CHICAGO – Jerry Mickelson is perched in the tiny promoters’ office in the bowels of the Riviera Theatre, a 105-year-old building. Upstairs, the sound of production equipment rolling across the stage floor can be heard as crews set up for that night’s Tash Sultana concert.
The overhead vibrations are a perfect accompaniment to the conversation as Mickelson discusses his 50 years as a promoter and owner of Jam Productions, and the future of Chicago’s very own live entertainment provider.
“Fifty years flew by,” he said. “I never imagined that it would pass so quickly and never thought about what it would be like to still be here in a business that we all love. We’ve gone through many changes since we started in 1972 and today, it’s a whole different business. You fly by the seat of your pants a lot and use common sense. If I continued to operate the same way we did back then, I’d be a dinosaur and left behind.”
Back then, in the stone age of the concert biz, so to speak, it was a new frontier for Mickelson and Arny Granat, his longtime partner in Jam, to conquer in the heart of the Midwest. The story of how Jam Productions was formed and its impressive run is a piece of industry folklore with a touch of serendipity thrown in the mix.
Their fathers played gin rummy together as part of a larger group on Friday nights and knew their sons were trying to figure out what to do with their lives. Mickelson was in college at Ohio State and had friends working with Jimmy Koplik, another veteran promoter, when Koplik was an OSU student booking shows in Columbus.
Mickelson liked what he saw and decided to become a promoter. His father suggested forming a partnership with his card playing buddy’s son. Granat, a Michigan State graduate, was back in Chicago, managing musician Gerry “The Human Jukebox” Grossman (still performing today) and writing and producing local television shows.
They met over the phone during a conference call and worked as security guards at the Aragon Ballroom in the early stages of their partnership.
“We finally met in person and had to name the company,” Granat said during an interview at his downtown Chicago office. “We sat around smoking a joint. I said, ‘How about something musical like Jam and we can change it later?’ People wondered what Jam stood for. Jewish American Mafia? Jerry and Arny’s Money? No, it was just Jam.”
In those early years, concert promoters across the country formed their own regional territories to do business. The model was driven in part by Frank Barsalona, the pioneering talent agent who represented most of the big touring acts, including the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who, U2, Van Halen and Bruce Springsteen.
“He would pick individual promoters in markets; it was like the mob without violence and Frank was The Don,” Granat said. “Luckily, we had Chicago, because it was a big territory. It worked and we created the concert business.”
It wasn’t that easy, according to Mickelson.
In Chicago, Triangle Talent’s Frank Fried was the big promoter in town and Howard Stein, based in New York, booked some shows as well. For upstart Jam Productions, it was difficult at first to break through, so they turned their attention to throwing shows in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, Nebraska and downstate Illinois, which is basically everything south of Chicago.
At the same time, Granat and Mickelson formed a strategy focused on establishing relationships with emerging bands playing clubs in Greater Chicago such as the Ivanhoe Theatre, B’Ginnings and Alice’s Revisited, three venues no longer in existence. Those club owners weren’t necessarily interested in growing artists’ careers, providing a window of opportunity for the young entrepreneurs.
“The clubs were a model we thought we should get into,” Mickelson said. “That way, if we have a club and take the act before they open for a competitor’s show, we’ll build the relationship. That’s what started us. We developed the farm system for talent before others started doing it. That’s what keeps us here today, the fact that our small venues keep the Indians from surrounding the wagon train.”
Over the years, Jam Productions forged strong relationships and took control of multiple Chicago venues, some of which Mickelson individually has an ownership stake: the Riviera Theatre, Uptown Theatre, Park West and The Vic. All four, including the Uptown which has been closed since 1981, are part of historic structures built between 1912 to 1925. Mickelson and his building partners are doing their best to keep them intact as part of Jam’s legacy.
In 1980, the concert landscape expanded locally when the Rosemont Horizon, now Allstate Arena, opened in the shadows of O’Hare International Airport. The 18,500-capacity facility owned by the village of Rosemont provided Jam with a modern arena to book shows apart from the International Amphitheatre and Chicago Stadium, which was torn down after United Center opened in 1994.
Pat Nagle, executive director of Allstate Arena, started working at the facility in 1989 as an accountant and knew nothing about the Industry.
As finance director, he gravitated to booking shows at the arena, working closely with Jam to secure major tours.
“They taught me the ropes and helped me figure out what was really going on in the world of live entertainment; how to make money and make sure the bands were happy,” Nagle said. “They hustled and built up a big company. They were the ‘Live Nation’ before there was a Live Nation, where they owned everything in this town.”
In 1990, Jam Productions was part of the development team behind the opening of the World Music Theatre, an amphitheater in Tinley Park, Illinois, a south Chicago suburb. The 28,000-
capacity World became one of the country’s biggest sheds and further solidified Jam’s presence and influence in the market.
To that point, Poplar Creek Music Theatre, run by The Nederlander Organization, was the only amphitheater in town. Poplar Creek was built on property owned by Sears & Roebuck Co., part of its corporate headquarters in Hoffman Estates, a northwest suburb. Granat had a hunch that Sears would eventually close the venue, which it did in 1994, due in part to competing with the World for shows.
Looking back, the project was behind schedule as officials scrambled to get the amphitheater ready in time for the summer season of ’90, recalls Steve Peters, owner and founder of VenuWorks, a facility management firm.
At that time, Peters worked for the old Ogden Entertainment, which ran the World in the early 1990s. Peters, Brad Mayne, now IAVM’s president and CEO, and Terry Barnes, who would go on to become chairman of Ticketmaster, were all attaching numbers to seats at the last minute to get the place open.
“It had been raining like crazy that summer and none of the parking lots were paved yet and were flooded,” Peters said. “We couldn’t get everybody parked and Deadheads literally closed down I-80 by parking on the side of the highway and walking to the building.”
Inside, the grass berm that served as lawn seating wasn’t fully enclosed yet and there was a chain link fence at the top of the hill where a high wall would typically form a secured perimeter. It was difficult trying to keep the fence from getting torn down by Deadheads trying to crash the party, Peters said.
“On the second night, I don’t know where Arny and Jerry found these guys, but they had eight Dobermans on leashes and if you wanted to get back up to that chain link fence, you had to get through those dogs,” he said. “It was pretty funny, nobody was going to do that.”
All told, Peters enjoyed a long relationship with Jam Productions, starting at the Five Flags Center in Dubuque, Iowa, to Hilton Coliseum in Ames, Iowa, which stood as the state’s main concert venue for years until Five Seasons Center opened in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1979.
“They brought us a ton of shows,” said Mayne, who with Ogden ran the Five Seasons Center from 1989-91. “We came up with a few ideas of how to make additional dollars with the hotel attached to the arena, putting VIP packages together. We marked the price up and Jam agreed with us that we could do that. Some promoters would say, ‘We’re doing it, not you.’ Our partnership was incredible.”
Tammy Koolbeck, now VenuWorks’ executive director of the Iowa State Center in Ames, worked at Five Seasons Center, now Alliant Energy PowerHouse, a 10,000-seater that was one of the few arenas that did general admission rock shows in the 1980s and ’90s.
Koolbeck went back in the archives and the numbers show Jam Productions promoted 93% of the arena’s rock concerts in the ’80s and 60% of all shows over the decade. In the ’90s, Jam promoted 88% of rock shows and 43% of all concerts at the Eastern Iowa venue, about a four-hour drive west of Chicago.
“Those are amazing percentages,” Koolbeck said.”They certainly put Five Seasons Center on the map and kept us on the map.”
For Jam Productions, numbers across the board for arena shows would drop substantially after the late 1990s consolidation of about a dozen regional promoters by SFX Entertainment, which became Clear Channel Entertainment, and ultimately Live Nation in a 2005 spinoff. Granat and Mickelson were among the few promoters nationally that stood their ground and didn’t sell to SFX.
Twenty-five years later, they don’t regret it despite competing against the 800-pound gorilla that Live Nation became after merging with Ticketmaster in 2010. The consolidation, spearheaded by Robert Sillerman, head of SFX, was largely driven by the real estate component and the acquisition of amphitheaters controlled by independent promoters.
“We were the second or third promoter to be approached after Delsener and Sunshine sold,” Granat said. “We had a lot of partners at the World and that was the cash cow that he was paying for, the outdoor venues. By the time we got an offer, it was not worth what it should’ve been. It was conflictual with our other partners.”
(Years later, Live Nation acquired the Tinley Park venue and operates it today).
“Bottom line, we didn’t sell,” Granat said. “Jerry and I didn’t want to look in the mirror and see a bookkeeper looking over our shoulders, concerned about profit margins. We’re riverboat gamblers; I’ve got enough problems looking at myself when I lose.”
Mickelson feels the same way. Colleagues such as Jack Boyle, Don Law, Jimmy Koplik, Irv Zuckerman and Dave Lucas all got a big paycheck after selling to SFX, but many of them disappeared after five years, he said.
“For me, it’s not about the paycheck,” Mickelson said. “We made the right move. The best thing was to say no. Otherwise, I don’t know what I’d be doing right now.”
What they’re doing now is staying the course as independents and picking their spots to generate revenue and maintain that creative spark. In 2019, Granat parted ways amicably with Mickelson and now produces a circus, and a light show spectacular, in addition to promoting some concerts.
Mickelson remains the face of Jam Productions, whose core talent buyers Nick Miller, Andy Cirzan and Andrew Kaplan, among others, have all been with the company for the better part of 30 years.
In April, Jam took on a new partner with SaveLive, a company formed in 2020 to invest in and help grow business for independent promoters and venues. SaveLive will provide capital for future Jam projects, Mickelson said, without giving specific details.
“It’s reinvigorating for everybody,” he said. “SaveLive brings a lot of things to the table, whether it’s technology for accounting, new point-of-sale systems for our venues and best practices across a number of levels.”
Fromer WME head of music Marc Geiger, SaveLive’s chairman and CEO, is looking forward to it. He’s done business with Jam since the mid-1980s when he was a booking agent working Chicago and the upper Midwest.
“Arny and Jerry have lasted in a very difficult game for generations,” Geiger said. “There’s few independents with their sense of ethics. It’s like a great record store that wants to stay true to its musical roots.”
For Granat and Mickelson, those roots run deep. The word retirement isn’t in their vocabulary.
“I’d bet on two ants crossing the road if it made financial sense,” Granat said. “I’d roll the dice; that’s what we do.”