Executive Profile:
Nick Spampanato

Inglewood, Calif.’s  is an iconic piece of real estate. Built in 1967 by Los Angeles Lakers and Kings owner Jack Kent Cooke, the “Fabulous” Forum – designed to emulate the Roman Forum  was home to many Magical basketball moments before the team, and the verve, moved to Staples Center in the early part of this century.

The Forum had an equally storied history in music, hosting acts like Elvis Presley, Cream, Diana Ross, Queen, The Jackson 5, and Nirvana. Led Zeppelin played there 16 times with some memorable recordings to prove it. Even as its limelight dimmed, it hosted acts like AC/DC and Bruce Springsteen, who announced from the stage that he enjoyed not playing to skyboxes (a reference to Staples Center).

After Faithful Central Bible Church bought the building in 2000 its musical events were not dormant, with acts like Phish, Prince, Foo Fighters, and Rammstein playing there.

Michael Jackson practiced at the Forum for what would have been the “This Is It” shows. But overall, the building was no longer known as a music venue; concerts were booked around church services. And, in 2008, Neil Young canceled a performance rather than get involved in a dispute between the church and IATSE. In June 2012, an East Coast player joined a market that AEG and Live Nation called their headquarters. Madison Square Garden announced it would buy the Forum for $23.5 million and give it a renovation of more than $100 million.

Irving Azoff brought the idea of buying the Forum to MSGE boss Jim Dolan’s attention. He knew the Forum was a venue that artists loved to play and Dolan knew that with Azoff’s knowledge of the L.A. market, this was an opportunity to revitalize the arena. In September 2013, Azoff and MSG created a company called Azoff MSG Entertainment. Azoff provides consultancy services to MSG in connection with the management of its live event venues, including the Forum.

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Nick Spampanato was named GM. Music is the primary focus of the Forum. It does not have book shows around anchor sports tenants. Spampanato – the first official employee of the building – worked with BBB Architects and played a major role in the renovations.

Changes included flexible seating ranging from 7,000 to 17,500, a support system featuring a sky deck to accommodate shows with large productions and one of the largest general admission floors in the country with 24,000 square feet.

A large concession area was added to the floor, behind a glass partition. Chase was named a presenting partner, and the venue’s Forum Club again became the place to be for the industry. Spampanato had a lot to say about the building’s past, present and future. And although he’s far more comfortable talking about his building and his staff, we had to get to know him too.

When did you start gearing toward this career?

I was in New York. It was 1992. I was sitting at home and, for whatever reason, it was getting cold early that year. I decided to move out to L.A. that next week. When I got to L.A. I went to Universal and applied for a job at Victoria Station. I got a call from Universal who were looking for a backstage bartender (Victoria Station was a restaurant bar, pretty lousy food, near Universal Amphitheatre up by the hill, before CityWalk). I had worked at a couple of restaurants in New York. I always liked being in the service industry. I’ve always been a fixer. I like going in when things are busy and trying to figure out how to make them work.

The rock ‘n’ roll business is tailor made for that so when I got up to Universal, I just loved everything about it. One of the first shows I did was the Billboard Awards. I was off work and my supervisor asked what I was still doing there, and I said I just couldn’t get enough of this. From bartending, I learned about setting up dressing rooms. That morphed into security. That morphed into me wanting to learn about production. So I was the guy who would show up four hours early for work and stay through load-out, and just stand around and listen to what everybody said and learned why they were doing what they were doing. Being a GM, even back then when I was setting up dressing rooms,

I found all the things that went into the concert business really interesting because my experience was, when you arrive after everything’s already done, you just think that it must always look like this. But to see how it’s built just amazed me. I fell in love with the business the first minute I did a show.

So you can step into the jobs that you supervise.

Yes. I think the key to being a good GM is knowing as much as you can about the different facets of this business. I think everything goes hand in hand, from food and beverage to security to production. All those things – it’s a beautifully choreographed dance. Everybody has their part to play and, when they do, it’s a great show, a great dance. You have to be able to know what you’re talking about when you’re talking to people in this business. One of the best ways to do that is engulf yourself in as many aspects of the business as you can.

After learning about production, security and everything else, did you get to compile it all into a new job?

I would start my day off at Universal parking the trucks. Then I would set up the dressing rooms, do the backstage tickets, bartend backstage, and would make sure load-out happened. Then I became known to people in our business. A lot of the same people come through these buildings. You get to know everybody. In 1994 I got a call to work backstage at the first Woodstock reunion, setting up the dressing rooms and working on the backstage compound. That gave me a taste of the bigger events where you went to a field and had to figure out how to put on a show. I was pretty young when I did that. I was 24. I got promoted to backstage manager at Universal where I was in charge of all the VIP things, the parties, the tickets, keeping the bands, agents and managers happy.

I was in charge of the press tents at awards shows, the red carpets. I was at Universal for 15 years doing that, making my contacts. A lot of bands, and agents, loved that building. In 2007, the Wiltern was looking for a GM and I was offered a job.

Before we go into that, do you have any mentors from those years at Universal?

I learned something from each and every person I met. Every one played a significant role into making me the GM I am today.

Was becoming a GM at the Wiltern an easy transition?

One of the heads of the company I was working for at the time said, “I need a GM for The Wiltern. Do you want it or not?” I remember thinking, “OK, this is my career. Do I want to take this step?” But I’ve always wanted to be a GM so I said yes. That grew into the renovation of the Palladium right afterward. That was a $17 million renovation. All renovations are a labor of love. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the Palladium renovation helped me with the renovation at the Forum. But the first real delve into the gutting of a building was interesting because it’s about what will make this building work. It’s a different realm than a concert where you’re trying to get the band onstage at 8 o’clock.

A renovation is more like a game of chess, thinking four moves ahead. “If I have that wall done at that point, I have to have the painters come the next day. If I lay this floor today, that means the carpet has to get here in a week.” Learning that component was interesting. Once I opened the Palladium in 2008, I interviewed with Madison Square Garden and was offered the Beacon in 2009.

Why did you interview with something on the other side of the country?

It was New York. I thought the Palladium and Wiltern were great buildings, but the Beacon was another iconic place. Although I was in California from 1992, I always wanted to get back to New York. I’ve always been a big Rangers and Knicks fan. When MSG was looking for someone to run the Beacon, I jumped at the opportunity. It’s also where I grew up and all my family is. L.A. and New York are the two biggest markets in the music business, and I’ve done LA. I wanted the challenge of New York. They had just completed a restoration when I got to the Beacon. I got to enjoy all the amenities that were there by the time I arrived. I remember when I walked into the room after I interviewed. It took my breath away.

I think it was in 2011, MSG started talking about the Forum. They knew I had worked in California for years, I knew people out here and the market. They asked me to help out with the negotiation with the city, the development agreement, so I was flying out every week. The thing that struck me with the Forum is I had done some shows here, I had been to events here and if I had to explain to my wife that we were packing up again to move back out, it would have to be to work at an iconic building like the Forum for a company like MSG. It was a perfect storm. Even my wife didn’t have to give it a second thought.

Weren’t you going to miss some of the things that drew you back to New York?

Not the Knicks or the Rangers – that’s why you have DirecTV. I miss my parents and my sisters, but they’re supportive; they come out to visit, we make the most of it. You follow your passion and your family understands that. They do what it takes to be there for you, and I’m lucky that way.

So you have a building that is loved by some artists and you need to modernize. What do you keep, what do you change?

Remember, this renovation was a team effort. We were lucky to have it driven by Irving and Shelli Azoff, Jim Dolan and many of the MSG staff, who were committed to creating a world-class destination for the artists and the fans. There were also the efforts of BBB Architects, who did an outstanding job on the transformation of Madison Square Garden Arena. And the structural engineers, production designers, landscape artists, renovation consultants and our construction crew. Inglewood Mayor James Butts was an incredible partner from the start.

This project never would have happened without him and his staff. Once you have your team and you take ownership of a building, there’s a bunch of diligences that are done before you open the doors. You look at the building, you look at the space. The Forum had such great bones beforehand. When I was flying out to have meetings with the city I would call people I knew in the area – production guys, agents, managers – whoever brought shows here, and say, “If you could change something about the Forum, what would it have been?” I made notes.

We’re lucky that, with the Forum, we have an ownership that gets the artist experience and wants the building to live up to our brand, which is beneficial to me because you can have a conversation and they get it. You can talk about rigging, about extra steel, how heavy a show you want to be able to hang, and it’s not lost. With the Forum, the rigging was important. Right off the bat we brought in a very established person in the production business, Ed Kish, who does rigging for a living and said, “If you can design this any way you wanted, what would you do?” He gave us three versions: “Here’s a Volkswagen, here’s a Ford, here’s a Rolls Royce.”

We wanted the Rolls Royce. We added 230 tons of steel into the roof, we put in 10,000 square feet of tension grid, which makes it a very easy building to rig and, with the added steel, we can hang upward of 350,000 pounds. We just did the VMAs where we tested that; we got up to 270,000 without an issue. We wanted to improve the production and we did. The building was always known for its acoustics. We wanted to make sure we maintained that, so we added sound baffles on either end and acoustic wall treatments. We added carpets and plush, theatre-style seating. We added acoustic fabric along the cross-aisle. We’ve had some big bands here so far – Steely DanEaglesPaul SimonSting – and the feedback from the artist, which is ultimately the most important, has been how great the building sounds.

I had my fingers crossed, too. Whenever you change a building, you’re always concerned you will do something to detract from the acoustics and we were able to improve them. Before we opened the building we kicked on some sound and walked to every part of the building to hear what the guests would hear. The artist experience and the guest experience are paramount in all our venues. We wanted to maintain, for the person in the back row of the balcony to the person on the floor, the same experience. We’re proud of that.

What were some of the improvements backstage?

We added some broadcast elements to the top of the ramp to add extra power. We tried to clean out the tunnel to make it more accessible for trucks. The tension grid and the rigging points make it easy to hang your show; in the past crews had to use a pre-rig day to get their shows up. We’ve had massive shows and the feedback is how easy it is to rig this building. And that just adds to the speed. The quicker you can get your shows in the quicker you can take your break before the bands get there. Also, unlike other arenas, we have nine state-of-the-art dressing rooms. They’re star caliber. Bands come in and productions come in, and they’re not fighting over who gets the nicer room.

We added a production wing with open spaces for the production managers and tour accountants. They can roll in their road cases and get to work. We added a big catering room on Level 1. Whatever makes the day a happy one for production managers we tried to accomplish. It was the diligent stage but it was worth it for the opening night of the Eagles.

That is one active concourse.

The great thing about coming to events here was that the concourse seemed like a waste of a space. They used to take your tickets at the door. After living in New York for a couple of years, I appreciated how great the weather was in LA. We thought how great it would be to have the outer terrace be part of the experience. We decided ticket-taking would be at the bottom of the ramps and, once you’re on the terrace, you’re in the building. The whole outdoor terrace and concourse are experienced by the fans. That’s been very attractive to guests. A lot of people like to go there for intermission, get some air. You don’t have to worry about not getting back in. We have food and bars out there. We wanted to expand the concession areas to give the fans a better experience, and by adding the terrace area we were able to accomplish that.

What about the vendors?

We wanted to have some LA flavor. We got Carney’s, Pink’s Hot Dogs, Bludso’s BBQ, LaBrea Bakery. Coolhaus has a special Forum ice cream sandwich. We wanted to make the concessions part of L.A. They’re brands that people are comfortable with; they’re outside the regular pretzel and bag of peanuts. It’s been really well accepted.

How did the game room come about?

We wanted to make it a first-class place where artists wanted to be and wanted to hang out. That’s why we made the dressing rooms the way we did, and why we put in a gym. And in the game room we put in a golf simulator and old-time pinball machines, shuffleboard and a pool table. We’ve had really good feedback from the bands. They’ve hit some golf balls, they played pool. It’s a fun environment, where they can unwind before a show. We wanted to make sure we had things to do for the band.

They didn’t need to leave the site to find something fun and try to make it back by show time. And it’s been working. They come early, they hang in the rooms, they go to the game room, they use the gym. They’re excited to be in the building. We’ve created a nice, homelike space for them.

The debut had friendly staff. Were they trained that way or is it just their personalities? And did you hire a third-party company to help with customer service training?

As part of our development agreement, we had a local hiring component. A lot of the staff were from Inglewood and were just as excited about the building opening as we were. Fortunately, they work for a company where the guest experience is as important as the artist experience so training is of paramount importance at all of our properties. Once we had the staff, had the job fairs, we brought people in specifically for customer service training, for building knowledge, with help from New York. They came out and did scenarios. They said, “OK, I’m coming up to you with a ticket, where do I go?”

“I need a place to change my baby. What bathroom do I go to?” I think that helped staff understand we’re here for the ticket holders. If you get your staff to buy into that, then everybody wants everyone to have a good time. I believe the staff wants everyone who walks in to feel like the most important person in the building.

Any unique, smaller items you want to point out? Any specific thing that people will be surprised to find in the building?

There are a couple of things that come to mind. We added 8,000 square feet of hospitality on the first level so that if you’re on the floor, you have your own bars and bathrooms on Level 1. Not a lot of arenas have that. We also built a glass wall on the floor level, separating the hospitality area from the concert hall, so while you’re at the bar, you still feel like part of the show. You’re looking through the glass wall to the stage. I think that’s completely unique. Another thing that people notice right away is the intimacy. The ceiling is only 54 feet.

Without suites it feels like a very intimate place; you feel like you’re part of a party. That’s with our full arena setup. When we use our curtain system – with a press of a button, you can go down to a 7,000 person capacity room; and, with the low ceiling height, you feel like you’re in a theater. I think that’s very unique for people who think they’re going to an arena and it feels like a smaller theater. It actually reminds me of Gibson/Universal in that configuration.

It really doesn’t look like it has a high capacity.

And you really have to experience that. Not having suites is a benefit to the entire space. Buildings like the Beacon and the Forum cannot be rebuilt. You can’t rebuild a building Elvis played in or where The Rolling Stones recorded an album in 1975. The rock ‘n’ roll history is what lives in these walls and that’s what we’re bringing back. It is unique to this space – you can’t duplicate it by building a venue next door. Keeping it intimate, and keeping the acoustics – and adding to the dressing rooms and fan experience – just brought an iconic building to where it needs to be to compete in the market today. I think we’ve made those icons proud. This building opened in 1968; it’s a great feeling.

I was hoping you would mention the chocolate-covered pretzels in the VIP lounge.

The red-velvet Coolhaus ice cream sandwich! That’s probably responsible for adding 15 pounds to me. That’s the problem with being a GM: you can call the guys at food & beverage and ask them for an ice cream sandwich any time you want.

Other than the Eagles, what show was the most popular? When did you get phone calls and emails from long-lost buddies asking for tickets?

I think the best way to answer those calls is ask for a credit card number. That usually gets rid of half of them.

The guess was it would be the VMAs.

It was the first televised awards show in the building. We started talking to the VMAs a couple years ago. You never really know because they don’t make their decision until after the latest show. One of the great things for this building, for the VMAs, that is unique in LA is that I’m surrounded by 21 acres of parking lot. Most other buildings, when you’re looking for your red carpet or press tent, you don’t have the space. We have 21 acres and I think the VMAs used 18! The  show in the parking lot – you looked around and said the building is back. There was a sense of pride for a lot of people who brought this building to that point.

We had a lot of great consultation from icons in the music business on making the building what it needed to be. To see the faces on those people, and the sense of pride of the staff, when the VMAs went off was something I won’t forget. I stood in the parking lot and took a deep breath and made sure I took in that moment. It was two-and-a-half years and all the talk and all the ups and downs, I felt it was our coming-out party. It required a lot of support from a lot of people to get to that point. We’re not the ones on stage but the men and women who do what we do know how important it is to be the backbone of those events.

Anything else?

As a GM, community partnership is important. We do tours for the neighborhood. We have monthly meetings with the mayor, chief of police and the fire department. To be a good GM, you need to realize you’re a guest in the neighborhood, a guest in a community. You want them to understand that you’re here for them and with them. I think we’ve done that with our local hiring programs and with events we’ve done with the city. We did the Space Shuttle event here when we first got the building. We have a great relationship with the city and stay in constant contact.

That’s an important part of running a building that you make those who run a city feel like they’re your partners. A lot of people don’t realize how important that is. You have to think your average neighbor comes to a show once or twice a year, so making them feel that they are a part of the rest of the process is important. Giving them tours, letting them know what’s going on over the next few days, what’s going on in a month, “What are your concerns,” “What can we do to make this a little easier for you” – it promotes the goodwill you need to be successful. You have to have everybody you work with, or works around you, want to root for your success or it’s not going to work. It wouldn’t matter how good you are.