Executive Profile: Bill Graham

More classic Pollstar interviews are being unearthed daily, including this one from 1989 with Bill Graham, just a week before the 7.1 earthquake in San Francisco.

Frank Barsalona Interview

Executive Profile Archive

It was 24 years ago this week that Bill Graham staged his first concert.

Graham, then 34, had just left an $18,000-a-year management job at Allis-Chalmers to become the business manager of the San Francisco Mime Troupe.

That first concert, on November 6, 1965, was a benefit for the controversial guerrilla theatre group and featured an eclectic mix of artists including The Fugs, Jefferson Airplane, The Committee, and Allen Ginsberg. The show was much more successful than anyone had dreamed and Graham had found a new vocation in a fledgling industry. It would lead him to his current stature as the most successful and best known concert promoter in the world.

Today, the Bill Graham Enterprises umbrella encompasses a production company that will promote over 550 shows in 1989; an artist management division which includes Eddie Money, Joe Satriani, the Neville Brothers, Cutting Crew, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Exodus, and Blues Traveler as clients; a major ownership interest in the 3-year-old Shoreline Amphitheatre; booking and/or management contracts for the Warfield Theatre in S.F., the Wiltern Theatre in L.A., Concord Pavilion, and the Cal Expo Amphitheatre in Sacramento; two music publishing companies; a film division whose first project will be a movie about The Doors which Oliver Stone will start shooting in the next few months; the AKG nightclub operation that runs the Fillmore, Warfield, and the two Punchline comedy clubs; and the in-house Chutzpah Advertising agency.

All told, Graham estimates his companies will have 1989 gross revenues of about $60 million. In addition, Graham still maintains some ownership interests in the huge Winterland Productions merchandising operation (the majority of which is now owned by MCA) and the award-winning FM Productions set design firm.

In the week following the 7.1 earthquake that hit the Bay Area, POLLSTAR editor Gary Bongiovanni talked to Bill Graham about his company, his past accomplishments, and his opinions on the state of the concert business.

What would you estimate your losses at from the earthquake?

With the cost of the repairs that we have to make in some buildings and the many, many shows we had to cancel, I’d have to call it between $750,000 and a million. The Fillmore needs major cosmetic repairs. The frame is sound and we know that there will be a substantial amount of repair work involved. But it’s really not up to us. It’s up to the building owners whether they‘re going to go back in. If they don’t, then I might see if I can get a hold of the building.

Any of the damage covered by insurance?

No, I’m sorry.

With so many different business interests, how do you divide your time up?

It’s hard to say, but I know that from June of last year to this past June, we went back through the records and found that I spent 47% of my time in non-profit areas. Meaning things like Amnesty or consulting other people who wanted to do fundraisers. I’ll be the troubleshooter for the booking department whenever I’m needed or whenever they get to the 10-yard line and say “Bill, can you help us here” and I’ll make a call to an agent or a manager. I also cover as many shows as I can when I’m home.

An equal amount of time, I’ll sit in with our artists and management people to discuss career development. My feeling is that if you broke it down to percentages, maybe 20% on management, 20% on production bookings and the other 60% is a combination of causes I get involved with and dealing with the overall feel of the company and who works in it. I feel a need to get involved in the human relations of this company. I have always felt strongly about knowing who works here.

Many of your key execs like company president Nick Clainos and booking department head Gregg Perloff, have been with you for over ten years. The same is true for many of your secretaries and stage managers. What is it about your way of doing business that has allowed you to develop such a loyal and talented team of people around you?

I don’t think there’s any textbook management style here. We certainly don’t run our company with the normal standards of how businesses this size should be run. We don’t punch clocks, or tell people when they should go to lunch and be back. None of that matters to me. The key for any operation is to have certain talents and skills, and above all else, common sense. I try to get across the point that “we’re all in the raft, that’s the ocean and let’s get on and have some fun. We all need to work but let’s try to make it as decent as possible.”

It doesn’t make much sense if people go at their jobs trying to be nice to the boss because they all want someone else’s job. Let your work speak for you. There’s very little bullshit about that.

I take a simple position in that I will trust you until I have grounds to distrust you. It’s tough enough watching people behind us and in front of us that we’re competing with, and I certainly don’t want that going on in this company. We look for strong talented people that bring elements and character into the business that we didn’t have. Maybe they can learn something from me, but learning is an exchange process. There’s the student and there’s the teacher. We’re all students sometimes and we’re all teachers sometimes. If somebody comes along that’s really good and they begin to show the quality of their labor, then I realize that person may very well go somewhere else to try and better themselves.

I try to not give people titles so much, but I try to show my thanks and my gratitude by paying them as well as I can. The only thing that’s left then are the people who think about running their own companies someday. That is the most crucial part in my relationship with these people because they are loyal to this company and the spirit of how we run things. Some of them become #2 people. It’s not that #1 one is better, but if I’m the owner and I’m the boss then everyone else has to be #2 or #3 and so on. I want them to have as good a feeling about being #2 here as they might being a #1 somewhere else. If you treat people with respect and show your gratitude for their contribution and give them the freedom to express themselves intellectually and to run their departments, then you’ve got a much better chance of keeping these people because then in fact, they’re running a business within the business.

Is there an executive management group composed of your senior people?

Not really, but the heads of all the departments do meet every Tuesday. I don’t attend that meeting. I also never attend any financial meetings. The last time I did was around 1970. It might seem strange, but I have no idea, within seven figures, where we stand financially. The only thing I do know is that if I want to buy an apple, I have the money to buy an apple. If want to buy a train, I can buy a train, but I don’t buy trains.

You also have the luxury of being able to donate some of your time to important causes. The Amnesty International global Human Rights Now! tour was a triumph and a very positive thing for the music business. The problems and logistics though must have been awesome.

The biggest difficulty came in my having to deal with building managers and politicians who didn’t understand rock and roll or what we were trying to achieve. They couldn’t understand why we wanted to have people on the field of their stadium. Soccer is the biggest sport in the world and to the general managers of these facilities and to the military and government people we had to deal with, the field belonged to 22 soccer players, not thousands of kids watching a rock and roll show. They’d never heard of a concert taking place in a stadium where the people are allowed on the field.

That’s God’s turf. But there was a very strong principle that I laid down at the very beginning of the tour, which at times was very difficult to uphold. That was that the artists would only perform if the public could be allowed on the field, and that there be no weapons or military uniforms in the stadium.

The military could be on the outside, but that stadium had to be a peaceful space. We couldn’t have, like at the concert in Moscow recently that Bon Jovi’s people did, rows and rows of military uniforms. From Zimbabwe to Costa Rica, it was extraordinary to watch the local officials observe the kids as they had a good time playing basketball and volleyball on the sides where we had put up some hoops and nets. They couldn’t believe the public didn’t destroy the field. We thought the hardest part would be the logistics but the real difficulty was the fact that Tarzan was looking at a plane for the first time.

Which was the most difficult show to produce?

New Delhi. When I got there, 10 days in advance, I had to deal with the Times of India newspaper, which had made it possible for us to get our visas approved by the government. I took a cab from the airport to the hotel and all the way through town I saw these huge signs, “The Times Presents Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel” and then a little tiny logo for Amnesty International. Well I went to the TV and other news people and we had a raging battle. I finally had to threaten them with canceling the show unless they made it clear to everybody the show was being sponsored by Amnesty.

What the Times had done was make it look like all these artists were coming to commemorate the 100th anniversary of their newspaper. We got that changed and had all the advertising corrected. The shows in Africa were awesome, but in New Delhi, to watch these young Indians look at that stage, to walk onto that field was awesome. It took hours for the stadium to clear out. I decided to walk back to the hotel with some friends and the streets were jammed at four in the morning. We went to a bunch of people and asked, “Why are you still out here?” Basically, the response was, “We know this will never happen again.”

It’s sad to think that’s true.

It is true. When’s the next time Bruce Springsteen’s going to be in New Delhi? The one thing that we all knew was no matter how hard we worked in putting these things together, the audience would be enthralled in every city. On the Ivory Coast, I had never seen a totally black audience in my life. There were 50,000 Africans there and they had the energy of a billion people. It was truly an awesome experience.

It wasn’t widely reported, but I understand there was a lot of bitter maneuvering behind the scenes between the artists, the production staff, and the Amnesty leaders involved in the tour. Care to comment?

No, not really. You know, you’ve got to take your hat off to the fact that they did it, whatever their reasons were. Hopefully they were honorable. I have no negative comments. I think a great effort was put out by the artists. I have some very strong feelings about some of the personnel at Amnesty, but then everything considered, the tour was a great success. But I would never work with them again. I might respond favorably in the future if they changed the officers, but I would not work with the same people again. They did not hold up their end of the bargain.

Last year Frank Barsalona told me that he felt all the major promoters needed to have their own amphitheaters, or exclusive booking rights to one, in order to survive into the 90s. You have Shoreline, Concord and Cal Expo. I take it you agree with that philosophy?

From a business standpoint, yes. If you don’t have control of a building, sooner or later, they’ll bring somebody else in who’ll work your market for less. Or they might just offer a flat fee. If you don’t own the facility, you have to accept that or give it to somebody else. It gives you some leeway, but it’s also a tremendous risk.

The budget for Shoreline was $14 million, and by the time we got finished it cost $21 million. We have to find some way to make that back and we can’t make it back by giving most of the money to the artists. You can give them 85%, but you can’t give them 95%. The only constant in our industry is that at the end of the day, when everybody has been paid off, except the group and the promoter, if a dollar is left over, increasingly, more goes to the artist and less to the producer.

Twenty years ago the promoter would take 20 cents and the act 80 cents. Then promoters started taking 15 cents and the act 85 cents. Now the promoter often takes 10 cents and the act takes 90 cents. That pattern is the only constant in our industry. The most important thing for a promoter is to know how to say no when it’s the right thing to say.

Where are those shrinking profit margins leading the industry?

There’s also greater risk. I think there are going to be problems in some parts of the country. Some of us promoters have been around for awhile and we have good relationships with veteran agents. But I’m beginning to see in the last few years, a changing of the guard.

Many companies don’t have the same agents that they had 15 years ago. There’s some new, young cowboys who perhaps have a different approach. Agents need to get the best deals for their artists or another agent will tell the manager, “Hey, we can do better for you. If that guy is getting you 90%, I’ll get you 91%.” Years ago when all this started, big time meant a hundred grand. Today you charge $20 in a 20,000 seater and you have a $400,000 gross. There’s a lot more money at stake and the fangs have gotten bigger.

The life of an artist can be put down in two sentences. When they’re unknown, they call out looking for help. When they’re successful, their phone rings all the time. It’s amazing to watch how people’s attitudes change with fame.

What kind of effect will all this have on the future of promoters?

You don’t have to be a genius to sell Rolling Stones tickets, but you have to have a lot of talent to present the show. The face of rock and roll is obviously changing. The characters have changed. Rock and roll for many of us was something very different in the 60s than what it is now. To me it was part of the social activist scene. Some of the social activists were musicians and some of us were promoters. I still believe very strongly in it and I try to stay involved in the social movement.

It’s been an obvious trend in the 80s that the concert business has been moving towards a more corporate environment.

That’s a whole story into itself. I would certainly love to sit on a panel and discuss that issue.

What expectations do you have about the North American Concert Promoters Association’s ability to impact on any of these problems?

I don’t have any. I haven’t been active in it and I don’t think many of the promoters on the board really want to see some positive change. There’s a lot of competition between promoters and everybody is always saying “I won’t do this and I won’t do that.” I’m sorry to say that only recently some of them caved in like so many yellow-bellies.

I’d rather not point fingers, but I’m extremely disappointed in many of our major promoters. I’ve pretty much seen in the past year what all these promoters represent. I have some very strong feelings which I will address. I think we’re supposed to meet sometime in December. I didn’t go to the last meeting but I thought I’d go to the next one. That’ll be my last one.

Is your company withdrawing, or is this just the end of your personal involvement?

I really don’t want to get into that because I don’t want to sit here and become an alarmist. I’m going to ask for permission to address the meeting and give them my feelings as to why I’m going to take certain actions. Two important things for me occurred this year. One, a major tour took place under conditions that we’ve never seen before. And two, there was an earthquake here. The aftermath of both leads me to a decision I made recently, which I will announce at the promoters meeting.

I realize that not being involved in the Stones tour was a major disappointment for you. Would you like to comment on how the tour is going so far?

Perhaps when the tour’s over, but I would only do that if other people involved in planning the tour wished to partake.

Do you feel it was wrong for CPI to bid for the whole tour including the merchandising and ancillary rights as one package?

I have no objection to that at all. But I do object to the average fan getting screwed.

Is that a reference to the ticket prices?

It’s not for me to say at this stage and I’m not going to point fingers at any individual. You undertake the biggest with the biggest, because you’re affecting more people than anybody else does. How do you affect people? How do you deal with the guy in the street?

Do you really feel you’re being fair? Or do you care! If you don’t care, then whoever bought you in must not have cared. Let’s look at morals and ethics, because legally, perhaps no one did anything wrong. It’s like the guy who stood in the desert with the only can of water and everybody dying of thirst around him saying, “$18 a sip.” He didn’t do anything legally wrong. Morally, maybe.

Do you think the Stones will do another tour?

I really have no idea. They’re great now and a lot of people doubted that they could be, but I saw their show back east and they’re still extraordinary. I think they could do it again two or three years from now. Ten years from now, no. They’ve been the perennial group for three generations and there’s a reason why they’re still filling up stadiums. They’ve always represented sensuality and passion but they’re the only band that retains an infectious element in their stage presentation that stays in all of us no matter what the age.

They represent one of the basic elements of joy that we all possess …. feeling good physically, feeling pelvic, that’s the Stones.

I understand you’re working on your autobiography. Are you holding back on it until you step back from the business?

I don’t know when it’s going to be finished. I haven’t worked on it in a year. It’s being written by Bob Greenfield and he’s interviewed tons of people. I think they’re planning to try and publish it sometime in 1990. I’ve been trying to look at myself and figure out what’s the right thing to do because we’re still working. I’m still in the business and there’s some things I really would like to say and yet I don’t want to hurt my relationship with the artists and I’m not looking to offend anybody.

It’s just that there are some historical facts that I would like to explain, but I don’t know if I would be able to do that now. If I were going to heaven tomorrow, or to Egypt, I’d put some things in the book, wait around for a month to listen to anybody who wants to yell at me, then I’d leave.

You’re nearing 59 years old now, do you have any thoughts about leaving the business?

Quitting, no one’s ever asked me that question. I’ve never thought about that. My health is good, thank God, my son is graduating from Columbia this year, and he’s going to start coming in and helping out. I don’t do that much within the company on a day-to-day basis. I stay involved with the feel of our company and how we represent ourselves to the public.

I stay in touch with the reality that we affect, positively or negatively, hundreds of thousands of people a year. They may come to see a Bruce Springsteen, but we wrote the tickets, and we work the bathrooms, and we usher people down the aisles. When I go to a show, if everybody is doing their job, I don’t have anything to do except say hello to people. I want the public to be able to go into the bathrooms and find that they’re clean, to get a hot dog and find it was hot and good, and that our staff was courteous. All these things make their attendance pleasant. That’s our job.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Well, there were two things that very much affected my life this year. One was the Stones tour and the other was the earthquake.

I had been sitting at my desk when it hit. For four days after the earthquake, I had something in my head that I couldn’t put my finger on. I took a walk alone in the Marin County hills and then it hit me. Some of us come close to death once in our lives.

The difference was that during the earthquake, every person in the Bay Area feared death. We all walk around now, knowing that for that one particular moment, all of us had that feeling.

And afterwards there was no looting, no crazy madness. We are, in my opinion, by far the most civilized urban area on the planet today.

Graham died in a helicopter crash October 23, 1991.