Executive Profile: Billy Brill

Billy Alan Productions’ Billy Brill is fearless. Or crazy.

Or maybe a healthy smattering of both.

But no one can deny his long and successful career in music, from radio and TV to festival producer to talent buyer for several Native American casino venues across the western U.S. No longer the distant cousin of the live industry, casino entertainment is an emerging but fertile market that has given new careers to older stars and are totally cool enough for Lady Gaga.

Click here for the interview in PDF format, which includes additional photos.

There’s usually a feature on a club or arena talent buyer in this space, but those who bring artists to gaming venues are working in an environment much different from the rest of the music world. Billy was gracious enough to share his story with Pollstar.

His nearly 40-year career in the business began auspiciously enough. As a teenager, he walked into a radio station looking for his first job, and was hired as a DJ before being asked to help help Shelly Finkel and Jim Koplik put on a little music festival in 1973.

Woodstock may have gotten all the attention, but Summer Jam at Watkins Glen, N.Y., is still remembered for what many believe is the largest U.S. crowd in the history of pop music. Some 600,000 fans showed up at the racetrack for The Allman Brothers Band, The Grateful Dead and The Band. Brill was hooked.

“There I was, just 22, in awe of this whole concert business,” Brill told Pollstar. “I’d never done a big concert promotion before. I had no idea what Shelly and Jim meant. It’s just shocking that I started doing this so young. It was so huge, Summer Jam just overwhelmed the town.”

He eventually moved up the musical food chain, working at various times as Senior VP at MCA Records, Interscope’s VP of Top 40 promotions, and at EMI. He also has a series of TV interviews to his credit, including several he conducted for entertainment programs including “PM Magazine,” many of which can be found on YouTube.

But his current calling is working with Native American tribes and their casinos to book a wide variety of entertainment designed to appeal to the “big players” and others who have the wherewithal to not just see a concert, but make it part of a larger visit. It’s another adventure he fortuitously stepped in to.

Fortunately as well, he’s had a friend from high school along for most of the ride – Alan Kornstein, his partner in Billy Alan Productions. Kornstein joined Brill to form the company after a success-ful career in finance as a corporate VP and controller.

Brill and Kornstein hadn’t intended to get into casino entertainment, until a call from a talent buyer at Spotlight 29 in Coachella Valley called wanting them to book a concert there.

“My fiancee, Kiki, was the one who insisted that I return Spotlight 29’s call regarding talent booking when I thought I had no more time because of my music promotion and marketing. She hounded me for several days until I returned the call, saying it could be a whole other business. Boy, was she right!” Brill said.

The rest, as the cliché says, is history. Billy Alan Productions books up and down the West Coast from Pala Casino near San Diego, to The Show at Agua Caliente near Palm Springs, Primm Casino in Nevada, and north to Spirit Mountain in Portland, Ore., and several in between.

Entertainment Director Steve Macfadyen of The Show at Agua Caliente can’t say enough about his collaboration with Brill.

“No talent buyer pays more attention or is more committed to his clients than Billy,” Macfadyen told Pollstar. “No matter how many casino clients Billy is working with, he always makes you feel like he’s 100 percent involved in just your property each and every day.

“His constant attention to detail is remarkable. His former careers in marketing, radio and records is very helpful to all of his casino clients, as well. He genuinely cares about each and every deal matching up with the property and not just selling you an act. Billy worries about my money like it’s his.”

How has the casino entertainment industry changed in the last 10 years?

As the casinos become more sophisticated, they have different questions and different answers.

Going back 10 years, when a lot of casinos had venues in parking lots, there were different requirements because it wasn’t cool to play casinos.

But that has completely changed. As casinos became more sophisticated and the venues got better, the questions became how do we route them, how do we get a better deal, how can we get the night we want, what’s a better night for the act to play? Do you want to play a Monday through Thursday or do you play when the casinos are crowded on Friday and Saturday? Or do you even
try a Sunday matinee?

Years ago, when I first started as a talent buyer, casino entertainment was considered a loss leader. That mentality has totally gone out the window. It’s a new world, and it’s a bad economy. The last thing a tribal casino wants to do is lose money.

The old days of “Hey baby, here’s 80 grand for Mr. X” are over. Every casino does a pro forma, goes to the marketing department to see what a show is going to cost and how much they’re going to make on it. It’s very well thought out. The days when the act was like the buffet are long gone.

We’re working to change the perception. We just did Gabriel Iglesias at Primm Casino outside Las Vegas with 3,900 people. We had an amazing show with Travis Tritt, another with Melissa Etheridge. No more guys in tuxedos.

The casinos are trying to get rid of the cheese and get to the working-class guy. It’s better value for your act. Maybe 20 years ago, the perception was that you didn’t want to play a casino. But now you have Lady Gaga playing the Palms; you have the Zac Brown Band playing the Hard Rock, which is a great venue.

If you look at most of the touring acts in Pollstar you’ll see Mohegan Sun, Foxwoods, Agua Caliente and other casino plays with the biggest acts. It’s no longer an uncool thing to do — the venues are better; the plays are better.

Have the artists changed?

There are different acts. Now, you have an act like Celtic Woman, which is very big on PBS, that plays casinos. A couple of years ago you would never have had an act like Celtic Woman.

Another thing PBS has done was make stars again out of some of these older acts. PBS has done the Four Tops, Temptations, Tommy James and the Shondells, and turned these oldies acts into sensations and pretty good box office for casinos.

What does it mean to be in the VIP, rather than the concert, business?

If you book for the drop and you realize the demo you are going for is basically the VIPS, not the entertainment, that makes money for casinos.

Different markets have different idiosyncrasies. Like at Chukchansi Gold casino, in California, we found that classic rock worked. Artists like The Guess Who, 38 Special and Wynonna work.

We had to research every market and found that every market was different. They love comedy and country music in Portland, Ore. The concept was the same, to book for the drop, but it was just different and every casino had different needs. But every casino wanted to do a meet-and-greet, which is essential, because it has to be a great experience.

We’ve actually had to pass on acts that wouldn’t do a meet-and-greet. Gabriel Iglesias is a great one right now. He will sit there and sign a photo or something for every single fan. We had him at the casino at Primm Resort in Nevada and he spent an hour and a half signing autographs.

An act has to connect to a casino audience more than if we were booking a club or concert. That’s how we built the business. We never ran an ad; promotion was always through word-of-mouth. We are grateful to be working with the Native American tribes and casinos and it’s all about hard work and understanding the concept of booking, even though it’s completely different than a concert. It all goes back to knowing the venue and how to connect.

Explain “the drop” and which artists are your favorites based on that?

The drop is how much the players gamble, if people eat, if the higher players will come back for a special act. When people are happy, they come back and buy tickets as soon as they go on sale.

There’s six artists I can think of right off the bat who are great based on the drop. No. 1 is Don Rickles, who I’ve been booking for many years. He draws in older players and he’s just phenomenal with the meet-and-greet. He’ll make fun of the VIPs, he’ll call the guy in the front row a hockey puck; they eat it up. He’s a sweet guy and he’s traditional. And I love traditional old-school acts because, to me, they make a difference. Those old-school acts are happy
and people are great with them and I love that.

I think on the country side, an act that has done real well for me is Martina McBride. She’s a great person with the meet-and-greet. When she performs, the gamblers come, people have dinners. We always have a drop, we always sell tickets. And she’s a genuine person, which I like.

Another act that is different but in the rock ‘n’ roll vein is Styx. They have lots of hits, they’re great guys, and whenever I’ve booked them, Styx has always sold tickets. We’re in the VIP business and the gamblers always love Styx. They have a feel for the room that people love.

Johnny Mathis is a phenomenal performer, he’s in great shape for his age, and wherever I’ve played him the gamblers have made reservations in advance, they’ve been happy and he’s always a gentleman backstage. He’s one of those icons that makes people happy.

Another country act that has always done well for me is Wynonna. She’s a big, bright person, is great with VIPs, great with people who travel in, gives a lot of hits and has a special finesse. You can’t go wrong with Wynonna.

The last one is a sleeper act, the kind that leaves people scratching their heads. And that’s Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits. Whenever I’ve signed Peter Noone, he’s always sold tickets, always been genuine, and he brings 10-15 hits. And he’s great backstage. He’ll do meet-and-greets, and sign something for everybody in the casino. I’ve booked him 15-20 times and people love him.

The bottom line is, to book a great act in a casino, it doesn’t have to be sexy, it doesn’t have to be sophisticated, it just has to bring in gaming. It has to be one of those things where people say, “Wow, we had a great time, we gambled, we did the slots, we had dinner at the casino steakhouse.” It has to make people feel good.

In this crazy economy, if we make people feel good, I think that’s what it’s all about. It’s important to me because that’s how I make my living. I’m no Michael Jordan; I can’t play basketball.

How important is a marketing plan?

The agents have one job to do: They want to find the best deal and the best venue for their client, and they do. One thing agents ask for nowadays that they didn’t ask a few years ago is a marketing plan when you book an act into a casino.

CAA is really good about this. Ali MacGregor and Brett Steinberg are very good with casino bookings and they ask for a marketing plan.

Before you book, say, Crosby, Stills and Nash, you know that CAA is very sophisticated and they want to know how you’re going to market it and what you are going to do. They want to make sure CSN has the right picture on the billboards, hit the right radio spots, make sure it’s in the right newspapers and so on. They want to make sure when an act signs with a casino that they are presented in the best possible light.

Now, there’s so many acts, from Carly Simon to CSN to Sheryl Crow to Hall and Oates, that are all asking for marketing plans. An agent cannot come back to the casino and say, “You didn’t market it correctly” because people know how to market it in today’s world with Twitter, Facebook and MySpace. The Show at Agua Caliente now has an application the customer can download on his or her iPhone to get even more event information.

Word-of-mouth is the thing that sells concerts. At the end of the day, those applications are just electronic word-of-mouth. That’s all tweeting is. Casinos have become very sophisticated. They do it better than a lot of other venues because they have the help of their databases. Every gambler gets a players club card and the casino gets all that information.

In addition, every casino has their own marketing person, database person, special events director and an entertainment director. They have great teams in place at a lot of casinos, and that’s another reason the marketing is so great.

What do the entertainment directors do?

They’re responsible for finding the acts and going to the marketing director, then telling us to make the offer on the act. Once we make the offer and bring it to the agent, they’re involved in the negotiation from Day 1. We work through the entertainment director, who is actually the coordinator.

Once the act is booked, it’s just the beginning. Then you have to work on the marketing plan, the seating plan, the meet-and-greet, the players club promotions, radio and TV interviews; you’ve got a million things.

The entertainment directors I work with are very seasoned. Pala has David Swift, who also came from Live Nation/House of Blues, as did another veteran, Steve Macfadyen at The Show at Agua Caliente.

These guys have been trained in different venues and they know what’s going on. At Spirit Mountain in Portland, Ore., you have Cathy Wright, who’s been doing this for years and the same goes for Shana Gerety at Primm, Heather Rapp from Isle of Capri and Missy Lawrence from Mountaineer Racetrack & Casino.

It’s almost like having an in-house concert promoter with a lot of these entertainment directors, who know what’s going on and how to make it very simple for everyone. All they’re focusing on is the entertainment for the casino, and that gives us a big edge.

Can casinos walk away from an act?

A lot of times, we’ll get a call from an agent and they’ll say, “By the way, this act is coming to the area,” and we’ll all bid on the act. We’ll bid $100,000 on the act, and the people across from us will bid $150,000. The agent will come back to us and say, “Do you want to make another bid?” At that point, we have to decide if we want to book it.

Many casinos take the position that, because it is a bad economy, they might walk way. You have to show strength as a talent buyer; casinos aren’t banks. The casino has to be in control of what they do.

No matter how much you might want that act, and believe me there are acts we could kill for sometimes, if it’s over what we feel is our financial responsibility, we won’t book it. It’s the same for Primm, because the Las Vegas market is very competitive. The Palm Springs market is very competitive; there’s five casinos. In San Diego, you’ve got Pala, four or five casinos and a few amphtheatres in the area.

You have to show strength and realize there’s not an act in the world you can’t walk away from. But I believe there are some casinos that get so desperate they’ll do anything. That’s where the maturity of the entertainment director comes in. You have to know when to draw your line in the sand.

Experience knows that there’s always something else. There’s an agent who’s going to pitch something on the phone that’s going to be phenomenal for your casino and you can do good business with. And remember, it’s a gaming business – the primary business isn’t selling tickets.

And most casinos don’t have to calendar around sports teams and other events.

All a casino has to worry about is focusing on their gamers. They’re not in the arena booking business, they’re not booking clubs. Any big company has to worry about seven or eight factors in one day. A casino just worries about the best act that’s going to book for the drop.

More agents are becoming tribal-friendly. By “tribal-friendly,” I mean the tribes are our bosses. That’s who we answer to. Sometimes they’ll want to have a special meet-and-greet, and a lot of times the tribe will want to give the artist a traditional gift, or ask for certain things that normally we wouldn’t ask for in a venue.

Among agents, I’ll say Brett Steinberg and Brad Bissell at CAA have been very kind to us as have Steve Hauser and Jay Byrd from William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, Marty Beck from ICM, Nicki Wheeler from UTA and Frank Wing from APA. They have all been very kind and they understand our problems and help us resolve them.

They understand that the tribes are our bosses and we work for them. They’ll go to the acts and get things done, which I think is fantastic. I think they’ve got to learn to be open to the fact that it’s a new generation and a new world. Besides the mandatory meet-and-greet, they’ve got to be open to anything.

Are there exclusives with casinos, or might a tribe use different talent buyers?

There are exclusives with casinos. Sometimes you have contracts, sometimes you don’t. The bottom line is, if you’re doing a good job and they’re happy with you. For me, as long as we’re doing good business and booking for the drop, I’m thrilled to be there.

But you never want to be someplace where the client is not happy with you. We have long-term relationships with like casinos like Agua Caliente, which we’ve been with for 11-12 years, or Spirit Mountain, where we don’t have a contract, for 8-9 years. The chemistry is there and we work well with each other. If they’re happy, I’m happy.

As a talent buyer, you really want to please your client and give them 100 percent. You never want to be beholden to a contract you don’t want to be in. It would be no different than any other business.

What are your most competitive markets?

The most competitive market is, I think, San Diego, Calif. You have Harrah’s, Pala, Pechanga and Valley View. You also have venues in the area like Humphrey’s Concerts by the Bay and House of Blues. So every time an act is available, you’ve got to make sure you are competitive but you can’t be stupid. You have everyone bidding on the same acts at the same time, so it’s a matter of buying smart.

Palm Springs is a tremendously competitive market. You have San Manuel, Morongo, Spotlight 29, Fantasy Springs and Agua Caliente. So for every act that’s booking, you’ve got seven or eight casinos bidding on them.

You don’t consider that region a single Southern California market?

The people in Palm Springs stay in Palm Springs. Occasionally they go to San Diego but, if you live in Rancho Mirage and you have a choice of five or six casinos, you might go to San Diego for an occasional show, but people like stay within 40 miles for a destination. People in San Diego like to stay in San Diego. They also have five or six casinos.

Even a market like California’s central coast is really competitive. Competition is great. At the end of the day, the great ones always win. It shows who’s smart, who’s good and who’s bad. The good casinos, the ones with the smartest marketing director, talent buyer and most common sense, will always win, regardless of the market.

Tell us about non-traditional casino entertainment and programming to ethnic markets.

Hispanic acts including Gabriel Iglesias, Marco Antonio Solis and Ana Gabriel are really becoming very popular at casinos around the country right now, especially on those markets with large Hispanic populations.

A casino is like a store. You want the most people in your store at all times, and always want to bring new people in. The Hispanic business is becoming huge.

So is Vietnamese entertainment in certain markets such as San Diego, Palm Springs and New Orleans. We’re fortunate we’ve booked a lot of Vietnamese entertainment. We do a Vietnamese show at Spirit Mountain in Portland every three months. It’s one of those things that seems under the radar, that we don’t think about, that’s becoming very popular. We do these at Primm, too.

As talent buyers, we seek out those genres for the client because it’s a huge audience. So that’s something we all try to bring in to the mix.

There’s tremendous numbers of Hispanics as well as Vietnamese in San Diego, and the Coachella and Central valleys of California.

We’ve done Asian boxing, and we’re going to do Lucha Libre at Agua Caliente – that is going to go through the roof. We’re going to be partnering with MTV and showcasing Lucha Libre and boxing, which is another big thing.

If you watch Showtime, they’ll do boxing live on Fridays. Primm has done it for Showtime and ESPN. Mixed Martial Arts or MMA – cage fighting – is doing phenomenal business.

There’s a lot of attractions you can bring to a casino and book for the drop. But the beauty is you can take, say, an Armenian act and do something special with your casino, and learn who your audience is. A big company couldn’t do that.

We recently did a large televised event at The Show at Agua Caliente that featured one boxer that was Armenian and the other Hispanic, and we had tremendous input from the Armenian community. People came from all over California for the boxing match.

A good talent buyer is always looking for things. You look for niches to bring to the casino that no one is aware of. Then you own it and it’s yours for years.

To change gears for a moment, in the early days you worked with the late Harry Chapin.

I did work with Harry Chapin, who is one of my favorite people of all time. He was a prince. Way before benefits were cool, he would do them anytime you wanted. He was a very charismatic guy who wrote songs with heart.

I found out, when I was working on the TV show “PM Magazine” in 1977 or so, that Los Angeles did not have an official song. Randy Newman’s

“I Love L.A.” wasn’t around yet. So the late Neil Bogart, who was a big record company guy at the time, and I came up with a contest. People would send in their best music and would choose from those and then Harry Chapin would put the winner to lyrics and make that song.

We had a tremendous response – probably 60,000 entries. Harry picked the winner and we had an L.A. song. He was just a phenomenal guy that I am grateful to have known. I like being around creative people.