This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Bill Silva, president, Bill Silva Entertainment.
Despite a hot artist management roster, and producing over 10,000 music events in his three-decade career, Bill Silva doesn’t sweat the little stuff.
He’s a large picture guy.
Based in Los Angeles with 16 employees, Bill Silva Entertainment consists of a concerts promotion and touring division, Bill Silva Presents (BSP); and an artist management division, Bill Silva Management (BSM).
BSM handles Jason Mraz, James Morrison, Robert Francis, Christina Perri, Avi Buffalo, Gavin Creel, Good Old War, Grooveline Horns as well as the Portuguese percussion sextuplet be-dom, and writer/director Jai Al-Attas. The division also oversees merchandising, brand licensing, music publishing, and music licensing for its clients.
This year marks the 20th year of Silva’s relationship with the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. In 1991, Silva and Andy Hewitt formed Andy Hewitt & Bill Silva Presents to produce pop and rock concerts at the Los Angeles County-owned venue, which is also the longtime summer home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Over the two decades, the pair have brought a wide range of talent to this iconic venue, including: Elton John, the Rolling Stones, the Eagles, James Taylor & Carole King, Paul McCartney, Andrea Bocelli, Cher, Luciano Pavarotti, Coldplay, Radiohead, Roger Waters, Dave Matthews Band and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
Silva began his entertainment career in the ‘70s while attending the University of California in San Diego, California. There, he organized residence hall concerts, and booked campus shows by Eddie & The Hot Rods, the Only Ones, Dave Mason, Tower Of Power, and Eddie Money.
In 1979, he formed Bill Silva Presents, and began producing concerts full-time. His first post-college show was with jazz pianist Chick Corea at The Roxy Theater in San Diego.
San Diego proved to be a vital concert market, and Silva was able to significantly build up his concert firm. He soon expanded into Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Texas, Idaho, Wyoming, Iowa, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, presenting shows by the Who, the Clash, Simon & Garfunkel, Devo, the Police, Pat Benatar, INXS, Diana Ross, and Willie Nelson.
In 1993, Silva launched an artist management division to oversee the careers of Unwritten Law and blink-182. In 1999, Silva was introduced to singer/songwriter Jason Mraz, and oversaw his international rise to stardom. He also managed comedian/actress Margaret Cho.
In 1999, Silva sold Bill Silva Presents to Universal Studios' concert division which was later purchased by House of Blues Concerts. In 2003, he left House of Blues, and re-formed Bill Silva Presents which has since promoted numerous national tours, including the 2000 "Up In Smoke" tour with Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Eminem; and Kylie Minogue's first tour of North America in 2009.
How many people does the company employ?
Overall, we are at 16 right now. Ten people are specific to management with six managers, including one in the U.K. There are two people in finance, three in concert promotion, including ticketing, and then my assistant.
Looking at the structure of your company, you must be a very focused person. Your company is very layered.
It is funny that you should offer the view that we are very focused. I’m glad it appears that way to the world. I would tell you that I am very unfocused. I’m kind of exaggerating when I say that, but I feel more like a serial entrepreneur. I embrace new ideas. It is not that I get bored easily, but I’m always looking for new challenges. There was a time in my career when I thought that artist management really could not successfully coexist with concert promotion, that concert promotion on its (own) basis is buy low, sell high, and do it often. Obviously, artist management’s basis is a different formula. It is establishing and creating a brand, reinvigorating it on a regular basis, and nurturing the artistic possibilities with the artist. It is wholly different.
Do you assign managers to specific artists for their day-to-day?
That was the model. I was doing the signing, and I was finding great people to work with us, to co-work the account with me, if you will. In the past year, we have brought in Tom Gates from Nettwerk, in particular, who has signed some artists on his own, Christina Perri and Good Old War. So suddenly what I always hoped for the company, which was that not only would we have great people, but by association with us they would be bringing in other great clients, is really coming to fruition.
In the last couple of years we have really bolstered the caliber of the people working here. Patrick Pocklington, who was also with Nettwerk, does Jason Mraz day-to-day. He also does Gavin Creel. We hired Ashley Jex as our new media marketing director, and a couple months later she came in, and said she had come across these kids Avi Buffalo that she thought were great. So she has been managing them. I love them. Larry Butler, who was with Warner Bros., works with us (as general manager) and runs Robert Francis’ business with me.
Ryan Chisholm started with the company as an intern while he was at U.C.L.A.
Ryan has developed into an MVP (Most Valuable Player) for us over the past few years. He looks after James Morrison, who we handle for North America. He is also Tom’s partner on Christina (Perri)and Good Old War. Ryan is the most 'networking' person I can remember working with. He has started a semi-regular event in L.A. geared toward young professionals. These mixers have blossomed into a gathering of 100 or more people. He’s been invaluable in connecting our company and clients to many big opportunities.
When you have found your focus waning in one area, you have to put people in place to make up for you being involved elsewhere, like bringing in Eric Herz in 2005 to oversee concerts and touring.
Absolutely. It gives me the ability to participate in many different things every day and have great people who are focused on different aspects of the business -- whether it is for a client on the management side or the touring side. There’s no question that’s how we are going to continue to thrive and grow, with good people helping to build (the business) out.
[In 2005, Silva hired talent buyer Eric Herz to oversee Bill Silva Presents. Herz, a former Avalon Attractions and Metropolitan Entertainment executive, previously booked the Wiltern and Avalon theaters in L.A. He was among the layoffs at Clear Channel Entertainment as the company restructured.]
Due to consolidations in the recording and concert fields, you can pick up some good people these days.
I had been friends with both Tom and Patrick for many years. I wasn’t really looking to pick them up. In 2006, I took a six month sabbatical. I came to a point where I thought, “I’ve done this for all of these years. I have to pull the rip cord for six months, reset (my life), and if (the company) falls apart, then it wasn’t meant to be.” Clearly, it didn’t all fall apart.
Patrick did the same thing in 2008, and Tom did the same thing in 2009. They both came out of the wilderness saying, “I want to do music again. Anything going on?” It was sort of an attraction of like-minded, kindred spirits.
What did you do in the six months?
I wound up doing a lot of things that I had always wanted to do but I did it without the pressure of emails, and BlackBerries and all that stuff. I really shut down. Everything got handled on the business account (side) by my assistant, who farmed things out to those in the office who can deal with such things. I had a separate BlackBerry, and personal email account that my family and my closest friends (could access). I changed my life for six months. I traveled, I rented a yacht and sailed around the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia with a couple of friends, took a villa in Italy for a week with 20 friends, and went to Burma for three weeks. I did things that I hadn’t done before. I really just turned off the whole business side.
A mid-life crisis?
Absolutely. It sure looked like that. I am 52 now.
What are the pluses of running an entertainment business from Los Angeles?
Part of the pluses is the talent pool of people that work for me. But Los Angeles is also a great base when I am based here. I have a house in Hawaii, I spend about 8 weeks a year there. I spend probably four months a year on the road, and I am in L.A. for six months of the year. When you slice and dice it, that’s how my year ends up looking. I’m a lifelong Californian. I love the temperate weather here, I love the great restaurants here, I have my friends here. It’s an easy base.
Is there still room for a boutique-sized, independent promoter in America?
I would hate to be starting a new business as a concert promoter if I was a new person, if I wasn’t extremely well capitalized, and had a great new game plan. For all intents and purposes, we have gotten out of the one-nighter business as a concert promoter because the margins are too slim. The risk/reward ratio is completely out of whack. People say, “Why don’t you do the secondary markets? It’s not as competitive there.” But, it is as competitive there. What happened is that (concert promotion) turned into a real estate game several years ago. We are so grateful to have one of the most prime pieces of venue real estate in the world with the Hollywood Bowl.
You and Andy have had your best season at the Hollywood Bowl, an estimated $28 to $29 million year.
Best season ever. It happens to be our 20th year there. We like to think that we have finally figured out, after 20 years, how to get it right. In reality, we were the benefactors of great fortune this year when the stars lined up the right way. You couldn’t have scripted it any better. Paul McCartney, the Eagles, James Taylor and Carole King. Carole and James could have done four or five nights, easily. It was a confluence of factors that made it a great year.
[In 1991, Silva and Hewitt formed Andy Hewitt & Bill Silva Presents to produce pop and rock concerts at the Los Angeles County-owned Hollywood Bowl, the longtime summer home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Hewitt is also a key player in the Las Vegas entertainment scene, promoting shows at the Palms Casino Resort in partnership with Live Nation and the Maloof family, among other ventures.
This year has been the most successful yet for the Silva/Hewitt partnership at the Hollywood Bowl. High points included Sting with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra on June 15, the Eagles for three shows in April, James Taylor and Carole King for three shows in May, and Paul McCartney for two shows in March.]
You have had a great partnership with Andy.
Andy and I met in the early ‘80s. He was starting to do some shows on his own in L.A. We are the same age - we were the young guys in California (on the concert scene). Ken Friedman (then with the Bill Graham Organization) was the third young guy in California. Andy and I developed a great friendship. We were on the phone with each other every day asking, “Have you heard this band? Have you heard these guys? What about this?” whether it was the Police from the U.K., or INXS from Australia, or whatever. I did INXS’ first show in United States in San Diego because Andy turned me onto them. We were the excited young guys talking every day about the music that we loved and how we were going to try to do (shows).
We were also both experiencing some similar challenges in getting our businesses started with Premier Talent and Frank Barsalona’s promoter network (in place). Still, I will tell you that Premier was one of the key reasons that we did succeed. They did have their promoter network, but the (business) ethos that they created was, “If you take a chance with our artists when they are young, we will stick with you when they get bigger.” Tim McGrath was my agent (at Premier). When Pat Benatar was starting out, we played her twice. Suddenly she was playing arenas, and everybody was bidding against us for her. I was scared to death that I was going to lose her. Premier called and said, “No, no. It’s your show and here’s what we need you to pay,” which we were happy to pay.
[Frank Barsalona, who opened New York-based Premier Talent Agency in 1964, basically created the regional promoter model in America, building acts with promoters in each market. Among Premier’s acts were Bruce Springsteen, Led Zeppelin, the J. Geils Band, Grand Funk Railroad, U2, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and Van Halen. In 2002, Barsalona merged Premier with the William Morris Agency. After briefly serving as a consultant at WMA, he retired.]
How were you able to promote shows then in Phoenix, Texas, Las Vegas, Idaho and other places? I can’t see Danny Zelisko at Evening Star Productions holding out a welcome mat.
Danny wasn’t particularly happy, but keep in mind, a lot of the stuff when we first started going into Phoenix was stuff that was not on his radar. It wasn’t like we were walking in and stealing Billy Joel or Elton John or AC/DC from him. We were doing Devo, the Clash, and the Smiths kind of stuff. (Alternative music) was just developing in that market. If we could do 5,000 or 6,000 kids in San Diego, we would do 1,000 or 1,500 in Phoenix.
The only promoters then consistently working outside their territories were Barry Fey of Feyline Productions, and Jerry Weintraub with Concerts West.
Bill Graham broke (the market) down with the Stones. But Concerts West had broken it down earlier with Led Zeppelin, John Denver and the Moody Blues. Barry considered Phoenix his territory. Barry told me he was doing shows in Phoenix before Danny Zelisko was. He used to say, “Why does this upstart think it’s his territory?”
You went into business with Barry for a few years.
In ’82, Barry called me and said “I have The Who for San Diego. Do you want to be our partner?” I said, “Of course. Fantastic.” We also partnered on a Willie Nelson show. We got to be friendly with each other. In 1983, we did Simon & Garfunkel together. From ’84 to ’86, I had a deal with Barry where I did everything outside of Colorado basically for him, other than California which was mine.
Did the Fey relationship provide you with greater clout?
Suddenly, there was the extra toe-hold I needed with a couple of agencies and managers. It just gave me such frequent contact with them that it created the platform for the rest of my career. We had been having a hard time with ATI and Bill Elson, cracking through there. All of a sudden, we were doing tons of business with them in New Mexico, Arizona, and the Lost Territories (Wyoming, Idaho, the Dakotas, Iowa, and Nebraska.)
Ted Mankin was then at Jam (Productions) with Arny Granat and Jerry Mickelson. Ted and I were kind of the two guys leading the charge in Wyoming, Idaho, the Dakotas and a couple of other places back then.
The other thing that came with the relationship with Barry, was that he was very tight with (manager) Mark Rothbaum and Willie Nelson. Suddenly I was doing 30 or 40 Willie shows a year, everything west of the Mississippi as well as Western Canada and Hawaii and whatnot. We would always have fun doing that. What a group of characters that was. I mean it in the most loving way. They took great joy leaving me behind when I was too late with settlement. Suddenly, the buses would be gone. Sometimes they would just be circling the block to give me a scare.
Was Chuck Morris working for Barry Fey then?
Oh yeah, Chuck was there. It was a great time. A fun and exciting time to be promoting concerts.
Who did you have as a role model when you started as a concert promoter?
Starting out, I didn’t really have a role model. Growing up in the Bay Area, what Bill Graham did would have sort have been the model for me although I never thought as grandly as that. I didn’t get to know Bill Graham until toward the end of his life. We did spend some time together and he was very gracious with his time. When I got to know Bill in later years, I dug into what he was building as an organization, and giving back to the community. Barry Fey became the first influence on me.
What part of the Bay Area did you grow up in?
Menlo Park. I grew up in a house where we listened to Henry Mancini, and Burt Bacharach. Very pop, very melody-oriented (music). The first artists I saw as a young guy were Gladys Knight & the Pips, Boz Skaggs and Loggins & Messina. I wasn’t that rebellious rocker guy. Some of my friends were the Black Sabbath kids, and the AC/DC kids. The Doobie Bothers were the closest I got to being rebellious. What attracted me (to music) was the melodies. So, I didn’t spend a lot of time at the Fillmore and Wonderland during those days.
You sold Bill Silva Presents in 1999 to Universal Studios' concert division Universal Concerts just as SFX was transforming the American concert marketplace. Why sell your company?
I thought Barry was the scrappiest of promoters, and I had watched him fight and lose with MCA over the years. I had watched what it had done to his health.
[By 1999, under Robert Sillerman, SFX Entertainment had spent about $2 billion buying promoters and other entertainment properties, including snapping up 11 regional companies and 82 venues, before Sillerman sold the company to Clear Channel Entertainment for an estimated $4 billion in 2000. In 2005, Live Nation was formed by a spin-off from the subsidiary, Clear Channel Communications.]
You were on top of a great run when you sold.
We were never going to have a better valuation than San Diego. I was turning 40. I was at a time of my life that I was looking at changing some things up. The business plan that that they bought--in addition to the assets that we brought in--was that Andy and I would become the equivalent of their Concerts West. We would become their touring entity for national touring. And that really excited me. I was really looking forward to doing that aspect of the business. In the end, that didn’t develop. MCA was going through a corporate restructuring. They had been certain—because we asked many times as we were making the deal—that they were not going to be sellers. Basically, we closed our deal, and a month later Jay Marciano (then president/CEO Universal Concerts) told me that Edgar Bronfman had decided that he was putting the concert division up for sale.
[Seagram purchased PolyGram and merged it with Universal Music Group in 1998. However, the new entertainment conglomerate had a brief life. Edgar Bronfman Jr. led Seagram into a controversial all-stock acquisition by French conglomerate Vivendi in 2000. Bronfman also oversaw the $190 million sale of Universal Concerts to House of Blues Entertainment.]
You worked with House of Blues until 2003.
House of Blues bought the company, and we (Andy and I) stayed onboard. I think that in the end, the reality was that we were race horses champing at the bit to go and do our thing. We never got our (plan) funded properly or got the green light to do it (in full). In the end, everybody agreed that it probably would be better for us to take our toys and play with them on our own again, rather than drive them up the wall every day (talking) about what didn’t happen. So, Andy and I took back different assets and recreated (our) businesses.
Your relationship with Andy had shifted as well.
The years with the House of Blues partnership had been difficult. It had been a strain on our relationship. So we agreed, at that point, that the (Hollywood Bowl was going to be the only piece of business that we carried forward with. Just to calm things down a bit.
You and Andy took on bookings at the Hollywood Bowl in 1991 against heavy competition. Is the reason you two got picked because the Bowl would be your primary focus in Los Angeles?
Just that simple. It was really that cut and dry. It was, “We want somebody who’s got no other obligation to help us rebuild our brand.”
[When Los Angeles County and the Los Angeles Philharmonic had approached Silva and Hewitt about a partnership in 1991, it was during a time that the other key promoters in Los Angeles had commitments to other pieces of real estate, including: Avalon Attractions at Irvine Meadows; MCA at the Universal Amphitheater; and the Nederlanders at The Greek Theatre. Los Angeles County and the Los Angeles Philharmonic officials wanted a promoter who would make the Hollywood Bowl their primary focus in Los Angeles.]
The Los Angeles Philharmonic still does programming at the Hollywood Bowl.
The Philharmonic does something between 72 and 75 nights, most of it is with orchestras. They have been a very progressive group in terms of being forward thinking and visionary and looking at what their audience is, and trying to respond to that.
The dilemma that most symphony orchestras and operas have been dealing with—and even Broadway for the past 15 years—was that the average age of their consumer was increasing dramatically. This meant that they were soon going to be looking at an audience that was going to be either not having a disposable income to spend, or not having the mobility to get out to shows, or were just dying.
About 10 years ago, the Philharmonic started doing different programming aimed at bringing in younger audiences to the Bowl, getting them to experience it. It sort of dove-tailed perfectly with what we do. They have partnered with KCRW for these World Music Sunday nights. They’ll have Ray LaMontagne or the Decemberists with the orchestra. Programming that you might expect Andy and I would be presenting, because it is with a popular rock or pop performer. But, in fact, it is part of their series, in conjunction with KCRW, and it is done with a slightly different marketing beat to it. They have been wildly successful.
Between our programming and their programming, instead of 150,000 people that would come to see our shows, now a half million people a year are arguably visiting the Hollywood Bowl who are under the age of 40. Suddenly, you are now creating an annual tradition for these people. You look for, at least one night in the summer, when you can go to the Hollywood Bowl and do something with your friends. This is now becoming an anchor tradition. As long as we can keep that youth demographic coming, all of us are going to continue benefiting for years to come.
American Express has been your partner for several years at the Hollywood Bowl, but they stepped up their participation this year.
Well, they did. We had two years off, where Citibank had come in, and taken their position. But, frankly, we had noticed that the response to the Amex program versus the Citibank program was dramatically different. By the end of the second year, we were pretty convinced that if we could make a deal with Amex, that partnership would accrue better benefits for all of us across the board. And, they have been fantastic partners.
One of the things that they do, in addition to their email blast (about upcoming shows), is an (affiliated) marketing support program. They really market their pre-sales so their card members will get the message, not just through email but through regular media channels. We have set records in L.A. this year (for pre-sells). The Eagles sold more tickets on their Amex pre-sale than anybody has ever sold in L.A., including the Rolling Stones. Again, it is a great tribute to the value that Amex has created for their card members to pay attention and react to the messages that they are giving them. We have been delighted to have their partnership. It has made a real difference in our sales.
Why did you go into management in 1993?
I had a young guy Rick DeVoe working for me at the time as a promoter. We had just done a local show (in San Diego) with Unwritten Law and Rick came in afterwards and said, “These kids in Unwritten Law were amazing. They want us to manage them.” So I said okay. blink-182 was client #2.
How has being a promoter shaped you as a manager?
Well, the promoting side has shaped, in a very strong way, how we have chosen the clients that we have worked with over the years. From the standpoint that because I didn’t come from the record or publishing side of the business, so early on that wasn’t my orientation. I am still not necessarily going to be attracted to someone who may have a great look or a great song or a catchy sound. Although those things are great, the thing that is really going to garner my interest in working with an artist is that they are undeniable live.
Our first (management) choices, Unwritten Law and blink-182; these guys were compelling onstage. Audiences went nuts for them. Then when I heard Jason Mraz in a hotel room with his guitar, singing for me, I got goose bumps. There’s a guy, it doesn’t matter if it’s a big room or a small room, he moves something every night. As a promoter, that visceral experience and connection for me is where I will go, “Okay, I got it.” If this artist has the potential to do this, has the ability to do this, this is somebody I can work with because I know what to do. I know how to get them in front of audiences. Once we start gaining an audience, the rest of it will come, and build along with it. That has been a basic simple (management) philosophy for us.
Jason Mraz is a worldwide star today.
My goal always was that I wanted to work with artists who could be great artists and were accepted internationally. I always thought that Jason was one of those artists. The first record (“Waiting for My Rocket to Come”) did great in Australia, and in Japan. We went to the U.K. a couple of times. I was a relatively new manager when it came to international at that point, but I felt that if we could replicate in other territories what we could do in the U.S.—the live concert—that the live experience and his personal charisma would be the tools that we could use to start the attraction in the different places.
[Jason Mraz emerged from relative obscurity with his 2002 Atlantic Records debut, "Waiting for My Rocket to Come," which sold more than a million units in the United States. However, things went off track with its 2005 follow-up, "Mr. A to Z," which spent just 9 weeks on the Billboard 200. Mraz bounced back in a big way with his third album, "We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things," which peaked at #3 in the Billboard 200, and has sold over 2 million copies worldwide.]
Traditionally, American acts have not strategically toured internationally, other than to go to Europe for the summer festivals.
No question about it.
Your early strategy was to build a large fan base for Jason outside the U.S.
In any (music) career, you are going to have peaks and valleys. That’s just a given. Every record can’t be a smash, every tour is not going to be a smash. If you continue to go back to the well every year—year after year—sooner or later there’s going to be attrition. You don’t have to go back to the well every year to keep your living. You can spread out (touring) over the course of several different international territories. You can do well, and you can have a very even living throughout. When you have the peaks, you mine them. When you have the valleys, they don’t hurt as badly.
How many territories did Jason get to following the 2008 release of “We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things?”
We did 250 shows around the world from April ’08 to October ’09. This time round, we really got the opportunity to go places that we hadn’t been before and were able to expand the footprint. Consistently, promoters in new territories were surprised by how well things went.
It surprised me when Jason sold out the Singapore Indoor Stadium in Kallang, Singapore last year.
Yeah, and we had no gauge in those territories. We didn’t know. So we went in. We took a risk because we normally don’t miss a step (in the touring process). We (usually) start at theatres, and then we build into a small arena, and then we go into the arena. We really don’t miss a step, even when it seems like we could. South East Asia is the one territory where we threw caution to the wind, because there was such bullish sentiment. We went into bigger places than we normally would the first time, and they blew out.
In hindsight, it wasn’t as much of a risk but the reporting (about Jason’s popularity) that we were getting was so far behind, that we didn’t have realtime figures to work with, to know that we were going to be safe.
For instance, in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, Jason has set new records for ringback tone sales. It’s not the ringtone where your handset rings with the song when you get a call. It is when someone is calling you and, while they are waiting for the call, they are hearing a song on hold. This is becoming a huge business in South East Asia.
The first time we got a glimpse of this was when the (Warner) guys in the Hong Kong office said, “By the way, Jason has set a new record in Malaysia for ringback tones.” We asked “Great, what is it?” They said, that the number two artist was (rapper) Flo Rida with 250,000 sales. “What’s Jason at? About 200,000 or 300,000 sales?” They said no. "It’s 1.3 million sales.” I said, "What?”
The Warner team certainly lined up for Jason globally
In any relationship with a label—no matter what great partners you have—you don’t always see things the same way, just naturally. But, I have to say that across-the-board, the Atlantic and Warner international teams were progressive, proactive, and very responsive. The minute that they all got what was going on, there wasn’t a territory in the world that didn’t respond with an effort for Jason, and it really translated. They did a fantastic job.
My experience in meeting all of the people who work for Warner is that they have smart, dedicated musical people around the world. Whether I’m hanging out with Steve Kane in Toronto; Max Lousada or Christian Tattersfield in England; Alain Veille in France; or Calvin Wong, and Eugene Low in Asia, who are brilliant—everybody is working and striving harder. Warners is the kind of partner that you want to be in business with. Look at Lyor (Lyor Cohen, the North American Chairman and CEO of Recorded Music for Warner Music Group). Lyor is a guy who, of course, wants to win and he’s trying to do it in a very smart way. As a manager, I don’t agree necessarily with everything that (Warners) are trying to put on the table, and do. But I give them huge marks for coming up with new ways of doing things, and seeing if they might be able to give the company longevity it might not otherwise have. I’m happy to engage with the conversations with them because they are smart conversations.
How did Jason’s international breakthrough develop?
We went to the U.K. a number of times under the theory that we had to break the U.K. in order to break Europe. So we spent a lot of time and money there. We didn’t sell any records but, by the end of the first record, we were selling out big places. We worked with Toby Leighton-Pope (Live Nation UK). He has been there day one for Jason. He’s been a huge supporter, and a fan. He’s one of the promoters that becomes a partner in the process. As we are looking ahead, he will say, “I have these festivals coming up. I think that this slot will be great for Jason. It will give us a chance to do this next thing after that.” It has been fantastic in that way.
So we left (the U.K.) without many sales, and a good tour support debt after the first record, but we were definitely garnering fans.
The second album “Mr. A-Z” didn’t have the same success as the first album in the U.S.
The second record didn’t have the same success in the U.S., but the sales held up in Japan. Sales also dropped in Australia, although we were able to tour there. We went back to England again and, again and did great live. And that was it.
Then, in 2007, when Jason was between albums and was taking an extended break, I came up with this idea that he loved. It was, “Why don’t you head over to Europe—just you and a backpack and a guitar—and we will set up a few shows a week? It will almost be a summer vacation kind of thing, but you will be playing. We’ve never been to Europe. You really need to start doing your thing over there.” And Jason loved the idea.
This “backpack and guitar” strategy then evolved?
We sent a guy with him, a videographer, who helped carry the merch around. I also called our agent Emma Banks (CAA) and said, “Hey Emma, let’s try to do some things in Europe. Just easy things. No expectations for Jason.” She later came back, and said, “He’s not known in Europe. I’m not getting anywhere with the festivals.” I said, "Don’t worry about it.”
We put up a notice on Jason’s (online) message board saying, “Dear fans, Jason is coming to Europe this summer. If you have a house that can hold 100 to 200 people, and want to have a show with Jason, with your friends, let us know.” We started getting invitations from kids all over Europe.
We started putting together a little house tour and, as we were doing that, Emma came back with a great offer from a festival (Peace & Love Festival) in Borlange, Sweden. Somebody had dropped out. We hadn’t even released a record in Sweden. But, it was great money. That show basically paid the tour. Toby also came up with a slot on Hyde Park Calling. There were one or two other pay days. So great, Jason doesn’t have to write a check for the tour, (to cover a shortfall) although he was ready to.
It ended up becoming this magical tour of Europe.
We had all these kid places to go to as well. We had a villa in Umbria in Italy, a little café in Nice, a place in Paris, a place outside Amsterdam, and the North Sea Jazz Festival came up with something for us at the last moment. It all sort of fell into place.
The video of Jason singing “I’m Yours” at the Peace & Love Festival with the crowd clapping and singing along is pretty powerful.
When we got to Sweden—because I ran over for the show—we were running around Stockholm the night before. It was hard to get a taxi. Three local kids were heading my way, and they jumped in the taxi with me at 4 A.M. I’m an old guy and they are young, drunk Swedish kids. They asked what I was doing in the city. I told them that I was working with Jason Mraz. They all started singing “I’m Yours,” which we had not released at the time. They also sang his older (songs) “Remedy” and “You and I Both” and different things. I asked how they knew all of this stuff. They said, “So sorry. Limewire.” I started laughing, and said, “God bless Limewire.”
The next day we drive up to Borlange for the show. During sound check, all of these kids start running over, and are singing the song (I’m Yours”). Jason was really surprised by that. He goes out to do the set, and most of the festival (audience) must have come over and congregated in front of his stage. They were singing along to his songs, but when he broke into “I’m Yours” as the last song, it was as if it was the national anthem. We got a video of all of the kids singing the song. We had a million views within a few weeks (on YouTube). At the time, the label was feeling like they weren’t sure if Jason had the right songs for the next record. I sent the video to Craig Kallman (co-chairman Atlantic Records). Craig said, “I think we’re ready to go make a record.”
["I'm Yours" transitioned Jason Mraz in North America from promising troubadour to powerhouse hit maker at top 40, adult top 40 and AC — not to mention charting in more than 15 countries.]
Atlantic has been highly supportive of Jason.
I have a great fondness for the people we work with at Atlantic. (Co-chairs) Craig Kallman and Julie Greenwald; Dane Venable in marketing; Torsten Luth who runs the international department; Leslie Cooper (international marketing manager); and Sheila Richman (senior VP publicity). These are people who are really passionate about music. They really care. They really want to make a difference.
As a manager, how important is it being on the road with an act?
Jason and I have a very tight relationship. Jason is fine if I am not on the road with him. He’s a guy who likes fewer distractions; fewer people around. He loves his audience, and he loves to focus and do great. If I am around, 9 times out of 10, I’m going to want to talk about some kind of business stuff with him, and he’s just going to roll his eyes and say, “Oh God, I have to deal with this today.”
Interestingly, the contact with the artist comes into (touring), but for me, as I have been developing the international business for these artists for the last few years, the more important thing for me is to get to the territory. Get to know the label people. Get to know, culturally, what kids are responding to. Get to know at a show what songs are working, and what songs aren’t with the French, the Dutch, the German, the Scandinavians, and the Australians.
And we meet kids in all of these places that we turn into sort of our local intelligence system and street teams. In France, we became friends with this group of four young ladies who are now our front line of offense for any artist that we have over there. They put together the first little shows and invite all of their friends. They love the opportunity to do all that. They are smart, and they give us great feedback. It is a guerilla warfare way of developing the network. That’s what I get out of the travel.
Travel has considerably broadened your scope?
No question. I cannot put my finger up in L.A. and tell you what the weather is like in Des Moines, much less in Paris. It is sort of that boots-on-the-ground, experience it for yourself, creating networks and friendships. When I am traveling, most of the time I am looking forward to visiting my friends in the cities as much as anything that I am doing. Because I have been there so many times that I have friends to go and see, and do social things with.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he 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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