This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: John Peters, owner, MassConcerts.
At 48, John Peters has life aced.
He lives with his family in London, where he oversees his concert firm MassConcerts which annually promotes over 400 shows in America.
Peters founded MassConcerts in 1994 while booking the Pearl Street Nightclub in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Since then, Peters has worked with an astonishingly eclectic array of rock, punk, alternative, Americana, and hip hop acts.
Among the acts he’s booked are: Radiohead, Metallica, Phish, 50 Cent, B.B. King, the Dave Matthews Band, Bob Dylan, the Black Crowes, Blink-182, Prince, Limp Bizkit, Foo Fighters, Avril Lavigne, Korn, the Deftones, Kanye West, Jay-Z, Simon & Garfunkel, the Killers, My Chemical Romance, Linkin Park, Kid Rock, Eminem, Sevendust, Nickelback, and Ani DiFranco.
In 1995, Peters brought the Warped Tour to New England during its inaugural year, and has remained the tour’s New England promoter since.
Today, MassConcerts is one of the largest independent concert promoters in the U.S. northeast, with a presence in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Maine, and New York.
MassConcerts has promoted shows in such major venues as Gillette Stadium, Suffolk Downs, TD Banknorth Garden, Paul Tsongas Arena, Mullins Center, Orpheum Theatre, The Roxy, and the Berklee Performing Arts Center in Massachusetts; the Verizon Wireless Arena, Portsmouth Music Hall, and the Whittemore Center Arena in New Hampshire; Lincoln Theatre, Bushnell Theatre, Palace Theatre, CT Expo Center, and the Hartford Civic Center in Connecticut; the Cumberland County Civic Center, and State Theatre in Maine; the Dunkin Donuts Center, Ryan Center (URI), and the Providence Performing Arts Center in Rhode Island; and the Pepsi Arena, Northern Lights and the Palace Theater in New York.
In 2009, Peters purchased the 1,250-capacity Webster Theatre, the largest music club in Connecticut, in Hartford's Barry Square. The same year, he completed the purchase of the 1,100 seat Town Ballroom nightclub in Buffalo, New York. As well, Peters has exclusively managed the concert club The Palladium in Worcester, Massachusetts since 2001.
Overseeing these three prime club venues allows MassConcerts to forge early relationships with up-and-coming bands, and then book them into larger venues as they become more popular.
You live in England.
It makes it interesting with what I do.
Where in London?
Right in London. In Hampstead, north-west.
I grew up overseas. My family moved to Tokyo when I was 10. We lived there seven years. Then we moved to the U.K., and lived in London for four years. I went to college in the U.S. but I’ve always liked spending time overseas, and traveling. I wanted my kids to have the same (experience) but, unfortunately, as my career is being a regional promoter, nobody is going to transfer me here, and I wasn’t about to quit my business and take up a job (here). So years ago, I just decided to spend most of the time here. We still have a house in the U.S.
How do you maintain your business from London? Do you have an office in the U.S.?
I have always worked out of my house. I have never ever had an office. My marketing person works out of her house; and my production manager works from their own house. There are venues that we own that run in-house. It is not the most conventional way of doing this, probably, and not the most plausible. Maybe, if I had done things differently or had been at a different point (in my life)….
What staff do you have?
Not much. I have a marketing person, Sylvia (Sylvia Cunha dir. of marketing, promotions & new media) who does all of our marketing, including (overseeing) the website, radio advertising, marketing, and promotions, and coordinating street teams—whatever social media there is.
If I have some shows that I really want to be at or feel I should be at—a little run—I will come back (to the U.S.). I don’t need to come back to my venues, and check up on people. I have a really good person who does that. Gina Migliozzi (general manager) oversees the Palladium, and the Webster.
Who handles bookings?
How do you handle calls to America for bookings?
I definitely work late. With the internet and phones, it really doesn’t come up where I am. When I call an agent, I don’t know if he’s in the New York or the Los Angeles’ office or at a hotel if he’s out covering a gig or something. People call my number, and it rings here. If the contracts get sent in, if everybody gets paid, if the shows are marketed properly, if they go on sale right, and everything is done right, what does it matter (where I am)?
How do you keep informed about up and coming bands?
You have to know your market. I try to be selective (in booking acts).
How has your family adapted to London?
My son Jack, who is 15, does a lot of sports. He is home schooled. My daughter Sarah, who is 17, goes to high school in Paris. We also have a two-year-old, Sam. Between Jack’s home schooling, Sarah’s school in Paris, and the young one, it gets a little hectic. I am very involved with baseball over here—Little League and my son’s team. My son is a top baseball player, and I’ve been coaching his team.
You have a great life.
I do. Here’s the thing. My dad worked really hard for his entire life. We moved back to the U.S. (from England), he retires, buys a guest house on Nantucket, he starts fixing it up, and he gets a boat. Then he gets cancer, and dies six months later. I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to work until I’m 60, and then (get sick) when I’m ready to go on my boat. I try to stay healthy. I am pretty fit.
Your decisions haven’t always been about your career?
To me, it’s not all about my career. I love what I do. I enjoy putting on successful events where the bands are happy, and the kids go to. I am happy being able to put on a nice event in a safe environment for the kids to go to. But beyond that…I don’t go to all of the industry trade things. I am not speaking at this or that (event). I do my work, and I really enjoy it.
You are your own boss.
I have always been able to make decisions without having to get things approved, signed off on, or without having to consult with anyone. I can get a phone call from someone, “Hey, do you want to do this act?” “How much?” “100 grand.” “Yeah, I’ll do it.” If an agent has a problem with a merchandise percentage in a room, I don’t have to say, “Let me check, and see what I can do.”
When I bought the Webster (in 2009), (owner) Justine (Robertson) had someone (else) that was going to buy it. She called me up, and said, “I’ve got this deal, but I really don’t like the guy. If you give me ‘X’ (which was maybe 100 grand less than she was getting) do you want it?” I said, “Yeah, I’ll buy it.” On the phone, it was done—and four weeks later, we were in there.
You started booking the Webster in January, 2009, and the purchase was finalized in March.
On the phone we made a deal. Two weeks later, I said, “If I am going to do this, let me book my own calendar.” So I started booking the room. Then we closed in March, and we were in there.
What appealed to you about the Webster?
It fits in our network of having rooms, and the whole idea of having a (booking) pyramid. If you want to promote stadium arena bands, you have to be able to (earlier) book them in small clubs, big clubs, and theatres. Promoters who do well in markets are the ones…there’s usually a club that everything goes through. You have the 9:30 Club in Washington (operated by Seth Hurwitz, and his partner Richard Heinecke in I.M.P. Productions) which I don’t have in Boston. My business is not so much in Boston. It’s the House of Blues there (operated by Live Nation and Crossroads Presents).
[Justine Robertson’s family built the Webster Theatre in Hartford, Connecticut in 1937. It operated as a first-run movie theater for nearly 40 years, before intermittent stints in the '70s and '80s as a theater for family, foreign and, eventually, porno movies.
Robertson and her father, Albert H. Shulman, reopened the Barry Square movie house as a live music hall in 1996. It had hundreds of concerts, including with Kid Rock, No Doubt, Jay-Z, the Strokes, the Flaming Lips, and Kings of Leon. After Shulman died in 2003, Robertson bought out her siblings.]
What other venues do you own?
The Town Ballroom in Buffalo. We never bought the Palladium. We have never needed to. We have a long term lease there. If they want to do something else with it or we want out, we can get out whenever we want to.
You formally bought The Town Ballroom in 2009. Part of a strategy?
There was no strategy. Here’s how Buffalo came about. Artie (Kwitchoff) is a friend. He has produced some tours that we have done. He and I talked (in 2005), and he said that he had this great club. He was a friend of mine who said, “We can do really well here.” So, basically, I financed the purchase of the club at the time from the owners. Again, this is something that I could never do if I worked for a company. I basically sent him money without any written agreement. He’s a friend, and I trust him 100%.
[Artie Kwitchoff began booking shows while in high school during the mid-1980s. As an indie promoter with Funtime Presents, he became a strong regional player. He was the original manager of the Goo Goo Dolls. "Artie,” featured on the band’s 1989 album “Jed,” includes a recording of a prank phone call to Kwitchoff concerning the possible break-up of the band.
Kwitchoff later joined up with Delsener/Slater Enterprises, and worked with Clear Channel Entertainment (CCE) for over a decade, before re-launching Funtime Presents.
In 2005, Kwitchoff stepped in to take over booking and managing The Town Ballroom. In its heyday during the '40s and '50s, the Main Street venue was Buffalo’s finest restaurant and nightspot, and was a staple of America’s club circuit.]
There were a bunch of other little clubs in Buffalo. Artie said, “This is the best room. If we do it right, we’ll do well there. There are these little promoters here, but they come and go. They pay crazy money for shows.” I asked, “Do they make money?” He said, “No. They outbid us and they get shows and they lose money.” I was like, “Let them do that, and they will all go out of business.” Sure enough, they all did.
The Town Ballroom is a 1,100 seat room, and we have done a bunch of great shows there. Artie books the room in-house, and I will get some acts. Everything sort of comes up through there now. So we are able to build a history with acts and, when they get bigger, we’ll be able to take them onto bigger places.
You have booked the Palladium in Worcester for years. How did that come about?
Back when I was booking Pearl Street (in Northampton, Massachusetts), I was starting to do shows on my own. The first really big show that made my business was the Warped Tour in ’95, the first year it came out.
I was booking the club, but I wanted to be a promoter. I wanted to own my business, control my time and schedule, and be able to make decisions on why I did and didn’t want to do.
The Warped Tour was coming, and Bruce Solar, who was the agent (at Absolute Artists) for Sublime at the time, told me I should check out this tour that CAA was putting together. It was going to be called Road Rash when it started. When I first applied for my license for it, it was called Road Rash. It was Sublime, Orange 9mm, L7, and a few other people. So I called Rick Roskin at CAA. I found an airport in Northampton (Northampton Airport) to do the show at (on Aug. 19, 1995). I think it was $2,500 to rent the airport, all in. I got the show, and I worked my ass off. One reason was that $30,000 was much more than I had in the bank at the time.
[The 25-date Warped Tour of 1995 featured Quicksand, L7, No Use For a Name, Orange 9mm, Fluf, CN, and Athlete.]
Here you are in your late ‘20s rolling the dice on a major show.
This was the roll of the dice right here. I had done some $7,500 shows, and some $10,000 pretty safe shows. I had to make sure I could get it insured. I had to get licenses and permits. My wife and I had a three month old baby at the time. We had bought a house. It was, “Well, here goes.”
Luckily, the show worked. It came together at the end. I remember doing the advance three days out, and I was asked, “Can we pick up cash?” I was like, “Gulp. Okay.” If you say you won’t give cash but will write a check, right away they are like, “This guy doesn’t have the cash when we want it.” They are not going to take a check from a new promoter. Meanwhile, I thought, “Oh crap, how am I going to come up with the other 15 grand?”
For such a big show, you had to learn more about the New England market.
I learned about every college radio station in the entire north-east to try to get them to promote this show. I got the okay to put a local (hardcore) band Tree, who were pretty big at the time, on the show. That enabled me to give away tickets on the local music shows on the major rock stations. (The stations) wouldn’t give away tickets or promote (the show). They’d take my advertising money but what’s the point of spending $2,000 advertising if they won’t play the music (of the acts) or talk about (the show)? But the local music shows would give away tickets.
After the Warped Tour, you began promoting more and more big shows.
I started doing arena shows. I did 311’s first arena show at the Mullins Center (in Amherst) just when they broke—when “Down” was a big hit. They broke big right at the end of a touring cycle. They had been touring for 18 months on their record (“311”) before it really broke. I ended up getting a play in Amherst, and there were no other plays in Boston. We ended up doing 7,000 people. It was their biggest show at the time.
[In 1995, 311 released the self-titled album, “311” (also known as “The Blue Album”). The lead-off single "Don't Stay Home" stalled at #29 on Billboard's Modern Rock Tracks chart. However, the follow-up single "Down,” released 14 months after the album, reached #1 on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart, and received heavy airplay on mainstream radio. The video of the song received heavy rotation on MTV.]
That first year I did two shows. The second year, I did six. The third year, I did 15. I enjoyed booking the show, talking to my radio sales rep, and getting my advertising (for the radio stations). I was like, “I want you to announce the show at five o’clock on Tuesday.” That was the best time to announce a show that was going on sale on Friday. “And I want the first commercial after the first break for the show.” I would time all of that. If I had a full page ad (in print media), I would have page two or three. I tried to trade for free color.
I made sure the fliers got out on time. I would put fliers up in Northampton and Amherst. I’d put the baby in a stroller, and walk around town. I’d poster, and put my fliers in the right spots. I really enjoyed doing that. (With) the magazine store, I could get on their counter in the lower front (side). The record store, I knew them so well that they would almost let me put my own displays in the front window.
Then, I would advance the show. I’d hire the sound and light companies. I’d wash the towels afterwards. I would buy all of the stuff for the dressing rooms. I really enjoyed doing everything right all of the way through. As it got more and more, I began to delegate.
With that first Warped Tour, I worked my ass off, and half way through the show someone asked, “Where are the garbage cans?” I was like, “Oh crap.” Then someone said, “How are you cleaning this up?”
You didn’t think of that either?
We had no clean-up company. There were 4,000 people there and garbage everywhere. We knew that once the fences came down that the garbage was going to blow everywhere. So we rented a dumpster. I remember Mark Sokol, who had toured with Alice In Chains and Soundgarden, sitting by the stage laughing. He said, “Dude, you need a production manager.”
Mark became your production manager for about 10 years.
That was great because I was very good dealing with agents, but I didn’t know any of the touring people. Mark knew everybody. He gave me credibility with a lot of the production guys. As we built our business, we did a lot of field, hall, and gym shows at different, new places. As long as Mark was involved, everybody was happy that the shows were going to be produced fine.
You started to promote more shows outside Northampton.
Ani DeFranco was one of the first people I worked with. She was really big in Western Mass. I did her in Northampton. Then she came back, and I asked her to do New Haven. I promoted her at The Palace Theatre. The same for Albany, and Hartford. She was the act that I was able to bring to a lot of markets regionally, and get into for the first time. Another act would ask if I had done shows in New Haven, and I was able to say that I knew the market well.
In early ’98, you found The Palladium.
I hadn’t been doing much in Boston. I was doing club shows here and there. When I was coming up, I did a lot of heavy shows—punk rock, metal, and hardcore shows.
The Avalon was doing shows like that back then.
There were a lot of problems (with shows) there, and they stopped doing all-ages shows. We knew a lot of people in the scene, and we never had problems at our shows. There were a lot of bands coming out that would say, “We have to play all-ages shows. We won’t do anything but that.” In Boston, there was no place to do it. Outside Boston, I would find halls and gyms where I did Fugazi, NOFX, Dropkick Murphys, and the Deftones. All these bands, I would find different places for shows.
And you began doing shows at The Palladium.
When I found The Palladium, I thought that it was perfect. It had been opened years before, had closed and then reopened. They were running it more like a night club. I went, “This place is perfect.” It was a great all-ages rock room, with a seated balcony and an open floor. So kids could go crazy and mosh and everything.
Worcester had sort of established itself as a Boston market. When the Centrum opened (formally as Worcester's Centrum Centre in 1982 with 12,000 seats; and expanded to 14,800 seats in 1989) there was the old Boston Garden for shows. It was such an old building that when the Centrum in Worcester opened, a lot of arena acts would play there instead of Boston because it was a better room. This was before (TD Banknorth Garden) opened. So Worcester was considered a Boston market.
[The opening of the Worcester Centrum, and the Great Woods Amphitheater in Mansfield, Massachusetts caused a massive drop-off in concerts at the Boston Garden from the early '80s until the early '90s. Most major bands from that era played the Centrum in the winter and Great Woods in the summer. Poor acoustics, a busy sports schedule, expensive booking fees, and difficulty with local unions all contributed to the migration to the more modern venues outside of Boston. Bands began returning to the Garden in the early ‘90s. The Boston Garden, originally called the Boston Madison Square Garden when it opened in 1928, closed in 1995.]
The first show I put in The Palladium was Limp Bizkit, Sevendust, and Clutch in February, 1998. Limp Bizkit was just starting to happen at radio. Back then, the capacity (of the venue) was 2,900. It was their first date on their first headlining tour. It sold out. They were ecstatic because they were playing smaller places on the rest of the tour.
(Success of) that show allowed us to get Blink 182, Jay-Z and a whole bunch of other bands. We were non-exclusive at The Palladium at first. Eventually we got the exclusive booking, and then we just took over management, and the lease on the place.
How do shows fare at The Palladium today?
It’s a nice room, and artists like playing there. But it’s not like the “A” room” right now. People want to play House of Blues (in Boston). A lot of what we do there is suburban mainstream rock, and metal. Heavier stuff seems to work there. We are not doing college bands there. Jam bands seem to work there, as do certain acts that people will travel for—or bands people that live out that way.
Competition has grown in recent years.
It was great for a long time. Competing with Avalon was easy. When Avalon was closed for 18 months, and they built House of Blues (which opened in Feb. 2009), we had a tremendous year and a half. But once House of Blues opened, people who had played for me three, four or five times, (their agents) would say, “We love you. We love the room, but the manager or the label really wants to play the House of Blues this time because it’s new.”
It was frustrating seeing all these people that I had done multiple shows with playing there.
I’d say, “I understand that it’s a new club—that the band has played in Worcester which is still 40 minutes west of the city. Your band wants to play right downtown. I understand.” I’ve asked some bands to flip (bookings) back and forth—play for me next time (through)—or vice versa.
Acts generally have a reputation for being disloyal.
I don’t agree with that. All things being equal, they will be loyal. But, I guess that when it affects their bottom line they are less loyal. A band plays for you, (then) wants to play an arena, and another promoter offers 50% more money, then it’s “We are loyal to you, but you have to match their money.”
You have to say, “That’s too much.” You can’t say, “You aren’t worth it.” You can’t say, “You’re not going to do as well this time as you did last time.” There are certain things you can’t say (because it becomes), “What? You don’t believe in the act?” “No, I believe in the act, I know you will do well, but (what you are asking for) that’s too much. We have always worked together. Let’s be fair about this.” You can’t really ask the band not to take the money (the bigger offer).
I really don’t believe every act will screw you. Blink-182 has been great to me over the years. There are certain acts where you know the guys in the band. You know their manager, tour manager, production manager, and agent. You really feel like you are all in his together. You helped them out every step of the way.
There are certain agents who will always call and say, “You are not going to get the show this time. Here’s why.” Their whole line is that it’s a venue play. It’s like, “You are still our guy, but we need to play this room on this tour.”
You know the band Vampire Weekend? My wife’s cousin (Ezra Koenig) is the lead singer. When they were getting started, his mom was talking to me about record companies, booking agents and all this sort of stuff. We did their theatre show. Then they come back in the summer, and we wanted to put them in the small arena at BU (Boston University), and the show went to somebody else. I was like, “How could I not get this show?” But I was told, “They want to play outdoors.” They played Live Nation’s outdoor amphitheatre (Comcast Center in Mansfield, Massachusetts, 30 miles south of Boston).
Live Nation operates right in your backyard.
They are in everybody’s backyard, right? They are a big company. They can tell an act, “We can bring you anywhere. We can cover the whole country for you.” Yeah, so they will jam something into the House of Blues (in Boston), and the act will say (to me), “We don’t want to play the House of Blues, but if we play The Palladium we won’t get our tour bonus,” which is based on volume of shows or this or that. They may be getting $10,000 outside of the deal or Live Nation is doing all of this national marketing or whatever.
Do you block book your three venues as an inducement to acts?
Occasionally, but it really doesn’t work like that. Agents know where they want to play in each market. That’s the thing with Live Nation and AEG. I don’t have a problem with those companies buying whole tours. It makes sense. You get these big old rock bands who don’t really want to work much anymore, and they are getting offered crazy money. It’s like, “We will give you this much money and give you half up front for all of your starter costs.” So they are more likely to do it.
I do have problem with Live Nation buying a club tour. I will have an agent tell me, “My band wants to play your room. We like your room better, but we can’t. If we do, we won’t get our tour bonus,” or something like that. (Live Nation) will tie tour bonuses into certain rooms That’s where I have a problem. I don’t know if that’s the best way to do things.
Many of the venues you work in are open.
Berklee (Berklee Performing Arts Center), the Summerhill Theatre, Orpheum Theatre, the Garden (TD Banknorth Garden), Paul Tsongas Arena, and the Centrum are all open. Anyone can go in. Live Nation has House of Blues, and Paradise (The Paradise Rock Club).
If the act really feels that they have to play House of Blues, as long as they tell me I will get the show next time, I am fine. It is when they don’t tell me or they don’t even call me. Then I see a show announced that I had history with, and my reaction is, “What the fuck? Why couldn’t you have least called me, and told me?”
There are also less acts being booked for arena shows market by market.
We used to do a lot more arena shows. Now it’s not about “Who are you playing for?” in each market. It’s “Are you taking AEG’s or Live Nation’s deal?” I love Larry Frank (CEO of Frank Productions in Madison, Wisconsin). Whenever they do a tour, we always do it here in as many markets that make sense. Some of these (tertiary) markets can’t handle a show every week, but can handle two or three shows a year. Then when a big rock show comes to town, everybody goes.
What was your father’s occupation that led to your family being overseas?
Dad worked for a company called Teradyne that made semi-conductor test systems. My relatives are all from upstate New York. Farmers and stuff. My dad was the first one in the family to go to college. He started at Cornell University (in New York). He was going to be a veterinarian. He was worried about getting drafted into the army so he joined the navy and was in the Korean War. When he came back, he went to school in Boston, studying engineering. He got a job with Teradyne In 1970. He got offered the Far East management job in Tokyo, and we moved there for seven years. It’s really where I grew up. I was there from 4th to 10th grades at the (private) American School there.
Quite a contrast in culture.
We loved it though. We fitted right in. It was early. It was closer to the end of the war than now. There weren’t a ton of foreigners there at that point. Then dad got transferred to Europe. My sister had just graduated, and was going to Cornell (University). He said to me and my brother, “I’ve got this job, and we can move to Paris, Munich or London. You get to choose. I won’t go if you guys want to stay here.” He had to spend time in all three (cities). We decided on London because it was easier with language at the time. We lived in Weybridge (in the Elmbridge district of Surrey). We would take the train in, and go to school (at The American School) in St John’s Wood.
Students at the American Schools come from everywhere.
Back then, there were a lot of North Sea oil folks. All these people from Houston. That was one group. I could hang with any crowd. Being an international school, it’s a smaller community. So you would hang out with the jocks, and you would hang out with the hippies, the metal heads, and all sorts of people.
You were a teenager in London.
I was going to shows all of the time. The very first show that I went to was in Tokyo. It was Aerosmith at the Budokan Hall in ’77 or something like that. Classic. Every kid’s first show. In London, I would see American bands that were arena bands in the U.S. but weren’t big over here yet, like Boston. Motorhead was really big. I used to go Motorhead one night, and see the Grateful Dead the next week. I saw punk rock shows in clubs and halls, including seeing the Jam and Sham 69.
Music was a big part of your life?
Pretty much. When I was in high school my parents let me go to gigs on week nights as long as I got my school work done. I got good grades, and played sports but I loved going to shows. We were in London from 1978 to 1982. What a better time to be there for music. I saw so many great things. It was $5 for a ticket. I used to go to shows in Hammersmith. I seemed to always go there, and the Odeon. I never really went to (big) shows at Wembley Arena. It was always (to see) stuff that was more on the way up.
Major British bands then might headline tours in America, but back home they played clubs theatres.
You would see their entire tours (advertised). NME and Melody Maker, that’s how I learned about all my music was from print. I would read about them on the train. People toured, and one promoter would do the whole country—so you would see the 10 gigs listed. I wasn’t big on radio. A lot of (my interest about music) was reading about it.
You went to college at Tufts University near Boston.
A lot of my friends went to Tufts. There were four or five of us. I went to the engineering school. I got a Bachelor of Science in Engineering (degree). As I said, my dad was the first (in the family) to go to college. For me, it was go to undergraduate school, get an engineering degree, work for a couple of years, get a MBA, then you are executive material. Spend some time overseas, whatever. That’s what they wanted.
At what point did you realize that the engineering life wasn’t for you?
It was probably freshman year. There was a kid down the hall in the dorm who was on the concert board. He said, "You should come, and join it.” I did. By the next year, I was running (the board) as a sophomore. It was fun. We had a budget. We put on shows here and there. We did some shows that were good for the school, and we would do some shows that we thought were really cool. I remember doing (a show with) Fred Frith and Henry Kaiser. Weird acts that we were into. But we also did Gang of Four. That was my favorite band at the time.
We also did B.B. King, and Spyro Gyra and whatever else was big at the time. We would also work through a middle agency Pretty Polly (Productions) and get acts for our Spring Concert.
Booking bands then was fun but it was also frustrating.
I remember wanting R.E.M. for a Spring Concert. Nobody knew who they were. I was like, “They are going to be big. They only have one record (“Murmur”) out now, but they are going to be big. We should do it.” We ended up booking the James Montgomery Band or some big Boston rock band or something.
Didn’t you have the chance to book U2 at Tufts?
We had two options: John Hall or U2. For U2, it was $3,000. It was on their first (American) tour. They would do their major markets but, if they got one hole, they would try and fill it with a college (date). So I had U2 available for three grand. I got overruled. (The other board members) wanted to see John Hall who was big then. I thought that was crazy. U2 had two records out. My friends and I loved those first two records, “Boy” (1980) and (“October”). It wasn’t until the "Sunday Bloody Sunday" record (from the 1983 album, “War’) that they blew up (in the U.S.).
What did you do after you graduated in 1985?
My father got sick, and died just after. I didn’t even try to get job at that point. Afterwards, I decided I wanted to work in music. I applied for internships. I was willing to take anything. But it's a tough business to get into. You don’t go to school, get a degree, and then pick and choose what large company you want to work for. It really is a very small business. How many people make a living in the music business? Not that many.
Where did you apply?
At Don Law’s company (the Don Law Company), and with the New York promoters. In Boston, there were clubs, middle agencies, and college middle agencies (that I approached). Even Pretty Polly, which was my middle agency, I couldn’t get a job with. Eventually, I hooked up an internship with Paul Kahn and Concerted Efforts. It was a small agency that booked Buckwheat Zydeco and some other blues bands. They were booking a club called Night Stage at the time, which was a nice 250 showcase room in town. I got an internship there. A month later, it turned into 20 hours paid, and then finally I was making a couple hundred dollars a week.
What was the condition of the live music scene in New England?
This was mid to late ‘80s. Don Law had been in the business for 20 years. He had Paradise, which was a good room for things coming through, and The Avalon—different clubs—the Orpheum, amphitheaters and different things like that. (His company) booked a lot of the small clubs too.
[After managing several bands in college, and running the legendary Boston Tea Party, Don Law came to have a virtual lock on New England’s live scene; running shows at everything from Great Woods and The Orpheum to the Worcester Centrum and the Providence Civic Center to the Cape Cod Coliseum, the old Harborlights, the Paradise, Avalon, and Axis.
As Joan Anderman wrote in the Boston Globe (May 22, 2009), “He cobbled his empire methodically, on a bedrock of cutthroat determination and genuine integrity, with the simple goal of controlling live music in New England.”
In 1998, however, the Don Law Company was sold to SFX Entertainment. Two years later, Clear Channel Communications purchased SFX, and named Law president of its New England division. In 2005, Clear Channel spun off its concert arm into Live Nation.
Today, Law is co-CEO of Live Nation’s music division, but seems to be returning to independent promotion. Recently, he teamed up with Joe Dunne and Declan Mehigan to acquire a 50% stake in Boston House of Blues. The three have launched a new venture, Crossroads Presents, to operate the club. Law is already a partner with Mehigan in the Paradise, and Brighton Music Hall.]
Regional promoters like Don Law tried to control markets from top to bottom in those days.
Don’s company really had everything. Back then you’d hear those stories about Larry Magid (at Electric Factory Concerts in Philadelphia) and others. Promoters were very firm and aggressive about protecting their territory. I remember trying to book the Pixies at a club, and they were basically told if they worked with me, they would never work with (the larger promoter) again. There was a lot more stuff like that going on.
At Concerted Efforts, I helped out at booking the Night Stage. We did k.d lang, Lyle Lovett, Buddy Guy, and Little Feat there—a lot of early Americana stuff. I also helped on the agency side. Paul wanted to get out of the booking business, and just concentrate on the agency. I wanted to book clubs, and I wasn’t sure the Night Stage was the one. So I left, and I got a job with a club called Johnny D’s (Johnny D's Uptown Restaurant in Somerville). I felt that it was more up-and-coming. Night Stage was kind of going down at that point. I really wanted to start fresh.
Johnny D’s was the first place that I talked to agents myself. The first act that I booked there was Lil Ed and the Blues Imperials through Ron Kaplan at AFT (American Famous Talent in Chicago) for $500 or something like that. We brought in Americana type acts, and roots music bands. We actually did Phish there—their first or second show in Boston (on Apr. 19, 1989).
The older established promoters then never wanted to book alternative, hardcore, punk, or Americana acts. They didn’t know those types of music.
It was definitely that, and there’s always been smaller agents working with the smaller bands. Some promoters would do anything that Premier Talent had. Even if it was crap, they would put on the show just because it was Premier that sold them Bruce Springsteen, U2 and whoever else. So they would do all that, but the smaller agencies couldn’t get those (promoters) on the phone so they would call the small bookers or club owners, and do their business with them. If you got in with the right people, and with the right acts that would get bigger, and you would stick with them.
After John D’s, you began booking the Pearl Street Nightclub in Northampton.
I did Johnny D’s for a year. Don Law had a real choke-hold on Boston. I would try and call agents at CAA, ICM and William Morris and I could never ever get them on the phone. I would get some people. Steve Martin (then at the William Morris Agency), I could get him on the phone at some point. There were certain people I could get on the phone here and there. I thought, “If I am going to do this I have to be able to book the acts that (bigger promoters) book somewhere else, and build up relationships.”
I knew the woman who owned Pearl Street. She would call me sometimes because we were doing some of the same stuff (at Johnny D’s). She called and said, “I need a buyer. Do you want to do it?” I went out there. We loved Northampton. A good college market. (The club) wasn’t a place that anybody had to play because it’s a small place (700 seats), but we got good shows that would fall in our lap on short notice. If a band was playing New York, and Boston and they had a date to fill in on their way to Montreal or somewhere else, we would punch it in.
You booked Pearl Street for eight years. Your relationships with agents obviously improved.
Yeah, I did a long time there. I remember calling Mitch Rose, who was then the club guy at CAA. I wouldn’t call every day, but once a month I’d call. “Is Mitch there?” His assistant would say, “Let me check. Who’s calling?” "It’s John Peters from Pearl Street.” She’d come back, and say, “He’s not available. I will take a message, and he will call you back.” He would never call me back. Finally, one day he picks up the phone. “Hey, what’s up?” Then he says that he has a show for me, Toad the Wet Sprocket and Chris Whitley. “Here’s the date. Do a good job, and I will get you more stuff.” So I booked it. The show ended up doing good.
Once you do well, it’s “alright.” Agents don’t have time for issues. Send your contracts in on time. Get the deposit in. Plan it out so they don’t get a phone call the night of show because production screwed up. Plan it so the bands gets their catering. Basic stuff.
Rick Roskin then became the club booker at CAA.
Rick was great. Rick was like my guy when I started out. He sent me a lot of acts, Jewel, Toad the Wet Sprocket, and Rusted Root. I did a lot of stuff (at Pearl Street). I did a lot of jam bands—Blues Traveler, Phish, and the Spin Doctors were big there. The Black Crowes played there. I did a lot of rock things like Korn and the Deftones. We found a lot of stuff that became bigger. I had a pretty good eye and ear for up-and-coming bands.
How did you decide to begin to promote your own shows with MassConcerts?
When I was booking Pearl Street, I would do a band and they would come back and play for John Scher or Ron Delsener who were (promoting shows) in Western Mass then. Delsener/Slater (Enterprises) would put tickets on during Spring Break or something and I would go, “That’s insane. Why would they go on sale in Spring Break?” Their ads looked bad, or there was a typo in the ad or the wrong date. Just a lot of weird little stuff. I thought, “I can do this as good as these guys. If not better.” The only thing that I didn’t have was experience or money.
The first show you did was with the Samples in 1994.
They had been to Pearl Street a couple of times. They said, “We keep selling out; we need a bigger place.” So I did them at Smith College (in Northampton). I think Chip Hooper (of Monterey Peninsula Artists) was their agent at the time. I think it was a $6,000 guarantee. He said, “Are you sure you are okay with this? If it goes bad…” I was, “No, no I’m okay.” I had about $3,000 in the bank at the time. “I’m good. They’ll do fine.” We ended up doing about the same number of people that they did at Pearl Street. I may have lost a little money on the show. But Dave Matthews Band was coming back co-billed with Big Head Todd and the Monsters. David had played Pearl Street a couple of times. Chip said, “Do you want this?” That show ended up selling out way in advance, because (the Dave Matthews Band) was just blowing up at the time.
During this early period, when you are making your reputation with agents, was it about building relationships; or was their attitude, “I like you, but you need a bigger venue”?
Definitely about building relationships. My wife’s dad owned a business. He said that if I ever needed money to start that he’d loan me money. I never booked a show that I couldn’t pay for everything if I didn’t sell one ticket. Well, maybe the first one. I never got in over my head. It never was, “If I only had a half-million dollars I could do this show in a football stadium, and make tons of money.” It was never like that. I wasn’t chasing after stuff other promoters had history with. I thought that my job as a promoter was to find acts that I liked working with, who like working with me, and help them become big in our markets. I didn’t think of talent as software to fill my venues—just need to plug them in to fill dates.
You wanted to grow your business rather than continually roll the dice on shows?
Grow the business with the bands. Bands can go from clubs to arenas in a fairly short amount of time. Not in a year, but in four or five years.
It was different back then.
Bands would have a good touring history. They’d play clubs opening for someone then headline at a club. Then they’d oversell a club, and go into a theatre or something. Each record cycle, they would step it up a bit. It was always a big thing when acts—that we knew were great live acts—suddenly would get a song on the radio. They already had touring creditability, and they’d get a song on the radio that would blow them up. Whereas now, a lot of (the stardom cycle) is radio first or different things coming first.
You were competing against Clear Channel when you started out.
As my business grew over the years, I was able to benefit in the world of competing with Clear Channel. As they grew and evolved, it wasn’t a smooth growth process. There were a lot of acts and agents that didn’t want to send things their way. There was a point where (Clear Channel) tried to be really aggressive—making deals direct with managers, and cutting agents out and stuff like that. Today, it’s not like it was back then.
One of the biggest shows that I ever did was with Radiohead (Aug. 14, 2001) at Suffolk Downs that drew 25,000 people. They had announced, “We are going to tour the U.S. without Clear Channel.” That’s what they did. Radiohead was going to do this tour of all unconventional sites, and not play for Clear Channel. They told promoters, “If you want a show, come to New York and make a presentation on your site.” I had never done that before. So I drove down to New York. I had my site, I had maps, and I said, “This is what we are going to do. This is where the stage is going to be. This is the whole set-up.”
What’s been the impact of the Live Nation/Ticketmaster merger on your business?
It is not as if Live Nation and Ticketmaster are putting everybody in the country out of business. Live Nation and AEG are just like Coke and Pepsi pretty much at this point. Each has to control as much of the revenue flow that they can. I don’t have any problem using Ticketmaster for events. We do a lot with Tickets.com. Ticketfly is a good up-and-coming company. Eventually, ticketing will come down to having a bar code (put) to your phone pretty much. It’s going to get a lot more like that.
Still have butterflies worrying about the outcome of a show?
Every promoter feels that they got screwed on something. When it’s your own money, and you lose $50,000 or $75,000 on a show, it sucks. Well, the first time that you lose $10,000 is probably worse than when you are losing $100,000. When you have $20,000, and you lose $10,000, it’s like, “Holy crap.”
At what point do you know you are about to lose $10,000?
You know weeks out. There are promoters that think that it is all going to come together at the end or something. They don’t think that they have lost the $10,000 until they are settling with the band. I remember the first time I did a B.B. King blues tour in Springfield. I had been doing a lot of shows at the time. My first 10 shows I made money on nine of them. I was on a good roll. It seemed like a good show. It just didn’t work. Sometimes you just know. I have had arena shows where I knew at 10:05 (A.M.) the day tickets went on sale that it was a bomb. You have an arena show scaled at 8,000 people, and at 10:05 you’ve sold 612 tickets. There are only 200 (tickets) in question mark which means they are processing orders. You go, “It’s a bomb.”
And some shows sell out instantly.
I remember one of the first shows I did at Paul Tsongas Arena was with Avril Lavigne just as she was getting big. We did a one plus one. The show went on sale at 10 A.M. At 10:05, I called the box office to ask how it was doing. It was sold out. I got Larry Webman (at Little Big Man Booking) on the phone and told him that we’d sold out, and asked if he wanted to add the second show. He said, “Turn it on.” It was one of those (shows) where they had people in line at the box office. The first show sold so quickly online that people in the box office didn’t even have tickets. “Alright, there’s a second show.”
The biggest show I’ve ever done was with Simon & Garfunkel (in 2003) when they got back together. We did two nights at the arena (TD Banknorth Garden). The guarantee was a million-plus. Talk about rolling the dice from the original $6,000 show. Then rolling the dice on the $30,000 show with the Warped Tour. The first time you have a $100,000 guarantee, that’s the big jump. Then I have this million-plus guarantee. It was a lot of money.
Any plans to do shows in the U.K.?
I have thought about it. I have had offers and opportunities here. I just haven’t done it yet. Acts have asked me to do things here, and there are a couple of (U.S.) agencies that don’t have branches here, and I have talked to them about opening a branch for them.
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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