Pollstar At 40: Celebrating Four Decades Of Innovation & Change
Pollstar founder Gary Bongiovanni would walk through the doors of the Fresno doctor’s office where he shared space – and a mini-computer – with a pathologist back in 1981 and often see his office-mate working on her trade.
“She spent her time in the office looking at slices of body parts, on slides,” Bongiovanni says of Pollstar’s inauspicious beginning. “We actually shared a receptionist, until I hired one and she answered the phone for the doctor as well.”
In a way, all those years ago, the Fresno pathologist and the erstwhile publisher shared a trait – instead of slicing body tissue samples to examine under a microscope, Bongiovanni would come to realize that data could also be sliced and diced, examined and analyzed to provide a valuable service that didn’t exist at that time.
He had an idea for a business that would provide accurate box office reports and agency information to concert promoters called Promoters On-Line Listings – POLL – the company that would be the precursor to global concert industry trade bible Pollstar, now celebrating 40 years of publication.
Now, as it was then, data is king. Over 40 years, the means of collecting, storing, analyzing and disseminating information has seen profound change – from uploading data via dialup service Dialcom using a Radio Shack TRS-80 coupler and a telephone receiver to the Data Cloud, able to process millions of bytes of data in seconds. But Pollstar data, especially its trusted, verified and accurate data, remains the gold standard by which the concert industry operates.
So successful was Bongiovanni’s idea that, by 2017, Oak View Group, now Pollstar’s parent company and co-founded by Tim Leiweke and early Pollstar supporter and investor Irving Azoff, acquired the company from Bongiovanni and Smith. OVG continues to expand the publication from the most humble of beginnings into a future with no limits.
Bongiovanni and Gary Smith, who had promoted concerts for some of Bongiovanni’s clients, including The Guess Who, saw the value in providing such box office and directory information to promoters and volunteered his own time and effort working phones and researching the most up-to-date information and creating an electronic database – the first of its kind – to store and update that data.
“Having been involved in the industry directly through the ’70s and into the ’80s, we knew that the business world understood it and we were on the same page with our awareness and understanding,” Smith says of Pollstar’s roots. “In fact, Gary [Bongiovanni] never toured, but I did. I knew what touring was about and I knew the buildings and promoters and Gary knew the agents from having been one, and he also had been a promoter.”
The two of them eventually formed a partnership and a sobriquet – “The Garys” – that endures. They used their professional relationships to convince promoters to report their box office results – subject to verification, of course – in the interest of providing an accurate snapshot of the viability of Artist X in Market Y at Venue Z.
Agents agreed to provide tour itineraries for their artists as well as availabilities in order that promoters and talent buyers could fill their calendars, not just for superstar tours – those didn’t need the help, anyway – but to help book clubs, theaters, fairs, smaller arenas and college venues from major to the smallest tertiary markets.
Such an endeavor, at first, required trust – agents and promoters alike can be reticent to volunteer proprietary information like ticket sales, future bookings and contact information. Other trade publications of the day shared small amounts of such information, but usually only for major tours and rarely, if at all, vetted for accuracy.
“The key thing about Gary [Bongiovanni] was his commitment to getting to the truth and getting real box office figures and not getting bullshit,” Smith says. “And we verified information and had a basic discipline – Gary had that discipline to not be influenced. We didn’t take advertising at the beginning. The fact that we didn’t take advertising meant we weren’t going to be influenced if an agency advertised. We knew how important the real truth was to the promoters, agents and managers.
“Gary had that sense of integrity and that discipline, which I believe in, and I understood it,” Smith emphasizes. “We were good at what we did and nobody else was doing that. Performance didn’t do it. Amusement Business didn’t do it. Billboard didn’t do it.”
Two of those rival trade publications ultimately didn’t survive Pollstar’s entry into the market. But getting a successful enterprise off the ground took help – one can’t pay the rent, phone bill or postage with integrity alone.
In 1982, with the help of investment from friends like major promoters Bill Graham of Bill Graham Presents, Brian Murphy of Avalon Attractions and others, a newsletter was developed and mailed to a small group of subscribers, containing tour itineraries, avails, and contact information. It would expand to include short items about comings and goings, artist signings and other newsy information of interest to a growing readership.
In the early 1980s, subscribership was pegged at about 200, according to Bongiovanni and Smith. Within a year, it grew to more than 300. Eventually, the POLL newsletter would morph into a magazine, Pollstar. Within a decade, the pair would develop a limited partnership, the Concert Industry Consortium, annual industry awards and a conference that changed everything.
The first Pollstar Awards were determined by Pollstar readers and printed in the newsletter. But the equally entrepreneurial-minded Ed Micone, then a VP of Radio City Entertainment in New York City, saw an opportunity to rejuvenate Radio City Music Hall’s somewhat dreary programming. He reached out to the Garys, offering them the venue and his services to produce an in-person award ceremony, which took place on Jan. 16, 1990 with Penn Jillette hosting and the world famous Rockettes performing.
“When I worked at Radio City in ’89, the job was to expand,” Micone explains. “I was in the business and saw no reason not to do so. I’m not knocking it, but we wanted to [book artists in to Radio City Music Hall] that were a little more contemporary. And what better way than to tie it to Pollstar? The Rolling Stone of venues and promoters! It was a leap of faith on both sides, and I think it was awesome.”
Nearly a decade in, Pollstar’s reputation for accurate, timely information was not lost on Micone or his contemporaries.
“It was always reliable. And that’s what made it so special,” Micone, now heading Micone Entertainment Group and managing Broadway’s Kristen Chenoweth, says. “I think the key is your promoters. You’re looking to see what the box office is. You can see where ticket prices were going and see what they grossed. It’s still the Bible around Vegas. You make a phone call and you know that its information is still up to date.”
The first Pollstar Awards took place with about 200-250 in attendance, filling only about the first few rows of Radio City Music Hall. But Micone had the Rockettes, his venue staff uniformed to the nines, and a catered party. It was a success for both Pollstar and Radio City Music Hall, and continues annually to this day.
Over the years, producers and Pollstar staff have continued to elevate the Awards, including Shari Rice, Steve Macfadyen, Kelli Richards, Stephanie Bridgemon and now Oak View Group’s Erin Grady, who carries the torch by surpassing expectations year after year.
The annual Pollstar Live! conference, now helmed by Ray Waddell, OVG’s president of media and conferences, grew out of a limited partnership formed by the Garys and an expanded group of investors called the Concert Industry Consortium.
The limited partnership was capped at 35 members, but the group’s focus became an annual conference encompassing all sectors of the industry that began in 1994 at the Century Plaza Hotel in L.A. – shortly before Robert Sillerman’s SFX began acquiring regional concert promoters that were the meat and potatoes of the industry and earning the nickname “The Rollup King.”
CIC partners included many of the biggest names in music and broadly representated the various interests in the music industry, including record labels like Warner Bros. and Columbia.
“The key thing was that they were partners that gave us a certain degree of legitimacy, which was not easy to get at that time,” Bongiovanni said of the nascent CIC.
“To get all the major promoters to participate and come to the conference, that was huge,” Smith recalls. “That consolidated the powers that be. These promoters, in a lot of cases, hated each other and that we were able to get them right there in the same room was a big deal.”
Longtime Eagles manager and music industry titan Irving Azoff was among the original Pollstar and CIC investors.
“Since 40 years ago, when I first invested in Pollstar, it has consistently been my ‘go to’ when planning a tour and utilizing its valuable data on tours, venues, promoters, grosses and more,” Azoff says. “Additionally, I’m pleased to help advance [Pollstar Live!]. It’s been very rewarding to have it grow, expand and become the key live forum in the industry, a place where 2,500 of our peers gather yearly to exchange ideas and plot the future of the business.”
Another industry figure who took a keen interest in CIC and became partners was attorney Ben Liss, along with his wife, Cynthia Wallace, then executive director of the North American Concert Promoters Association. They teamed with Bongiovanni and Smith to conceptualize and execute a conference that would put all these disparate interests in the same room for the benefit of all.
“Cynthia and I met with the Garys in San Diego, during an IAAM conference in, I believe, 1994 and signed on to the idea with the publication and with the promoters, agencies and those that would make a very sensible symbiotic relationship for producing the conference,” Liss says.
“And the goal at that point was to be able to have a room where industry decision makers could get together and talk about issues that were of common concern and how to make the industry better, rather than having various people stuck in panels over the course of multiple days.
“Our goal in the beginning was how can we in an industry that was changing and going through a big transition … gather together in a room and hear what other decision makers are talking about in terms of both the present and what’s coming down the pike?” Liss explains. “It wasn’t so much how can we monetize registrations, but how can we make this meaningful, informative and productive for those who attend?”
Most of those who spoke to Pollstar in preparation for this story cite the CIC and Pollstar Awards as transformative events for the company. As both events grew from a few hundred attendees to more than 2,500, top industry and thought leaders like Sillerman, Clear Channel Entertainment head Brian Becker, original CAA Head of Music Tom Ross and his successor Rob Light, Live Nation President and CEO Michael Rapino, The Firm CEO Jeff Kwatinetz and AEG’s Leiweke took to the keynote podium over the years.
“Over the course of its storied 40-year history, Pollstar has evolved into one of the most powerful and unmatched voices in the global concert and live industry and remains an important piece of Oak View Group’s portfolio,” Leiweke says. “From its excellence in editorial which nicely complements its annual Pollstar Conference and Awards, Pollstar’s significance across the industry cannot be overstated. Its vast database has grown to become unrivaled and is relied upon by artist managers, booking agents, promoters, and so many others. I continue to be proud of Pollstar’s success and it’s been inspiring to see the publication Gary Bongiovanni and Gary Smith founded so many years ago evolve into the behemoth it is today. Here’s to its next 40 years of success.”
Artists, such as Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell, Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, Parliament/Funkadelic’s George Clinton, and more have either keynoted or been interviewed for the annual gathering. And some creative keynote bookings from beyond the concert industry, like the late Obama Administration economic advisor Dr. Alan B. Krueger (who wrote “Rockonomics” and conducted studies on concert ticket pricing), author Malcolm Gladwell and “Moneyball” author Mike Lewis, helped attendees look at their careers in different ways and provided even more gravitas to the proceedings.
And there were CIC moments, whether it was CAA’s Ross denouncing the incipient consolidation of concert promoters by SFX, or Sillerman the following year declaring, “In the words of Godzilla: Size matters,” to a stunned audience.
The Pollstar Awards had many “springboard” moments to attain new heights and credibility, too, starting with that first Radio City Music Hall show. In 2002, Hollywood’s Kodak Theater (now Dolby Theater), with the considerable help of AEG, opened its doors for the first time to the Pollstar Awards.
“In fact we had to walk around the steps that they were building for the Academy Awards,” Bongiovanni remembers. “And the great thing about that is it opened the doors to getting some of the best Hollywood people to show up as presenters.”
The same could be said for 2008’s edition, when AEG opened the Nokia (now Microsoft) Theater at L.A. Live with hosts The Smothers Brothers, the final performance by Peter & Gordon, and presenters including a rising Taylor Swift, Andrew “Dice” Clay (who parlayed his not-brief appearance into a career revival), Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmit of the Eagles presenting Manager of the Year to Azoff. Prince’s appearance at the 2015 Pollstar Awards to receive his Major Tour of the Year award was another watershed moment.
By the time CIC dissolved – as planned in a sunset provision – in 2008, the conference and awards party were easily able to fly on their own. CIC’s conference was rebranded as Pollstar Live! and continues to bring the best minds and exchange of ideas to an industry that has undergone profound change since the early days of mimeographs and hole punches.
Under the aegis of Oak View Group, both the conference and awards show continue to experience growth. Even a global pandemic couldn’t keep it down. In 2021, Pollstar Live! moved to June was the first major industry event to give the finger to COVID and prove the show will go on.
Pollstar itself has undergone a major, award-winning redesign and continues to raise the bar in bringing award-winning editorial content and all-important data to every sector of the live business. With new charts, including Artist Power Index and LIVE75 bringing more context to longtime mainstays International and North American Boxoffice charts and Concert Pulse, quarterly, mid-year and year-end charts bringing club, theater, arena and worldwide tour ticketing results into sharp focus, and its biannual print directories as well as online access keeping it all fresh and current, Pollstar remains the unique, reliable and invaluable service that subscribers have come to expect for 40 years.
As it was in Pollstar’s beginning, data remains king – any way you slice it.