This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Rob Tonkin, founder, Marketing Factory.
Sponsorship spending on music tours, venues and festivals in America, according to marketing consultant IEG, is expected to total $1.4 billion in 2015, up 4.8% from last year.
Spending is largely driven by continued interest in national music festivals, and an increasing appetite for regional music festivals, some of which have secured significant deals with national American brands.
Sponsorship—once universally scorned by music artists and managers alike--has experienced a massive growth of intense interest in the music industry in recent years as acts seek to both defray tour costs and replace diminishing revenues from recordings and music publishing.
While corporate marketers are now quite sophisticated in their approaches to their music-related campaigns, and they continue to seek as many opportunities as possible to offer consumers touch points, Marketing Factory, the integrated Venice, California marketing communications provider, is intent on developing unique strategies for campaigns that create greater interactions among fans, bands and its clients.
In addition to working with the American Honda Motor Co. on the annual Honda Civic Tour (utilizing such bands as blink-182 Everclear, Incubus, Maroon 5, the Black Eyed Peas, Paramore, Kelly Clarkson, and One Direction), Marketing Factory has expanded its relationship with American Honda to service other Honda entities including Honda Financial Services, and Honda Powersports.
At age 15, Tonkin was the second youngest radio personality in Sacramento, California history when he began working at KROI-FM in 1978. Tonkin next worked on air at KXOA before become promotions director for 91X in San Diego.
After a short stint at MEGA, the New York agency which was among the first to arrange corporate sponsorships for rock tours, and then a stint with California promoter Bill Silva, Tonkin was tapped by Los Angeles-based radio syndicator Westwood One to oversee promotion of its affiliated local Pirate Radio (KQLZ) station.
As well, Tonkin contributed as a producer to such syndicated programs as “Casey’s Top 40” with Casey Kasem, “Off the Record,” and “In Concert.” He also served as the talent producer of broadcast events for U2, the Rolling Stones, Sir Paul McCartney, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Aerosmith and others.
Prior to launching Marketing Factory, Tonkin produced the live performance PBS-TV series “On Tour,” featuring such artists as Sting, the Smashing Pumpkins, Beck, Metallica, and the Rolling Stones. He also established partnerships with significant brand advertisers, including American Honda.
I’ve read that Marketing Factory started in 1999, but I also discovered a letter on the Internet from Jan. 1998 from Marketing Factory to a client. When did the company actually start?
In 1995, I started operating freelance. So I called myself Rob Tonkin BA, the Marketing Factory.
In that interim period, you did “PBS on Tour?”
That’s was one of the things. Rolling Stone magazine was a client for a little while. I did a college tour for them with Sixpence None the Richer. There was probably another band but I can’t remember. I did a few projects including consulting some music start-ups. There was one called Music 411.com but that one never went anywhere.
How many people do you now have on staff? About 17?
At our peak season, we might have that many people. We are really 10 people full-time. Last year and this year, we’ve put some effort toward business development. We were very much behind-the-scenes. We didn’t really go public. We didn’t have a website per se until two years ago. We started doing a newsletter this year.
The sector of agencies matching corporate sponsors with music artists is fairly new.
That’s true. There used to be a lot more brokering of deals. I shied away from the brokering of deals a number of years ago. First, we operated much more like a production company. We have morphed into an agency. What we do now is a lot more strategic “white papers.” My vision for companies like this is to analyze the music profile of brands, consult with brands on how they should position themselves using music, and then figure out how to make a connection to music enthusiasts in general. We may not execute all of the programs because there may be better executors than us in specialized areas. There are more people popping up every day that can accomplish different things.
But you did change the funnel of delivery to work directly with brands.
Yes. I have had many, many people from different artists call me over the years asking, “Can you find someone for us? Is there a sponsor?” That is like finding a needle in the haystack. One, the sponsor has to be looking. Two, the artist has to fit their profile. Three, the artist has to be affordable and be able to make a deal.
This way you aren’t seeking out a brand. You are offering brands a choice of artists and strategies that will fit their campaigns.
Precisely, and that’s a much more efficient way. It’s the same thing that you do with advertising. We are just following the traditional advertising model. It has moved into the music space where we can really consult 360 degrees. If they (the advertiser) know the right song, then we don’t have to do the sync. They can have their ad agency creative do the sync. But we are going to be giving advice to the brand that helps them to determine what to give: The objectives, the mission statements, the mood board, and the vision board to give to the creatives that are developing the creative for them. So it’s influential from many different levels. If you are a retail store, what (music) are you playing in your store? How is it being positioned? What elements could you do? If you are Nordstrom, and you have pianos in your stores, what are you doing with them? Are you connecting into music to make that work?
How do you hold onto a client like American Honda Motor Co. for so many years? I think your participation with them goes back to the Honda Civic Tour headlined by blink-182 in 2001. Contractually, you have been directly involved with Honda since 2006.
I started working on this program in 2000.
Aren’t you afraid by having one big client that if you lose them....
Sure. I used to worry about it more, but you get used to it after a while. We take on other clients from time to time, and we have diversified with other projects over the years. Yep, for a small shop like ours, there’s a huge risk.
Do you drive a Honda?
I do drive a Honda. I have driven Honda products for a long time. I have had a Crosstour for 4 or 5 years and I’m probably going to get rid of that and either get a Pilot or an Acura MDX. But I really haven’t pulled the trigger on it, yet. I have had a bunch of different Hondas. I had Accord hybrid at one point, I had an Acura TL at another point.
Why would Honda be looking for somebody like you in 2000?
They weren’t looking for somebody like me. They were looking for non-traditional advertising. That was the buzzword in 2000. The competition for music at the time was things like in-theatre advertising which was still somewhat novel. Honda was not doing that. But they were looking to branch out. They had a new Civic coming out in 2001, and they wanted to find a way during their launch campaign to reach the youth market in something completely non-traditional and outside of mainstream media; outside of buying MTV, which they were doing at the time to reach the youth market. I think that’s how we came about. I don’t think that they really understood 100% what this was going to do. So I think it was a bit of a crap shoot for them. It took months for the program to be approved. It had to go through regional, national, agencies....
Was there any push back from Honda’s agency? Agencies aren’t always open to bringing in third parties to work on their campaigns.
Their agency RPA (Rubin Postaer and Associates) brought me in. They didn’t have....what I do, I think, is very special. We are a highly specialized expert in the field. They (RPA) are going to hire someone else to produce the commercial, generally. They are not going to do it in-house. They are going to hire a producer and a director. They are going to production supervise that. They are going to make sure the product is depicted properly, and all that. They are going to do the creative oversight with the director. We are on the same level for them. They treated us much like a production (company) to a commercial.
What is your role?
We have to evaluate everything relevant to Honda’s KPIs (key performance indicators.) We have independent research companies come in, and do a lot of recommendations and analysis. We have always looked at control groups in research of attendees versus mass market control groups that have similar interests. We look at the differentials between the two. We do online surveys. Usually we wait 4 to 6 weeks after events before evaluating them. The bottom line reason we have been able to keep the relationship is that what we do works.
You seem involved in everything within Honda Civic campaigns from direct promotion to overseeing touring activities, and booking the talent on shows.
It has grown over the years because I think that we have become a very trusted resource. We like to remain very neutral. We don’t try to sell anything to the client. We show them the benefits. We do a POV (point of view report.) Sometimes they question a lot of things, and they ask for more information. Sometimes we will write a “white paper” for them. They make the decisions on what they want to do but, ultimately, I think that trust in the relationship has helped us gain additional business over the years. They know that we have delivered on the talent.
How have you delivered on talent?
A lot times we have bought low and promoted. Even this year, we got fairly low. We engaged with One Direction (for the annual Honda Civic Tour). A lot of people were telling me that their 15 minutes was up. A number of things happened once we made the deal. We were still crossing the T-s and doing the I-s in the deal when Zayn (Malik) left the band. A lot of people would have then said, “Demise. They are over.” The second thing is that their tour was selling but it had sort of stagnated a little bit with sales in the market. It hadn’t done as nearly as well as the tour previously
We knew all of these things, and we set our sights at a realistic level, and we actually blew out every metric in KPI (key performance indicator) that we had established. The band’s trajectory and trending started going up from the day that we started our association. It has continued to go up. We are still doing promotions with One Direction through to next March. The window of our deal was extended a lot, and we have become a good partner for One Direction.
Brands seek to build a program they can use to make face-to-face human interactions with consumers. What does a brand bring to a band?
Bands in the old days used to ask me, “Why do I want to do a Honda Civic tour or be associated with a brand?” I’d say “Well, do you receive tour support?” Then I would say, “We are a lot like tour support.” I remember having a conversation with (manager) Cliff Burnstein (co-owner of Q Prime) years ago. We were in discussions with the Red Hot Chili Peppers about this, and they decided not to do it. It wasn’t the right thing for them, ultimately. Cliff, of course, knew that the band was very successful, but the reason I think that he was considering it was that it is like buying insurance. The idea is, “Am I going to go out without insurance and risk that something could go wrong or do I want to have an insurance policy that could benefit me?”
Tour support is a recoupable expense from a label. Funding from a brand is another revenue stream.
Well, it’s changed a lot. When I started doing this stuff it was in 1987. The first tour sponsorship was 1981. A lot was learned between 1981 and 1987. In 1981, it was a breakthrough if you, as a brand, had your name next to a band’s name on the ticket itself. That was the breakthrough.
Back then, the sponsor was lucky if they even met the band. It was as if artists felt like they were making a pact with the Devil.
And the sponsor was lucky to meet the band. So that was all you (a band) had to do. Now, it has become so complicated. The deals are 40 pages long. The deal we have with One Direction is a multi-service deal. It involves being in a commercial. It involves tour sponsorship. It involves promotional sponsorships. There’s a lot of media involved. Really, we are a promotional partner more than anything else. The industry has grown up, and evolved a lot. It’s more and more difficult (making deals). I don’t think that sponsorship is successful anymore. I think what is really important now is integrating and infusing things together so that there really is a win.
It has to be a win for both sides. Both sides are trying to strengthen their brand in an unobtrusive way.
Every one of the bands that have done this have gone on to have continued success. Some of them bigger, and some have gone up and down and up again.
As traditional revenue streams from record and music publishing have lessened in recent years are artists more open to brand deals?
I have had a lot of surprises. We almost put together a deal in 2014 for an artist I would have been very, very pleased to have from a point of credibility and popularity. What I am seeing now is there is chasm between the mass act that is hitting the Top 40 and everybody else. You have to mention Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, and Taylor Swift. There are a few of these acts in which the celebrity and the brand itself are bigger than a lot of television networks. It is bigger than MTV. It is bigger than any other single source.
Meanwhile, these artist profiles are being heated up by intense social media as well as blogs and news sites. You can’t go on a computer without being bombarded by news and images of them.
To take a step back. In 1987, when I was working at MEGA, a project I had was with David Lee Roth who was interested in being a spokesperson for a brand. I called people like the marketing brand director at Ford. They laughed at me. They weren’t laughing at David Lee Roth. They were laughing at the fact, “Why would we put a music person in front of a brand? We are way too mass appeal for that fraction of the audience that might be interested.” Now, it’s reverse. Now the music stars are the celebrities which are sometimes more important than their music. Like Justin Bieber his celebrity status has outpaced his music. We are kind of victims of that in certain way. So it’s less about the music.
Lady Gaga has to be placed in that celebrity list as well.
That’s true though her popularity has fallen a little. Now with her thing with Tony Bennett it’s again on the rise. She’s in a Barnes & Noble commercial (singing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”) with Tony Bennett. They have basically taken the concept of the record, and then they created a commercial. That’s good brand integration.
As social networking moves faster than word-of-mouth in the past, Debra Rathwell, senior VP, AEG Live told me that, we now have to look for a “sticky” factor with new artists. A lot of people look at artists, but there might be nothing “sticky” about them. An artist may have 10 million hits on YouTube, but it doesn’t mean anything. You can’t sell tickets to their shows. So what’s the attraction for brands to the new artists trending high on social media?
Doing a promotion with them, and if you are connecting to their fan network, fantastic. But if you are trying to build something where you think that you are going to invite your audience to see them, no. That’s much riskier if you are trying to create the event. I shy away from any kind of brand activation or sponsorship or partnership where the brand is responsible for bringing in the fans. The artist is the network. The brand has to intercept the artist’s fans in a way that is authentic to those fans. That’s the key. So will they sell tickets? It depends on how you structure it. I remember Fergie went out (on the Verizon VIP tour in 2007) after such a huge success of the Black Eyed Peas.. They gave away all the tickets in clubs, and they couldn’t fill them up. There was a show with Deadmau5 in New York last year. A huge artist, and it was very difficult to give tickets away and to attract people. That’s not the architecture that you want to follow. I don’t want to do privates with these people.
Remember years ago? Miller Genuine Draft used to do this blind date promotion and they paid artists a lot of money? That was a great payday for different artists. Creed, Metallica, Foo Fighters and Incubus did it. I never understood the Miller Genuine Draft Blind Date because they (Miller) could never use the artist’s name in the promotion. I didn’t understand the value to Miller. The sad thing was, and something I didn’t understand until I went to one of the concerts, was the fans were not really the fans of the artists that were appearing (as audience members weren’t told in advance who the band performing would be).
What festivals do you work with?
We do Austin City Limits, The Governors Ball in New York, and Music Midtown in Atlanta.
The festival experience itself is evolving with virtual reality, mobile conferencing, increased connectivity, and even extending the festival experience to those that can't physically be there, or to those who were, and want to remember it.
Yeah. The biggest problem is the connectivity. I think that the reason that a lot of people even go to music festivals is because of the sense of community and the FOMO, the fear of missing out. I think that is a big, big reason. The festivals are getting more and more similar which is going to be the next phase (of evolution). The festivals are going to have to create distinctions that are going to make them more unique, and a little bit more diverse I think. You can’t have Drake headlining every festival.
Brands have traditionally wanted to build programs to get face time with a relevant audience. How does that now fit with festival where the technology is rapidly changing, and festivals themselves are trying to further enrich the fan experience.
Like with the Apple Music Festival.
I’m not that familiar with how the Apple Music Festival works or what kind of numbers there are. I know that we have recently researched streaming in general from the festivals and the numbers are very, very disappointing in terms who is watching at home. Some festivals do really well like Coachella, maybe Lollapalooza, but outside of that they are not highly watched.
At the same time annual spending of festival sponsorships is increasing because such events are deemed the best way to reach a relevant audience.
Absolutely. But then each festival is a little bit different. Coachella, they won’t allow any stage naming where Austin City Limits, Lollapalooza, The Governors Ball, Music Midtown, Stagecoach Festival--a lot of them allow stage naming which for our clients is very important because with naming the stage they are in the conversation. That is sort of the price of entry. Then we come up with other ways to put the product on the ground and integrate it but our client is automotive so....
TourTech and other companies now specialize in live music events where connectivity is vital.
We hire them as well. When they go to the festival they are a vendor to us as well. We are like an upsell from the baseline of the festival. So we are buying bandwidth from them to share with our own Wi-Fi. So when somebody wants to come near the Honda area, we have free Wi-Fi. We are giving them the password and so forth. There’s an extension even there to a brand. You’ve got telecommunication at pretty well every one of these festivals, whether it’s Sprint, AT&T, Verizon, Samsung, Microsoft or Dell. They are all there. I have encountered all of these brands at festivals, and they all seem to have a different way of approaching it (presentations), but they are branding themselves with charging stations for the most part, and then they try to take credit for a lot of the connectivity, in general.
An arena or a stadium controlling the Wi-Fi often tries to control the messaging.
That’s actually problematic. There’s a lot of inconsistencies. Stadiums, arenas and sheds all of them, we have the Honda Civic Tour touring in these things, and a lot of the things that we want to do are somewhat stifled by the fact that they don’t have enough connectivity in these buildings. If you want to bring it in, it is almost becomes cost prohibitive for us to do it.
The cost of hiring TourTech may not make sense in some venues.
And, if you were to bring them in for a tour, the bill is too hefty.
There are some locations where you are just not going to get reliable Wi-Fi reception.
A lot of concrete. A lot of steel. They may have a network inside, but the bandwidth is incapable of the demand put on it by a millennial audience with every single person trying to connect simultaneously. Everybody does have their phone out at these shows. It has become the de facto ideal. A lot of people come to us saying, “Hey, we want to create an app, and all the people have to do is download this, and then this happens.” As soon as they say that most people in my office will say, “No. No downloading of apps because nobody can download an app (at most events)”
Many locations are not suited for an IT infrastructure for events.
They probably need to figure out how to expand that in the future. The owners of and the operators of these buildings may need to find ways to bring in brands to off-set those costs in a way that makes it a benefit to the attendee, a benefit to the building, a benefit to the artist that might be performing there, and a benefit to the team that is playing there. It just doesn’t make any sense not to have them connected the way that they need to be and it’s frustrating.
I have never had the chance to talk to the second youngest radio personality in Sacramento history.
Yes, that’s how things started.
[Previously, Toby Browning had set the record for youngest DJ in Sacramento when he joined KNDE for weekends at age 15.]
You were 15?
I was 15 or 16. I started answering requests lines when I was around 14 or 15 at KROI-FM. So the first station that I worked for was KROI-FM which was 97 FM. I also did KROY-AM. Believe it or not the AM was more powerful than the FM. It billed more and it was a Top 40, and the FM was kind of an upstart AOR. Then I was hired away at KXOA, which was an AM but a lot of the old KROY people had moved over there, and started it over again.
I remember Bryan Davis in Sacramento before he worked as Bryan Simmons for decades at KOST-FM in Los Angeles.
I knew him really well. He came over to KXOA also. The program director Terry Nelson was legendary because he was at 99X in New York which was the RKO station, and had also worked at KFRC in San Francisco. He was kind of the carrot that got me over there because I really looked up to him. To be able to work for him was kind of a dream.
You eventually went to work in New York at MEGA, the international agency that arranged corporate sponsorships for rock tours. Had you figured out that radio would only take you so far, and there was another world out there?
Yes. More or less I realized that I didn’t have the personality or talent to be on air. I was more interested in the marketing and promotion side. That sort of came to me a little bit more naturally than being behind the microphone. At that point I had worked at three stations in Sacramento.
So did you see the writing on the wall when you headed off to New York to work for MEGA,
Yes. What I saw was a lot of different things. One, I worked for a Mexican (progressive rock) radio station 91X (XTRA-FM) and (oldies) XTRA-AM. 91X, while it broadcast from Mexico, there was a lot of politics that were going on underfoot and the last assignment that I had there kind of in a way broke me because the GM had asked me if we could put a concert on in Mexico, which, in retrospect, was one of the coolest things that I have ever done but for somebody in their early ‘20s the politics of the whole thing was very challenging in putting on an international concert. People don’t realize, well, there is a border there.
Where did the festival take place in Mexico?
It was at the Caliente race track (in Tijuana) just inside the border. We had about 30,000 kids show up on a Tuesday in June (29th) of 1987. We called it MexFest. We had six acts play. The headliner was Oingo Boingo. We also had the Bangles, the Fixx, Squeeze, the Hoodoo Gurus, and Chris Isaak opening. It was the first time that national (American) acts had gone into Mexico. They weren’t even going to Mexico City or anything. Outside of disco. That was the exception. People like Grace Jones or Gaynor would go in because they were singing to tracks at a discotheque. But nobody would take equipment across the border. Because of our affiliation with the Mexican government, we were really able to convince people that they would be protected (armed guards were in fact, stationed around the stadium during the show). That was a landmark event..
[Produced by XTRA-FM (91X) and the race track's owners, and billed as "an event so big it's taking two countries to make it happen,” MexFest at the Caliente race track in Tijuana, was the first rock concert in the track's 71-year history. To alleviate border traffic snarls, Noble Broadcast Group, which owned both 91X and oldies station XTRA-AM (69 XTRA Gold), chartered more than 400 Gray Line buses to transport concertgoers between the Caliente race track, and four San Diego locations.]
Was 99X the last hurrah for you working in regional radio?
It was partially that, and it was partially the fact that I started to get a lot of job offers. I was getting offer for jobs to be promotion director in L.A. from stations like KIIS-FM and KROQ at the time. But it was really kind of “bright lights, big city” (of New York) that caught my attention. I didn’t know anything about New York. I was just a kid from California who had gone to Sacramento to San Diego. Really, New York was another world.
MEGA was dealing with corporate sponsors and overseeing rock tours.
Yes. They had done “Schlitz Rock America” (1982 tour) with the Who. That had put them on the map. Danny Socolof and Whitten Pell, who had started MEGA, came out of Contemporary Productions. There were really only two companies that were doing sponsorships at the time. There was Jake Coleman who had RockBill, and there was MEGA. I had worked with them quite extensively while I was a promotion director at 91X and XTRA-AM. Swatch Watches had sponsored the Thompson Twins. I had worked on that. I had produced an end of tour party for them in San Diego with the Beach Boys and Sunkist Soda with them.
Then I did a thing for them called “Transylvania Mania” which was a trip for people to win to go to Transylvania for Halloween. So I was very attracted to what they (MEGA) were doing. It really occurred to me that you could do the same amount of effort of what I was doing in San Diego but do it on a national scale. So my experience and everything kind of fit perfectly into that. I went there and I did Swatch Watch with Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam. I also worked on MTV’s “Museum of Unnatural History” which was the first time that MTV had done anything off channel. It was a shopping mall tour that I did a lot of the logistics on. It was a great experience but I came back to San Diego, and I worked for Bill Silva, the promoter.
Did you not adapt to New York’s fast pace and high rents?
That’s precisely what happened to me. I realized that I almost had to double my salary from what I was making in San Diego. Plus I had a lot of success in San Diego. I had bought a house, and I also owned a small a mobile DJ company. I had a guy living in my house with my dogs. He was basically living my life running the DJ company. My lifestyle in New York, I was traveling all of the time. I really appreciated New York, but I didn’t feel comfortable, and I felt that the lifestyle wasn’t for me. It may have been for me if I made twice as much money at the time.
How long did you work for Bill Silva?
Not very long. I think that I was in New York for three months, and I then worked for Bill for a little longer than that.
Where did you go from Bill?
From Bill I actually I became partners with Robert Noble, the son of the owner of 91X in Tonkin Enterprises. With the guy who owned the racetrack in Tijuana, we opened a nightclub in a Tijuana shopping mall called Iguanas. I spent a year doing that. We also bought a club in San Diego called The Bacchanal which was a strip mall club. It was a cool club because it had everybody playing there, up-coming acts as well as Bobby “Blue” Bland and acts like the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and the Fixx played there. The Belly Up and Bacchanal were probably the two only clubs in San Diego back then. So pretty much all of the best club acts played The Bacchanal, and a lot of promoters worked in the space. It was a tiny place. It only held about 500 or 600 people.
A good way to lose money.
Actually, it was not a bad investment. The thing that was a little sketchier was the club in Mexico, Iguanas. We were trying to replicate the success that we had with MexFest and do it on an every weekend basis. But being an anchor tenant in a shopping mall about 500 yards within the border well, in theory, the thing was great. What was great for me was I got to design and build a music space. So I took a lot of my experience and frustrations, and put them together. One of the frustrations that I always had was the fact that sight lines and clubs were not really built. At least in clubs in the L.A, and in San Diego areas. They had converted old movies theatres or halls that had vaudeville or ballroom dancing. They were never set up for live music. So we built this club for live music. We opened with Jane’s Addiction, and cool bands played there like Pearl Jam, and Nirvana.
Marketing, promoting, and building a club from the ground up in Mexico. All of that would have really expanded the scope of your entertainment experience.
Definitely. We worked, in fact, with 91X to start the club. We opened on Cinco de Mayo (May 5th which commemorates The Battle of Puebla in 1862) which is a significant date more for Americans than Mexicans. Interestingly, we did the show for $5, and we sold 1,100 tickets in 5-10 minutes for Jane’s Addiction. The show sold out. Then we did the Fixx there. I brought them back from Mexfest and they were there opening weekend. We did a preview party with Jack Mack and the Heart Attack. The Ramones played there. The club went on for a few years. Bill Silva promoted in there, as did Harlan Schiffman who has Fineline Entertainment. The club went on, but I did not go on with it. I moved to L.A. at the end of ’89.
You moved to Los Angeles to work at Westwood One.
Yes, I came into L.A. to work for Pirate Radio (KQLZ), and Westwood One. The attraction was that Westwood One was the largest radio syndicator in the world at that time. The fact that they owned the radio station was a big deal. They had paid a lot of money for it. It was kind of a complicated story to how I got in there, and why they hired me.
You eventually were named senior director of artist relations and entertainment marketing.
First I was hired as the marketing director of the radio station, Pirate Radio. Then I transfered over. over. I worked for Scott Shannon and Simon T at Pirate, and with Shadow Steele as well. I got into the station about 9 or 10 months after they put it on the air. So I didn’t put the station on the air but my job was to produce the one year anniversary event for the station, which I did at The Palace, which is now The Avalon in L.A. We had a lot of talent play, and a lot of celebrities showed up. It was a big thing for me at the time to make it right. I was being evaluated, being scrutinized, and I think that I came through that with a lot of success. It was kind of “print the business cards and go on.” At the very beginning of my tenure at Westwood One, Norm Pattiz, who was the chairman, called me into his office and said, “Anything you need just let me know.” He was very, very supportive. That’s how I eventually ended up getting into artist relations and got out of the radio station day-to-day and into acquiring rights, and producing radio concert events.
The Duran Duran session that you produced at Westwood was released as an EP in 1993, and then came out in white vinyl on Record Store Day in 2013.
I did not know that. I remember the show. It was recorded at Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard, and they played inside the store. It’s weird because I recently watched the documentary (“All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records”). It’s full circle for me because I went back to the (promotional) event at the space which is formerly Tower Records, and they had decorated it like it was Tower Records.
[“No Ordinary EP” was a Duran Duran promotional-only cassette released by Capitol Records and given away with the purchase of the “Too Much Information” single in 1993. The EP features three tracks—“Come Undone,” “Notorious,” and “Hungry Like The Wolf”--performed by Duran Duran at Tower Records on May 15, 1993. The performances are acoustic with the exception of electronic keyboard played by Nick Rhodes. Tickets for the event could not be purchased, but were instead given away as prizes in a contest by Pirate Radio.]
Tower Records founder Russ Solomon was a family friend from Sacramento?
Yes, and I got to talk to him that night. I had talked to him on the phone once or twice in my life. I just went up to him and we sat down and had a nice conversation. That was kind of full circle for my whole career. I went to high school with one of his sons, David. What I found most interesting about the movie is Elton John, who appears in interviews, and there’s some old footage of him in the store, he was a very avid buyer of music at Towers on Sunset.
The staff used to close the store for Elton to shop.
Yep. I remember going to the record stores, and I could spend hours and hours there, and you read everything. All that was an experience plus everything moved so much slower in an artist’s career. The concerts, they didn’t come as quickly. With radio, the songs took time to develop regional and then internationally.
So you miss record stores?
Absolutely. The whole experience. It’s funny but we have an activation right now with Waterloo Records in Austin, which is one of the few successful record stores, like Amoeba. We are doing something with them with Honda, and festivals with them that we started this year and which will continue next year.
Obviously, you are working with Waterloo Records at the annual Austin City Limits festival.
We have been doing different types of activations at ACL for about 7 years. I noticed the long lines of people wanting autographs, and we wanted to get closer to the act so....If we approach artists to come into our activation area and sign autographs, they are going to look for a check. Waterloo has a much better opportunity approaching them. They have done a phenomenal job at attracting talent to do autograph signings over the years at ACL, and they had been our neighbor, coincidentally, at our activation. The owner of Waterloo, John Kuntz, is a terrific guy.
I love such American record retail outlets as Waterloo, Amoeba and Newbury Comics.
Yeah, there’s only a handful of record stores now. You can almost name them all now. There’s also Rough Trade in New York.
Have you read the 2009 book, “Record Store Days: From Vinyl to Digital and Back Again” by Gary Calamar, and Phil Gallo?
I have not. I’ll make a note of that. I don’t know what really has replaced it (record stores). Maybe social media to some degree traversing information back-and-forth.
In some ways what has replaced record stores are festivals.
I think as a community experience, yes. If you were going to make an analogy it would be if the store got too crowded, and you couldn’t get to a clerk. But it is similar. I do concur with you. Also the Apple store, I think. In some ways that has become that tactile experience. Where you go in, and talk to the genius. They didn’t call the guys who worked in record stores geniuses. But those people knew a lot about music. They had their finger on the pulse and they usually could lead you to great music. “If you like this act, you might try this.” They were like a human algorithm.
Last question. What is the Mexican location where you got lost?
That’s lore and myth.
That has something to do with being in Tijuana and being involved with some very connected political contacts in Mexico and having a very interesting dinner. Let’s leave it at that. I may have gotten a bit lost coming over the border one time.
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.
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