Lessons Learned: Michael Marion

Pollstar continues its series of real life lessons in the concert business.

The first concert I booked as a student buyer at MS State University was The Band in 1976. I thought it was coolest thing we could have and tickets were $5. The tour later became known as The Last Waltz tour. How could it not be a huge seller? Well, a week before the show we’d sold 500 tickets and ended up canceling the show.

Lesson learned No. 1: Don’t book something because you think it’s cool and you love it. Do all the research you can: Pollstar tour histories, Nielsen SoundScan, and radio PD feedback are a good start.

The second show I booked a month or so later, Stephen Stills, canceled due to "illness," even though the show was selling well. Lesson learned No. 2: To quote the late Bill Graham, "The artist makes the rules; we play the game."

Within the month I was at it again and booked a Billy Joel date through a middle agent at College Entertainment Associates, the late Mike Piranian. We paid Billy Joel $4,500 (not enough for catering today) and tickets were free to students and $3 for non-students. It was a huge success and we brought him back the following two years, where tickets went all the way to $6.50 and his guarantee was an unheard of $40,000. Lesson learned No. 3: Be persistent and good things will come to you.

In 1977, I went to L.A. for the Billboard Touring Conference. During the first session, I got up and asked Perry Cooper of Arista Records why we couldn’t get record company support for shows that played at MSU (Starkville, Miss., population 15,000 and enrollment 10,000). I was very indignant and couldn’t understand their lack of interest. Lesson Learned No. 4: Sometimes youthful ignorance will make you unintentionally daring.

After booking some big shows at MSU including Bruce Springsteen (Hungry Heart Tour), The Commodores, Linda Ronstadt, etc., I talked to David Snyder at Regency Artists (later to become Triad Artists) about The Pointer Sisters. He said he would need three or four dates to make the week happen. I promptly contacted some universities in the region and put together a run of five dates. Unfortunately, the manager didn’t take the run, but when Regency got ready to hire another agent, David remembered my efforts and brought me out to interview.

I interviewed with Richard Rosenberg and Peter Grosslight and they hired a small-town guy with a Southern drawl to be an agent. Regency was too small to have a mailroom, so they stuck me in front of a phone and I stayed there six years. (Best part of that stint was meeting my future wife, fellow agent Meg Goldenberg) My six years as an agent have given me great insight into what’s happening on the other end of the phone.

Lesson learned No. 5: To quote David Snyder, "Agents are seldom as responsible or as irresponsible as people think they are."

When I was working in my hometown, Tupelo, Miss., as manager of the Tupelo Coliseum, I was trying to book the building’s first rock show with the help of my friend, promoter Tony Ruffino. I found out Rod Stewart was routing dates and I called Mike Piranian at CAA.

In Mike’s best New Yorkese, he said, "I can’t find you on my f***ing map."

I told him to put one finger on Memphis and one on Birmingham, then look in the middle. He said, "Oh, there you are." We got the date and it sold out (9,200) in one day. I sent Mike this note: "You’ll have to put us on your f***ing map. We sold out!"

We went on to book a lot of great shows. In 1995, Peter Grosslight called about the Eagles. Needless to say, I was shocked, but Peter said, "If we can play Boise, we can play Tupelo." It sold out in 1 day.

Lesson Learned No. 6: Small markets can be diamonds in the rough and, with a lot of work, can surprise a lot of people.

Now I’m in Little Rock at the Alltel Arena (feels like L.A. after Starkville and Tupelo) and still working the small market angle. Lesson Learned No. 7: A quote from my late mother. "I won’t tell anyone your secret. You like this so much, you’d do it for nothing."