Industry Profile: Bruce Solar
By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess)
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Bruce Solar, senior Vice President of The Agency Group.
Senior VP and of The Agency Group (TAG) in Los Angeles, Bruce Solar likes and probably understands the majority of the 35 acts that he represents.
He has also had more taste and timing than most in a successful three decade career which has also embraced artist management, and being a promoter.
Solar began his booking career in 1979 at the Harry Chickles Agency in Boston. This was followed by stints at Talent Consultants International (TCI) in New York and Los Angeles as well as DeLeon Artists, and his own agency, Absolute Artists, both in San Francisco.
Along the way Solar managed Junior Walker & the All Stars and worked with blues giants Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, and Luther Johnson, singer Etta James, and with such iconic jazz artists as Stanley Turrentine, and Art Blakey.
He joined The Agency Group in 2001. As SVP, he deals with issues concerning TAG’s West Coast office. He oversaw TAG’s aggressive push into performing arts fair sectors in recent years. He is also a member of TAG's Senior Global Management Team.
Worldwide president Neil Warnock launched The Agency Group in London in 1981 after his purchase of the Bron Agency, where he had been managing director for 8 years. TAG now offices in New York, Nashville, Toronto, Los Angeles and Malmo with a roster of over 2,000 artists.
Solar’s own roster underscores the full paradigm in agency representation and includes emerging artists, artists at the pinnacle of their careers, and beloved musical icons. Among those he represents are: Tegan and Sara, Cake, the Eels, the Psychedelic Furs, Max and The Moon, Family of the Year, Living Colour, the Monkees, Jeff Bridges, and Shelby Lynne.
Despite its growth many people continue to regard The Agency Group as a boutique agency.
Yeah. The largest boutique agency in the world. I look at The Agency Group as the largest indie agency in the world. There’s a wealth of headliners at this company.
When I started here 14 or 15 years ago, we were like that ugly stepchild in the States. We weren’t the first call from Warner Brothers. We had to go out and get these indie bands and develop them. Take these acts from $250 (fees) and build them up. There were a lot of indie agents that had their own shops that came here and worked here. That (independent) philosophy has stayed. Whether it be something more mainstream like Nickelback or something hip hop like Macklemore and Lewis. It’s all been from the ground up here, and I think that has paid off for us because we are used to that model.
The Agency Group has developed acts that your larger competitors might not have been drawn to.
But I also see that what has happened is that companies like Billions, Windish and Ground Control Touring each started to develop major, major headliners as well. Look at Billions with Arcade Fire, Mumford and Sons, and Vampire Weekend.
The Agency Group really took off after it launched in North America with the New York office opening in 1992.
A lot of credit has to be given to Steve Martin, obviously. Steve brought me in.
[Former TAG president, North America Steve Martin left the company in 2013 after nearly 20 years. He helped build the company from 4 to 40 agents in the U.S. He handled such clients as Dolly Parton, David Gilmour, the Scorpions, New York Dolls, Ray Davies, Squeeze, King Crimson, Brian Wilson, Bob Geldof, and Billy Bragg. He has since joined APA as executive VP of worldwide music.]
A hard person to lose.
Steve is still my friend. He’s a great agent. He wanted a new challenge. So that’s what he’s doing. Nobody feels like he didn’t do an amazing job while helping to build this company with Neil and with other people. He did a pretty amazing job. But on the other hand when you look at our roster of agents, if we were in a coliseum and they all had weapons, I would put our group of agents against any group of young agents in the country. There are amazing agents here.
TAG has evolved with only a handful of mergers, buyouts or alliances. There haven’t been that many.
No and the ones that we have had are like the indie agents we brought in who did have their own companies. Smaller ones. Like we brought in Dave Shapiro, who basically owns a certain rock and metal world. Every one of those 3,000 to 5,000-seaters pretty much. He came in from his own little agency. He had that independent spirit. He was able to work within the structure here.
What people always use against The Agency Group is that we are a bunch of boutique agencies under one roof, and we aren’t working together. But that’s not true. Everybody here, because they were boutique and independent, really pulls together, and they really do work together quite a lot.
In the face of the touring business contracting and consolidating, as well seeking to offer clients additional services TAG began a major structural shift about a decade ago.
We have adjusted as the years have gone down as well. The Agency Group was looked at as a rock agency for a long time. Now we are looked at as an agency that does all sorts of music, from classical crossover to hip hop.
We have an amazing fair department now. An amazing performing arts department. We have a killer electronic division. We have a killer literary division. All of them are very exciting. We are into branding now. We have a corporate buyer now. We have a college department. We opened a Nashville office a couple of years ago that’s been rolling. Their emphasis just isn’t on country. The emphasis is on building a company. So we have changed our look too. We’d like to get stronger in certain things. William Morris (William Morris Endeavor) has its film and TV (department) and things like that. Billions, Windish and us, at this moment, don’t have that yet. But we are doing what we are doing really, really well.
Do TAG agents book by territory or by act?
We book by the act except in the fair world, and in the performing arts sector. They can take the whole roster wherever they want. We have teams that work together. I may work with somebody here on something. We may have two or three people working on one act.
Is that the strategy worldwide?
The same thing. But I only book in North America. Since we have such great Canadian agents, I usually turn over most of my U.S. acts to them. They have a great office in Canada. That was one of the beauties of coming here. That they had the worldwide reach, and that it was boutique music centric.
You are a member of TAG's Senior Global Management Team. How many on the team?
There is an executive committee of probably 8 or 9 of us.
What is the mandate?
To look at new business, and to discuss and develop new business models. (To discuss) Issues that we need to deal with within the company. (To discuss) agents, and acquisitions. A lot of time it is just (talking) about the state of the business. A lot of the time we can have a two hour meeting just about the state of the business. Other times it is about specific acquisitions or specific businesses that we want to get into. We have a new CEO in the U.S., and worldwide. We have Natalia (Nastaskin) here (as CEO/general counsel) who has worked at our company for a long time, and who is very involved outside type of acquisitions. Outside the box type of things, and acquisitions that we can make to help develop our business.
Then there’s Gavin (O'Reilly) who is now the CEO of the whole company. He came out of the newspaper business of all things, but he’s a financial guy who has a lot of great ideas. It’s good that he didn’t come in being this music guy. He’s a guy who came in having other ideas, and he knows how other businesses operate and happen. It’s a far different look in a way.
[In 2013 Gavin O'Reilly was appointed worldwide CEO at The Agency Group with Neil Warnock moving up to the newly-created role of worldwide president. O'Reilly had served as CEO of Independent News and Media Plc until April 2012, as well as Chairman for APN News and president of the World Association of News Publishers in Paris prior to that.]
Despite its international reach the interesting thing about TAG is that in Britain it really is a British-styled agency. In Canada, it’s a Canadian agency. In the U.S., it’s an American agency. It doesn’t feel corporate, and the regional identity seems pronounced and very important.
It is important. I would say that when I started here 14 years ago there was disconnect between the different offices around the world. That’s been totally changed. We sign so much worldwide now. That never used to happen. It used to be that we would sign an act in England, and we might get it here or we might sign it in Canada. At least the effort is given. People work more together now. There’s more of a worldwide (strategy). When we go after people, there’s more of a worldwide perspective now.
In 2009 grosses outpaced attendance and numerous tours tanked in the U.S. This was followed by a live music slump in 2010. But 2013 was a big year, and this year is looking to be bigger. What caused the turnaround? While the business is cyclical, it seems that people also started analyzing the marketplace and began to understand how more money could be made.
Yeah, I think a lot of it was that groups matured. There is a whole new wave of music from electronic to pop that happened. Things happened a little bit quicker. Promoters had taken some pretty big hits in that downtime, and they were being smarter with what they were buying. Agents were smarter in how they were selling. People got more creative in their deals. Deal structures became very creative. There were other sources of income that came in. There was more and more emphasis on outside ticket and VIP type ticketing for the arena acts. So there was more income.
Live Nation seems to have backed off on doing 360 deals with top tier acts.
Yeah they have scaled those back, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you see it again. I wouldn’t be shocked. Maybe not on the record side of things. You are going to see it on the merch side more and more.
The recording is almost a loss leader these days.
Nobody cares anymore. We say that then we look at an artist like Adele, who hardly ever toured, and she breaks the mode. Well, that’s an exceptional artist. She breaks the mode. She didn’t really tour that much, but she sold a zillion records. The beauty of the music business is there really is no formula. You can’t really say that this or that works because it always changes.
After the Rolling Stones’ tour, I think $650 for a ticket isn’t going to fly.
You get that once in awhile where somebody is charging so much. Then sometimes it does work. I can’t tell you how many times we agents will talk about different tours that we have done, and not have a good reason why something didn’t work and why something else did work. Sometimes it’s timing. Sometimes it’s the atmosphere or it’d the economy.
Artists are becoming more involved than ever in the planning the nuts-and-bolts of a tour.
At the end of the day, it’s the artist’s career. So more artists are involved with their business, and whatever else they have a big say in this when they are really conscientious about it; about where it’s going to go and what’s going to go happen.
Artist pocketing $350 for backstage meet and greets, I have a problem with that.
I know. I look at these things sometimes and I think sometimes, “Oh my gawd.” Sometimes I think I would rather not know this. It’s really interesting when you see commercials that use an artist. We come from a different school. Like when you see Bob Dylan do a commercial. But it’s something that you’d never think you’d see happen. It happens. On the other hand, Bruce Springsteen still does some pretty cool shit for his fans.
Acts bleeding income on the recording side are seeking out different ways to make income elsewhere.
And bands had to tour to promote themselves. I think that we are at a great time for indie bands, and I include electronic music as indie.
Electronic dance music, EDM, goes back to early ‘90s.
Kraftwerk, and even Can going way, way back (into the ‘70s) were precursors of EDM. Even Wendy Carlos. But EDM today is indie and indie is such a wide-ranging thing. The hip hop thing also started to happen (in the mainstream). I think it’s like you say. That it’s (the live music business is) cyclical. It’s the way the business runs. You have downsides, but now artists are very dependent on touring because of the nature of the business. Only a small percentage of artists are making it through their records on majors, and there are bands that probably have better deals on indies that are making it through touring and selling their stuff on the road.
The traditional music industry cycle was that bands and agents had to wait for the label to release the album and then wait for radio to play the record before touring.
Yeah, we had to reinvent that.
As with metal and indie alternative, EDM isn’t dependent on radio. That factor has broken down that traditional recording/touring cycle, especially in the past five years.
Yeah. I noticed at Coachella this year how the second stages and the tents often had way bigger attendances than the main stage. Those were the ones with the indie electronic stuff going on. They couldn’t put an act like Calvin Harris in a tent anymore because it’s just too big. Too big. I don’t know if it’s true or not but somebody told me it was the second biggest crowd in the history of the event which is pretty amazing.
With North America having had such a resurgence in the live music sector, have promoters, particularly Live Nation and AEG Live, stopped trying to outbid each other on major acts and tours?
I would say that with the top 1% of tours that both those two companies really want, they will bid up. That’s a natural thing. They are always going to bid up. That’s been the way it’s been since the beginning of time. With everything else, there’s a smartness to it (negotiations). People are saying “No more.” So there is now, “No. We aren’t going to go there.”
Some acts refuse to do a national tour involving a major promoter.
Yeah, but there is more and more going on with Live Nation and AEG that is national. They are trying more than ever to do national tours. They are having a lot of success. Even at a smaller level of securing tours. I’m not saying that the tours are always successful, but they are securing national tours,. They are trying to get involved earlier which I have mixed feelings about because I’m a big believer in these indie promoters.
But on the other hands there’s a lot of different income that is out there these days and there are a lot of different models of income. A lot of different ways to make money for groups. Live Nation and AEG, in particular, have kind of cornered those kinds of markets in how to do that.
But I still have my group of young promoters, and there’s more and more of them every day. You come in and say, “I would still rather give this act to his person because this person will build this act.” If they can build with the act, then you want to build with them. One of the reasons that I think that Seth Hurwitz (partner in I.M.P. Productions] is so successful is that he started as a small indie guy, and he did the right thing for his bands through the years, and they stayed with him. The same thing up in Canada with Jeff Cohen (owner of Collective Concerts in Toronto). He’s a good example of a guy who has been able to take things from the bottom to the top. Look, there’s a tremendous amount of competition out there.
One interesting aspect of the business today is that the PACs—performing arts centers--are far more open to contemporary music.
Very much so. when I came here, we didn’t have a PAC department. We didn’t have a fair department. Both have really happened. The first person we hired (for festivals) didn’t quite work out, but then we got a great guy in Nick Meinema in Nashville who was out of Canada. He has really turned that whole thing around. It’s now a really big part of our business. It’s been great.
Then on the PAC side, when I came here I said we have to do this because I had artists like Ricky Lee Jones. I said, “We just have to have a PAC side.” Now we have this great PAC department which Andrea Johnson (in New York) heads. Darcy Gregoire in Canada is involved with it as is Justin Hill out of Nashville, and Ronnie Lapone, who used to be my assistant, heads it up out of LA. It has been really, really good.
The PACs had a few difficult years while just booking classical, world beat, and some jazz.
And pretty well doing the same show every year. They are now very active and they book a lot of stuff. A big part of our business now are PACs, and a big part of our roster are PACs. And it’s (PAC bookings are) changing now. It was changing when I first started there. They are now buying other types of acts. And it’s good money for these people. On this current Eels’ tour that I have, they are playing two PACs. Who would have ever thought that the Eels would play PACs? But it works. The audiences are older. and they want to go to that kind of situation sometimes. The Eels are playing a PAC in St. Louis, it is absolutely going to be the best situation that they have ever played in St. Louis. That’s sort of what you get.
Due to scheduling needs, PACs have always wanted to book a year in advance. Today, being able to market to their subscription base via the internet, PAC bookers can book closer to the date.
Yes. There are still ones that book way out, but there are enough that don’t. When I was first booking the Psychedelic Furs, there was no way a PAC would look at the Psychedelic Furs. On their last tour, I needed a date four weeks out, and I booked this date in the middle of Louisiana--Baton Rouge--for a lot of money and it sold out. That never would have happened 10 or 12 years ago on short notice.
Since their audience has grown up, the PACs have had to have a more enlightened perspective about entertainment.
Because the audience has grown up, and more of these places have opened. A lot of people have taken these older places in towns, and turned them into PACs. It is a really booming business, the PAC world. It is part of the resurgence of the whole live business. That’s a part of it.
Casino entertainment was once considered to be a limited circuit, but casinos are now more in the mainstream concert business.
Casinos are at a very interesting point. It is sort of like colleges. Colleges and casinos are similar in that they have decided that they actually have to show a profit. Not off the comping of high rollers (with casinos) or in the case of colleges just the fact that college students are able to go to a show. So that’s been a big change.
Casinos had to often throw big money at agents to get favorable bookings early on.
It was awesome. It was awesome. But now it’s more like. “You have been here. You know what we provide.” Not all casinos, and not all colleges are created equal. There are some amazing businesses out there, and some that aren’t so amazing. You have to be careful with your artists and where you put them. Sometimes (a date) sounds very attractive when you put the artist somewhere between two cities until you see pictures of the actual place. But, for the most part, most of them--the same with fairs--have great facilities, great sound, and great lights these days.
The thing that is beautiful about fairs, which people don’t always realize, is that you put a younger act into a fair it’s a win because it’s all-ages and low ticket prices for the most part. The whole way of making income for artists is finding different places to play and different situations. The one thing everybody is talking about these days, and there’s going to have to be some solution to this pretty soon—is the festival problem because the more and more festivals you have the more and more it bleeds into local buyers.
You can’t say it’s not impacting their business. Of course, it is.
It is. It definitely is because they can’t have an artist. That there’s this big exclusivity thing. They (festivals) will say that there’s a 350 mile radius (restriction). Suddenly that artist can’t play this or that town. Look, festivals are good things in that you (an act) can play for a lot of people, and get discovered. And a lot of these festivals are sell-out events. On the other hand, I have always been a big believer–and I tell a lot of my young bands this—that if you don’t get asked to play a festival, it’s not going to kill you. Play your own dates. Play to your own following.
Many emerging acts aren’t ready to play a festival.
When you get asked to play a festival, that’s when you are ready to play a festival. Really, in reality, if you force a band—and I have done this myself—if I force a band on a festival and they get put in that 12 o’clock slot, and they play for 23 people, what good did that do that band?
Only that they got a festival credit.
Oh yeah, that they were on the poster, right? You are also dividing the amount of attention that you get for a band because most of the press is going to go toward the higher things.
Some festivals try to impose geographic restrictions on bands for up to 6 months.
They will give and take on that. We will have to come to something on that as there are now more and more festivals. But I also think that festivals weed themselves out. There are festivals every year where there are new festivals every year. Not all of them are going to last. It seems that everybody thinks that they can throw a festival but they can’t. There’s a big difference in the way that Coachella is run and how another type of festival is run.
This summer Cake is doing several festival dates, including Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, and the Ann Arbor Summer Festival. How do you plan out what festivals to do with them?
Cake has always been interesting. Cake is one of those bands that I worked with at the very, very beginning. They have always produced their own records. They have always had their own studio. They have always done everything on their own dime. When they did go to Columbia after they had some pretty major success at radio, it wasn’t a comfortable fit for them, and they were very happy to go back out on their own (launching Upbeat Records). And they have done very well doing that. Their last album (“Showroom of Compassion” debuted at #1 (On Billboard’s Top 200 Album chart). They still have a huge following. They still have Red Rocks. I have to be very careful with them. I just can’t throw them out there everywhere. They get a tremendous amount of offers every year. But they are very selective. They do things because they want to do them. It’s not like, as with some of our groups, a financial thing all of time. Of course, if a group gets offered a tremendous amount of money, it’s hard to turn something down. But it’s more about what is good for their brand. What they feel is good for brand. And it has worked for them.
They have been a band for a long time now.
It’s going on 23 years now and they have had a lot of success. When they started they were kind of the critics’ darlings. Then they became non-critics’ darlings, and now they are critics’ darlings again. They have gone the whole 360 (degrees) in their career.
The lead singer (John McCrea) is very politically active. He’s involved with a lot of causes but it’s a different kind of way (of supporting) You know what Sting is up to or you know what Bono is up to, right? You don’t know what John McCrea is up to unless you go to his website, and really read deep inside of it. But he’s into a lot of stuff. Frankly, it’s because he lives in Bolinas (in Marin County, California). He has never had the desire to live out here (in Los Angles). He’s never had the desire to hobnob.
Cake’s independence is an inspiration for so many bands.
Even at their biggest point, they just never played the game. They are the one band that I have worked with over the years that I can say that they have never ever played the game. And it worked for them. They have a very, very loyal following. If they played the game a little bit, maybe, they would have built up to be a bigger act. But they are happy. But they control everything. They control their catalog. They do things their own way. Yeah, I get aggravated that they put out an album every four or five years, but that’s what they do. I think that we have been able to coexist for all this period of time because we have similar philosophies politically—which is very important to them—and similar philosophies about the way that they want to do things. So I could make a lot more money if they took every gig that was offered but you just don’t look at it that way.
Another act you book with a considerable independent streak is Tegan and Sara, identical twin sisters Tegan and Sara Quin.
Yeah, Tegan and Sara are very independent. A lot of people go, “Oh my gawd they made such a commercial record (“Heartthrob”) this year,” blah blah blah. Well, nobody told them to make this record. They made this record. That’s what the direction is. If you followed their arc of records, they were going toward this direction. And they are happy with this direction. If you look upon their influences, it’s Cyndi Lauper and people like that. People who had pop hits. They wanted to make this type of record. They could turn around next year, and make a folk record or they could continue in this direction. They can do whatever it is that they want to do. Look, I think that their mainstream success is pretty amazing. The way that they have developed and the way that they have built up. A lot of bands when they become commercial, their fans sort of abandon them; but their fans have not. Their fans have been incredibly loyal.
[Tegan and Sara’s “Let’s Make Things Physical” Tour kicked off May 6th in Columbia, MO. They are set to join Katy Perry’s “Prismatic” tour later in the year.]
You buy into it, you buy into it.
Yeah. And they (Tegan and Sara) are not apologetic about it either. This is what they wanted to do. This was their idea. They weren’t being told by some bigwig at Warners, “You need to make this record.” They said, “We want to make this record.” They march to their own drum. They are very smart. The common thread between Tegan and Sara and Cake is that they have their managers who are great and are very dedicated to them. But in both cases also the artists themselves are very smart and very aware. Tegan and Sara has had Nick Blasko (almost) from the beginning, and Cake has had the same manager (Tommy Manzi) for the last 8 or 10 years now. They are very good managers. They know their artists. But the artists also know their careers. So they get involved. It is not unusual if something is not right for Tegan and Sara for them to send me a note directly. The same thing with Cake or them to want to talk about things and know what’s happening all of the time.
How many dates does Tegan and Sara have with Katy Perry?
I think it’s about 15 or 20.
That billing surprised me: The Pop Princess taking out Indie Sweethearts.
We discussed this a lot, which is what I love about them. We discussed this a lot. Katy Perry has been incredibly supportive of them. She loves their record. They played a show with Katy at the Hollywood Bowl (Oct. 24, 2013) that was really fun. They got great reaction out of it. They were like, “We toured with the Black Keys this year. That’s one end of the spectrum. We toured with fun which is sort of in the middle of the spectrum. Let’s go out with Katy. She wants us out. We’ll make new fans.”
I think they will release another song (from “Heartthrob”). This is a pop record. It helps in that respect with radio when you do that (touring). As I said, at the end of the day, they are so involved with their career that they understood the business aspects of it (the Perry tour). It wasn’t like that they had to have a big argument with the label or with us. It was all discussed.
During the discussions for their touring was there any concern that if they did the Katy Perry tour that it could erode their audience? That they wouldn’t be thought of as being cool anymore.
Yeah, but it’s not going to. It really is not going to. We found that out when we put our own dates up after the Katy Perry dates were announced. It didn’t affect our sales. Our ticket sales still were very strong. You are always going to get a little bit of negativity here and there, but for the most part, it’s been a very very positive thing. And they enjoy it. They like playing. They going out. The like doing different things. I thought that when we submitted for the Black Keys that there was no way that we were going to get that tour. It turned out that the Black Keys are fans. I thought that was so cool that the Black Keys really liked Tegan and Sara. It jumped started our record getting that tour.
You have the most genre-bending artist roster of any agent I’ve come across.
That’s what I like. It’s all over the place.
What’s your music collection like?
It’s all over the friggin’ place.
Do you have a big music collection?
I used to. Like everyone else, I have kind of put everything online. I’m an online guy now for music. I used to buy everything.
You must listen to a lot of different music.
It (the mix) sort of happened naturally for me. When I got started, I got thrown into a situation working for this blues agency out of Boston, the Harry Chickles Agency.
Harry Chickles Agency booked the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
They did Willy Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Luther Johnson. And I knew nothing about blues. I was a novice. I had dropped out of college.
How did you end up in Boston?
I grew up in the Salem (Massachusetts) area, and I was going to Salem State University. I was there for about a month. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like being in school. I knew that I wanted to be in music one way or the other. I saw this ad in the Boston Phoenix ,“Music Agent Wanted.” It was as simple as that, right? “Must know blues.” This is a true story. So I go to the library, and I look up everything that I know about blues. I go in all prepared. I looked up Harry’s roster. It was pretty impressive. I didn’t know just how impressive that roster was until years later. But I went in all prepared. I sit down for a minute, and Harry says, “Oh, you are hired.” We didn’t even do an interview. I went, “Willie Dixon did…” He says, “I don’t want to hear about it. You are hired. You are the only one that applied (for the job).”
How long were you at the agency?
The top dog in live music in Boston has always been Don Law.
Yeah Don Law was the top guy. When I left Harry Chickles, there was a club called The Channel and they were going to compete with Don Law. But Don Law thought that he was going to get the gig taking over the club. It was a big room 1,600 (seater). I knew somebody that was involved with the club, and they said, “We want you to book the room.” I said, “I heard that Don Law is going to do this.” They go, “Well, we’re meeting with him right now.” I walk in, and Don Law has brought in a case of champagne for them. He thought he had the gig. He told them, “If you give me the gig, I am giving you a week of Aerosmith to open it up.” That was a huge deal. But the owners (Harry and Peter Booras) didn’t know who Aerosmith was. They hired me. I lasted a very short time. I ended up hiring Warren Scott who was the booker there for a very long time (1980-1991). These were guys that were not music guys. They were guys that were restaurateurs. They didn’t have a clue about Don Law or any of us.
You probably know John Peters, owner, MassConcerts from that period in Boston.
I knew John Peters when he was starting. John booked the Night Stage for awhile. He went to work for Concerted Efforts (blues booking agency) which I worked for a few months. I’ve known John for a long, long time. John will give me a lot of credit for helping him get started in the business because I knew him and when the Warped tour was going. There was a problem and I made a call for him and helped him that. That sort of jumpstarted things for him. We’ve always had this really good relationship. I have always really liked his independent streak, and the fact that he took on the big guys, and that he won a lot of the times.
[In 1995, John Peters brought the Warped Tour to New England during its inaugural year, and has remained the tour’s New England promoter since.]
How did you come to live in California?
I was promoting and doing different things. I was managing Junior Walker & the All Stars. I went to work at a company called TCI (Talent Consultants International) in New York with Margo Lewis who is great. I learned a lot. I think that’s why my roster is so diverse. I’m working for a blues agent. Then I go and work for Margo Lewis (a renowned keyboardist and former member of Goldie & the Gingerbreads) doing Bo Diddley and all of this stuff. She sent me to LA to open an office in ’85 or ‘’86. It didn’t quite work out. I hired Rick Greenstein who later became the head of Gersh (senior executive VP at Gersh Agency, representing Dave Chappelle, Jamie Foxx and Drew Carey) to work with me at TCI. That was his first job. Both of us were feeling our oats. We thought we could do every ourselves. We ended up not working there anymore. No fault of Margo’s. But that (job) turned into other stuff.
You and Rick went into management together.
Yeah. We were managing Wednesday Week and a couple of bands locally. We were booking on the side. We would book people I knew like Sam and Dave just to get income. At one point. I met this woman who lived in San Francisco, and I ended up in San Francisco. I’m looking for a job, and I meet Lupe DeLeon, who managed Etta James. He had an agency (DeLeon Artists) that had all jazz artists except for Etta. He had Stanley Turrentine, and Art Blakey. Jazz was another thing (genre) that I wasn’t that well versed in. It was a well-respected jazz agency. It was a cool company. I ended up working for him for about three years, and then I decided I wanted to do my own thing.
You launched Absolute Artists in 1991. With what artists?
I started with Junior Walker & the All Stars which I still had. I started with some jazz stuff like Billy Cobham. Then I had some blues artists whom I had worked with for years like LaVern Baker. I had a really eclectic roster. Link Wray. Do you know (TAG agent) Dave Kaplan? He has this joke about me, “You walk into a record store with Bruce and you flip through the records, and it’s like, “Worked with him. Dead. Worked with him. Dead. Worked with him. Dead.”
As an agent you do get close to artists. You tried to raise money for the late Arthur Lee of Love after he was diagnosed with leukemia.
Arthur Lee was a client here. He was a great client. A very difficult client, but a very great client. Totally overlooked, and he had a bit of a comeback. He was finally able to make some money. But he had demons. A lot of demons he couldn’t get over.
How did you come to book Arthur at The Agency Group?
That’s kind of a funny story. I was in the office really early. I like to come in the office really early. The phone rings, and I answer it. It’s this guy from Scandinavia. He says, “Steve Martin told me to call the LA office to talk to Val Wolfe about Love.” I went, “Whoa, I love Love. I’m a Love fanatic. Talk to me.” I told Val this later, “Sorry Val, you didn’t get in earlier enough.” I ended up being the agent. It was only because I got in early that day. It was fun. It was fun when we did the “Forever Changes” Tour with the symphony. That was fun. We had some train wrecks, but that was mostly fun. We did a tour with the Zombies which I did with Margo (Lewis) that was fun.
It has long been contended that Arthur Lee should have been a household name but he had issues throughout his career, including serving 5 years in prison for an firearm offence.
I don’t know if you saw the documentary “Love Story” ( a 109-minute documentary shot by British filmmakers Chris Hall and Mike Kerry). It’s a really good documentary. The issue was that he never want to leave the West Coast. He was a self-destructive artist. He could have been one of these guys who could have been a lot bigger than he was. Fortunately, he was able to make some money at the end where we were able to do some good things, do some good touring all over the world.
[In 2006, Arthur Lee was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and underwent aggressive chemotherapy, hospital stays. Lee had no medical insurance to cover his bills. To cover his medical expenses, Bruce Solar along with Spaceland Productions and Mark Linn from Delmore Recording Society produced a benefit concert/tribute for Lee. Despite treatment, Lee’s condition worsened, and he died on August 3, 2006, at Methodist University Hospital in Memphis.]
It’s hard to cope with train wrecks. Look at the decline of Sly Stone.
That’s really sad. I have been down that path to try and sign him at one point and just seeing what a train wreck it was. I knew him from working with War, which was one of my artists at Absolutely Artists. I had this one meeting, and it was a disaster. What an amazing waste of talent. I felt bad for him. I have had other artists with issues. I was Gil Scott-Heron’s agent. I think he was one of the most brilliant artists ever. Gil (who died in 2011) had the same kind of demons, but Gil was able to pull it together onstage most of the time. He was one of those guys who could be really messed up, but could pull it together onstage.
When you did the Monkees’ tour in 2012 nobody dreamed you’d end up with the kind of success it had.
No, we didn’t think so either. I was one of those guys who thought, “Well, we need all four guys” We only had three. So I thought that this wasn’t going to work. When Mike came into the picture we thought, “We don’t know how this is going to work. No Davy.” So we did the tour, and it was really successful.
You still handle the Monkees as well as Mike Nesmith as a solo act.
I have to say that it’s (the act is) just as strong as ever. If anything, I think that there’s a different element that Mike brings into it. Some different kinds of sounds. The thing with the Monkees is that it has worked. We are going to do a tour now that is selling. Then we’ll pull it down for awhile and, maybe, go to Europe. Maybe pull it down for awhile because the one thing is that you don’t want to be too much in peoples’ faces.
[The Monkees’ reunion with Michael Nesmith (the first in over 15 years) followed the death of singer Davy Jones 29 Feb. 29, 2012.]
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he 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, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”
Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry. He is a board member of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ontario.