as you are able to focus on the task at hand, and if you can get it done properly, why not wear a couple of different hats?
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 is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry.