Industry Profile: Danny Zelisko
By Larry LeBlanc
This week In The Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Danny Zelisko
America’s concert scene would be far less interesting without Danny Zelisko, founder and president of Evening Star Productions, and chairman of Live Nation Southwest.
Based in Phoenix, Arizona where the heat climbs well north of 100 degrees in the summer, Zelisko has worked with thousands of notable acts over a 35 year career including: Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, U2, Pink Floyd, Tina Turner, the Eagles, Kiss, Toby Keith, Eric Clapton, the Jonas Bros., Santana, Nickelback, Il Divo, Diana Krall, Pink, and Ozzy Osbourne.
In 2001, Zelisko, a native of Chicago, sold Evening Star Productions to SFX Entertainment owned by Clear Channel Entertainment.
The acquisition was the first U.S.-promoter acquisition by SFX since the latter was acquired by Clear Channel. Under Robert Sillerman, SFX had spent about $2 billion buying promoters and other entertainment properties, including snapping up 11 regional companies and 82 venues, before Sillerman sold the company to Clear Channel Entertainment for an estimated $4 billion. In 2005, Live Nation was formed by a spin-off from the subsidiary, Clear Channel Communications.
Chicago-based Jam Productions, which had owned a financial stake in Evening Star, was also compensated as part of the deal to sell to SFX.
Despite the consolidations that retooled the U.S. concert promotion industry in the late 1990s, Evening Star had been surviving within an increasingly fiercer competitive market. It is notable Zelisko had been an outspoken opponent of SFX, particularly its practice of snaring headliners for national tour deals with unprecedented guarantees
Zelisko was promoted to the position of Chairman of Live Nation Southwest in 2007. He oversees Live Nation’s concert operations in Arizona, New Mexico and Las Vegas.
Zelisko began to again utilize the Evening Star name after Clear Channel Entertainment opted to let regional offices return to their roots with greater autonomy and local brand equity.
"It feels a whole lot more natural," Zelisko told Billboard’s Ray Waddell in 2005. "The politics of branding sometimes got in the way in the past. I know who I work for. I know who owns me."
As a young kid in Niles, Illinois, Zelisko was a star baseball catcher with hopes of going pro. An avid sports fan, he was a regular at Chicago Cubs and Bears games and collected sports memorabilia and autographs of famous athletes.
When a local Little League coach wanted a sports celebrity for a father and son banquet in 1966, Zelisko arranged for the late Chicago Bears’ starting full back Brian Piccolo to be there. Piccolo insisted on paying Zelisko $30--10% of his booking fee.
During a break from high school, Zelisko traveled to San Francisco and met the legendary rock promoter Bill Graham who left a significant impression on him.
After high school, Zelisko moved to Phoenix in 1972. Two years later, with a grub stake of $13,000, he launched Sundown Productions, booking Mahavishnu Orchestra at the Tucson Music Hall, and Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters at Symphony Hall in Phoenix.
An initial attempt to have Journey open the Mahavishnu Orchestra show failed, teaching the young Zelisko an early lesson in concert promotion that “You can't just put on a support act without asking. Mahavishnu didn't want an opener. I had to fire Journey off the show. I didn't get a Journey date for 15 years."
Despite recognizing he was in a business where the risks often outweighed the rewards, Zelisko also figured that concert promotion was one of the few sectors left where individuals could build companies with little interference from the corporate sector.
However, the under financed Sundown Productions went bankrupt. Zelisko then began booking acts for Dooley's, a club in Tempe in the East Valley section of the Phoenix Metro Area.
His next venture was Evening Star Productions which became one of the largest independent live events companies in the field.
The switch to SFX provided Zelisko with access to a greater body of talent and while Evening Star did not have the real estate component that most of the SFX’s earlier acquisitions had brought in, Zelisko’s expertise and relationships have, according to sources, been invaluable to the giant event company.
In 2005, Zelisko was inducted into the Arizona Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame. Other inductees included country performers Marty Robbins, Glen Campbell, Jessi Colter, and Waylon Jennings as well as jazz pianist Charles Lewis and free-form DJ William Edward Compton.
In 2006, Zelisko was tapped by Phoenix’s classic rock station KDKB (the flagship station of “Nights With Alice Cooper”) to host a one-hour program, “The Regular Guy Radio Hour” on Sunday nights. The show was recently expanded to two hours.
What makes Phoenix such a great concert town?
Me. I actually believe that.
You were once an outspoken opponent of SFX Entertainment’s tactics and were one of the 11 independent promoters that joined forces in 1999 in the Independent Promoters Organization to provide an alternative to SFX in the national tour promotion game.
Why did you sell out to SFX in 2001?
In a nutshell, I had developed a lot of really great acts like Santana, Tina Turner, Sting, and Roger Waters. One year, I would have 5 or 6 shows with Santana because I also went into Las Cruces (New Mexico) and El Paso.(Texas). I did shows all over the country. I had no limit to what I could do. I was an independent promoter. Suddenly, SFX were booking 30 and 40 date (national) tours. Of course, they owned all these amphitheatres. I went down to one-third of a date with Tina Turner instead of four dates from the previous tour.
To their credit, (SFX) kept me involved in my home town. But the amounts of monies are so phenomenal for tours that they couldn’t go carving dates out for me. I believe that they felt bad about (what was happening) but I could no longer (compete) without any real estate. I had none. I had booking agreements with people.
You go from making so much money with certain groups that you have been part of growing to only getting a part of one date. You can’t live like that. I started feeling the pinch. They came along and made me a good offer. It turned out okay. I enjoy what I am doing with Live Nation.
You are still working alongside most of the regional players from SFX including Larry Magid, Jim Koplik, Don Law, and Nick Masters.
A couple of guys have retired or have quit the business, but we have the nucleus of the greatest promoters in the country. There are other great independent promoters, for sure. But we still look after our territories. We fight for our territory. We try to do our best. A lot of managers or agents will say, “You’ve got dates everywhere else. If you aren’t doing good on a date so what?” None of us thinks like that. We fight to make our business unit in each market profitable. I don’t think there’s one guy in our system that doesn’t treat every dollar that goes in or out like it’s his own.
How does the Live Nation structure work? If the company bids for a national tour do you then have to take that act?
Generally, what happens is that they will say that they are going to bid on a tour, and ask “Who’s in?” Sometimes, they will say to us, “We are doing this tour and it’s going to play your market.” It really depends on the act.
Is there still room in the U.S. concert market for independents?
Without a doubt. They are surviving and thriving at this very minute. There is so much business out there. All you have to do is be creative. All you have to do is pick up the phone. Obviously, it takes money but it is not such an insurmountable amount that you can’t raise it. AEG. ([Anschutz Entertainment Group) didn’t exist a few years ago. Look what they have done. It all depends on what goals you have and how far you will go to reach those goals.
I consider Live Nation an independent promoter. I consider AEG. an independent promoter. There are a couple of (indies) in town, including Charlie Levy (of Stateside Present). He’s an independent promoter. He can go out and get whatever his little heart desires. All he has to do is get in at the beginning and be able to answer the call when it comes to the money. es for the provision of venues and venues services.]
Is there a lack of loyalty today by managers and booking agents seeking bigger guarantee pay offs?
I think people still try to be as loyal as possible. But let’s face it, with the amounts of money (managers and agents) are talking about for (tours), you can’t blame somebody for not staying loyal. So many things have changed in the business in terms of money, record companies, and commerce. It makes it impossible for (managers and agents) to ignore the offers people make for entire tours.
Live Nation or AEG having entire national tours is nothing new in this business.
This is nothing new. Michael Cohl did it years ago. He’s still doing it. Arthur Fogel [Chairman of Global Music, CEO — Global Touring, Live Nation) has always had U2. Jam Productions buys a (summer 2009) ballpark tour of Bob Dylan and John Mellancamp and Willie Nelson.
Promoters complain when they don’t get shows.
I am as big a whiner as the next guy. We will all complain, bitch and moan that someone took dates away from us. Well, the bottom line is that it has become a much bigger business than the mom and pop businesses we used to have. Do I wish those days were still here? Sure. Are there old school things that we’d all like to have? Maybe. But time has marched forward and here we are.
If you want to play with the biggest acts, you have to have the pocket book to do a whole tour. But there are still great bands like Eric Clapton and AC/DC, who choose to work with local promoters. They are old school like that.
There’s competition which some people look at as healthy. I hate competition but I understand it. I have never liked competition. I have always thought I was the best promoter. I want everybody to work with me if I want to work with them. A lot of times they agree. Some times, they break my little heart and go and work for somebody else. Publicly, I will wish them the best but privately I’ll think, “Gawd that (show) is going to be a stiff.”
How many shows a year do you handle?
We go anywhere from 175 and 250 shows. We used to book a lot more clubs. We don’t have a main club that we book anymore. I hope that will change someday soon.
Your main venue is the Dodge Theatre in Phoenix?
Dodge Theatre will host in the neighborhood of 100 events a year. We do 20 to 30 shows each year at Cricket (The Cricket Wireless Pavilion in Phoenix). We also go into a few nightclubs and other small performing arts centers here. In Albuquerque, we do most of our shows at The Journal Pavilion, and we go into the The Kiva Auditorium.
In Las Vegas, we book about 85% of the shows at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino and we also have a booking agreement with Andy Hewitt for booking the Pearl Auditorium at the Palms Casino.
From your experience what works for a show?
The are two things that I have always held true to. Book the show in the right facility and make sure that people see the show in the right size place. The other one is that you don’t settle your year in one night. Some times we are going to lose money on doing shows to develop an act or we’ll lose on somebody that we have done business with in the past. Some times you take a hit for the team. We try not to, obviously. Nobody likes to lose money.
Do we need more headliners?
We are relying on a lot of stars that have been around for a lot of years to make up our business. And that is where you have to get creative because we have to keep promoting those bands. But we’ve got to keep nurturing this business. We can’t turn our back to new acts or to old acts.
You met Bill Graham while you were in San Francisco in 1972?
I met Bill Graham backstage at The Berkeley Community Theatre (in Berkeley). The band Yes was performing that night. I walked onto an equipment truck and, acting like I was a stage hand, started pulling gear off. When I came down the ramp, I talked with an English accent to Bill Graham’s crew and they bought it. Later that night at catering I was getting my free meal—I was flat broke and 17 years old—Bill came up to me, and said, “Who the hell is this kid?”
I went to Berkeley during spring break at high school. It was my first airplane trip. I returned in June with a friend of mine to live there for what I thought would be forever. I wanted to live there because of the whole “Summer of Love” thing and the Berkeley/Frisco vibe. But I only lived there for a couple of months because I couldn’t get a job, even as a busboy at the House of Pancakes. Bill Graham’s people didn’t have any room to use me either. I asked them straight up for a job.
The following spring, I visited Phoenix. I went to the Celebrity Theatre and saw John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers. I loved the hall and I loved the vibe in Phoenix. It was just incredible, so I stayed.
What did you do before you launched Sundown Productions two years later?
I ran a condo and I cleaned office buildings. I got fired in June, 1974 because I took my second day off that month from cleaning offices to put on my first and second concerts which was Mahavishnu Orchestra in Tucson and Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters in Phoenix at Symphony Hall. A couple days later, my boss called me and said, “You’re fired.” That was pretty stunning.
Who was the main promoter in the region then?
It was basically an open market. Doug Clark at The Celebrity Theatre had the market locked up. People like Bruce Springsteen were selling out there as were Billy Joel, Jimmy Buffett, Jerry Jeff Walker, Jackson Browne, and Jerry Riopelle who is still a big star in this town. All of the singer/songwriters were doing phenomenal business there. Bigger shows were booked at the old Coliseum, (The Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum) but that was rare when I came here. Hard rock and progressive rock groups like ELP, Yes and King Crimson were big here as they were elsewhere.
[Bruce Springsteen headlined The Celebrity Theatre with Wendy Waldman opening on March 24, 1974. It was Bruce’s first-ever experience performing on a revolving stage. A bootleg of the show titled “Walking the Dog In Phoenix” also features a 40-minute interview with Springsteen.]
You started Sundown Productions with a $13,000 stake?
It was from my father, my friend and his dad. I had asked my friend’s dad for the money. He asked. “Have you ever done this before?” I said “No.” He said that any time he had been with someone starting in a new business that he liked them to have something at risk as well. So I went to my dad and he put up the rest of the money. I managed to get four shows out of that (stake).
How did you go bankrupt?
Well, I started with $13,000 but it doesn’t take long to go through that. I had a couple of shows that didn’t do all that well. They weren’t stiffs, but they just didn’t do that well. I was selling water beds, as well and my business phone was at the water bed store. I’d be saying (to callers), “Excuse me for a second. That will be $1.99 for the algaecide and $29.99 for that mattress.”
Was going bankrupt that young painful?
No. I realized that we had run out of money and that I was too young.
I also realized that in order to make a real stab (at concert promotion) that I needed to be capitalized. That I had to have enough money to work at doing this and not to have a part-time or a regular job.
It was a great chance and I didn’t blow it. I made a lot of valuable contacts that are still friends of mine; people that I work with to this day, including at Bill Graham Presents and Arny Granat [co-president of Jam Productions in Chicago]. I was one of those hanger-on guys that wouldn’t let go; I just kept pushing to be in this business.
After going bankrupt you were hired by Dooley's, a club in Tempe?
Dooley’s was built in 1976 when clubs were just becoming in vogue. This was a big club at the time. It was 750 capacity. I started booking shows there at the end of 1976. They hired me for $80 a week and I made a commission on the advertising. Believe me, $80 was shit then as it is now. But, on the average, I made about $300 (weekly) with the advertising commission on the shows. I was living okay.
How long were you on staff for $80 per week?
That only lasted for about a year. I booked a few shows at the club myself like Sea Level and the Dixie Dregs as well as Taj Mahal which was really my first score in my promoting career. Anything I had done up to then I had either broken even or lost money. We sold out two shows with Taj Mahal.
At the end of 1977, Dooley's management decided to cut me loose and not pay that mighty $80 anymore. They said that they didn’t want to back shows anymore. I could have the door. They wanted the bar and they would provide sound and lights but I’d have to take the risk of doing shows there. They bankrolled the first show which was Grover Washington Jr. in Jan. ’79. We sold out those two shows and I never looked back.
By then you had started Evening Star Productions?
Yes, Evening Star started at the end of ’76. I started the company because I wanted to do Taj Mahal at Dooley’s,
How did you become partners with Jam Productions?
At the end of ’77, Arny Granat and I did our first show together which was Gino Gino Vannelli at Symphony Hall and we started a friendship then. At the end of ’78, I needed a little bit of money, so, for $7,500 and a loan, Arny bought 50% of my business in nightclubs. We continued our joint venture business relationship until I sold to SFX in 2001.
It was a less competitive concert world in the ‘70s and ‘80s. There weren’t the consolidations that came in the ‘90s.
There was no consolidation of anything. The bad guy (in the field) was (Jerry Weintraub’s) Concerts West which did national tours with the Moody Blues, the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, and Frank Sinatra. Everybody hated him for coming into their territory. It didn’t faze me because I wasn’t at that level (doing big shows) until a few years later.
You must have been a position to get some big shows with Evening Star?
Not at first. Between 1977 to 1979, I started getting pieces of bigger shows. In 1978, I split a show with Irv Zuckerman (who co-founded the St. Louis-based Contemporary Group concert-promotion company in 1968 and sold to SFX in 1997) in Tucson with Billy Joel. He gave me half of the date but I still had other promoters taking the big shows (in the region).
It took me a few years to get those big shows.
One of the first shows I got was Pat Benatar from Premier Talent. I had done her at Dooley’s and the show had really sold. The next time she was in Compton Terrace in Phoenix which Barry Fey (of Feyline Productions) was booking. I called and they weren’t going to sell me the date. I wrote a letter to Frank Barsalona [founder/president of Premier Talent Agency] saying, “You guys always told me that if I developed stars I could have them when they bigger. Barry Fey didn’t get in on the $750 production of Pat Benatar. Now she’s $25,000 playing Compton Terrace. I want half the date.” He said, “You’re right.”
Peter Russo gave me my first big show at the Coliseum which was Bob Seger who canceled on me the day of the show. His voice was shot. I was crushed. But Seger made up the date two weeks later, and he added a second show. I had two sell-outs.
The 1980s were my beginning in doing bigger concerts. But the clubs were really important to me then.
The 1980s was a heyday of big-selling AOR radio acts.
It really was. There was Foreigner, Boston, Heart, and Journey. All of these groups were coming out. Then heavy metal developed. Black Sabbath was always around but then Ozzie was out. The ‘80s was the decade for metal. I did every one of those groups. We started off doing $5 shows with the likes of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest and I developed some great relationships with some of those bands that I still have to this day. I just interviewed Rob Halford (of Judas Priest) for my radio show.
Your radio show started in 2006? How did that happen?
KDKB program director Buzz Casey had a one hour hole in his schedule on Sunday nights and he asked me if I wanted to take it. He figured that this would be a good way to keep me off his back when I complained that they never played music that I liked, or that the station didn’t play music of shows that I brought in. So I was given an opportunity in August, 2006 to do a one hour show. Recently, they changed it to a two hour show. I tape it every week and it runs on Sunday night. I get to play all of the music and all of the artists that I really dig -- the reaction has been great.
You enjoy the concept of radio exposing listeners to music?
I just wish (radio) could be more progressive like it was in the ‘70s. There are so many great bands out there that need airplay and exposure. You have a million groups putting their music on YouTube, MySpace and Facebook and doing all of these different things--promotional tools that we never had before--but nobody knows how to (break acts) with the demise of the record company system as we knew it. Nobody knows how to turn the key. Between the record companies, the agents and the promoters, that old system worked so well.
Now, I’m afraid for a large part (of the industry). You don’t have record companies signing groups like they used to or paying tour support so the groups can come to your town. It is a different world now. I feel something has to change. We have been waiting a long time for some new stars to come along. There’s some younger acts like the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus being developed but we need more of those great blues rock acts and some of the progressive rock acts. Just great musical acts. We need more of them. We have to create more headliners and give more new artists a chance.
So many people say that nobody is doing artist development.
We promoters are the last of the old guard doing development and promoting. I am in a think tank of 35 people (at Live Nation) and we are constantly challenging ourselves to come up with new and better ways to price shows, to promote them and to find ways to attract people.
Well, Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers from Tempe certainly deserve center stage everywhere.
Roger and the Peacemakers are one of our greatest exports. They will break through one day. They are a tenacious bunch and Roger is a great singer. I would love to be a part of breaking them everywhere. Roger tours non-stop; He must do 150 shows a year across the country.
In these economic times, has your business become tougher?
It is always tough. This is not an easy business. Everybody in the promotion business is trying to put on a good show. Everybody is trying to charge the right ticket price, depending on where they are and what guarantee they have to deal with.
People still want to see each other (at an event). They want to react together. They want to enjoy things together. There’s so much misery out there about so many things. A great concert or a great ball game is about getting together with your peers and strangers and screaming together. It’s a tradition. Like those events at the Roman coliseum.
But $125 ticket is tough for someone who is out of work.
You are right. They should buy a cheaper ticket. Prices have gone up on everything. That doesn’t make it right. It’s supply and demand. Still, just about every show we do has something for everybody. I dare anyone to go to any show (we have) and find that we don’t have a ticket under $25 because we do. Certainly, they are not the best seats in the house, but you are there and part of the fan scene. You are alive enjoying some great guitar player doing something great. One time only. That’s the great thing about a live event.
A generation of rock fans saw some of the greatest performances by artists in 2,400 seat halls in the ‘70s and ‘80s. That’s not happening today.
I disagree with you. I recently sat in a 2,000 seater (The Dodge) and watched Joe Cocker sing his ass off. The Pretenders just played there and they were phenomenal. The bottom line is that there’s a lot of music out there by artists still in their heyday that people can still see.
As a native Chicagoan are you a Cubs or White Sox fan?
I really don’t follow either team anymore. I loved Comiskey Park (where the Chicago White Sox played from 1910 to 1990) and I love Wrigley Field. The Sox tore down Comiskey Park which I means I love the Cubs more by default. I don’t like the new (Comiskey Park) stadium. Every time I go to Chicago I have to go to Wrigley Field (the home ballpark of the Chicago Cubs since 1916).
There’s nothing like going down those tunnels that let you out in the box seats on the first base line in Wrigley. There is nothing like that electric green field blazing at you with those ivy covered walls. Steve Goodman was one of my best friends and he and I always would lament about the Cubs. He wrote that great song “Dying Cub Fan's Last Request” with the chorus “Do they still play the blues in Chicago/When baseball season rolls around.”
There is nothing like the Cubs’ legacy and their up-and-downs. But most of all, Wrigley Field is the basilica, the cathedral of all-time. That’s why people keep coming back. It’s not just about the games. Wrigley Field proves that it’s about the event. In so many ways, that’s what is going on in our (concert) business these days too.
Larry LeBlanc 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.