Executive Profile: Dave Kaplan

Dave Kaplan’s career hasn’t followed the traditional arc. He joined The Agency Group about a decade ago, but not after working at another big agency. He has no stories about being an assistant to some great mentor, or learning about radius clauses at William Morris.

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“The only time I worked in a mailroom was at a collection agency,” Kaplan told Pollstar. “That wasn’t a very fun job.

“When I was 17, I had a roommate who booked ‘Punk Rock Mondays’ at Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco,” Kaplan added. “I started helping him. After a while, the owner was, like, ‘This guy’s an idiot. Why don’t you do it?’”

So, in 1983, this “punk rock kid” who had been sneaking into clubs since he was 14 helped get talent for Ness Aquino’s club. And once he was in that scene, he started getting to know all the big players in town, notably Paul Bachavich – who in the punk-rock world is known as legendary promoter Paul Rat. With Rat’s tutelage, Kaplan started booking shows at The Farm, On Broadway and many other long-gone venues.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” Kaplan said. “I thought that if you made a guarantee to a band and you were able to pay it, the show worked. Paul was the first who explained, ‘No. If you’re going to book a show, there is a budget. This is what you have to pay everybody, this is what it costs to do a show, this is your promoter profit, this is how it works.’”

So Kaplan learned the ropes at Rat’s RRZ Presents. He even got some experience booking The Sea Hags, which were managed by Rat, up and down the West Coast. Then along came a trainwreck known as Flipper – a band that enjoyed a brief moment of success. Kaplan, nearing his 21st birthday, thought it would be a good idea to become a tour manager.

“I booked the dates and I tour managed them and I think I technically might have been their manager. I dunno. It was one of the most disorganized bands in history. It was just a bad scene.”

By the time Kaplan got back to San Francisco, his girlfriend yelled at him to get a real job. His life in the music biz was done, and with thanks to Flipper, he was more than happy to never see it again.

That was, until he started hanging out with Paul Rat again. Rat, among his many gigs, hosted a weekly radio show. Helping out with the show took Kaplan right back into promotion.

He was a club DJ and started doing shows at places like Brave New World, The I-Beam, Bottom of the Hill, DNA Lounge and the Nightbreak. And from 1994-97, Kaplan was the exclusive buyer for the Kilowatt. In ’97, when the owner of the Kilowatt decided he wanted the venue to just be a bar, Kaplan went in a new direction. He asked Dead Moon if they needed help with booking, and they did. With that as a start, Kaplan opened Easy Action Industries.

And that’s how he became an agent. But it wasn’t like he didn’t have some knowledge of it. Over the years he had worked with all the indie agencies, from Billions Corporation to Flowerbooking to Creature Booking.

“And I always did a good job for these people, so I think that put me in a better position than, say, some guy starting up in his bedroom with some indie rock bands nobody heard of, trying to establish himself,” Kaplan said. Plus, he was good friends with Rave Booking, whose principals, Todd Cote and Kevin Wortis, gave him their database. Bands like The Bomboras and Chrome started showing up on Easy Action’s roster (Kaplan didn’t book any San Francisco bands). And he started getting lots of acts from Detroit, including a two-person outfit – but not the one you’re probably thinking of.

The name of the duo was Bantam Rooster, and it was a catalyst to taking Kaplan’s career to the next level. Kaplan’s lengthy roster today not only includes The White Stripes, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather, but The Young Veins, Autolux, Blonde Redhead, The Black Keys, The Kills, She Wants Revenge and Nicole Atkins.


How did Bantam Rooster get you so involved with the Detroit scene?

Tom Potter from Bantam Rooster was friends with Jack White, and I was getting Bantam Rooster out on tour. They were doing lots of dates. I mean, they played bars, 200-cap rooms for the most part, but Jack was impressed. Tom gave Jack my number. It was just a random call from Jack.

I knew about The White Stripes. I had friends who worked at Revolver, a record distributorship, and they told me about them.
But at this point, if you weren’t a record store clerk or a fanzine guy, you probably hadn’t heard of them. It was very early days.

Right around that same time there was this whole Detroit scene starting up and I wound up working with all of bands, because they were all friends. The White Stripes, Detroit Cobras, The Dirtbombs, The Von Bondies. But it was clear The White Stripes were not going to be a stationary band. Probably around the time of the second tour it was very obvious this was going to grow. Then the second album, De Stijl, came out and there was a lot of press. Rolling Stone said they were one of the 10 bands to watch, that sort of thing. They were on Sympathy, a very fly-by-night indie label. The guy didn’t even own an answering machine.

But things started to change quickly?

Well, it’s funny. I don’t think The White Stripes was a long-term concern for Jack at the time. He definitely had no visions of getting a record deal and being famous. People from Detroit just didn’t think that way. But they toured with Sleater Kinney in fall 2000, and that was the first time they went to the Northeast. Those dates were really an eye-opener to Jack and Meg. A lot of people showed up just for them. And Jack and Meg were, like, “Wait. We can actually do this and make money?” They didn’t exactly have a lot at the time.

I went with the band to South By Southwest and it was the only time Jack’s ever been there. He never wanted to go back. But that was another eye-opener, the feeding frenzy around them at that point, just lawyers and labels, everyone trying to get a piece of them. At that point they had no manager. They didn’t even have a lawyer.

And that’s actually where I made my first connection with The Agency Group. My friend Scott Kannberg, the guitar player in Pavement, introduced me to his agent, Russell Warby. At the time I told Russell, “Yeah, sure, you can book the band in Europe.” And I told Jack, “Yeah, we just hired that guy.” It was as simple as that. That was the structure of things back then.

Getting a European counterpart for that band sure turned out to be the right move.

Oh yeah. When The White Stripes went to England, it just blew up in two seconds. Everything that happened in a year and a half in America happened in a day in England. And when you get that much attention over there, they’re going to pay that much more attention over here.

So how familiar were you with The Agency Group?

At the time, they didn’t have the coolest roster, to be honest. I mean, when I was booking a venue, I didn’t even pay attention to that agency. The U.K. roster was great, but the U.S. roster? There was some stuff here and there but it definitely looked like an old fogie roster.

So how did you get hired?

I moved to The Agency Group around June 2002. It came through a few places. Bruce Solar, whom I’ve known forever from San Francisco, had moved on to work out of the L.A. office with Andy Somers. Basically I had him and Russell, separately, approaching me.

The one thing about The Agency Group is that Neil Warnock is very good at knowing what he should be getting involved with. And in 2002, they needed to look a little hipper.

I was basically a one-man operation, and it was stretching me thin. I was looking at hiring people, a bigger office space. All these things that, to be honest, were not really at the forefront of what I wanted to do. There’s a lot of freedom in owning your own business but there’s a flip side to that. I don’t want to do accounting. I don’t want to do payroll.

The White Stripes did a four-night run at the Bowery Ballroom and I met up with Steve Martin right after that. And right away, I thought, “This could work.”

But you lived in San Francisco.

The idea of moving to New York was extremely appealing. They actually thought I was going to move to L.A., and the first thing I said was, “Hell no.” My whole family comes from New York. My sister still lives here. And I realized I was spending a month out of the year there anyway.

Great timing for TAG – the Detroit scene just kept getting bigger.

Yeah. The White Stripes were obviously doing great. The Dirtbombs and The Detroit Cobras were at their peak. It was still club-level stuff but it was doing really well. The Von Bondies, whom I no longer represent, at one point everyone thought was going to go somewhere. That never really happened but there was a lot of hype.

A couple of key artists I signed almost immediately after coming here – The Raveonettes and The Kills. They’re a couple of my favorite acts to work with on every level. I love the people, I love the music – and their fans like them too, which helps. And also Electric Six, which was one of the last Detroit bands that I brought in. I wish every band wanted to work as consistently as they did.

Any new signings worth mentioning?

The first is this band from Milwaukee called Kings Go Forth, which are on Luaka Bop. They are basically a straight-up ’70s soul-funk band, with a Curtis Mayfield vibe. The record’s coming out in a couple of weeks. They’ll be doing ACL, and they’ll be doing Ottawa Blues Fest. Zach Quillen and I are doing that one.

As far as other recent signings, there’s this band Harlem. Their album recently came out on Matador.
I don’t foresee either one blowing up immediately but, in a year or two, I’ll still be talking about them and they’ll be further along.

Repeating an exchange we had with Ken Fermaglich a few years ago, there are promoters out there who no longer want to work with bands at a club level.

Oh, you definitely get promoters who want to cherry pick. There are certain promoters who are great for a larger band but I wouldn’t want them to do the smaller bands, because I don’t know if they would know what to do.

Obviously I prefer a company like Jam in Chicago. You can come to them and say, “I have a band that will do 500 tickets” and they know what to do with it. And if you have a band that will do 5,000 tickets, they know what to do with it.

But not everybody is set up the same way, especially with things like Live Nation, with companies getting rolled up. They’re getting further and further away from artist development. The way they’re going, I wouldn’t be surprised if Live Nation wanted to get out of the club business completely. And it’s too bad. They’ve got such a cross-section of buyers. There are some really great people there, people I’ve known for years and years who are very much about artist development, promoting shows in all sorts of different venues.

But I think a lot of those people, unfortunately, are getting reined in, and getting pulled away from doing that. It’s more about volume in the sheds, volume in the arenas.

You mention promoters better suited for larger shows than smaller ones. On the flipside, do you still have promoters who get to do the larger shows after they did the smaller ones?

Oh absolutely. I do the vast majority of my business in San Diego with Tim Mays, who owns the 250-cap Casbah, but he’ s also a promoter there. He did the first White Stripes show in San Diego and he did the last one. He did The Raconteurs as well, which I think was a co-promote with Live Nation. But especially in a market like San Diego, which isn’ t the easiest market in the world, it’s a comforting thing to know he’ll deal with it, and get me what I need.

And I’ve known Tim forever. I knew him when I used to work for Paul Rat. I’d call him to book the Sea Hags in 1986 [Rat managed the band]. And Tim was the guy who did the punk rock shows in San Diego, so I’d find out things from him, and then Paul and I, in turn, would chase down things we might not know about.

The Bowery Presents people, too, because of the Bowery Ballroom, obviously. Before they had everything else in there, the Bowery and the Mercury were the spots. Those were where my bands wanted to play in New York.

Do you handle a lot of fan e-mails / complaints?

If I get an e-mail like that, I forward it to management. I try not to deal with the irate fanboys. I do get a lot of those, but I just have to roll my eyes, when somebody’s complaining because a T-shirt they ordered off of a band’s website didn’t show up. It’s like, “All right, did you just send this to every contact you could find on a website?”

Honestly, for The White Stripes and all of Jack’s acts, I don’t think my e-mail or phone number is on the website anymore. I think we just put the mailing address. We want people to take the extra effort to figure it out because we were just getting too much ridiculous stuff.

If a lot of offers come in from the same market, what do you do: consider all of them or just a few?

Well, I understand on the one hand not wanting to look at everything that comes in because maybe there’s too much stuff but, really, if you’re not going to look at every offer, maybe you have the wrong job.

I feel like you have to absolutely look at every offer. Whether you want to call every single promoter in every single town, that’s a different story. I do try to reach a fine balance because most of the time, when I’m looking at a tour, it’s already been discussed with management and we know what rooms we want to be in and usually who we want to be in there with.

And the other thing that obviously changes is, especially with the whole Live Nation thing, you have all these shifts. In Denver, you had those musical chairs a few years ago, with Live Nation people going to AEG, Nobody in Particular people going to Live Nation, and then the rooms they all booked shifting. Well, who’s the history with? So that definitely factors in as well. But you’ve got to look at all your options.

On the flipside, a lot of times the artist and their management know what they want. That’s the thing. A lot of artists that I work with have a singular vision and it extends through all aspects of our business.

Building bands – do you have an overarching strategy? Obviously every band’s different but ..

No, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head because every band is totally different. It just depends on what you have to work with. That’s really the bottom line. For example, The Big Pink. That’s a band I signed about two years ago and that’s gone really well. From the get-go, by the time they were going to come to America, it was really clear this band has an audience, and we can go out and headline at a certain level. That’s the biggest difference: can they headline at some level? Can they do the 300-cap rooms? Because you have some stuff that comes in so early, your only choice is to support.

I personally prefer building a band through a combination of the two. If you don’t establish some kind of headline identity,
I just think it’s going to work against you in the long run because you don’t create a real fan base.

Can you expand upon that? Are you saying some bands don’t develop their material to become a headliner?

I don’t think it’s so much developing their material as a psychological thing. It’s getting people to think, “All right, I’m going to see The Black Lips’ show” instead of, oh, the Black Lips are opening for so-and-so. That’s a funny example because that’s a band that did a lot of touring before I became their agent, which was great for me. They supported The Dirt-bombs, which is how I found out about them.

But support for the sake of support can be painful. How many times have you gone to a show and seen an opening act die a slow death because people aren’t paying attention, or they’re playing to a half-empty room, which is one of the most disheartening things to an act? You’re playing to nobody. Or worse, you’re out with a headliner who shouldn’t be headlining the rooms that they’re in.

To go back to The Black Lips, the last support tour that they did was for The Raconteurs. That was a great move. They headlined before it and they headlined after it. The Black Keys are doing Kings of Leon dates in September but we’re mostly headlining. This opportunity makes a ton of sense. Would we have done a full U.S. tour with them? Hard to say.

Was there ever a band that got away?

Well, it’s all shoulda, coulda, woulda, I’ve been very fortunate in my career. I could count on one hand the bands that have fired me and, for the most part, in hindsight it was all good riddance. At least three that come immediately to mind, their careers took fairly quick downturns. Not to say my departure was the cause of it, but I think their careers in general were not in the right place. There’s nothing worse than having to watch an artist’s career go downhill. It’s one thing for it to ebb and flow, but when the bottom falls out, it’s a rough business.

And it really sucks when it’s an artist you care about. But on the flip side, if they were nice enough to fire you and then their career goes down the toilet, you don’t have to feel sorry for them. You can just say sayonara.

Why did they go kaput? Lazy? Bad luck?

Bad decisions. Bad luck always factors into it. Then a lot of times, you get bad management decisions, bad label decisions. Sometimes there’s even an agent that makes bad decisions. Not me, but you know.

Sometimes careers can get killed by bad touring decisions. But I always feel the worst thing to happen to artists is label-related.

The record didn’t match the hype. The label had a different vision for the band than where the band should be. They shoved the band into a different peg for radio, tried to find them an audience they weren’t going to get. I’ve seen it more than once. It is what it is, unfortunately. But now that the labels aren’t into artist development, they’re less likely to meddle. At least because they aren’t giving them tour support. They can still find ways to ruin their careers.

It can’t all be record labels though, can it?

You see people overreach all the time. You see agencies or management overbooking the act. And that’s a really hard thing, because it’s such an intuitive, subjective thing. I’m going through that right now with The Black Keys. It’s all working because the band’s phenomenal, so they’re making it easy. It’s just a lot tougher when you have these things where the steps aren’t there and people still try to take them.

There are certain agents who have this mentality that they shouldn’t be going back to the same rooms, ever. And I definitely do not agree because there are times you have to face facts and you are not any bigger this time around. Maybe you’re better off selling out the room you played the last time. It really comes down to how it looks in the room because audiences don’t know what the true capacities are.

There are plenty of agents whose philosophy is to have people be turned away.

Oh, absolutely! A perfect example, and this is an easy one, is at SXSW. Whenever I have an artist down there, especially if it’s a bigger artist playing, I’m not really concerned if it’s the biggest room. The people who don’t get in will talk about it as much as the people who got in.

Anyone ever come back after making a bad decision and say you were right all along?

Eh, it’s a fine line. I’m certainly not going to be the one to tell a manager or, God forbid, an artist that they were wrong and I was right. No matter what my relationship with them is, it’s just not my place to do that. Maybe in a subtle way, in some situations, yes. But you kind of gotta grin and bear it. Hopefully you’re not getting thrown under the bus and getting blamed for somebody else’s decision.

But I’ve been pretty lucky. I work with great managers, and great artists, who are all appreciative of what I do for them. When I talk about artists, it’s people I’ve worked with for years and years and I’d like to think I’ll continue to work with them for years and years.


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