John Meglen & Paul Gongaware On The Record
The names John Meglen and Paul Gongaware are legendary in the concert promotion business dating back to the early 1970s. But getting them out in public, in the same room together, to talk about their careers – promoting concert tours for everyone from Elvis to Prince to The Rolling Stones – took months of arm-twisting.
But we did it. The duo that came together at Concerts West and became a driving force behind
They also agreed to talk to Pollstar for the benefit of conference attendees who may be unable to attend the Production Live! component of the event.
Meglen and Gongaware – or, simply, John and Paul – met while both worked at Concerts West/Management III, the combined promotion and management companies founded by Jerry Weintraub, Tim Hulett and Terry Bassett. They perfected the “turn-key” approach to promoting artists across multiple markets, rather than simply promoting local concerts, providing the blueprint for others, such as Live Nation and AEG, to follow.
Concerts West was, at one time, the biggest promoter on the globe, producing more than 700 concerts a year and touring such artists as Elvis Presley (along with his infamous manager “Colonel” Tom Parker), Led Zeppelin, Bad Company, Neil Diamond, John Denver, and Stevie Wonder to name just a few.
Meglen was managing artists by the 1980s, including The Beach Boys, Earth, Wind & Fire, and The Moody Blues but also teamed up with Michael Cohl in the ’90s to work with the Stones, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, and Paul Simon as director of touring. He co-founded Pace Touring with Louis Messina, reuniting Fleetwood Mac and steering Ozzfest.
By this time, Gongaware was producing films with Roger Corman and Warren Miller, as well as promoting tours with Rod Stewart, Yanni and working with Michael Jackson on his Dangerous and HIStory world tours.
As the 20th century came to a close, Meglen and Gongaware found themselves, as did many others, rolled into SFX Entertainment. Meglen says he was the first to leave the Sillerman behemoth, and convinced Gongaware to join him. Thus was Concerts West reborn.
As a boutique shop, Concerts West recruited and guided tours for artists like The Dixie Chicks, Don Henley, Andrea Bocelli, and Mariah Carey. At the same time, they began working with Paul Tollett and the late Rick Van Santen of Southern California promoter
Simultaneously, Concerts West became the first promoter acquired by Anschutz Entertainment Group and subsequently acquired Goldenvoice in 2003 to become the foundation of
Meglen and Gongaware continue to innovate in the concert space, creating first the Las Vegas “residency” with Celine Dion, taking the concept to the arena stage with Prince’s extended run at London’s O2,by including an album as part of the ticket to Prince’s Musicology tour, and bringing The Rolling Stones to Cuba followed by the classic rock Desert Trip festival in Indio, Calif.
You are notoriously “backstage” guys and don’t do a lot of press. Yet you’ve been involved in some of the most notable concert events of the last 40-odd years. Did you plan it this way?
Paul Gongaware: Please attribute all quotes to John.
John Meglen: Nobody ever hears from Paul. That’s part of this whole thing; getting Paul talking.
Seriously, we’ve always tried to maintain a behind-the-scenes approach. That’s always been our thing so it’s kind of “Forrest Gump”-ish, because we’ve been behind a lot of things and a lot of people have never known that. That’s maybe part of the story but the way we look at things, and we think we have a very unique system for touring. We do it ourselves. We’ve really been doing this longer than anybody else still in the business.
Our entire lives have been touring. We did touring when we were on the management side. Back at that time, Jerry Weintraub was the biggest manager in the business. It was Dylan, Denver and Diamond. The Three Ds. He had Sinatra, The Moody Blues, The Carpenters. The point is, we are very long-term thinkers. What’s maybe different today from those days is that the business got very global. We’ve become a very global organization. We may be living and working in North America part of the time, but we’re outside of the country maybe as much as inside. Have I got that about right, Paul?
PG: Yeah, keep going. (laughs)
Things began to drastically change in the late ’90s. How did you adapt?
JM: When the company got sold to SFX that was, to us, the major paradigm shift. It was against our nature, which was, and is, all about the artist. And now here’s this guy named Bob Sillerman saying now it’s all about your venues, your amphitheatres, etc. So we and some other guys got out and started a little boutique.
What happened, Pace got sold to SFX. Sillerman, and his CEO Mike Farrell, and I did not get along in the least. I’m not embarrassed to say that. So I was really the first guy to leave. I said, “Wait a minute. I don’t want to be here. Let’s go start up our other thing.”
The little boutique now owns Coachella Music & Arts Festival.
JM: Paul Tollett showed up in our office one day and said, “Would you guys mind taking a ride with me out to the desert? I did this festival out here; lost everything. What do you guys think?”
This was pre-AEG and, I remember very clearly, Gongaware looked at this site and said, “I get it. But it’s going to take three years to get this thing established.”
We backed him on Coachella those years. When Concerts West got sold to AEG that was the foundation block of AEG Live. That acquisition. That would have been right at the beginning in 2000.
I’d met Paul and Rick Van Santen before that time because I’d done a Bowie/Nine Inch Nails tour, and Nails had asked if we would include them in the L.A. show. I remember giving them a buck a ticket. That’s how that relationship developed.
But Coachella, no one in the world believed in that thing. If you think about it, the first two deals we did when Concerts West got bought by AEG, the first one we did was the Celine Dion deal (building the Colosseum at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas for the purpose of staging Dion’s residency) and then we went out and acquired Goldenvoice.
We brought Goldenvoice in. Those two deals today; just look at them. The very first deals done in this place. It’s what Paul was saying about being long-term thinkers.
How do the two of you make decisions?
PG: We talk over everything. We figure out what it is we want to do, and one of us goes and does it.
The thing between us is, if either one of us says it’s a no, it’s a no. You want to guess how many times we’ve pulled out our “no”? Either one of us? Zero.
That’s how I got stuck doing this interview, because I wasn’t going to get stuck pulling out my first no over something like that! (Laughs).
How does AEG Live/Concerts West operate differently from other promoters?
PG: We try to find smart, dedicated people. It’s all about that. But the thing we do is we give them the responsibility and we give them the authority. They either sink or swim. Most of them swim like Michael Phelps.
JM: Our philosophy is about finding smart people that get it, then getting out of their way. So many people love giving people responsibility but don’t love giving them authority. To give them the authority is the greatest thing in the world. Then, whether they survive or not, is totally based on them.
It’s not that we just let people run out there on their own and let them do whatever the hell they want, but it’s like you either have self-starters or you don’t.
You have to trust them. And artists have to trust you, right?
JM: Oh, god, yeah. What we try to achieve with an artist and their team is that they 100 percent trust us. Which brings up a very important point today, which is that is a point of transparency.
Probably the biggest effect that digital had on our business is transparency. The reason we’re dealing with all the ticketing discussions and conversations and issues that are going on today are because of transparency. Everything that is happening today is because people now have access to all the information. And for a long long time they didn’t.
In the ticketing world, the secondary market – they went from being scalpers to brokers and now we call them the secondary market – understood and took advantage of digital ticketing Well before the rest of the industry caught up. The industry is just getting to the point of being caught up, but it lost literally 10-15 years on that.
We’ve always been transparent. We’ve always put everything on the table, because we’d worked for Weintraub and if you tried to steal a penny, you’d be fired!
Why does ticketing seem so complicated yet you talk about it as if it’s simple?
JM: It’s the one thing that has a definite capacity. We can only sell so many seats. If you want to get into the real core of it, it’s very simple. We just need to close the ticket. I also believe we should open the distribution. If you close the ticket, you know where the ticket is all the time.
Then from there, it’s simple business rules. This guy doesn’t want his tickets traded; this guy is fine, here’s what he wants. It’s up to you. When we say it’s up to you, we always set it up so it’s up to the artist. The artist should be the one who gets to make that decision.
Because ultimately they are coming in and occupying this space for a night, I’m not even sure I want to call it a ticket anymore, because the buyer is coming to see that artist. Transparency today is causing problems for people because the rebates, the kickbacks, the everything. The selling it for more than what you said. All these different things are now transparent.
PG: What I would add, too, is how we sort of came by our what we call our “ticket morality,” when we both worked for the Colonel (Tom Parker).
The way they were doing shows back in those days, we had to make sure that the first 10 rows went to the fans. They were always on sale when you went on sale. There were never any holds in those sections.
At some point we woke up and realized the bots were getting all those good seats and we were idiots. That’s when we started taking revenue back and bringi it back into legitimacy.
You innovated touring and ticketing with Prince.
JM: Dennis Arfa always says, “You guys created the residency.” It’s allowed him to do Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden. We took the residency to the arenas with the 21 Nights in London with Prince. You want to talk about thinking of things from an artist’s perspective. There’s no truer example than Prince.
There was only Prince, Paul, and John. No manager, no lawyer, no accountant, no business manager. No contract. No agent. Just the three of us. When that tour finished, Musicology did 88 shows in North America, and Prince walked away with 50 percent of the gross sales after everything was paid for.
All he had to do was pay his taxes, which I don’t know if he did or not. But literally we promoted it, we did every single thing on that.
PG: We paid for everything.
JM: And he probably made more money on Musicology – in fact I know he did, because we would laugh about it.
PG: We added $5 to the cost of the ticket for the CD.
JM: It was more money than he’d ever made on a record in his life. We just did it. A lot of people in our business just want to be in our business because their businesses are no longer business. A lot of what we do is just so very simple philosophically, if you are transparent and you’re honest. For us, the way we operate, is we do what’s best for the artists.