This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Kevin Morrow, co-founder & CEO, Steel Wool Entertainment.
Steel Wool Entertainment has acquired a striking industry footprint over the past four years by offering music artists management, record label, video production and marketing services.
Among the artists affiliated with the multi-faceted Los Angeles entertainment company are Watsky, Kirk Franklin, Finn Matthews, Jacquie Lee, Johan, Jez Dior, Tamir Grinberg, Elijah Blake, Alice And The Glass Lake, Bad Rabbits, Caleb Shreve, and Anderson Paak.
Steel Wool Entertainment’s co-founder and CEO Kevin Morrow has worked for over three decades in just about every sector of the music industry.
After co-founding the San Diego Blues Society in the early 1980s, Morrow co-founded the San Diego management and booking agency Falk & Morrow which represented some 21 clients, including former Rolling Stone guitarist Mick Taylor, R&B vocalist Otis Clay, Zimbabwean musician Thomas Mapfumo, ska pioneers, the Skatalites, and reggae star Eek-A-Mouse.
During this time Morrow also handled management for such artists as the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Paladins, Charlie Musselwhite, and Taylor.
After Morrow lent a hand in launching the House of Blues-branded radio show for CBS Communications, he was hired in 1994 as talent buyer for the new House of Blues in Los Angeles.
Two years later, Morrow was named senior VP of tours and talent for House of Blues Entertainment nationwide; overseeing the openings of a handful of House of Blues clubs, and the subsequent talent buying teams at each venue. Additionally, he also launched House of Blues’ touring division which became pivotal in building the company’s brand internationally.
Morrow’s role expanded greatly in 1999 with House of Blues Entertainment acquiring Universal Concerts, the Seagram Co. company which operated 19 concert venues across North America. In 2006, Live Nation purchased House of Blues Entertainment, and Morrow was appointed president, Live Nation New York.
In 2012 Morrow joined forces with Kevin Welk, president of Welk Music Group, which includes Vanguard Records, Sugar Hill Records and Ranwood Records, to launch Steel Wool Entertainment with artist Watsky, and manager Tyler Rutkin also as partners.
How did you come to hook up with an industry vet like Kevin Welk?
When I had the House of Blues’ touring division he called me, and we ended up having lunch, and we really hit it off. We are both ex-college baseball players. He was looking for outlets to get his artists touring. We had all of these new outlets because we could see what was coming. We had a new media division and an internet division. He ended up bringing me Dolly Parton. I met with Dolly, and we hit it off, and we started doing tours of his artists.
How did you and your partners envision Steel Wool before launching in 2012?
Kevin was going to be the outlet for the label. One of the inspirations for me was this kid Watsky who had come in, and he had two million YouTube views. He had insanely social (media) numbers. At that time these things (streaming) were starting to come out through Spotify, and Pandora.
While I was at Live Nation, we did some shows with Watsky just to see how all that translated to touring. Touring is where you make the money, and then there’s all of other things off touring like sponsorships and so on. We put a show up at The Viper Room in L.A., and it sold out in two hours. He said he’d like to go to London. So we put a show on at The XOYO, and it sold out in one day. We put on another show on there at Kevin Spacey’s the Old Vic Tunnels, and that sold 1,300 tickets the same trip. So I phoned Peter Schwartz (then an agent at The Agency Group) up and signed Watsky to Peter. Peter booked a national tour, and Watsky sold 95% of the tickets, and he didn’t even have a record out. I went, “This really is worldwide.” He opened my eyes to a lot of things.
Your other partner Tyler Rutkin I don’t know.
Tyler is one of the young managers coming up who is going to be a force. He worked with me at Live Nation. When he and I were doing the Pitbull and Kirk Franklin tours for Live Nation we started talking about the future of the business. He had the same vision I had, and the same vision that Watsky had. The three of us would sit down, and brainstorm. But what happened was I left six months prior to go over to Kevin’s, and then I brought Tyler.
Working at both the House of Blues and Live Nation you had been out of management game for a few years. Management is all different from when you last did it in the ‘80s.
Definitely, it is that. A lot of the stuff had started happening while I was a promoter, doing due diligence to make an offer. You’d look at Facebook and some of the social stats. But a lot of the platforms weren’t there yet. They were just coming online. Like Shazam. One of the guys I work with now on the label side in another company recently told me that before he makes a deal with an act that, “I only look at Shazam numbers. I only look at streams, and I only look at YouTube views. Those are my three things. Those are my metrics. Everything else doesn’t matter. I don’t care if the artist has been in the market or how much he draws. Those are the only things I care about.” But that’s pretty insightful because when I was a promoter all we looked at were (radio) “spins” in the market, record sales, and how many people did the artist draw the last time there. Those were our three metrics. Now there are 15 metrics.
Just because someone has a zillion plays on YouTube doesn’t mean people will pay for a hard ticket. Debra Rathwell, senior VP for AEG Live in New York, told me in an interview an artist has to have a “sticky” factor.
The real engagement is that “sticky factor.” There’s stuff on YouTube that gets all these plays and there’s absolutely no traction. But if you look at (American violinist) Lindsey Stirling, where she got her break out from YouTube, and now she draws five or six thousand people. She got a major label deal (with Decca Records) out of all that. So there are those artists, including Watsky. Our first record is over 100,000 units sold between iTunes and physical. He sells a lot of physical.
Let me ask you this: Do you think our system is broken from what it was in the ‘60s when you’d put out a record, and the next thing you know you were headlining The Forum, whether it would be Three Dog Night, Led Zeppelin or any of those old heritage acts? Or are there now so many options to touch or to engage with an artist that goes beyond the live experience? Watsky and Anderson Paak, these guys are getting hundreds of emails and texts from their fans daily. When you think of Watsky at 250 million views now with all of the stuff that he’s done. How long back in the day would that have taken a major artist to actually touch 250 million people?
What staff do you have?
We have 7 full-time that are within our crew. We have a partnership with ArtClub International, who is in the same building. There’s another three. That’s Taz Askew (aka Ketrina "Taz" Askew). Her crew is in our office. They have Jhené Aiko and we are working together on this kid Oshi who is being chased by all of these people in the industry. We have also collaborated on Anderson Paak, and we will end up collaborating on Tamir Grinberg.
You obviously have recognized early on that management has changed considerably from when you started because you set out from day one to develop a multi-layered entertainment company.
Oh, totally it has changed. Even in picking artists. How are you going to distribute them? How are you going to get their content out there? You need to be a 360-degree company. At Steel Wool, we have a production division which does stuff outside of our own artists. We have worked with Hoodie Allen, Ed Sheeran, and Lil Dicky. We work with artists that don’t touch another piece of our company. The production company does that. They have to be profitable for themselves even though they are part of Steel Wool. And they also support Steel Wool artists.
Steel Wool has a record label that is distributed by Empire Distribution in San Francisco.
People ask, “Why do you want to get into the label business? It’s such a disaster. Listen, we are making a shit load on our label. We are doing great on our label. We have great partners working with our label. As long as you don’t overspend, and you don’t get bloated with massive overhead, you can do well with a label.
Several of your management clients are on the label including Watsky Anderson Paak, and Jez Dior.
We had [Japanese- American singer and actress) Hayley Kiyoko also, and we up streamed her to Atlantic Records. Hayley started here on our label, and Fab (Fabienne Leys) is an unbelievable manager. And she’s also got JR Rotem and DJ White Shadow, who are both huge producers. Fab manages Hayley and she took her from Steel Wool Records into a major deal with (chairman & CEO) Craig Kallman and those guys at Atlantic.
Last month (Dec. 2016) you signed Israeli singer/songwriter Tamir Grinberg. How did that come about?
A guy had shown me something of his a couple of years ago. He was going to sign him, but he didn’t end up signing him. A couple of years go by and Beckie (Sugden) at X-Ray Touring in London calls me and says, “Kevin, I am standing in front of a kid Tamir at a festival and the crowd is so engaged that you have to look at this kid.” I went online and looked at some stuff. Finally, I reached out to him. Beckie introduced us on email, and then we went back-and-forth. He eventually came to Los Angeles. He interviewed a couple of managers, which he should, and he and I met and we hit it off.
Sire’s Seymour Stein has taken an interest in him as well.
Seymour flew him in for a Warners’ showcase here. So Seymour is on this as well. Seymour and I are having conversations. But, at the same time, Tamir has an EP ready to go. Kind of like with Anderson Paak and Watsky, we are going to build the story through our system here so we can get this out. Then it’s really probably going to take us a year to get him to where we want to be. We will end up on a major. We will end up with some traction by the time it gets there.
Tamir already has a sizeable following in Europe.
He does. People know who he is there. People know who he is here. AEG guys here knew who he was because Elliot Leftko (Vice President at Goldenvoice Concerts - AEG Live) saw him in Israel (at Tune In Tel Aviv in November 2016).
You have a clutch of promising young artists.
I’ll tell you, Tamir Grinberg, Jacquie Lee, Elijah Blake, and Finn Matthews are probably the ones that everybody is going to hear about soon. They have voices. They have stage presence. They have people that are already spotting them. I get calls from all of the agencies, calls from the promoters, to develop them. I have four people here at Steel Wool that are just going to blow up.
Nineteen-year-old Jacquie Lee, the runner-up on Season 5 of “The Voice,” is signed for management, but isn’t on the label.
No Jacquie is not on the label. We are in the middle of deciding what the next move is with her. You have to build the story now for a lot of the majors.
Before signing an act major labels want to see a compelling social imprint and extensive touring. Unlike decades ago they don’t show up on Day 1 or Day 2 of an artist’s career; maybe on Day 10.
Yeah. That’s one of the other things, Larry. We are an artist development company. A lot of management companies and a lot of labels shy away from development. The attitude is, “Give it to me when it’s already happening. Give it to me when the social numbers are so overwhelming that I can’t walk away from it. God forbid that I have to actually develop the act, work with them on social media, work on how to expand their reach. God forbid that I have to sit down with them, and talk to them about imaging, and put them in rooms with the right people to write with.”
So, that was the crack in the old business model that I noticed from when I was at Live Nation, and I left and formed Steel Wool with Kevin Welk, Watsky, and Tyler Rutkin. it was like, “If you place 10 bets on 10 artists that are totally fantastic and that you really believe in, then how can you take them for zero or a one or two, and then take them to town? That’s what we are placing our bets on. Our roster is insanely cool. Anderson (Paak) is the first artist with us that really blew up. That came through our label. We created the story. The guy is an unbelievable artist. He’s got some guys who support him as well in his career at OBE. It was a blast working that project. We co-manage Anderson Paak with Adrian Miller, and Taz Askew. So there are three of us that are on the phones trying to figure out things.
Under the past music industry system, neither major labels nor artist management really did artist development. The manager’s job was to secure a booking agent for work, and to find a label that would cover tour and recording support. Perhaps music publishers were more entrenched in the developmental process. With most labels today being gutted, development largely falls on management.
Yeah, and that is one of the reasons that we formed the label and we have management. If you look at our business model we have all of these services that support development. In the old days, a label developmental deal was like a demo deal. “Here’s 10 grand. Go in and cut 10 tracks. Go book yourself or try and get a low-level agency to book you until you are big enough, and then go to a major agency, and then we’ll sign you.” It’s completely different now. There are agencies now looking at younger talent. Right now, I’m in talks with probably every agency there is about our roster.
Last year Steel Wool invested in FestiFi. Why the investment in wireless-centric solutions for festivals and high traffic events?
Well, once again, you see where the future is going. If you can get in early you stand a chance. You know that not everybody at Wi-Fi is going to let you. If you are in a middle of a field, you need it (reliable communications). We have two guys that run FestiFi, and the founder Damon Schrotberger used to work on Wall Street where the lines could never go down because clients would lose a ton of money. I was really sold on him, and I knew that the concept was going down. It is only going to get bigger. So we invested.
Also at the same time, we did a deal with VRC, The Virtual Reality Company. It is the Rob Stromberg (director of “Maleficent”) and Steven Spielberg company with CEO Guy Primus. We are in bed with them in bringing a lot of their music strategies and stuff.
Many promoters are now working to extend the festival experience by offering everything from mobile teleconferencing to virtual reality experiences.
The way that the internet blows up something new happens every day.
Are you familiar with Oculus’ viable VR system?
Of course. When you see Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg with his $2 billion acquisition of Oculus (in 2014), you know probably that this is the way to go. You are going to end up with people putting on those glasses and with a (VR) delivery system, there are going to be productions with bands where you will be able to see things coming at you. It’s going to change the way that we see a concert if they (bands) decide to include those aspects into their productions, and include the cardboard versions of those glasses at events. It’s going to change how we view concerts in about two years, I think. You can see it coming.
Meanwhile, a strategic partnership with Collision Records, and Mike Snider at William Morris Endeavor to break new ground in the emerging Christian hip-hop genre didn’t pan out for you.
Unfortunately, that is one of the ones where we were so far ahead of the curve that it didn’t pan out, even though (Christian hip hop artist, songwriter, record producer and actor) Lecrae is blowing up now. The artists we had were incredibly great and Collision’s heart was in the right place, but it just didn’t pan out. We really couldn’t find the lane to really develop within. Even to develop a Christian act, they have to cross over (to the mainstream) somewhat.
And when they cross over from the Christian world to the mainstream these artists aren’t always welcome back into the Christian fold.
Yeah because we work with Kirk Franklin we see that every once in awhile. Or he gets a bit chastised, and then he gets embraced. He’s loved by everyone, though. Listen, when I started back in the Falk & Morrow days, one of the first artists that we had somewhat of a breakthrough with was gospel legends the Blind Boys of Alabama. We signed them to Elektra Records, and they ended up doing Tom Petty’s tour and we had them on every major festival.
They were so entrenched in the gospel world that they couldn’t be taken down for crossing over to the mainstream
That’s true, but the reality was that we had to take them out of the church to put then into the mainstream, and when we wanted to go back to the church every once in awhile, it was like, “Wow.” (Founding member) Clarence Fountain tells the best story about Sam Cooke. He told me a story about being on a bus and Sam Cooke walks onto the bus. Clarence says, “Hear you stepped in something with you doing the rock and roll and stuff. Well, we are never going to do that.” This was back in the ‘60s. And Sam goes, “Clarence feel this,” and he hands him a wad of money, and he says, “This is what happens when you step away from the church, and you go into the mainstream. I haven’t left the church, the church has left me, and this is the reward that I’ve gotten.” So that was like, “Wow.”
The Staple Singers went through a similar experience of being criticized for having a career in pop music.
I got to work with “Pop” Staples. At Falk & Morrow, we managed him for about a year when he put out his solo album (“Piece to the Neighbourhood” in 1992). That was one of the greatest times. He’s one of the guys. When I look back at my career and think of the guys that we worked with...
You represented Mississippi-born soul singer Otis Clay who died last year at the age of 73. He came out of the church with gospel vocal groups too.
Every great (Afro-American) singer did. Even the young ones that we work with now like Elijah Blake came out of the church. Elijah is one of our artists. He had been signed by Def Jam (and earlier Atlantic) and he’s now going to come out through our label. We took over his management, and he’s a church boy. All of the great singers that are black seem to have been touched by the church. All of these guys that you see out there now at one point are another were involved in church choirs.
What’s your personal history?
I was born in Hollywood, and my parents moved to Orange County when 6. So I grew up close to Costa Mesa, Newport Beach, and Huntington Beach. You went to the beach, turned on the radio, and you heard the Monkees, Donovan, and Led Zeppelin. It’s not like that today. Back then we were so into every single act that came out. It didn’t matter if it was Donovan who was a folk singer or the Temptations who were soul music.
One of the best music clubs ever, The Golden Bear, was in Huntington Beach. It closed in the mid-‘80s
The Golden Bear was amazing. I saw so many acts at the Golden Bear. Jerry Garcia, George Thorogood when he first started, and Commander Cody.
You became a fan of American blues. What artists first caught your attention?
Magic Sam, Buddy, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker. That group of guys turned me further onto blues. I got turned onto them because of Led Zeppelin and Canned Heat recordings. I’d go, “Wow, where did that sound come from?” That’s where I learned about Willie Dixon and Hooker when Zeppelin did “Boogie Mama.” That turned out to be an old Hooker tune. And “You Shook Me” is a Willie Dixon song.
In the early 1980s, you began organizing weekly San Diego Blues Society Sunday jam sessions at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach.
We were doing Albert Collins, John Lee Hooker and all these guys and we were promoting them at the Belly Up. Finally, Mac Falk came to me and said, “Why don’t we start a business together?” He saw what I and these other guys were doing. So we started Falk & Morrow and we began signing all of these artists and all of a sudden we were booking stuff around the world out of little Solano Beach.
Dave Hodge was then running the Belly Up Tavern.
Dave was running the Belly Up. Dave funded the original Falk & Morrow. He was one of our silent partners.
Falk & Morrow Talent would go on to have 7 staffers and a roster 21 clients that included Blind Boys of Alabama, Mick Taylor, Otis Clay, Thomas Mapfumo, Skatalites, Eek-A-Mouse, the Paladins, and Charlie Musselwhite.
It was so much fun. Every job I’ve had has been fun, but I will tell you that when I think back about how I started with those guys.....wow. I got to work with a bunch of these great artists early in my life. I worked with Ann Peebles. She co-wrote “I Can’t Stand The Rain.” I put out a tour of Otis Clay and Anne Peebles together, and they barnstormed across Canada playing all of those (summer) festivals.
You also separately operated King Bee Management, handling the Paladins, Charlie Musselwhite, and the Blind Boys of Alabama.
We had management that we ran separately. We had agents that we ran at Falk & Morrow, our booking agency. We had venues. We had The Palomino in North Hollywood. Locally we had the Belly Up, and the Bella Via, and we had Calamity Jayne’s in Vegas.
Mac operated an adjoining recording studio as well.
Mac had the little studio in the back too. The company was a great training ground and place to cut your teeth for a young guy like I was. Mac was my first mentor. I was learning from a guy who had come from L.A. and had moved to San Diego. So he knew all of the agents and all of the managers (in Los Angeles). Everybody wanted to play there (in San Diego). So it was an introduction to the business by Mac and training for me on how it all worked.
How did you end up in artist management?
There was a band, the Paladins, and I would rent their PA to do some shows outside of the Belly Up in another venue. They were just starting. Finally, they came said, “Would you manage us?” I didn’t really know anything about managing. I said, “Sure.” They were friends of mine.
Management at that level is mostly about acquiring bookings.
Yeah, it was about getting an agent. It was about getting bookings, and getting things out. It wasn’t my game, trust me. Back then I was just picking shows, and I was very content producing shows, the ones that we wanted to, and not getting to where it got to (in my career) where I would have something like 2,000 shows every year that I had to oversee whether it was when I was at Live Nation or the House of Blues.
Falk & Morrow Talent eventually expanded into worldbeat and reggae music.
Yeah, we had all kinds of stuff. We brought in agents like Chris Goldsmith. He was a surfer who came into my office three times and just sat there until I finally said, “Dude, start answering the phones. If you are going to be here, let’s start figuring something out.” Chris’ musical taste was like Thomas Mapfumo and Eek-A-Mouse. He was really the reggae head that came into this. He was a huge Fela Kuti fan. He brought this whole other view of music that we weren’t into. When we brought him in we started signing those kinds of acts as well. That was so much fun.
You managed the Skatalites the ska band from Jamaica that inspired a young Bob Marley.
The Skatalites changed the face of music in that (reggae) genre. People don’t realize the impact that they had on music, and I got to work with all of the original members that were alive, minus one. The Skatalites were the original ska band. Tommy McCook, Roland Alphonso, Lloyd Knibb all these guys. To sit with them and hear them tell stories of Bob Marley walking into Studio One when he was 13 and sitting in on their sessions, and watching them.
As Falk & Morrow acts began working internationally, you went on the road with many of the acts.
I went to Japan about three times including with the Blind Boys and with Mick Taylor. I went to Australia with Charlie Musselwhite, and I did Europe probably 25 times with our acts. That was fun.
How did you come to leave Falk & Morrow for House of Blues where you had such an unbelievable run as a talent buyer?
Here’s what happened. I was working with Ben Manilla at CBS Communications to do a syndicated radio show with Charlie Musselwhite (hosting). Separately, I was working with Michael Murphy, who had a really great hook-up with NHK in Japan. We were trying to do a documentary on the Blind Boys. Michael had also been hired by the House of Blues, which was just getting ready to launch their first venue in Cambridge (Massachusetts). So Michael came back to me, and said, “I’m sorry but NHK has passed on the Blind Boys.” I said, “Well that’s a drag.” Then he said, “But I’ve got these other guys, the House of Blues, and I could use some help. I need to come up with some client extensions, some outreach to different parts of our business. Radio and TV, that sort of thing.”
I said, “Let me think about it.”
This is going to sound crazy, but about two hours later, I get a phone call from Ben Manilla at CBS Communications saying, “I’m really sorry but Charlie isn’t big enough at this point in time (to host a syndicated program). The CBS folks don’t know him. I need to find another host.” Of course, I’m talking to Murphy on a completely separate thing with the House of Blues, and he’s telling me that Dan Aykroyd is involved. So I went to Murphy, and I said, “How do you think the House of Blues guys would like it if Dan Ackroyd has his own radio hour on a syndicated CBS show?” He made a call, and called back, “Danny will do it.” Then I called Ben and said, “Ben, Dan Aykroyd would do it. How would that work for CBS?” He said, “I think this is a slam dunk.” This was like having two things meld into what is a home run.
[In 1992, Michael Murphy Productions was hired by House of Blues to create programming that would imprint their brand. As president of House of Blues Productions, Murphy created the ”Live From The House of Blues” television series which aired on TBS in 1995, and a 20-part music series during Summer Olympics in Atlanta in 1996.].
A freakish occurrence.
I know. Then I get asked, “What do you want for doing this?” I said that I wanted to meet the guys from House of Blues, the brains behind it, and Dan Aykroyd.
You met Isaac Tigrett who was also the co-founder of Hard Rock Café.
Yes. So we get the deal done and Michael set the meeting up with me and Isaac at Isaac’s place in Los Angeles. I sit with him for it had to be for five hours. We went over everything We talked about his growing up in the South. Talked about what was inspiring him. We talked about what it was like to create the Hard Rocks. He had sold them and had made a ton of money.
He hadn’t opened up any of the House of Blues clubs yet?
They were just getting ready to launch Cambridge (Massachusetts). He always called it his “test tube” because it was only 300 capacity.
Cambridge was a great market to open the House of Blues prototype because of the colleges and universities there, including Harvard University (one of the local investors), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Cambridge College.
It is a great market, but it is not sustainable to run a venue of that size. In my life, I got a lot of my brand understanding from Isaac. Obviously with his experience with the Hard Rocks, and House of Blues was his next thing. We talked for five hours, and he said, “Kid, I want you to come, and run Los Angeles.” Of course, I had my own company with Mac, but it was one of those epiphany moments where you just go, “What you are doing is really fun but, all of a sudden, you are going to be playing at a completely different level.”
While you came onboard as a talent buyer, the House of Blues opening night in Los Angeles in 1994 was memorable. The doors opened an hour late. Dan Aykroyd was out front dressed in a police outfit directing traffic, as you and headliner John Fogerty talked baseball in the dressing room.
That was funny. I didn’t really know John yet. I had had one conversation with him. “By the way, we are an hour behind.” Dan is out front waiting for Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and all of the gang that was coming over from DreamWorks for the opening. Danny had on his House of Blues’ gear with a cop hat on, and a radio and everything. And I am just thinking, “God, this is nuts.” John Fogerty very calmly says, “That’s okay. Opening nights are pretty crazy.” Then I said, “I hear you like baseball.” So we ended up talking about baseball for about 45 minutes until I get a call saying, “Okay, everybody’s in.”
In the course of that meeting, John asks, “What song do you want to hear first?” This would be the first song on the House of Blues stage there. I said, “I love the (guitar) intro to ‘Susie Q.’ That is one of my favorite Creedence tracks. Can you open with that?” He goes, “Yeah.” I envisioned hearing the intro to “Susie Q.” and everybody going crazy as the bar was starting to open up. Everybody is going to freak out. All of a sudden, the curtains peel back, and there’s John Fogerty doing “Susie Q.” It went off without a hitch. It was one of those dream moments.
Working with a 1,200 capacity club, you had almost every major act in the era play there. Quite the diverse musical mix as well.
We did everything including a week with the Fugees, five nights with D'Angelo, three nights with Fifty Cents right when he was on the cover of Rolling Stone, three nights with Eric Clapton. We did Paul Simon. We did everybody.
Was there pushback from authorities over the hip hop shows? Hip hop was a major part of the club’s entertainment but it also made local police jittery.
Well, it was a lot of constant neighborhood outreach and sitting with the police department and letting them know that, “This is such a massive part of our business.” I don’t want to say that they were racists, but they thought that the crowd was going to be of one kind, and we saw it (their reactions)
Well c’mon there was a longtime local rivalry between the Crips and Bloods dating back to the ‘60s. At one of the Fugees’ show, the Bloods turned up and didn’t want to leave.
Well, with a club you are dealing with everything that comes up. The worst thing that I ever had was a guy getting shot on “Little Johnny Taylor Night” because drunks having issues over a girl. I had a rockabilly night where a guy got stabbed in the parking lot over a girl. Once again drunk people getting upset over a girl.
Yes, there are challenges with hip hop, especially in those days, but you just have to know how to deal with it. I used artists a couple of times to defuse things. When the Bloods came one night I went into Fifty’s dressing room, and he spoke to them, and they dispersed. Another time with the Fugees, when I had an issue, and the police were stepping back almost waiting to see what was going to happen. Tupac was there. I asked him to help me and because he was a friend of the house. Tupac spoke to them and they left. He said, “We aren’t going to be able to do hip hop here if there’s a scene. Right now, it’s the beginning of a scene. The cops are agitated. Do us a favor and leave or we are not going to be able to do this stuff anymore. And they left.
Tupac’s final show was at the House of the Blues.
It was, and it was amazing. Everybody came and played with him. It was one of those moments in hip hop history. To have Tupac, who I think was the biggest guy ever (in hip hop), Snoop, Cube, Nate Dogg, and Fifty. We had all these guys onstage at once. At one point, there were about 40 guys onstage.
[“Tupac: Live at the House of Blues” was the rapper’s last recorded performance. The album was recorded on July 4, 1996, and released by Death Row Records in 2005, 9 years after his death. It also features such artists as Snoop Dogg, Tha Dogg Pound, Nate Dogg, Jodeci, and Outlawz. Since its release it has reportedly sold over a million units.]
You came onboard at House of Blues initially as a talent buyer and two years later you became head of talent as the chain expanded nationally.
I started running talent and, as we started expanding the brand, I had to come up with the idea of how. I was kind of like the AEG and the Live Nation guys in that I had to sometimes go in with one offer and protect ourselves and not lose acts in certain markets. So we started a touring division, and we started buying tours. We did the first big Blink 182 national tour. We did the “Smoking Grooves” tour which was a brand extension. We packaged the Fugees, Outkast, Cypress Hill, Ziggy Marley, Public Enemy, Busta Rhymes and others.
At the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, House of Blues launched a 3,000-capacity venue called The Tabernacle with a week of sold-out concerts by James Brown, Johnny Cash, Al Green and others.
We had a month to book that. At the last second, Isaac had bought The Tabernacle, a church which Live Nation now owns. It’s one of the best venues in the country. Isaac walked into my office, and said, “Kid, we just bought The Tabernacle. I need you to book shows there for the Olympics.” I said, “Clear Channel has been trying to do this for the past 6 months, and they are having issues. This is going to be a little tough.” He said, “You guys can pull it off.”
What did you then do to make it work?
I pulled Sonny (Schneidau) in from New Orleans (then the talent buyer for House of Blues in New Orleans, the second venue opened in the chain) and just went after artist after artist. We ended up with James Brown, Al Green, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and more. We did one night when it was (Latin music legends) Celia Cruz with Tito Puente. That night all the Latin athletes, TV commentators, and journalists in town for the Olympics were in the House of Blues. The next night it was the (Atlanta) Dream Team onstage with James Brown.
You also helped produce the half-time show for Super Bowl XXXI (Jan. 26, 1997) at the Lousiana Superdome in New Orleans, booking James Brown, ZZ Top, and the Blues Brothers as “The Blues Brothers Bash.”
I have to give a shout out to Jim Glancy on that. Jim was then working at Radio City Music Hall, which had the half-time show at the Super Bowl, and they were having an issue of what the show was going to be. He asked if I would help put the show together. So I put the show together, and the half-time basically became a commercial for House of Blues. There were the Blues Brothers being chased by the police. ZZ Top riding motorcycles. James Brown was popping out of the stage. It was crazy.
House of Blues had a reported box-office gross of $220.7 million by 2003. The company owned or operated 19 major North American concert venues. Its chain of nightclubs and restaurants was in 9 cities, including Chicago, Orlando, San Diego, and Las Vegas. Still, House of Blues had faced enormous competition In the late 1990s as Robert F.X. Sillerman, under the SFX Entertainment banner, spent about $2.5 billion rolling up most of the major promoters in North America.
We bought Universal Concerts to get into that space. Some amphitheaters came with it (the deal) as well as Jay Marciano, Melissa Miller, and Bob Shea.
[In 1999, House of Blues Entertainment acquired Universal Concerts, the Seagram Co. company, which operated 19 concert venues across North America for a reported $190 million.]
What was behind the purchase of Universal Concerts?
There was a crack in the marketplace. With agents and managers, it was best to have competition. There was no AEG Live yet. It was good to have a competitive market otherwise, one promoter really ran the market. If there’s a non-competitive market, managers and agents weren’t going to be able to make the money that they want for their artists because one company would just control everything.
Obviously, there was considerable competition to land major artists.
There were a bunch of agents that were really supportive of us (House of Blues). Cara Lewis and Steve Martin (both then at William Morris Agency) and a lot of these guys at the beginning gave us everything in every market.
We had walked into L.A. and you talk about a market being contested. You had GoldenVoice, which was just starting to become massive. It was right before they formed Coachella. They had the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and all of the cutting-edge acts and they had the El Rey Theatre. Then you had The Roxy with Lou Adler and those guys that had a bunch of relationships forever. You also had Brian Murphy and Avalon Attractions. We were walking into a market where, on the face of it you would go, “Why did you go into that market?”
Meanwhile, New York’s live music scene was being described in Billboard as “The Battle of New York” with Delsener/Slater Enterprises, John Scher’s Metropolitan Talent, and The Bowery Presents.
You are also competing again MSG (Madison Square Gardens). But you are right, New York was such a competitive market. We never went into New York. We didn’t go in there. What is now Terminal 5 (formerly a nightclub in Hell’s Kitchen called Club Exit), Jim Glancy had called me up and asked if we wanted to turn that into a House of Blues. Our real estate guys took a look at it, and they passed. I was like, “Are you kidding me?” At the end of the day, we didn’t take Terminal 5, and the rest is history. One of the biggest grossing clubs in history now.
In 2006, Live Nation purchased House of Blues Entertainment and the following year you were appointed president Live Nation New York, overseeing more than 1,200 shows a year. Of course, Ron Delsener was there as the chairman Live Nation New York
Ronnie was the chairman, and I was the president. Being chairman was more a nod to him, and his history. The onus of the P&L and the shows fell on myself and our team. I had three of the greatest talent bookers anywhere in Jason Miller, Phil Ernst, and Sean Striegel. We had the sheds where artists can make the most money. So that’s good. We had the exclusives on Roseland Ballroom and Hammerstein Ballroom, which are mid-level 3,500-seaters that artists need to get to a Radio City Music Hall sized room. We had Irving Plaza, and we had just opened the Gramercy Theatre, a 400 seat venue where an artist could start.
What was the contrast going from House of Blues to Live Nation?
House of Blues started from the ground floor so I was in the trenches from day one with some people. There was a real family bond by the time it was sold. I still stay in touch with those people. We became more than work colleagues. We became best buddies. When I came into Live Nation it was as the third president in New York. Live Nation was making their transition from Clear Channel.
You obviously knew all of the players in New York.
At one point with the House of Blues Jay Marciano, Michael Yerke, and Melissa Miller were on our team. All of sudden, in a blink of an eye, we were all in New York together. Jay and Melissa, two of the smartest people in our business, were running Madison Square Garden. They are both so talented. Jim Glancy was running The Bowery Presents, and I was running Live Nation (New York). And there’s John Scher who we almost did a deal with House of Blues. We almost bought John Scher’s company (Metropolitan Entertainment). He and Jay were going to run North America as far as the concert division of House of Blues.
All of a sudden we are all in New York at each others’ throats and being competitive.
In 2011 you left your Live Nation New York post return to Los Angeles to join the North American Touring office of Live Nation as senior vice president. Soon afterward, you launched Steel Wool Entertainment.
(Live Nation president/CEO) Michael Rapino has been as good to me as anybody in the business. He let me start Steel Wool during the last two months at Live Nation. I actually started Steel Wool in their offices, and he was supercool. He told me, “Come back, and sell it to me.”
As I said at the beginning of our interview, you returned to a changed artist management environment.
It’s just so global today. I have relationships in Taiwan that I deal with weekly. I have relationships with labels all around the world in which we have to sync up our release dates, and our video releases. We are constantly talking to the Koreans and to mainland China, and to the Australians.
Decades ago people on the West Coast got up early to make phone calls to the east today. Today you are working on an international clock.
I start at 5:30 in the morning. At that time I am doing Europe. Then East Coast, LA. And so on. We’ve also got artists that are sprinkled all over the world too. Now it’s from 5:30 in the morning to 7:30 (P.M.) when you are getting them when they are waking up in Australia and Indo-Asia and then hitting Europe.
Ever use your smartphone or computer in the middle of the night to monitor your work activities?
Oh, no. At about 9:30 I am sound asleep. I’m out. You can’t not sleep. I am not going to do that to myself.
Meanwhile, so many markets are opening up for Western acts like China and India, a market which has really stepped up.
We just got massive offers for Anderson Paak in India. Watsky played India last year. Once again you start to realize how small the world is, and what were underdeveloped countries back in the day are actually now ahead of us on some levels. There are different platforms that you have to be aware of in those countries to make sure your artists get maximum penetration. If you are not aware of those, or your partner isn’t on the case, then your artists are going to suffer. You have to stay up on what’s going on here (in North America), but also in the entire world, you have to know what’s going on. In every one of these countries, it is changing. Every country. Every month something comes up.
Danish rock band Lukas Graham typifies the strategy of slingshotting artists onto the world stage via streaming and social media.
Yeah, a band will be big overnight and you will think, “Where did they come from and how did they even happen?” I remember Hillsong United (from Australia) when we were in New York. We got to know those guys and all of sudden they can do stadiums. They went from a thousand to a stadium overnight. That’s pretty nuts. There’s only a handful of artists that can do stadiums. I remember Michael Rapino getting a hard time when he said on one of our (Live Nation) conference calls that there will be artists breaking within a year. From playing a nightclub to playing an arena. A bunch of people criticized him, but Michael was right. There’s not a whole lot of them. There’s maybe a handful a year that happens to, but it happens.
Meanwhile, so many newbie artists seek to play Coachella or Bonnaroo before they are ready.
They are not ready, but remember the guys who run those things and book these festivals are music guys. (Coachella booker) Paul Tollett has a real sense of what he wants on at Coachella, and the guys at Bonnaroo know what they want. They may want to throw something like a (Sir) Paul McCartney on to blow everybody’s mind. Lollapalooza, those guys are music fans. They know want they like.
Obviously, they are going to have to pick some commercial acts, but they are a brand as well. As much as they don’t want to admit it. Coachella is a brand, as is Bonnaroo, and Lollapalooza. So they have to do what is right for their brand. A young band comes and says that they want to play Coachella? Paul probably has 300 bands vying for those 20 spots on his card. He will probably do a couple of favors, but he will do what fits his brand, and pick the best bands, and pick what he wants the most.
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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