Gary Smith Rides Into The Sunset After 38 Years Leading Pollstar

Gary Smith and Rob Light
Courtesy Gary Smith
– Gary Smith and Rob Light
WHEN WE WERE KIDS: CAA Head of Music Rob Light (R) and Pollstar CEO Gary Smith pause for a snap at the 21st Pollstar Awards at what is now the Microsoft Theater at L.A. Live Feb. 17, 2010. CAA would go on to win Booking Agency of the Year.

Gary Smith remembers being in a Bakersfield, Calif., hotel room in June 1968 with Jim Morrison. This, after The Doors had played a show at the Civic Auditorium across the street. Morrison was staring intently at a black and white television with the sound turned off and reciting poetry.
“It was a local, late-night movie,” Pollstar’s future chief executive officer recalls. “There was this party going on around him; all kinds of girls, the things you expect at a party after a show. Bill Siddons (the band’s then-road manager) was there. Morrison is staring at this TV set, improvising his own story and literally talking to the TV and ignoring everything going on around him.
Gary Smith
Courtesy Gary Smith
– Gary Smith
Gary Smith as a concert promoter in 1974. During that year, he’d produce a national tour for The Guess Who and meet their agent, Gary Bongiovanni, with whom Smith would join in 1981 to create Pollstar.

“He’d driven his own Mustang GT up to Bakersfield from L.A., and left the next morning. He drove out to the desert and got lost – Bill had to go out there and find him,” Smith says, laughing at the memory.
Smith was relatively new to the concert industry and traveling the country promoting concerts. He later met a talent agent with Heller-Fischel Agency in Los Angeles named Gary Bongiovanni, who was booking The Guess Who during its Burton Cummings/Randy Bachman-fronted heyday.
At that time, Smith was a partner in Fresno, Calif.-based PAPA Productions promoting a national tour for The Guess Who. The agency also represented a rapidly developing act known as the Average White Band that Smith would soon become directly involved with as a management associate.
The two Garys would maintain a professional relationship for several more years until the stars aligned and Bongiovanni moved to Fresno to establish a Student Union program and spring festival called Vintage Days at Fresno State University. Smith, a one-time local basketball star, had returned to the city after touring for a number of years directing the national tours for AWB.  
Pollstar was nearly two years in the planning stages before going from a kitchen table idea to printing its first issue in 1982, using an IBM Selectric typewriter and a dot matrix printer to produce pages that would have holes punched in them, mailed First Class and added to a binder by a subscriber. 
“I was from Fresno, and Gary [Bongiovanni] was not,” Smith says of their early relationship working somewhat opposing ends of the industry as agent and concert promoter. “But because of our backgrounds in the music industry, we were very familiar with each other.”
Smith got interested in the concert business the way a lot of kids did back then – by distributing handbills in exchange for free concert tickets. 
He’d also been an athlete, playing baseball and spending two seasons on his high school’s basketball team that went undefeated in 1967 and won a championship his senior year. It earned what Smith calls a “mini scholarship” – not much more than books and tuition – at Fresno State, where he played briefly before an auto accident changed the direction of his life.
“I wasn’t able to play after that,” Smith explains. “That’s how I was able to get into the music business. 
Gary Smith and Elton John
Courtesy Gary Smith
– Gary Smith and Elton John
Gary Smith presents Elton John with the Rocketman’s 1998 Top Grossing Tour Of The Year award.

“I could no longer play sports and at the same time the music business was really developing in the late 1960s. I attended some of the first rock concerts that were put on when the Fresno Convention Center was built – shows like Janis Joplin.”
He went from passing out those handbills to working backstage at local shows and soon promoting concerts – not that there was a high bar of entry at the time.
“It was not a very sophisticated business in those days and kind of anybody could get in. If you could write a check, you could get in the business – and the check didn’t even have to be any good,” Smith says, laughing. “If anything, it was kind of a shady business in the early days.”
Gary Smith
Courtesy Gary Smith
– Gary Smith
Up, Up and Away: Gary Smith prepares to take a spin with the Blue Angels in 1988. Despite reaching 7.2 Gs, he says he “didn’t pass out.”
He got a summer job with Jim Pagni, the owner of James C. Pagni Productions in San Diego, who Smith calls “the Bill Graham of San Diego.” Pagni was a major promoter, well-established and reputable, and Smith learned the business quickly.
“The first summer that I was in San Diego I did all the shows they did there and that included Hendrix, Joplin, the Doors, The Animals, the Grateful Dead. I hadn’t even been working with those guys a month and they sent me out on the road and one of the first shows I did on my own was the Grateful Dead in Phoenix. I continued doing shows in Bakersfield, Fresno, Sacramento, Phoenix, and all the shows in the San Diego market.”
Gary Smith and Taylor Swift
Courtesy Gary Smith
– Gary Smith and Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift hangs out with Gary Smith backstage at the 21st Pollstar Awards at the Nokia (now Microsoft) Theater in Los Angeles Feb. 17, 2010.

He left Pagni Productions and struck out on his own, promoting concerts and putting his college background in sound engineering to work for bands in San Francisco, eventually becoming a management associate for Average White Band and coordinating national tours. While Smith was in Fresno during a break from AWB, Bongiovanni moved to Fresno to work for the university. Smith was making life changes, too.

“I got married and Gary B. proposed a startup that became Pollstar. Originally, it was called Promoters On Line Listings (P.O.L.L., and the “star” was added later). I consulted for about a year before we published,” Smith says. “I believed in the idea of Pollstar.” 
Smith decided to remain in Fresno, where his wife had a business, and dive into business with Bongiovanni.
“We didn’t have any money and it was very slow going. Gary and I thought we’d be killing it in two or three years. As it turned out, we didn’t make a penny for the first five years; we barely survived. After five years, we passed the survival point; revenues were going up, but it was still a struggle as a startup. There were times Gary and I didn’t pay ourselves. We made payroll for the staff, but there were different times where Gary and I had to skip a check for a month or more.
“Gary B. continued to work for Fresno State for the first year. We had a used mini-computer with maybe 10 megabytes of storage. Then we went to 20 MBs of storage. Then we went up to 50 MBs. There was no word processing then. Five years in, we got a fax machine. When personal computers came along, that changed everything.”
Bongiovanni, who retired from Pollstar in 2018, described the inauspicious beginnings similarly.
“It occurred to me that the use of computers could really help provide some useful, quantitative tools for what had basically been just a gut-feeling way of making big-money business decisions. I didn’t know anything about computers, but after working on both the talent-selling and talent-buying ends of the business, I knew that everyone had a need for better information and I was going to try and fill it,” Bongiovanni wrote of Pollstar’s humble beginnings.
“It was a struggle to survive back in the beginning. I’d be lying if I didn’t say there were some really lean years early on. I have to stop and give credit to Gary Smith for hanging in there with me … his contributions have been an enormous part of our success.”
Between Smith and Bongiovanni, there was a knowledge base of virtually every facet of the live business. Other trade publications, like Billboard and Performance magazines, would report top box office reports, but not much more data.
“What made Pollstar unique was that we were able to produce tour histories,” Smith says. “Gary B. was meticulous about accuracy and detail and making sure everything was correct. If someone submitted a box office report that we suspected was phony, we would cross check it against another source. We had maybe six to eight employees. We were creating a quality product that was timely, and we were small and quick on our feet.”
And, thanks to the relationships they’d spent the previous decade building, they had support from agents, promoters and venues. 
Gary Smith and Poison
Courtesy Gary Smith
– Gary Smith and Poison
Poison stops by an early Pollstar office for a visit in 1985. One wall banner has the company’s original P.O.L.L. (Promoters On Line Listings) logo.

“Jack Boyle, Ron Delsener, the majors were supportive subscribers and reporting box office to us. Bill Graham and Avalon Attractions were reporters early on. We were in the same time zone and had good communication with the agents in L.A. Agents like Marc Geiger and Rob Light were coming up then; Tom Ross had started up CAA’s music department by the late 1980s,” Smith explains. “Tom, Rob, Hal Lazareff, all of those guys were supportive of us. We supported them and their artist itineraries and they trusted us to report their box office accurately.”
Smith and Bongiovanni were not only innovative in creating a media resource for the live business, but a combination of prescience and circumstance combined to keep their endeavor going through challenging times. 
Over the years, rival publications Performance and Amusement Business went out of print while Pollstar continued growing. 
“In the 1980s and ‘90s, tech and tours changed. Tours were getting bigger, production was getting bigger, ticket prices were going up – business was very robust in those years and we continued to grow. 
“Then consolidation came along and changed everything drastically; things became more corporate but more sophisticated than ever and the data became more valuable than ever,” Smith says. 
“By the time we were 10-15 years old, we were very well established and entrenched.”
In 1990, Smith secured the sponsorship of Radio City Productions and the first live Pollstar Awards were handed out in New York City in a first-class Radio City Music Hall show that further set Pollstar apart from the pack. Three years later, Pollstar produced the first Concert Industry Consortium gathering of about 500 industry pros (only 350 had been budgeted for) at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. 
The conference rebranded as Pollstar Live! in 2010 and continues to grow, drawing more than 2,000 to its 2019 iteration at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Gary Smith
Courtesy Gary Smith
– Gary Smith
What does one do when they retire? Take the Bonanza for a quick flight to Lake Tahoe.

Smith cites industry consolidation of the mid-to late 1990s and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as particularly difficult times for the business. Yet, at the same time, Napster had unleashed disruption in the record business – which only now appears to be recovering.
“We were going on 25 years. The business was all about radio and records, and the live business was the redheaded stepchild before then,” Smith says.
The bursting of the internet bubble and the financial crisis of 2008-09 presented other challenges. By then, Pollstar was licensing data to companies, many of which went out of business. “We were supporters of ArtistDirect, which went public,” Smith says. “Marc Geiger, who founded it and is now Head of Music for WME, was ahead of his time. 
“We invested. We survived. What goes up, comes down and goes back up again; it’s all a cycle.”
As is life. Bongiovanni, Smith and Pollstar’s ownership group sold the publication to Oak View Group in August, 2017. Bongiovanni retired June 30, 2018. Smith follows one year later.  
What had started as a tip sheet by a couple of guys at a kitchen table has become a glossy international trade leader with more than 12,000 concert industry professionals subscribing. It outgrew three leased office spaces and employed a staff of about 60 at its peak, doing business in a 15,996-square-foot office and warehouse that it owned.
Smith’s career path grew as well, including professional memberships and positions on the boards of directors of the Academy of Country Music and the International Entertainment Buyers Association, as well as serving on the Board of Governors of EBC (
He’s also got a love of flying he’s been able to indulge, and realized a dream when he took a flight with the Blue Angels in 1988.
 Pollstar’s Gary Smith with the Fantasy Camp counselors.
Barry Brecheisen
– Pollstar’s Gary Smith with the Fantasy Camp counselors.
Gary Smith hangs out with David Fishoff (3rd from L) and the Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy Camp counselors in 2013.

For Smith, retirement doesn’t mean he’s going to stop working. He says he can’t. 
“It’s in my blood,” he explains. “I’ll end up doing something, I’ll guarantee that. Hopefully something that’s interesting, whether it’s consulting, or possibly management. 
“I’ve been involved in booking, promoting and management, starting at a very early age. I’ve done it all, from the time I was in college to the time we started Pollstar,” Smith says. “I’m taking [retirement] one day at a time. I don’t know how to stop. But I’m enjoying the freedom. 
“Even as an owner of the company, and being my own boss, I was married to it. I couldn’t just do what I wanted. It’s that thing you are drawn to and it’s hard to pull away,” Smith says. 
 He says he has contemplated a move to Nashville where he mentions good friends like CAA’s Rod Essig and Live Nation’s Sally Williams and her husband, Brad Bissell. But he’s made no plans to leave Fresno as of yet.
“My closest friends in the music business are in Nashville. There would be opportunities there. But I could live in Nashville, easily. Time will tell.”