Executive Profile: Bill Silva

A recent visit to the San Francisco Bay Area to scout the Oakland Fox Theatre for a possible Kylie Minogue concert got Pollstar’s 2009 Independent Promoter of the Year Bill Silva thinking about how he got into the concert industry, and the encouragement he got while attending an area high school.

“Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area was actually a significant part and played a role because of the influence of Bill Graham Presents on the culture, with the music scene at that time being so pervasive in the Bay Area,” Silva told Pollstar.

“But when I was in high school, we were trying to do a fundraiser at school and I was appointed to reach out,” Silva said. He went right to the top – and called BGP.

“Instead of having some exe-cutive blow off some snotty high school kid, Zohn Artman called me back and spent a lot of time on the phone with me about how things worked and why it might or might not be possible to do this, and eventually talked me out of it I’m sure,” Silva said, laughing.

“But I remember being really impressed that this big company doing all this great stuff in the Bay Area, would have somebody who would be sensitive and generous enough to spend time with a high school student and walk him through the ins and outs of it all.”

Silva not only considered the late Artman, who was Bill Graham’s right hand man for many years, a mentor and role model but, in working with young artists including a young aspiring filmmaker in Australia, took Artman’s example to heart. So now, in addition to promoting concerts and managing artists, Silva can add film producer to his lengthy resume.

His company, Bill Silva Presents, has its roots in San Diego where a young Silva organized concerts at the University of California, then moved into booking the Roxy and California theatre in that city.

He eventually moved operations to Los Angeles, where he’s able to be closer to the Hollywood Bowl, which Silva and business partner Andrew Hewett have been booking for more than 20 years.

In between, he’s managed and booked some of Southern Cali-fornia’s best-known punk acts, partnered with such figures as Brian Murphy of then-Avalon Attractions and Barry Fey of Denver’s Feyline, and championed such artists as Jason Mraz and Margaret Cho, who has started her own company and is now self-managed.

Silva isn’t content to sit on his Concert Industry Awards laurels, either. He aims to top last year’s career performance with a tour that will likely be watched closely by his peers in the industry, as worldwide sensation Kylie Minogue embarks on her first tour of the United States, with Silva at the helm.

Click here for the Pollstar interview in PDF Format.

How did you begin your association with the Hollywood Bowl?

Andy Hewitt and I started collaborating on a couple of things, including the Hollywood Bowl which approached us back in the mid-1980s.

They felt they’d had a pro-minent position years earlier that slipped away. The common thought was that the venue was too expensive and unwieldy to work in. There were neighborhood issues with sound. They wanted someone to come in and bring it back to life by bringing the acts back in.

It took a couple of years to fully execute the strategy we’d laid out but soon the neighbors were on board. We proved to them we could successfully do things
without negatively affecting their lives.

We spent a lot of time working with neighborhood groups to come up with the right mix of attention and care to make sure that they felt heard and understood. We spent a lot of time communicating the message in the artist and agent communities that it really makes a statement to say you’d played the Hollywood Bowl. It’s a big statement.

We were also serious with the L.A. Philharmonic about making the venue more artist-friendly in terms of expenses and what it took to put a show in and take it out of the Bowl. Nothing helped that more than the $40 million that L.A. County and the Philharmonic invested in the physical plant, renovations and with the new shell that came in 2004. It’s just been off the hook since then.

You also moved into Las Vegas shortly after establishing yourself at the Bowl, at a time when it wasn’t so cool.

After a few years, Andy’s friend Peter Morton came in and asked us to help him book the Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Vegas. We had a new opportunity and a great time.

Entertainment in Vegas was at an interesting crossroads. We had big artists like Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne, and others who were reluctant to go out to Vegas because it was considered putting yourself out to pasture.

We took a hard look at it with Peter, who had a really astute instinct to roll with us in this situation. First of all, we took out all the tables and chairs in favor of a regular concert seating vibe, so the cabaret vibe went away.

We brought in younger acts at the time like Bad Religion, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Primus. We wanted to bring in some up and coming, hip acts so people could see Vegas was not just a place you go to make a lot of money at the end of your career. And it worked almost instantly.

As soon as we started booking those kinds of acts in, all of a sudden other artists started coming in droves. We were able to get the floodgates open and put in some really great programming like The Rolling Stones and Billy Joel, among others.

It really changed the face of Vegas entertainment, which Vegas was trying to do at that time anyway. This was just another catalyst to spark it along. Obviously, it’s become a really vibrant capital today and there are a lot of new ideas coming in all the time.

Ticketing is a hot topic lately. How do you approach ticketing, in terms of building and pricing?

The significant factor we look at is the specific city and geographic area, how it’s been impacted by what’s going on with the economy, and population.

For instance, in Los Angeles, we feel like there’s less price sensitivity just because you’ve got 10 million to 15 million to draw from in the general metropolitan area. That’s the main thing we’re considering.

On the Kylie Minogue tour we’re pretty evenly priced across the board in all major markets. The Hollywood Bowl, I think, had the highest ticket price on the tour at $150 in the front boxes, and of course they sold out right away – the front boxes at the Bowl always sell out right away, no matter how they’re priced.

But in New York, we chose to bring the top price down to $125 because we were going for multiple nights. It’s only a few hundred tickets and a VIP section, but the GA tickets for the most part are $75 or $85, which is where we had to go to get the numbers to work with Kylie. But we also felt that, for an artist of her stature, her fan base wouldn’t see it as a high-premium ticket.

It looks like we’re right on that count, based on sales results.

With Van Morrison, he’s been very aggressive with his ticket scaling over the last six months. His camp did a lot of research and, because of the secondary market sales on his shows historically, they felt they’d left too much of a gap between what they were charging as their top-tier price and what the market was commanding. They elected to increase prices to try to capture some of that back.

For the most part, in New York and the first time in L.A. with the Astral Weeks shows, they were 100 percent successful. I think the second time in L.A. it met some resistance because it had only been six months between shows. In San Francisco it definitely met some resistance, too.

They’ve taken some of those lessons in market economics, venue and market psychology, and hopefully will be implementing that more successfully as they go forward.

There’s a happy medium between getting some of that premium so the secondary market isn’t taking it all away from us, and still not turning the fans off when they look at the price at Ticketmaster. You don’t want them to see that top price, at whatever it may be, and think they can’t afford it or can’t get good seats if they don’t pay that top price.

It’s definitely an interesting time, and I’m not particularly crazy with the secondary market because I think we’ve actually trained our fans to become ticket brokers themselves.

They’ll buy six or eight tickets to a show, try to get good tickets and sell them off on eBay or TicketExchange as a business practice to pay for their own tickets to go to the show. It’s a whole different way of doing business than it was five years ago.

And that may change again with the pending Live Nation/Ticketmaster merger. Any thoughts?

There’s an interesting dynamic there. I don’t think it does anybody any good to be afraid of things like that. Whenever there’s consolidation of huge market forces like this in our little industry, it creates opportunities and niches for other players in the business to go exploit more capably and fully.

When I started, there wasn’t room for another promoter in San Diego and, when I got started in the management business, arguably there wasn’t room for another manager. But the reality is that there’s always room for new thought, new ideas and new approaches. I think that’s what that merger is going to invite.

In the short run, as an industry, it behooves us to have them be a healthy player. We need healthy, strong players in the business and I think that’s what this merger is going to accomplish.

But the other thing I think we need from them is some compassion. I think they’re in a position of tremendous opportunity, particularly in a digital era with all our customers and all of our past buyers, with all of that data. I think it’s incumbent upon them to partner with the rest of the industry to help us build that fan base every way that we can and share that information transparently so we can all build opportunities to profit from and specifically that the artist can profit from. Sort of, “what’s good for all would be good for Live Nation and Ticketmaster as well.”

If they take the approach to the business to retain that information, keep it solely to themselves as prioprietary, away from the partners who in fact are generating it, I don’t think it’s going to be as healthy for the business as it could otherwise be. It’s going to invite more competition more quickly to serve the needs of transparency.

Are you comfortable with Live Nation’s assertion it will keep that data behind a “firewall?”

I’m not as concerned about that. We actually love, as a manager and as a tour promoter, the opportunity to be able to go to Ticketmaster and ask if they can help us market to past buyers of other events that are like-minded and that are past buyers of our events.

We think that there’s great opportunity in that and, with Live Nation’s database being added in successfully to that, we think there’s a lot of opportunity.

Specifically, for the management side, Live Nation has a policy of not sharing past buyer data. Ticketmaster will share it in some instances when they’re legally allowed to do so and everybody else in the food chain signs off.

My rallying cry right now is that the artist who is generating the sale is their customer. Everything else in between is just an intermediary for them. The view that Live Nation seems to have taken is the ticket buyer is actually their customer and not the artist’s customer.

Hopefully, the merger will open up the opportunity to do it. Whether or not Live Nation markets opportunities to my past lists, I don’t care. The more we can all do to get more people buying more music, seeing more concerts, getting excited for new artists and new opportunities, the healthier it is for the business.

You seem to take a more optimistic view than other independent promoters.

There’s reason to be scared; I understand that. There’s a lot of challenges in the business.

Not unlike the record industry, it’s hard to keep big staffs on to provide great service and do it with shrinking margins and shrinking opportunities. I get why there’s fear.

I think Arny Granat and Jerry Mickelson at Jam Productions have done an outstanding job of being resourceful. You look at their theatrical division, the “Bodies” exhibit, the ballpark concerts – these are guys that are out creating a lot of opportunities and are very resourceful. That’s what’s going to win in the end.

Speaking of a diversified business, you also have an artist management division. How did you get into that?

Early on, it struck me as odd to try to do that because concert promotion is a commodities business: Buy low, sell high, do it often.

The management business is completely different. How do you embrace a new artist, how do you look at a long-term trajectory, how do you market and build it? It’s a much different thought process.

We’d always put it out of our minds. Along the way we were approached and got some flattering offers from artists who have gone on to do huge, magnificent things with their careers.

I’m always looking for a new challenge. I was working with a talented young guy, a young concert promoter named Rick DeVoe. We brought Rick on at the suggestion of Andy Somers.

There was this place I’d see on the way to work every day doing bands like Pennywise, Lagwagon and NOFX – bands I’d never heard of at the time. The club was overselling them and we kept hearing about it.

I asked Andy who these bands were and who’s doing this stuff. He introduced us to Rick, who came to work for us for a couple of years.

We did a local artists-only festival every year in San Diego we called May Day. Rick came into the office one year just after May Day and asked if I remembered a band called Unwritten Law. I said yeah, they were phenomenal.

They wanted us to manage them. I said OK, as long as I didn’t have to do anything – I was too busy being a promoter. Next thing I knew, I was on a plane to New York to work on a deal to sign them with Epic Records, and I was hooked.

A couple of months later, Rick came in with another band. After listening to the CD we decided to go see them live. We did, and I said, “Rick, these guys can’t even play their instruments. Obviously the kids love them but it seems like it’s really early in their career for this.”

And it turned out to be Blink-182. That was client number two. We were squarely in the management business at that point, and continued promoting. I had an opportunity as a promoter to get better because we had a much greater understanding of what the artist needed. It made us more compassionate to them than when we’d been strictly a promoter.

Rick left a couple of years later with Blink and obviously has a great story to tell. We continued to manage Unwritten Law for many years, through a couple of different label deals and a lot of big tours and No. 1s in different places around the world.

Jason Mraz is another of your success stories.

I had just finished the sale of the concert company to Universal in 1999 and moved to L.A. to run the joint venture with Andrew and Universal. My best friend brought this young guy to a hotel in Vegas, to the Hard Rock, where we were doing Billy Joel and Alanis Morissette.

This scrawny little kid with orange hair and a guitar walked into my room and after a while asked if he could play some songs for us. We were just blown away.
I got goose bumps. Marty Diamond of Little Big Man happened to be at the hotel that weekend hanging out with us, so I called him and had him come down to check this kid out because I thought there was something special there.

The kid was Jason Mraz and, since that day, Marty’s been his agent and I’ve been his manager. Eventually, we agreed to sign with Elektra Records. It probably didn’t make a lot of sense on paper; Elektra was in pretty significant decline. It had been a couple of years since they’d had a really big hit.

We got contrarian. We bet that at a place like Elektra, where they’ve had success with Tracy Chapman, Jackson Browne and the Eagles, that somewhere in the DNA of the company, this kind of artist would activate. We knew it wasn’t going to be an easy spot but we felt it would be the right spot. We turned out to be exactly right. Elektra was unbelievable.

The staff was focused on making Jason’s the biggest record they could that year. It was really one of those against-all-odds stories. Sylvia Rhone was running the company at the time with Greg Thompson and they couldn’t have been better partners. It was a great experience for us all the way around and set the stage for Jason to go on and do great things.

We hear you are executive producing a film as well?

It’s a really great picture that this young director has put together called “One Nine Nine Four,” about the California punk rock scene in 1994.

We’d had a No. 1 hit in Australia with Unwritten Law around 2001. Shortly after that, I got a call in Los Angeles from this fellow named Jai Al-Attas who said, “I’ve got this record company and we’re putting out a compilation with Lagwagon, Pennywise and NOFX. We’d like Unwritten Law to have a song, too.” And I said, “Done. Just send me the paperwork, no problem.”

He sent out a license agreement that looked like it was written by some kid who didn’t know a thing about the business, which in fact is what had happened. But he was very enthusiastic and had great ideas. He put this whole thing together on the force of personality, got it out there and did fine.

A few years later, Jai sent me a note with an idea for a movie and asked if I would take a look at his treatment. It was a good subject with artists that were our friends.
I sent it to a friend, Stacy Peralta, who became a really successful filmmaker with movies like “Dogtown & Z Boys” and “Made in America.” He was busy doing another film but he said it sounded like a great idea and suggested I do it.

Jai did most of the heavy lifting. I made some phone calls but he is really such an amazing connector that he was his own best salesman once he got his foot in any door. The film is finished now; we’re just trying to figure out what to do next and hopefully we’ll be doing something with it this fall.

You have a lot of irons in the fire. How do you manage your time?

I don’t think I’m great at managing my time but I’ve been blessed with amazing people. There’s no way we could be doing all we do without the team that we have.

Eric Herz runs the concert company. I do only as much on the concert side as Eric ever needs me to do. He’s an amazing promoter, has great instincts and a great batting record for us.

He’s put together a lot of the new projects we’re getting involved in, from the Long Beach Blues Festival to the Hard music festivals we’re doing with our partner Gary Richards. Eric will tell me when he needs a hand. I go to bed resting every night knowing my business is in great hands.

On the management side, we’ve got a great team with a lot of great experience and depth. Everybody from Larry Butler, who developed and ran Warner Bros. Record’s artist development program for 25 years, to Andy Gerrard and Patrick Pocklington, and younger people like Ryan Chisolm, whose dad Kevin is Carlos Santana’s manager.

Ryan’s been most closely working with Jai in rolling out his projects and that’s how I’m able to leverage my time and do a lot of different things. I think my staff enjoys the variety of projects that we’re involved in, too.

Obviously, the Kylie Minogue tour is one of those major projects. Are you testing the waters right now with the dates that are currently on the books?

This is definitely a “testing the waters” tour. A couple of things came together in our favor.

I don’t remember how it all started but her agent in Europe and I have been friends for many, many years. We started talking about it several years ago and just trying to find the right formula and time for it to all come together. It’s just been a matter of persistence and resolve.

This is the sixth or seventh tour that her camp and I have routed and confirmed. None of the previous ones went on sale. We’ve tried for years to get this together and it just happens to be the first time that it did.

First, Kylie didn’t really have any commitments anywhere else in the world and didn’t have an album coming out so she had a block of time. Second, the dollar is doing much better against the pound than it has been the last few years.

Those two things came together and we were able to book what we felt was the right opportunity for her first look over here. I think it’s going to be the start of kicking off some great things for her. We hope that this tour establishes a great base from which to start a great future with her.

Sometimes artists that are huge globally don’t click in the U.S. Was there any concern that this might be the case?

We felt, from all the research we’ve done, that particularly her gay fan base was going be very loyal, vibrant and resonant, and that has proven to be true.

If you look at the markets we’ve booked, they are all major metropolitan markets, all with significantly heavy gay populations, and we felt that would be the formula the first time through and we could spread the message to a broader mainstream audience here.

What other projects are you excited about right now?

We have three great new projects we’re working on right now.

We’ve been working with James Morrison in North America, and I think he is the next big singer/songwriter to break out in the coming years. It hasn’t connected as quickly as we had hoped this year, but the live audience and shows are just going nuts so he’s a top priority for us.

We’ve also got two records from new clients, one that’s finished and one that’s almost finished.

Robert Francis, who’s signed to Atlantic, will be out this fall. He’s an amazing new singer/songwriter with a voice to be heard and be reckoned with. We also have a rock band from England called Vices. Jeff Salzman, who produced The Killers and a number of other records, fell in love with the guys, and is making the record right now.

It’s pretty phenomenal so we’ll have something from them in the fall, too.

You stepped away from the business for a few months a couple of years ago. Why?

I took the last six months of 2006 off as a sabbatical to travel, go around the world and do some things I hadn’t had time for with family and friends.

It was what gave me the energy to recharge, retool, get back and be able to do all these great things.

Taking a break is also one thing that a lot of us with busy personal and professional lives never get the opportunity to do. It’s important to just to have down time, to get away from the business and reimagine things.

It was an amazing experience and opportunity and I encourage people to do it. It’s an important part of my story for the last few years, too.