This past summer, I had the privilege of gaining access to the inner sanctum, the black rope not everyone gets past and perhaps one of the most sought-after VIP sections in the concert business: Louis Messina’s tour bus.
Louis’ bus is legendary. It can be accommodations, an office, venue, escape hatch, party space, corner bar and one of the best hangs in the industry. There, he’s had spontaneous sing-alongs with his superstar roster and major execs, built relationships, conducted business and had loads of fun along the way. This while fruits of the vine, grains and other libations were poured – sometimes copiously. Once inside, he is welcoming, candid, charming and full of good cheer and blessed with the gift of storytelling, having lived an incredible life at the center of this industry. To look at his career over the past half century is to see the history of the live industry itself.
This Louis Messina 50th Anniversary special issue goes to press fifty years to the day – November 3, 1972 – that Louis Messina promoted his first big concert at New Orleans’ Loyola Field House selling 8K tickets for a legendary double bill with Curtis Mayfield and B.B. King. Unfortunately, it was a debacle (see Pollstar Cover Story) To hear Louis tell how the plane carrying King and Mayfield’s band got stuck in Atlanta resulting in a near-riot is to hear living history. (Also, be sure to check out the tale of Messina getting kidnapped after an ill-fated Led Zeppelin/Bad Company concert).
A lesser individual would have hung it up then and there, but not Messina. He would join forces with Houston’s Allen Becker and launch PACE Concerts while building a national portfolio of amphitheaters. Messina said that “PACE concerts really became the promoter in Texas” when, in the same year, he promoted The Rolling Stones and his famed Texxas Jam (see story).
In the consolidation of the ‘90s, Becker would sell to Robert Sillerman’s SFX which was flipped to ClearChannel forming the bedrock of what would become Live Nation. Kate McMahon, the superhuman EVP of Messina Touring Group, in this issue’s Louis Messina Tributes (page 60), described when Messina eventually reached the end of his rope at ClearChannel: “During the summer of 2001, we knew Louis was increasingly unhappy at work,” McMahon recalled. “He called me one day after a big lunch meeting with some CCE executives. ‘How did it go” I asked. ‘Oh great,’ he replied …‘I quit.’”
Messina negotiated a non-compete clause and carved out five artists. That he nabbed George Strait, Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and the Dixie Chicks was a stroke of genius, taking these rising country stars to the top of the concert business while landing a partnership with AEG.
In this week’s in-depth Pollstar Interview (see story), OVG Media & Conferences President Ray Waddell asked Louis when his bus became “a thing.”
“When I got a bus,” he replied. “That’s my workshop, that’s my thing. It’s like my bullpen, my office, my Louis room. It’s like everybody gets to let their hair down and sit around. When I sit on a bus and Ed Sheeran’s riding with me and he’s playing his guitar, it’s a ‘holy shit!’ moment. When Taylor has a listening party on my bus, it’s a ‘holy shit!’ moment. And then hanging out with guys, people like you, and the building managers, I invite everybody into my world. And people invite me into their world, because I treat people the way I’d like to be treated … We try to make things fun, we really do, that’s the culture we have here…”
It’s an ethos Messina’s maintained throughout his illustrious career. That anyone could remain in this game for five decades would seem implausible at best; that he could stay at this industry’s pinnacle for that time seems impossible, especially doing it with a smile. Though generating an estimated and mind-blowing $4.5 billion in revenues (see Boxoffice Insider page 15) certainly helps ease the burden. Note: As this issue was closing, MTG, as usual, was in overdrive, working recently announced stadium tours by Taylor Swift, George Strait and Ed Sheeran along with a new Old Dominion run.
In today’s more corporatized and consolidated business, there’s promoter suites, sponsored VIP sections and canapés; but for a promoter to have a bus backstage to host, meet, connect and have fun with this industry is near non-existent, as are executives like Louis, and that’s a shame.
Ed Sheeran, in his tribute to Louis, tells the story of how he was left on his own in Newark in 2013 after opening for Taylor Swift at the Prudential Center. There, after drinking Fireball with Florida Georgia Line, he found himself in Newark waiting for a ride. “I was on my own outside on the curb waiting for a taxi for hours,” he said, “when Louis’ bus pulls up. He opens the door and asks me if I wanna have a drink.” That, Sheeran said, is when “Louis became my promoter.”