Industry Profile: Don Strasburg
By Larry LeBlanc
This week In The Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Don Strasburg
Don Strasburg, VP and senior talent buyer for AEG Live Rocky Mountains loves his job because he's able to mix his love for music and musicians with his passion for working in Colorado.
In 2006, Anschutz Entertainment Group opened an office in Denver and wooed away Strasburg, followed by Chuck Morris, and Brent Fedrizzi, the team who had spent 8 years building up Live Nation's Colorado holdings.
At Live Nation, Strasburg oversaw exclusive bookings with the Paramount Theatre and CityLights Pavilion and also booked shows at the Pepsi Center and Red Rocks Amphitheatre, two venues that are still open to all promoters.
When Strasburg, also a co-owner of Boulder's Fox Theatre, and Fedrizzi came to AEG; Morris, who got his start booking the now-defunct Tulagi on University Hill, became president and CEO of AEG Live Rocky Mountains in late 2006, when his non-compete agreement with Live Nation expired.
Most of the shows on AEG Live Rocky Mountain's current roster are at the Bluebird and Ogden theaters, venues for which AEG has long-term leases.
Last summer, AEG Live Rocky Mountains inaugurated the Mile High Music Festival in Denver with such headliners as Dave Matthews Band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and John Mayer. As well, the company launched the first annual Rothbury Music Festival in Rothbury, Michigan.
In conversation, Strasburg emphasizes that the Denver and Boulder concert market is distinct.
Boulder's population, for example, is younger than the national average, largely due to the presence of university students. The median age is 29 years compared to the U.S. median of 35.1 years. Denver is one of America's most ethnically diverse cities with a population of approximately one-third Hispanic or Latino.
Strasburg first entertainment job was a one-night roadie gig at Candlestick Park in San Francisco in 1988 for the Monsters of Rock Tour. His first promoter gig came while he promoted Phish at the Boulder Theater in 1990. The band wasn't even signed to a label at the time
Strasburg, then a 21-year-old graduate of Colorado College, and several partners Richard "Dicke" Sidman, Jon O'Leary, James Hambleton and Dave McKenzie developed the Fox Theatre in Boulder into one of the musical showcase gems of America.
Strasburg and his partners, however, didn't quite anticipate the difficulties they would encounter in getting the club off the ground. The group had originally sought to use the Marquee Theater but after they lost that bid, Strasburg stumbled upon the Fox, originally constructed in 1926 as the Rialto Theatre.
The Fox launched on March 6, 1992 with two sold-out performance by The Meters. Naysayers, however, predicted the club would soon fold. The venue was initially denied a liquor license because of the objections of neighbors worried about rowdy concert goers.
Today, the Fox has a worldwide reputation as a proving ground for newcomer acts and a sought-after state-of-the-art showcase for veteran headliners.
Among the acts who have played the Fox have been Phish, Radiohead, Dave Matthews Band, Sheryl Crow, Lyle Lovett, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, Heavyweight Dub Champion, Snoop Dogg, Method Man, Wu Tang Clan, Ani DiFranco, Public Enemy, and Hunter S. Thompson.
One of the venue's more notable moments was when Dave Matthews chose the Fox as the backdrop for his breakthrough video "What Would You Say" in 1994.
Booking agents used to refer to the Denver/Boulder market as the "Ho Chi Minh Trail" because of the fierce competition among concert promoters there.
Denver is, per capita, one of the strongest concert markets in the United States. We have a very young demographic and we all take live music serious. The community is very engaged in live music. It is a critical component of the Colorado experience. This has created and supports a plethora of great live music venues which has in turn created an engaged concert community.
When I say Denver, I mean both Denver and Boulder (markets). They are only 30 minutes apart and can be played separately or together. There are nuances with each market. Boulder is a college town. But Boulder (people) will go to Denver (people) and Denver will go to Boulder.
The market got more competitive when Live Nation opened there?
It certainly was highly competitive when it was Live Nation and House of Blues (competing). But Denver has always been one of the most competitive markets in the U.S.
How long did you work at Live Nation?
I joined Live Nation in 1998 when it opened in Denver. What happened is that when Barry Fey (of Denver-based Feyline Productions) retired (in 1997) Chuck Morris struck an agreement with Bill Graham Presents and reached out to Brent Fedrizzi and myself to start the new BPG office in Denver. Approximately six months later, BPG made a deal with SFX Promotions (that evolved into LiveNation). I was there for the roll-up.
[In January 1998, Morris, former senior VP of Feyline Productions, launched Bill Graham Presents/Chuck Morris Presents, a partnership with the San Francisco-based concert pioneer Bill Graham. That company was purchased by SFX, which ultimately was purchased by Clear Channel that evolved into Live Nation]
How competitive are you with your former company? Is it highly competitive between you both?
Competition is important.
In our situation, it engages us to invest and make sure that we offer the highest level of experience. We know that if we don't someone else is going to. If we believe in what we are working on, we need to be one million percent in every aspect of that event. Whether it is marketing or venue preparation or creating the venues as well pricing (the event) properly, and how to produce it. (Competition) benefits the consumer because the consumer gets the highest level of attention to detail.
Do you have autonomy with AEG for your region?
AEG offers us a tremendous amount of autonomy. They let us do what we think is best and we are able to use their resources to make what we think is an intelligent (event) happen.
When AEG buys out a tour, do you get the option of taking it or not taking for your market?
We communicate all of the time with the (AEG) people purchasing tours. They are tremendously communicative with the local markets. AEG has tremendous regional offices that (AEG buyers) can lean on for any expertise they may need in order to set up a national tour. The people doing national tours are very intelligent. They know their jobs. They still want to be sure that with insight from the ground level that they know what is intelligent for the artist they are working with on such a large scale.
Have you ever passed a tour that wouldn't work in your market.
Nothing comes to mind.
Denver is a bit of an oasis for touring artists. It is relatively isolated but it is a solid performance market.
Colorado is where east meets west and where north meets south. It is a general way station for people in America. It seems like people here are from all points of this country. So you have an open-mindedness (to different music) and a pollination of (music) styles. It is a strong market for all kinds of musics.
You work with different venues like the Fox Theatre in Boulder with 500 seats; The Blue Bird with 550 capacity; The Ogden with 1,700 seats; the world renowned, Red Rocks Amphitheater, and Dick's Sporting Goods in Commerce City where you did the first Mile High Music Festival last July. That's quite a range of venues.
Colorado has a plethora of fantastic facilities. We primarily work at The Ogden and the Blue Bird where we have a long term operating lease agreement. I co-own the Fox Theatre with some partners in Boulder. So the Fox Theatre is part of our wheelhouse. Red Rocks is an open facility but we are doing the lion's share of dates there. We do plenty of shows at the Pepsi Centre which is an open facility. We use a lot of the city theatres, such as the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. We also go onto to the Boulder campus (of the University of Colorado) and use Macky Auditorium Concert Hall.
The Fox Theatre, along with these two great (Denver) clubs, the Bluebird and Ogden, we are able to work with talent at an early age and give them the absolute best stages to show off their wares to make fans in Colorado. Then we have steps (venues) to build them up. It is a wonderful business model that I believe, has a lot to do with the strength of the Colorado market.
Red Rocks is such legendary venue.
From being a fan going to shows there to being able to produce shows there is a surrealistic experience for me. The first band I saw there was the Grateful Dead. The first band I promoted there was The String Cheese Incident. Red Rocks is one of those places where so many artists have set as their goal to play. As a promoter, to be involved with artists with that event, creates a special bond. We do about 30 shows a year there.
Boulder is the birthplace of Triple A radio.
KBCO has had a tremendous impact on the open-mindedness of the Colorado concert consumer. When you have a radio station supporting artists like Bonnie Raitt, Lyle Lovett, Ray LaMontagne and others, it really helps to develop a vibrant concert market that is less dependent of the flavor-of-the-day (act) but is more about quality.
KBCO, (Triple A) KQMT, and (rock) KBPI are all excellent partners when it comes to promoting events. (Hot ACs) KALC and KIMN knock heads with KBCO but more on the mainstream contemporary level rather than the meat and potatoes of what KBCO does. None of those stations have major competition. They can really won a show and really get behind it. That's an interesting dynamic.
There's a growing Latino population in Denver.
The Latino population is a very strong demographic. It has its own niches and often has its own promoters. We do some Latin-oriented music. At the same time there are people here who do specialize in it.
How many shows do you do in a year?
We are producing 400 shows a year not counting the Fox Theatre. We do about 300 shows in clubs and a 100 large events, the largest being the Mile High Music Festival last year.
With Mile High Music Festival's headliners including Dave Matthews Band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and John Mayer, that must have been a great moment for you for first time out.
It was and incredible moment for all of us. Chuck, Brent and I realized we had new opportunities when we joined AEG. One of the first things we wanted to do was put a world-class festival together in Denver. We have been to so many of these events that we know how much fun they are. We also recognized that there is a tremendous artist development aspect to a show like this. You can expose more music to more people. We also thought that it was a potentially good investment.
Was there a hole in the marketplace?
There is no large scale festival in Denver of this nature.
You also launched the first annual Rothbury Music Festival in Rothbury, Michigan from July 3 to 6, primarily on the grounds of the Double JJ Ranch.
We partnered with our St. Louis office and with (Denver-based) Madison House. About 30,000 people came for a four day camping event headlined by Dave Matthews, Widespread Panic, 311 and John Mayer. It will be July 2-5 this year.
Why in Michigan and why two AEG offices involved?
Madison House came to me. (Madison House partner) Jeremy Styne told me he'd found this property that was the greatest festival site he'd ever seen. We went up to look at it with him, and I also realized it was an incredible location. I contacted the AEG promoter who handed that region, Joe Litvag (from AEG Live Midwest). We knew we could do something that was special. And it was.
A green agenda dominated the festival. You made priorities of waste reduction and environmental consciousness.
We created Rothbury as an environmentally focused music festival. Besides (having) the (concert) party, we felt that a huge component of the festival could be to engage on social and political levels. We call it a party with a purpose. We had huge artist performances but we had cutting edge speakers there to speak about the environment. About 90% of the trash on the site went to compost or to recycling.
Festivals are a great way to platform bands.
Festivals are an awesome opportunity for artists of all sizes. Many bands have had a ground-breaking performance at a festival that has launched their careers. Look back to Monterey Pop with Janis Joplin.
You started off as a talent booker?
I started while attending Colorado College in Colorado Springs. I had spent a summer in Burlington, Vermont and my friends there had a new favorite band called Phish. I fell in love with them immediately. I made it my mission when I returned to college to bring Phish to Colorado. In 1990, I was able to promote a few Phish shows in Colorado. One was a concert at my college and the other one was at the Boulder Theatre. That's how my career started. Once I did that I got the bug (to promote).
Were you a music fan?
I was a Deadhead. I still am. I spent every waking moment going to concerts. Everything about me was live music. When I realized what concert promoting was I knew it was the perfect job for me. I could work in what I love. I realized that I didn't have the musical skill (to be a musician). That my place in the (music) chain would be helping people who had those skills while creating incredible experiences for everyone.
Is there a gambler element to being a concert promoter? There's a high of developing a show and carrying it off when you might lose on it as well.
Honestly no. When I first started I saw myself, and I still do today, as working with the band. When it comes to the highs and the lows of the events themselves, those highs and lows usually take place long before the event itself. When you book a show, you know the end result. If you don't know 99.5% of the time what is going to happen with that show, then you are in the wrong business. So sitting in a sold out show I'm more concerned with the shows I am fighting for three months down the road. You are only as good as three months down the road. You are not as good as tonight. Tonight is over and done with.
But there is a high to having a great show?
I don't know if it's a high but there is a level of satisfaction when you have very creative ideas and you see them come together by having faith in a vision. Also seeing artists that you really believe in grow and succeed. For instance, I did My Morning Jacket at Red Rocks last summer and that was a wonderful moment. This is a band that I have believed in since the day I saw them open at the Fox six years ago for $150.00. To be a part of them playing Red Rocks with a huge crowd, that was a wonderful moment.
How did you come to open the Fox?
In college and I was promoting a show with the Samples and their (then) manager Ted Guggenheim and the band's guitarist Charles Hambleton suggested that I open a club in Boulder. One thing led to another and I connected with an older veteran in the business Dicke Sidman (the recently fired production manager of the Boulder Theater). Dicke and I and our other partner Jon O'Leary, without a dime in our pockets, and with every possible pitfall and road block imaginable, managed to open the Fox Theatre in March 1992.
That was a big responsibility at 23.
Nobody thought we'd get it open or survive. My Lord, it is 17 years now. The first band was The Meters.
Dicke had worked for Feyline Productions. So we had relationship with Barry Fey and Bill Bass who was Barry's main booker then. [Bass would later found Bill Bass Concerts]. I worked hand-in-hand with Bill for the six or seven years I was booking at the Fox, living and sleeping there.
I have a tremendous gratitude to Bill Bass because I learned things from him that I could never have learned on my own. He helped us with relationships and taught me some hard lessons. Thankfully, when I made mistakes I knew them before they got too bad because Bill would make sure that I felt the pain of them. Dicke and Bill were also smart enough to not let (the mistakes) go too deep. They shielded and protected me. Bill Bass, with his insight and his knowledge of the community and concert promoting, I am indebted to him. It's impossible to calculate how much I learned from him.
The Fox Theatre had many incarnations. When you took it over in 1992 it had been a movie theatre..
The Fox Theatre is one of the finest, if not the finest, under 1,000 seat clubs in the world. When an artist is coming to this area, and wants to underplay (play in a more intimate setting) the Fox is the kind of place that they want to go. The production is arena quality; and the sound is beyond anything else in the country. Many bigger bands when they are interested in doing underplays look at the Fox because it is that good.
Hunter Thompson played there.
Hunter came through twice. The first time was in 1992. We were then college kids so we got Hunter to come. It was one of the most memorable nights at the club.
Five or six years later, I got the hankering to find him and do it again. The second time Hunter came to the Fox, I was more seasoned to what to expect. Instead of putting on our tickets that the show would start at 9 P.M., knowing Hunter, we put "Around 9 P.M." on the ticket. You don't see that very often. It was a legendary night.
You were onstage with Hunter.
What happened is we got Hunter to the event and he asked "Who's going to be my moderator? I'm not going onstage without a moderator." So, someone said, "You are moderating Don." Basically, it was a question and answer with Hunter Thompson, and it went on for 2 1/2 hours. And there was a bottle of Chivas Regal onstage.
Hunter was arrested that night. How did that happen?
We were (onstage) for awhile, and we both needed to take a pit stop. We told the audience we'd be back in a minute. We went downstairs and got to talking and talking, trying to brainstorm what to do for the encore. Someone suggested using a fire extinguisher. I gave it to Hunter. Not the wisest thing I've ever done. Suddenly, a very uptight security guard comes down stairs screaming (wondering what was going on) which startled Hunter. When the security guard opened the door (to the dressing room), Hunter pulled the trigger on the fire extinguisher and sprayed him up and down. It was an accident. At this point I ambled upstairs to see what's happening. I found out that we had been downstairs for two hours and the crowd had long since left.
Hunter was charged with assault with a deadly weapon?
The security guard pressed charges. It was a problem because Hunter had receive a DUI ticket in Aspen earlier and got off with a suspended sentence. (Authorities) were trying to see if they could make this stick to (overturn) the suspended sentence. But the charges were later dropped. Hunter never really wanted to go back to Boulder after that.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008, Larry was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.