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BEHIND THE VINYL CURTAIN
by Marty Reimenschneider
Most of us have been to a live concert at one time or another, and on the surface it would seem that there's not much more to a concert than the hiring of the bands, the rental of a hall, the hiring of concession and security personnel, the printing of tickets and then waiting for the money to roll in.
For years I thought this is the way concert business was conducted, but, believe me, there's much more to it. If you're a regular reader of this magazine, more than likely you do attend concerts, and this issue I thought it would be interesting to go behind the scenes and talk with a promoter who could enlighten us on the subject.
We went to the nearest promoter, Larry Aiken of Aiken Management, Evansville, Indiana. He started out in 1958 as a disc jockey at WEOA, Evansville, then on to WAKY, Louisville, and KQV in Pittsburgh. While there, he entered the promotion business by staging the world's championship twist contest.
He subsequently left radio and got into promotion on a full-time basis.
Aiken got into rock promotion in the 60s with the Dick Clark "Caravan Of Stars" shows, which featured acts like Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Shirelles, Gene Pitney and others. Aiken has also been associated with the now-defunct Pacific Presentations and has promoted shows throughout the midwest, including Springfield, Illinois, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Memphis, Cincinnati, Louisville, Columbus, Ohio, Dayton, Ft. Wayne, Ashville, and others.
He also owned a nightclub and presently owns a movie theater and records, tapes, and tickets in Evansville.
You've been in promotion for over 15 years now. How has the business changed?
Back when the only concerts we had were the Dick Clark Caravans, it was possible to get as many as ten acts -- the best available at the time -- for about $3,000 a night. Clark would put together ten acts on a show, and turn around and sell it per day. Clark paid his acts by the week. Back then no one thought that a Gene Pitney, who had ten big hits in a row, could go out and fill a hall on his own . . . and because Clark had the only game in town as far as concerts go, he could book the best acts for that kind of money. The whole theory at that time was that a kid buying a concert ticket had to see eight to ten acts because each concert had to top the last one and that finally became impossible. By the way, Pitney, the headliner on the tour was only making about #3,000 a week.
What caused the change to one, two or three acts per concert?
The Beatles . . . their emergence told promoters that for them alone it was going to cost $25,000 per night, which is slightly different than the $3,000 per night. The Beatles success was followed by other single acts like The Stones and Dave Clark Five, which really changed things. By the way, interestingly enough, we turned down two dates on The Beatles' first tour. We thought the price was just outrageous, and outlandish that anyone could even ask for $25,000 a night, much less make it happen.
Moving on to another area here : how does a band -- a new band -- get booked on a concert tour?
Well, first of all, it has to be very frustrating for managers of all those would-be acts, especially in areas not important to music (say, Dayton, Ohio, where there are no big recording studios or the media available to give a group a great amount of exposure) to get booked on a tour It's so political, the breaking of a new act.
Right. You know the only path to becoming a big act anymore is having a label ready to spend a ton of money on you, deciding that this band is going to be a great attraction. It's kind of like the domino theory to the point where a label decides the act is meaningful enough to sign and promote, and put out a really first-class album. then the label will decide to deal with the agency, (say Premiere, Ban Wyner, Monterey Peninsula, or ICM), and ask the agency to take on the act -- that they've just recorded an album -- and from that point if the agency is receptive, then the agency (which has tremendous power in this business) would take on the act and put it on their client list. Now they don't just sign anybody; if they sign an act, they're suddenly investing time, even though they're not guaranteeing the band X-number of days at X-number of dollars. they are investing time just putting them on the letterhead. then they try to package them with a more meaningful act, say putting the band on the entire Yes tour to get the group exposure.
Is it still possible to have a talent scout or record label executive happen into a club and pick up a group that way?
Yes, but not often. Because without the record label and agency procedures I just mentioned, it's almost impossible.
Sort of a check-and-balance system between the agency and the record label.
Right. Say A&M Records signs "X" band to a contract and puts out an album. They take is to Premiere Talent and Premiere can say "No, that's not the kind of act we're looking for". It stops there, at least with Premiere. then the record label has to go elsewhere. However, when somebody like A&M goes to an agency and says "we believe in this act and we're going to spend $500,000 to promote them, economics says take them on. And it's a rare instance where all the agencies are going to turn them down.
What if a band is pushed all the way through, with plenty of backing -- is success guaranteed?
Eventually, the band that doesn't have the certain something that the public buys -- even with a great label, agency, and personal manager -- won't make it.
Does it ever work the other way?
Yes. A good example is Ted Nugent. For years he (perhaps through bad management, bad record company) just hung around on the fringes, then suddenly put it all together -- primarily through a good manager, David Krebs, who also manages Aerosmith. No, I don't know if it was Nugent who went to Krebs, or the other way around. They got together, nevertheless; and it took Krebs to package it, put it together, sell it to the label, make the label spend money to push the product. Now Nugent is headlining and selling out the same places he used to play as an opening act.
What role does a talent agency play in the production of a rock concert?
In the last few years, the promoter of a concert has become less and less a deciding factor in who opens a concert or who is second-billed and a concert. The agency is dictating the second act, the opening act, the kind of billing, how many minutes the acts will play; and this goes back to the agency or record company pushing a new group to expose them on a complete tour. Many times one manager will have a headline group, and he'll trade off one of his hew groups to another manager for an opening act in return. Likewise, the other manager will put that act in one of his tours with one of his headline acts.
Why don't they put two acts under the same management on the same tour?
It happens rarely, and I think the reason why this happens is the most sibling rivalry you'd get on that tour. Any opening act, even though they're elated at the moment, they get upset over the course of the tour that the headline act gets all the great write-ups, the parties, etc.; and it's easier if the opening act is bitching about somebody else's manager, not their own.
Are the acts themselves more businessly aware?
Yes. No longer can artists be considered to be naive to the point where they are robbed by their manager and turned out to drive a truck. These are smart, intelligent people. Guys like Peter Frampton know how to buy radio spot schedules, what newspaper ads ought to look like -- he's more aware of the business end of rock concerts, and asks intelligent, hard questions about how a promoter handles a show.
Has the rock industry grown up?
Yes; the people involved in this business are much more aware of what an artist is doing musically than I had to be ten years ago. I'm more aware of what a stagehand is going through -- lighting, sound -- and, conversely, the artist is more aware of what the promoter's doing.
It appears that all the promoter has to do is hire the acts, the stadium and sill tickets. It's not that easy, is it?
It varies, depending on the size of the act. Usually the bigger the act the more demanding they become. There are exceptions to this, particularly with the people around the act -- the roadies, road managers, and so on. We have to provide, through a contract, transportation (usually limos), booze, food, accommodations, and other niceties above and beyond the fee paid to the act for performing.
What's the norm in terms of what you supply the acts?
A pair of limos to be used by the band to and from the airport and for any other driving; $500-$700 in food and booze. That covers the headlining band and their immediate entourage, girlfriends, roadies, wives, managers -- some 18-20 people.
What group cost you the most of all the groups you've had?
The Allman Brothers. They had a contract rider that was unequaled by any other band in history. The food was more elaborate; the booze was by the case instead of the bottle; four limos rather than two. It was almost like saying "we've read the other groups' contracts and we want to be beyond what anyone's ever seen before."
There must be a lot of waste -- that much food and drink for so few people.
A tremendous amount. Most artists should follow the example set by Harry Chapin, who started "World Hunger Year" with the knowledge that there are people here in America and all over the world starving to death. And we find that almost 75% of the food we provide the groups just goes to waste.
Moving on, what gives you satisfaction besides the monetary rewards of promoting a concert?
To do a concert like Harry Chapin or George Carlin, because you can really see the audience getting their money's worth -- with a "one-to-one" type artist. You know, sometimes we make really good money on a more outlandish rock show, but it's hard to see the audience derive much pleasure from the artist, other than it's a happening -- a place to go to celebrate life. the audience can really get and feel something from an artist on a more one-to-one basis. The latter is much more satisfying to me personally.