Dan Smalls is a promoter. His business, Dan Smalls Presents, founded in 2008, based in Ithaca, New York, is a talent buyer, a concert promoter company and an event production company. Dan Smalls tells us what it's like to be in the concert business these days.
Q - Dan Smalls Presents Inc. is a talent buyer, concert promotions and an event promotion company. What's the difference between the three? Aren't you essentially a concert promoter?
A - Essentially, yes. It's what we do most of the time. We have produced events for local, not for profits like the SPCA and Family Reading Partnership and we do book talent for events as wide ranging as festivals to Indy Car Races. But in essence I'm a concert promoter. We presented over seventy-five events this year in markets from Reading, Pennsylvania to Portland, Maine.
Q - Is it hard to book quality acts at affordable prices today? Do you find that audiences are more jaded than ever and getting them to part with their hard-earned money has become increasingly difficult?
A - Yes, but that is changing. The power has shifted back into the hands of the buyers, or at least it is heading that way. The tough times we continue to hear about are shaping people's spending, even if the economy isn't quite as bad as people are saying, like in an insulated college market like Ithaca. But sales are down across the board. Some agents still hold out for the high, up front guarantee. I've decided to hold my ground and offer more back-end deals. If an artist can sell the high number of tickets, they should be rewarded, but I like to protect the downside and not stick my neck out too far. The slam dunks are a rarity these days. Even since the start of 2010, it's changed dramatically. I've only felt the change since summer. And you can't blame that on Live Nation. I won't pontificate, but the New York Times and New Yorker covered it well. The public is right to say "no" to high ticket prices, but to them, not us. I've consistently had the lowest ticket prices for acts that play Ithaca on their entire tour, usually 25% less than the big cities.
Q - You produced your first concert when you were a sophomore at Cornell. What went into that production?
A - I was learning as I went. I had made friends with Blues Traveler and Spin Doctors and put them together for a segue show. They were all such good friends. They'd play for thirty minutes, settle into a jam and slowly, players would replace each other on stage and a Spin Doctor song would become a Blues Traveler song. Very cool. Tickets really sold themselves back then as they were pretty popular at all the frat parties I was booking them into. It bothered the local promoter so much that he tracked me down and hired me. Funny story about that show, I had flat deals with both bands, so when I sold it out, I made a bunch of money. Being 18, I tried to go pay my college tuition with wads of cash. Turns out they frown on that at the Cornell University Bursar's office. So I donated a bunch (of money) to the newly formed Finger Lakes Land Trust.
Q - Why did you want to become a promoter? What was the attraction?
A - Not really sure. I grew up twelve miles from where Woodstock happened. My family listened to great music. My first memories are of Arlo Guthrie and Mississippi John Hurt and The Beatles' "Rubber Soul" / "Revolver" era. The legend of Bill Graham was alive in Monticello where I was born and raised. He worked at the famous Concord Hotel long before The Fillmore. I was lucky enough to meet him and work with his son on a series in the Catskills after my sophomore year. We played some great acts - Phish, Blues Traveler, The Band, Ziggy Marley. It was a great summer and all the New York music people would come hang for the weekend. The late night jams were insane. Lenny Kravitz would come hang around. It was pretty rad. Becoming a promoter or professional gambler wasn't really a goal. It just happened after what I went through getting there.
Q - Did it take a lot of money to get the business off the ground?
A - I was lucky early on and had great shows out of the gate, but I've never been one to spend what I make, so I saved every dime for the times like now when sales are down, even though the great shows are still playing. I always return every phone call or e-mail. I always have. So after I took a break from the biz, all the junior agents and assistants were running the agencies. So, I had an easier time re-acclimating.
Q - Is your territory Central New York?
A - Ideally I want to focus on Ithaca and Rochester. It was pretty exciting last week to be voted Best Of Rochester for Musical Import by City Newspaper. Even though I have done shows from Reading to Portland, I need to build this thing locally and these markets are best for what I am good at promoting. I stick to what I am good at promoting. I stick to what I know. I say this all the time - you can't book exclusively with your heart or you'd lose money all the time and go out of business. If you book only with your pocket book, and excuse my French here, you're a douche bag. Ithaca and Rochester let me find that balance and book from somewhere closer to the heart than the pocketbook.
Q - When you graduated from Cornell, you moved to Boston. Why Boston?
A - Actually I moved to New York City and had a short stint at a major record label. I couldn't take the bean counting mentality even then. So, after a winter skiing out West, I headed to Boston. Why Boston you ask? Simply put, I had to see about a girl. It grew from there. I liked that Boston was a city made up of small towns. I'm that guy, not that big city type.
Q - Who did you book when you were in Boston?
A - I started as an agent for tiny major label acts. On a contract basis, I'd send them out for a week or two to a range of venues from Boston to Florida. They'd get $100 to $150 a night and the labels would match that guarantee for me. Those were better days when albums sold. I booked a lot of acts you never heard of but eventually popped. Marcy Playground, Kara's Flowers, they're now called Maroon 5, Five For Fighting and a local named Angry Salad, who played 300 plus dates a year and eventually got signed to Atlantic. A good band with a bad name. After a year, I moved to GNP and bought talent for them. We did shows with Lyle Lovett, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Indigo Girls, Sugar Ray, Descendents, Billy Bragg, Squirrel Nut Zippers and on and on. Seventy-five a year, plus we produced the end of summer tour festival for Phish. When Phish took a year off, we parted and I helped get the Bethal Woods Center off the ground before they built that beautiful facility. We proved its viability before they invested.
Q - Since GNP (Great Northeast Productions) promoted Bob Dylan, they must have had some big bucks behind them, didn't' they?
A - GNP has been around for twenty five plus years. They have a great history in the New England market. They just never owned any real estate. That's the key in the promoter world. That's what Live Nation / Clear Channel / SFX did. They bought up the promoters for their real estate. No one was smart enough to see it was a Wall Street ploy and look where we are now. They've ruined the perception of the biz again. But there's room for guys like me who are in it for the right reasons as well as making an honest buck and who take care of the artists first before their stockholders. I know there's a glass ceiling, but it's high enough for me.