This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Larry Frank, CEO, Frank Productions.
It may be another challenging year for North America’s touring industry, but Larry Frank and his brother Fred of Frank Productions figure that smart tour packaging, reasonable ticket pricing, and integrated marketing—“It's about the music. It's not about the T-shirts, and the popcorn”—will continue to work well for them in this economy.
Independent promoters like Frank Productions in Madison, Wisconsin have become an endangered species in the U.S. over the past decade. There are few independents left, they've either been bought out or squeezed out.
Nevertheless, this feisty independent concert promotion firm has had two great years back-to-back. This is a company that outgrew, and expanded its office space, and has more staff now than ever.
As well, the Franks recently invested in Darin Lashinsky’s National Shows 2 (NS2), a Nashville-based, full-service concert promotion company that opened its doors last month.
CEO Larry Frank and President Fred Frank are second-generation entrepreneurs, having taken over the reins of the family business from their colorful father, Herb Frank, who started it almost 50 years ago, first owning and operating the box office at the Dane County Coliseum (now the Alliant Energy Center Memorial Coliseum) in Madison.
From there, Herb Frank moved into running box offices in secondary and tertiary markets, and promoting country artists under the Herb Frank Enterprises banner against the onslaught of promoter consolidation.
The siblings started out with their father, selling tickets and operating box offices in several markets, building venue and artist relationships.
When the two became heavily involved in the company, they first focused on promoting mainstream country acts, including Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, and John Michael Montgomery throughout North America.
In the past decade, however, Frank Productions has shifted its focus into promoting mostly active rock acts. Frequently working with Metallica, Buckcherry, and Three Days Grace, the company is particularly adept at taking hot, emerging rock acts—Disturbed, Avenged Sevenfold, Mudvayne, Black Label Society—and selling them to off-the-radar markets—i.e. Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Duluth, Minnesota; Elmira, New York; and Grand Island, Nebraska that don't often get shows; and where promoter kingpins, Live Nation, AEG Live and other big players, aren't active.
Frank Productions still operates Madison Ticket Agency, also founded by Herb Frank. The company offers production and facility management.
How do you and Fred separate your duties?
It’s been interesting because we have been at it for quite a few years now together. To this day, we still share an office. We actually sit across from each other. There’s a line that we draw in the sand. When it comes to marketing, sponsorships, PR, and that whole area, Fred handles it. When it comes to contracts and artist negotiation, I handle that. So it is pretty clear cut. That way, we don’t cross over each other’s business no matter how right or how wrong we think the other is.
That must be difficult.
It could be at times, but it’s what has kept us in business, and working together successfully. That’s not to say that if I am looking at an act, and I’m not sure about it, I will talk to Fred. He will do his research with all of his connections, and he will get back to me. But I don’t tell him how to market a show for the most part, and he doesn’t tell me how to negotiate a contract. It has worked for us, and it has worked for the managers. A manager can call this office and, if they want to talk about marketing, they are talking to the person who owns half the company, not the person who is working for the person who owns half the company.
When did your dad stop being fully active in the company, and let you two run with it?
It was a slow transition. When we got involved in the business, he started backing off each year a little bit. He did a lot of country, and once we got into country with the Vince Gill, Brooks & Dunn, and Alan Jackson days, he started backing off, and becoming more of a figurehead. He still comes to the office every day. He comes in for a couple hours. I think he just likes listening, hearing what’s going on, and just hanging out.
How much staff do you have?
We probably have more staff that we’ve ever had. We have 9 people in the Madison office, including a person doing the ticket agency.
A decade ago, the question was, “Can an independent promoter survive?” Now, it seems that independents can survive, it’s the bigger companies that are having difficulties.
If you had asked me 5 years ago, “Can an independent survive,” it was a good question. I was questioning it myself. (Survival) was day-by-day. I didn’t know if this company would be around any longer than my brother and I would be. In today’s world, we’re now looking, and saying, “Yeah. It will be around longer than us.”
In the late 1990s, consolidation hit the concert business when Robert Sillerman, under the SFX Entertainment banner, spent about $2.5 billion rolling up promoters in North America and Europe. You remained as an independent promoter. Were you asked to sell?
There were inquiries a few times. Fred and I were pretty heavily involved by that time. We’re sitting in Madison, Wisconsin; I don’t know if people took us seriously, and it was not anything that Fred and I pursued at any length. We entertained it when a couple of inquiries (came in), but we figured that we were pretty young at it, and still had long careers yet.
You have never worked for anybody else.
I don’t know if I could. Do I want to start now? We can call our own shots, and we work with the acts we want to work with. We’re in (business) for the music and the acts. Part of the reason of getting into the business was that it wasn’t like any other business. To sell out, I think, drastically changes how you look at things, and what you do. You lose control of your destiny, and it becomes a whole different game.
Do you and Fred feel a kinship toward other indie promoters, like JAM Productions in Chicago, and Don Fox’s Beaver Productions in New Orleans?
Yeah, I try to work with them whenever I can, and I hope that they do the same with me. When we did the Three Days Grace tour with Breaking Benjamin, I did that as a joint production with JAM. I might have eight or nine people working for us when we take on those (touring) projects. It’s a lot of work to produce 45 shows. If there’s a party interested, why not? I worked with Don Sullivan (VP of JAM Productions) and it was great. Everybody enjoyed (working together). It all goes back to greed. There’s enough money to be made in sharing, that there’s no reason to fight about it.
You go into markets that Live Nation and AEG Live don’t go into.
That’s what we make a living at doing.
You also aren’t rooted to your own sheds. Does that make you more flexible?
Yes, it makes us very flexible. There are buildings we work with, and they work with us, and we like to bring them as many shows as possible…but we have no commitment to deliver any amount of shows to any building or to any facility. The way we look at it is, where is the best place for this act to play right now at this stage of their career? Where are they going to make the money and, in return, we are going to profit from it? We are looking at it strictly from the act’s point of view and not from the point of view of the facility or the amphitheater or the arena or whatever.
Some say that Live Nation’s Achilles heel is owning so much real estate.
For many, many years I thought that (not owning buildings) was our downfall. In today’s world, I am very happy that I don’t own property. I’m not booking acts because of my property, and to sell popcorn and parking. I book acts to sell tickets, and to make money for the artists. If the right situation was there, and the right shed or the right book opportunity or deal to have one or two, fine. But to be tied to having to book that kind of volume of sheds. Look at where our business is, and where the kids are today; the product is not there. So many of the shows…I am doing more 2,000 and 3,000 seat shows than I have ever done, and making money at it. There’s not the number of shows out there to put into arenas anymore.
You aren’t stuck with a geographic region either.
No. We’re free to go anywhere. We are free to go to where the music is played the most, where the kids are into the act the most. We are looking at (a show) strictly from the point of, "how many tickets can we sell in this market?" Not how much product can we sell, be it popcorn or beer. It is strictly about the tickets, and the music.
[Live Nation Entertainment CEO Michael Rapino told Billboard’s Ray Waddell (Billboard, Dec. 10, 2010) via e-mail that reports from Ticketmaster, which merged with Live Nation in 2010, show that ticket sales were down 11% for the global concert industry, down 13% for performing arts events, 5% for sports events and 5% for family shows. "Everything got hit in 2010," Rapino said.]
Why did you and Fred invest in Darin Lashinsky's NS2, which opened last month in Nashville?
We have been very successful with what we have been doing for many years. How do you grow it? You have the two big guys (Live Nation and AEG Live) out there, and I just feel that there has to be a third option to offer acts, agents and managers. What could that option be? Instead of trying to take on more markets ourselves, I truly believe that there is value to knowing the local market. Yes, I can go across the country and do a show, but that doesn’t mean I know the market very well. It means that the show sells tickets.
Darin came to us, and we felt that he is a very talented person and thought it would be a wise investment. He knows his markets down there very well, markets that we very seldom go into. We felt he operated a lot like us. He knew and understood his markets very well. To open up this company allows us to expand, and take on more volume, but still be a local promoter. It’s not Frank Productions down there because we don’t know those markets. It’s NS2; Darin, and his people know those markets.
[Darin Lashinsky, formerly a senior VP at Outback Concerts, recently left that company to form National Shows 2 (NS2), a Nashville-based, full-service concert promotion company.
As CEO of NS2, Lashinsky manages all aspects of the company which is buying, creating, producing and promoting entertainment in venues throughout the U.S. NS2 staff includes production manager/talent buyer Brian Penix, director of marketing Kendall Maffett, and New Media manager Craig Varian. Prior to a 12-year stint at Outback Concerts, Lashinsky worked with his father, Philip Lashinsky, at his Nashville-based concert promotion company National Shows.]
You have promoted shows as far south as Florida. Conceivably, Frank Productions and NS2 could partner, and put together tours regionally or nationally.
Yes. We took Metallica down into Florida, and we did a few Three Days Grace shows down there. Those were (big) tours, however, that we set up. It’s a little different now. When I do those tours now, NS2 will be participating with us.
So, NS2 will then be acting as a regional local promoter so every market is looked at individually.
It’s easy when you are doing a handful of shows to take them and to figure out what markets to go into. But to try to do every show in a single market or two, you have to know that market.
Each market has its own distinct qualities. It isn’t one size fits all.
Correct. What you do will work for some things. It is going to work for Madonna and U2. Is it going to work for Avenged Sevenfold or Three Days Grace? Probably not. If I have a regional office down there, where they study (the market), and they know it, they know what works and what doesn’t work. They can tell me when it’s time to bring events down there, and when it’s not time or say, "here’s what we should be going after for this part of the country."
Branch offices of companies often tend to rubber stamp favored projects.
That why we felt by making NS2 a completely separate company run by neither Fred or I that it would be easier to turn (shows) down or disagree (with us) or they would do stuff that we would never do. What we offer NS2 is infrastructure, accounting, and that kind of (back room) stuff. We’d don’t participate in the buying; that’s what they are doing.
Despite predictions, the sky hasn’t fallen with Live Nation and ticketing giant Ticketmaster Entertainment merging last year.
No. That verdict is still out. You know what? I don’t think we are going to see an answer for a few years. I can’t even begin to guess what is going to happen. It’s not that I like the idea. I didn’t think that it was a good thing for the industry, but I don’t think we are going to see the results for a long time. The final stage of it—it’ll be interesting to see what happens. I watch it daily.
You still have to work with Ticketmaster.
When I do these tours, do I enjoy having my competitor being the one distributing my tickets? Not necessarily. Knowing my ticket count, and my audience? No, I don’t like that. There’s nothing that I can do about that right now. (The merger) hasn’t affected me yet. All I can do is watch and see. There’s been no reason to complain yet. That’s not to say it’s a good situation either. All I can do is keep an eye on it.
2010 was a year some consumers said, “I’m not happy with the concert experience. I don’t need to go to some of these shows.” There now seems to be disillusionment—perhaps a backlash—among North American concert fans toward not only pricing, but the entire concert experience.
I think that’s true. The concert experience has to come back if we want people to be coming to our shows. It is very important with the acts that we work with that we are out there giving the audience the best possible experience they can have with the show. That means working with the proper opening acts, finding the proper markets, working with the buildings, and making sure everything is in place. Yeah, I surely do believe it’s about the experience, if we want people to spend money to come and see these shows.
Perhaps, the touring industry should be measured by customer satisfaction.
Well, yes we should be; we talk about that all of the time with the acts that we are doing. (Our business) is strictly about the show. It’s about building the best package, putting the best opening acts on, spending the money it takes to make the show that is something that the audience is going to enjoy, and why they come back to see that act again or come to the next show.
How do you try to assure customer satisfaction?
What we do is create these packages and experiences to take out to these markets and to the public. My brother and I did a lot of country music a few years back. Country was very popular—it was a big thing. We concentrated on a half a dozen acts that we thought we could be very successful with, and we started booking them in various areas across the country. Well, things shifted. We started to lose some edge, and acts come and go. We sat down and thought, “Okay, what did we learn from this?” What we learned was that in that format, the music was a lifestyle, and the radio stations treated it like a lifestyle. People lived and breathed (the music). Well, we took the concept one step further. We asked ourselves, “What other formats do you find that in?” Well, you see the same thing in active rock. It’s a lifestyle. So we said, “What are these acts that they are listening to? Then we started building packages around that, and taking them out to all of these (secondary) markets.
Active rock artists are like country acts in that they have strong bonds with their fans.
Very, very similar. The music is very different, but the relationships are very similar. My brother and I saw that with country, and we were able to relate that to active rock. The fans love to meet the artists. It’s the same meet and greets; it’s the same type of radio promotions. Fans have a relationship not only with the act, but they still have a relationship with the radio stations that play that music.
Did you and Fred also recognize that if you had stayed in country you would have been squeezed out as country began to have shows that are more like major rock concerts?
That is exactly what we saw coming, and that is why we started looking at other options. As successful as country became, yeah, that’s where it was heading all of a sudden. We didn’t want to get caught in that.
Seeing Taylor Swift or Kenny Chesney is like going to a big rock show.
Correct. It is just recently that there are some (new artists) that are going to happen again in country. We will see where that goes.
Did your relationship with Metallica begin with Tony DiCioccio at Q Prime Management calling you about promoting a couple of shows in the North West?
That’s absolutely correct. The relationship with Tony started when Tony was a tour accountant coming through Madison, probably with Def Leppard. It wasn’t even a show that Frank Productions promoted; it was a show someone else promoted but they hired Madison Ticket Agency to do the box office, and the settlement. That’s how Tony met our dad. Dad never approached Tony to do any shows, because they were doing shows with other people; but he always kept in touch with Tony and introduced us to Tony at some point. Then we spent a couple of years just talking with each other and crossing paths. One day, Tony called me up saying, “I see you are doing these country shows all over. I have these two shows where I think I can use a promoter in the North West. I see that you just did Alan Jackson there. Do you want to take on Metallica?” It took me a minute to catch my breath and say, “I guess so.” Working with Metallica kind of goes back to the lifestyle, and the live experience I talked about. Metallica treats their fans very well. They do meet and greets and they do stuff with the radio stations—everything that we were doing with country music.
Secondary ticketing remains one of the most volatile parts of the concert business.
Madison Ticket Agency is now run by a box office manager that we have, and I don’t participate in (ticketing) day-to-day but, yeah, I think it is. It is a changing area right now, and there’s a lot happening. I think that in the next year or two we will see where it all ends up. Right now, I am just trying to make as much sense out of it as anyone else in what is going on in that area.
Is secondary ticketing an issue with your shows?
It has been overlooked with us right now because of the markets that we’re going into. The acts aren’t into doing any of that type of stuff, and it is something we just steer away from. We don’t go that route.
What do you think of paperless ticketing?
I think that there is value in people having tickets in their hands. That is a little advertisement that can be up there for three, four or five weeks; so you lose that. But in today’s world, with all of the secondary ticketing that goes on, I think that it is a good idea because it can stop some of that (secondary ticketing). I don’t believe in secondary ticketing. I think it has created a problem for our industry.
Isn’t it down to what is the true value of ticket in the market? $50 face value or $250 on the open market?
It goes back to, as a promoter, that part of greed that you have to overlook to help keep the industry healthy, and be able to sell tickets for the next show.
You have reasonable pricing for your shows. You aren’t doing $80 or $90 tickets.
No, we try not to. It is very important how we treat these shows right now. We keep it around the high $30 to mid $40 levels. It is just all part of (the concert experience). It is what these fans are willing to pay.
How did you settle on that pricing?
It just came over the years, it was sort of hit-and-miss, trial-and-error. It seemed to be the proper level the public was willing to pay for this type of music. There’s no formula to it.
Many would argue that it’s better to "price it right" on the front-end rather than discounting reactively, after the most loyal fans have already purchased tickets.
Correct. That goes back to how we found that price level. You research, and try it, and tweak it, and you find where the sweet spot is. And, that’s the price.
Do you discount tickets?
We really fight against it, even if we need to do it, and even the show (artist management) thinks they need to do it. We try to fight it. It’s just not part of our formula.
You can't sell beer and popcorn to empty seats, but discounting devalues the concert experience.
It devalues it. It makes it difficult for the next sale. Between people having the privilege to buy the front seats for higher amounts, big ticket prices, and knowing that there might be discounts, we have created a situation where why should anyone buy a ticket in advance? It is long past the days where you would call up the box office and say, “How many people are in line for tomorrow’s on sale?” and you knew if you had a successful sale or not. People knew that they had to get the tickets. We destroyed all that.
You and Fred grew up in the ticketing business. You must have had experiences of people lining up all night.
Nights, and all days. That was how we used to judge the success of a concert. It was all part of the experience. People sat there (outside the box office) and listened to songs on the (band’s) albums, and talked about the band.
It was like a tail gate party.
Right, and we kinda lost that. That is what we are trying to create and bring back. We’ve had some success with it with some tours that we have been doing.
You don’t do premium ticketing either.
We don’t do that with our shows. That goes back to our earlier conversation and, again, that’s part of the fan experience. You put these shows out there at a fair price, at what people are willing to pay. To go out there, and say, “There are so many (people) that will pay whatever price,” you are not doing anybody any justice in the long run when you do that.
About three-quarters of the audience feel they didn’t get a good seat because they didn’t have deep enough pockets.
You are absolutely right, it doesn’t work. (Doing premium ticket) you are catering to a very few, but you want to sell to the masses, which is taking, as you said, three-quarters of the house and treating them differently. And that’s the largest segment of your audience. If we want people to keep coming back to shows, and seeing more than one or two shows a year, we’ve got to make shows affordable. (A higher ticket price) doesn’t affect that band that day, but it’s going to affect the next band (playing the venue), and the whole industry.
Ticketing is what is hurting the perception of the concert business, you saw that in 2010; and you all get wiped with the same brush.
You’re right. We fight that every day. That’s why it important to keep the ticket price at a fair number, and not to deal with the secondary market, and try not to have the $100 premium seats.
Some artists are now charging for meet and greets with fans.
We see a lot of that going on, and I turn my head on it. On the projects that we are working on, and the tours we are doing, that’s not happening because the meet and greets are so important. It’s part of that lifestyle, and that experience. If an act wants to do that I would probably recommend not doing it. On the one-offs (bookings) we’re doing, if the manager wants to do that (charge) I can’t…if I am only doing one or two shows with that act how much say do I have?
Once again this is catering to a small segment of the audience. Again three-quarters of the people can’t afford to do that. Those are the ones that have to come and buy your tickets.
Your dad came to Madison to manage the Capitol Theatre?
Yes. He was in the motion picture industry; he ran and managed movie theatres. The company he worked for was going to open a multiplex in California. He was living in Chicago with my mom. They wanted him to go out to California to run these multiplexes. But, before those theatres were ready, they wanted him to go to Madison, Wisconsin where they had two theatres, the Capitol Theatre and the Majestic Theatre and to oversee them for the next year until the theatres in California were ready, and then he’d transfer out to California.
Both your parents grew up in Chicago. What did they think coming to such a small town?
They didn’t like it at all. My brother and I were quite young. I think I was seven or eight years old. They thought they would just put up with living here for a short time. Well, the theatres in California got delayed, and we were here longer than a year. When it came time to transfer a couple of years later, they decided that Madison wasn’t such a bad place to live, and raise a family. So they stayed put.
A few years later, (government officials in) Dane County in Wisconsin decided to build this coliseum (the Dane County Coliseum). So they broke ground. Back then, there weren’t that many arenas. There were just a few around the country, and more were slowly beginning to be built. Dane County had this arena going up, and before the building was built they realized that they didn’t know how to sell tickets or run the box office. There were no computers back then, it was all hard tickets. They called my dad, who was managing the Capitol Theatre, and asked if he would come and get the (the ticket office) set up, or show them how to do it. That’s where the relationship started. That’s when Madison Ticketing Agency was formed.
Dane County Coliseum got a two-for-one deal. Both your mom and dad.
That’s correct. They opened Madison Ticketing Agency together. There would be a show here and there—the Shrine Circus and things like that. At that point it was, “Okay, we have these shows but, while we have this company, we better get some more concerts here.”
Your dad had done concerts at the Capitol Theatre. How cool was it for you and Fred being teenagers, and seeing the Beach Boys there, close-up?
It was pretty incredible. It was very cool. I was a very popular kid in Madison, Wisconsin. It’s a big old vaudeville movie house, and they used to do all these stage shows there. I don’t think that there is an act that you can mention that we haven’t seen or been involved with at some point over the 50 years of our lives.
You are producing and promoting shows at the Capitol Theatre again.
As you know, the Capitol Theatre is part of the Overture Center for the Arts. It was sitting pretty dark. A year or so ago, they asked us for some ideas and we came up with doing contemporary concerts in there. It has been very successful. It’s been kind of fun to be able to say that we are back in the Capitol Theatre promoting shows.
Where your father got started.
It’s very cool. And he even shows up for some of the shows.
[Overture Center for the Arts in Madison, Wisconsin features seven performance spaces, and five galleries. The Capitol Theater was built in 1928, and served as a movie theater for many years before becoming the centerpiece of the Madison Civic Center. When Overture Center was built, the venue went through major renovations that improved the seats, sight-lines and acoustics. The venue holds 1,089 people in a reserved configuration, and 1,200 people in a general admission format.]
As kids, you and Fred used to hang around backstage at the country shows you dad promoted.
It was quite the experience. In fact, I was just on a conference call with the office in Nashville, and I was talking about some date, and I said, “The last time I was in Columbia, Missouri, I did a Johnny Cash show there.”
Is that story true about Johnny Cash tying your father to a chair, and putting him on the side of the stage to watch a show?
It wasn’t on the side of the stage, it was on the stage. It’s very true, and I was there to see it; it was in our hometown so the whole family was there. It was at the old coliseum.
My dad was very close to (Cash’s manager) Lou Robin of Artist Consultants Productions. They did a lot of work together over the years. I learned this business from two people, my dad and Lou Robin. My dad would say, “I need you to go and cover Johnny Cash this weekend” in wherever. To this day, of all the acts I’ve ever met, I think that Johnny was the most intimidating guy to walk up to, and talk to or say something to. Once you got past that, it was okay but, wow, was he intimidating. He was a big guy, and he would look at you and, “Oh my God.” I remember the feeling, “I have to go and talk to Johnny, now?"
Being based in Madison, you have ready access to a sizable local youth market.
When we decided to go back into doing rock shows, we felt that it was necessary to start getting involved with the smaller developing acts, and we had to get a feeling for some of the music. We have used Madison almost as a laboratory. Even though, this is a small town, it’s the capitol of Wisconsin. There are 45,000 students here. We can learn a lot here. When you are promoting in your own town, you get a much better feel for it. When you are selling the tickets and doing the marketing and promoting the show, you really learn the music and what it means and what to expect. Then you can go duplicate some of that in other markets, and even larger markets. We started doing that, and it keep us in touch, especially with the students.
[Madison is home to the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Edgewood College, Madison Area Technical College and Madison Media Institute, giving the city a sizable student population.]
Promoting to kids used to be easier. You looked at the local radio playlists and, if local sales were good, you went ahead with the show. Now with the internet….
None of it means anything anymore. I rarely look at charts anymore. In fact, sometimes my brother and I in the past few years…..you get too deep into the charts and you start making mistakes. Nowadays, it is really difficult to read (an audience) because the kids—the students—they don’t listen to radio like we used to. You really have to get out there and feel it. You can’t just look at charts and call radio stations anymore. I have a 25 year old son, and a 19 year old daughter and it’s amazing to me that they don’t know what a radio station is.
Do your kids expose you to new artists?
Definitely. But both of them listen to very, very different music when it comes to new music. It’s amazing, but it’s hard to keep on top of. It’s interesting to see what older music they are interested in. I find that even more interesting at times.
Nothing goes away. Whoever would have thought that Carole King and James Taylor would have one of the top tours of 2010?
You are absolutely right. I debated so long about (booking) it, that we missed out on it.
[One of the 2010’s biggest successes was the James Taylor/Carole King tour, which grossed $62.3 million with attendance of 700,000 to 54 reported shows.
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: Celebrating 40 Years Of The Juno Awards.”
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