Industry Profile: Riley O’Connor
By Larry LeBlanc
This week In The Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Riley O’Connor
Riley O’Connor is top dog in Canada’s concert world.
Since 2007, O’Connor, 58, has been chairman of Live Nation Canada, which dominates the country’s concert field. It also owns the Molson Amphitheatre in Toronto and the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver.
O’Connor is widely regarded as a wily and astute talent buyer. However, in 1977, after 5 years abroad working in stage production in Europe, he returned to Canada, and co-founded Perryscope Concert Productions in Vancouver with no promotion experience whatsoever.
At first, O’Connor worked as the company’s production manager. In 1980, he became general manager, chief of operation and talent buyer.
By then the golden era of punk and new wave was in full swing in Vancouver (even if the media, promoters, and booking agents largely ignored it) with such local bands as the Pointed Sticks, D.O.A., Young Canadians, and the Subhumans.
Perryscope began bringing in popular international punk, reggae and new wave bands to Vancouver. However, appropriate venues were hard to find. City-owned theatres didn't allow rock concerts never mind what O’Connor had in mind.
In 1980, O’Connor struck a deal with management of the Kerrisdale Arena, then facing budget cutbacks and staff reductions. For three summers, the East Boulevard hockey arena hosted a series of memorable all-ages concerts. Members of local bands were even drafted on their off nights as stage hands.
On Aug. 13, 1980 it was Devo with an $8.50 ticket
On Sept. 2, 1981, the Tubes’ Fee Waybill sang in bondage gear while choreographed dancers acted out songs.
On Aug. 29, 1981, there was an ear-shattering double-bill of Jimmy Cliff and Peter Tosh.
On June 5, 1982, the Jam performed. It was the Brit mod band’s last North American appearance. It broke up following the tour.
Three weeks later the Clash arrived for an electrifying two-hour show with a split-screen backdrop displaying slide images of war, nuclear power, racism and the Third World. An audience of 4,000 turned out. Hundreds more milled outside without tickets.
The Kerrisdale concert series ended in May 1982 with Motörhead. After neighbors blocks away from the arena complained, civic authorities took action and stopped the series.
By this time, Perryscope was doing shows at the Commodore Ballroom and various local clubs and community halls.
In 1987, O’Connor moved to Baseline Entertainment as a sports marketing manager and coordinated sports and corporate events.
In 1989, O’Connor moved to Toronto to become Project Manager and Director of Talent and Production Operations at Concerts Productions International (CPI).
Michael Cohl and Bill Ballard had started CPI in 1973, financially backed by partner Molson and later Labatt's. CPI of course, became an international leader and innovator in full-service touring. It created new revenue streams around tours, including utilizing aggressive merchandising, VIP ticketing, and fan clubs. in 1987, Cohl and Ballard became partners with Labatt’s in BCL Entertainment.
In 1996, MCA Concerts Canada and Molson Breweries purchased the concert divisions of BCL Entertainment, including CPI (which Cohl would later take back and sell again in separate deals to SFX, Clear Channel and Live Nation), Perryscope Concert Productions, and Donald K. Donald Productions in Montreal.
MCA Concerts Canada morphed into Universal Concerts Canada and then House of Blues Canada.
Prior to Live Nation, O'Connor was House of Blues Concerts Canada’s senior VP of Central Canada operations, overseeing tours by the Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys, Celine Dion, Andrea Bocelli, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Billy Joel, the Smashing Pumpkins, Kiss, the Tragically Hip and others.
Canada has been a productive territory for touring artists for at least five years, propelled by a strong dollar and a sizable demand for live music throughout the regions.
It was not just the major metropolitan centers that were cranking out strong box-office numbers. Canadian promoters were able to attract acts like Bon Jovi, The Backstreet Boys, Sheryl Crow, Motley Crue, the Eagles, and Elton John to play all types of venues from St. Johns to Victoria; places that were traditionally ignored in the past.
Concert totals for Canadian venues for 2008 (running from Nov. 14, 2007 through Nov. 11, 2008) according to Billboard Boxscore, show a gross of $328,974,485 on a total of 1,280 shows. In 2007, there were 1,411 Canadian shows for a total gross of $302,279,974.
Despite the North American economy coming to a stand-still in November, the volume of ticket sales, and demand for shows has stayed steady in Canada in 2009. While a decline in the Canadian dollar spurred a cooling-off period, business has been holding in Canada where the economy still fares better than in the United States.
However, Live Nation Canada, like its American counterpart, has introduced “No service fee Wednesdays” to stimulate business.
On July 8th, it also entered into an agreement with Rogers Wireless that allows customers to purchase tickets to all Live Nation events in Canada through Live Nation without service charges.
"No service fee Wednesdays" kicked off in Canada June 10th.
Why has Canada produced so many people who are prominent in the live concert field?
Canadians inherently want to have a voice. We have an advantage because we’re well-educated. I think we have an open view and an accommodation on an international stage. There’s an inherent (factor) that we are not about putting up walls. We want to take them down. We want to engage (the industry) with fairness and opportunities for a lot of people.
And, I think, just because the dynamics of working in Canada-- it is so challenging regionally, geographically and even economically as well--that we all got a taste of doing a lot of things. Because of our size as a country, you grow up being taught that you are always the underdog. People say, “You can’t do that.” You think, “Why can’t I do that?”
Regional promoters started working closely together in Canada in the ‘70s which solidified the market nationally. There’s been over 30 years of sharing business that didn’t come to the U.S. until the ‘90s with the SFX buy-outs.
We needed to work together out of economic necessity. You couldn’t do it all on your own. So there was this natural evolution in Canada.
There’s a different approach (to business) here as well. I think it is part of our (social) make up. For example, I work with venue (bookers) in this country because I’m part of the community. I live here 365 days a year as they do. They are not my enemy. I’ve worked hard to try to build up our local infrastructure to give people a sense of community in every community I work in. I really believe in it and believe we should invest more in (building an infrastructure). It provides more real jobs, long-term employment, more engagement, and more socializing.
Both Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino and Steve Herman, Live Nation’s president of artist services are Canadians who worked in the concert industry in Canada. What autonomy do you have?
A lot -- more so because of the years of all of us all working together. They know where I am coming from. I am also not afraid of telling them what I am thinking, and where I am going. There’s no hidden agenda (between us). (Working together) is all about engagement, and giving everybody a better shot at opportunities.
With a number of Live Nation executives In America being from Canada when you say something they would have an understanding of where you are coming from?
We’re like a family. I supported those guys even when I was on the other side of the fence (at House of Blues Canada).
For almost 5 years Canada had a more robust concert market than the U.S., Is that holding true this year?
We are on an even keel. We are not as robust as we have been in the past four years. There are some hiccups, economically, on the landscape in Canada as far as touring is concerned. But there has also been a change of expectations. Previously, you would go into certain Canadian markets, say Alberta, and everything was huge. You only wished the buildings were bigger. But the (economic) boom is over in Canada. So, in terms of the concert business, the boom is over as well. It’s back to the reality of how people manage their affairs.
Were there too many shows?
Yeah, but there are more dynamics in play today as well. It’s hard to make comparisons to what had been going on a decade or two decades ago. It’s a different world. It’s a different Canada, even. We are bigger in population.
The biggest transformation as far as the concert business is concerned, is that Canadians are better off economically coast-to-coast than they have ever been. Our economy is more even-keeled (nationally). No one region has more advantages than the other. We are better connected (for communications). The ability to be informed at the same time is equal in every quadrant of this country. So if you choose to be informed, you will be informed. It is not a matter of where you live any more.
In the U.S., Live Nation and AEG largely dominate the concert field due to owning venues. Live Nation Canada is the Canadian market leader but it only owns Molson Amphitheatre in Toronto and the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver.
Could the Canadian template work in Europe where neither own that many venues?
I am not sure you can take a template that is successful in this country and apply it to another part of the world because of the evolution of this market. Europe has a different set of dynamics. I was familiar with touring in Europe in the ‘70s but I don’t know that what I knew back then would hold true today.
Canada remains a challenging country to tour in because of its size and lack of population.
This country is enormous. It is a geographic challenge. There’s no doubt about it. In terms of our population and total land mass, we are an anomaly in the world. There’s other country like it. And we have everything on that level to consider.
At one time, it was impossible to get international acts to tour parts of Canada. Today, acts like the Backstreet Boys, the Eagles, and Elton John play smaller Canadian cities. How did that come about?
For over a decade now, I have championed the fact that there is a story to be told in taking an (international) act and going coast-to-coast in Canada. I tell (acts) “If you are looking at touring here, isn’t it better to say that you have conquered and accomplished something in a country that most people ignore geographically? You will probably be richer for the process because of experiencing our regionalism. It is a profound experience you will have for the rest of your life.”
You also tell them that you will make sure that touring Canada will be special. Is that how you sold a 13-date Canadian tour to the Backstreet Boys in 2008?
Absolutely. I convinced the Backstreet Boys to start their tour in Newfoundland, saying that they would never forget the experience, and they won’t. I also told them to play Victoria (British Columbia) because they would never believe that there is a part of Canada like Victoria.
[In 2008, the Backstreet Boys kicked of its 13-date Canadian “Unbreakable” tour at Mile One Centre in St. John's, Newfoundland. Howie Dorough told the crowd, "I couldn't think of a better place to kick off the Backstreet Boys tour than right here in Newfoundland.”]
There is money in secondary markets as well.
Money is a part (of playing secondary markets). You have to have a convincing economic story because it is expensive for these acts to go (to secondary markets). Traveling and touring in Canada is expensive and it doesn’t take long for that diesel fuel to get eaten up kilometer after kilometer. But I don’t overemphasize the economics because that is too black and white. I don’t want people making black and white decisions. I want them making subjective decisions. I want them to feel good about their experiences.
(This attitude) goes back to when I started off as a promoter in Vancouver (at Perryscope Concert Productions) working with Michael Cohl (Concerts Productions International in Toronto) and Donald Tarlton (Donald K. Donald Productions in Montreal). They both believed that there were unique stories to be had working in Canada. So I took (that attitude) on as a Western approach and later worked it on a national level.
I’m proud of the accomplishments we’ve done in Canada as far as growing a music business. I feel that I have been part of the pioneering spirit of touring live music in Canada. One of the best things that happened out of all this is that we have been able to build our own artist industry. We have been able to develop Canadian acts and work with them in the same way as international acts coming into Canada. That has afforded more opportunities for people in Canada.
When you joined Concerts Productions International in 1989 what kind of company did you join?
One full of confidence that allowed people to take enormous risks.
It was then still a very Toronto-focused company.
Coming from Vancouver to Toronto, I had to learn that the Toronto marketplace was unique and different from any other part of Canada. The country was then divided up in regions as how we promoted. Economics dictated a lot. When we did (national) tours it was like being on a roller coaster. It was hit and miss. One day you might be screamingly successful; the next day you might wonder why you bothered (promoting a show). Everybody was learning something as well. It was a really vibrant time.
Led by Michael Cohl, CPI had an enormous impact on the concert world.
I think it was because we were all self-starters and we were given an enormous range to be able to execute our visions and our beliefs. We were not about building walls to protect our individual territories. Our strategy, and what Michael allowed us to do, was to work together.
When you launched CPI USA, you were working within a North American context?
Yes. There was the evolution of CPI. As it grew, part of my job was looking after CPI USA and the partnerships that we created in the United States with CC Productions in the Carolinas, Rose Productions in Minneapolis and Feyline Productions in Denver.
Our strategy was to tap into the local expertise if it was there. We could learn more about (the individual market) by having (a local promoter) involved. It was not about taking somebody out (of the market), it was about bringing somebody in. That was always our philosophy. It wasn’t about cutting people off. It was about, “I will probably have the act. I will bring it into your market but I’m not going to kill you. You can work with me on a partnership basis.”
[Under Michael Cohl's direction, CPI extended its sphere of influence across Canada through affiliations with Donald K. Donald in Montreal, Perryscope Concert Productions in Vancouver and other regional promoters. CPI came to hold a 50% interest in Feyline Productions of Denver and had partnerships with several U.S.-based presenters. In 1990 Canadian concerts accounted for about half of some 1,000 CPI presentations worldwide.]
Where are you from originally?
Montreal. I started off as a stage hand at the Montreal Forum. I was then studying communication arts at McGill University and Dawson College. I thought I was going to work in TV or video. I thought I was going to become the world’s next biggest documentary videographer.
In ‘70s, Canada’s best progressive rock radio station was CHOM-FM with DJs like Doug Pringle.
I was a big CHOM listener. Pringle, I lived with him. I went to hang out with him. There was a singular moment, when I was 18 or 19 that I remember (deciding to be in the music industry). I was sitting around in the basement of my parent’s house listening to music with my best friend Dave Clark. I turned to Dave and said, “Dave, I love music so much. I know that I am going to be in this business. I’m not a musician. I can’t play anything but I am going to be in the music business.”
Did you go to shows at the Montreal Forum?
One of the first shows I saw was the Dave Clark 5 at the Montreal Forum in 1964. I wouldn’t go to just any concert. I was very picky and choosy of where I went and saw bands. I was also very critical of shows, whether they did it for me or not.
Then you got a job working with Mahogany Rush, the Montreal band led by guitarist Frank Marino.
The main reason I was hired was that I was old enough to rent the truck. And I pretended to know something about electronics. My game plan working with them was that I wanted to video them and put them on community cable TV which I did. I worked with them mainly on week end gigs because their career was still early.
Then Mahogany Rush grew (in popularity) and got so busy (with dates) that it was taking me out of school. I was coming into my next semester (of school) and the band was starting to happen. They got a recording contract (with Columbia Records) and (work) was turning into three or four nights a week. They were getting big bills and playing in Detroit and all of these places.
I was at the crossroads of my life where I didn’t know what to do.
I sat down with a dear friend of mine, a plumber from Ireland who had emigrated to Montreal. He said, “Riley, just come to Ireland with me. You will figure it out.” So I quit school. I quit the band. I went to Ireland with him for three months. And I figured it out; I stayed in Europe for five years.
You went to London?
I went to London after Ireland. Then I traveled to North Africa and came back to London. After a year, I said “I am not going back to Montreal without a dime in my hand.” Norman Perry was in London working for Harvey Goldsmith. I asked Norman for some contacts and he gave me ESP Lighting’s name and address. I went and hung out at their warehouse. After two weeks of making the governor’s tea, they offered me a job.
You were on the road with the Who for awhile?
In Europe, I was the chief electrician for them. It was mesmerizing watching them every night. I was building up a good career in production. The Who, Elton John, Queen, the Rolling Stones, you name it, we did it
What brought you back to Canada?
I met my first wife who is a Montrealer. She was going to school in London and we got together. We agreed that as much as we both loved living in London that if we were going to continue our lives together and have kids, we wanted them to grow up and experience Canada. So I talked with Norman who, by then, had left the UK and was the advance man working for the Who and Pink Floyd in North America and we decided to form Perryscope Productions. I went straight to Vancouver.
What gave you the confidence to be a promoter in Vancouver where S.L. Feldman & Associates (under A&F Music co-owned by Bruce Allen and Sam Feldman) was the only game in town. It had everything all tied up.
That’s right. It didn’t take Norman and I long to figure out that the old boys weren’t going to sell us anything. It was a real club house of promoters and agents back then. It was all very territorial and very tight-knit. No agent was going to talk to us. Yet, I saw the music landscape changing. I had already experienced the change in the UK. (Vancouver) was a territory that (promoters) were afraid of and didn’t want to touch. They didn’t think it was real. My attitude was, “This is the most real (music scene) you’ve ever seen. We’ll put the Clash in The Commodore Ballroom and blow people’s minds.” And that’s exactly what we did (on Jan. 31, 1979).
Perryscope did a lot of cool shows at the Kerrisdale Arena.
Absolutely, we started and ended shows there.
The Motorhead show in 1982 was the last straw for the neighbors.
Yeah, but it was a series of shows from Peter Tosh to Motorhead. The Jam and the Clash shows in Kerrisdale Arena were seminal moments. With Motorhead there were a few cranks who didn’t like the fact that some inebriated person decided to take a whiz on their lawn. But I provided permanent jobs for the working staff of Kerrisdale Arena and for every business that could cater to our crowds. I had the local business people on 41st Street thanking me for bringing business to the area.
There weren’t many good venues in Vancouver then.
The PNE Gardens is one of my favorite venues, but, you’re right there were challenges (to promoting shows). I went to city hall and met with the civic board, and challenged them on their banning of rock ‘n’ roll in (Vancouver’s) civic venues like The Queen Elizabeth Theatre and the Orpheum Theatre. Soft rock was okay. Anything that might bring in an element where someone might light up a cigarette…ehhhh. They were ultra conservative in those days.
We opened that door up again after it was closed by a Bob Marley concert in the early ‘70s. The first band we brought in was U2 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre (in 1983).
Vancouver was the Canada’s epicenter of punk and new wave in the early ‘80s.
It was an absolutely fun scene. There was this brotherhood of people you could work with there. It was far removed from what we regarded as the established media and music industry. It was people who wanted to have a sense of partaking in a larger community and knowing that they had something of artistic value to offer.
Perryscope Concerts became a window of opportunity for (local) acts to access. I had them coming into my office, and working for me. I‘d say, “You need a job. Put up some posters for us, and we’ll pay you.”
(Local bands) In Vogue to the Young Canadians to the Pointed Sticks, we worked with them all. We’d put local acts as supporting acts on international shows. A lot of time (a show) wasn’t a club. We would book the local community hall. We did a lot of shows at University of British Columbia Gym and in the Student’s Union Meeting Hall there
Did you book many clubs?
We booked everything. But the (club) landscape was so entrenched in an established formula. To get a bar gig there, a band had to work three hours, take certain set time breaks, and club owners wanted to know what songs the bands were going to play. If you didn’t give them the set list, and if you weren’t going to play the top 40 hits, you didn’t get a gig. And you couldn’t start a show until 10 PM. All this kind of nonsense.
We only booked clubs that would work with us on our rules. I told owners, “I don’t care what you think the bar drinking crowd is interested in. If you allow us in, we start shows at eight o’clock and we end at 11. if you don’t want our business, fine.” And those were the only places we would work in.
Despite your responsibilities today, you don’t seem stressed.
I can’t complain about anything I’ve got in this business right now. I can’t complain about anything on my career path. I would never have thought in a million years that this business would give me this livelihood in which I could be as successful as my parents.
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.