Pollstar’s Brian Murphy 1991 Executive Profile

Brian Murphy
– Brian Murphy

Avalon Attractions’ Brian Murphy began plying his trade “with other people’s money” while he was a student at Central Washington University.

“The first show that I ever booked was Iron Butterfly,” Murphy remembered. “We were a small college of 5,000 students in Ellensburg, Wash., a town of about 10,000 people and we managed to give them their fair share of shows.”

By 1968, Murphy had helped form one of the first cooperative booking endeavors for West Coast colleges through the NEC, which today is known as the NACA. After graduation, he was prepared to become a high school teacher “But I begged and pleaded with every agent that I ever came in contact with to give me a job, that I wanted to get into the music business.” The groveling paid off. He landed a trainee job at CMA in Los Angeles, but before he could start, the agent he was supposed to be training under quit, and violà, Murphy walked in as an agent.

“I was with CMA for six months when I decided I’d prefer to be a talent buyer and promote shows. I wasn’t very good as an agent and everybody at CMA told me that.” After a stint with Seattle’s Northwest Releasing he hooked up with Sepp Dona-hower and Gary Perkins at L.A.
secondary promoter, Pacific Presen-tations. where he stayed until 1977. 

At that point the two principals went their separate ways and Perkins asked Murphy to join him in a new company called Avalon Attractions. Perkins left in the early ’80s, and, except for a few years when Roger Shepherd was his partner, Murphy has been running the day-to-day
operations himself.

“Bob Geddes has been there throughout as my financial partner and we’ve seen eight years of steady growth,” he said.

When L.A.’s dominant promoter, Wolf & Rissmiller, called it quits, Murphy and Avalon moved into the top promoter slot in what many believe is the most important concert market in the country. Murphy spoke with POLLSTAR editor Gary Bongiovanni about the concert industry and how promoters are coping with the hard economic reality of 1991.

Avalon is a major force on the West Coast. What do you consider your primary markets and about how many shows a year do you produce?

The number varies. The smallest year we’ve had would be about 250 shows and the biggest was about 375, which we did last year. We exclusively book the Santa Barbara Bowl, Irvine Meadows Amphi-
theatre and the Open Air Theater at San Diego State University, Our primary markets are Los Angeles, Orange County, Santa Barbara, and San Diego. We spend some time in Fresno each year and we like to spend some time in
Hawaii when we get the chance, 
although we’re not primary promoters there. We also will occasionally do shows in the Northwest, but we partner those with Bauer/Kinnear, and in Phoenix where we partner with Evening Star.

What would you say has been the nicest surprise and the biggest disappointment of this year?

I think the nicest surprise is that we didn’t end up  with any Whitney Houston or Steve Winwood dates. As for disappointments, there aren’t any major ones. We haven’t gotten really killed this year. I had a show where I lost $20,000 but I haven’t had any of those $50,000 losers.

Is the merger-buyout of Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre by the nearby Nederlander-owned Pacific Amphitheatre a totally dead issue?

I believe that issue has been laid to rest by the active participation of the U.S. Justice Department in investigating Nederlander/Ogden in their attempt to merge the two facilities. Irvine’s principal owner, Don Koll, subsequently made a new ownership deal bringing in Irving Azoff and Bob Geddes as equity partners. I think that rules out a potential merger or buyout by any other parties.

The bidding wars between Irvine and Pacific were the first heavy battles between competing sheds. We now see that same scenario duplicated around the country and the industry focus seems to have shifted to the wars in other markets. Is the Orange County bidding competition still in effect?

After seven years, the bidding war in Orange County is as intense as it ever was, if not even more intense. Bidding wars in secondary markets are a little bit more insane than bidding wars in primary ones. At least I have a market of 4 million people to support the lunacy. Thank God Irvine Meadows is in Orange County, the land of Disneyland, because our bidding starts in Adventureland and we often end up in Fantasyland.

Did you see the recession coming and, if you did, what kind of steps did you take to prepare for it?

One of the nice things about being in this business is that you really can see, through daily ticket sales, what’s really happening to the economy. Last summer in July and August we saw it. We saw the older demo go, just completely fall off the table and disappear. The U.S. has been in some recessions before but they have hardly ever affected the West Coast. This one we saw coming our way and we decided to be more prudent buyers. We decided saying “no” was probably a healthy word for 1991. We did 375 shows in 1990 and set our sights on doing 250 in 1991. We felt that if we did the right 250, we probably would not make as much money as we did in 1990, but we would still be a profitable company.

How are your volume projections holding up?

Actually, we’re probably on line for 270 shows right now. The overall volume of headliners is definitely down this summer. I think to a degree our industry does run in cycles so touring schedules are going to fluctuate. But there have also been some astute managers and record companies who looked at what was happening with the economy and decided to delay the release of some albums, not necessarily by superstars, but by some very good arena attractions. Next year is looking better because we hope to see U2, Genesis, Bruce Springsteen, and maybe Pink Floyd. Those of us who can stay healthy through 1991 are hopefully going to be around to see some rewards in 1992.

Do you think you prepared well enough to weather the current economic climate?

In December and early January, I made the prediction to my staff that if we ended up going to war but could end that war soon, that it would give such a boost to the U.S. economy it would push us right out of the recession. I was right up to a point, but I think the war did nothing but camouflage how deep this recession really is. Once the war was over there was nothing else to blame it on. The recession turned out to be much more broad-based than any war was going to solve.

A number of industry people did see the hard economic times coming and reacted accordingly. There are many more three- and four-act shows on the road this summer and more instances of ticket discounting. Are you discounting lawn tickets on any of your shows?

The war that goes on between competing facilities like Pacific and Irvine doesn’t allow for discount tickets on the lawn because you’re paying so much for the talent up front, you have to get it back. I wish there were times when we could just eliminate the lawn. We’d win all the time with just the fixed seating, but that’s not the case. I have had some conversations, however, with some agents about low dough shows.

What’s your perception of the overall financial health of the concert industry right now?

If you saw the recession coming last summer and you have been prudent in your buying from late last summer into the fall of this year, then you’ll be OK. In Los Angeles, you can make mistakes and still make some money just because you have a lot of people here to sometimes cover up the mistakes you make on your stupid buying. However, in places like Portland or Vancouver, and from listening to the folks back in the Northeast talk, this recession is far more crippling to a certain demographic of our concert-going audience and I think there’s a lot you need to stay away from. I think the recession is one of the prime reasons Whitney Houston and Steve Winwood aren’t doing the business we as an industry projected they would do. I’m certain that with the recession, their key demographic, the 30-plus audience, has far more concerns than just concerts. They have house payments, car payments, kids and school. My Scorpions fan has to pay the rent and maybe make a car payment, and everything else is disposable and it can go to beers, dates and concerts. We’ve done very, very well on rock and roll and heavy metal. I think if you go to any major promoter around the country, they will tell you that their rock business is much more secure than their pop/CHR or more family-oriented shows.

Do you expect business to improve by the end of the year?

Yes, things will be better because the year will be over.

Do promoters like yourself need to own or control real estate in order to survive the changes going on within our industry?

In addition to the buildings I mentioned earlier, we’ve controlled other pieces of real estate in Los Angeles over the years. We’ve had booking exclusives on the Hollywood Palladium, for example. But you not only need to be in booking control of your real estate, you need to be in control of all aspects. You need to control the parking, the popcorn, the peanuts, the beer, the merchandise. Every once in a while there will be a big tour that comes along and suddenly they want to reinvent the shed deal. I tell them to “Count your money, don’t count mine.” We don’t just need to survive, we need to turn a profit and make a living.

Do you think agents and managers squeeze promoters’ profits to the point that you have to look at other ways to make money?

I take it beyond agents and managers. There was a time when all I dealt with were agents. Then slowly, good managers got involved and they decided to call key promoters to get a lay of the land. Now, there are too many people involved in our business that aren’t involved in the creative process; business managers and attorneys that represent multiple clients. If one agency does one thing for one artist who’s controlled by one of these attorneys or business managers, they’re going to go to their other clients and tell them what this guy is doing and that we can
get you this deal. It pushes the button of that guy to squeeze the next guy in line and so on. And I would rather just be the guy squeezing myself. I’d rather be the building and know how far I can go with this thing. I don’t see anyone to blame here. People come to see the talent; that’s what puts people in the seats, so talent should receive a huge proportion of the receipts from these engagements. But the buildings need to recoup their investment because without the buildings there would be no place for an artist to play, and promoters are needed to keep new talent alive.

Promoters provide an invaluable service to developing artists. You take a calculated risk when you invest in a young act. How do you determine who’ll you’ll work with?

Because of shrinking profit margins, I think the whole artist development process is in jeopardy. Here are the two directions I give the people who book talent in my office, Moss Jacobs, Ted Mankin and Jennifer Perry: Number one, spend my money as if it’s yours. Number two, before you invest in one of these club shows, when you listen to the music and see the band before you buy it, then envision that band in an arena. If you cannot envision this band in an arena in your wildest imagination, then let’s not get involved in their future. On developmental shows that we did last year we went out of pocket for more than $50,000. Now we’ve got to find a place to make that back. I don’t want the spotlight to shine on me when an artist makes it to arena or stadium level, but I wouldn’t mind some of the ambient light coming my way.

Are national promoters any more of a threat to agencies and regional promoters today than they were 10 or 20 years ago?

Candidly, I don’t think so. The Concerts West concept is not the issue today. We’ve seen national promoting on three basic fronts; we’ve seen the CPI version, the PACE version, and recently we’ve seen the independent promoters through Larry Magid and his deal with Yes. I’ve been able to work with each one of those organizations in some of their projects, not all because some of them I turned down. 

I have not found my deals to be onerous. For one thing, they have treated me like I am the expert in my local market and they let me run things the way that they would want to run things if I were in their markets.

What about deep-pocketed corporations getting into the business? Is that a threat to the independent promoter?

There’s just one thing I want to say to those deep-pocketed corporations out there: ‘It’s (818) 708-8855. I’m waiting for your phone call.”

Whether it’s corporations or fronting for other people, it certainly seems like there are fewer individual entrepreneurs who are using their own money.

I’d rather be in a huge, deep-pocket than eaten by a huge, deep-pocket. L.A. has MCA. Dallas has PACE, which is now hooked up with Sony. New York and L.A. have Nederlander. And my God, there’s PolyGram in New York also. I was thinking about John Scher as an independent. Isn’t that great; you can cross the river and be an independent and on the other side you work for a conglomerate.

What’s your opinion of the Ticketmaster/Ticketron deal?

I don’t think I’m an idiot here, but I really believe Fred Rosen is a fair businessman and that he is not going to come rumbling across the United States on his black horse raping and pillaging the venues, the fans and the concert industry. I don’t think I’m naive. I don’t think it’s going to happen.

As one of the founders of the NACPA, what do you consider the organization’s prime accomplishments in its first few years?

I don’t mean to be making light of this at all, but I think that one of the prime accomplishments is that it still exists and that the communication between promoters is still happening. We’re still finding reasons to get together and sit down and discuss the things that are concerning us and that unlike past organizations, we haven’t let this one flounder and fall apart. There is a need for it, if only for the communication.

What do you think the industry landscape is going to look like in five or 10 years?

There will be fewer independent concert promoters in five years. There will be even fewer in 10 years. I believe that the large conglomerates will continue to move into our business because of the amount of advertising dollars we spend. You’re going to see bigger and bigger corporations start to take a look at this industry as a way of putting its name forward. This huge baby boom generation is finally having children and has been for the last five or 10 years. And with that vast popu-lation out there, we’re going to see a change in music. What we consider
alternative today will be different from what’s alternative in 10 years. This generation is going to give us a huge teenage population and it’s going to produce a whole new concert audience.

Murphy runs what is now known as Live Nation Los Angeles.