Executive Profile: Frank Barsalona
Pollstar has unearthed and digitalized more of its classic executive profiles, including this one with booking agency legend Frank Barsalona. They remain unedited for the sake of posterity.
Frank Barsalona is the founder of the modern booking agency business.
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When he started Premier Talent Agency in 1964, the concert business was in its infancy and the established agencies had little use for rock music and even less for the street level promoters who were interested in promoting it.
Today, Barsalona is probably the most respected agent in the business and is universally credited with helping put together the network of major local promoters whose basis of survival in the long run is predicated on their helping break new artists.
Frank Barsalona and executive vice-president Barbara Skydel spoke to POLLSTAR this week about how it all started and the controversial problems associated with the evolution of today’s concert industry.
BARSALONA: One of the reasons I started Premier was to bring in promoters that understood the music and were willing to work from the very beginning to help break the act — on the promise, and obviously I couldn’t give them a contract, that if everything went well and they did what they were supposed to do, then we would endeavor to deliver that act to them as long as they did a good job and so long as their offers were competitive.
That was not what used to happen. At GAC [General Artists Corp., which evolved later into ICM] we were told to take young promoters and get as much as we could out of them, not worry about if a show bombed, and when they went out of business it was ‘go on to the next guy.’
To make it worse, the few huge rock acts during that period were all given to the old line promoters — the guys who did Liberace and the Bolshoi Ballet and had little appreciation for the music. Booking rock acts in those days was like being in the armpit of show business. The men running the major agencies back then thought rock wasn’t going to be around in 2 or 3 years so the attitude was ‘get as much as you can today and then we’ll go on to something else tomorrow.’
I was constantly fighting with my bosses because of that attitude. When I got involved in the first Beatles dates in America I became convinced that I was right. I covered the show in D.C. and when I saw what happened with the audience, I knew then that the whole power structure of the business (not just GAC) was wrong and that I was going to open Premier Talent.
Rock music wasn’t going away. It was just beginning. The numbers of the Baby Boomers were huge, and that audience wasn’t going to suddenly switch to Perry Como when they turned 25. I knew that a lot of other agents, some much brighter than I, had started their own agencies and had been dismal failures. So there was no reason for me to think I’d be successful. But because I was young and I wasn’t married and didn’t have a lot of responsibilities, I thought I would get this out of my system.
SKYDEL: And then if it didn’t work, you’d go book Perry Como.
BARSALONA: But we’ve been very fortunate. When we started we took the acts that the other agencies didn’t want. No matter how hard I tried it was impossible to compete with the major agencies’ reputation in America. So I went to England where they didn’t have powerful reputations and I could compete on an even basis for signing new acts.
The result was the agency’s first big signing (Herman’s Hermits) and a subsequent parade of what would be the U.K.’s biggest acts, including The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Traffic, Yardbirds, Ten Years After, Joe Cocker, and Led Zeppelin.
POLLSTAR: It has been a tough summer for nearly all promoters and many of them are claiming that basic changes in the nature of the concert industry may put them out of business. To what degree can the source of their problems be found by looking in the mirror?
BARSALONA: That’s a conundrum in that almost every one of the major promoters say they’re being squeezed to death — well, they’re either crying wolf or they’re masochistic because every one of them is talking about how many cities they can do, and I think that is one of the problems. Major promoters are bidding up prices against each other. If it’s so bad, why are they asking for more? Are they mad? I don’t know that they’re doing the homework they’ve done in the past. Really getting in touch with all the markets they’re working in – what’s being played on the radio and whether they can influence that or what’s being written in the local papers. That’s the kind of promotion that used to happen.
SKYDEL: That’s because they’re promoting in too many markets.
BARSALONA: Absolutely. No one has the personnel to exert that kind of presence in more than a few markets. I don’t think it’s fair to the act. They’re not giving the act a fair shake in those markets they’re not really used to doing business in. It’s much easier and more economical for the agent to make one phone call to book 15 dates but, in the long run,
it doesn’t help the act or the business. Promoters should be less worried about their shrinking return on investment and more worried about the escalation of guarantees, because that’s what’s killing them. We try to be fair with our guarantees, where we can, but we’re very tight on promoter and hall expenses. Our philosophy is to get a fair guarantee against the best percentage deal so that if the act does the business they wind up making more money — and if they don’t do the business, we’re not hurting the act or wiping out the promoter.
POLLSTAR: As a strategy for surviving into the ’90s, many promoters are obtaining booking exclusives or building new outdoor venues in order to compete.
BARSALONA: We’ve been advocating that promoters find their own outdoor venues for a long time. The sheds are a reality. As opposed to having two or three large entities owning the majority of the sheds, it makes a lot more sense for the local guy in the marketplace to own his own shed. The downside is that during the summer promoters become competition for the local arenas.
SKYDEL: The other thing is the proliferation of all the sheds and the fact that all the acts want to play them in the summer. Everyone wants to tour during the nice weather. That’s why you have five million acts touring this summer and killing each other. In January and February there will probably be hardly any shows at all.
POLLSTAR: One of the hotter issues of the past two years has been the rapidly growing trend of major civic and private arenas bypassing the local promoter and buying talent direct from agencies. That’s a trend that seems to have a lot of people worried.
BARSALONA: Our policy is generally not to sell direct to venues because quite honestly you want to try and support the guy who works with you from the very beginning. Otherwise, why would promoters help in developing an act if they would lose it to the arena later? The only exception would be if it was a secondary market that lacked a regular promoter to do it. But generally, no. It would be easier for us but in the long run it’s very dangerous to the business and something Premier would work against.
POLLSTAR: A lot of promoters are complaining about the increasingly tight deals agencies are cutting and the diminishing nature of their profit margins. What is a fair return on investment for a promoter?
SKYDEL: A fair return on a promoter’s investment should vary with each act and each promoter. A deal for an act a promoter has always made money on should be different from one where there is a history of losses from earlier dates. It comes down to the individual history and relationship each promoter has with each act.
BARSALONA: A good example is Bon Jovi. They’ve never lost money for a major promoter. For the most part, promoters had very little to do with breaking the act. The band was primarily exposed as a support act on a series of major tours.
SKYDEL: In fact they bailed out a lot of promoters by providing the kind of strong support needed to pull shows out that would otherwise have lost money.
BARSALONA: At some point, acts like The Who or Bruce Springsteen can say to themselves that they’ve paid their dues and have made money for all their promoters. They can justify tightening up on a promoter’s profit margin. But there is no general rule on how much profit a promoter should be allowed to make. It varies with every situation.
POLLSTAR: On the other side of the coin, how do you feel about artists who bypass agencies and set up their own booking operations or use a national tour promoter?
BARSALONA: That really doesn’t happen very often with contemporary music acts. In Nashville it’s very wide spread and has been for many years. For the most part those acts who try to go out and promote their own dates or use a limited number of promoters — if they analyzed just how much these limited promoters are getting, the acts would generally find out that they’re making significantly less with them than they would have if they had used a good agent.
SKYDEL: A lot of acts don’t realize how much it really costs to book a tour. Plus agents have access to what the hall deal and expenses should be and know how to get the best deals. People who book themselves don’t have the direct experience to have that information.
BARSALONA: If an act uses one promoter who has 20-30 dates over which to amortize his expenses, that promoter is not always interested in maximizing every city they play. A tour promoter can afford to lose money in some cities because his concern is the final bottom line on the tour and I don’t think that’s the best thing for the act.
SKYDEL: Since their costs are amortized over the whole tour, a promoter might take the act into a market where they know they’ll only do a half house but it doesn’t matter because in the big picture they’ve made money.
It’s hurtful for the act because they’ll have difficulty ever going back into that market but for the tour promoter he’s just adding onto his total gross for the tour.
POLLSTAR: What’s Premier’s standard signing deal for an act and what’s your attitude towards the reduced commission deals offered by some agencies?
BARSALONA: Our policy is a five-year deal at 10%. It’s getting more difficult. This really hurts me to say this, but you have a number of agents who wait for contracts to be up and then zip in and offer 5% or even 2 1/ 2%… whatever they can. It’s bad for the business. It had been done from time to time but it has really gotten bad in the last five years.
Unless you’re working on a huge volume, I don’t understand how you can make money on 5% in this business. You certainly can’t afford to devote much attention to breaking new acts. Discount agencies must be signing acts for cosmetic purposes since they can’t really afford to give them the attention they need. We don’t try and sign major acts away from other agencies. Occasionally they’ll come to us but not because we’re offering them a lower commission. The majority of our acts are ones that we’ve had from the beginning. That’s the way we like to see the business run. It’s getting harder to keep acts away from the discount agencies but, as tough as it is, no one has had to hold any benefits yet to support Premier.
POLLSTAR: One of the hardest parts of your job must be in determining when the optimum time is for an act to tour. How does touring relate to the release of a record?
BARSALONA: With the reality of today’s radio I think that, where we used to book a tour to start six weeks after a record is released, we’re now advising acts to go out sixteen weeks after it’s out. Too few of them take our advice. The reason for the big change was that, generally in the past, when a big act went out they could figure on AOR radio playing at least two or three cuts off the album the first week it was released. Today it’s only one cut and the airplay on the second and third cuts comes 16-18 weeks after release. Most acts need to be 2 or 3 cuts deep before they can go out and do the kind of business everyone would like.
SKYDEL: I think everyone’s going to have to become more flexible in their thinking. We’re in a period of flux and we’re seeing a lot of change. We have to be ready to make moves based on this week’s reality.
POLLSTAR: What about the state of radio today and the difficulty in giving new acts the airplay exposure they need to become viable in the marketplace?
BARSALONA: The problem with radio airplay really baffles me. It’s unlike any other period since I’ve been in the business. I don’t have an answer to it and I don’t see it getting any better. Today the numbers support Classic Rock. The Baby Boom generation is getting older and more conservative and they will continue to have the predominant impact on music. To sell records today, an artist needs to have CHR airplay.
Radio is as tight as it has ever been and it’s getting worse. Classic Rock is not doing anything for the concert or record business except selling some catalog. It’s an absolute mess. The only way to survive is to better manage the marketplace. Record companies aren’t restricting releases on new acts. We get record service and quite honestly I’m shocked. Product comes in and then you never hear about the act again.
POLLSTAR: You have an ownership interest in some radio stations (a CHR in Connecticut and an AM/FM combo in New Hampshire) so you must understand the economic forces that drive the radio business.
BARSALONA: That may be why we’re so aware of the problems in radio. I promised myself that I wouldn’t get involved in programming, and I never have, but I get the playlist every week and I say ‘Oh my God.’ You look at the acts in our Top 10 and about 7 of them would surprise me if they could sell more than 1,000 seats. And yet there are tons of acts that we don’t play because our target demos don’t support it even though they could sell out an arena.
That’s a big problem because radio isn’t really supporting the marketplace. Radio is programmed to a very large degree by advertisers. And advertisers generally don’t want the 12-24 concert audience. They want 25-49. One of our two radio stations was top-rated among teens in its market and that was such a detriment to advertisers that we had to alter our programming to appeal to an older audience. So we now play acts that I know couldn’t sell 250 tickets and we’re not playing acts that could sell out 20,000-seaters.
But the advertisers don’t care. I don’t have an answer. Now that I’m also involved in radio, I understand the problem and it’s totally frightening. It’s today’s reality.
Barsalona sold Premier to William Morris Agency and is retired. Skydel is an agent at WMA.