This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Adam Tobey, managing partner, Concert Ideas.
While on the concert committee at the University of Rochester in upstate New York in the early ‘90s, Adam Tobey found his calling and recognized the skills he needed to follow his future career path.
Tobey had been booking talent with Harris Goldberg’s Concert Ideas, the Woodstock, New York-based agency that, serving as the middle agency between colleges and talent, has been the prime power player in American college bookings for over four decades.
After graduating in 1993, and while working at a job in Boston writing computer software for a year in Boston, Tobey stayed in touch Goldberg, not only to secure free concert tickets, but to lobby for a job as a talent booking agent at Concert Ideas which today has offices in both Woodstock, New York, and Indianapolis, Indiana.
Tobey joined Concert Ideas in August 1994, and became president in 2012 continuing to work with his existing client base, while shouldering the additional task of overseeing the operation of the company. A year ago, he was named managing partner, responsible for the agency’s day-to-day operations. Today, Tobey and his staff sift through the shifting sands of securing college dates, assisting college talent buyers, and student-run campus entertainment boards which oversee which acts are brought to a school, while advising those larger American booking agencies wary of directly booking acts on the college circuit themselves due to the complexities of the sector.
The recent demonstration in and around the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville provided a political context for the Unite the Right movement, but it also fits into debates over free speech, and American college campuses being the front lines of cultural battle. A concern to you?
It is. The best way that I can sum this up is to say that every school has a risk management office. What that means differs from different schools. In reality, it’s not risk management anymore, it’s risk aversion. They (colleges) don't want to be, basically, connected to anything that is potentially going to upset somebody. It has affected what we do. We are concerned about content.
Concerns over music content have long troubled college administrators.
It continues to intensify as the years pass. I understand the need to be protective, and to make smart decisions, but college is where students are supposed to be exposed to the world. It is where students are supposed to learn that the world is not this nice, cushy popcorn bubble that will always protect them.
College life, in fact, is living within a bubble of its own making.
Of course. But there should be, I believe, a greater willingness to entertain things that are going to make some people snarl and be unhappy because the moment students walk out that door the world isn’t there to make them feel good about themselves. The world is there, and it’s a place where everybody is going to take care of their own. I think that schools do their students a disservice by putting earmuffs and blinders on their students because what happens when they no longer use their college mailing address and are exposed to something that is, for all intents and purpose, terrible?
If you are attending a small, out of the way college then you are probably living in an overprotected environment.
If you are in college, and you have a speaker or a concert that is messy, there is a built-in mechanism to discuss it. To put ideas out there, and to address it, hopefully in a constructive way. In that regard, the bubble helps. The school brings X , they are going to do Y (because of school restrictions). Not to counteract it (any restriction) but as an alternative. If you never experience that (X), and you are out in the world, and you are exposed to X, how do you deal with it?. What is the coping mechanism for it?
You have been at Concert Ideas for 23 years. You became president in 2012, and now you are managing partner. What is your role?
The structure of the company is a bit different now. Harris and I are now partners. I run the day-by-day. There aren’t hundreds of us running around here.
How much staff does the company have?
We have six full-time staff and in the busy season, we have an army of floater reps and production managers that come on to help us, especially in April, when there are three million things going on.
The company is headquartered in Woodstock, New York?
We have two offices locally. We have an office in Woodstock, and I’m in Kingston (11 miles away), and then we have (talent buyer) Dave Stevens in Indianapolis.
With the digital age, you can have people working outside the main office.
Well, we talked about that. Harris and I were both resistant to it for a long time. But you have to evolve especially as technology enables and forces you to evolve. Everything works fine. Nobody would know that we aren’t all in the same room if they call. If they call here for Dave, who is in Indianapolis, all it does is transfer the call to Dave. It’s like if you call any large company Where you sit, it doesn’t matter as long as you get the job done.
How many shows does the agency annually handle?
Right now, around 400.
You work primarily on the east side of the Mississippi?
Yes. Most of my clients are on this side of the Mississippi. There are more schools on this side of the Mississippi than on the West Coast. We do have more clients on this side.
Even with Dave based in Minneapolis?
(Laughing) Even with Dave in Minneapolis. He’s slowly pushing his way west, but he also has a bunch of East Coast stuff. Dave has a strong foothold in Texas, and in the Midwest. We are moving more that way. Maybe, in a few years, we will focus more on west of the Mississippi. Just because there are more schools here, it was easier to route things. If you want to go from Maine to Florida and play colleges, you probably have over 1,000 options that you can do.
Decades ago, labels utilized grassroots promotion strategies to launch new acts via the college market, but discovery of new music has changed dramatically. Today, there’s different ways of exposing new bands, including through student interactions on social media.
Before the internet college students might telephone to tip off friends to a new band they’d heard or there’d be a buzz around a band from the local college radio station or the local record store. College radio today is 300 islands across the country, and local music retail has virtually disappeared.
College radio is not what it was by any means. I had a buddy who ran the radio station when I was in school. He was always being courted by labels and bands. It was nuts. I didn’t quite understand at the time the role that college radio then played.
How do you tell an act is building at the college level today? They may have a substantial social media buzz, but do they have enough “stickability” to impact the college marketplace?
“Stickability” isn’t that relevant in our marketplace anymore because of the instantaneous nature of entertainment now. Instantaneous ability to hear and see anything that you want anytime, and the interconnectivity of everyone to all forms of entertainment. If someone has a huge buzz on them right now, they are theoretically ready for the college market. Artists come from nowhere today. Tomorrow, people all of a sudden start clicking on social media, and on Spotify and whatever mediums that they want to use. Then, a couple of weeks later, people will start asking about the act. “Did you see this person? Did you hear this person? I saw them on that video. They were featured on this song or that song.” It isn’t instantaneous, but it’s pretty darn close. I remember years ago Chris Rock did a comedy routine and he said something like, “Here today, gone today.” I don’t remember if it was about music or comedy or what it was, but it is very, very true.
[Chris Rock's prophetic "Here today, gone today!” warning to pop stars was at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards]
We are the “click” generation. Years ago, groups might balk at touring outside their region if they felt they weren’t ready. Today, if a band can dive into any one market, they have to take that dive in.
I agree, and there are a lot of acts and a lot of agents and managers who value the college marketplace. They see that it can be an important part of the puzzle for an artist and, in some ways, be a fallback. That word can be interpreted a lot of different ways, but I mean it as being a safety net in some ways. There are also some folks who are just not interested in the college market, and that’s fine. It is what it is.
Many artists, managers, and agents would rather have a major city date or a summer festival play.
Sure, they get great exposure. There are a lot more eyes on the act, more social media. Playing the college market can be a lot of work. There are lots and lots of hoops to jump through. Games that you have to play. I always tell folks, “You have to remember that when school XYZ says they want your band to come, they want you there because they like you. They like your band. They think you will do well. They are excited to see you.” The business aspect of it (the gig), the financial, is a very small piece of the puzzle. “If they can afford you, it’s ‘Awesome, we want you to come.’ It’s not just, ‘Well, what are our ticket sales going to be? Are we going to break even? How much are we going to have to spend on marketing?’” Those are not the primary decision makers for schools. “Can we afford you, yes or no? Do we like this act? Will it do well here? Will our students be excited to see you? Will you be able to play a role that we need you to play?” I think sometimes that folks (acts) forget that. You are there because they want you there. They are excited to have you there. It’s just not. “Great, we will make this amount of money” because 9 out of 10 schools don’t make money on anything. So that (talking fees) is not a big decision maker.
Bands on the college circuit were once first discovered by way of campus radio airplay or, perhaps, through the CMJ Music Marathon, the New Music Seminar or South By South West conferences. Today, it is largely through performances on the major summer festivals, and through social media. Many bands figure that by being on a summer festival bill that college bookers will discover them. But by then haven’t they already been involved with college touring?
In some cases. I don’t see it as clear cut as that. Social media is the largest driving factor that resonates with students now. The 18 to 22-year-olds live online. That’s what they all do. That is where they find, for them, the next big thing. Then they will find who this artist is associated with. What social media they are into, and how they can connect them, virtually. That is where, I believe, students are finding what they think is the next big thing. It is interesting that if you look at schools across the country, different genres of musics resonate differently; different types of comedy resonate differently; but everybody that you are going to talk to is going to say, “I was online listening to this” or “I was checking this out.” They look at their (acts) Instagram, and then it’s about how they are relating to it. It’s the biggest driver for what we do.
Still, acts, managers and agents intensely lobby for opening spots on one or more of the summer festivals. If an act is on at noon on Saturday in one of the smaller festival stages, all they can say is that they played the festival.
Yeah, but that has value. Somewhere some kid who is a decision maker is going to raise their eyebrow, and they are going to say, “Huh, maybe this is a band that we should be thinking about?” All these things matter.
True, but today’s students are difficult to reach through traditional forms of advertising. Radio, television, and newspapers have little relevance anymore in promoting new music. So texting, Instagram, and YouTube are driving the discovery process.
YouTube is fantastic for discovery. You can go down what I call “rabbit holes.” Continually jumping from one act’s video to the another.
It’s fun to do that. You hear a lot about that from students. “I discovered this band.” And they are doing exactly what you are talking about. They are just goofing around and looking here and listening to this and that, and they see a link for this or they come across something that they weren’t necessarily looking for. It’s very exciting, and it’s cool.
Still reliable is word-of-mouth. Someone telling a friend to check out a band.
Yeah, but they are telling them about it on social media. They are posting on their own site. “I just saw this great band. Check this out.” That’s how the word spreads.
Through texting, Instagram, Facebook or whatever, a music fan can’t wait to tell others about their big discovery.
I agree 100%. That’s how this generation finds it. But, it’s true. Everybody here talks about how we get emails or texts from kids at crazy hours. “I was just online and I found this act. What’s their story? Can they play here? What do they cost? Have they played other schools?” They are doing exactly what you are talking about, spreading the word. I don’t know if “grassroots” is the right word, but it’s very real. It’s not industry-driven. “This is what is hip right now.” It is just some kid finding it. That’s the coolest part.
They might be able to find a new act, but often it’s hard to find much information on them. Most new bands don’t have a well-developed website. It can be challenging finding out who they are or who books them. You can, of course, but they might not be able to access any pertinent information.
Yes and no. I guess there are a couple of parts to it. One is yes, artists sometimes don’t have the machinery to create a lot of accessible data on themselves. Whether they are just starting out or whether they are just learning how to do it. It’s not bad. It’s just that they are learning how to do it. Some don’t put stuff out there on purpose because they are trying to create a brand or an image, I guess, but I don’t always understand that.
It’s hard to maintain that mystique in this day and age when everything is available all of the time, and people want it right now. If you are not giving people stuff right now, I think you are making a mistake. I was reading this article about Chance the Rapper, and he’s constantly putting out material. He’s constantly keeping people interested which is a brilliant play because people want everything right now, and he is giving his audience what he wants them to have in order to grow and grow. He’s an unqualified success, and he gets it. He totally, totally gets it.
Are most college bookers knowledgeable enough to access the information they need to consider booking a specific act?
In terms of information I find that most kids are pretty savvy today They can find the data if they look hard enough, but the challenge is—one of the biggest challenges that we face is--they’ve got the data, and they know who they need to talk to, but now what do they do with that? How do they make that data work for them? How do they know that the data is accurate or the responses from their inquiries are accurate? How do they play the game? We spend a huge amount of time addressing those issues with students, and college booking staff. “We know that this band is represented by XYZ, and they are about this much money.” Well, there is more to it (a booking) than that. People can find what they are looking for, but how they use that information isn’t always so clear, and even if they are using it, they are often not necessarily getting the best responses.
As the middle party, you balance the needs of the students and the needs of acts. Both rely on you playing the role of the honest broker in overseeing booking details.
Well, we couldn’t do what we do if we weren’t (an honest broker), especially in this day and age when all the information is there. We take a huge amount of pride in giving people the best data that we can. That is honest data, and not everybody likes it. Some people want to hear what they want to hear, but that’s not our business. We are in the business of helping people curate the event that they want. And we are in the business of giving them the experience that they want and make it easy, and as fun and memorable as they want. And helping them with the educational component of it. Every other part of the puzzle that they want help with is what we are here to do. We don’t have a vested interest in artists X, Y or Z.
Still, you are servicing those booking agencies that don’t go deep into the college market. They rely on you to help develop an audience at the college level for their baby bands and, perhaps, fill in dates for their clients.
I agree, and a lot of it (our business) is a two-way street. We have to take care of the schools that are hiring us, and we also have to make sure that the agencies and the acts are treated professionally, and with proper respect. A lot of what we do is weeding through the mess that can be the college marketplace. Filtering through the ugliness, and getting things handled as professionally as possible.
The college market is tough. It is very, very tough. Remember we are dealing with decision makers who are generally 18 to 22-year-olds who don’t do this professionally. With schools that do two to four shows a year.
A college may have an entertainment director who might be in place for a few years.
Yes, again this is not something that they do all of the time. Major events or however you want to describe it. It doesn’t matter what type of event it is.
Some college talent bookers need considerable backup support.
Yeah, and that is a big component of what we do. For me, personally, it is something that I feel is super, super important. It’s working through contracts. A massive part of what we do is in educating schools. “This is why this contract is written this way. Here are some suggestions of how you can revise the language or edit it in a way that protects the school; but understand why it’s written this way. It is to protect the act. Let’s create something that is neutral so everybody is protected.”
At times, you give guidance on day-of-show logistics, marketing, and even branding. Why do you provide those type of services?
Colleges, they have 2-4 major events per year, and every event is special. It’s not as if they are a (major) promoter with just one show happening in a series of events. This is (show #) 3,219. Two days from now, it’s going to be (show #) 3,220. For a lot of the folks that we work in the college market, they do a couple of shows, and that may be all that they ever do. Each event is uniquely special and plays a completely different role than the event would for a (major) promoter.
Is the recording sector of the music business visible in the college market today? Decades ago labels were solidly ensconced in the college market. They don’t seem to have that kind of penetration anymore.
No, they don’t. I would assume that a lot of that has to do with the label sector being affected by the change in the marketplace, and by social media. Again, with the changing of its (label’s) role in music, and the role of college radio not being what it was, it’s much, much harder to get into the college marketplace. You go to school XYZ, and if you are the director or if you are the student programmer, every day you are inundated physically, and online with countless things. Pitches, sales figures, and press kits. You can find whatever you want in a matter of minutes as opposed to back in the day when you would have to sort through everything and wait for this or that; wait to find out if the band will do this or that, or if they would even drop it (music) to you. Now, it’s not like that. It’s not like that at all. It’s not quite instantaneous (communications), but it’s pretty close. So to get through, I would say all of that “white noise” because there’s not a better description for it, is really really hard. No matter how good your act is, how are you going to get through that “white noise?” It’s tough, and a lot of labels don’t push as hard anymore.
Also, labels were once more concerned with artist development. Often today they are satisfied with the initial development being done by others—a manager, an agent, or even a music publisher. They don’t want to be onboard Day One, they want to be there Day Three. They also want to see impressive social media and streaming numbers up front. They aren’t as centered on the future of an act as they once were or said that they were.
I would agree. I don’t know the workings of a record label. Our interaction was not much years ago, and it is certainly much less as the years have progressed. But, if you are trying to develop in the college marketplace, you were always competing with a hundred other bands, right? But now, you are competing with a thousand other bands because the bands know how to get in touch with XY&Z (colleges) now. They can get a list from the Department of Education of every credited two to a four-year school in the country. It’s online. It’s right there. If someone puts in the homework, they can get the name and email address of every director of student life, and every programming board in the country.
Or they can hire companies that devise national campaigns targeting American college radio and other campus outlets.
Yep, it’s easier today for people to get that data or hire someone to do the legwork for them. So if you are going to the University of Rochester you probably are getting enough people (artists) from New York, Vermont and Massachusetts, New Jersey and, maybe, Ohio. Now, if there’s a great band out of North Dakota, and you are from Texas, they are getting information to you (the programmer) because it is easy to get it to you. The stuff that the schools and the programming staff are looking at comes from everywhere.
Even from outside North America?
Sure. But not that much.
With a college programmer seeking to book an event is among the first questions you ask, “How much is the budget?
It is an important question, but it’s not the first question. The budget is obviously important. What the budget is, and how it is used, is affected by what their goals are. I know that sounds a bit clichéd and silly, but you need to know what they are trying to do.
Are most college programmers realistic about talent fees?
I would say 75% to 80% of the time they are because, once again, the information is out there. It’s not that hard for a 19-year-old or a student or programmer to say, “I doubt if we can afford this,” or “I bet we can afford this.” But they are just getting some background top level surface information. You need to find out what they are trying to do. Are they trying to have the blow-out Spring Fling? Putting all of their eggs in one basket, and go balls-to-the-wall and go nuts? Or are they trying to develop a series with hidden demographics on campus? Or are they getting some push back because they always seem to do this sort of (booking) thing; whether it’s “We are not having a lot of success with this. What else could possibly work? What is resonating at other schools?” That’s a big question that we get. “What is resonating at other schools?” We have to sometimes dig in, and try to figure out what their goals are, and what they are trying to accomplish. After that, and a few other things, you can start to say, “So what are you looking to spend?” This will be followed by, “Okay, you have XY and Z dollars, that may not be enough to do exactly what you are trying to do. Maybe, you should look at doing this.” I always tell people that the “what” is more important than the “who.” What are you trying to do, and we can help you do it.
With the perimeters provided, you will likely be able to then figure out what acts can be booked. Not just from a fee perspective, but from knowing the various bands’ routing, and what works for that school. Still presenting talent at any American educational facility can be difficult due to rules and restrictions imposed by the school, including guidelines for doing business on behalf of the school.
Right, and what matters to that school. Some schools have content restrictions. Some schools are married to their surveys. “This is what the survey says, this is what we are doing.” It doesn’t matter what other options are out there. Some schools have to alternate or rotate (music) genres. So we have to take in all of this information including about general structure, and what their desires are to create. Then you think about the budget, and how you can maximize their budget to accomplish their goals. Some schools will say, “Hey, I want this band on this day. I know it should cost about this much money, but I’m prepared to offer XYZ.” Some schools have very specific goals in mind.
These schools have obviously done their research.
I wouldn’t say that they are more educated, but they are educated a little bit in what they are trying to do, and the end zone is very clear to them. It doesn’t always end up that way because you don’t know if it’s going to work. But it seems to run to extremes. From the people who know what they want, and have a plan to get there; whereas others are a little more conceptual about what they are trying to do. I think that is probably the largest piece of what we do. It is, “We are trying to create this. Who can we book? We only have this much money.”
“We only have this much money” is the most common phrase in entertainment.
I hate when people say that because they are selling themselves short. They can’t do something fantastic. I would say that is the bulk (of our business) because people have an idea of what they are trying to create.
The bulk of college bookings take place in the Spring when most colleges are seeking to buy talent for year-end blowout events for outdoor festival-type settings, gymnasiums, and auditoriums. Is that when the purse strings get loosened up a bit?
Yeah, because everybody has something at the end of the year. It’s the big year-end events. They want to go out with a bang and what that means to certain schools differs from other schools. This is eyebrow raising and coming for what the year-end is going to be. Kids get excited about it. As long as I have been doing this it has always been that way.
They are seeking to book an act that will have made an impact?
Yes. The Spring period is historical but the window has expanded every year, and it seems that it is now affected by when Easter is. Also, the windows are changing now because of all the festivals. Coachella has a massive impact on availability of acts for colleges now. It (the booking season) used to be the last two weeks in April, and the first few week in May were always the busiest weeks of the year. Now it’s starting earlier into April, and it is depending on when Easter falls. Sometimes, it (the booking season) goes into March. Fall is busy, but it’s not quite as busy. Fall is more around homecomings, and coming back events. April is...If you are not doing business in April, then you have a problem.
One aspect of Spring is that the student talent booker you are working with, it may be their last year of college, and they may want to go out with a bang, before going out into the big world.
Yeah, that happens a lot. They want to leave their mark. For sure, 100%.
You developed The Trendsetter Tour which tours new groups through colleges. One of the acts booked for a 15 college tour in 2014 was Echosmith which was on the cusp of breaking through nationally. When did you launch Trendsetter?
We started it four years ago or so. I think we have done 6 or 7 tours. We took a year off because we felt that we needed to step back a bit and re-evaluate how we did it.
How did you come up with the concept?
I was at one of the NACA (The National Association for Campus Activities) conventions a bunch of years ago. There is always a lot of great stuff (acts) at NACA, and there’s also a lot of acts that sometimes make you scratch your head. As I mentioned before, there’s a lot of “white noise” out there in the college marketplace. So many options for people. I was at this conference, and I was thinking about that. I was thinking that there had to be a better way to filter through all this “white noise,” and give schools something unique, different, and special that we could get in on the ground floor with. That it’s not a lot of money. It’s not going to impact on what they (colleges) do with other things. It’s going to be part of a series of things they do. Every school that does programming does multiple events. They aren’t always these big year-end deals or homecomings. They try to do a lot of stuff that is on a smaller scale. So the idea was let’s create something that could fit in this. I went to a bunch of schools ,and I asked about the smaller things they did. What did they look for? What mattered to them?
What response did you get?
It was, “Well we don’t want to do a lot of paperwork for something that is part of a series or a weekly event. We want someone (an act) who gives us very quick answers. We don’t want to wait two weeks to see how the routing comes into place. And we want artists who understand the marketplace.”
One of the important things people said to us was, “We want an artist that is going to engage with our students. We understand that when we bring in these larger-than-life acts that all of the students want to engage with them, but they are coming in to perform. They aren’t coming to hang out with the students.”
The whole psychology of booking smaller acts for Trendsetter is different. If they are going to bring in smaller acts, and invest money regardless if it’s a lot of money or not, they want that level of interaction. They want to be able to touch the talent. They want to be right there with them.
We went through a couple different versions of Trendsetter. The original concept was let schools pick a (music) genre, and let them pick an act from several choices that we give them. The way that we get bands to agree to this pre-confirmed tour design is that we guarantee them a certain number of shows. I think the first couple of tours were 15 (shows), and the last one was 10. On the first tour, it was 28 shows which was amazing. But the really cool part was that we got schools to agree to the first tour not knowing who the band was. They bought the concept.
Does the Trendsetter tour consist of single or multiple acts?
One band. They (student talent bookers) pick the genre, they vote, and the majority rules. (For the first tour) we had 15 people vote, and 9 of them wanted rock, three wanted county, and two wanted something else. So it was rock. We gave them bands to choose from. It evolved from there. We found that it was more effective with bands on the interaction level. What bands had to do--and they were all happy to do it--was they have to give the schools the time that they wanted. For example, if the school wants them to have dinner with the programmer, and if you are the band on the tour, then you are going to do it. If the school wants you to give a talk on songwriting, you are going to do it. If they want you to go over to the (campus) radio station, and do a 10 minute on-air (interview), you are going to do it. So what we require of the bands to guarantee these dates—is, “If you want these dates great, you have to promise, and put it in writing to do these things, or you can’t do the tour.
Everything takes place in one day?
Traditionally, the acts that do best at folk festivals in selling product are those that stay the weekend and do multiple workshops.
That is kind of similar to what I created here. If you interact with the people who are choosing to bring you there....it’s not because of finance because the money is next to nothing.
You are building the foundation of a future tour route for these bands.
That’s it exactly. Come in, and interact with these people who choose to book you because they like you. Be there. And while you are there talking to this student programmer about “This is how I wrote this song. This is how I did this loop,” they are texting or tweeting their friends saying, “This band is awesome. They are talking to me about how to write music.” Maybe, the student programmer is talking to friends who go to a different school or a friend who has a brother or sister in college.
I was once talking to a band at a school, and I said, “You go and play any hard ticket venue (as an opening act), and there’s somebody in the venue who really likes you, and they are texting about you to friends or they are tweeting, ‘This band is awesome, you should check them out’ which is exactly what you want. A school, when you play there, it’s ‘This band is awesome. You should bring them to your school.’ That’s what they are telling their friends at other schools. They are selling you while you are performing.”
What’s been the impact of the bands playing Trendsetter?
All of the bands who have done Trendsetter got it. We were lucky, we were really fortunate. Their managers got it. It’s not the easiest thing in the world because there’s a lot to do, but they are there on campus anyway. This is about putting acts we think that are cool, and we think could really become something into a marketplace that is important and they can develop here. They can really get something out of it. “We are going to take a flyer. We are going to put our neck on the line and support you in this marketplace, and go to folks and say, ‘You should trust us, and take a chance on this act.’ All you have to do is spend some extra time with the kids, and it will work.” And it has. It’s exciting. It is different, and it’s fun. At this point, there’s a bunch of schools that don’t even care who the act is. They know it’s going to be cool and it’s going to be fun and different. And kids will get that type of interaction.
When is the next Trendsetter Tour?
The next one launches in January. Who knows where it will it take us. I know we are going to Tennessee, Georgia, and a bunch of places already. We’ll see where it goes. But we route it really simply. We don’t make it hard for acts. They don’t have to get on planes. We make it very easy for everybody on all accounts.
Didn’t you grow up near Boston?
I grew up in Bedford which is by Lexington, Concord, and Carlisle. All of the boring historical places. We’d hop on the bus to the center of town, take the train, and then ride a handful (subway) stops, and we’d be in Harvard Square.
Boston then was a great place to be if you loved music. Clubs like The Rat, and The Paradise.
I loved growing up there. The best thing I can tell you about growing up there from a music perspective was that when I was away (at college) I would come home, and my buddies and I would get a copy of the Boston Phoenix, and we would go to the music section to see how many shows that we could cram in during our four or five or eight days that we were going to be home. We would go to everything that we could. Things are spread out there now, but then it wasn’t. Lansdowne Street near Fenway Park (the home to such early Boston clubs as The Ark, and Boston Tea Party) was where everything was, and the Middle East district near Kenmore Square with The Rat (aka The Rathskeller) and a bunch of other places. We lived at all of these places as much as we could and see everything that we could possibly cram in in an amount of time.
The big question: How much money would you spend buying music at the various outlets of Newbury Comics?
I don’t want to say, but I paid the rent for a couple of their stores for a couple of years. We took up residency pretty much at those stores. I remember going to Newbury Comics in Harvard Square every weekend. I remember seeing Penn & Teller in there one day and going to see Siouxsie Sioux and the Banshees signing autographs. We were there constantly. My parents used to ask, “Where are you guys going?” After awhile, they stopped asking because they knew where we were going. My folks still live there, and when we visit, my son who is 12, I always take him into Newbury Comics. Every trip.
Newbury Comics outlived such local competitors as The Coop, Strawberries, Tower Records, HMV, Popcorn, Good Vibrations, Virgin Megastore, Circuit City and Borders. As well, such bands as Nirvana, Godsmack, Radiohead, and the Beastie Boys have credited Newbury Comics in kicking off their careers.
It was a good place to discover music. As a kid growing up, I was very comfortable there. It didn’t feel weird walking around for an hour, and looking at stuff. I was willing to take a flyer on a bunch of stuff there.
Boston has had a vibrant local music scene for decades. In your time there were cool local bands including the Neighborhoods, Mission of Burma, and LaPeste.
Oh yes, Mission of Burma.
Why did you want a job with Harris Goldberg at Concert Ideas? Didn’t he intimidate you enough while you were booking bands through him at the University of Rochester?
Not really. I found it (live events) fascinating. I got involved with all of this in college kind of on a lark. I was walking past a room in the Student Union that the concert committee was having a meeting in during my freshman year. I was like, “What’s going on here?” Growing up in Boston, as I said, I had exposure to all of the music that you could want. I went to the meeting which I found to be very cool. Then I spent the next four years working with Harris while I was a student.
What was your major at the University of Rochester?
What bands were being booked at the time?
We did everything from 10,000 Maniacs to Jesus Jones. We did some jazz. My final show was Living Color which was one of the best shows that I have ever seen in my life. All sorts of stuff. I loved it all. I loved the planning of shows. I loved seeing the other side of planning a show other than from being just a fan of music from growing up. I stayed in touch with Harris, and then my predecessor was leaving, and I got the job.
You graduated in 1993 and went for the smell of the grease paint a year later.
When I first got into the job, my folks used to joke, “How’s that history degree working for you?” I’d say, “Well, “I’m really good at reading contracts.” I really like the job. The things I like about it have really evolved over the years, but I get up every day and I’m happy to come to work.
A Bedford kid moves to Rochester upper New York state for college and then to Woodstock for work. Cultural changes galore.
A little bit. My mom grew up in Schenectady. so she had spent time in Woodstock, and Saugerties. It was different for me. I didn’t know what to expect. I was writing computer software in Boston before I came here. It was a very different environment. I walked in the first day, and it was, “Here’s your desk. You know what we do. Pick up the phone, and get to work.” That is pretty well how I started.
Among the first things you did there was to attend Woodstock ’94 on the Winston Farm in Saugerties, taking care of Harris’ management client, Denny Dent.
Yeah. I think that was my fourth day on the job. A baptism by fire. It was very interesting. I joke that Woodstock ’94 was great to go to if you didn’t have to buy a ticket. A lot of people who went to those concerts did not buy a ticket. It was definitely an interesting way to start the job off. There is a big difference between being backstage at a concert at the University of Rochester in The Palestra gym with 1,500 people, to being backstage before Bob Dylan goes onstage at Woodstock ’94 (before 300,000 people). A completely different environment.
Woodstock ’94 commemorated the 25th anniversary of the original Woodstock festival of 1969. Both had their share of rain. By Saturday much of the field had turned into mud in ’94.
Yes. It was a great place to be covered in mud. There’s a McDonald’s right near where it was held, and they ran out of food. Have you ever heard of a McDonald’s running out of food? It doesn’t make any sense.
As with David Mamet’s film/play, “Glengarry Glen Ross,” did Harris give you a leads’ list and tell you to start cold calling?
Yes. The “Glengarry Glen Ross” leads. At the time, our data base wasn’t like it is now. It’s still in this Mac program called FileMaker database but then it was smaller. Harris pointed out the schools he was working with and had relationships with and said, “Here you go.” I was basically tasked with working every other school in the system and expanding the database.
You started at Concert Ideas on Aug. 8, 1994, so the Fall college booking season was underway.
I don’t the remember the details thoroughly, but I do know that this was all pre-internet. It was very different doing the job then than doing the job now. it was just a different world. It was all on the phone, all of the time, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Getting and giving data was a much slower process. I wouldn’t say it was tedious because that’s just the way it was. You aren’t comparing it to anything. I spent a few months probably just listening and learning. Trying to figure out the best way to do stuff. Figuring out my own approach. Learning what I can, and talking to people. I would talk to Harris. It was probably October or November--it took three or four months--before an agent would return my phone call.
I would imagine that most agents wanted to talk with Harris, not to the new kid.
Yes. There had also been a lot of turnover here (at Concert Ideas). Before me, no one had worked here, I believe, more than two or two and a half years.
Obviously, you overheard how Harris conducted business. That would have been an invaluable learning experience.
Yep. The space is open, and there are no walls, so it’s very easy to hear everything. I think that any job, regardless of the industry, is all about the relationships, and how you communicate with people. That’s what you have to do. You just have to listen. You won’t do it verbatim the way that somebody else does, and I don’t think that you should because you are not a clone of that person, but you have to learn the basics. You need to learn how the game is played. I would assume that this goes for any industry where communication is the key. And then you develop your own way of doing it, and your own skill set and your own methodology.
Acts utilizing the college market as a key developmental step in their careers have included the Dave Matthews Band, Third Eye Blind, R.E.M., Phish, Sum 41, Uncle Kracker, Lifehouse, Guster, and Weezer. It would have helped when you started that you were a music fan. As well, you weren’t much older than the people you were contacting for bookings. You are going to talk music with them.
Back then, yes for sure. Absolutely 100%. You mentioned Sum 41, and Uncle Kracker. When I was going to school, college music considered Guster as perennial music. There was this little band called Pearl Jam that was just starting out. Someone said to me, “You may have heard of them. They are probably going to become something one of these days.” They were coming through. And Smashing Pumpkins. I remember going to a show which was Siouxsie and the Banshees, Pearl Jam, and the Smashing Pumpkins.
Everything is different now.
The marketplace is different. But what was super important was understanding what the client cared about, and what these kids cared about. What they cared about then is different than it is now. It is very, very different.
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 1970-80. 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.
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