One On One with Promoter Jack Orbin

Jack Orbin may be closing down his Stone City Attractions promotion company after 43 years, but he isn’t retiring – he’s simply moving on to his next adventures.

He’s come full circle as a concert promoter, bookending his career with benefit concerts for causes important to him – starting in 1972 with an antiwar effort with a Texas band called Krackerjack featuring a young guitarist named Stevie Ray Vaughan and closing with a benefit show with Trans-Siberian Orchestra in San Antonio. Over the years, he’s raised more than $1.1 million for charities.

There were thousands of concerts and more than a few causes Orbin – a Vietnam War conscientious objector who came to San Antonio after his communal cabin in the Colorado mountains burned down – championed as a staunchly independent promoter and a citizen of the world. A protégé of the late Bill Graham, Orbin has seen more than his share of changes in the concert industry, and not all to his liking.

His early pledge to never charge more than $3 for a concert ticket may have been unrealistic, but he continued to struggle against skyrocketing ticket prices throughout his career, including filing an objection with the U.S. District Court to the Live Nation / Ticketmaster merger in 2010. It wasn’t his first foray into the national spotlight to fight for his principles. Orbin also went on the offensive with Frank Zappa and Dee Snider of Twisted Sister in the 1980s to defend rock music from what he believed were the censorship attempts of Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center.

Orbin may be closing Stone City Attractions, but he’s not going away. While helping to raise a grandson and supporting his wife’s Head Start career, he is now freed up to focus on social justice activism and causes that have been near and dear to his heart most of his life.

Why close down Stone City Attractions now?

It’s not one thing that caused me to decide to close the curtain. It’s mainly a cumulative effect of numerous things like my wife and I raising our 3-year-grandson.  She just started a year and a half of teaching for Head Start which she loves. I’ve been doing this for 43 years. I don’t believe in raising a kid, and I’ve raised a bunch of them, with both parents working and the kid going to daycare five days a week. This time, it’s not the wife that needs to be staying home – it’s me. The last 43 years in this business, doing what I’ve been doing, maintaining the core principles of trying to remain regional, and remain local, and remain loyal and respect other peoples’ areas, feels good. I was able to do that and be successful. In the 43 years, I probably haven’t had five years that were in the red, so I’ve been fortunate.

A lot of the accolades go to Premier Talent which, at the time, was so loyal. Bill Graham, who was my hero and whom I emulated, also believed in loyalty and regional promoters as did Frank Barsalona and Barbara Skydel. I still believe in it. I still believe that nobody can get the job done like someone who knows the marketplace, knows the program directors, the marketing directors, the buildings and the unions really well. Not the ones who hit the market one time and leave. I believe there is a niche still, like when we started, where the young indies can take the baton and run.

Did changes in the industry, particularly C3 Presents’ recent acquisition by Live Nation, contribute to your decision?

No, that didn’t factor in. Whether it’s an 800-pound pound gorilla or a 2,000-pound one, it’s still too big for us regional promoters. What we really need now are the young independent promoters like Erica Vigilante and Twin Productions here in San Antonio to step in. We need those young, enthusiastic, ready to take on the world people, to take over. That’s how I started, with Concerts West back in 1972. They did Led Zeppelin and The Moody Blues; all the big bands. We were out there with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Krackerjack, Sugarloaf. Then it exploded and we felt like we knew the music because it was part of our life. That’s what we need these days.

We need new, young blood in the system. You can’t blame [SFX founder Robert] Sillerman for the demise of the concert industry, really, because it’s the independent promoters that sold themselves. But, let’s face it, that rollup was the beginning of the end. Bill Graham closed the Fillmores because the agents told him what acts to package. And he said “I’m not doing that. I’ll put on who I want.” And looking back to the old days in the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s we were able to put acts on and build acts, and break them. Things have changed. Now acts have to pay to get on tours. I don’t agree with that. That’s not right for the acts so the whole thing is changed and that’s how we started this conversation. It’s a cumulative thing.

Then there’s rising ticket prices, which you fought. What happened?

I’ve fought ticket price escalation every day of my life. I’m looking at a show from June, 1981 with Judas Priest, Humble Pie and the opening act was Iron Maiden. That was $9 for basically three headliners. The same thing happened in 1980 with Ted NugentScorpions, and Def Leppard – tickets were $8. So things certainly have changed. And I understand the dynamics, obviously – bands used to sell albums to make money, but now they have to make it off of touring. Certainly I understand that it has to escalate higher than the rate of inflation. But it’s a different ballgame because money is the name of the game now. I like to say the music business now is too much business and not enough music.

Circa a few years ago

I’m fortunate enough to be in a business that was built on the fact that music mattered when I started in the early ’70s. It was rebellion. It was like Chrissie Hynde said, she’s embarrassed when people get Grammys and the like because back in the old days it was about being anti-establishment. Artists like the Sex Pistols always stayed consistent. They were anarchists from Day 1 and they refused to go to the Hall of Fame because they thought it was petty bullshit. I wish we had more acts like that.

You promoted the Sex Pistols in Texas. That must have been an experience.

We did the Sex Pistols twice: in Dallas and in San Antonio. What a trip that was. Sid Vicious slit his wrists on the stage in Dallas.  In San Antonio, which is my hometown, I didn’t get to see one iota of the show because Malcolm [McLaren], their manager, told me no security with guns would be allowed inside the building. I was out there negotiating with the police the entire show, saying how controlled the chaos was.

And then there was the famous Ozzy Osbourne incident at the Alamo.

Ozzy was into shock marketing at the time. Going with that premise, he was also an alcoholic then. We had a sold-out show at the HemisFair Arena in 1982 with 12,000 or 13,000 people. He went to the Alamo to take some pictures for Melody Maker and had to relieve himself and did so. Tourists saw him and reported him to the park ranger, who reported it to the police, who arrested him for public intoxication. Sharon [Osbourne] called me and I went down there to get Ozzy out of jail.  He was saying, “What’s the big ruckus? I just had to relieve myself!” and I said, “It’s like pissing in the Queen’s cup. You just don’t do that.”

We had a reporter following us, and the reporter asked him as we were getting out of the car to go into the hotel, “Did you mean to piss on the Alamo?” and Ozzy said, “Yes, and the White House is next!” Oh my God, he didn’t even know, and I had to tell him what that meant. He turned that into his shock gimmick, so that was my fault. I probably shouldn’t have said anything to him about it. He got out of jail and he played a sold-out performance. The city council did a nonbinding resolution that stated Ozzy was not welcome back to any city facility. So 10 years later, Sharon came up with the idea to give money to the Daughters of the Republic that maintain the Alamo. Ozzy was straight by then. I did a press conference and we announced a gift of $10,000. Then I got the mayor to welcome Ozzy back to San Antonio for two-sold out shows.

Black Sabbath figures in the rock censorship battles of the 1980s as well.

The good thing is, we stopped the censorship of rock back in the 1980s, and now you can play Black Sabbath on TV sitcoms and it’s no big deal. I won’t miss fighting Tipper Gore about rock censorship. Stupid things like that, where they thought KISS stood for Knights In Satan’s Service. On the “Mike and Molly” sitcom the other night, Mike got mad at Molly and went into the garage and put on Black Sabbath. That would never have happened back then if the rock censorship people had their way. People like Frank Zappa, Dee Snider and I went all over the country … we went on the “Today” show up in New York. They flew me up there to say how ridiculous trying to censor music and rock lyrics would be.

While all this was happening, there were still benefits and fund-raisers that were satisfying?

Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and the fact they allowed us to give away $1 a ticket in every market we played, was a shot in the arm for rock ‘n’ roll and for me. What I love to do is give money away to nonprofits that are needy. Especially the ones that work with children with special needs and, even more so, the ones that work with musical therapy. I’ve found a number of nonprofits, like the Rise School in Austin and Oklahoma City that use music therapy for kids with special needs.

When I told Carlos Santana about that, he was ecstatic because he firmly believes music can heal. But I love it when musicians do things for the local communities. No offense to the Milagro Foundation of Santana’s – it’s a great nonprofit that he helps out – when you play in 10 cities and you give to each city you play in a portion, it’s extremely meaningful. That’s what I believe in the most. Way back in the ’70s when Steve Perry was in Journey, for instance, we convinced management and the band to give money in San Antonio where there’d been a flood on the east side and people lost their homes. They weren’t making the money they are making nowadays, that’s for damn sure. But they gave thousands of dollars to help out families.

Dave Koz did the same thing. Carlos Santana gave $50,000 to Hurricane Katrina victims, and had me give that to the San Antonio mayor who was doing that at the time. Those things are just so cool, that I’ll miss those things. We did Guns For Tickets with San Antonio’s then-Mayor Nelson Wolff, the police department and Ticketmaster. We said come down and turn in your gun to the police, let the police take it out of your car, and we’ll give you tickets.

We had a few hundred guns turned in one weekend. I was also really proud of the Parents’ Room. We had a room for parents at concerts, so they could see their kids having a good time and that it wasn’t that bad – especially in the panhandle and some of the more conservative parts of Texas, where sometimes we had more protesters outside than people inside. I even got Gene Simmons to do interviews with some of the more radical parents who really thought they were the Knights In Satan Service. He did some phone interviews to relieve their worries. A lot of those things came directly from our office. Not too many other people did those kinds of things

Did you ever consider selling Stone City Attractions rather than shut it down?

I’ve had offers to sell it. I can’t imagine maintaining the principles I’ve personally believed in for 43 years and then sell it to someone who may not have those principles. So that’s not going to happen. The staff here is extremely loyal and obviously very efficient but they all want to take some time off. So we’re going to close it. Margaret Moser was the editor of the Austin Chronicle and she has started something called the South Texas Popular Culture Center.

She does exhibits and rents and leases space. She wants to do a little Stone City Attractions exhibit down there, so we’ll probably do that. We have so much memorabilia. Archives, and keeping things alive at the South Texas Popular Culture Center, is a great idea by Margaret. We’ve supported it financially, and they’re doing well.

What will you be doing now that Stone City Attractions is history?

Besides raising my grandson, I’m going to be involved with local and national social justice issues. We’ve already got numerous calls from nonprofits that need help down here in San Antonio, including some city officials. So there’s going to be plenty to do. When I started out, I had no idea I’d be doing all these acts and staying in business for 43 years. I just wanted to do some benefits for nonprofits.

That’s why I got into it. I came from the mountains, a commune in Colorado. Tommy Bolin from Zephyr, the Sugarloaf people, band members, used to come out to my cabin out there and somebody accidentally burned it down. So I had no place to go, and came back here.

I put together $500 and me and a couple of buddies decided to do benefits with music, and it just exploded from there. It’s all good. So many people are “congratulating” me and I have to tell them when I talk to them that it’s not really congratulations – it’s bittersweet. I’m leaving something I love and hope someone will take up the torch. But I’ve got other things I need to get to. So it’s good and bad. I love this business, I love the music and I’ll miss it. However, there’s too many other opportunities I need to pursue.