In this interview Larry Leblanc sat down with Jason Zink, a partner of Emporium Presents, a merger of his Sherpa Concerts and Square Peg Concerts, owned by Dan Steinberg. Here he speaks about his merger, his lengthy time working as a promoter, and how he got his start in the industry.
Guest post by Larry LeBlanc of Celebrity Access
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Jason Zink, partner, Emporium Presents.
If President Trump is seeking a consultant to evaluate America’s integrated network of roads and highways, Jason Zink’s name should come up.
As in the case of the late alt-country icon Gram Parsons, there’s been some 20,000 roads in America Zink has gone down, down, down over more than two decades of promoting shows around the country.
Zink is a partner of Emporium Presents, the result of a 2015 merger between his Sherpa Concerts, and Dan Steinberg’s Square Peg Concerts, with Zink operating out of the Denver office, and Steinberg in Seattle with additional offices in Nashville, and Birmingham, Alabama.
Zink’s first entertainment job was doing lighting work in the summer months for the Cincinnati Opera while attending the University of Miami where he received a bachelor of science degree in economics. He was the school’s concert board chairman from 1993 to 1995.
After graduation, he was hired on at the Nederlander Organization in Cincinnati where he was assistant production manager at the Riverbend Music Center, and then production manager at the Taft Theatre.
In 1998, Zink moved to Denver, Colorado where he was hired on at House of Blues Entertainment as an assistant talent buyer working under Mark Norman. A year later he became operations manager at Denver’s Paramount Theatre where he negotiated contracts and directly oversaw all physical plant and staff issues at the theatre.
Then came a three year stint, from 2000 to 2003, whereas GM, he took on additional booking duties at The Paramount Theatre, authorizing and overseeing shows there by John Prine, Cedric the Entertainer, Nickel Creek, Vince Gill, Heart, Pat Metheny, Dwight Yoakam, Jerry Lee Lewis, Larry The Cable Guy, Steven Wright, Paul Rodriguez and others
In addition, he also coordinated shows as operations manager for House of Blues shows at the Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, Colorado.
Next Zink moved to Nashville in 2003 in order to work as a talent buyer and promoter for Outback Concerts. Becoming VP of talent at Outback in 2006 he worked with the Raconteurs, My Morning Jacket, the Black Keys, Steve Miller Band, the Black Crowes, Lyle Lovett, Three Days Grace, Breaking Benjamin, Jason Aldean, ZZ Top and others.
Zink’s partner Steinberg began producing club shows in Denver while still a high school student. After graduating 1993, he founded 2B Announced Presents that promoted Colorado dates by Johnny Cash, Pam Tillis, No Doubt, Blink-182, Jello Biafra, and others.
While continuing to promote shows, Steinberg attended the Community College of Aurora, graduating in 2000. In 2002, Steinberg relocated to Seattle and began promoting under the banner Dan Steinberg Presents that, rebranded as Square Peg Concerts, grew to produce live events throughout the U.S.
Zink and Steinberg first worked together in Denver while Zink ran The Paramount Theatre, and Steinberg was promoting his Colorado shows with Johnny Cash and Pam Tillis. When Zink went to Nashville to work with Outback Concerts, the pair continued to co-promote together.
In 2009, Zink launched Sherpa Concerts, and oversaw successful shows for Dierks Bentley, John Prine, Old Crow Medicine Show, Yonder Mountain String Band, the Imagination Movers, Buckethead, G Love & Special Sauce, Dan Auerbach, Kris Kristofferson, Straight No Chaser, Merle Haggard, Eric Church, Umphrey's McGee, STS9 and others.
With the official announcement of the June 15th, 2015 launch date of Emporium Presents came the descriptive line, “As Steiny and Zink go together like peanut butter and pickles.”
(Laughing) Oh no.
The merger surprised few in the industry because you and Dan Steinberg had been co-promoting shows together for years, and sharing office space in Denver, Nashville, and Seattle.
We are now in Birmingham.
That opened in Nov. 2016 with Todd Coder and his longtime assistant Emily Haslett.
[Todd Coder had previously served as the talent buyer for WorkPlay Theatre and Soundstage in Birmingham for over a decade, and is the in-house buyer at the historical and newly-restored Lyric Theatre there, as well as the exclusive buyer for the Avondale Brewing Company in Birmingham.]
Dan had long referred to you as his partner.
We had functionally been partners for a number of years before we actually did Emporium Presents. At least two years. We just never re-branded. So we re-branded as Emporium Presents. It was only changing the logo, really. Nothing else has changed. When I started Sherpa Concerts (in 2009) I started doing more stuff with Dan than I had previously. We had our little map of what was a Sherpa show and what was a Square Peg show, and what was a joint (promoted) show. Then the lines just kinda got blurred. There were times that we couldn’t remember what was a co-promote, and what wasn’t. We were just doing too much stuff together. It was silly. “Let’s just put all of this in.”
You two did Johnny Cash and Pam Tillis shows together while you were at The Paramount Theatre in Denver.
Yeah, exactly. We had done some fun shows and some good business. Back then Universal Concerts managed Fiddlers (Fiddler's Green Amphitheatre), and The Paramount, and we did a ton of shows at Red Rocks (Amphitheatre). Dan and I used to go to random shows together. Just as music fans, and friends. We also did some shows together and had fun.
While at Outback Concerts, you and Dan worked on shows with Nickel Creek and Old Crow Medicine Show.
Yep, 100%. We did a lot of touring stuff together, and Dan always did a good job on shows. He worked really hard on things. It was easy to work with him wherever it was.
Just after you joined Outback Concerts in 2003, you and Dan managed to lose $40,000 together on a Kenny Rogers’ date in Sacramento.
(Laughing) Yeah, I remember that one pretty well. I had not been there very long.
Yeah, when I booked that. So we did the show. It was a Christmas show. I left the morning after that show to go back to Nashville. It was the Outback Christmas party that night. I had to go back after not being there very long and say, “Hey Mike (Mike Smardak, Pres./CEO) look at what I lost.”
You worked in Nashville for Outback for 6 years. Nashville has more business people than cowboys and, while good ole boying you to death, they are highly competitive.
Nashvillians, you tend to be on the inside of that crew or you are on the outside. I have been fortunate to be on the inside from living there for so many years. I have a lot of great friends there. I didn’t realize how much it was like that until I was there.
You weren’t regarded as an outsider by the time you left?
Ahh, I don’t think so. By that point, I was part of that community, for sure.
Yeah, but you were booking acts so everybody there would have been even nicer to you.
You moved back to Denver in 2012.
We have an office in Nashville. I still go back fairly often.
Why did you make the move? Family?
I was completely happy in Nashville. My wife grew up just south of Nashville. We’d gotten married, and she had the desire to live somewhere else. She hadn’t lived anywhere else in her adult life. We put together a list, but I was pushing Denver pretty hard.
You didn’t tell her about the plan to buy property where a snow plow has to dig you out in the winter?
That was a trick because a Southern girl doesn’t like the cold. Not only did I move her to Colorado, but I moved her to (a home) 8,000 feet on the side of a mountain. It’s a little bit of a “Shining” kind of feeling there because we are so isolated, but she absolutely loves it up there.
How many shows do you and Dan now do annually?
It’s in the 500 to 600 range. It’s been about that for awhile. We really haven’t jumped up from there.
How did you come to so fully embrace the Americana genre? Is it one of your favorite musical genres?
It is. I really like it, and I really know a lot about the music, and it just comes from a real honest place. It’s like, “This is awesome. We have to spread the word about this.” That’s just my personal taste.
Texas continues to be a great breeding ground for Americana.
Yes, there’s Cody Johnson, Randy Rogers, and Josh Abbott. Those kinds of guys. We still do a lot of Robert Earl Keen shows. It’s good music. There’s a culture of story-telling there in Texas.
Did it get any better than seeing Guy Clark perform?
Oh no. The Guy Clark shows with Lyle Lovett. Those shows were classic.
What is Dan’s preference in shows?
Those that make money. I say that facetiously. Dan has great ears. Dan’s first love was punk. He’s into a lot of different stuff, but punk would be his primary love.
What’s the appeal of co-promoting shows other than covering a potential loss?
I don’t really look at it that way. I don’t really approach co-promotes from the perspective of covering a loss. It is either going to make money or it’s not. There’s usually some kind of a strategic advantage outside of the financing.
Recently, you presented Gillian Welch (Oct. 4th, 2017) at The Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles that was co-promoted with Goldenvoice.
That’s a perfect marriage of a co-pro. I have a really good relationship with the artist and the agent, and Goldenvoice has a great grip on understanding Los Angeles. So working together, we are going to sell more tickets together than I would on my own. They may or may not have got that show on their own. But it makes sense. It’s a marriage of their knowledge of marketing strength, and who has good artist relationships.
There aren’t as many independent regional promoters in North America as there once was.
That’s definitely true. And promoters tend to have a bad name a lot of times. Trustworthiness and other stuff. I never really understood that until we started going around the country, and co-promoting with some people. It’s like, “Oh, and now I get it.”
Working extensively in secondary, and tertiary markets around the country you can’t always control what happens with a co-promoted show. If a local promoter is mucking it up, there’s not much you can do about it immediately.
No, no. There’s that and then there’s a difference in style and how you approach things. If we are doing a lot of dates, 20 dates with an artist, there’s a certain expectation for that artist of how the show is going to be presented, and how they are going to be taken care of. You want the artist to have the same experience. and everybody else representing you, they may not have the same experience. I’d say that we tend to co-promote less these days than we used to. We like to have control of things, and do things in a manner that we think they should be.
How do you identify which markets to work in?
I am fortunate. Primarily through my years with Outback I have physically been to almost every market in America. If you name the city, I can tell you the theatre and the arena, and the exact number of seats that are in it. It’s just ingrained. I learned a lot through that way of working. Just identifying what kind of shows sell there. What kind of shows don’t sell well there. So there’s paying attention to sales, and paying attention to talking to people in the market when you are doing shows. “Hey, what works here, and what doesn’t work here?” Anytime that you are doing a show, it’s time to do market research.
What markets do you like to visit?
I did a couple of weeks in Alaska this year. We did two Luke Bryan shows in Anchorage in August, and we just did Miranda Lambert out there.
Did you take your wife?
Yep. We do a lot of shows in Hawaii, as well. We just did a Sam Hunt show with Elliot (Goldenvoice VP Elliot Lefko) in Hawaii. My wife tends to make the Alaska and the Hawaii shows, but she has not shown up in North Dakota yet. Maine is another favorite of mine. I love it up there. Portland and I’ve done a bunch of shows in Bangor. Those two places for shows are great, but just driving up the coast is incredible. Steiny (Dan) and our families spent last Labor Day an hour and a half north of Portland.
Do you promote in Canada?
We do. We’ve done quite a bit in Canada over the past five or six years. We’ve certainly done shows in Toronto. We’ve even done a show in Newfoundland. We usually co-promote with Louis Thomas (Sonic Entertainment Group in Halifax, Nova Scotia). We do a lot of shows with him. We’ve done Gillian Welch all over Canada. We’ve done John Prine in Victoria, Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton.
If you are doing fewer co-promotes, you have to take fewer risks.
Fortunately, we are in a position that we don’t have to get too crazy with risking things. We have developed really good relationships with a lot of artists, managers, and agents, and we have a good solid business. We don’t have every show in America. We won’t have market share. I don’t want to think about having to have a certain percentage of market share.
If a business is growing efficiently and continues to increase its market share, they are theoretically keeping their competitors from taking business from them. To my mind, however, a promoter either makes money or loses money on an individual show or on a tour.
Yeah, I’m with you. Denver is a prime market of big companies just fighting to the death for the right to have a show that can lose money. It‘s like, “No. I have to have it above everything.” Goodness, can’t we just try to do good business here? Make smart offers, and do what we love to do which is bringing in music, and having people have an amazing time? But it’s not about that for everybody.
Are the secondary, and tertiary markets more advantageous to you still or have the major promoters like Live Nation and AEG Live drilled down to penetrate them in recent years as market competition has grown?
I wouldn’t say that it has become more competitive necessarily. Some of the bigger guys like to fill the real estate that they have bought, and there’s less money running around the country four-walling dates than there is sitting in an “A” market in a venue that they own. They are going to make more money.
It’s just a different approach.
In addition to (working) the market a lot of the times, it’s are you working with an artist that wants to tour? With an artist who wants to go to every last city in America? Or are you working with, say, a super cool rock band that only wants to play the “As?” We tend to like working with an artist that likes to play all different kinds of cities, and markets that are not the same money every single night. “This is what I make” versus, “Okay, what am I worth in this market? What am I worth in that market?” I think what we try to do is hang our hat on getting really, really good at selling that artist. So we are not wasting money on stuff that is never going to sell a ticket for us. I think the ability to experiment like we do over a lot of different markets, and over a lot of different media formats is really helpful.
With fluctuating fees, it should hopefully all iron out in the long run. But agent and management commissions are based on securing the largest fee for their clients. I’ve heard few agents say, “Yeah, we will take less money in this market, and more money in this other market.”
(Laughing) In theory, they do agree. In practice, however, they do not. There are a lot of different approaches on that. With the homogenization in the U.S., if you (as an artist) are on the radio in one market, the odds are you are probably on the radio in a lot of markets. Some of the individuality has been lost, but market to market there are still bigger venues obviously...
But if it doesn’t even out by the end of the tour run...
Yeah exactly. But there are certain managers who are like, “We need X amount of dollars every single date” and there’s not any real understanding that Sioux Falls, South Dakota is going to look different than Nashville or look different than Seattle. I think that you have to look at it that way. It’s time-consuming drilling down deep in those markets and seeing what works.
Do your advances fluctuate by each market on a tour or do you have a standard contract template, and change a few clauses? Or are your contacts specific to each date?
I tend to approach things that the dates are separate. There are certain benchmarks that you try to get to. But sometimes it is way above, and you try to get to more money on those dates, and then some of the dates are below, and it’s not worthwhile to pay more on those dates. So we try to have each guarantee suit what market we are looking at. More importantly for us being independent guys is working with people who care whether we make money or not because some people don’t care. That’s a fact of life in this business. Some people absolutely don’t care if the promoter makes money or not. You can test that out really quick.
I know agents in folk and Americana who have cautioned their clients about increasing their fees because a promoter may go under, and the artist then wouldn’t have a venue to play in some markets. Do you get that kind of feedback?
One hundred percent. The nature of an artist or a manager is to just want more, more, more. Yeah, it puts the agent in a tough spot because they have to sell that show, and they have to sell their other shows, and we have to be there next time for them to keep doing that. There are lots of really good agents who do care. Who are amazing about that. Then there are certain others who turn and burn and have an “I want to be your asshole” mentality.
But are the agents more likely to cut you slack working for the larger agencies?
You know, I honestly don’t look at it that way. It is really the individual as opposed to the agency, either large or small. Certainly being small, I think, they are a little bit more understanding, but I wouldn’t say that William Morris or CAA only behave a certain way. It is the individual agent.
At the end of the day, however, many agents are at the beck and call of their clients.
I totally respect that they have to do that for their artist because that’s what that artist understands.
How do you find out about new acts today? Word of mouth, talking to agents and other promoters?
There’s a lot of that. We certainly go looking online, and we can see what buzzes. We are paying attention to that kind of stuff. Talent alone, however, doesn’t get it. There are bands that I love. I learned a long time ago that if you only book what you love, you will go broke. We are fortunate that we do a lot of bands we love, but it’s a business still.
If it is a disrespectful agent, manager or artist, you’d take a pass?
Absolutely. It shouldn’t be this way but acts that I have loved musically, and I have had a bad experience with them or their manager or whatever, when I listen to that music again I don’t like it as much. It’s different. I shouldn’t be like that, but I am.
Do you attend many industry conferences?
I’m at about at all of them that Dan is except for the some of the super arts conferences. He tends to go to a few more of those than I do. He goes to the Western Arts Alliance and some of the stuff I don’t go.
Do you still attend South by Southwest?
I didn’t go this past year. I don’t think I’m going to go next year. I don’t see that as an every year kind of thing. That’s a good one to recharge your music batteries, however.
One of the problems of seeking out talent at music industry conferences is that the pool of talent gets fished out. You don’t have the same quality of acts year after year.
I don’t disagree but I love going to see the bands at South By, but the realization I made a few years back was that instead of standing in line trying to see an act that may or may not be anything, if I go to the bar instead and have a drink with the agents and managers who are going to represent the good one, they’ll let me know. I have sort of traded off drinking with the agents, and the managers as opposed to seeing every single band. We see a lot of music but I’m not looking for some we are going to try to grow into over the next year when it’s not there.
I keep telling young people trying to break into the music business that their greatest strength is that the older people aren’t on the street. Some young kid can say, “You should book this.”
I wouldn’t say that I’m looking for the next big thing.
How often have you taken a flyer on a young band and helped them along the way, and suddenly you were shut out from booking them?
I won’t name names but there are some very large acts in the business that ran around doing clubs and theatres, and then small arenas with us; and then after it’s built (a career) someone writes a check, and it’s like, “Why did I bother?” In the country world, I might be less inclined now than I used to be to take a new artist and use all of our resources to build them knowing that they are going to walk out the door once it’s (their career is) built. Yes, I absolutely have more hesitation in doing that because when it gets to that point, you can’t compete on that level.
The first thing many of those emerging acts do with success is drop their manager.
Oh yeah. “How did you get there? You have no idea do you?”
Are there artists or bands that moved on where you felt you had made a strong personal connection?
Oh yeah, of course. You know they aren’t bad people, but they make a business decision that they think is in absolutely in their best interests, but there are ways to do that, and not be completely shut out.
Those appreciative acts who move on to Live Nation or AEG Live will still give someone like you dates here and there or ensure you have a slice of a show. Those are the ones who are the most appreciative of what you did.
Absolutely, and there are a number of those guys that have over the past several years said, “Okay, here are a couple of show.” That works. I’m not going to be able to pay them more than Live Nation or AEG is going to pay them for a little tour. I get their decision. Throw us a bone once in awhile, and a lot of them can. A lot of them do. I respect that.
Block booking of tours has grown greatly over the years. Has that made the field more competitive with the artists that you have had access to?
A lot of those large level deals? Not really. We are not fighting over a lot of that stuff.
Live Nation and AEG Live probably don’t want to have the same level of concentration as you in secondary, and tertiary markets.
Also true. While that (block booking) has changed the business greatly, it hasn’t changed greatly how we do business.
Live Nation and AEG are both active in country, but neither has the footing in Americana, traditional, alt-country, and folk as you do. Nor does Goldenvoice as much, other than the Stagecoach Country Music Festival.
Yeah, their brand has been built on supercool and indie rock and all of that kind of stuff. It is an amazing brand. They do a lot more it than they used to but yeah there are some relationships there that we have in that world that has led us to do more stuff with them in Alaska and Hawaii and places like that sort of creating markets and opportunities. It worked out really well. Elliot (Lefko) is a great character. He’s one of those guys that you just trust explicitly. He has such a great ear. He’s a music guy, and that gets lost a lot I think in the corporate world. His heart is in the right place.
AEG Live has long had a solid footing in country with Louis Messina’s Messina Touring Group.
Live Nation does a lot of country, but on a big scale. They are not doing a lot of that on a small scale.
Americana, traditional, alt-country, and folk intimidate many promoters because the genres get such limited radio airplay and media exposure.
Absolutely. With Americana, generally, the success story is if you get them playing theatres that is a huge success story. But for the most part, it’s much more folk. Americana and bluegrass, it’s the same way. I grew up in Northern Kentucky and have always been a bluegrass fan. It’s always seemed weird. It never seemed like a big thing. Then “Down From The Mountain” (featuring a live performance by country and traditional music artists who participated in the Grammy-winning soundtrack recording for the Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2000 crime comedy film, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) kind of accelerated some of that bluegrass in Americana understanding, and suddenly there was a market. When I was at Outback, we were doing Alison Krauss show all over the country, and it was awesome. It was so good to see that music have wide appeal. Before that, you’d buy that show and wonder “How do I find the audience?”
There are fewer major attractions that have emerged in those genres in recent years with the popularity, say, of Nickel Creek, Old Crow Medicine Show, Milk Carton Kids, or Ruthie Foster.
That’s part of the thing (challenge). It’s audience development. How do we teach about this new music that we know they (audiences) are going to like? There has never been a great radio format for a lot of that music. Triple-A, the non-com (non-commercial) stations, have taken in some of that music, but not fully. It’s an obvious cliché, but the internet has really made it easier to target those people way more. And to really identify them. We try to do a really good job on data management for those kinds of crowds because they are so hard to find that when you find them, hang on to them the best that you can.
How do you market shows by artists in those genres to audiences when they don’t know many of the performers?
Targeting on Facebook, targeting on Google--all of those sorts of things has made that a little bit easier. The more shows that we have done, the larger shows we’ve done, finding those fans and being able to send them sending those people all of that information has worked for really well. John Prine, we did a ton of shows with. You have a John Prine show coming through the Dave Rawlings machine or Gillian Welch or Old Crow (data lists) with all of that information.
One of the craziest stories I’ve heard about you is centered on folk dancer and entertainer Jesco White opening for the Black Keys at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville in 2008. You paid Jesco’s sister Mamie White, $100 to drag him off stage.
That was unbelievable. I used to do a lot of Black Keys’ dates, and I knew those guys pretty well. That was Dan Auerbach’s idea to get Jesco on there. I think it was the idea of the pristine Ryman and, maybe, sullying it a little bit with this character in Jesco. Well Jesco shows up, and he’s asking for the biggest bottle of Jack Daniel’s that we’ve got possible.
You just sort of knew that it was going to be a train wreck.
He’s onstage for maybe 5 minutes, and it feels like he’s been on for an hour. Then he’s been on for 10 minutes, and he’s taking his shirt off, and pinching his nipples. He’s hammered, and he‘s just fallen over. It’s unbelievable. Dan and Pat (Carney) are standing there. We were kind of laughing, but also kind of nervous. The GM of the Ryman at the time, G. Scott Walden looks over at me. He’s like, “I might get fired over this.” Jesco’s sister is standing next to us, and he’s now gone over on his allotted time, and there’s no end in sight. I can’t go out there and deal with this. I’m thinking, “Well, his sister is right here.” You see that documentary about and his life (“The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia,” a 2009 documentary film directed by Julien Nitzberg), you know his sister is kind of a bulldog. She’s a tough, tough girl.
I said, “Hey, if I give you a hundred dollar bill, will you go out there, get him, and bring him off stage? She’s like, “Sure.”
Grabbed the hundred, and went out there. If you look on YouTube there’s an amazing fan video of her pulling him offstage (YouTube). He’s fighting it, and he falls down, and goes down heavy down on the Ryman’s stage floor. Oh my God, it was amazing.
Jesco gets off stage, and he’s pounding on the elevator to go up to his room. As he’s pounding, the elevator opens, and the head of security is standing there. “Okay, you guys are leaving now.” They get escorted out the back door of the Ryman. He leaves. I think Hank III is playing at one of the honky tonks nearby, and so he went down there. Got kicked out of there and three other places, but he left his tap shoes, his father’s tap shoes on the table outside the Ryman. I ended up taking them home. He got back to his hotel, and realized that he didn’t have his father’s tap shoes, Lost it, and tried to break everything in the hotel. Got kicked out of the hotel. They had to drive back to West Virginia that night. They had nowhere to stay.
[Born in Bandytown, West Virginia, Jesco White has been featured in three documentaries. His father D. Ray, was profiled in the Smithsonian Folkways documentary “Talking Feet: Solo Southern Dance: Buck, Flatfoot and Tap” (1987) as one of the greatest mountain dancers in America. Jesco White has been sampled or referenced by numerous bands and artists including Ministry, Mastodon, Live, Big & Rich, Əkoostik hookah, Jim Shelley, the Atomic Bitchwax, and Tanner Flowers.]
After the death of his father Jesco had obtained his tap shoes which he was wearing while performing at the Ryman. So where did the shoes go?
I called him the next day and said, “Hey, I’ve got these. Where can I send them?” We ended up shipping them back to him.
Where are you from originally?
Grew up just on the other side of the river from Riverbend. So northern Kentucky but it was basically inside of Cincinnati. It’s a suburb of Cincinnati, but it’s Kentucky.
Sunday mornings driving down Highway 65 through Kentucky and listening to bluegrass-based gospel, you feel you are in the heart of America.
Most definitely. That’s definitely where I got my love of bluegrass from those type of stations playing bluegrass. It doesn’t get played in many places. That and bourbon and Kentucky basketball are my background. My misspent youth was spent at horseracing tracks in a bad way. Next to Riverbend Music Centre was River Downs. So I grew up on the hillside over there. So the 275 (highway) bridge was down at the bottom of my street. Before we could drive, when I was 13 or 14, there was a catwalk under the bridge. You could walk under the catwalk, and we would go to the track. That’s what we did most summers. I got really good at betting and knowing who the jockeys, and the trainers were. I spent way too much time at the track.
You attended the University of Miami and graduated with a bachelor of science in economics degree. What were your career ambitions? Maybe music because you were also the school’s concert board chairman from 1993 to 1995
Yeah, that’s true, but that started (in live entertainment) with my first job right out of high school (at 18) in the summer when I was working doing lighting for the Cincinnati Opera. I was a union stagehand (Local 5) in the summers and some other times. I was working (as assistant production manager) at the Riverbend Music Center, and the Cincinnati Music Hall. I realized I loved being around all of that.
How did you land a union job at 18?
My older brother was a union stagehand so he got me in.
Soon afterward you were hired as production manager at the Taft Theatre.
Through working with the union, I got an internship with Nederlander in Cincinnati which had the Riverbend amphitheater there. So I used to work for them in the summer during my junior year, and then came onboard full-time after my senior year. They had just taken over the Taft Theatre so I got to experience taking over a theatre and completely working with all different staff, with all different business methods, and different ticketing. All of that from scratch. That was a great experience. But I was the operating and productions managers there when I was 21.
I paid for my second semester of my sophomore year from a load-out that happened on New Year’s Eve. It was for “Phantom of the Opera.” It was a huge production, and they had to modify the Taft. We started working on New Year’s Eve and, other than a couple of hours to go home here and there, we worked straight through for three or four days. It might have been longer. So we were making crazy money. I was happy to do it. Working for those good wages is how I put myself through college.
Yet you didn’t end up in stage production as a career.
I got a great knowledge being around all of that, but I just didn’t want to push cases at four in the morning every day. I felt, “There are other parts to this business that seem interesting.” That is why I wanted to get involved at (University of) Miami which had a good (music) program.
Booking the Allman Brothers, Ray Charles, Bill Cosby, Live, and Widespread Panic. Little wonder you got sucked in by the live music business. Working a Ray Charles show alone at that age.....wow.
It was amazing. It was a huge show. We did 8,000 people. Live was about the same when we did that. My mentor was Barbara Hubbard.
Affectionately known throughout America’s live music industry as Mother Hubbard.
Barbara had a relationship with the school. So the Allman Brothers, Ray Charles, Gladys Knight, yeah, those were Mother Hubbard shows. We co-promoted with her, basically. She was amazing about letting us make mistakes, and letting us get in there, and doing things ourselves. She had an amazing impact all over the industry. A lot of people have gone on to do good things after first working with her. I was very fortunate that was my college experience. It was Barbara teaching me how to do things.
Did those Miami University shows have to make money? So many university dates don’t have to.
Here’s how that worked at Miami. The arena, it didn’t cost anything. For a lot of schools you get a budget every year, and you blow it. We didn’t get a budget. So if I lost a bunch of money on a show, the people the next year could only do small shows. So you really had to pay attention to what was going to make money and what wasn’t. There were gimmees on the calendar of shows that we had to do. There was Parents Weekend and some shows like that where you just can’t help but make money. Ray Charles and Bill Cosby were part of that. Back then Cosby had a wholesome image, and you’d do 8,000 or 9,000 in the round with Bill Cosby. Suddenly, you could take some risks on some cool shows that are just for the students
Barbara was executive director of All-American Collegiate Talent Search, a non-profit organization that raises scholarships for students seeking a career in the performing arts.
Yes. She was right in the thick of it then.
[Barbara Hubbard’s career at New Mexico State University began in 1966 as an administrator and part-time instructor in the school's athletic department. Four years later, she became program advisor at NMSU's Pan American Center. She then became a student activities advisor in 1970, and started bringing events to the building. Hubbard, who is now 90, was recognized with a Career Achievement Award at the 47th Annual IEBA Conference in Nashville on October 17th.]
The list of successful entertainers and industry people Barbara has mentored over the years goes on and on.
I remember Michael...
(Touring accountant) Michael Lorick who has been with Bruce Springsteen for years.
Yes, Michael Lorick. He came to the Allman Brothers show at Miami. We got to hang out a bit, and we settled that show together. Right after that, I think his first big show was Hootie and the Blowfish. He was their tour accountant. And then later, he was working with Shania Twain.
[Michael Lorick has also worked for Neil Young, Pearl Jam, Tom Waits, Oasis, Stone Temple Pilots, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Luis Miguel, and No Doubt.]
It really is a relationship business, and those relationships develop early on.
I completely agree, and it is the same people that you meet over and over again. We change roles here and there, but it’s the same people. You can’t say that you don’t like Live Nation or you don’t like AEG. It’s different opposites (from what we are). But it’s the people. It’s an amazing thing. If you are an asshole, it gets out there pretty quick. If you a good guy and you treat people with respect you can have a long career. That was one of the first lessons I learned when I started in the business. I was working at the Nederlander Organization office in Cincinnati under Harry Nederlander. Harry’s quote was, “All we have in this business is our word.”
Mike Smith was your first boss at Nederlander in Cincinnati?
Yeah. A great guy. He taught me a lot. He’s a really sharp businessman. Our two primary talent buyers, Mark Campana and Jason Wright, were in Detroit.
What lessons did Mike teach you?
From Mike, an example would Jimmy Buffett. Back then in Cincinnati, he used to do more business there than anywhere in the country. For Mike, it was about creating that special experience for the fans. You can go to any show, and get a burger and a hotdog, but with Buffett, he created a whole “Cheeseburger in Paradise” theme. He created a tent that did that and played (Buffett) songs there. It was about creating the experience for the fans that was meaningful. Nederlander Organization had really reasonable beer prices. Really reasonable food prices. They were trying to get people to come back as opposed to where a lot of venues make it (food and alcohol) a money grab. Going in, and getting your $15 beer today is insane.
From 1998 to 2003, first with House of Blues Entertainment, and then with Universal Concerts, you worked in the Denver/Boulder market which booking agents used to refer to as the "Ho Chi Minh Trail" because of the fierce competition among concert promoters there.
Oh yeah. That was ugly. When I arrived here, my first job was that I was Mark Norman’s assistant. He had taken over from Barry Fey when Barry Fey retired. Barry was still a consultant then. Basically, Barry would come in for a staff meeting, and tell stories for 45 minutes or an hour, and then we would finish the rest of our business.
[Legendary Denver promoter Barry Fey was an icon of American live music culture. He mounted his first show in 1966, booking the Association for a fraternity-sponsored party at the University of Denver. He promoted Led Zeppelin’s first North American date in 1968. Feyline Productions earned a national reputation by promoting dates for the Rolling Stones, and the Who throughout the U.S. After flirting with retirement in the late 1990s, Fey finally left the music promotion business in 2004. Fey’s death in 2013 was ruled a suicide, according to officials with the Arapahoe County Coroner's Office.]
You came in as an operations manager.
I was Mark’s assistant first, and then I moved down to The Paramount. I got to do some touring stuff with Mark. He booked in a ton of states. I learned how to build offers, and how to put a proper small tour together. Then I went down to The Paramount. By that point, it was Universal Concerts.
Among the forceful promoter characters in Colorado at the time were Chuck Morris, Brent Fedrizzi, and Don Strasburg.
In the early part of my time working there, Chuck and Brent had kind of left the fold and started their thing as Bill Graham Presents (Bill Graham Presents/Chuck Morris Presents) which ended up being SFX Presents, and then Live Nation. But they were smaller then. I remember them when they took over Mammoth Gardens and created the Fillmore which was a huge difference for the market to have that room here. But yeah, anytime that you picked up the phone with an agent, it was war. Every time, every call. It was crazy. And for me, at least , it was realizing that it was really wasn't about even doing good business. Like you are passing on an artist or you are not, it was just, “Here’s way too much money.” Even when you overpaid you sometimes didn’t get the show. It’s not like some other markets where you are trying to make good business decisions. There, you are just tending to make more bad business decisions just because it is over-competitive.
[In 1998, former senior VP of Feyline Productions Chuck Morris partnered with Bill Graham Presents, the San Francisco-based promotion house to launch Bill Graham Presents/Chuck Morris Presents. Morris reached out to Brent Fedrizzi and Don Strasburg to start the new BGP office in Denver. Six months into the co-venture, Bill Graham Presents/Chuck Morris Presents was purchased by Robert Sillerman’s SFX Entertainment that eventually evolved into Live Nation. Morris and his team built their company into being the Colorado market leader. The company went from 42 shows in its first year to more than 300 per year. In 2006, Anschutz Entertainment Group opened an office in Denver and wooed away Don Strasburg, followed by Chuck Morris, and Brent Fedrizzi, the team who had spent 8 years building up Live Nation's Colorado holdings.]
What did you learn working with Mark Norman?
From Mark, from the first days there he was turning things around for agents as fast as humanly possible. Trying to have a good relationship with all of those people. He was like, “Let me show you what I can do.” To an agent or a band or whatever. He operated very well, and I think that through his example to a lot of people it was like, “Mark’s a good guy. I want to work with that guy.” So there was a lot of that. He was very encouraging to me trying to move forward. I was 25 when I took over The Paramount. I probably was too young to be running a theatre in a big city.
Of course, you were too young (laughing).
You have to remember that I had been working at Taft Theater for a number of years doing operations and productions, and that kind of stuff. So I had had quite a bit of experience. Taking that (The Paramount) over it really wasn’t a learning curve for me. The learning came in starting to book shows there. Primarily Mark and Jason Miller were booking almost all of the shows there. I started to chip in with some unusual things. The first John Prine show I ever booked was right there. A few things that I thought were interesting that those guys weren’t necessarily focusing on. I was doing some of that stuff.
There are some great local venues in Colorado, including The Fox Theatre in Boulder; The Bluebird Theatre, The Ogden, the Fillmore Auditorium, and The Roxy in Denver; Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, and, of course, Dick’s Sporting Goods in Commerce City.
For a Phish show, that’s really a great place to see that band. That big open soccer field and the energy that is created there is really cool.
Denver’s Ogden Theatre and Paramount Theatre are two of the coolest venues in America.
Most definitely. In addition, in Denver, there’s the Buell Theatre and the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. I have to put a plug in for our newest venue, the Levitt Pavilion Denver here which opened this summer. It’s 7,500-capacity. We are having a good time with it.
[The Levitt Pavilion Denver, which opened in Ruby Hill Park on July 20th, 2017 is the 7th in a series of Levitt Pavilions. As an independently-booked venue, Levitt isn’t beholden to any one promoter.]
Given what has happened in the United States in recent years, particularly with what just happened in Las Vegas, have you and Dan stepped up security at shows?
Yeah. That is something that you have to really think about now. Not to say that what happened in Las Vegas, it wouldn’t have been prevented at all from the different security measures there at the festival. But are we doing a much better check at the doors, and making sure people are not bringing in weapons they shouldn’t? Are we doing all of those things? Yeah, and we didn’t use to. So I’m sure we have to pay attention to that. It makes everything a little bit scary.
In the wake of the 2011 Indiana State Fair disaster, when heavy winds knocked a stage down and killed 7 people, Jim Digby spearheaded the creation of the Event Safety Alliance. He believes that if the live music sector embraces a safety-based culture that lives will be spared.
I think that if you are in this business, and if you as a promoter are not taking the approach that. “the decision I make affect peoples’ lives, and their safety,” then you are not looking at it (promoting) the right way because we are responsible for bringing a good time to people, but we are also responsible for keeping them safe. We have to pay attention to keeping people safe, and making the right decisions, and fighting a band or fighting a venue for doing things a certain way because at the end of the day you know it is the right thing. You might get into it with the band over what they want to hang or how they want to do something.....
The focus traditionally has been on getting the show onstage. Of a less concern, until the Indiana State Fair outdoor stage roof collapse, was how much equipment is onstage or...
Or how much equipment is hanging on that roof. Not having the ability to bring that roof down because the video was hanging there.
Making use of wearable technology, an RFID wristband, to accept cashless payments has been a game changer for international promoters but there has been resistance to going cashless among American promoters.
I agree. Also, ticketing here versus ticketing in the rest of the world is just done differently. I didn’t realize that until I was somewhere else recently. “Oh, you can do this with a completely different method and have it work just as well if not a lot better.”
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-80. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”