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  Industry Profile

Industry Profile: Jesse Stoll

— By Larry LeBlanc

This week In The Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Jesse Stoll

Jesse Stoll can recall falling asleep backstage at an Ozzfest concert as a kid, snagging Bruce Springsteen’s autograph, and trailing his father--the late legendary independent Florida-based concert promoter Jon Stoll--checking box office counts.

While at University of Miami, this 23-year-old also worked as a Sony BMG college rep. He dropped off posters and displays at local retailers, organized promotional contests and giveaways, arranged meet-and-greets with acts, and tried to spread the word about the company’s fledgling acts, including Kings of Leon, Test Your Reflex, Chevelle, Fray, and Flyleaf.

During the same time, Jesse managed Miami-based alternative pop-rockers, Big Bang Radio, who opened for Ashlee Simpson, and reached #3 in the “National Million-Dollar Bodog Battle of the Bands” out of 7,000 entrants from across the United States.

His father succumbed to cancer in January, 2008 at 54 years old.

Last summer, Jesse joined AEG Live-Southeast to work on venue, festival and special event development and marketing under long-time Fantasma executive VP John Valentino, now senior VP of AEG Live.

A child of wealthy New York parents— his mother Marjorie Stoll was a Broadway trained classical singer— Jon Stoll came to Florida in the mid '70s and started producing concerts in whatever venues he could find. Not just at the West Palm Beach Auditorium, but also at a drive-in movie theater, a bar in Riviera Beach, even at a dog track.

After founding Fantasma Productions, he began developing his own venues, most notably the 750 seat Carefree Theatre in West Palm Beach. When the Carefree closed because of storm damage, Stoll found a church off Southern Boulevard and turned it into The Theatre.

A list of Fantasma successes could fill a thick book; prominent among them would have to be the South Beach Comedy Festival in Miami, Sunfest in West Palm Beach, and the Wanee Music Festival in Live Oak.

Jon Stoll developed them all.

Fantasma also promoted concerts throughout the country, particularly in the South, and books acts for such venues as the 3,500-capacity Mizner Park Amphitheater in Boca Raton, Fla., and the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood.

The company produced more than 500 concerts and events per year including Eric Clapton, the Eagles, the Police, Metallica, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Bon Jovi, Elton John, Jimmy Buffet, Cher, David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac, Bette Midler, the Cure, Depeche Mode, Whitney Houston, Faith Hill, Alabama, Alan Jackson, the Allman Brothers Band, and Marvin Gaye.

For years, Jon Stall warded off suitors because he believed South Florida needed a large, independent concert promoter.

However in March, 2008, Live Nation made a deal with Stoll's widow and Jesse’s step mother, Lori, to acquire all of Fantasma Productions assets. The acquisition included leases for the Mizner Park Amphitheatre in Boca Raton and the Pompano Beach Amphitheatre, the last two independent, mid-sized concert venues in South Florida.

The additions filled key niches in Live Nation's Florida venue portfolio which already included the House of Blues in Orlando, the Ford Amphitheatre in Tampa, Cruzan Amphitheatre in West Palm Beach, and the Fillmore Miami Beach at the Jackie Gleason Theatre in Miami Beach.

Now, only a year out of college, the younger Stoll is spearheading the inaugural Dubfest in Hollywood, Florida, a one-day lifestyle and music festival at ArtsPark Sept. 5 that will feature 13-15 bands on two stages amid demonstrations of skateboarding and other outdoor sports, as well as environmental exhibits and sponsor booths.

Among the artists confirmed to perform are Bunny Wailer, Goldfinger, Reel Big Fish, Authority Zero, Ballyhoo!, Soja, Ladies and Gentlemen, Scotty Don't, Lee "Scatch" Perry, B-Liminal, Dub City Tribe, Badfish, and Speaking Volumes.

Ticket prices for the event are low, with a full day of music and activity going for $35 in advance, $40 day of show. A VIP package is available for $125.

Why did you join AEG? You had choices.

I had to make a decision pretty quickly out of college in May (2008). I wanted to go somewhere where I was comfortable. I wanted to go with a company that would lend itself to be open to new ideas. That lent itself (to working) with all of the Fantasma employees (at AEG). I’ve known (former Fantasma executive VP) John Valentino (now Senior VP of AEG Southeast) for my whole life.

I am always going to be a little sour over the Fantasma deal (with Live Nation). I know how much my dad’s company meant to him. And I know how much it meant for him to be an independent promoter. I can’t tell you how many times as a young teenager I walked around and told all my friends that I was proud that my dad was an independent promoter. I knew just from being around him that it was something that was insanely rare.

In the ‘90s, I saw everybody around him being eaten up. He’d say, “I’m going to keep pushing.” Not just out of self-respect or the fact that he had the company for 35 years but more that he was doing it for the music.

Is the sourness based on the fact that the buyout of Fantasma Productions came so sudden? That some of the staff reportedly heard about it from reading about it in the newspapers?

It was a sudden turn for everybody, and it was a 360 degree turn in my life. But I was sour because you are talking about (the loss of) a lot of music spirit when any independent promoter is eaten up.

My dad had a real stronghold in Florida. There was the Carefree Theatre and the special events he came up with, like the Wanee Music Festival in Live Oak, Sunfest in West Palm Beach, and the South Beach Comedy Festival in Miami. He had fairs he worked like the Heritage Festival over the years. These kind of things were outside of the box but people noticed them. They were not about (the strategy of) lower ticket prices/higher revenue/bottom line. It was more like “I’m doing this for the fans. That is something you don’t see often today.

Did you go to a lot of his shows growing up?

I was going to shows when I was back in middle school. I remember falling asleep back stage at Ozzfest and being dragged into a settlement (of box office sales) during a No Doubt concert when I wanted to go home.

What do you remember most of watching your father work?

I remember it all. I always kind of shadowed him. I really kept my eyes and ears open. I wanted to take in everything. Early on, it was more about the sights and sounds (at a concert). As time went on, it was more the experience. There were shows I went to that I didn’t care who it was (performing). I wanted to go and have the experience (of watching him). How he sold the show. How he took care of an issue as it arose. How he would run the ticket office when there was an emergency and he had to solve it right way. Those kind of things completely enraptured me. I love problem solving. If anyone was good at problem solving, it was my dad.

He’d have an idea and he would run with it. He had all kinds of ideas that were just flowing around. I remember he promoted (comedian) Jackie Mason in London. An independent (U.S.) promoter doing a show overseas was unheard of back then. He was always looking to build relationships and partnerships and have out of the box ideas, which are things that I am open to as well.

It wasn’t the glitz or the glamour of the music business that knocked me out. It was more that I loved the problem solving aspect and creative aspects of it. That is what really drew me in.

Your father was enthusiastic about talking about the music business?

Oh yeah. He would always ask me what I thought about this or that band. He didn’t want me to go into the music business. He said it was too stressful. But I think deep down he was proud that I was following his footsteps.

During college in Miami, you worked as a college marketing representative for Sony BMG for four years.

Sony BMG certainly was an experience for me. I worked a lot of exciting projects with developing bands including the Fray, and Flyleaf from the ground up. There were 50 reps from across the country and bands came out of this department. We were the eyes and ears of each market. Bands would fight to get word passed out about them by our college marketing department because they realized this could really break them in all of these different markets. Traditional radio and print were fine but we’d get college press and college radio and get records played in the small indie record shops. We’d also put up fliers in lifestyle accounts, and clothing stores and get competitive show marketing.

How did you balance those activities with school?

How did I balance everything with school? I studied a lot but I had this passion for music. My dad would definitely have kicked my ass if I wouldn’t have studied a lot. My major was business management and my minor was music business. I knew that I wanted to be in the music business.

You also managed Big Bang Radio.

That was one of the craziest and toughest experiences of my life. The band did really well. They got on a national reality television show “The National Million-Dollar Bodog Battle of the Bands” and they made it to the top three (bands). That was the highlight of my life in college. They were going on tour with the reality show, and I wanted to be on tour with them. My father said, “You are staying in school.”

Did you suggest acts he might book?

Oh yeah. I did push a lot of breaking acts onto my dad. He would ask me about new acts and ask what I thought of this or that show because I had my ears and eyes out in every aspect of the music business. I would watch the local scene and I would see a lot of bands from the ground up. I tried to drag him out to as many shows as I could, with my band or other shows, but he just wasn’t into it with raising five children. But I would push my opinion onto him. I took in everything he said and we’d bounce back ideas. That’s the toughest part today. Of course, he’s not around and I am not able to do that anymore. He was my source for music knowledge. You can keep learning but it all comes from experience. I really fed off of him with the kind of knowledge he had.

You are spearheading the inaugural Dubfest, a lifestyle and music festival, at ArtsPark in Hollywood, Florida that will feature reggae acts along with ska punk bands.

We sat down when I got to AEG, and started mulling around some good creative ideas. This is a no-brainer as far as a festival that revolves around the Florida lifestyle and culture. Reggae is a no-brainer here. South Florida is a big hub for reggae music. Another hub here is punk rock. We like the fact that ska really mixes in with reggae music.

The festival is starting off modestly with an expected audience of 7,000 to 8,000 and $35 to $40 day tickets.

Yes, we wanted to be conservative and start realistically with the economy the way it is. We’ve tried to make it as price sensitive as possible. A $35 ticket is pretty much unheard of today. We’ve tried to get the strongest acts. We have Bunny Wailer who hasn’t toured the United States in years. He’s one of the last surviving reggae legends and, of course, one of the original Wailers. If he did a date on his own, he’d be able to have a $35 ticket. We also have Lee“Scratch” Perry who lives in Switzerland. He’s coming out for the event because we’ve circled it around the concept of dub music.

People who know reggae will appreciate this lineup.

We call it Dubfest because dub is one of the early sounds of reggae. A lot of the same crowds appreciate Bunny Wailer, Toots and the Maytals, Burning Spear and the bands we have on the festival like Reel Big Fish who were the forerunners of ‘90s ska, Goldfinger, and Badfish (the tribute band dedicated to playing the music of Sublime). (California-based) bands like Slightly Stoopid and Pepper came out of this alternative reggae phase and are popular in Florida.

Sure we could have started adding in pop bands but we wanted to focus on the skate/surf/alternative/reggae culture of Florida. We wanted to focus on what defines Florida. If you jump all over the place (the event) gets diluted as a theme We wanted to think of an event that really defined the Florida culture. Dubfest defines it when you think of the beach; when you think of the ocean; and when you think of surfing and skating. Not to mention alternative reggae is hotter than ever right now.

The festival will feature five interactive “land” themes?

Premiere is where the main stage will be. It is where the main body of acts will perform.

There’s the Meadow where there will be skate boarding demonstrations. We are looking at having professional athletes and skate teams coming in and having some great skate board demonstrations with ramps.

There’s the Grove where the second stage will be and where a big Green Expo will take place. We’ll have environmental agencies, and different companies to teach and educate people about environment and conservation issues..

There’s Serenity (with creative and sensory areas for relaxation) that lends itself to the relaxing aspect of Florida. There will be different play areas and waterfalls and things like that.

Then there’s the Plaza that goes down the middle of the park where food vendors, arts vendors and sponsor booths will be.

The five land concept is helped by the fact that ArtsPark is circular and encompassed by Ritsuko Taho’s water/dream wave sculptures.

The park is gorgeous. When you walk in, it’s a whole other world. It lends itself to the reggae (vibe) with its atmosphere of peacefulness and serenity. It’s a real serene park that people go to meditate in. it really lends itself to a festival like this.

You are basically trying to create an environment for a festival.

I want people to go and check out the atmosphere, hang out with their friends, check out the Green Expo, and check out the skate boarding demonstrations. And, maybe, there’s an act they might want to see.

Sure, the music is very important. But this a music and arts festival. It’s a lifestyle event that people can then say, “I want to come to this regardless of who is playing because it is a great vibe to be around.” 

You could present the festival as a franchise in other parts of the U.S. Is it your aim to try and spread it eventually?

Yeah, it is something that I have thought about. We want to build it down here first. We have a lot of great plans for the event in the future. We want to make this a trademarked event.

You also work on the Suwannee River Jam Country Festival in Live Oak.

It is a country music festival but not your typical country music festival. It is more of a getaway. It is in The Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park that has an insane amount of acres. In April, we had Gretchen Wilson, Blake Shelton, Jamey Johnson, Montgomery Gentry, John Anderson, and Cross Canadian Ragweed. A great lineup. It is an experience to go to the park and go horseback riding or take a dip in the river and still hear the music. So, it’s not your typical country music festival.

Is there a trend in the concert industry toward more atmospheric type events?

I think that there is always going to be that aspect of a live show experience. But just about every band from the ‘70s to today are now competing to get on tour. There’s tons of great bands and great tours out there. People have their pick. With prices being driven down in general, (as a talent buyer) you have to be looking at something outside of the box.

Promoters are being forced to think up new concepts because they have relied so heavily on veteran acts.

Sure. I still think there’s room for the creative experience. People, especially now, are looking to get away from everything. They are looking for that source of entertainment. What I really like about AEG Live is that we are a diverse company that runs sports teams and venues and has an arts and exhibitions division. If someone has a creative idea and wants to propose it, it will never get shot down if it make sense. looks good conceptually, and looks like it will be beneficial for the company. No matter how far out it may be, AEG is open to it.

What do you think about the industry now?

It’s scary. I just hope that people aren’t losing—and I mean everybody, not just music industry professionals—I hope everybody don’t lose sight of the passion for music. Essentially, everybody is now driving (the market) with, “Who has the lowest ticket price?” People aren’t even looking at great packages. It’s like. “Well, the creative (package) is fine, and the $20 Live Nation package is very appealing.” It is not so much buying a ticket anymore for the experience. People are losing sight of the live experiences you can get from a live show. From the whole experience of an event. That is something (concert promoters) need to work more together on.

With the scrutiny of the concert business in recent months, have we demystified the business?

There’s that mystery and magic that goes on behind a show. Now all of these fees and all these logistics behind a concert are being revealed. It’s not important. A fan’s experience shouldn’t be tied into knowing what goes on. (Previously), you were excited to find out what song was next. You were excited about seeing what the band was going to do next. Now, it’s hearing that “This artist is known for not showing” or “I can expect Ticketmaster to tag on one more fee.” This is not what a live performance is. I am hoping that myself with the people at AEG that we keep trying to do more creative and outside of the box things that bring back the magic and mystery of music in general. To offer that fan experience

Do you still get excited going to a concert?

I do get excited about going to a concert because I know that a lot of bands still (perform) for the music and for the passion of the fans. So there’s that excitement. The one thing I really miss is that vintage feel for a show. People would go to the Carefree and not necessarily care about the concert. I would see people in the lobby hanging out and eating pop corn. (The event) was more about the experience of socializing and discussing the bands rather than “I got to go see the band right way because our seats are going to be taken.” It was more relaxed.

Have you had times since your father’s passing that you go to speak to him about an issue and realize he’s not there.

I do it every day. I also think every day, “What would my father have done?” It is pretty intriguing to think what would my dad would have done in this economy. Business in general—not just the concert business-has gone through an insane downturn in recent months. I have thought, “What would dad have done about this?”

The most recent time I talked to my father was on Father’s Day. I went out to his grave. I told him what I had been up to and I gave him a few gifts including my business card. I thought he’d be proud of where I am right now. I guess my business card is one thing that I could leave that says, “Here’s where I am. I’m carrying on what you were doing. The family is great. We are all thinking about you. We love you.”

It was cool to go out there and do that and bounce off everything to him. I know he is looking down and kind of guiding me.

Larry LeBlanc was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.

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