“Music was an important element in our household. Our parents made us take music lessons and we could choose the instrument,” Lohr told Pollstar. “I chose piano but in college, I picked up the guitar and got really interested in music.”
While studying journalism and advertising at the University of Missouri-Columbia, Lohr and his friends put together a cover band and he was hooked.
“We had a band that played the bars in Columbia, Mo., and I was on the student concert committee and a disc jockey at KCOU, the radio station there,” he said. “Then I would volunteer to work at concerts that were happening in both Columbia and St. Louis in addition to the ones we did on campus.
“I was a jack-of-all-trades. Back then our prime motivation was to get into a concert for free.”
Lohr assumed booking duties for their band and his passion for the business took off from there. After he graduated in 1980, Lohr moved back home, put together another band and landed a job with WLAN-FM in Lancaster for about a year.
It was during that time that Lohr met promoter Gary Peterson who changed his career path by becoming his partner in L.P. Attractions, a booking agency based in Delaware.
The agency’s flagship artist was Johnny Neel whom Lohr had seen when he and his band mates checked out the competition one night. Neel and his band blew Lohr and his friends away and the tide turned.
“That was an eye-opener for me because we were kind of doing the band thing as fun but I had a day job, too. I never really thought I had to be a musician all my life,” Lohr explained. “Seeing Johnny was the epiphany where I realized the difference between being an artist and just a cover-band musician.
“You have to have more than the ability to play songs and stand up there like a human jukebox to have a career. I don’t think I played a paid gig after that.”
Those early experiences have taken Lohr to working with acts including Willie Nelson, Garth Brooks, Dixie Chicks, and Waylon Jennings up to his current roster featuring The Avett Brothers, John Oates of Hall & Oates, Riders In The Sky, Chris Hillman of The Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, and Paul Thorn.
A pivotal year for Lohr was 1984 when Neel decided to move to Nashville to do session work and Lohr made the move with him. That’s when he landed a job with Buddy Lee Attractions where he got structured training that spawned a 19-year stint with the agency.
An opportunity to launch The Agency Group’s Nashville office in 2003 was another challenge he took on with gusto. When The Agency Group decided to close that office less than two years later, New Frontier Touring, with its roster of indie rock, Americana, blues, acoustic roots, performing arts and jazz, was born.
Lohr’s passion for the job after 32 years and counting remains solid and his pride in his artists’ success sounds more like a proud father than an agent.
His selection as Third Coast Booking Agent of the Year at this year’s Pollstar Awards reflects Lohr’s ongoing mission to grow and develop artists to be their best that continues to pay off.
How did you get interested in being an agent?
I was the one who went out and got the gigs for my college band. We were a cover band that would mix country songs with classic oldies and a lot of Grateful Dead.
I think I was the only one who cared about it or had the inclination to book the band. It was pretty easy in college. We didn’t play outside Columbia and there were about six nightclubs in town. We played for beer or for free and occasionally for a couple hundred bucks. That lasted for about a year.
Then I moved back to Pennsylvania and started working at the radio station. There [my friends and I] put together an oldies cover band. There was a vibrant music scene in the Tri-State area – Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland – and I’d get us our gigs.
Was taking on the bookings a natural step for you?
Yeah, I think it was. My first real job out of college was as an account executive at the radio station so I was selling ad time. I have a degree in journalism and my focus was on advertising.
Ad sales is a major component of the degree and that is where I excelled. I just enjoyed talking to people and selling ads. To this day there’s fulfillment in talking to people.
What resources besides word-of-mouth did you use to make connections?
There was a weekly magazine called Fine Times that had band listings for the tri-state area. All you had to do was take out a band listing in that section and start listing your gigs. Of course everyone else was in there, too, and you could see where they were playing so I would book us into the same rooms.
How did the opportunity to launch L.P. Attractions come about?
I was playing in a band in the evenings and one time we played a “phone show.” A phone show is when you’ll get a call at home in the evening, “Hello, this is Paul calling for the Fraternal Order of the Police. We’re having a concert in a few months with Waylon Jennings and we’d like to see if you’d like to buy some tickets to the show. It’s going to be June 14.” So it’s a boiler room of people sitting around making calls trying to sell tickets for the organization.
A guy in the area named Gary Peterson was doing that and hired our band to open for Billy “Crash” Craddock. He had a No. 1 song at the time and we were the opening act. From that show we met Gary and he said, “Hey, you’re a real go-getter. We should start our own booking agency doing this.” This was in 1983.
I said, “That sounds great but I’ve got a regular job that was paying $350 a week, or whatever, and I’d need to have a guarantee for that.” Gary said, “I’ll guarantee that!” I said, “OK. I’m in the music business!”
What happened next?
We started L.P. Attractions and one of the main artists we represented was a guy named Johnny Neel. He was the first client that we signed.
The other acts were regional bands like the ones on that Fine Times list but Johnny already had a reputation in the area as one of the top guys. His drummer had been booking the band from Maine down to Virginia, all along the East Coast. So we stepped in as the full-time agency and took over the touring. We actually signed him as a manager and agent and did that for about a year.
What prompted you to move to Nashville in 1984?
Johnny got a call from some acquaintances who had moved to Nashville and were doing demos for publishing companies. They said, “Man, you’ve got to come down here. This is great! Not only can you sing, but you can play. Maybe you want to start writing songs.” So Johnny [tells us], “Hey. I’m moving to Nashville. I’m breaking up the band and I’m heading down.” And I said, “Well, heck. If you’re going, I’m going!”
So I went to Nashville and started interviewing. There’d been a couple of articles about L.P. Attractions in Fine Times magazine, so I took those articles and made a press kit for myself instead of a resumé. I interviewed with a handful of agencies and also a couple of record companies to see if they had any positions open in the A&R department.
Where did those interviews take you?
The company that responded after I’d met with them was Buddy Lee Attractions. I had found out that they had an opening because L.P. Attractions was also promoting shows and I’d talked to the agent for Dave Mason. It was Nancy Stevens [who was at] Triad Artists back then. She told me that Rick Shipp had left Buddy Lee to take a job in L.A. at Triad.
So I had interviewed, then gone back to Delaware. A week later I got the phone call from the president of the company, Tony Conway, telling me he’d spoken to Buddy, showed him my resumé and was calling to offer me a job.
What aspect of the job was the hardest to learn at first?
You’re only as strong as your Rolodex and the artists that you’re representing, so the hardest thing for me to learn was who the buyers were.
They said to me, “Here’s the roster of clients,” and I asked, “Who do I call?” There was this big Rolodex on an empty desk and they said, “You can call anyone that we’re not already talking to.” So I started working my way through that Rolodex. I bet every other one was out of business or dead so I did a pretty good job of updating that Rolodex.
Pollstar was happening right around then, and also Performance magazine, so I’d go to see where the other acts were playing and started calling the buyers that someone here in the office wasn’t already talking to.
Slowly but surely I built a base of buyers and got to know them.
How did working at Buddy Lee expand your experience?
It was like going from the minor to the major leagues. I understood what being an agent was all about but now I had to hit the curveball and the slider as opposed to just the fastball.
I didn’t start as an assistant. I jumped right in and filled an agent’s position. Back then in the ’80s we didn’t even have assistants at the agency. We were all doing our own stuff.
Who were the first clients that you handled there?
I think the first artist that I signed was Riders In The Sky, and Asleep at the Wheel was one that I pursued because I was a big fan.
I remember when Willie Nelson’s manager, Mark Rothbaum, signed Emmylou Harris. Emmylou is my all-time, favorite female vocalist, so I immediately said, “Hey, I’m the guy for that! I’m volunteering right now.” Then I became Waylon Jennings’ responsible agent.
The Dixie Chicks came about because a friend of mine in the publishing business heard them. They had been doing South By Southwest and back then they were “The Best Little Cowgirl Band In Texas.” [My friend said] this was a band right up my alley, so I followed that lead and talked to the gals. Next thing you know, we’re working together.
How did your early tours go?
Riders In The Sky, and country in general, weren’t really booking tours, per se, like a lot of the contemporary artists, rock artists or big-name country acts were. Most of the country acts back then were working all the time. It was the “never-ending trail drive” and that’s what the Riders continue to call it. Everybody on our roster was always available.
I think the concept of a tour came about from the British Invasion and those bands coming over and only being available for a certain window of time. Here in the States, the country acts were just happy to work. It wasn’t until they got bigger, could sell theatres and arenas and had a manager that knew better, that they were only going to go out for X amount of dates a year.
I think the first-ever tour that I booked like that was Emmylou Harris. She would only work about three months in the summer and that was it. Mark Rothbaum also signed Kris Kristofferson for management and we booked Kris for a couple of years. Kris was probably the second artist that I booked for a specific tour. He was only available a couple of months in the summer and that was it.
Why did you leave BLA after 19 years?
Buddy Lee had cancer so we kind of knew what might be coming. He was being treated at a hospital in Houston. But Buddy was just bigger than life and you just never thought even cancer would get him. He was one of my heroes.
It became apparent after Buddy passed away that there were too many chiefs and not enough Indians at the agency. There were folks who had different ideas of how things should be handled. It was one of those things where the writing was on the wall.
Is that when you went to work for The Agency Group?
Yes, the timing was right. Steve Martin from The Agency Group and I knew each other and had talked. He said, “Paul, you know we’ve been wanting to open an office in Nashville. Would you like to head up the new office?” I said yes.
Then it was just a matter of making a few calls to see who else might be interested. There was a gal who used to work in the contract department at Buddy Lee that I enjoyed working with who was available. Then there was Rick Cady who’d worked for Monterey Peninsula Artists. I knew he was available and brought him aboard.
I had a handful of artists that I was able to bring with me from Buddy Lee like Riders In The Sky and Hot Club of Cowtown. Rick had some artists he had relationships with and there were some acts that The Agency Group had.
When the press release about The Agency Group opening a Nashville office came out in the trades, that’s when I got the phone call from this guy in North Carolina who had this band called The Avett Brothers.
Is it true that you originally passed on The Avett Brothers?
Yes. (Laughs) The band’s manager had followed up in a polite, persistent way so I thought, all right, I’ll listen to this record.
Now Nashville has “The Nashville Sound,” which is a very polished sound and The Avett Brothers’ record that was sent to me was a raw sound. Like most artists, their early recordings have a different presence than their later albums do. They were a young band who was still working on their sound and had only released two or three records at this point. This was in 2003.
I only listened to one song, and it was classic Avett Brothers – manic and vibrant, but kind of caterwauling. It was just raw, unbridled energy like The Ramones meet Woody Guthrie. My ears were not attuned to that at all. So after I listened to that first song I thought, “Man, I do not get this!” I didn’t get through the rest of the record until later.
What changed your mind?
The day finally came when The Avett Brothers were playing Nashville. There’s this weekly show that a friend named Billy Block has been doing for years and it’s a musical revue with five or six artists that’s broadcast or rebroadcast. He had The Avett Brothers playing on this particular night, among others.
I went to see another artist that was playing that night and I didn’t realize that The Avett Brothers were going to be on. So I listened to the first band and as I’m talking to the band’s manager after their set, this other band had begun their set. I started looking over the guy’s shoulder and asked, “Who’s this band?” The guy turns around to look and said it was The Avett Brothers. They were playing this beautiful ballad with Everly Brothers harmonies and haunting lyrics.
I knew that their manager, Dolph [Ramseur], would be there so I found him and introduced myself. I told him, “I get it, I get it! These guys are great.” He said, no, you don’t get it yet … that I needed to see these guys in their home town of Charlotte, N.C., to REALLY get it.
So I went there, saw them in front of 900 people going crazy like it’s the second coming of The Beatles, and signed the band.
It’s still the live experience that really shows what an act is made of.
A recorded performance can be manipulated to perfection in a studio and that’s what comes out over the airwaves. But if the live show is less than what the recording is, it’s going to be a disappointment to the fans. It’s unlikely they’re going to stick with that artist.
On the other hand, if their live performance is even better than the recording, and it’s an “Oh my God!” experience, that is the secret recipe for a band to have longevity.
What is your strategy for building an act?
When I started working with The Avett Brothers and we talked about expectations and their life goals, we determined that the guys wanted a nice, long, perhaps 40-year career like Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan and many others. You can play the hit-song-on-the-radio game, which often tends to be a “rocket ship” ride. That’s a model that works for many people and, then again, it’s the exception to the rule. There’s limited time in a day to play a limited number of songs on the radio. You can play that game if you want to but you may as well buy a lottery ticket, too.
Or you can take the slow, methodical, hot-air balloon ride via the live performance. I’ve advised young artists to enjoy the ride. It’s the journey that’s even more enjoyable than perhaps making it to the final destination. The Avett Brothers said, “That’s us. Let’s build it a brick at a time.”
In doing so, you are striving to build a fan base that looks forward to attending your concert every year you come to their town, or even better, a fan base that will travel to multiple shows of yours in a year. So you have to offer the fan a value proposition and make it to where they feel the concert experience is worth more than the price of the ticket.
TAG closed the Nashville office in less than two years. What brought about that decision?
One of the ways The Agency Group has grown the company is by acquiring other agencies. There was the hope that if we opened an office in Nashville we might be able to attract some of the other agencies here to come aboard. Or we were hoping to get some of the agents from other companies to come aboard like I did. And the other thing, obviously, was to grow artists organically on our own.
But the machine in Nashville operates slower than it does in New York and L.A. The Agency Group, I think, was a little impatient. To this day Steve Martin says if we’d given it one more year it would have been off to the races by evidence of where The Avett Brothers are now.
But Neil Warnock and his associates felt that maybe they had missed the boat on this one and should come back and revisit it another time. They were very gracious about it. We retained the artists that we brought onboard and TAG didn’t try to get them to jump ship. So we basically changed the sign out front from The Agency Group to New Frontier Touring and proceeded with business as usual.
Had you thought about opening your own agency prior to that?
No, I hadn’t. I was committed to The Agency Group. But you play the cards you’re dealt.
Again, slow and steady wins the race.
If you build it organically where it’s all based on touring rather than airplay, then you have a much greater say in what the outcome is. That was the way we were approaching it and still do to this day. You play the cards you’re dealt.
How have industry changes affected how you build and promote an act?
I think the biggest factor is the economy in general. What affects everyone coast to coast is the price of gasoline. When we used to buy tickets for shows they were $5, $10, $15, gas was much cheaper so it was still a reasonably priced evening. But now for anything that we do, if there’s driving involved, there’s another $10 or $20 that a customer is thinking about. Then there’s also the convenience fees that the ticketing companies charge. I’m a big advocate of cutting those down to the bone.
Prices on everything keep going up and if it gets to the point where the overall experience is just too expensive, fans living on modest means won’t come to as many shows in a year.
What is the biggest challenge for you when pricing tickets?
It’s one of those things where it’s an educated judgment call. I am a “value proposition guy.” I enjoy getting something I think I’m getting a good deal on. A superior product for a reasonable price makes for a pleasing customer experience. I think the concert experience should be the same thing.
What have been the most significant changes in how you do your job?
The Internet and computers are the single most significant difference. We used to have to make a phone call or send a fax. I can remember when we got our first fax machine at Buddy Lee. What a treat that was!
But that being said, I still do all my deals on the phone. Even though I could just reply to an email I think too much falls through the cracks. This is still a people business and you get much more out of it when you’ve established a personal, vocal relationship with the buyers than when you do it with a faceless email message back and forth.
What has stayed the same?
Basic negotiating practices. You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar. At the end of my career I want people to say that when they saw Paul Lohr coming, it put a smile on their face and they were happy to see him coming their direction.
Also people are people. Human nature has not changed that much and I think that will remain the same regardless of where technology goes.
What do you enjoy the most about being an agent?
I love being a champion for artists that I feel are artistically head-and-shoulders above the rest and being able to grow them perhaps against the odds.
Working together to the point where they become well-known enough to make a living and share their musical gifts with their fans.
Any career highlights you’d like to share?
Any time one of our artists is nominated for a Grammy I consider it a win for the team. They’re being recognized by their peers as being top of their class for that particular year and they’re forever known as a Grammy nominee.
It’s like having your kids win a Little League championship. We’re very proud of our artists and I get just as much enjoyment out of that as I do from personal achievements.
What’s the next step in New Frontier Touring’s evolution?
What I’d really like to see happen is for the company to win the Independent Booking Agency of the Year award and have the entire team here share in the joy of that experience. It’s so much more fun to do it as a team.