Industry Profile: Paul Lohr
By Larry LeBlanc
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Paul Lohr, president, New Frontier Touring.
After nearly three decades of representing artists, Nashville booking agent Paul Lohr certainly has the “touch” to sell clients with whatever sizzle is required.
As head of his own boutique agency New Frontier Touring, Lohr represents a formidable roster that includes: the Avett Brothers, Suzy Bogguss, the Gibson Brothers, the Grascals, John McEuen, John Oates, Darrell Scott, Chris Hillman, the Mother Truckers, and Riders In The Sky.
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Lohr was raised in southeastern Pennsylvania. He got a Bachelor's degree in broadcast journalism and advertising sales at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri.
At college, he also earned his Third Class FCC license, and DJed on the college’s radio station, KCOU. Afterwards, he worked at WLAN in Lancaster, Pennsylvania as an account executive selling radio time.
Soon afterwards, Lohr founded a booking agency in Wilmington, Delaware named LP Attractions; its main attraction being the regionally popular Johnny Neel Band.
In 1984, Lohr decided to join Neel when he moved to Nashville to do session work. Lohr quickly got hired on as an agent at Buddy Lee Attractions.
During his 18 years at Buddy Lee Attractions, he represented the Dixie Chicks, Garth Brooks, George Strait, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, George Jones and Kris Kristofferson; as well as such Americana-styled acts as Asleep At The Wheel, New Grass Revival, Emmylou Harris and Riders In The Sky.
In 2002, Lohr decided to leave Buddy Lee Attractions.
In June 9, 2003, he presided over the opening of a Nashville office for The Agency Group. The move into Nashville was the latest in a series of aggressive moves that had seen the New York/London-based agency previously set up in Toronto, Los Angeles, Europe, and the Pacific Rim.
The trade ads announcing the opening of the Nashville office with Lohr at the helm, stated, "This Country's Changing!"
Well, maybe not. The Agency Group closed down its Nashville office after only an 18 month run.
Among the acts Lohr had signed there were Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Hot Club of Cowtown, Third World, Scott Miller & the Commonwealth, Daybreak, the Gibson Brothers, Adrienne Young, and notably the North Carolina-based trio, the Avett Brothers.
In launching New Frontier Touring, Lohr set out to make the Avett Brothers a solid hard-ticket act in major markets throughout the U.S. And now the band is seeing their best sales ever.
What are the after effects in Nashville of the recent storm?
Everybody in New Frontier world is fine, but I keep getting calls saying people have lost their entire house kind of stuff. The water has receded, but it’s a disaster (here). It was 52 counties. Opryland was devastated. Even by Vanderbilt University, which is between 21st and 23rd (streets); the river didn’t get up there but the amount of rain was so voluminous--and it didn’t have anywhere to go-- that the water was up to car door handles in some streets.
[Nine people were confirmed dead and at least 2,000 homes were destroyed or damaged in Nashville by the flooding that struck Tennessee May 1-2. Flood waters also submerged parts of the Grand Ole Opry House (shows have since been displaced to other city venues), and the Opryland Resort. About 2,600 people have been left homeless, and thousands evacuated. The damage has been estimated at $1.5 billion.]
"Nashville Rising," a benefit concert hosted by Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, on June 22 at Bridgestone Arena, will try to raise money for victims of the flood. The lineup includes Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, Carrie Underwood, Lynyrd Skynrd, Brooks & Dunn, LeAnn Rimes, Miranda Lambert, Martina McBride, Jason Aldean, Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith and Luke Bryan.
Speaking of Taylor Swift, I am continually impressed with the things she does. Not only musically, but as a person. For her to step up to the plate and donate $500,000 to the Nashville flood victim cause was an incredible thing for a young person to do. There are some people who say that she is a (manufactured) pop artist, but she is writing a lot of these songs. She is writing songs that many young people are relating to. You cannot just dismiss that as (them) being popular bubblegum. There’s content, meaning and depth to what she has to say to those people. Man, she’s the Queen of the Prom. Probably for many years to come.
[Taylor Swift announced the $500,000 donation during a Nashville telethon where stars, including Keith Urban, Vince Gill and Darius Rucker, performed and helped raise $1.7 million.]
Taylor Swift’s popularity shows that country music has fragmented.
Country has fragmented. Not as much as rock, But it is getting there. In fact, a lot of country now sounds like rehashed ‘80s rock. But, that’s what the radio programmers are used to. Now, with satellite radio, that is hopefully bringing (traditional country) back.
Musical genres aren’t really centric to a city. But country music is centric to Nashville.
Nashville definitely has a monopoly on country music. There is always an exception to the rule. But, if you are going to make it (in the country field) the old adage is “Move to Nashville and spend seven years working on it.”
Nashville can be unkind to newcomers.
I will disagree with you there. Nashville is definitely the kindest industry town.
Nashville is certainly the most competitive music industry town.
Somebody told me that there are three different ways to say “no” in the music business. In New York, they say, “Get the hell out of my office.” In Nashville, they say, “I just don’t hear it.” In LA, they say, “Yes.”
Nashville has its own way of doing things.
It is certainly a successful route. You can’t argue with it. However, bear in mind, there are only so many hours in a radio playlist, and so many artists that can be on a playlist at any time. I remember listening to Tim DuBois (VP and managing executive, ASCAP) talk to an audience. He said, “Do you realize that you have a better shot at making it in the NBA (National Basketball Assn.) than you do of making it onto the country music charts? There are more openings in the NBA.” He kind of made his point.
In Nashville, you have media coaches, people telling artists how to dress, stylists and makeup artist to make a more polished look. It works for some people but, after awhile, people get so used to seeing so much of that, they then think they need a break. They want a change-up.
Why did you stay so long at Buddy Lee Attractions—18 years?
I was appreciative of what Buddy had done, and how he had given me the latitude (to sign acts). At first, he wouldn’t let me sign anything. I’d say, “Buddy, let’s sign this or sign that.” He’d say, “Rabbi, why do you want to sign these bands? We have plenty of great groups here.” Ultimately, he did let me sign acts, but he always felt that we had plenty to work with. I’d say, “Half of these are has-beens, we need to get on the cutting edge.”
“Rabbi” was Buddy’s nickname for you?
He had a nickname for everybody. When he hired me, he thought I was Jewish. They found it funny to learn that I was Catholic, as was Buddy. He even gave me a blue satin yarmulke as a joke, and I would wear it on days he would come in to the office.
It was a good run for you there.
Well, we kept growing. I like to give things at least a year to see if they are going to work. If, at the end of the year, you can say that your situation is better than it was the year before, then you continue what you are doing. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. So after 19 years, it finally broke.
What caused the breaking point?
Buddy’s death and my ideas of how the company should be run, and how people should be treated.
When you were there, the agency was one of the great country music institutions, booking Waylon Jennings, George Jones, George Strait and so many others.
Oh sure, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Asleep at the Wheel, Ricky Van Shelton. But William Morris and CAA (Creative Artists Agency) were then certainly nothing to turn your nose at either. But, for awhile there, it was a pretty rocking agency. We had that great group of artists that broke in 1988, Mark Chesnutt, Sammy Kershaw, and Tracy Lawrence.
[The colorful Buddy Lee was born in 1932 in the Bronx, New York. He started his show business career at age 18 as a professional wrestler. In the ‘50s Lee moved to Columbia, South Carolina, and promoted rock and roll and R&B shows on the Atlantic sea-board. He moved to Nashville in the early '60s, and formed Aud-Lee Attractions with Hank Williams' widow, Audrey, and initially represented Hank Williams Jr. Lee fully acquired the agency in 1968, and renamed it Buddy Lee Attractions.
During Lohr’s tenure there, the agency’s roster would include Willie Nelson, Garth Brooks, Emmylou Harris, Ricky Van Shelton, Clay Walker, Mark Chesnutt, Waylon Jennings, Lorrie Morgan, Terri Clark, Sammy Kershaw, Aaron Tippin, and the Dixie Chicks. In 1998, Lee died of respiratory failure in Houston, where he had been undergoing treatment for lung cancer. He was 65.]
What was the effect of the concert business consolidation in the early ‘90s? Did it change the booking business? Are major acts today asking what the role of an agent is, if a promoter can book a full national tour?
The answer to that is that it depends on size of the artist. You can probably count the superstars—just using Nashville as an example—on both hands. George Strait when he left Buddy Lee--he just went in-house and had Ben Farrell (of Lon Varnell Enterprises) and then Louis Messina (of The Messina Group/AEG Live) do all of his shows. But he still had (co-manager) Danny O’Brien as the day-to-day guy. So, in essence, Erv Woolsey did have an agent. He had Danny O’Brien looking over all of the stuff for George. You just can’t say to a promoter, “Here, take it.” Someone has to watch the hen house.
Proponents of the traditional agency system maintain that agents offer expertise in cutting venue and tour merchandise deals and routing tours, as well as gauging relative market value for an act. A promoter’s interest is not necessarily the same as an artist’s.
Well, of course not. They both are going to want to make as much money as they both can. But you have to have an advocate for the artist.
With a major act, many of the dates are cross-collaterized but there might not be the concentration on a date an act needs to have targeted.
If you have a lot of dates, and not as many eyes watching those dates, some of the dates aren’t going to get the attention that they might need. That’s one of the reasons when I was doing the first major Dixie Chick’s tour in 2000 that we had, in essence, three different companies who got the tour. Concerts West with John Meglen and Paul Gongaware; Louis Messina (then with SFX); and Arny Granat and Jerry Mickelson at Jam (Productions).
Why split the Dixie Chicks’ tour between the three companies?
We didn’t feel that one person had expertise in all 60 markets. Louis wasn’t promoting every show. He was delegating to different people. John and Paul were delegating. So each person has their strengths.
Did it give you any negotiating power working with three promoters?
A little bit. But at that point, everyone is pretty much coming up with the same type of figures. It’s interesting now that after all of these years, Louis, John and Paul are now on the same team (at AEG Live).
Did the consolidations tighten up the market?
Again, it depends on scale. It seems that for every consolidation there was a new company starting. Of course, the learning curve had to be re-established. Perhaps, the relationship and trust that goes into that had to be redeveloped for those folks as well.
Did you understand the move when the Dixie Chicks chose to move from Buddy Lee Attractions to work with Rob Light at Creative Artists Agency in L.A. in 2002?
I did understand the move but I disagreed with it. Their perception was that (their career) was going to get bigger. I’m sure that the manager, Simon Renshaw, in a selfish way for him—there’s no other way to put it—saw bigger opportunities. I think that he saw better opportunities with the relationship that he would have with CAA than with Buddy Lee.
[Booked by Buddy Lee Attractions, the Dixie Chicks grossed $44.4 million from their first major headlining tour in 2000. Their 6th album "Home” in 2002 bowed at #1 on The Billboard 200.]
There was considerable talk of the Dixie Chicks being bigger than country. That CAA could build on that.
They were as big as it gets. Well, there are bigger people. But, let’s say that they were certainly in that top 5% of artists. They were an arena act. Arena acts, when you look at Taylor Swift, Tim & Faith, when you go to those concerts, you don’t see a bunch of people with Yoke shirts, and cowboy hats on. You see people from all walks of life. Once you have sold as many as one to three million records, you have—and this is a broad brush stroke—pretty well tapped out the country-buying market. You are now appealing to a popular music market. So the Chicks were already there. They weren’t going to get any bigger. There wasn’t anything done for them (at CAA) that wasn’t being done for them at Buddy Lee.
The live show is the ultimate music experience today.
You can replace a lot of stuff but the one thing we haven’t figured out how to replace is the live experience because, by nature, human beings are pack animals. We like to hang out with our friends, and share our common experiences. You can’t get that sitting at home watching (a concert) on TV or through the computer.
Most people agree that the agency system remains valuable for developing acts underneath the national touring radar.
Correct. There are even more new acts these days than there used to be. Especially with terrestrial radio declining, and having less and less impact, it’s a whole new game. The playing field has been leveled. The hardest thing to find is an agent these days. All of these new artists, that’s what they need more than anything.
Why was Nashville a good place for The Agency Group to open in 2003?
Because Nashville is one of the top three music centers in the world.
Was it hard establishing a new agency?
Absolutely. Not only running the company but also doing the day-to-day for the artists that I was the responsible agent for. I had to wear two hats.
Your impression of Neil Warnock (chairman of The Agency Group).
If you have ever have been around Neil Warnock, and seen the hours he works, you’d really would appreciate what hard work really means. That guy has an incredible work ethic. He’s one of the most driven individuals in the music business I’ve ever met.
Who decided to pull the plug on The Agency Group in Nashville after 18 months?
Neil did. We got a lot of people in town raises. I will say that much.
People thought you were raiding?
Well, we were. But we couldn’t get everybody as quickly as we wanted. Nor could we get the people that we wanted. They would say “I don’t have that much time left at this organization. Do I want to leave and look at a lot of hard work in a start-up? Or do I want to finish out my career where I am? I can see the finish line where I’m at.”
Where does New Frontier Touring fit in today?
It is a diverse roster. I pretty much use one rule of thumb. We don’t sign bands that suck. There are artists that we feel are big-time growth artists, as the Avett Brothers have proven to be. There are some artists—and everybody has them—that are favorites; that might not be as big or be a superstar, but because they are absolutely brilliant at what they do, they become your favorites.
Darrell Scott must be one of your favorites.
Darrell Scott is one of the most talented individuals I’ve ever worked with. Everyone from Steve Earle to Sam Bush to now Robert Plant concur. I love the Rolling Stone (magazine) quote on one of his albums that said, “Matching Bruce Springsteen and Guy Clark at their finest.” What a compliment.
He’s been an ASCAP writer of the year. He’s a multi-instrumentalist who can play 13 instruments exceptionally well. He can sing with great soul. He can produce. He is just astonishing at what he does. But, he doesn’t work the road as much as others because he has to have time to write. He’s had over 70 artists cut his songs from the Dixie Chicks ("Heartbreak Town”) to Keb ‘Mo’ (“Proving You Wrong"). That’s pretty diverse. But an act like that you just have to say, “Okay, Darrell is not going to work 150 dates a year.” But I don’t have Darrell in my world because of financial considerations. I do it because I love the man as a human being, and I think that his music is some of the best in the world.
You seem to lean toward working with Americana acts.
I do. Americana music is a great melting pot of music. What a great format. It’s where you can have Little Feat, the Avett Brothers, Willie Nelson, Steve Earle all on the same playlist.
You turned the Avett Brothers down before signing them in 2003.
Well, I did turn the Avett Brothers down. I had listened to their CD “A Carolina Jubilee” and the first song on it is “The Traveling Song.’ It’s wild, crazy, full of caterwauling. I was like, “Damn what is this?” When I heard it, I was like, “Man, I don’t get it.”
But, as an agent I don’t represent the recorded product. I represent the live presentation.
It was when I finally saw them live that I bought in. In fact, I wasn’t even sure it was them at first. The first song I heard them play live was a ballad where they doing beautiful sibling harmonies, and the bass player was bowing the bass like a cello.. I was like, “Wow this is some strong stuff. Who are these guys?” The guys next to me say, “That’s the Avett Brothers.” I said, “Nahh, the Avett Brothers are breaking strings and stomping’ and going crazy, screaming and hollering.” He goes, “No man, that’s the Avett Brothers.” I said, “Nice meeting you. I have to go.” I went up to their manager Dolph Ramseur and introduced myself. He had contacted me as well. When I saw the band, it was like, “Wow, I get it.” Two or three songs into the set and they broke into the crazy stuff, and I thought, “That’s interesting. I get it now” I really liked it.
You saw them in Nashville. Dolph then invited you to Charlotte, North Carolina to see them perform again.
Yeah, to see 900 people reacting to them. A month later, I flew to Charlotte, witnessed them, drank the Kool-Aid, and saw what they had built there. I figured if it could be done there, it could be done anywhere.
Why would you not hear that on their album?
Bear in mind that I had lived in Nashville for 20 years, and a lot of my friends were studio guys. On my weekends, I liked to go to studios and hear the bands record. It is really amazing seeing the pros do their thing in the studio. So I was kind of focused on technical proficiency, and slick production and things like that. A lot of stuff that Nashville has ultimately shipped to radio is of that nature. That is what my ears were kind of focused on.
Being a guitar player, I couldn’t tell you half the lyrics of a song until I moved to Nashville, Obviously, we are arguably the greatest songwriter community in the world. So, very quickly, you get tuned into lyrical content more so than instrumental.
What is the best new act you’ve recently heard that you don’t represent?
I am a big fan of Assembly of Dust, and I like what I am hearing from Jackie Green, and Dawes, a new band. I’ve been wearing out a CD by Paul Thorn who I do represent. He’s an amazing songwriter and an amazing vocalist. I love rockin’ blues. I used to be all about the guitar lick.
There are a lot of good acts out there.
I think there’s more music out there but I think a lot of it is shit. I remember asking a manager about this female artist who was tremendous why she hadn’t broken out. He said, “Well, she’s just another great singer.” There are a ton of them.
I get a ton of CDs. I could open a record store here with the CDs I get sent as consideration for opening acts for the Avett Brothers. I try to listen to them all. I am a little overwhelmed at times. I probably have a stack of 20 in the car right now. I do all my listening in the car.
There are so many acts I’ve read about that I am only partially aware of. It’s not like in the ‘70s or ‘80s when everybody seemed to know about every new artist.
That’s because we grew up in the heyday of FM radio. Album-oriented rock was the place that the hipsters, the tastemakers, whatever you want to call them, gravitated toward. That’s how you found out about all of those cool, breaking acts.
If you would look at a 10 year window which was the best music (era) ever, 1965 to 1975 would have to be it. If I took a second 10 year window, it would be ’75 to ’85.
I am hard pressed to find what I consider great music out there these days. In the 30 years I have been doing this, I have always approached it with an A&R perspective. I let my ears be the judge and my taste in music guide me to what I think are going to be the artists to go places.
British rock was the first music you got into?
Climax Blues Band is one of my all-time, favorite bands. The very first concert I went to was Uriah Heap, Climax Blues Band and Manfred Mann at the Spectrum in Philly. I didn’t know who Climax Blues Band was. I was going to see Uriah Heap. Boy, I came away from that show and it was like, “Wow.” Then they had that big breakout album “FM Live” (in 1974). I think that “Gold Plated” (1976) is my favorite.
If you listened to Climax, you wanted to become a guitar player.
Well, Peter Haycock (who left in ’85) was the bees’ knees.
Do you play?
I used to. Not professionally.
Were you any good?
Nah, I was awful. That’s why I am an agent.
You got a degree in journalism and advertising sales at the University of Missouri in Columbia.
I initially started in broadcast journalism. I thought that is where I want to go. It was a perquisite to be a disc jockey to have your Third Class (FCC) license. It was one of the things that you had to get to pass the broadcast journalism class. The disc jockey stint (at KCOU) was more of a hobby. It was fun. We played everything there. It was college radio. At WLAN in Lancaster (Pennsylvania), I was in ad sales. Strictly sales. Nothing to do with the music.
That experience would have helped you as an agent.
Precisely. There are certain sales skills that will work well in many different fields. I have applied things that I learned from the consultants at the radio station in my agency work.
You founded a booking agency in Wilmington, Delaware named LP Attractions.
There was a local talent named Johnny Neel. Our little band that played around the area on the same circuit went to check him out. To check out the competition. He was playing this little dive on Pulaski Highway, Route 40 in Elkton, Maryland. I think it was called Tradewinds. We walked in the front door—it was kind of a biker joint—and the Johnny Neel Band was blowing out Lynard Skynard’s “I Know A Little” better than Skynard. Then, they kicked into Johnny’s arrangement of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” as good as you ever hear. Then they kicked into one of Johnny’s original songs. As each song played, I got more and more depressed. My buddies asked “What’s the matter? I said, “Man, we suck. This band is so good what are we doing here? I walked up to Johnny after the show and said, “I’m your new agent.”
[Johnny Neel is a celebrated Nashville musical figure. His songs have been recorded by Travis Tritt, Montgomery Gentry and Delbert Mc Clinton. From Wilmington, Delaware, Neel cut his first single at the age of 12, as Johnny Neel and the Shapes Of Soul. A few years later, the Johnny Neel Band had a strong following along the East Coast, and released two independent albums. Neel moved to Nashville in 1984, and worked as an "A" session studio player and performed with local bands in local clubs. Dickey Betts then tapped Neel in 1988 to join his road band, and he worked on Betts’ "Pattern Disruptive" LP including the top 10 AOR hit, "Rock Bottom." Neel then joined the reunited Allman Brothers Band before returning to session work and a solo career.]
You came to Nashville with Johnny Neel in 1984?
How I came to town was that Johnny Neel got the opportunity to move to Nashville and do demo work. Hopefully, that was going to lead into songwriting, more studio work and, maybe, even some road work. I said that if he was going, I was going.
How did you come to work at Buddy Lee Attractions?
I put together two résumés. I put together a résumé to be in A&R (at a label), and I put together one to be an agent. Actually, I put together a press kit for myself to be an agent rather than a resume. It worked.
You decision to be an agent was fortuitous.
It’s funny that after all of these years,the record companies are the ones that may be a dying breed. The agencies are obviously going to be able to weather the storm, and change the face of the music industry. The record companies didn’t have the position (to lead), but the agency world did. Who would have seen it?
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.