Q’s With: Lobeline Founder Phil Lobel Expands Company With Immersion In Tech

Team Lobeline
Brian To
– Team Lobeline
obeline Communications Founder and Chairman (Center) Phil Lobel, flanked by partners Miguel Costa, president (L) and CEO Jamie Hurley (R), head a rapid expansion of the company founded more than 30 years ago combining Lobel

Phil Lobel, founder and chairman of PR mainstay Lobeline Communications, has seen his share of changes in the live entertainment industry, starting with his own transformation from a college talent buyer at the University of Colorado in Boulder to concert promoter to leading publicist. But after more than 40 years in the business, when others might consider retirement, he’s gone yet another way – teaming with two young guns from Canada to transform his company and bring what had been a traditional PR firm into the digital age.

While live entertainment was mostly sidelined because of the COVID pandemic, Lobeline Communications dove into marketing a production of Immersive Van Gogh that, with the use of animation and massive projections, along with technology that adapts to the whims of regional rules about social distancing and other restrictions, brings Vincent Van Gogh’s art to life in a new way and created a blockbuster that was able to sell tickets when other box offices were closed.
Pollstar: You started out at the University of Colorado and worked with legendary Denver promoter Barry Fey, but went into public relations and marketing with a smash right out of the gate. Tell us what happened.
Phil Lobel: In 1986 I got my lucky break with Rob Kahane and Michael Lippman calling me about a client going solo, and that client was George Michael. It was the “Faith” tour. We had something like six No. 1 hit singles and my career as a publicist took off in 1988. The rest is history, from David Copperfield, the Blue Man Group to Van Morrison to Nickelodeon to everything else that I’ve ever done.
You’re now working with Jamie Hurley and Miguel Costa, who made their bones in the digital world. What made you decide to partner with them?

I was a traditional publicist and realized over the last few years with mergers and  social media that I needed that other world, that other universe, and Miguel and Jamie popped into my life and one thing led to another. And here we are, global in communications, in four cities, with 50 employees all over the country, growing and signing more people every week. I attribute that to Jamie’s and Miguel’s efforts and Canadian people skills. And they had a social media marketing firm. 
The three of you decided to partner on the business just before COVID, and now the company is bigger than ever. How did you pull that off?

We went into this whole thing  90 days before COVID hit. I was lucky enough to have this deal done and lucky enough to have ingenious partners that suddenly, with all the music disappearing and the tours disappearing – my lifeblood – that knew how to finance and work the government loans and bailouts and also retool, regroup and pivot to a new direction so that we could survive and grow through COVID.  Now we’re back to signing music business and tours and events. Immersive Van Gogh is a $300 million project in North America, a Rolling Stones-sized gross. And these current music projects are developing thanks to relationships I’ve had for decades.  
Immersive Van Gogh had already been a hit in Paris. How did you convince the creators to bring it to North America?

Corey  [Ross, one of the creators of Immersive Van Gogh of StarVox, Toronto] called about this Van Gogh exhibit. … He talked to one of the key creators, Massimiliano Siccardi – who had gone off on his own – about doing it in North America, and while the original group was not keen to the idea, Massimiliano was. 
Corey had this whole plan ready to open in Toronto. Millions of dollars were sunk into the event and COVID hit. He thought he was going to go bankrupt. Instead, he found a venue in Toronto – the old Toronto newspaper building with a loading dock. And he opened with people riding through the exhibit in their cars.
It was a huge success and he recouped his millions of dollars. Then he moved it to a walk-through venue. And then, unfortunately, COVID surged again, and he had to close. But by then he was setting up his operation in cities all over the U.S. And we had cities with venues we didn’t yet know. But he put Immersive Van Gogh out there with a massive digital campaign, and went on sale in North America. 
People were desperate to buy tickets and money started flowing in rapidly. I’m not sure we would have been this huge success had it not been for COVID and nothing on sale in North America except Immersive Van Gogh, which is fascinating.
The show has social distancing built in with projected circles that act as pods. Did that comfort zone help ticket sales?  
Yes. I think it was an important factor for the audience and also health officials – another stroke of genius by Corey. The audience feels more comfortable with these circles, like, “I’m buying this ticket to beat COVID.” And then they go, “Oh, wow, I have my own circle, my own family, my own pod.” And that circle is protection. They looked at it as a protective zone for them. And that really helped ticket sales.
But publicizing and marketing a show is definitely different, thanks to the digital world including social media, than it was for you starting out.
I used to idolize and worship Paul Bloch and all those people that were the old timers at Rogers & Cowan. And then, first the passing of Paul, and a lot of the big firms just kind of merged or disappeared. And suddenly I look back over my shoulder and it is now us in that position. And it’s kind of trippy. I’m so lucky that I have a team that’s half my age with the energy that can carry on.
You’ve spent much of your career in Denver, which, as we know, has long been a great and also very competitive music market. There must be a lot of stories.
I was doing Dan Fogelberg at the University of Colorado in 1976. There was a reporter there from the Colorado Daily there who wanted to speak to Dan. Suddenly this guy pops into my office backstage and goes, “I’m Irving Azoff, I’m Dan’s manager. Any requests for him go through me.” And I said, “Oh hi, nice to meet you!”
You’re also close to Chuck Morris, who also worked with Barry Fey and headed AEG Presents Rocky Mountains. You both have crossed paths with some legends and witnessed an amazing period in Denver’s music history.
The amazing thing is that Chuck can be so warm and cuddly with everybody, like Irving Azoff and Jay Marciano and Phil Anschutz all at the same time. I’ve had a long relationship with Jay – the first concert that Jay ever promoted was when I was a student at the University of Colorado. He came to me with the opportunity in the fall of 1976 to do the Jazz Crusaders, who hated Barry [Fey]. And it was for my homecoming concert. Jay’s first concert he ever did in his life was with me, and he sold out and decided, “I think I want to do this for a living.”