This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Barry Weisblatt, founder, WhiteLeaf Events.
After nearly a two-decade run as a music booking agent, Barry Weisblatt found that he’d hit the jackpot when he launched a one-stop service focused on private and corporate entertainment bookings
Launched in 2002, WhiteLeaf Events, located in Katonah, New York with an office in Sarasota, Florida, today annually oversees 15-20 private and corporate bookings—the Fall is its busiest period of the year–providing everything from talent buying to venue, staging and audio design; site coordination, and overseeing permitting, and backstage catering.
At one time, private and corporate entertainment was considered to be a limited circuit. While managers, agents, and rock and pop artists acknowledged those dates could be fabulous paydays, they looked at them as if being asked to headline at a glitzy casino or do a TV advertisement in Japan.
While artists still don’t widely broadcast their private or corporate bookings, the sector has become a primary part of the live music business.
In fact, Weissblatt and other promoters in the sector rarely, if ever, hear an agent or manager today say, “My act won’t ever play a private or a corporate.”
Among those to step forward into the field have been Barbra Streisand, Sir Paul McCartney, Tony Bennett, Elton John, Céline Dion, Bruno Mars, Alicia Keys, Sting, James Taylor, Bon Jovi, Carrie Underwood, John Mellencamp, Diana Ross, Journey, Train, Harry Connick Jr., David Blaine, Enrique Iglesias, Rod Stewart, Carole King, John Mayer, Sheryl Crow, Cher, Jerry Seinfeld, Billy Crystal, Duran Duran, Paul Simon, Lionel Richie, Melissa Etheridge, the Gypsy Kings, Natalie Merchant, and Goo Goo Dolls.
Meanwhile, WhiteLeaf has serviced such heavy-hitter clients as Baron Capital, Choice Hotels, CNN, Flight Centre, Liberty Travel, GoITV, Harley Davidson, Porsche, Motorola, Revlon, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Terminix, Tiffany & Co., Tommy Hilfiger, Tru Green, Vornado Realty Trust, and overseen events for the New York Giants, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team, and the U.S. Swim Team
Weisblatt’s career began when he opened up a one-man agency called Reel-Axe Entertainment while attending the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and then expanded it to represent local blues bands, while simultaneously working for his father’s elevator company.
In 1989, he landed a job in the mailroom at Associated Booking Corporation (ABC) in New York where, after three months, he was made an agent and became responsible for booking B.B. King, Albert King, Bobby Bland, and others.
In 1991, Weisblatt joined Alex Kochan’s new company, Artists & Audience Entertainment, which opened its door with two clients: Guns N’ Roses and Sir Paul McCartney, Not long afterward, Weisblatt signed singer/songwriter Joan Osborne who was still without a label deal.
Following 6 years at Artists & Audience Entertainment, Weisblatt moved to Pinnacle Entertainment for a year, booking Pantera, GWAR, Oasis, Gov’t Mule, Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes, and Osborne.
In 2000, Weisblatt accepted a job with John Scher’s Metropolitan Entertainment. Weisblatt ran the corporate events division until Metropolitan was sold to Clear Channel Entertainment (which evolved into Live Nation) in 2002.
Do you miss being a booking agent? How did it feel crossing over to being a promoter? A difficult transition?
It’s a very good point, and it’s a great observation. I can tell you that I do miss the collaborative relationship that you have with the artist. I miss the camaraderie. I miss the sense of really helping to effect an artist’s career somehow.
As a promoter, you are only briefly interacting with artists.
That is correct. Now I spend an evening with different ones all of the time. There are definitely pangs of despair of not being in that world sometimes for me. But, at the end of the day, I really feel that I’m doing exactly what I should be doing. I can recall in my prime of being an agent that I would book a 30 city tour, and 29 dates would be fantastic, and all anyone wanted to talk about was that 30th bad date. The first signpost on the road for me was, “Hey man, maybe there is something else for you to do.” That’s a true moment. I can recall that, and it wasn’t just with one artist. It was with more.
Private or corporate events allow touring artists to play more than one show in the same city. While many of the private gigs are corporate-sponsored events, there are still plenty of deep-pocketed people intent on lining up a major performer for their own affair. If I’m a major artist with two nights booked in Milwaukee, and I can play a third event, a private or corporate show in the city off the books and at a great fee, you’re my hero.
Thank you. I definitely understand that I am looked upon by some of the folks in our industry in a very high fashion. It is true. I became fascinated with this side of the business. What I found, as a booking agent, was that I was getting calls all of the time from people who had just way too much money to spend, and they had no idea of what the market value was of the artists that they were interested in. As a young agent or as any agent, you are trained to extract every possible nickel that you can from that particular buyer. That is your job. It was at that moment, having dealt with a few of these situations like this, that I thought to myself, “Man, these people are really dangerous. They need somebody to protect them from themselves.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been called by someone seeking entertainment for a corporate or private event, and I wasn’t able to tell them the range of fees they might expect to pay. While I’d know the concert or club fee, I’d have to guess the corporate or private fee.
I just got the sense that there was a possible niche there for me. Someone coming from the traditional concert business to act and operate as an advocate for people in the private sector or for people from the corporate sector who just don’t understand what the artist is supposed to cost or understand or know the cost of production that it would require to present the artist. So I had a little bit of a light bulb go off for me, probably in the late ‘90s, when I was starting to think about this a little bit harder. I just thought, “Man, I think that I can be helpful. I think I can help people save money, and I think I can provide them with a service as somebody who is basically coming from the opposition, and then jumping the fence, and then being an advocate and dealing with, in essence, one of my (agent) peers.
Of course, there were others already doing this type of work.
Let’s not cloud that point. I absolutely did not invent this business by any stretch of the imagination This has been around for a while. I can’t tell you the origins of it, but for years artists have been performing private events, and playing at corporate events or playing at golf outings. This has been going on for a long time. I think what is relatively new—within the last 25 years—is that more and more artists are agreeing to do these things. Now, it is to the point where you can count on one hand the artists that would refuse to do this kind of work.
At one time, it was considered “dirty” playing corporate and private events, like letting original music be used in a TV commercial.
Oh, there’s no doubt about it. No doubt about it. And I think that the—again I had no part in this event—but it has been told to me and, maybe, this is anecdotal; but I believe that the turning point came when Bob Dylan accepted a corporate gig. I don’t know who it was for or when it was but I think it was 20 or 25 years ago. Maybe less than that. I don’t know.
I do recall when billionaire venture capitalist David Bonderman held his 60th birthday party in 2002 at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, that the Rolling Stones played a 17-song set for some 500 of his friends. Opening was John Mellencamp with Robin Williams as emcee. Total cost of the event was $7 million. The Rolling Stones were touring in support of their 40th-anniversary compilation album “Forty Licks.”
Yeah, but the Bob Dylan thing pre-dates that by a long shot. I think that when Dylan did it the rest of the universe said, “Well, if Bob can do one, then so can I.” I think that kind of opened up the floodgates. Now, as I said, honestly you can pretty much hire just about any artist. Not everybody, but i would say 95% of them.
(Bob Dylan and his son Jakob were reportedly paid $1 million in 1998 to play for 15,000 employees of the Silicon Valley semiconductor company Applied Materials. It was the only time father and son had performed at the same show, though they did not appear together. Recalls organizer Tom Hayes, “The funny thing was going to CAA, and having them laugh at me on the phone. And it wasn’t even an hour later that they called back and said, “You got to sit down. They’re going to make the deal.”)
Are most of your events corporate?
My business is broken up 50/50. Fifty percent of it is corporate, and the other 50% of it is private and social. There are events where it could be a sales conference in New Orleans for IBM, and they want a big name entertainer; or it could be a hedge fund guy turning 50, and they are looking for a big name entertainer in their backyard. So my business is kind of split 50/50.
For over a decade WhiteLeaf Events has produced an annual day-long investment conference for an investment firm. The event started off with 1,000 attendees, and it now has over 5,000 attending. It is in multiple venues at Lincoln Center, including The Met Opera House, David Geffen Hall, Alice Tully Hall, The David Koch Theater, The Mitzi Newhouse Theater, The Big Apple Circus, and various tent structures. Obviously, people look to WhiteLeaf for expertise other than just booking talent?
Yeah, I think that’s true, and to your point, we have a handful of clients where there is no entertainment involved whatsoever. They are relying on our production expertise to help create, manage, and execute their event. That can be a gala or a fund-raiser. It could be anything.
When I worked as a publicist years ago, my bands hated privates because they were so disorganized. Nobody knew what they were doing. It was amateur hour.
I think a lot of WhiteLeaf does is that we take all of that out of the mix. There’s no amateur hour at a WhiteLeaf event. So when an artist gets onto my site, and they see the manner in which they are being taken care of, from a production standpoint, a catering standpoint, and an environmental standpoint, and they step out onstage, and they start feeling some love out there, those are the great nights. I have had many a night where I have had artists say to me afterward, “That’s the greatest private event we’ve ever done. You have to understand how many horrible moments that we have had doing these private events. This is why we really don’t love to do them.” I take a lot of pride in those kinds of moments.
Today, WhiteLeaf oversees events from bottom to top. From lighting, audio, staging, catering, green room, and even ensuring that the catering trucks have spaces in order to park. Other than hiring the talent, there are a lot of moving parts to a production, and operating costs can be astronomical.
I don’t think there’s any question about that. I am very, very blessed, and lucky to surround myself with an incredible production team. This separates me a little bit from the other folks that are in my space; in that all of my events are produced by people who come from the traditional concert production business side.
How is that an advantage?
That gets you a couple of things. First of all, it gets you away from people who are looking at the event from an event planner’s sensibility, if you will. It gets you thinking about building the event based on what the artist spec is. So when we look at an event, we are looking at it from that artist’s eyes first. We are making sure that whatever that artist requires we are going to deliver on. Based on the rider. Based on a mutually agreeable rider. And from there the rest of the event gets built which I believe is pretty opposite of the way that a lot of the…certainly the social events are put together.
Social events planners are likely more intent on pleasing the host because if they are having a wedding they may later have a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah or a birthday party. An event planner likely will try to please the money.
And that is correct. It’s been my thesis, and it always will be, that regardless of what the event is the artist is always going to be paramount. And so we take a very specific look at making sure that the artist is fitting into the environment based on scope and specs and making sure that artist is getting what they need to have, both onstage and off, and keeping those folks happy.
The musicians are your repeat clients. If they are happy with your event they will accept further bookings from you. Also, your client list is only as good as the artists you can secure. If you can’t bring an artist in at a later period when a client makes a request that hurts you as a company as well.
Sure, there’s no doubt about that.
In the live music world, any negative experience gets quickly known, and the effect can be damaging and long-lasting.
Yeah, there’s no doubt about that. The other thing is that when you are dealing with guys who come from the concert production world, these are people who have come up through the ranks of working for concert promoters, and they understand the need, and the necessity to hold the budget. I don’t have to explain that term to you. You have to hold the budget.
There’s no wiggle room.
There’s no wiggle room. There is no extra money which is a little bit opposite I think to how the event planning world works. So what we have fashioned here is that we are a company that looks at things from a kind of traditional concert business template, but we are able to shrink that template and make it fit inside of these small, intimate, boutique private moments. We do so with an eye toward the budget and making sure that our clients are getting what they need, and the artist is getting what they need. That kind of sensibility has served us well over the years.
At the same time, you will concede that artists are playing these corporate and private events considerably above their regular market value.
That is true. That is correct.
Agents, similar to the early days of them booking rock and pop acts into casinos, used to think, “We have a private date? We’ve just won the lottery. Oh boy, are we ever going to make money.”
During the last U.S. recession (2007-2007) casino buyers hit back against agents demanding high performance fees. As a result, casino fees stabilized. Interestingly, if you pay an artist too much, the agent, the manager and the artist figure that is the new market value of the act.
Yeah, well the agent’s job is to find more money than the last one (show) that he just booked. I respect and I understand that.
Because that is what you used to do.
Because that is what I used to do. But I think that I have developed enough equity, industry equity, with the agent folks that I deal with on a daily basis that there is a very clear and honest line of communication that we enjoy when dealing with those sorts of things.
Regardless, you will also have clients that will say, “I don’t care what it costs” to get an artist.
Yeah, and I hate that. I don’t really want my client to be like that. Even if they do, I still wouldn’t treat it (the booking) that way unless it was a unique set of circumstances. I’ve been in the industry for over 30 years now. So I understand travel. And I understand hotels. And I understand entourage movement. And I understand the difficulty of getting from Albuquerque to New York City overnight. I certainly understand an artist’s production rider. I understand that as well as anybody. I know what these things are supposed to cost, theoretically. So I start with that kind of base of knowledge. If a number feels unreasonable to me, the agent is going to have to have a real explanation as to why it is being specified. And then, if that’s the number, that’s the number. The market changes every day, and it’s the agent’s job to change the market. So I get that.
You quite likely know prior to any negotiation what the artist fee will be. At what point do you say to an agent, “This isn’t going to work?”
I pretty much always know what the price is going in, and it depends on what my client’s threshold to pain is. Ultimately, I am not the deciding vote in that (decision). If my client wants to spend a particular number that seems more than he or she should be then that will be their decision. I would certainly always bring back the artist’s quote, and have my client say “yes” or say “no.” I certainly am not going to step into that decision making. You want to make sure that you are bringing all options to the table. You want your client to see the biggest menu possible, and you want your client to be dealing with numbers that have real integrity to them. So ultimately that is going to be my client’s call if they want to open up their budget more than they thought that they would originally.
Are these corporate or private shows quicker to set up? They don’t have the same backline and front house dynamics that clubs, arenas, and stadium dates have.
That is typically defined on what your environment is. If you are constricted by boundaries, backyards, and tents, then there’s not a lot of opportunities to get “cute” if you know what I mean. So the lighting package becomes smaller. The audio package becomes smaller. The stage becomes smaller. The catering requirements have to become smaller. A lot really depends on what the environment will allow from a production standpoint. That will dictate the amount of time that these things take. It’s like custom cabinetry. Every event that we do, it’s custom. It’s customized to the client. It is customed to the artist. It is customed to the environment. I am surrounded by incredible woodworkers, if you will, and we come up with the right strategy to create these moments that we believe are delivering for everybody involved.
Sounds like playing Tetris.
No doubt. No doubt about that. That happens every gig I will tell you that.
One thing you don’t have to face are bad reviews from the media.
That’s right. My shows are typically very quiet. Sometimes people (nearby) never even know that they happened, and that’s the way that I like to keep it. That’s the way I think that many of the artists like to keep it. So that’s the way that we keep it.
What you and your team do is more personalized than booking a club date in Des Moines from New York City; if only because you are usually involved with more than just booking the talent. Do you attend each one of your events?
I have been at every event that I have ever produced, except one. The only reason that I missed that one was because I had two events happening on the same night, and I had to make a choice.
With a club, there are shows usually happening on multiple nights of the week. Corporate or private events are one-offs, and so many things can go wrong.
Oh, no doubt. Look 99% of the events that we are involved with we are not only buying and negotiating the entertainment, but we are also producing it. I’m the producer. So I have to be there. I have to deal with the artist and the client. I have to make sure that everybody feels that they are getting what they are supposed to be getting. I have to make sure that our production team is on track, keeping the show on schedule. I have to make sure that people are where they are supposed to be when they are supposed to be. It is a huge juggling act. My job is to make sure that my clients, are happy and the event is as smooth as it can possibly be.
Making sure that grand piano fits into that elevator.
That is absolutely correct.
That may sound like a joke, but I have been in a circumstance where that was an issue.
It is not a joke. It is stuff that we look at on-site surveys. When we have a client who wants to do something in a particular venue, we are taking those measurements 6 months in advance. We are checking that elevator door. Trust me.
What size production crew do you work with?
I have a core staff of about 6 people depending on what the event requires. There are some events where there will be more. If you include stagehands, you are talking about hundreds of people working. But, for me, I have a site coordinator, a production manager, a lighting designer, an audio designer, a couple of assistant production people, and then we have some runners. That typically is what gets us through the night at the site. That group is collectively in charge of all of the other vendors on site, and all of their staffing, and all of their crew. I’d say about 50% of the time, maybe 75% of the time, we are also dealing with backstage catering for artists. So I will have a rock and roll caterer on hand and their staff.
Generally, acts perform 75-minute sets?
That is pretty much what I recommend to my clients. Often it is dictated by the artist what they want to do. In my opinion, on private and corporate dates, you are looking for an artist to perform 60 to 75 minutes, and call it a night, unless you are somebody like an Elton John or some of the bands who have been around forever, and who have a jukebox of hits. For a lot of the other bands that don’t fit that category, it is asking a bit much for them to be onstage for 90 or 120 minutes. It is asking a lot of them, and it is also asking a lot from the audience. I think it’s the right number.
You will have some artists that get into the moment and will want to play more.
But you still have to remember when artists are performing a private or a corporate gig, they are not playing in front of 100% of their fan base. They are only going to be playing in front of a percentage of that. The rest of the people, for whatever reasons, they may not be interested. They may not be a fan of a particular artist or they are trying to conduct business at the bar.
Comedian Lewis Black has a routine in which he chastises fans for bringing friends to his shows. He says playing to their expectations is a moment he’d prefer to avoid.
That’s right, and that’s a tough spot for the artist to be in. It (a show) is a shared experience. The musician is looking for some love from the audience, and vice versa. People need to be very careful about the amount of time they are asking an artist to perform at a private event. I have reminded clients of this. I have had clients overrule me, and I will be there at the end of the night going, “You know it was a great show, but it was a half-hour too long. Everybody would have had a lot more fun if this had ended 30 minutes ago.” The thing is that when you have a client who is willing to cut the checks for these type of events—which are not small checks—they sometimes look at these things in terms of value. “Okay, what am I getting for my money?” kind of thing. It is hard to tell really bright people, who are spending a lot of money for entertainment, that the entertainer should play less than what they think they should.
Have you ever had a Blues Brothers’ moment when an audience reacted to an artist with dismay, silence or stares?
I can’t really recall (laughing).
There have been plenty of good nights and good moments?
Lots of great moments. Lots of unbelievable moments. I am truly, truly blessed to have been witness to some miraculous evenings, and some incredible moments. Seeing the joy that is emanating from my client because they have had their dream come true in seeing an artist.
Name a couple of artists that fully felt the love of their audience.
Man, that would be a super long list. I will tell you. I hate to name names. This would be a great example I think. The band Train. That is a band that has had their share of peaks and valley, and they are a band that totally understands the private and corporate market. I have had the great pleasure of working with them probably 5 or 6 times now. Every time that I watch those guys perform I realize how much fun they are having. They seem to embrace those kinds of experiences. I will also say that I was very, very fortunate to produce Barbra Streisand for a private event.
When was that?
It is a rare occurrence. I would say about five years ago. I will tell you that the audience was just absolutely dumb-struck that they were sitting in front of her. Her performance was incredible, and she enjoyed herself.
What was the venue?
Let’s just call it a theatre in New York City. But more to the point the audience—I’m reacting to your question, I am getting a recall of the audience—it was mind-blowing to them that they were sitting with her. I can’t remember an audience enjoying an experience any more than that. Again, I have been incredibly blessed, and fortunate. I can tell you that my experience with artists, regardless of their stature,100% of the time it has just been a great experience for them.
You graduated from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst in 1987?
That’s correct, yes. I was a psychology major
Meanwhile, you were also booking a blues band called Curtis T. & The Kick?
That’s correct. This was a little blues-rock band from Amherst which I really fell in love with. I was just a fan following them around to all of these little pubs in the Five Colleges town area (which comprises Amherst College, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a stone’s throw away from each other). I just became very good friends with them. As a senior, they knew that I was coming to New York after graduation, and they asked me if I could find them some gigs. Blindly I said, “Sure. I am happy to try and help.” That is really how my career started.
You set up Reel-Axe Entertainment?
That is correct.
You don’t list that credit anywhere.
No. That was dropped a long time ago. My affinity for music was always blues guitar. So my heroes, then and today, were and are Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Buddy Guy, and just all of the great blues guitarists before them.
How you came to work in 1991 with Alex Kochan at Artist and Audience Entertainment was because he booked Stevie Ray Vaughan. Prior to that, you worked at Associated Booking Corporation (ABC) booking such blues artists as B.B. King, Albert King, Bobby Bland, and Dr. John. So blues paved the way for your career.
Yeah. There’s no doubt…
You first worked for your father.
My father owned a small elevator company in Manhattan that specialized in the installation of dumb waiters. He inherited that company from my grandfather who was an electrical contractor in Newburgh, New York. My father took over his company in the 1950s. So when I was at the end of college, my dad called me, and said, “Listen Barry, I wanted you to know that if you are interested in coming to work for me, I’d be happy to give you a job, train you, and someday you will take this company over. It is the same offer that my dad made to me back in the 1950s.” So I thought to myself, “Okay, I’ve got nothing else going on. That sounds like a good deal.” Simultaneously, I explained to him this interest that I had in trying help out this particular band (Curtis T. & The Kick) and he said, “No problem. Just make sure you get all of the elevator and dumb waiter work done and you can do whatever you want working with the band.” So I immediately went to work for my dad in the summer of’87.
But you didn’t continue working with your father.
What happened is that my father saw very quickly that I had a tremendous passion for music, for what I was doing with Curtis T. and the Kick. He really supported me in doing both, running my own little agency (Reel-Axe Entertainment), and also working for him. So what I did was I put a little classified ad in the Village Voice, “Talent Agency Looking For Blues Bands,” and I got flooded with press kits, press kits with 8X10 photos, and cassette tapes. So I then started a real agency. I was representing 6 or 8 bands and booking them wherever I could find dates for them.
How did you come to work at Associated Book Corporation with Oscar Cohen? He’s a real character.
Oh yes, a character is one definition. After about a year of working for my dad, he said to me, “You seem to be really interested in this. Why don’t you put your resume together? Maybe you can find a job somewhere at a real talent agency.?” So I don’t know if this was my dad’s way of politely firing me or if he was being a great dad. I sent my resume out to 20 or 30 agencies, and the only people who responded to it were ABC Booking. So I went in for an interview, and they needed someone in the mailroom, and they offered me the mailroom spot. That was my entry to ABC Booking.
(Oscar Cohen started working at Associated Booking Corporation, which was formed in 1940 by Joe Glaser and Louis Armstrong, when he was 14, as the office boy after school. In time, he became the advance publicity representative, and then road manager for Louis Armstrong. Next, he became an agent at ABC which then represented Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Pearl Bailey, Billie Holliday. Al Hirt, Lionel Hampton, Bob Hope, Noel Coward, Benny Goodman. Barbra Streisand, and Shirley Bassey. Promoted to VP and later president of ABC, Cohen went on to represent such artists as B.B. King, Dr. John, Roberta Flack, the O’Jays, the Whispers, Mary J. Blige, and Bob Marley who remained with Associated Booking Corporation until his death.)
Oscar Cohen wasn’t nearly as rough as ABC’s co-founder Joe Glaser who was greatly feared. When he died in 1969, he had a significant FBI file.
I’m not surprised by that.
Here you are at 25, and you were working in practically an all Afro-American music booking agency. You spent your first three months there in the mailroom, making photocopies, and fetching coffee before you were promoted and made an agent booking B.B. King, Albert King, and Bobby Bland whom Oscar was managing.
I loved Bobby. Look, when you send out 20 resumes, and only one guy calls you back, you don’t have a lot of choices. So that is how that worked out. I took the job. Of course, the opportunity to work in a place that represented B.B. King, Albert King, and all of those bands, that to me was a no brainer. Of course, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had no idea that I was about to step into what was a very, very tough working environment.
So many of the older blues artists around then were ripped off by record labels while interest in them within the Afro-American community had waned as soul and R&B came to the forefront in the late ‘60s. Blues was disdained by the Afro-American community as a throwback to past struggles. Conversely, Europeans then had a great love for the blues and roots music. It was Britain, France, Germany, and the American white college market that brought about a resurgence of the likes of B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Albert King, John Lee Hooker, and other prominent American blues figures.
There’s no question that Europe was very good to the blues, and white colleges in America. Then all of a sudden bands like the Rolling Stones started to say, “Our favorite artist of all time is Muddy Waters.” Once the white British bands started to endorse the American blues acts that was very helpful to those guys.
B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Albert King, John Lee Hooker, and Skip James all started getting U.S. festival bookings, but Bobby Bland and many others were considered too down-home.
Yes. Bobby stayed in the chitlin circuit.
Then disco hit in the ‘70s, pushing blues and R&B down even farther.
Yes, and it was a tough road. Eric Clapton always kept the blues alive. Then, when Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble came along in the early ‘80s, there was another (blues) revolution.
You again send out resumes in 1991, and the only person to respond was Alex Kochan. However, he was in the process of departing ICM New York where he was a VP.
That’s correct. That was funny. He got my resume, and he remembered me as someone who kept pestering him to have Curtis T. & The Kick open up for his artist Stevie Ray Vaughan. So I think that it was only because of those early years of working with Curtis T. did Alex ever consider inviting me for lunch. There was some recognition there. He remembered me and remembered that I was fairly persistent in my efforts.
Alex opened Artists & Audience Entertainment with two big clients, Guns N’ Roses, and Sir Paul McCartney. Not too shabby. And it was you, Alex, and Josh Nelson working initially from Alex’s apartment.
That’s right. He had an apartment on the Upper West Side. He left ICM, and he opened up his doors with these gargantuan artists. Josh was Alex’s assistant at ICM.
Here you in your mid-20s working with Sir Paul McCartney. That’s pretty cool.
First of all, it all begins and ends with Alex. He was a very charismatic guy. I was really flattered and really grateful that he would even consider hiring me right off the bat. I already had a tremendous amount of adulation for Alex and the more that I got to know him the more that adulation grew. I found him to be a really fascinating guy. Not just within the music industry.
He was a respected art connoisseur. He left music at one point to join the art world.
Yes. To put it in perspective I was really a lackey relative to the work that was being done with McCartney and Guns N’ Roses.
Yeah, but to be backstage at a Paul McCartney concert, c’mon.
There’s no doubt about that. And that was a really special moment in time. That really began my career.
You worked with Alex for 6 years.
That sounds right. I really loved his concept. He had a very unique and original concept for the agency which I bought into. He was going to start an agency that was going to mimic the way that management companies are created which is just a handful of clients and provide a level of service that another larger agency couldn’t possibly deliver to their artists. It was a very boutique approach. I loved that approach. I did not want to work at a large agency. I did not want to book 100 bands through my territory. That’s not the way that I was wired. So I loved that idea.
(Among Artists & Audience Entertainment clients were also Creed, Nine Inch Nails, Live, Joan Osborne, Porno for Pyros, Trans Siberian Orchestra, Marilyn Manson, Ministry, Journey, Scorpions, Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim, and others.)
You brought in Joan Osborne while at Artists & Audience Entertainment
That was my first signing and something to this day that I am very proud about.
Joan was largely unknown at the time.
That is correct. She did not have a record deal. She had been touring through the North East for a couple of years. She was making a little bit of a noise. She was selling out 200 and 300 seat clubs; and, in New York City, she was doing more than that. She was selling maybe 300, 400 or 500 tickets.
In 1996, Joan’s first album “Relish” was nominated for Album of the Year at the 38th Grammys and also earned nominations for Best New Artist, and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for her. In addition, the track “One of Us,” written by Eric Bazilian (of the Hooters), was nominated for Record of the Year, and Song of the Year. One of Us” topped charts in Australia, Canada, Flemish Belgium, and Sweden reached #6 on the UK Singles Chart and was a Top 20 hit in at least 13 other counties.
That was kind of interesting. That was a moment where all of sudden you are trying to convince your boss to bring in an artist that didn’t have a record deal, and then the next thing you know she gets a record deal, and the next thing you know she’s at the Grammys.
Weren’t you also working with Government Mule, and Southside Johnny and Ashbury Jukes too?
Yeah, that is correct.
Under what circumstances did you work with lawyer and artist manager David Sonenberg? You have name-checked him as being a mentor. I know him through his representing such musical productions as “Hair,” “Godspell,” and “Cabaret,” and his management of Jim Steinman, Jimmy Cliff, Southside Johnny, BeBe & CeCe Winans, the Spin Doctors, the Fugees, the Black Eyed Peas, and John Legend.
Artists & Audience Entertainment, after we left Alex’s apartment, we took real office space, and we landed in David Sonenberg’s brownstone on the Upper West Side. Not only us, but Pinnacle Entertainment was on the top floor which was John Dittmar’s company. It was a really interesting building to be in. As a tenant, I got to know David, and the more that I got to know him, the more I really grew to love him. He’s just a really fascinating and charismatic guy. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. I actually, in a way, helped him sign Joan Osborne as a management client. So David and I started to do business together. I got to know David very well over the years. We also worked together on a band called Spacehog.
Next came a year-long stint at Pinnacle Entertainment booking tours for Pantera, and GWAR, and tour dates for Oasis, and Joan Osborne.
I did work at Pinnacle for a year after I left Artists & Audience. That was a tremendous experience as well. I really learned a lot from John Ditmore. He’s a tremendous booking agent. He’s a real cerebral guy. He’s a real tactician. There’s a tremendous amount of simplicity with what he does. He keeps things very simple, Again, I have been so lucky to have been in the presence of some of these really great mentors.
Another thing that must have helped you through the years is having great music taste.
I think so. I still love music. I love live music. There are certain bands that I absolutely adore. My favorite band on the planet is JJ Grey & Mofro from Jacksonville, Florida. If you took Otis Redding and Lynyrd Skynyrd and put them together you would have JJ Grey & Mofro. I have also been a huge fan of Cracker, (singer) David Lowery and those guys. And I love the Tedeschi Trucks Band. That is another one of my favorite bands. I’m also a recovering Dead Head.
That’s because in 2000, you took a job with John Scher at Metropolitan Entertainment as director of corporate events. How could you work for John, and be anything but a Dead fan?
I wish I had more time with John, and it’s very disappointing to me that I didn’t. My relationship with him wasn’t long enough other than being friends. Professionally, it was only a couple of years. It was purely a victim of timing with him. He hired me in 2000, and he sold the company in 2001. He was a guy that had so many admirable qualities about him, especially in our industry. A complete swash-buckler. A complete flying-by-his-pants type of guy. As a talent agent for many years, I often had to make hard choices in the New York market where my acts were going to play. I can tell you 9 times out of 10 they played for John Scher. As an agent, I just felt much more comfortable dealing with his people and his office and their demeanor than the Ron Delsener camp. It is certainly no disrespect to Ron or his people either because those guys are fabulous at what they do as well.
(After Covanta Energy acquired Metropolitan Entertainment in 1995, Scher continued to run the company until his departure in 2001. In 2002, Clear Channel Entertainment acquired many of the assets of Metropolitan Entertainment, including a disputed non-compete agreement that covered Scher’s activities as a concert promoter. After a legal battle, Scher was eventually able to relaunch himself in the concert business. In 2001, he formed a partnership with former A&M Records chairman/CEO Al Cafaro, and created a multifaceted entertainment company that would oversees: the management of Bruce Hornsby and Art Garfunkel, and co-management of Little Feat; Hybrid Recordings (Johnette Napolitano, Assembly of Dust, and Jen Chapin); and a concert division, Metropolitan Talent Presents.)
(One of the longest running battles in the music business was John Scher versus Ron Delsener, then with Delsener/Slater Enterprises. The two were rival concert promoters who tried for decades to seize control of Manhattan’s live-music presentation from each other.
There’s no doubt about it. There was very little love lost between the two organizations.
As an agent it must have been frustrating being in the middle of the battling factions.
No doubt because New York at the end of the day, it’s funny to think of it this way but it’s still a small city. You would go to scout a band at say Kenny’s Castaways (on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village) and you would be surrounded by other agents: the guys from William Morris and the guys from ICM–CAA didn’t have a New York office at that time–and you were in the same room sometimes with the same promoter. I can recall some very tough conversations I had to have as an agent explaining why I chose one over the other. But yeah, those were interesting days.
The first event you produced was for the Port Authority of New York in Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center (now David Geffen Hall). The headliner was Bill Cosby with Betty Buckley and Michael Feinstein supporting.
Yeah, that’s true. That was when I was working for John. It was a really interesting event. It was at Avery Fisher Hall, and it was for the Port Authority. I believe that they had been doing this event for years. Somehow I got connected to them. I had never produced an event before. I certainly had a sense of how to hire the entertainment, but from a production standpoint, and being a producer, I really had no idea what I was doing. I was just really fortunate that I was able to surround myself with production folks who were able to execute their jobs without me even knowing what they were doing.
Music critics and music fans alike celebrate the ‘50s and ‘60s, and even the ‘70s as eras of the greatest music. But the ‘80s, 90s, and 2000s, as you were growing up. and then building your career, were also very good musical periods.
Yeah, people look back on the decades of music, and often say, “Oh what a terrible decade for music.” I take exception of that. Every decade has had its incredible moments.
Including today, which tends to really get dissed. Yes, there a difference in the way we hear and discover music, but if you dive deep into the catalogs of the streaming services, you will find a lot of great music.
Oh yeah, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. And the kids are finding new experiences, and they are changing what is happening with music, and music is changing what’s happening with them. It is just a different decade. But there’s something to be said for every decade, and you are right. I was raised in some of the decades with the greatest music. I can tell you now, and I’m not ashamed to say this when I’m driving in my car the first radio station that I go to is “‘70s On 7” (on the Sirius XM Radio channel 7). I love listening to music from the ‘70s. There’s some great stuff that came out of there.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-80. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is a co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide,” and a Lifetime Member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
He is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry.