Executive Profile: Lionel Bea

Lionel Bea recognizes he is a rarity. He is one of a small list of active promoters who concentrate on urban music, a community that isn’t seeing a lot of expansion.

Click here to see the interview in PDF format, which includes more photos.

When it comes to his contemporaries, there are just a few with name recognition: Quentin Perry, Jeff Sharp, Darryll Brooks and Bill Washington top the list. And one thing they have in common is they need to work their way around the big companies, the big tour and the arenas to find their niche.

Yes, sometimes Bea’s company, Bay Area Productions, is the name behind a big show and, yes, Jamie Foxx doesn’t perform without Bea’s expertise. But the promoter spent 25 years making a living bringing urban artists to the black community. As one of the first acts he ever promoted would say, it’s tricky.

“We talk differently, we walk differently, we act differently, we respond differently,” Bea said. Knowing how to promote a show to the community requires unique marketing and a lot of inside knowledge.

Bea admits he’s had many things go his way. He turned his popularity in high school and college into a business, throwing extravagant, profitable parties. Being faithful to young, black comedians like Foxx has awarded him lifelong business relationships.

Lionel Bea was first introduced to the concert business by his uncle, who ran a nightclub in downtown Oakland, Calif. Dreaming of one day being a DJ, Bea spent years going to Oakland’s premier record store, the House of Music, where his mother would let him buy five records at a time. By the age of 15, when his uncle came calling, Bea had a library of R&B and disco.

“Hey, Fat Boy,” his uncle said. “I fired my DJ and I need someone this weekend. You think you’re up to the challenge?”
Bea said he was.

“I’d spin the records and talk as if I was on the radio,” Bea said. “‘Hey, you’re hanging out at the Name of the Game Disco, with Northern California’s youngest and baddest DJ. My name is Lionel Bea, I’ll be here all night! Here’s the latest from Anita Ward, ‘Ring My Bell.’ Summertime ’79! Playing the best music for you!’”

Although Bea played drums and saxophone in school, and would travel to Berkeley to visit his dad, a jazz aficionado, that wasn’t how he got into the business – although it built a passion for music. It was his high school championship football game. Bea prepared by inviting everybody to his buddy Marcus’ house afterward for the big victory party. And they won.

“We were selling beer in a cup for a dollar,” Bea said. “Marcus and I disagreed on how to divide the money, but I was the one who invited everybody. I just decided to go into business by myself.”

With the help of friends Mike Mitchell and Robyn Wallace, Bea rented out the cafeteria at Samuel Merritt College for a dance that earned them $900. Meanwhile, Bea, as a football player, attended Laney College for a day and that’s when he realized football wasn’t fun anymore.

“I told the coach I wanted to start my own promotion company,” he said. “And when I enrolled I got a $2,500 check for financial aid and I used it to throw parties.”

That’s when he enrolled in the College of Alameda. He took business, marketing and advertising courses, which he credits for his fast start in the promotion business. On June 15, 1984, Bea and Mitchell promoted their first concert – a dance party that included a young act named Run-DMC, which had released its first single in “It’s Like That.” Two years later, the band’s managers, Lyor Cohen and Russell Simmons, would play a significant role in Bea’s current line of work. Mitchell eventually exited promotion; Bea has worked with Kyle Newport and Janice Cotton for 25 years.


So how did the Run-DMC show lead to your relationship with Bill Graham?

Erroll Jackson, Mike Mitchell and I started Bay Area Productions in 1984, when we promoted Run-DMC. I called it Bay Area Productions because I envisioned promoting shows around the country and, if people asked who’s promoting that show, they’d know exactly who and where it was coming from.

In 1986, when Run-DMC was one of the hottest groups in the country and came back to the Bay Area, Lyor Cohen didn’t want to leave me out. That’s when Lyor said, “You know what? I’m going to hook you up with Bill Graham, since you don’t have the money to promote the show on your own.”

The show was in June. It was very, very successful.

In August, we were in Fresno, Calif., promoting Run-DMC at Selland Arena. It was the night before we were to promote the Oakland Coliseum date. I walked into the production office and overheard Lyor Cohen on the phone with Russell Simmons, telling him that Bill Graham wants to be my new business partner. It was a pretty shocking thing to hear when you’re 22.

So the next night, Bill’s talking to us now (laughs). He never said much to us on the previous show. But now we knew what he was thinking. He talked to us for three hours. He said to me and my partners, “I have all the money in the world. You have all the ideas. Why don’t we partner up and do some shows? I’ll finance them and we’ll make it work.”

Was there ever talk of absorbing the company into BGP?

After a couple of years, Bill did say he wanted us to come work for him and he wanted us to be part of BGP. And I said I didn’t think I wanted to do that because if I did, I’d lose the identity that we had formed and had worked so hard to grow. I said to Bill, “If we left Oakland and started to work for you in San Francisco, we’d just become you.”

And he got it. He didn’t like it but he understood it. One of his right-hand men said Bill was very disappointed that I turned him down. But that wasn’t a big deal to me. It didn’t hurt our relationship. I just thought, creatively, it wasn’t the healthiest thing to do.

So things just chugged along until the time of his death?

Yeah. We started promoting more shows, more urban shows and Bill was really happy with the direction it was going. We worked with him on the Nelson Mandela visit to the Oakland Coliseum. I know that we got to work with him personally on some of the rap concerts he would promote.

He felt that rap concerts needed to be promoted and promoted safely. At the time, in the late ’80s, early ’90s, they were getting a bit dangerous. Some cities had banned rap concerts. But Bill said to his staff that we have to be the ones to promote these because if we don’t, then someone else will and they won’t do as good of a job.

So he didn’t believe that violence should get in the way of people seeing the music that they liked. We would figure out different tactics so that shows would go without incident. Didn’t always work but we kept the incidents to a minimum.

We would hire this really tough security company on top of regular security. We put them into five or six groups of four guys each and they would roam around the arena and make sure there were no fights.

It worked but eventually rap was just so violent that concerts became a rare thing. Rap started us out, but it never became our bread and butter. I’d say that was comedy and music.

Comedy? How so?

There was a resurgence of black comedy in America. We were part of the Bay Area Black Comedy Competition, which was founded by Anthony Spires because there weren’t many comedy competitions that allowed black comics.

From the Bay Area Black Comedy Competition, actor/comedian Mark Curry was discovered, Jamie Foxx was discovered, D.L. Hughley, too, and a few others.

We would have agents come up from Los Angeles. We pitched the idea to HBO for a comedy series. Reginald and Warrington Hudlin wanted to produce our project. But at the last minute, right before the deal was done, Eddie Murphy called the Hudlins to produce a movie that he was shooting called “Boomerang.”

And a year later HBO came out with “Def Comedy Jam.”

Which took you out of the loop?

We told HBO we’d tour it and everything. Def Jam did sell us a lot of dates and we did them around the country.

But you kept your relationships with the young comedians?

Yes. We had relationships with Jamie Foxx, D.L. Hughley, Mark Curry, and out of Def Jam came relationships with Chris Tucker, Bernie Mac and, I believe, Cedric The Entertainer.

We promoted them around the country in as many cities as they would allow us. I got to work with Damon Wayans; I worked with him on his HBO special at the Apollo Theatre in 1990. I think we’ve now been involved with 11 HBO specials.

The whole comedy relationship was a wonderful one and it still exists today. We’re still involved in Chris Rock’s business to some degree. I was one of the few promoters to work on the “Kings of Comedy” tour.

And what of music? What shows have you promoted?

Mostly urban music but we’ve worked with artists since the beginning like Janet Jackson, Alicia Keys, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Maxwell, D’Angelo, Rick James and Cameo. We work with Anthony Hamilton, Kem, Will Downing and a lot of jazz artists. We’ve worked with a lot of jazz festivals. We promoted, with Bill Graham Presents, the last Ray Charles show in the Bay Area.

And we promoted Stevie Wonder. We were part of his Madison Square Garden show about a year and a half ago. Live Nation bought the tour but Stevie actually mandates that 25 percent of his business go to black promoters. So the people at CAA and Live Nation made sure I got a piece of several dates.

That date wouldn’t go to a black promoter in the NYC market?

There are not a lot of black promoters around the country that are capable of promoting on a high level. There are just a handful. I must be very clear that, when you’re a black promoter and limited in some ways to the black shows, then your opportunity to become a big company is limited.

So, having said that, if you’re competing against a company that promotes Madonna, Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones, it’s going to make it difficult if that company is going after that same black artist that you are. Inherently, the business is not very tolerant of a black company growing. And we’re all fighting over the same slice of the pie.

And few companies, like yours, are as established.


And have relationships.

Relationships are important. Bill Graham taught me this is a business of relationships. You have to have people trust that you will do the best job that you can and that they’re going to get paid. And that’s really what it comes down to. A lot of black promoters are under-financed.

You have a partnership with Another Planet?

While working all those years with BGP, we of course met Gregg Perloff who ran BGP and several years ago started his own company. So I enjoy a very similar relationship with Another Planet that I had with BGP.

How important are beauty salons for promoting?

Oh, huge. Women are a very important part of the makeup of the black community. On a real sense, a lot of black men aren’t available. A lot are in jail, unemployed or suffering from many different things.

I learned while promoting parties and big dances that if men knew women were going to be there, the men would show up. So we make sure that our street promoters pay close attention to the beauty salons, that the fliers are in them and the posters are in their windows. You’re going to have hundreds of women a month coming in and out that door, and it will be their location to hear about what’s happening.

Are there few black promoters in part because they don’t know the business?

There is a disconnect with some blacks in the entertainment business. You have a young black person who wants to be in the business and they don’t have a role model. When I was 19, 20, I operated out of my bedroom at my mother’s house. But when I met Bill Graham and Gregg Perloff, I got to see how the company is set up. They have a booking department, a production department, an advertising department.

I got this question from CAA once. The agent asked, “Why is it that every time a black promoter calls me” – and I stopped him and finished his sentence. I said, “And they want to book your biggest act, they’re probably asking about Janet Jackson, and they’re calling from a cell phone?”

And he said, “Yes! How did you know?”

It’s because we don’t necessarily have role models to teach us how to set up the business correctly. And we’re underfunded and undercapitalized. I have an office, I have a receptionist but I had to learn that this is how it is. You’ll get more respect that way.

You’ve said that black artists should avoid having their best friends as managers.

The reason that a lot of black acts hire their cousins or best friends is because there’s a trust factor. And there’s really nothing wrong with that. It happened in the case of Marcus King, who manages Jamie Foxx. His first client, Mark Curry, hired Marcus King because he was someone who was close to him, someone he could trust.

But Marcus was booking his own comedy night every other week at a hotel ballroom. He had no managerial experience but, and this is the important part, when an act gives you that opportunity, it is inherent that the new, green manager learns the business. And Marcus King, from Foxx/King Entertainment, is a guy who did that.

But there are the guys who give us promoters a headache because I’m not dealing with someone who’s professional, someone who’s familiar with the etiquette of the business. He doesn’t have an office, doesn’t check his messages, or his voicemail is constantly full. He’s operating from a cell phone. He’s always on the go. He’s always in a car or going somewhere and he can’t give you information.

And it’s OK if I call you and you don’t have the information, but you have to take some time to call me back.

And a bad manager might not only know no one in the business but might not care to learn about the business. They should attend conferences, they should have meetings, they should go to L.A. and New York and meet the agents. They should learn different ways of promoting their artists. A bad manager is someone who’s lazy, who’s non-aggressive, who’s not working in the best interest of their artists.

Why are so many mid-level urban and R&B acts nonexclusive?

Because the manager or the act might feel that the agents aren’t paying enough attention to them. If you take an older funk act, they get a lot more work when they have five agents hustling for them.

I wouldn’t have as big of a problem with that if these acts had a strong manager that was organized and kept conflicts at a minimum. I don’t want to book an act from one of these nonexclusive agents and find the act playing down the street within 30 days in a show booked by another agent.

What are your thoughts on ticket pricing?

One of the most frequently asked questions I get is, “Why are tickets so expensive?”

I explain to the general public that ticket prices are set indirectly by the artist. It’s about the same amount of money to rent the venue for most acts. The cost varies in the act’s guarantee. The ticket price will be a lot less if the act wants $100,000 rather than $200,000, or $400,000.

I always take what the act is asking versus what I think they’re worth and come up with a number that I think is fair. More often than not, the ticket prices are much higher than what you want them to be. At that point it’s the promoter’s responsibility to call the agent or the manager, whoever you’re negotiating with, and say, “Hey, can this audience afford this ticket price?”

I find some artists don’t care. They’ll say, “This is how much money I want to make that night and that’s it.” But what they don’t understand is, in some cases, if you lower the prices, you’ll sell more tickets and make even more money. Especially for urban shows.

Any opinion regarding the possible merger of Live Nation and Ticketmaster?

The question is, if you have concert promoters around the country that all utilize one ticketing agency, a neutral company, and that company is then owned by one promoter, is that good for the business? Is that ticketing company going to operate in a neutral manner?

If it is, then there probably wouldn’t be anything wrong with that. But if it shares promoter information – their way of marketing shows, all of their proprietary techniques that are usually exclusive to the promoter – with the parent company, that might not be such a good idea.

It really depends upon the intention of Ticketmaster and how they’re going to conduct themselves in relationships with all the customers they represent. And that’s the question the Federal Trade Commission is going to have to answer.

Will the black promoter survive?

I think it’s going to be tough if the black artists don’t do business with us.

Oftentimes artists don’t know what they’re doing, so it’s incumbent to get to the managers. Sometimes you have a “vanilla” manager – meaning he takes care of business but he might not know what’s best for the artist – and he leaves it up to the record company to kind of guide what audience the artist will attract.

The manager may then push the artist in that direction but he may not know the nuances of that genre. I don’t think a manager can be like a Walmart and be everything to every product; you have to have people who specialize in urban music.

Where do you see the urban concert business going?

I think there’s going to be a struggle because without record companies spending promotional money, it’s going to be difficult to develop a lot of new artists. The old acts are dying off and the new acts aren’t getting developed as fast.

I think there needs to be, through managers, agents and record companies, a more urban sensitivity. The people who would bring that are young people from the urban community. Young black people, or brown people, who maybe went to college or studied under some successful manager and learned how to take care of an artist and at the same time have the perspective of the urban community.

Do you have any protégés?

I don’t but I’ve begun the process of looking. It’s something I should have done before now.

Any young artists you’d like to work with someday?

You know, I recently saw an act that is a cross between the Neville Brothers and Dave Matthews Band and they’re called Legally Blynde out of Oakland. They are tremendous. And that’s coming from someone who is in his 25th year of promoting. When I tell you they are tremendous, they are tremendous. Fabulous group.

What about artist development?

There’s a lack of it and you’re getting a lot of young, raw, unpolished talent being pushed out onto the American music scene.

You know how they say 40 is the new 30? There are acts like Anthony Hamilton, who’s in his 30s, but who used to sing backup for D’Angelo. He’s a guy who gets it. He knows how to put on a great show but, heck, he’s in his 30s! Raphael Saadiq is someone who’s been around for a long time who could become huge with the right push. And if you look at the rap acts, the guys who still put on the best concerts are Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Eminem, Doug E. Fresh, Too Short, Hammer.

The young artists aren’t picking up on that. You can’t just get up and sing and go to the afterparty. The people want to feel engaged with the artist, and they want to feel the artist gave their all, that they left everything on the stage.

Have large concert promotion companies affected the careers of young urban artists?

When you have these companies that promote everything, there’s a lack of sensitivity to the urban artist. The urban market isn’t as large as the rock ’n’ roll market so not as much attention is paid to it. I think they tend to book the cream of the crop, the hottest acts. It doesn’t take someone with a whole lot of expertise to do that. It takes expertise when the artist is climbing, or if the shows aren’t selling.

Our company has heard from many rock promoters that they’ve never seen techniques and ideas like the ones we use. I know people have stolen our ideas; I’ve seen them used by other promoters. The business needs young black promoters. The music business will not be healthy if there are no young black executives being bred.

What makes the difference between your show and a show promoted by someone else?

When we get compliments about what we do, it’s based on ticket sales. The show itself is going to be the same no matter who the promoter is. It’s an outsider / insider thing.

If you’re from a community and you know how it thinks and reacts, you know what that community will do and not do. You know what buttons to push.

This is my 25th year, if you don’t count the college dances. We lose occasionally, but the differences between us and another company are too many to name. There are quite a few.

A great concert is the right act at the right place, for the right time at the right price. If you can conquer those four things, you’re on your way.