I Did It My Way: Indie Promoters Survey

– Indie Promoters Survey 2019

Though the two biggest promoters dominate worldwide ticket sales and continue to acquire and partner with regional promoters, both internationally and in secondary and tertiary markets, there are still plenty of independent promoters out there doing their own thing and putting their special touch on tours and festivals.

As part of our Special Independents issue,  Pollstar reached out to more than a dozen indie pros to get their take on the state of the business, from Rick Bartalini, who promotes concerts throughout the Hawaiian islands and California, to Nick Checota at the Missoula, Mont.-based Logjam Presents, to Michael Dorf, whose City Winery has locations throughout the U.S. including New York, Chicago and Nashville. And then there are promoters who have returned to the indie world after going corporate, like Danny Zelisko (see Lead Off). As Zelisko says, there’s just something about calling your own shots.

How have you seen the live industry and your business change in recent years?

Peter Shapiro, Dayglo Ventures: Technology makes it easier for anyone to put on a show, anywhere, at any time. And, it’s easier today for an individual to be able to market a show and sell tickets on their own. All those things, which recent technology has enabled, are more meaningful when you are a little, independent guy. But, when you start 

to grow the size of the shows that you are promoting/producing, the benefits of scale become more material and the advantage tilts non-indie, towards the people that can offer a band a 25-date nationwide routed tour via one email. 

Danny Zelisko, Danny Zelisko Presents
– Danny Zelisko, Danny Zelisko Presents
Peter Shapiro, Brooklyn Bowl
– Peter Shapiro, Brooklyn Bowl
Danny Zelisko, Danny Zelisko Presents: I have mixed emotions about the flexible dynamic pricing tickets that are being implemented all over based on supply and demand. It’s no surprise to me that some people have a hard time buying tickets – it can be a very complicated process to figure out. 

The other thing that has changed dramatically are these VIP programs that the groups are all implementing. What I object to is when the promoter is asked to do all of the local work and [the VIP group] says they’re keeping 100% of the lift. The hall should be compensated, and oftentimes these groups will hold onto the best seats in the house; then it will take a week or two to say OK you can release those back for sale. And a lot of times it’s too late. 
With ticket prices higher than ever I think we owe the fans clarity and to make it as easy as possible. 

Rick Bartalini, Rick Bartalini Presents: There have definitely been changes but it’s been unpredictable. For example, some heritage acts have risen in sales while some have not. It seems to me that streaming negatively affected the entire industry. When bands stopped getting music royalties due to streaming services, they started touring much more often to make up for lost revenue. Instead of touring every three to five years, some have been doing it ad nauseam. 

Nick Checota, Logjam Presents
– Nick Checota, Logjam Presents
Nick Checota, Logjam Presents: Independent promoters such as Logjam Presents are experiencing an increased competitive environment as national promoters aggressively pursue markets that they previously ignored. To date, the consolidation of agencies has not had a negative impact on Logjam. We have found agencies such as Paradigm Talent Agency and WME, as well as larger independent agencies such as High Road Touring, have remained committed to working with independent promoters. Agents within these companies seem to recognize the value of strong, local, independent promoters.

Phil Pirrone, Desert Daze: Lots of consolidation, which has been really good for our business. The more “the same” “every fest USA” becomes the more unique Desert Daze will be.

Morgan Margolis, Knitting Factory: We have seen many of our tertiary markets start to feel like secondary – bands that used to draw 1,000-cap, in say a primary, would probably have little market share in one of our NW markets a decade ago; now they can draw the same or close to it. That said, competition has grown, artists have gotten more expensive, and the margins have thinned. The other side of this: the volume keeps escalating so it’s give and take from both sides. 

Morgan Margolis, Knitting Factory
– Morgan Margolis, Knitting Factory

Michael Dorf, City Winery: The continued effects of technology on the consumption of entertainment in general allows us to provide the rare non-digital experience the human race needs and desires. This only gets more acute as screens and technology become intertwined in our lives exponentially – the human desire to interact with others, to experience the magic of a live performance, especially in an intimate environment only becomes more and more valuable.  

Heath Miller, United Palace
– Heath Miller, United Palace

Heath Miller, United Palace: The explosive growth with podcast tours – we’re seeing more chart-leading tours within segments that just started developing past infancy. Consumer interests in general have shifted, but the shift of digital consumption versus offline consumption varies all over the place in a hard-to-predict ratio. Twenty-five million streams don’t always equal 25 million divided X = average fans per market. 

Steve Sternschein, Heard Presents: Obviously there has been a ton of consolidation at the top of the market, driving increased ticket prices, ticket fees and artist guarantees. I think the barrier to entry into the concert industry is the highest it’s ever been. 

Jen Lyon, Mean Red Productions: From the fan side: Music discovery is now done more online than at a show, hanging out with friends is done on apps, staying in has become more enticing and leaving our house for a night out has gotten more expensive.

On the industry side: Big festivals and big pay days have sucked the air out of the business and creative, memorable shows and experiences with fans are goals that are minimized in the face of larger elusive wins. 

– Steve Sternschein, Heard Presents

Ric Leichtung, AdHoc Presents: Now more than ever, the greater music industry is edging into the local level. National promoters are acquiring small promoters to expand their market share, prevent small competitors from gathering momentum, and gain access to more data to share across markets. Agents are also signing more baby bands than ever, which puts artists on the radar of major promoters much earlier.

What challenges does your business face as an independent promoter in a time of consolidation?

Danny Zelisko: A lot of the acts that I grew up with, who are still alive and performing, even though we’re still great friends, I have a difficult time doing any business with them because there are two giant forces out there who buy whole tours and they’re not really into sharing. It really is just world dominance.

Michael Jaworek, The Birchmere
– Michael Jaworek, The Birchmere
Michael Jaworek, The Birchmere: We have had to greatly diversify our promotions, move faster, pay more to cope … try to find the acts, genres that are of lesser interest to the monoliths. 

LadyFag: Agents and managers are looking to book tours and are obviously looking to please the big guys like Live Nation and AEG and their venues, so being the little guy often doesn’t give you much leverage. I am a young, independent, queer, female, promoter trying to do something different than what is out there and have built by my brand on the crowd that I have built organically. I might not be the million-dollar play, but my biggest strength is my name, and artists and managers seeing the value in their artists playing my events. I’m fully aware of the challenges that go along with being independent; one bad year could potentially bankrupt or seriously set back an independent promoter and that’s scary, but you build a good team, work hard, and learn to trust your instincts … and even as an atheist, you pray!

Jen Lyon, MeanRead Productions
Rafael Fuchs
– Jen Lyon, MeanRead Productions
Phil Pirrone: Saturation is the biggest challenge for all of us, indie or otherwise.

Phil Pirrone, Desert Daze
Kelsey Hart
– Phil Pirrone, Desert Daze

Morgan Margolis: It’s a constant fight to control market share and keep artist guarantees at a level that we can handle and yet keep ticket prices from escalating beyond what a fan wants to pay. We are continually looking for markets that aren’t controlled by a major promoter or a promoter that was just absorbed and now has the dollars behind them to over pay – those markets are disappearing like the ice caps. … Breaking an artist and moving them up through clubs to arenas has become almost impossible now. All that said, we do business (co-promote, etc.) with the majors all the time, it’s just about finding the right deal that makes sense for everyone.

Michael Dorf: City Winery has a unique position in the venue offerings which kind of shields us from the challenges of competition against Live Nation and AEG. Lucky for us, we have carved out a niche of 300-capacity, sit-down, high-end concert spaces that those two major promoters have not (yet) decided to engage in. … However, in general, there is no question that the artist talent fees continue to rise which affects us given the competitive consolidation and thus, in our attempt to keep ticket prices reasonable for our audience, we work hard to keep that balance. 

Jen Lyon: The constant challenge is how to find the right show to play in an independent venue that feels great all around. When I first started, an interesting room like Joe’s Pub or a DIY space would beat out a cookie-cutter major promoter room, but now artists have to engage earlier with major promoters’ venues to make their way to Coachella.

Alex Hodges, Nederlander Concerts: There has always been intense competition, especially in Los Angeles, but we face the challenge of more block booking or tour buying than in prior years. Also, date availability is much harder these days since a lot of venues are following the “open” venue model. This creates less transparency with the venue calendars, requiring us to challenge more dates. The open venue model is tough for everyone, not only affecting promoters but also artists and agents for knowledge of conflicting shows in the same time span.

Ric Leichtung: As the major promoters microscale into smaller rooms, it creates history and a path for growth that leads directly into their larger clubs, theatres, and arenas. It compels agents to put the bands they have the most potential with the larger promoters, which causes local promoters have to fight harder and over-offer to stay in the game. 

Alex Hodges, Nederlander Concerts
– Alex Hodges, Nederlander Concerts
What are the advantages of being an indie promoter in today’s live market?

Danny Zelisko:
The positives are you’re dealing directly with the act and their management and their agent. I’m finding I can make deeper friendships with them because I’m willing to go just about anywhere they’re willing to go. There’s a lot of really great cities in this country that are underserviced.   

Rick Bartalini: In our case, since we are an independent promoter, we’re closer to the front lines and thus also closer to every detail of the date. The financial scale is very different for independent than for global promoters – and it’s much more personal, too. It’s that financial commitment that drives the success. If you spoke to any of the artists we’ve worked with they would tell you how hands-on we are. It’s my feeling that the fans can pick up on that as well.

LadyFag: Being independent means I can do what I want and not have to fill quotas. I make decisions based on what I think will be the best experience for my guest, not just based on how much income it brings in, or about fulfilling obligations to multi-play contracts. While I’m thinking about growth and scalability, I’m not hindered by someone else’s agenda. 

Phil Pirrone: Desert Daze is its own little island in a bubble. We’re incredibly fortunate. Our advantages are the result of our independent spirit and strong identity, which is facilitated completely by the growing international community that is Desert Daze. 

Michael Dorf, City Winery
– Michael Dorf, City Winery
Michael Dorf: I think simply the advantage is not having the association of being part of one of the large 900-pound gorillas (which is not necessarily that bad anyway), but to keep an independent vibe and feel. Having control of your ticketing, of your destiny, is helpful. But balanced against being one of the large promoters also offers many strategic advantages and for regular promoters, it must be hard unless you achieve a certain level of scale, like Seth Hurwitz or Jam Productions. But to be a real indie promoter today renting theaters and putting on shows trying to compete with LN or AEG, that has got to be hard. I am glad City Winery is not a regular indie promoter. 

Steve Sternschein: We can move fast. We care more and work harder because we have to to survive. We build deeper relationships with our audience and our partners (artists, agents, etc.) and have more leeway in terms of how we structure those relationships. We do not have to be fully driven by “creating shareholder value.” We identify and nurture artists before anyone else has heard of or booked them in the market because we have to take bigger risks to keep the lights on.  

Ladyfag, Ladyland festival
– Ladyfag, Ladyland festival

Jen Lyon: Freedom to make choices based on creativity and passion every moment of the day. 

Alex Hodges: Focus – we have adjusted our skills and developed better strategies to expand our reach in various markets. Since we do not buy the entire tour, marketing shows is critical, and we are laser-focused on how to spend money best. Flexibility – with our expanded reach, we are more knowledgeable about multiple markets which has helped in our routing capabilities. We have also discovered a lot of venues are underserved, thus creating more opportunities for Nederlander.

Ric Leichtung: Independent promoters cannot survive without being incredibly good at what they do. Their struggle becomes their strength, and it pushes them to be more nimble and go above and beyond for everyone. Also, indies are more tied in with the local community, so their shows can perform better on a smaller scale— if they can get them.

Would you ever consider selling or merging with a larger company?

Danny Zelisko: The short answer is yes – under the right terms. Pretty much everything’s for sale. But I would never want to go back to a situation where you feel like a clerk – it isn’t your money. That’s the bottom line about the independent part of it. If it works, you’re as happy as can be and if it doesn’t, you’ve learned yet another lesson. 

Rick Bartalini, Rick Bartalini Presents
– Lionel Richie and Rick Bartalini of Rick Bartalini Presents

Rick Bartalini: No. It’s just not who we are or what we do.

Nick Checota: We have been approached by one of the large, national promoters, but at this time have decided that our customers, artists, agents and community are best served by a local, Montana-based company that is owned and operated in the communities in which we promote and produce shows.

Michael Jaworek: Only if we absolutely had to do so to survive. 

Morgan Margolis: We’ve gone down this road in the past and it almost happened, but for various reasons it did not. It’s not my primary strategy at the moment. Our aim is to be a self-sustaining entertainment company and to move from a mini to a major player … but never say never.

Ric Leichtung, AdHoc Presents
Ethan Hill
– Ric Leichtung, AdHoc Presents

Steve Sternschein: Our mission is to empower the artists we love and the musical communities we are a part of, in addition to obviously providing a return for our investors and partners so if a sale or a merger will further those goals, then we would consider it.

Ric Leichtung: Ultimately indie promoters are working within the system that’s been established by the major ones. It’s tough to compete, and I don’t think there’s any shame in siding with companies that have tremendous advantages. Personally, I couldn’t put a price that’d come close to the amount of work I’ve poured into AdHoc.