Gary James' Interview With Concert Promoter
He's one of the most famous concert promoters in the United States. Based out of Colorado, he's promoted groups like The Doors, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, and the list goes on and on. Barry Fey has just written his autobiography titled Backstage Past (Lone Wolfe Press). He spoke with us about his years in the concert promotion business.
Q - So, you've been busy doing book signings in Colorado. Where else have you been promoting your book?
A - Well, I'd love to branch out. They've all been in Colorado so far because of the demand, but we're going to try and set something up in L.A. I'd love to set something up in New York, but I don't quite know how to do it. I went to New York and did some interviews on XM Sirius and that was before Christmas (2011).
Q - I would imagine the book sales are pretty good for you.
A - Amazing. We now just went into our third printing two days ago.
Q - One of the things I don't think I read in your book is how audiences have changed. Audiences today don't put Rock stars on the pedestal that they used to, say in the 1960s and 1970s.
A - You're 100% right. Music here (Colorado) was a religion. Now, it's just a form of entertainment.
Q - Probably because there's too much entertainment going on.
A - And too crazy ticket prices
Q - With the internet, the i-Pads, the MP3s, the Androids, the multiplex movie theatres, there's just too much out there vying for a person's attention.
A - Barry Fey couldn't be Barry Fey today. My time is past.
Q - I don't understand the strangle hold that A.E.G. and Live Nation have in the concert promotion business today. I thought there were anti-trust laws or laws against monopolies. How is it that the federal government has not intervened?
A - Here's how it started. I say in the book, Bob Sillerman started all this shit. He started buying 65% of the best promoters. He bought 'em up and that wasn't enough. He had to have the whole tour. He wasn't satisfied with the brunt of it, so he'd pay a group two and a half times what they're worth and try to make a synergy there. Then ticket prices started going sky high. Then he sold his idea to Clear Channel, which was clearly opening it up for illegal restraint of trade with the radio stations and what it would do to promoters. Then at the time you had Universal Concerts sell the House Of Blues. The House Of Blues started opening up all the amphitheatres. They fell on hard times and therefore out of distress they had to keep changing their name because there was so much ill-will that Live Nation bought House Of Blues, which gave them all the amphitheatres. I said, how did the government let that go through? House Of Blues would have folded. A.E.G. started just to fight Live Nation. In the middle of the Madonna tour, and there's no way to prove this, but you take my word, if Madonna would have stopped a few years ago, Live Nation would have been broke because they were using her money. They were so financially strapped because they have these amphitheatres, especially back East where people don't even go because they know they'll get a free ticket if they wait. So, Live Nation was in terrible trouble. So, Azhoff merged with Ticket Master and then the government allowed them to buy Live Nation. I mean, it's ridiculous. What you have now is two giants, A.E.G. and Live Nation, which have taken the soul and the heart out of the business. It's disgraceful.
Q - The government needs to get on board and look into this!
A - Not going to happen.
Q - Why?
A - Because they allowed all these mergers because of financial distress. See, A.E.G. hasn't really done anything. They've gone on their own way. I'm sure you know about the ruling that Ticket Master has to share their formula for their software with A.E.G.. Now A.E.G. is starting their own ticket company. A.E.G. hasn't done anything monopolistic. Live Nation certainly has. They were getting sued all the time for restraint of trade and violations. They settled here with a company called Nobody In Particular Presents 'cause they wouldn't pay their acts, put their spots on at 3 o'clock in the morning, really terrible stuff.
Q - You write "There is no middle man, no local promoter who has a chance to make a big score on a big concert anymore.
A - No more.
Q - The concert promotion business has been ruined. Record companies are all but over.
A - Well, they did that to themselves.
Q - If you're a young kid with visions of making it in the Rock music business...
A - You should take up welding. It's good, honest work. You get paid by the hour. See, if you were a promoter back in my day and you had ears that were good enough and heard a band and took a chance on 'em and if you were right and they became big, you got big with 'em. Now if you do that, you pick a band and they get big, one of the big boys come in and offer 'em $125 million for a world-wide tour and you're out. It's just disgusting.
Q - And you say in the book, "the money these companies offer bands, there's no way they're going to re-coup that money." If you're a businessman, the whole idea is to make money, to make a profit. Why would anyone offer this insane amount of money?
A - The way they do it is by offering insane ticket prices. When I retired, the highest price I ever charged, in 1984 for Pink Floyd, $71. Now you get $350 to $400 tickets. You get acts scalping their own tickets. It's disgraceful. In the '90s it went from the music business to the business of music. And it sucks.
Q - Was it Jerry Weintraeb's decision to go straight to the venue of every city, destroying the independent concert promoter?
A - No. It could've have been. I thankfully talked a lot of people into fighting it. When they came here with Paul McCartney and cut me out, some how in the middle of the second act, the lights in the house went on and the tires on the truck got slashed. That's what you do. You fight.
Q - But you didn't order anyone to do that, did you?
A - The unions knew what was going on and they liked me. So the union guy in charge of the lights, turned on the lights. If they only ran into that shit in one or two cities, they'll keep it up, but if forty or fifty cities fuck with 'em, they won't do it.
Q - For all the concerts you promoted, it doesn't seem like you made all that much money. So you must have really loved e music.
A - No. You see, today they talk billions. We used to talk millions. We could make $1.5 million a year. That's a lot of money
Q - In a year?
A - Yeah.
Q - That's gross or net?
A - That's net. We grossed big money in '94 because it was the year The Eagles, Pink Floyd and The Stones came back the same summer. I said gross because we didn't net that much. I couldn't say I love the music. I couldn't afford it. I was not an instructor. I was a messenger. I didn't tell the people what they should like. I went out and found what they did like and brought it to them.
Q - How did you determine that?
A - Airplay. Billboard, plus you get out on the street and you talk to people.
Q - How about record sales?
A - Oh, sure. Don't forget, when the business started getting more sophisticated, there was an underground. You knew what was happening. It wasn't like '67 where you really had to go out on a limb.
Q - Did you ever promote Madonna?
A - Never in Denver, twice in Phoenix.
Q - Is Mick Jagger the leader of The Stones?
A - Mick is the mouth and the brains of The Stones, definitely. Keith Richards is the heart.
Q - Is it true that ZZ Top blew The Stones off the stage in Hawaii in January of '73.
A - Naah. No. I got ZZ Top to open for The Stones. I remember the first time I introduced them; "Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome that little ole band from Texas, ZZ Top!" But you don't blow The Stones off. The Stones blew The Stones off. Except maybe The Who. No one can blow The Who off. But The Stones are the second best to ever perform. They're great.
Q - You say "Mike Love (of The Beach Boys) thought he was better than everybody." You mean he was arrogant?
A - Oh, my God. He's very arrogant. It was a very crazy group. Dennis Wilson was into fucking drugs. Carl Wilson was pretty straight. Al Jardine was a good guy. Mike Love was a prick. Brian Wilson, what are you gonna say about him?
Q - In the early 1960s, I don't think many people realized the pressure there was on a group like The Beach Boys to record and tour.
A - I gotta blow my own horn here. In '72, '73, I started playing The Beach Boys again. I had faith in 'em. And (Bill) Graham, we were doing the Crosby, Stills, Nash And Young tour. I was gonna play stadiums in '74 and Graham wanted Santana to open for 'em and I talked him into The Beach Boys 'cause The Beach Boys have two hundred, 3 minute songs and everybody knows the words and they're great. I used to love The Beach Boys.
Q - You didn't like John Bonham, Jimmy Page and (manger) Peter Grant. You called them "the worst bunch of individuals I've ever dealt with."
A - Well, yeah. The whole group,
Richard Cole, the tour manager, was a fucking mean convict. Grant was very mean. Jimmy Page wasn't bad. He was not a very nice person. Bonham was a prick. The only good guy in the group was Bobby (Robert Plant). But all the bad things kept happening to him. His kid died, he got into an auto accident. Bobby Plant's a prince.
Q - When you have guys with that bad of a personality, doesn't that affect their ability to conduct business?
A - Naah. Not when they can play like that, man.
Q - Peter Grant dropped Frank Barsalona as the group's agent and hired who to take Premier Talent's place?
A - Concerts West. But they kept me and (Bill) Graham. That was very surprising. They kept us.
Q - The most shocking thing for me in your book was to read about how Bill Graham cheated the bands he promoted. I always had the highest amount of respect and admiration for Bill Graham. I was very sad to read that.
A - You have the right to your own opinion. I'm just telling you that everything I put in my book is true. Bill Graham was the most evil, fucking guy I ever met. I can see fighting to protect your turf, but when you hurt people for no reason in the world...
Q - I'm not questioning you, I'm just saying I was sad to read that about Bill Graham. That's all I'm saying.
A - I've got a lot of letters from support from people who were scared to death of the man and it's about time somebody told the truth. We had a very up and down relationship. We were close at one time. Like I said in the book, he took me out to JFK (airport) when his brother would come over from Switzerland and switch suitcases full of cash. That's all true. Somebody don't like me, let 'em fuckin' sue me because I was there. I saw it. He had the biggest trucking company in Geneva, Switzerland, his sister did, with the cash he sent over there. You steal $5,000 to $10,000 a week in cash from The Fillmore East and The Fillmore West every week, it adds up.
Q - I just thought when he passed away in 1991...
A - One of my best years ever.
Q - Your best year?
A - Yeah, because he passed away.
Q - I went to see the movie, Buying...
A - Didn't he do a good job? You gotta give him credit.
Q - He did do a good job. I thought he finally found his calling in life, to be an actor. He got tired of promoting other people so now he's promoting himself.
A - Well, you gotta know how he got his first movie role. He was very powerful as I was in Denver. Francis Ford Coppola was a big supporter of the mayor in San Francisco. I can't think of his name. He asked Graham to support the mayor and he (Graham) got a part in the movie Apocalypse Now. Bill's on the stage when the helicopter comes down. Then he started getting into movies and I thought he was very good in Buying. I hated to say it. Well, I guess he played what he was, a mean fucking guy.
Q - I suppose that's one way of looking at it.
A - It's like (Robert) De Niro. De Niro stinks when he plays in a comedy. When he plays a mob guy, he's great.
Q - What's the significance of wearing a Jim Morrison shirt on the inside flap of your book?
A - That's 'cause it was my first show.
Q - I thought you might have been an admirer of his talent as well.
A - Oh, I was. He was a genius. He was a poet. I like to wear that shirt because it's my first shirt. My first show was The Doors.
Q - You say in the late 1960s the amount you paid bands started to change from a flat guarantee versus a percentage of the gate.
A - No. It went to a flat guarantee plus a bonus over a certain figure. In other words, you pay 'em $10,000 and 40% over $50,000. Then it went to 50%, 60%, 70%. Then it went to a guarantee against 85% - 15% of the net. If you net $200,000, the expenses are $50,000, 85% of the $150,000 goes to the band. Then it went to the dreaded 90% - 10%. (Jimmy) Buffett, a year ago, charged 105% of the gross because he knew the amphitheatres were making so much money on parking, popcorn and beer and hotdogs. Nobody sells more beer than Jimmy Buffett.
Q - My point was, I think this guarantee versus a percentage of the gate started in the mid '60s.
A - I wouldn't know.
Q - With The Beatles and Brian Epstein.
A - Maybe for The Beatles, but I never played The Beatles. The Beatles stopped in '66. I got in, in '67. I can't argue with you. I don't know.
Q - Should a successful concert always be measured in terms of money, or if it was a sell-out?
A - No. You gotta measure it in terms of the fans. The promoter has to go by the money. But there's no promoters anymore.
Q - I ask that only because in today's world when a group is on tour, all we ever hear about is how much money the group made, like last year The Rolling Stones grossed $500 million in their world tour.
A - Yeah, but in the old days they used to deny it. Remember the days music should be free, Power To The People? They used to never tell how much the earned. Now they put it in Forbes magazine. I gotta tell you, it's changed completely.
Q - Do you know how much money The Beatles grossed in their North American tour in 1964? This is the true genius of Brian Epstein.
A - How can I possibly know that?
Q - It was a million dollars.
A - That's all?
Q - That's it. It seemed like hardly anything in comparison to what groups are paid today. Yet we don't talk about what The Beatles earned, we talk about what the reaction was to their music everywhere they went. We remember the screaming fans.
A - No. We remember The Beatles for giving us all jobs. They were a social revolution. They were much more than a band.
Q - You write in your book about how Paul McCartney wouldn't come out of his dressing room to say hello to a kid in a wheelchair. You ask "What possible excuse could there be?" I'm just going to guess here, but when you're in McCartney's position, you just get to a point where you can only give so much of yourself up the public.
A - No, no, no. We arranged it. We did a lot of work with Make A Wish Foundation. They OK'd it. We never would have brought the kid up there if they weren't expecting him and you walk fucking ten feet. You crawl the ten feet if you have to, to make that kid's life a little better who maybe has five or six months to live. C'mon man!
Q - I'm just saying that would have been my best guess as to why it didn't happen, and the excuse Paul would've given.
A - No excuse.
Q - And he never gave you a reason I take it.
A - No. I really liked Paul until then. We've been nothing but friends for a long time. It really changed my mind. I couldn't be the same. You can tell, I'm pretty opinionated. In the best of my knowledge, everything I say in that book is true.
Q - "The Hells Angels had a contract out on Jagger." Where did that come from?
A - Altamont. Remember when they did the security? The guy got killed and Mick went on the air with Melvin Belli and harshly criticized the Angels. I wouldn't say it was a contract like the Mob used to put out, but the New York Angels were gonna make an attempt on his life. The only one who didn't seem to care was fuckin' Bianca. I don't know why I didn't put this in the book. I guess I'm trying to be mild. When they changed the location of Mick's birthday party, his 29th birthday, I could give you a whole chapter on that bitch. She was so blasé. It inconvenienced her. They were really worried that someone was going to make an attempt on Mick's life. I almost leaked it to The Angels where it was gonna be on the chance they'd try to shoot him and hit her instead. She was a bitch.
Q - Since they're no longer together, something happened.
A - Oh, I was really happy when he started cheatin' on her with Jerry Hall.
Q - You really got along well with Frank Barsalona (Premier Talent), didn't you?
A - Oh, he's the Godfather to my youngest son.
Q - When he started Premier Talent, he did it because he didn't like the way established agencies like M.C.A. and G.A.C. were treating Rock acts. Then, he goes ahead and sells Premier to William Morris.
A - Oh, that was a long, long time afterwards. He wasn't very relative by that time. The best agent he had was Barbara Skydel and she went over to William Morris. When Frank was Frank, let me tell you, record companies used to give him a point or two points on an album if he would take the act. Oh, was he powerful.
Q - Do you feel you're a better person for having met these performers or would you have been better off if you were in the audience?
A - No, man. A week ago Sunday I was inducted into the Colorado Hall Of Fame. That never would've happened with these artists.
Q - But look at the people you had to deal with!
A - I had to deal with 'em, but if it wasn't for them, where the fuck would I be? No one made me do it.
Q - Some people probably have said...
A - It's not worth it.
Q - That's right.
A - You see what I did; I'm not trying to offend you, but I proved early on that I could be just as big of an asshole as they could. So, most of their antics they saved for the other guys down the line.
Q - And that's what kept you going.
A - That's what kept me going. You're right. The first time I did The Stones, someone came down and said "They want something to eat." I said "Tell 'em to go back to the fucking hotel!" But I bought them some brown bread and jelly and made 'em sandwiches. You adapt, man. You gotta understand, no one ever paid a fuckin' dime to see Barry Fey on the stage. You gotta understand who's makin' the money and who the fans are coming to see. As long as you can keep that in perspective... Oh, I used to love to introduce U2 and Ozzy Osbourne, which I did at the U.S. Festival. I'm a better person for doing it. Better things have happened in my life.
Q - Besides promoting this book, you're also teaching a course?
A - Oh, yeah. I had to put it on hold because of the book. Yeah, I taught "The Real History Of Rock 'n' Roll" at the University Of Colorado, Denver.
Q - What does that encompass?
A - Just what I said in the book. Teaching how it really happened. From '67 at Monterey Pop Festival. That to me was the start of modern Rock.
Q - What are the kids asking you?
A - They don't ask nothing. They turn off their computers and their cell phones and they listen. I'm lecturing. We have questions and answers, but they're not frivolous, like "What's Mick Jagger really like?" We don't get into that.
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