It’s fair to say that were it not for The Guess Who, Gary Bongiovanni and Gary Smith might not have come together in 1981 to establish Pollstar, the first concert industry trade magazine to strictly showcase the touring industry and, most importantly, commit its data to a computerized database that brought accurate, timely information to subscribers.
Bongiovanni was an agent for the Canadian rockers and Smith, then a concert promoter, worked many Guess Who shows in California. They came from different worlds, but Bongiovanni and Smith realized they could pool their respective sector experience and create a new business model in which everyone could benefit – if it worked.
It did. Forty years since the publication of the first Promoters On-Line Listings (POLL) newsletter, Pollstar has evolved from basically a tip sheet to a print magazine and website, expanded to include awards and a can’t-miss conference and grown its data gathering operation from a Dialcom account and Radio Shack TRS-80 to the Cloud, offering more diverse and useful charts and data for every need as well as a comprehensive set of directories, a daily eblast and instant access to information.
Bongiovanni and Smith, known collectively as “The Garys,” sold Pollstar in 2017 to Oak View Group, co-founded by Tim Leiweke and Irving Azoff, who continue Pollstar’s legacy. Here, The Garys explain how it all came together and discuss that legacy.
How did you identify the need for Promoters On-Line Listings?
Gary Bongiovanni: Based on my background and experience, it seemed like there was a need for better information for the live business. People respond to real facts rather than to be asked the flavor of the day.
It came in two parts: One was box office reporting, gathering results and advice. In those days, only the biggest shows reported. We made a point of going after all of it. Secondly, at that time there wasn’t a great database of contact information. You had to go to somebody that was actually in the business and knew how to do it. If you were new and didn’t know anybody, you had to find somebody who did.
There were other trades doing some reporting but it might have been just annually, and then they stopped updating their information a few months before publishing, so the information was dated by the time it came out and didn’t do that great of a job. Creating a computer database to get information was a key point in the idea. It was the application of this new-fangled computer technology to the information flow that led us to what we were going to do before the personal computer.
Gary Smith: When Gary Bongiovanni and I got together, he had his files, he had his concept, and he had filed to incorporate Promoters On-Line Listings as a title. It wasn’t that it was a cool name, but it describes what we did. It was an insider newsletter. The idea for promoters is that you could get information online even though we sent out a printed newsletter, and it wasn’t just the box office reports. We listed the avails of artists.
Pollstar has been for the whole of the business at all levels, whether it was talent buyers, agents or venues. And that seems to have always been a strength that your rivals lacked.
GB: We had a lot more immediacy and our information was much more current than theirs. And we actually put the work in, including our directories, where we were able to research and create a database and not publish the same crap every year. We made a point of reaching out and trying to verify everything, every time we published. We actually published the agency rosters four times a year. That was a key part of our early business with the agencies.
GS: Amusement Business was closer competition to Pollstar. Performance magazine was about touring, but was not computerized. They didn’t have histories, they didn’t go into depth and they didn’t print accurate information. They catered to their advertisers. And when they did feature articles, it was almost more like advertorial content than it was news. And that’s another thing: Gary wanted news to be embraced. We didn’t have long editorial processes. We just had important, timely stories of what was going on in the business.
Pollstar in 1982 or 1983 probably had 300 subscribers. We incorporated in 1981 and didn’t really publish until ’82. But then it grew quickly. The coverage changed. We did start publishing itineraries that we could get for almost all the working artists.
We were only three or four years into it when the bigger promoters started to come on board, and by the ’90s we had basically everybody supporting Pollstar, big and small.
How did Pollstar adapt to the advent of digital and the internet? It wasn’t enough to just upload data into a database, or rely on a print product only by this time.
GB: I remember there was one point where what we were offering online was what we put together in the weekly magazine. It was basically a regurgitation of what we would put together for that Friday’s issue. And we turned that on its head and said, ‘No, we’re going to feed the web first and then we’ll assemble the magazine.’ And that was a seismic shift at the time.
GS: Pollstar.com was originally called ConcertNet online in 1995. I didn’t want to call it Pollstar.com because consumers didn’t know who Pollstar was [laughs].
So we went from ConcertNet to PollstarOnline.com (which was available to subscribers only), but we also had Pollstar.com. We didn’t have the directory information on the open site, but we had tour itineraries that let fans see where people were touring.
Tell us about the development of the Concert Industry Consortium and Pollstar Live! conferences.
GB: We struggled a lot and in the early years and we weren’t really making any money with Pollstar. We were lucky to break even. We weren’t a huge corporation, but we had a number of small investors. I suppose the breakthrough was the first CIC, when we decided to put together a limited partnership and they came in as well. And it was a partnership that really was the preserve of the entire concert industry. In fact, it actually went beyond that because we had partners from Warner Brothers and Columbia Records.
GS: The Concert Industry Consortium was a limited partnership. And we were allowed to sell 35 limited partnerships as an incentive to be personally invested as partners. We got not only the promoters to invest in the CIC, which included Bill Graham Presents and other major promoters: John Scher at Metropolitan; we had Ron Delsener and Irving Azoff; we had two other major agencies and two other major promoters. Many that [joined] Live Nation were among the original 35 partners. So we had some major managers, we had the major agencies and we had the major promoters that made up the third-party partners.
Obviously, that level of industry support was important to you as founders. How rewarding for you was it to be able to pay the investment to your partners?
GB: I think we closed the partnership after 13 years. All the partners made an annual income and there was a nice distribution at the end when it was dissolved. Everybody got it, and they were all proud to be partners.
GS: Because we made money on the conference, a percentage of the profits we made every year got distributed like dividends. The partners not only got the benefit of the participation, but they actually got a return for a small investment. I don’t know what they ended up collectively getting out of it. But, you know, it was never about the money anyway.
What has Pollstar meant to the industry at large? It seems like it was a game changer for pioneering the use of data and a big part of its legacy and its future, too.
GB: As a publication we were kind of like Switzerland. We didn’t take sides. We spoke equally to buyers and sellers, big and small. And that was pretty unique.
GS: Part of this environment is having to try to maintain neutrality and the challenge going forward is trying to cater to everybody. [Oak View Group] produces a good conference and content with the magazine. It still has its niche.
But we’re talking about what Pollstar was and is and what it’s going to be going forward. And I think it matters and it’s relevant. And I’m glad to see that there’s a legacy that’s sustained. Maybe it will be remembered in some small way. I would hope so.