Tom Ross 1997 CIC Keynote

Former CAA Head of Music Tom Ross’ keynote speech at CIC 1997:

Cindy Wallace called me last year and asked if I would do the keynote speech. I stalled for a while – I always procrastinate – and said let me think about it.

Click Here For The Rest Of The Video

As I thought and gathered my ideas, I thought, You know, I think I’m gonna play the role of Peter Finch in the movie “Network.” If you remember that movie, Peter Finch said, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.” And that’s where Tom Ross is today, standing in front of you.

See Also:

Bill Graham Executive Profile 

Executive Profile Archive

I have been an agent, proudly, for 30 years. I have watched friends grow. I have watched friends make huge sums of money. I have watched friends become managers, promoters, record company moguls. And I have always elected to stay on the side of the fence of an agent because I always felt I was part of the process.

Even though it changes, we’re in the middle of the business and we see the changes. We implement some of the changes and we deal with the changes.

When I started 30 years ago as an agent, a naive kid from the counterculture, a hippie if you will, I was proud to say, “I’m an agent. I’m gonna take the image of an agent – the balding, cigar smoking, leech – that people used to look upon this industry as, and I want to change it. I want to be something more than that.” And that’s what I’ve tried to stand for. But I’m mad as hell now. I don’t know what that whole 30-year period stands for in light of some of the changes that are now facing us. And that’s really the challenge that I come here to talk to you about.

When I first started, one of my first days on the job I met the Jefferson Airplane. And I was proud to represent them for close to 25 years in their various configurations. It was a wonderful time. It was the Whiskey a Go-Go, the Cafe a Go-Go, the Electric Factory, The Kinetic Playground, the Fillmores. Many of the people that were starting in the business: the Bill Grahams, the Belkins, the Magids. They’re still here, they’re still with us. They’re still trying to create new forms of entertainment.

The business was exciting. It reflected a culture, a generation. It reflected things in the government that were wrong and exposed them. It reflected a culture and a society and showed what it was doing wrong. And I thought the whole world ran by music. I couldn’t play it, but I felt I had a place in it. And I was proud of that place in the music business.

That’s what I hoped and what I thought I was doing when I saw tickets go from $2, $2.50, $3, $3.50, $5. It took a decade to get to $10. Then from there, we see today where it’s $100, $125.

It’s a very fast changing business. It’s a fast changing society. Radio drove the record business. We’re still slaves to radio and the 20 slots they give us. Alternative radio was just starting back then. FM was just starting to get stations. Remember when alternative radio meant FM? That’s what alternative radio was. That’s when a DJ would say, “Here’s a cut I heard last night, I want to play it for you.” And DJs had a place in this business where they took chances. They weren’t driven by profits and advertisers. They were driven by the love of artist product, of musicians, of the art. Record companies flourished. Some of the greats, the Mo Ostins, the Joe Smiths, the Ahmet Erteguns. They’re still here. Clive Davis, he’s still here. These are the music lovers.

But the suits have started to come in. And the suits have started to take over. The number crunchers have started to drive the business. And that’s why the business is sitting here scratching their head, making a living from the acts that I saw and many of them were with me, many of which were started during that time. And the baby boom is still supporting them and paying big dollars. We saw four-track recording studios go to eight-track, 12-track, 32-track, who knows how many tracks. I still have two ears, that’s all I can hear from.

I’ll never forget in my early years as an agent, Bill Graham was doing a show with the Jefferson Airplane and I came up to Winterland and covered the show and was there to do the box office.

The first night, it was packed. It was sold-out, but I went back and fought my way through the crowd and I said, “Bill, how many people are here tonight?” He looked at me and he said, “We’re sold out, 6,200. Why is it that you agents always think the walls expand? Sixty two hundred; that’s it.”

I said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” The next night, I couldn’t go from the backstage to the box office. It was wall to wall people. I couldn’t even maneuver my way (I was thinner then). There was no way. I had to go outside the building and around to the front. And I said, “Wow, Bill, how many people do we got tonight?”

He looked at me with that glare. “What’s wrong with you? Sixty two hundred people.” And I said, “Bill, you’re not going to tell me that the same amount of people as last night are here tonight. I can’t move out there.” And he said, very quickly, “Bigger people Saturday night.”

I learned the business. I came through the business and started seeing some of the maneuvers, some of the intricacies. I started working with artists and I was truly very gifted to be in a business that’s fun, that made people feel good. Music is the language that we all learn to talk. And perhaps, internationally, the language is a better test of a country than the actual language that it speaks.

There was a harmony in music. We became the gatekeepers on behalf of those artists that we represent. And I was proud to be a part of a lot of careers that are still growing and still filling buildings today. But the best part of the job was to develop new talent.

To this day, I still get a chill on my arm when an act that I thought was great reaches the public and gets a standing ovation. When an act can fill the Forum and I saw them when they were in a terrible club and told them, “Hey, when you point, when you get to that part in the song, you gotta point to the guy in the fifth row and make eye contact.” The little tricks. Move certain tunes around. Don’t take the audience up-down-up-down. Build the set. Build excitement. Lighting, technology. It all expanded the horizons that an artist could deliver an emotional impact to an audience.

The community that sits out here today, the promoters, the managers, we all have been together for a long time. This industry has created some great events. I have personally been very active in trying to interface with a lot of the record companies, to be on charity boards. To give back, if you will, some of the great opportunities that this industry has given me.

We in this room have worked together for a long time. And often times, we’ve been better friends than, really, the artists that we have a fiduciary obligation to represent. We talk to you much more than we talk to our artists. They’re buffered by the managers. Sometimes, we have the opportunities to work direct, but not all the time.

And for me, it was always the most opportune time when you could hear an artist who is involved with his career, who wanted to know what was going on from our side. But too many didn’t. Too many left it to the people around them. Deals graduated throughout the years.

When I started with all the Fillmores and Winterlands and the various clubs – in this very city – there was a club that still exists called the Troubadour. Doug Westin, who owned the Troubadour, was the toughest old buyer I’ve ever met. He controlled this city because that was the showcase room. And the first time an artist played – no matter who you were — you played a run for maybe $350 if you had a good agent, but it was a flat fee. And then you came back at $500 flat for the week. And then $700 vs. 50 percent. And then $1,500 vs. 50 percent. He had four options but he built careers and that was the right place to play.

There were different options. The arenas – everybody flourished – the acts just wanted to go out and play music. And the landlords, the people who owned these rooms, made a lot of money. We didn’t know how much money until we started making this a business.

Then we tried to go back and give the control to the acts. And we went to 50 percent of the gross, 60 percent of the gross, then 70 percent of the gross. Then an 80-20 of net, 85-15 of net, 90-10, 95-5? This is the only business where, if as a promoter, you went to a bank and said, “Here it is, this is the business,” the guy would look at you like you’re from outer space.

Unfortunately, somehow, we’ve all kind of just opted to be together and not deal with it. We’ve played a charade. And unfortunately, I’ve been part of the charade. Because we’re the community of friends and people that sit in this room. And we’re about to become a business of isolationists.

Somehow, some way, this great business that has been good to everybody, started a trend early in the ‘90s where we began counting the other person’s dollar. Everybody started worrying about how much the other guy was making instead of worrying about their own backyard.

That’s when we started going wrong. Everybody was thinking only about themselves. And as the managers had new people in their ear talking about, “You should check this, you should check that,” and tour accountants trying to be tax advisers, and more advisers started saying, “You know, he’s not even out here seeing what you’re doing. Where is the agent? In his office. And promoters, you don’t need promoters.”

Does it matter? It matters to me. And I hope it matters to you because that’s the challenge I throw out to you today. If this community is no longer a community, the creative process will stop. Suits and corporations are upon us. For whatever reason, Wall Street has suddenly decided that the music and the entertainment business is sexy.

The suits and the number crunchers will not look to develop new talent. It is up to the people in this room, who are here this weekend, to figure out some of these answers. I don’t have all the answers. But I have a lot of questions. What we need to do is to be straight with each other for the first time.

Buildings, promoters, agents, managers, record labels, we’re all part of a process that basically works and finds new acts and decides which acts we think really have the opportunity and the talent to go out there and entertain. But when the marketplace has the ability to take a new act – unheard of, unknown – and sell 10 million records on the first album, there’s no need to go out and work their tail off and be on the road. Obligingly, they’ll do 40 dates. Forty dates won’t make it for you guys; it won’t make it for the agents.

The first level of income in the old days was from the road. Record deals were structured so that your royalties — even on a hit — didn’t come in for another year. So the first level of success was felt from the road, from the merchandising. That was the cash that everybody in the bands lived on. That’s no longer true. MTV has had a great impact for a lot of acts. It explodes them on a global level. It also implodes on the back-end. Here today, gone today. That’s what we’re seeing.

Every one of us are scratching our heads wondering, “Where are the new acts?” Well, there are new acts. Actually, the MTV awards last year was, I think, a big turning point because I saw a lot of acts and a lot talent that actually is exciting again, for all of us. But we have to find acts that want to be part of the live entertainment business. Record companies need to know there are certain acts that are going to record and probably won’t go out on the road. Those acts should make videos because that’s as good as it’s gonna get. But where’s the mystique? When you make a video, you lose that mystique.

When I was a kid, I remember putting money down at a record store, putting my order in and waiting for the new album. I couldn’t wait to get that new album. I couldn’t wait to see if the bass player or the girl on the album cover was really in the band, or whatever. That was your only way of knowing. Today, we have electronic press kits, videos, the Internet, CNN. It’s all instant access.

What does that do? It forces all of us to think differently than the way we were brought up in the traditional sense of the way acts used to break. And rather than just sit there and wait, we need to be reactive, we need to be proactive. That’s what I’m begging all of you in this room. There’s a challenge out there, a great challenge, a great opportunity.

The Chinese symbol for crisis is composed of the symbol of change and the symbol of creativity and opportunity. Change creates that; change is good. We’ve all made a living from bands that have careers as long as I have had. But that’s not the future and we need to change if we want to be part of that future; we need to react in a better way than we’re reacting as an industry.

If not… we see the changes coming. Corporations, suits, Wall Street. They’re going to replace all of you. A lot of people here have thought that I was fired up and wanted to name names and I put that out there because I do. I’m mad. I’m mad at some of my friends. I’m mad at some of the people that have allowed the process to get out of hand.

As for sponsorship money, if you get sponsorship money because of the acts you create, then the acts should get a piece of that. We’ve sat here and debated it and I recall a couple of years ago one of my illustrious friends in the promotion world said, “Hey, we can pay an act 110 percent of the net.”

You what? Of course you can because the dollars you’re making aren’t from the live show. We’ve driven our business so hard that we’ve gone to the ancillary businesses to make our profits. What we’re sitting here today looking at is an opportunity to give a backstage pass to Wall Street. If the counterculture that we came from has crossed the bridge that far to become the establishment, then Wall Street will move in.

We just saw the Super Bowl. Who got tickets? Corporations got tickets. We just saw who the fans are. Were they really the fans or were they the people that had access to the big corporations?

Let’s put it on the table. There is a crisis. I’m not saying that change is bad; I’ve said it’s good. There are great opportunities. MTV has driven the advertisers and gotten huge profits for a viewership that’s pretty minuscule.

Our business sees a lot more people and we don’t get a piece of that. Perhaps Bob Sillerman has those contacts and will bring those people into our business. That’s good. There’s a great opportunity there. Consolidation; that’s good, that’s part of change.

I have a lot of friends who have sat out there year after year who have now gotten an exit package, something never available in our business. And I’m happy for them, personally.

But I’m not happy for them if they just sold out. I think it’s incredibly arrogant that a man who spent a half-a-billion dollars in our industry trying to buy promoters, is not here to tell us what his vision is and to share that and answer some of the questions you have and I have.

SFX may stand for Send Funds Federal-Express. I don’t know. But those of you that are here are saying, “It’s just business as usual.”

No it isn’t. And some of your associates have already tipped their hand. It’s not your game plan. And maybe your game plan is good and I want to play into it. But I don’t know. And this is the only collective body of our business where we can all discuss it, know it, and know whether we should get out of it, stay in it, or move aside.

This man has not come with a clear message. “Business is normal.” No, it’s not normal. And let me tell you what else we have to do.

Let’s put it on the table now. The business has created a national scalp. We know it and all of you know it, too. And we all kind of said, “Well, we’ve pushed these deals, we need to be there for the new acts. So 100 tickets, two hundred, and the box office guy. You know, it’s not that big.”

Well let me tell you it is that big. And when the national scalpers and the brokers can come and move 2,000 tickets to every event in every city, let’s put it on the table. Jerry Buss at the Forum charges $500 a ticket to be on the floor and $250 in the colonnade, and he can get that from the public for 40 Lakers games a year. Now the rest of the buildings have followed suit. If that’s the price, OK. Let’s share it with the promoter, the agent, the building, and the act.

When a scalper in this town can go to a manager – because he’s greedy – and say, “I don’t get enough from the promoter. I need more tickets,” and the managers start dealing and deceiving the whole process, then something is wrong. You know who they are, you’ve participated with them. Or you gave them access. Is that what this is all about?

We’ve created an opportunity for the rich. I spend half my time creating tours where the first 10 rows have to be policed so that they don’t go to the suits, sitting there going, “Uuuuhhh, show me.” The artists want their fans there. If we can have a golden corporate circle at $500, let’s sell it for $500. But let’s not be elusive about it. Let’s not say it doesn’t exist. Two thousand tickets a city are going out to the brokers on every show that’s in an arena. That is fact.

When national promoters have the ability to go around agents and perhaps managers, and put that in a line-profit column and share it with the acts, then something is wrong. And everyone of you know it. But you’re not talking about it or doing anything about it.

I don’t care if you want to gouge the public. If that’s what an artist is worth, they should be paid for it. There are two constants in this business: the music from the act and the fan. They pay my salary and they pay your salary. If we don’t create an environment that is comfortable and if we don’t create new acts, if we don’t have artist development, if we don’t have theatres and more mid-sized arenas and more clubs and more people willing to be in that business, we will continue to see a void of new acts and new stars come into this business. There won’t be any.

There is an amazing challenge that I give all of you. For the first time in our country’s history, there are more people under 20 years of age than ever before. And for the first time, that demographic is more aware and understanding of the new technology that is driving our entire nation. They need a different way of communicating, as my teenagers have shown me. They need a different way to communicate, between beepers and phones and the Internet.

They can do multiple things, all at once. And they need a different form of entertainment. It is new technology, it is new opportunities to create an incredible business. If you want to lose out on the business that’s been great to us, then listen to my words. Hopefully, you will clap at the end and then go back to your business like nothing happened. It’s OK for me, I’ve had great times. But my mentors, the people that I believe really care about this business, the Frank Barsalonas, the Dan Weiners, the Herb Spars, God bless his soul.

Bobby Brooks who, (thank you Pollstar for creating a living trust to remember what a dedicated and incredible person he was), made every person involved in the process feel that they were important. The person who did the dress, the makeup, the lighting. He knew everybody. And he made everybody say, “Hey, great show.” Well, I’m proud of the people that I work for. I’m more proud of the people that I work with. And my associates, I can only tell you, work damn hard everyday, longer hours, and are the most consistent people in our business trying to deal with some of the problems that I brought up.

But I am seeing a lot of us close our eyes to problems that are gonna change instantly. We are in a changing topography in the business that we have loved to earn a living from and grow with. The growth has to happen with new acts and new opportunities that you can create.

We cannot go on deceiving each other. The opportunity of Wall Street may not be bad, but we need to at least police it. We need leadership. We need responsible people to step up to the plate and say, “These hungry ticket brokers who leech off this industry and have nothing to do with the process of developing [the talent], are not going to make the biggest profit.”

If managers are going to allow them access under the guise of promotional tickets for records and radios…. You know how it’s done. I know how it’s done. I’m in shock and I’ve shared that with a lot of my friends. It doesn’t matter what happened yesterday because yesterday is over. The present is up to you and I challenge you to be harder working, to be better at what we do, and to find processes and new ways to earn money for not only the acts that drive all of our salary, but to find the ways the leeches – who are making more money than any of us – thrive in this business because it is real easy for corporations to come in and do this. It’s the boxes, the sponsorship route of, “Oh, those are corporate boxes. Those are sponsorship suites.” Pull that money out of the pool.

We’ve allowed it and it’s destroyed the business that I grew up in. I challenge you now, the rest of this weekend, please, look at what is going on. Let’s figure out how to stop it and make it a better business. Or next year there will be 10 people here all saying, “What happened?” We can’t afford that.

Music is still important. We all know that music does things even medically to improve people’s lives. It just is soothing. Ours is the only billion-dollar industry that spends nothing on research, nothing on development. Big business is about finding a product that the public wants. They make it as cheap as possible and then they spend millions promoting it and marketing it. We’re the reverse. We spend all the money making the product and then there is nothing left to spend on marketing.

We cannot be slaves to radio anymore. We need to find alternative ways of finding promotion for new acts. We need to be creative. We need the promoters in the local markets to be participants in that process.

If we become formula presenters that are a bunch of giant corporate gorillas, we will survive and prosper for three years and then have nothing. Don’t let that happen. This is your business and your future more than it is my future.

I truly beg you to stop the charade. Let’s make it work. Let’s make a community rather than become isolationists. Let’s make a community of people we’re proud of and people that care about the process.

Thank you.