Frank Productions’ Larry and Fred Frank

Larry and Fred Frank of Frank Productions may finally be flying above the radar after decades of promoting concerts in what is often called “flyover country” but what they believe are sorely under-served markets.

They’re second-generation entrepreneurs, having taken over the family business from their father, Herb, who started out running box offices in secondary and tertiary markets before moving into promoting country artists.

 Click here for the PDF version, which includes additional photos

See Also: Executive Profiles Archive

“You’re going to give away our secret,” Fred Frank told Pollstar. But it’s not really that much of a secret that they’ve built a highly successful independent promotion business, as evidenced by the 2010 nomination of Frank Productions as Pollstar’s Independent Promoter of the Year by their industry peers.

Based in Madison, Wis., Frank Productions has developed a reputation for bringing active rock shows to the heartland. But they started out, with their father, selling tickets and operating box offices in several markets, building venue relationships and branching out into promoting country artists when country wasn’t cool.

Recognizing the ability of both country artists and active rock bands to connect with fans on a personal level was a reflection on the company’s philosophy about talent buying and artist development. Every fan, and every market, has to be treated individually. There’s no “one size fits all” formula for developing and keeping fans, or breaking new artists out on tour.

Frank Productions isn’t simply a talent buyer. The company still operates Madison Ticket Agency, also founded by Herb Frank. The company offers production and facility management services including front of house staffing, parking and security.

The company is very much a family endeavor, with CEO Larry and President Fred Frank a team of equals. In a joint interview, it’s clear they are of one mind about their business, their philosophy and the industry in general – at times, they even finished each other’s sentences. That’s family for you.

Tell us about your family business history.

Larry: My mother and father started the business 47 or 48 years ago. They originally started the company as a ticket-selling business, owning and operating the box office at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison, Wis. It’s now Alliant Energy Center Memorial Coliseum.

Back then, everything was operated with hard tickets; there were no computers. Promoters would book the building, then hire my parents to help locally with marketing and advertising.

As years went on and they began booking more shows at the Coliseum, my dad started to venture out and promote his own shows. The company was then called Herb Frank Enterprises. The ticketing company has always been called Madison Ticket Agency, and still exists to this day.

My dad did a lot of the family shows and a lot of country shows at that time. He later started getting into the rock business and working with promoters like Jules Belkin.

Fred: What came out of that, and not to sound cocky, is that we basically grew up in a ticket office, being very young and having our parents in the business. Both Larry and I have extensive knowledge of ticketing.

Our first jobs in the business were selling programs at events, Pepsi and popcorn in the stands; we have been around some type of entertainment our whole lives. It was a neat opportunity.

When my dad was promoting Johnny Cash throughout the Midwest, Larry and I would tag along. We’d wind up in La Crosse, Wis., or Ft. Wayne, Ind.; two little punks running around backstage at a Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins or Merle Haggard show.

My dad did a lot of country music early on – before country was hot and hip. That created great roots for us when we both got heavily involved in the business after college.

Actually, I only went to college for about one year. I think Larry went for just a couple. The opportunity was there so early and it felt so right to just jump right into the family business.

I knew, at least for myself, that was what I wanted to do. I wasn’t really sure what I was even going to school for since I already knew this what I wanted to do.

How did you shift from ticketing to promoting?

Larry: Things began shifting, moving toward a lot less of the ticketing business and more into promoting. It was very exciting at that time, there were a lot of things happening and we were going out with a lot of different shows.

Not only did we have to build relationships with acts and people on the road, but because of the ticket office business our company was really well respected by the buildings in many cities.

We had actually operated the ticket office in the buildings and knew how they worked and what they were looking for. We were respected by them, and they knew of us.

Fred: We built upon the base that my parents built and took it to another level or two. But it was great then. We’d be out on a Johnny Cash or an Alan Jackson show and I’d have some guy walk up to me and say, “Is your dad Herb Frank? I used to be a stage hand for Johnny Cash. Boy, your dad is something else.”

There were all of these connections, and it was pretty amazing. My dad, being a one-man shop, did a lot of shows in a lot of places and it was always refreshing to hear people say they remembered working for our dad. They’d say things like, “What a great guy. He was funny and we all made a lot of money.”

What lessons did you learn from your dad?

Fred: One thing our dad taught us was that relationships come first. That’s where we’ve been – building relationships in the industry. We’ve got some really good ones out there that have allowed us to survive over the course of the last 10 years of this industry shakeup, where it’s become more about the money than it was about the careers.

We’ve stayed on course. If it’s just about a large check at the end of the tour or at the end of the night, and that’s what’s important, we’re probably not your guys. But if it’s about building a career and longevity and touring for the next 10, 15 or 20 years, then we want to be your guys.

We want to find bands that we believe in, bands that we like and bands that have a future that we can take the ride with. It’s a thrill ride. When a band pops, there’s nothing more fun and more exciting than to be around a band from its infancy to stardom. It really trips our trigger.

Do you have any good road stories about your dad?

Larry: My dad used to do Johnny Cash shows everywhere. One night, Johnny’s roadies grabbed Dad, put him a chair and strapped him down with nylon straps and duct tape.

Johnny walked over and said, “Tonight, Herb, you’re gonna watch the show.” They put him up on the stage and my dad sat there, completely strapped down and unable to move, and watched the whole Johnny Cash show from start to finish.

What kinds of shows has Frank Productions promoted over the years?

Fred: My dad did a lot of family shows and a lot of country. We progressively got much more into country and, at the height of our careers of promoting country, Larry and I were doing about half of all of Alan Jackson’s dates over eight years. There were tons of Brooks & Dunn shows and tons of Vince Gill’s.

When John Michael Montgomery was hot, we did every single one of his shows. Alan Jackson was probably the most consistent. That was an amazing 8- or 10-year run for us doing his shows. We often took Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn and John Michael Montgomery up through Canada, coast to coast. There wasn’t a city we didn’t go to.

Larry: We went out with Vince Gill and developed the Vince Gill Christmas shows for many years. When country came back around in popularity, we were able to exploit those roots. We were probably working with the top five country acts in the nation, and going cross-country with those.

How did you go from promoting Marty Robbins to Metallica?

Fred: From country music, we evolved to doing quite a bit of rock shows. I would probably say our forte now, and I think we might be getting somewhat labeled right now, is that we are the active rock guys.

We do more active rock shows than probably anybody in the country. It all started with a little band called Metallica.

Larry: Tony DiCioccio at Q Prime Management knew my dad from when he was on the road. But we got the call one day from Tony. He’s in the management office and does a lot of the day-to-day touring business with Metallica.

At one time, he was on the road with Def Leppard and went through the Coliseum in Madison. My dad was the box office manager, or it may have been a show my dad was promoting at the time and handling the ticket sales, and they got along great. They knew each other and kept in touch.

One day, Tony was looking at all these cross-country shows we were doing with the country acts and called up and said, “How would you guys like to do a couple of Metallica shows up in the Northwest? We’re looking for a promoter.” And we said, sure, we’d give that a try. I guess we can do that.

Fred: That was after we picked ourselves up off the floor. After all, Metallica was, and still is, one of the biggest rock bands in the world.

Larry: It was very simple: we did with the rock shows what we did with the country shows. We tend to find music that is a lifestyle for people. Active rock is very much like country in that fans and the acts relate to each other.

We always felt that our specialty has been going in and promoting shows, or doing promotions, in a way that comes from our backgrounds in promoting circuses and other family shows. Getting the fans to react, doing the contests, the backstage meet-and-greets and always trying to sell that one more ticket worked in country and works just as well in active rock. It’s where we found our success.

Country shows now have many of the trappings of rock shows.

Fred: If you look at today’s world and the productions of some of the country and rock acts, the only difference is the music that is coming from the stage. The productions on either side are huge and spectacular. You can go see Jason Aldean or Kenny Chesney shows to figure that out.

It’s a borderline rock show. But what we like about active rock and country is there’s a very real connection with the fans. That’s something that interests us – how the music connects to the fans.

What differentiates Frank Productions from other promoters?

Fred: When we look at doing a show, or a 17-city tour, it’s not a cookie-cutter situation for us. We don’t say, “This is what we’re going to do in every market; let’s just throw it up there and see what it does.”

Every market is looked at individually, every market has its own plan of attack and part of our success comes from looking at these different shows and different cities as different marketplaces.

That’s one thing that’s been missing lately with industry consolidation. The biggest companies are so big and centralized that it becomes a cookie-cutter situation. If a band is hot enough, anything’s going to work.

When it’s U2 it’s going to work. But I could go down a whole list of bands that are still building. Their careers have just started or they’re just getting to be an arena-level act and there’s still so much to do, to make sure you do it the right way.

Larry: When you’re trying to grow and break bands, you have to look at each situation, each market, each date individually and figure out what it takes in that one moment, in that one city, that one time.

We’ll go into cities across the country and, say, we have coming up a three-week run of Avenged Sevenfold. We’ll go into markets and if there’s a local guy, a local club promoter, we’ll call them up and work with them.

How are your relationships with local promoters?

Fred: We know the value of working with the local guy. He potentially will have the relationships with the radio station, or maybe that venue, or maybe he has the best street team in town. Why not take advantage of his resources if he’s a good partner? We get that.

We know what it’s like to be in the trenches in your hometown. If we can work with this person, and do it as a joint venture, there’s no better formula than that. But for instance, if you take a look at this three-week run of Avenged Sevenfold, we’re going to stop in cities that will make you ask, “Where’s that? Why would you be going there?

But we’ve found all these markets across the country that have been ignored by the biggies. I don’t even think they’d know were Grand Island, Neb., is. Yet we’re now running our third or fourth show there and they are all running 80 percent to 90 percent capacity.

I can give you a list of 30 of these cities that are dying for music, and aren’t getting attention from anybody. Mankato, Minnesota. La Crosse, Wisconsin. I come into those cities with Disturbed, Avenged Sevenfold, or a country show, and it’s like bringing Elvis to town.

They’ve been deprived, and that’s what happened with consolidation. It became just about the major markets.

There’s 6,000 fans in little LaCrosse, Wis., that want to see Avenged Sevenfold, Stone Sour and Hollywood Undead, I guarantee it. Are there more fans in the Twin Cities? Probably. But we’ll get there at some point.

It’s about continuously building a base, and then building upon that base and keep building it. Eventually, you will be able to play the Target Centers of the world and the rest of the 18,000- to 20,000-capacity buildings.

Larry: How do you build a band nowadays, but to get them in front of the public in all these markets? You can’t just play the top 20 markets all the time and build a band. It doesn’t happen. You get out there and expose them to the public.

It’s not sexy looking for a promoter, it’s not glamorous, but it works as part of what we do and it’s our job. As long as we can get people in to see the act and everyone’s making money, that’s what it’s about. That’s how you grow a band.

So you consider artist development part of your job?

Larry: In country music, it always worked that way. You tour and tour and you grow your base. When we got back into doing rock with those Metallica shows, we saw how Metallica was built over all these years and now we’re explaining, showing, teaching and helping the Avenged Sevenfolds of the world to build careers.

I bring that up because Avenged Sevenfold is a project that seems to be moving along very nicely. Last year we did the complete Avenged Sevenfold and Buckcherry tour. I think it was 37 or 38 dates and it was a very successful co-headliner.

We’re heading off in January with the first of many dates to come, and we’ve taken them from co-headlining to headlining. We’re going out with the new album and taking them up to the next level.

You must have had a close relationship with the late Dave Kirby then?

Larry: Yes, we did. Dave was a great guy. We spent a lot of time working with Dave on Mudvayne, actually. He introduced us to Disturbed. He came to us with a lot of these acts because Dave, as an agent, was one of the few who actually understood what we were doing out on the road.

He understood how we treated promoting and he knew his acts needed that out there. It was a great relationship. We worked on Disturbed, Slipknot and Mudvayne a lot in their early years. Dave understood the value of promotion.

Fred: Dave was never the kind to say, “I’m selling you this act for as much money as I can get.” We always felt it was a partnership between us, the agency, the band and its management. We were all going out there trying to achieve the same thing. That is something that is very refreshing in our industry, when we’re all going at it looking for the same results.

You’ve been vocal about effects of consolidation and the Live Nation / Ticketmaster merger. What are your concerns?

Fred: I think it’s obvious that we don’t like it. We don’t think it’s good for the industry. We don’t think it’s good for anybody to have so much control over so much. It kind of goes against everything we believe.

Larry: I believe there’s going to be a lot of changes in the next year. I don’t think we’ve seen all the effects of the merger yet. I think it’s way too early to call if it’s good or bad, but I don’t like it.

A lot of things have to get sorted out in the next year. It changes by the day, by the hour. I don’t think it’s right that as a promoter, I have to have my competitor sell my tickets. It’s like Coca-Cola having Pepsi do their distribution. I don’t think that’s right.

But those venue contracts are going to be coming up a lot in the next few years and who knows what’s going to happen?

Do you think the merger will open doors for new ticketing technologies and companies?

Fred: You’ll have to wait for some of these contracts to come up before you see the change. It could take a couple of years to see results.

But I’m very thrilled and encouraged because I see these TicketFlys and Front Gates, eTix and all these companies gearing up for that. In the little bit of research I’ve done with each of them, they each have very different and interesting things to offer that I think can only help sell tickets.

In today’s world, you need a big nationwide system. We now sell the majority of tickets on the Internet. In the next couple of years you could see some big changes and interesting things developing from it.

In the meantime, I have to deal with my competitors distributing my product, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

How are you holding up in the current economy?

Fred: We’ve actually experienced tremendous growth the last couple of years. We had record-breaking years in 2008-09. So far, 2010 is among the top five years for our company. It’s tremendous. We’re approaching the end of the year and while it’s down some from such a successful last year, it’s still a good year.

There are some markets that are harder than others but we tried to go in, study them and figure that out before we put dates out. We found out where the active rock market is. We’re selling $35-$40 tickets. We’re not trying to sell $80-$90 tickets.

Larry: Pricing and value are so important. The last four or five tours that we’ve done, we’ve kept the ticket price under $40 and we’ve had no less than four acts on the bill. Simple math tells you that works out to $10 an act.

It’s once again making sure the fans are happy, the show is affordable, it’s a bunch of bands they want to see. And not to categorize anyone, but the people we’ve been playing for with the active rock shows are generally younger people without mortgages. At one point the biggest concern for this audience was the price of gas. That leveled off, and we really saw our sales shoot up when that happened.

We feel that as long as we put together a great package at a fair price, market it correctly, in the right city and have the right partners, it’s usually a formula for success.

How do you find success promoting in the Midwest, rather than New York, L.A., or Nashville?

Fred: We’re not trying to run 50 shows through Madison, Wis. I’m doing one act in 50 cities. We are going into markets where there may be just three or four other concerts that year.

But that’s the beauty of what we do as an independent promoter. We’re not locked down to just one market or one region. We have all the confidence in the world to go coast to coast. Doesn’t matter if it’s Tampa, Fla., or Albany, N.Y.

We do so many more shows outside of our hometown than we do in our hometown. Are we the primary promoter in our hometown? Yes. Could we survive just being promoters in our hometown? No.

Success is the ability to find that one right act that we really believe in and find many places for them to play where they don’t usually get shows.

I’m looking at the Three Days Grace / Breaking Benjamin tour and the cities we went to included Cedar Rapids and Council Bluff, Iowa; Duluth, Minn.; Elmira, N.Y.; Grand Island, Neb.; Green Bay, Wis. These are places that don’t get a lot of shows and are not the markets at the front of your mind when you think of going out on tour.

Nashville is a great rock market. But not many people think it is. We’ve been running everything through there. We sold out Metallica, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and did great there with Avenged Sevenfold and Buckcherry. I think we did our Three Days Grace package there. It’s a great rock market.

Larry: Our attitude is we don’t have to do every single show, every single act that’s out there. It’s not what we’re about.
We try to find the right acts that have the same philosophy and are setting the same goals that we like to see. So if that means doing a few acts in a lot of places, great. And as promoters, we don’t lay claim to markets. We don’t look at it that way. We also do Boston with Metallica every time Metallica goes out. We do big shows with the Red Hot Chili Peppers when they go out.

With your success, what convinced you to invest in Darin Lashinsky’s NS2?

Larry: Darin’s philosophy and ours are very similar. He decided to go out on his own, and what we saw is a very talented person. We’re second-generation promoters. He’s actually third generation. One thing my brother and I believe in is knowing how to promote a show and we saw that in Darin.

We’ve been out there in the trenches trying to sell tickets to ice shows and circuses where it’s a generic-type product. If you can sell those tickets, you’re really promoting. We might have to try every gimmick.

We bring a lot of that to our shows and we saw that in Darin and thought it was a great opportunity. The one area we have done very little business is in the Southern region. It made perfect sense to us. We saw the area he was covering and in the years to come I think you’ll see the two companies together creating a lot of opportunities for both of us.

The way we look at it, there are two very large companies out there right now. We’re not trying to be, and we don’t want to be, that. It’s not what we’re about. There needs to be a third option out there to do things just a little differently and that’s what we set out to do. We’re here, here’s how we do it, give it a try.

But it seems you’ve built all this and yet managed to stay under the radar?

Fred: It’s really not about Larry and I. No one’s going to buy a ticket to see Larry and I. We want to be another option and we feel we’re a pretty good one. We can do that and let others know about it by the work we do.

Larry: By the work we do and the tickets we sell. The acts can tell you who we are and what we can do. We’ll let the artists speak about that.

What accounts for your growth at a time the majors are reporting double-digit losses in attendance?

Larry: Our concern is how to get each ticket buyer back to buy another ticket when the act comes back to town and plays a bigger room.

Fred: And that fan tells two other people.

Larry: It’s about the music. It’s not about the T-shirts and the popcorn.

Fred: You can’t sell beer and popcorn to empty seats.

Larry: We came off two great years back to back. We outgrew and expanded our office space. We probably have more staff now than we’ve ever had in the history of the company. And that’s in the middle of a recession. So what does that tell you?

Fred: We’re crazy!