How Allen Becker Helped Build The Modern Live Business

Allen Becker’s influence on the live entertainment industry is undeniable, but there’s an irony that’s undeniable, too. The man who laid the foundation for empires built on rock ‘n’ roll had personal tastes that ran a little bit square.

“Benny Goodman was his cup of tea,” Louis Messina tells Pollstar.

Becker, the PACE Entertainment Group founder who died at 90 in his Houston home on Dec. 12, was a fair – but shrewd – businessman who, perhaps, didn’t have an ear for rock, but what he did have was a nose for talent and sniffed out a wet-behind-the-ears New Orleans promoter in 1975 and gave him a shot.

“PACE had the exclusive on the entire grand opening rights for the Superdome and they had all kinds of shows booked except for a rock show,” Messina remembers. “We flew to Houston and met with Allen and met with the whole team and flew to Macon.”

In Macon, this ad hoc crew booked the Allman Brothers Band, Marshall Tucker Band,  Charlie Daniels Band and Wet Willie for Labor Day weekend at the Superdome.

Allen Becker
Pace Entertainment co-founder Allen Becker at his office on Post Oak Wednesday May 23,2012. (Dave Rossman/For the Chronicle)

Messina’s connection with the avuncular Becker was instantaneous and after that Allman show, Becker told Messina he had the rights to book shows at The Summit, the new arena in Houston, and asked Messina if he’d like to promote acts at the building. Messina had another idea, one that would change his life and the future of live. Instead of booking shows here and there, he said, what if he and Becker joined forces?

“I said, ‘What if I move to Houston and see how it goes?… I’ll bet on me and bet on you,’ and we shook hands and got in my beat up Toyota and moved to Houston,” he says.

PACE was already booking events at the Astrodome and elsewhere – including the famous Battle of the Sexes tennis match between chauvinistic caricature Bobby Riggs and the legendary Billie Jean King, along with a host of motorsports offerings.

“We were absolutely the leading promoter of sports motorcycle stadium shows, motocross racing, called Supercross, monster trucks and all those events,” Brian Becker, Allen’s son and now CEO of Base Entertainment, told Pollstar in January. “I think by the first day we were clearly the dominant player in the country.”

In the fall of 1975, it was time to add the music business.

By November, they’d booked The Who, ZZ Top and Willie Nelson to play The Summit in the last two months of the year. Even still, Becker couldn’t quite shake the insurance man’s natural anxiety about risk.

“I told him we may lose money the first year,” Messina remembers. “He called me to his office and said ‘I’ve got to ask you one more question,’ and I said, ‘What’s that?’ and he said, ‘How much?’”

It was Becker, on a walk at the Cotton Bowl, who had the idea that turned the business on its head. 

“We were walking the grounds and Allen says ‘Your business sucks, all the crap you put up with and there’s no money to be made and the risk is unlimited,’” Messina says.

How to mitigate that risk? Control more revenue streams – “the popcorn and peanuts and parking,” as Messina puts it.

PACE started building amphitheaters. Sheds were cheap to build and could be built well away from city centers. With them, PACE had a network of venues for acts to play all across the country, particularly in the flyover. With the network of amphitheaters, PACE grew into the largest live entertainment company in the country when it sold to SFX in 1998, eventually selling to Clear Channel and spinning off into Live Nation.

Rivalries might seem a natural result as the amphitheater business grew, but even through this sea change in the live business, it was Becker’s fairness and square-dealing that prevailed.

Concerts West President & CEO John Meglen worked for the original company, then left for CPI, and then helped Messina launch PACE Touring. Even through all the change, his relationship with Becker was never cantankerous. 

“I remember having a conversation with him and I said, ‘Allen, let me ask you a question,” Meglen told Pollstar in January. “‘If I’m doing a tour and come to Philadelphia, what’s going to happen? The Spectrum’s the arena, but you guys have this amphitheater right across the street. What do I do?’ And he said, ‘John, you do what you believe is right for your business. I would like to think in a jump ball, you would tip that our direction, too.’”

Even if that’s all Becker did, that would be an enviable legacy, but there’s more to it than just the business side.  Allen Becker had the revolutionary idea to bring cultural offerings of all kinds to overlooked places, creating the subscription services that brought Broadway shows to places beyond New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Messina said that as Vince McMahon did for professional wrestling, Becker made live music and theater, previously territorial operations, national propositions.

But he was more than just a savvy businessman.

“He taught me about being fair and that everybody has to make money. He was my father figure. He was my partner, my best friend, my mentor,” Messina says. “I could go on forever saying what he meant to me. We never had an argument. I idolized him. There’s a big emptiness in me, there’s a hole in my heart. Everybody Allen met, he became their best friend. He was a teacher.”