Exec Profile: Dave Kirby

Pollstar interviewed Dave Kirby, founder of TKO, in 2000 for our Agency Directory. Kirby was an agent for The Agency Group at the time. Below is the transcript. Kirby passed away Sept. 18 in Manhattan Beach, Calif., after a long battle with prostate cancer.

If you turn on an active rock radio station, you won’t have to listen long before you hear one of Dave Kirby’s bands. That will probably be the case for the foreseeable future because he not only represents some of the hottest hard rock acts out there, he’s developing the next generation.

This summer, Dave will package his clients Slipknot and Sevendust with some up-and-comers, along with famed tattoo artists and body piercing pros for the Pave The Earth festival.

Considering the controversy generated by many of his artists, it’s not surprising that these bands chose a rational, articulate guy to represent them on the road.

Perhaps Dave’s reasonable nature has something to do with his music background, which began in a place very different from his present home of New York City. Like many of his peers, he started out playing in a band and got into the agent business by happenstance.

“I’m from Canada,” he explained. “I joined a band in 1970 and was on the road in Canada for about 10 years.

“In 1980, I replaced myself in the band with one of my best friends and took more of a business role as manager of the act. Then, I was approached by the president of a company called Platinum Artists to become an agent.”

It’s impossible to separate Dave’s story from the history of Canadian booking agencies, which is a little strange since he didn’t hold a very high opinion of the profession when he started.

“At the time, I hadn’t thought of being an agent; I hated agents. But it sounded challenging and I thought I’d give it a shot. Since I had such disdain for agents, I thought maybe I could do something to improve the situation.”

He went to work for Platinum Artists and stayed there for a couple of years. Then, he started his own management company and handled a band on CBS called The Tenants, an RCA act called New Regime, and a number of other clients.

Eventually, Dave got an offer from David Bluestein who was running The Agency (no affiliation to The Agency Group) in Canada.

“It was basically the biggest agency in Canada. We split the country with S.L. Feldman and Assoc. They were in Vancouver and we were in Toronto. We split the country on the Ontario/Manitoba border and pretty well controlled all the live traffic in the country by virtue of the two rosters we represented.

“The big bands we represented on the eastern side of the country were Rush, Triumph, Max Webster, and others. On the western side, they represented Bryan Adams and Bachman Turner Overdrive,” Dave said.

The truce lasted until1992, when Feldman wanted to get an interest in The Agency but was not allowed to. His response to that was to terminate the 20-year-old agreement between the two companies and go to war.

“Feldman opened an office in Toronto and we opened one in Vancouver. Everyone was panicking. We had a board meeting during which I said, ‘Look, we can have the War of Canada but it’s awfully silly. The bands don’t need our help getting booked into Moosejaw and Rebelstoke – they need our help getting booked into Minneapolis, Chicago, L.A. and New York.’
My feeling was that the first company to open an American office was going to win the battle.

Michael Cohl and Arthur Fogel, who were owners of The Agency along with Bluestein, decided that the U.S. approach was wise. They offered to transfer Dave to New York to open The Agency in the U.S.

“They already owned Brockum (the merchandise company), they owned ITG, and they moved me onto the Brockum/ITG floor on 7th Avenue in the spring of 1993,” Dave said.

Ironically, the company was then sold to Feldman and Dave began to have doubts about the future of the U.S. operation even though he had been reassured the new owner was going to keep the office open and support what he was doing.

“My gut told me that I needed to look at other options because I didn’t have 100 percent faith in them keeping the office open and that they would build the company and hire additional employees. I had no interest in moving back to Canada. Things were good here. But my family and I were in limbo at that time.

Steve Martin and Steve Schenk, who were running The Agency Group in the States at the time, heard that Dave was interested in having a conversation with them. A lunch meeting was arranged. A few dates later, company chief Neil Warnock arrived in NYC. “By noon, I had an offer and made the move to come to this company. That was in March of 1993.”

How long had The Agency Group been in the U.S. at that point?

Only about a year-and-a-half. It was a very new company and I liked that. I also liked the fact that it was global and booked territories all around the world. I really felt that the business was moving very quickly to become global. This was all consistent with observations I had made in Canada. I thought it was bizarre that we had 30 agents booking a country with the population of the state of New York.

Was there in question that you were making the right decision?

I knew I would become a small fish in a big pond, I had previously been a vice president and a senior staff member of The Agency in Canada and I knew that I would have to go through this transition period. So when I came here, I represented Rick Emmett from Triumph, April Wine, Honeymoon Suite. That’s where I started.

So I’ve been here for seven years now. I’ve always been pretty good at holding a job. I don’t make a lot of changes and when I do, it’s for really good reasons.

At what point did you find yourself with a growing roster of these young hard rock acts?

What happened was, I sensed some change going on. My theory is that alternative music ended when Kurt Cobain stuck the barrel in his mouth. At the time, nobody knew that so there was a bit of a hangover.

For a couple of years after that, there was still some discussion and the word ‘alternative’ was still being used. Now you never hear it – certainly never by record companies.

What happens cyclically is that all these kids who were all fans of that genre feel deserted. They were let down when the biggest act of the genre was gone. Then, record companies started homogenizing the genre by signing bands that they labeled alternative but who where actually manufactured.

The kids were smart enough to figure that out and they became disenfranchised. When that happens, they always rebel; they always go heavy. They go to what their parents hate the most.

For which artists do you currently act as responsible agent?

Coal Chamber, Sevendust, Slipknot, Anthrax, Sepultura, Puya, Kittie, Fear Factory, One Minute Silence, and zebrahead.

Additionally, I am developing what I believe to be the next wave of hard bands. They include Chevelle; Disturbed, who have just come out on Giant Records and will be on Ozzfest; Mudvayne, who have been signed by Epic and are from the Slipknot family; Relative Ash, which is a new band out of Chicago with a record coming out on Island/Def Jam; Unida, who are out of Southern California and are with American Recordings; Stereomud, who are ex-members of Stuck Mojo and Life of Agony. They are really good and are being pursued by a number of labels. Plus, I have a band called Workhorse Movement, which is a new act out of Detroit on Roadrunner.

What was the first new hard rock band you signed?

The first hard band of this generation that I signed (although I have traditionally always booked hard bands) was Coal Chamber.

I was approached by Scott Givens, who was with Roadrunner. He asked me to take a look at the band. We set up a New York date prior to them going on Ozzfest that summer. We kept the date low-profile. We were looking at having some of the record company people there, a few radio people, rackjobbers, publicity people… .

Dana from Coney Island High called me about two weeks before the show and said, ‘Would you mind if I put this show in my ad so we have some real fans in the crowd?’ and we agreed that would be cool.

I got there the night of the show and the line went out the door and down to 2nd Avenue. I walked up to Dana at the front door and said, ‘What are you doing? You’ve got to let these people in the room.’ She said, ‘They’re already in a the room. The room is packed.’

I walked into the room at it was absolutely jammed. I went over to Scott and said, ‘You obviously have a lot of friends.’ And he said, ‘I just checked at the door and my friends are all standing in that line. They’re not in yet – their names haven’t been stroked off the list.’

Dana called Ticketmaster and it turned out that somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 tickets had been sold through Ticketmaster in about a week. The band’s record hadn’t been released yet. There was virtually no advertising, the record wasn’t at retail and only a few metal radio stations were playing it.

When the band went on, the place went berserk. The audience was singing the lyrics back to the band – songs from an album that wasn’t out yet.

That was a revelation to me. I thought, ‘OK, this is where it’s headed. There’s no question about it.’

I made a definite commitment in this direction and the next act that I signed was Sevendust.

How do you know who to sign?

I listen to my clients. I don’t consider myself to be cool. My clients are cool; I’m an agent. My job is to listen to them and move in the right direction based on their feelings.

Most of the time, when I’m looking at new acts, I will check with my current artists and see what they think. They’re living the life every day. The communication between bands has never been better. They all have each others’ email and cell phone numbers. I rely on their input a great deal.

There are also many people in the business who will tell an act to talk to me once it gets to a certain point.

Getting where I am now was more by virtue of having a sense of what was going on at the time. I think now, it’s even more obvious. Unless you have an established career – with very few exceptions – you have to be hard like Korn, Slipknot, Limp Bizkit, and a lot of my clients, or you are Britney Spears, ‘N Sync, and Backstreet Boys. Everything in between is death.

You can see it when you look at the SoundScan numbers. Look at the Limp Bizkit numbers or Slipknot where they’ve sold 25,000 records last week and are approaching platinum.

Do most of your bands make the effort to break on the road?

If you look at the whole business and how a band fits into it, there are really only two sides to a band’s career. One is the live side and the other is recording. Everything falls under those two headings.

I think there has to be a balance and if you focus too much on one, it can ultimately be costly. With my acts, the key has been touring and they all have a great work ethic. It started because they were, in many cases, unable to get large amounts of radio exposure and MTV was not playing hard rock bands 3-4 years ago. It just wasn’t.

The only way for them to get the exposure they needed was to get out there and play. That’s the way most of my bands have been able to get a break. They’ve gone on the road and played, whether they’re headlining or opening for bigger bands.

It has helped motivate the other side of the equation because when the band goes out and plays some of these towns, the next thing you know, the radio station in that town adds the record because the phones start ringing.

The phones are ringing because the band was in town and the kids saw it and freaked out. They listen to the radio station and don’t hear the band so they call the radio station and say, ‘What are you doing? You’ve got to play Sevendust or Coal Chamber’ or whoever it is. The radio station wakes up and plays it and the next thing you know, the band’s profile has grown considerably.

Why was radio a bit slow to react?

Back on Sevendust’s and Coal Chamber’s first record, active rock radio was in its infant stage. It really didn’t know what it was yet. They’d play Korn, then Van Halen, then an old Rush song. They had a really hard time defining themselves.

When more of the hard rock stuff came in, it was like, ‘That’s who we are,’ and they made a commitment to these bands. That identified active rock as a different format than rock radio.

It’s interesting that the cycle is occurring again. What I’m seeing happen now is that modern rock is really disappearing. Modern rock is where they dumped all the alternative stuff. But what is alternative? What is modern? I mean, how many times can you play Depeche Mode? It’s over.

All the modern rock stations are having to grab onto the bands that the active rock stations have developed, so you have these microcosmic radio wars going on in each city which are a constant problem for agents, managers and record companies.

Do your bands see any tour support from the smaller labels?

They do. Some of these smaller labels like Roadrunner and TVT are independents with some money. I believe that these are the kind of labels that really led the way in this genre and showed many of the larger labels, that are just coming into the game now, how to do this.

Certainly, if you look at the job [TVT president] Steve Gottlieb did on Sevendust’s first album, that was outstanding. He kept giving them tour support for as long as they needed it. He bought a tremendous amount of advertising in trade and street publications. Even at the end of the album cycle, he spent a half-million on a TV show that was broadcast all over the U.S. and seriously pushed sales.

A lot of the hard bands on major labels are a fairly recent thing. Just two years ago, you didn’t see Atlantic or Warner Bros. in this game. Sony would be an exception because of Korn, but technically speaking, that’s Immortal, which is an indie run by Happy Walters. He was there at the beginning with his label and Sony became the distributor and realized they had something.

Now, you see Staind on Elektra, Static X on Warner Bros., P.O.D. on Atlantic … . They’re coming into the game now that it’s easier and it’s an obvious trend.

The indies were the first to use street teams. There are street teams all over the country that are very effect at promoting records. You’ll find that many of these street teams are getting hired by the major labels now.

How do you deal with artists and/or managers who might have unrealistic ideas about touring?

Usually, I look at where a band is in the market. It’s part of my job to keep the band real and give them the information that comes back from the field so they know where they stand.

Usually, if I go to a manager or artist and say, ‘We’re capable of drawing X number of people when we play at a certain ticket price. That should give you the information you need to determine the gross.’

Usually, when you take that information and deduct the expense of running the show, it tells you what you’re capable of getting for the act.

How do you determine the gross? Everyone seems to have their own formula.

Fortunately, for most of my tours, I’m pretty good at estimating how many people they are going to do. I always try to slightly under-book. I try to put the band in a place with a capacity slightly less that what they are capable of drawing so that the show sells out.

I believe that the average kid standing in a 1,500-seat room that is packed solid, is going to feel that they are in the right place, that they are on the crest of the wave.

If you take the same kid and the same 1,600-1,700 people and stand them in a place that holds 3,000, your average kid will think the band ain’t happening.

What criteria do you use to pick the right room?

With my bands, there are certain parameters. The shows have to be all-ages. The only time we are flexible at all on that is when there are state or municipal laws that restrict us. Even then, we always try to find a way to let kids see the band. Any promoter who does not see that as a trend is not paying attention.

The other thing is that the show has to be general admission. I do not believe in assigned seats for any of these bands. They are all very aggressive and very loud. The first thing that happens is the crowd goes off. If there are fixed seat bolted into concrete, someone is going to get hurt.

I’m a big believer in open floors and letting the kids go into the mosh pit if that’s what they want. If they don’t, they can step away from it. There’s freedom and no one is telling them ‘go here, don’t go there.’

I’m always trying to identify places that can handle that kind of situation. This is not new; it’s not a profound revelation. Punk band promoters have been doing this for a long time. That’s how Stormy Shepard has always booked her acts. What I’m doing is taking hard music – not punk – and putting it into that scenario.

Are promoters ever concerned that your bands will pose a security problem?

My bands are a security problem.

You have to set up a show properly and have the proper level of security. Barricades are obviously a necessity at these shows. We use steel mesh barricades with good personnel standing between the barricade and the stage. You need security guys who are not looking for a fight, who know how to handle kids and be gentle with them.

The kids want to have fun. The buzz of the crowd, the moshing, the crowd surfing – it’s all part of the event. You don’t want to chain the kids to a seat. What fun is that? It only forces them to rebel.

In my opinion, it’s very simple: Kids cause damage when they are bored. I have two sons, 6 and 4. If they have something to do, they’re quiet and busy. They don’t have time to get into trouble because they’re concentrating. If they get bored, they will lay waste to the home in moments. Big kids are the same.

Can you give an example of how a well managed show plays out?

I’ve had a lot of people call because they are concerned about Slipknot. They say, “The crowd is going to tear my place apart.” The opposite is true. The kids go to see the band. They are so focused on this – they have to see this so badly – that they really aren’t interested in anything else.

When the band walks on stage, that’s it. They are completely absorbed by that until the final encore and the band walks off the stage. The crowd stays in a trance for a while after they’ve seen the band and they leave the venue in a calm fashion. We’ve seen that happen all over the world.

One of the best stories was when the band played the House of Blues in Chicago. There is artwork, probably hundreds of thousands of dollars worth, hanging on the walls. Before the band came in, (talent buyer) Michael Yerke was concerned about that, but not overly concerned because he has brought a lot of my bands into his room.

The show was completely sold out; it was complete mayhem. The audience leaves and Michael grabs his general manager and they get out the clipboard to do the rounds. Half an hour later, they come back into the office and they hadn’t mark down one thing.

I just confirmed the Palladium in Los Angeles. The GM at the venue was very concerned and needed to speak with some other venues and Michael was one of the names I gave him.

It’s about crowd management and knowing what you’re dealing with. We do go with stepped-up security. We put security on the band, we have security on the trucks and buses. Everything is covered.

What made you decide to develop Pave the Earth?

We want to introduce the kids to the next wave of hard bands and to give them some freedom They’re going to pay a reasonable ticket price and be able to move around at will. If they want to go to the front of the stage and into a full mosh situation, they can, if they want to move away from that, they can.

We are looking to play nontraditional venues. We’re looking for flat ground – grass, ideally. It’s really hard to hurt yourself on grass. Amphitheatres are really great for all different types of music but not for this. The seats are bolted into concrete, the concrete is inclined. They use reserved seating. It doesn’t make sense for all those reasons.

We’ll have a festival environment. We’re carrying the festival elements with us with vendors and the tattoo guys and the piercing people. We’re going to be presenting some things on stage that are completely bizarre, that have not been seen before on any of these tours.

We’re really going out of our way to do something different. We have nothing but respect for the tours that are out there and what they’re doing. But we’re going to do something a little different.

Do these shows create a dangerous atmosphere or do they foster a sense of community?

We’re serving up to the kids something they feel they have discovered and it’s part of their world. So, naturally, they belong in it. They don’t want to destroy something they have helped create.

It’s not force-fed to them. They are not being shoved into an unhappy environment. I think their comfortable so they’re a lot less likely to get violent.

If you listen to these bands, there is anger, there is stress, there is force and aggression. In a lot of ways, they’re reaching that side of the fans’ personalities and they’re letting them get it out. When the kids leave the show, it’s like they’ve been to therapy.

A lot of these bands seem to go out of their way to form a relationship with the fans.

It’s not unusual for the band to leave a show and find a hundred kids standing around the bus. In Slipknot’s case, we’ve seen kids who have the lyrics to entire songs tattooed on their legs. It’s a really big deal to them. It’s important and it’s become a priority to them.

I was recently discussing ticket prices with a promoter and we were debating what the price should be for a Slipknot show in California.

I said, ‘The truth is, we could charge whatever we want. The kids have to be there. They’ll do whatever it takes. They’ll rob a 7-11. They don’t care; they have to be there. But we need to at least try to make this available to the kids who have no money.’ We want to keep it affordable.

Is there a credo that you live by?

I’ve always been a believer in karma. I’ve always tried to take the high road.

Don’t bite the band that feeds you.

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