This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Michael Cohl, founder and chairman, S2BN Entertainment.
Canadian Michael Cohl’s portfolio is crammed with career triumphs from all sectors of entertainment.
It includes being the pre-eminent rock promoter in North America for decades; piloting the first global tours of the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, and U2; and being an aggressive player in music, sports, theater, film and television sectors.
Along with veteran producer Jeremiah J. Harris, Cohl oversaw the Broadway launch of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.” Now in its 3rd year, it is one of the Top 20 highest-grossing Broadway shows of all time.
It’s wasn’t Cohl’s first run on the Great White Way.
He co-produced Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Bombay Dreams” on Broadway; and was involved with the Monty Python musical, “Spamalot,” in the Big Apple. He is also one of the lead producers of the “Rock of Ages” stage musical.
Previously, Cohl was involved with Toronto runs of “Beatlemania,” “Man From La Mancha,” “The Lion King,” “Hairspray,” “The Producers,” and the $27 million stage adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's “The Lord of The Rings” that debuted in Toronto in 2006.
Cohl’s first outing as a concert promoter was in 1970 at the 18,000-seat Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto with Buck Owens and the Buckaroos. Owens stayed in his dressing room until Cohl was able to borrow the final part of his fee from the arena’s owner.
A few years later, Maple Leaf Gardens was seeking a concert partner to work with exclusively, and Cohl was picked, leading him on the path to becoming Canada’s concert emperor.
In 1973, Cohl and three partners launched Toronto-based Concert Productions International.
For the next decade, CPI was primarily a Canadian player in the North American concert landscape. That changed as CPI significantly extended its sphere of influence, first across Canada through affiliations with Donald K. Donald in Montreal, and Perryscope Concert Productions in Vancouver; and, then, with affiliations with key regional promoters in the United States.
While CPI became North America’s innovator in full-service touring, there was sizable resentment in the industry because of the company’s strategy of consolidating local markets by either buying out local promoters or forcing them to partner for shows.
In 1989, Cohl wrangled the tour and merchandising rights to the Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels world tour from San Francisco-based promoter Bill Graham, and basically told local promoters, "Here's the deal."
Cohl went on to oversee David Bowie’s first global tour, as well as large-scale international tours with Pink Floyd, U2 and others in the ‘90s.
Cohl became a major player on the global live music stage despite having no prior experience of promoting or producing shows overseas. He not only had to arrange the financing necessary to launch such ventures, but he had to find partners in markets the world over that could coordinate production, marketing, and staging of shows.
In 1996, MCA Concerts Canada, and Molson Breweries purchased the concert divisions of BCL Entertainment, including CPI, Perryscope Concert Productions in and Donald K. Donald Productions.
In the summer of 1996, Cohl and Bill Ballard formed The Next Adventure (TNA) based in Toronto and Bermuda with their own financing. They later acquired investors to back the $100-plus million tour guarantees of U2, the Rolling Stones and others.
TNA was bought by SFX Entertainment in 1998 for an undisclosed sum.
In 2006, Live Nation acquired a controlling interest in the touring division of CPI, as well as a 50% interest in the Grand Entertainment division of the company. Cohl joined Live Nation’s board of directors, and was named vice chairman of the company, as well as CEO for Live Nation Artists.
In 2008, Cohl was elected the chairman of the company's Board of Directors.
However, after steering Live Nation's string of unprecedented mega deals with Madonna, Jay-Z, U2, and Shakira, Cohl resigned his position as chairman of the Live Nation board, and vacated his post as CEO of Live Nation Artists.
Today, Cohl heads S2BN Entertainment, a diversified event entertainment company based in New York City and Toronto that specializes in the acquisition, development, and production of touring exhibitions, live music tours and events, theatrical performances, and consumer and multimedia product offerings.
You are often described as a high school drop-out.
No. I finished high school. I went to Vaughan (Vaughan Road Collegiate), and then I went to Bathurst (Bathurst Heights Secondary School). Then I went to York University in 1966 or 1967.
What did you major in?
I was taking drugs, ping pong, and clubbiish.
You worked as a taxi driver, and as a parking lot attendant.
At one point or the other, I did both of those things. But they were spare time, “I’m broke. I’ve gotta get some money.” Drive cab for a week or go down to the parking lot in the summertime because when school is out, you have to make money, right? I did work as a parking lot attendant down at the (Toronto) ferry docks.
One of the first rock shows that you attended was with the Jefferson Airplane, and the Grateful Dead?
Yeah, at the (residential) quadrangle at Columbia University. They showed up because there was a student uprising. The bands came in to support it. I was hanging out in New York back then.
[The Columbia University protests of 1968 erupted after students discovered links between the university and the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), a weapons research think-tank affiliated with the U.S. Department of Defense, as well as concern over a gymnasium to be constructed in the nearby Morningside Park.]
In the late ‘60s, you and producer Bob Ezrin co-managed a Toronto band.
It was Icarus. Later, they were called Dixie Rump Roast. They had a different bunch of names. Ezrin was the producer, and I was the manager. I’m still good friends with Ezrin. Eddie Schwartz (who’d later write “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” recorded by Pat Benatar) was in the band.
[Recalls Bob Ezrin, “Michael and I co-managed Icarus. He thought that meant booking the band at clubs, and shows, and I thought it meant working on their material. I didn't become their official producer until they became Dixie Rump Roast. Cohl and I met through David Wolinsky, who was my neighbor. Along with the Icarus guys, we all used to party together.”]
Were you a good manager?
No, I was a terrible manager. At the time, I didn’t know what I was doing. Icarus made a record. I don’t remember for what label.
[As Dixie Rump Roast, the band was signed by ABC-Dunhill Records. Bob Ezrin recorded their album at Toronto Sound with engineer Terry Brown. However, ABC-Dunhill’s president Lasker rejected the album.]
Was that the only band you managed?
No. I’m sure I managed other bands. I just don’t remember because I’m old.
Let’s talk about your first concert company, Cymba Productions.
Cymba. Holy shit. I may not remember a lot of that. Cymba was Allen Mernick dog’s name. He was a friend of mine from high school.
You lost money on your first four shows.
It might have been five. The first show was with Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, and I lost money.
It’s March, 1970 and Buck Owens is in his dressing room at Maple Leaf Gardens and he’s refusing to go onstage. You borrow $12,500 from Maple Leaf Gardens owner Harold Ballard.
It was either $12,500 or $25,000. I think that the whole fee was $25,000, and I needed to come up with $12,500.
You had never met Harold Ballard before?
No, I had never met Harold. There were two problems that night. Number one was that we all started learning about the Canadian withholding tax. My next lesson was that Buck Owens doesn’t’ want to pay the withholding tax. He’s also refusing to go one unless I pay his taxes.
[When a non-resident enters Canada to perform services, they are subject to a 15% levy on account of income tax payable in Canada. This charge applies similarly to musicians, and other performing artists. According to Revenue Canada, these performers are carrying on business in Canada, and are subject to tax on their income earned in the country.]
I was at that show.
There weren’t many people.
No. About 2,300 paid and, I think, that there were 18,000 seats.
Who got you to Harold Ballard?
I did. I didn’t know what to do. I kept running to the box office asking, “Have we sold any tickets?” Thinking that I could grab the cash, and take it to Buck. We are like 20 minutes past starting the show, and the crowd is getting restless. Jesse James, the building manager of the Gardens at the time, says, “I’m calling the police. I think that we have to call the police because we probably are going to have a riot here. I’m calling the riot squad.”
Now, I’m panic-stricken.
I’m going, “You’ve gotta be kidding me?” I’m following Jesse, and he’s saying, “I’m turning the lights on, and I’m pulling the power.” I am still following him. As we walked behind the stage, I see the big doors that used to go down the ramp backstage at the Gardens. I see a car drive in, and I see Harold get out. So I say to Jesse James, “Is Mr. Ballard in the building?” I know he’s in the building. “He says, “Yes.” I say, “I would like you to ask him if he would see me.” I figured that my only chance was to see if Harold would lend me the money. Jesse says, “He will never see you.” I tell him, “Tell him, it’s Michael Cohl, Phil Cohl’s son.”
My father was in the ladies manufacturing business, and I knew that he had bought boilers from Harold. He had that other business on the side for years. Lo and behold, Jesse James comes to me five minutes later, and says “Go up and see him (Harold) in his apartment.” It was the first time I had ever seen the apartment. I was so knocked out that there was an apartment in Maple Leaf Gardens. I go to see Harold. It was unbelievable. Not only did he lend me the money, but he lent me extra money so that I could do a show, and I could pay him back. As he’s doing it, he says, “I don’t know why I am doing this because nobody ever pays me back.”
What was the next show you lost money on?
That was Beggar’s Banquet at the Stanley Park Stadium (in Toronto,) which doesn’t exist anymore. That was number two. But that was an amazing story. Do you remember that stadium? Most people don’t. It was on King Street (in Toronto).There used to be an older stadium there.
What acts were on that show?
It was Sha Na Na, Poco and some other bands. We had this idea (for selling tickets) that was $5 two months in advance; $6 a month before; and $7 at the door and we would have 12 acts. We offered a free health food dinner. I didn’t know what I meant by health food dinner. Two days before the show, I realized that it meant that I had to buy some fruit and vegetables, and set up some tables for everybody to have salad, fruit and vegetables. That was health food in 1970, right?
How did you lose money this time?
There was The Strawberry Fields Festival that was supposed to happen in Moncton, New Brunswick, but the people there decided that they didn’t want it at the last minute. There was a court case, and the court threw them (the promoters) out. They didn’t know what to do. They had two or three days and 25 acts. “What are we going to do? What are we going to do?” They booked it (the event) at Mosport (at Mosport Park Raceway in Bowmanville, Ontario) the same weekend (Aug. 7-9, 1970) as my show, and they had some of the same acts.
Here’s Michael Cohl, the great businessman. I’m a slow learner, but a good learner. Now you could pay $7 or $8 to come, and see my 12 acts at Stanley Stadium in Toronto, or you can drive out to Mosport, and see 25 acts for the same price. And many of the same acts because I am too stupid to have a lock-in clause that you can’t play within 100 miles of Toronto. Because I don’t know what I’m doing.
It’s my second show, ever.
Of course, we were headed for what looked like a good profit. We needed about 2,000 more tickets in the last five days in order to break even. It was easy to say that on a nice day that we’d sell 5,000 or 6,000 and make a fortune. They announced The Strawberry Fields show at Mosport, and we then sell 1,300 tickets in the next five days, and I’m losing money again.
You and Rick Brown opened the Ottawa strip club, Pandora’s Box?
Yeah, Rick Brown and a bunch of other people including (Ottawa promoter/manager) Harvey Glatt. Harvey will love having his name associated with a strip club again. It was Harold Levin, Harvey Glatt, Rick Brown, and me.
Why a strip club in Canada’s capital city when you didn’t live there?
You basically had to kill someone to get fired from the government. It (a strip club) was impervious to recession, and inflation. We figured—because we were young and stupid—that you’d have to be a pervert to work for the government. A lot of them were up in Ottawa, right? The logic is impeccable isn’t it?
You had the strippers take off their pasties?
Exactly. I would like to blame Ricky because he’s passed, and he could never argue. It was Rick’s idea to do the strip club. It was my idea to go all nude.
How long did the strip club last?
It lasted years. We weren’t involved the whole time. We got aggravated, arrested, troubled, and decided to move on and do something much more interesting. I think it (the club) probably lasted for four, five or six years.
[Pandora's Box opened in Canada’s capital city in Oct. 1971 at 323 Bank St., the site of former Imperial Theatre, one of Canada’s finest movie houses when it opened in 1914.
Not only was Pandora's Box the first strip club in Ottawa, but it is believed to be the first strip club in Canada to feature full nudity onstage.
The day following the opening, local TV station CJOH ran a story that inadvertently showed stripper Bobby Day performing in her proverbial birthday suit.
Carleton County assistant Crown attorney Paul Dick then charged the station with "exposing to public view an obscene film.” He also charged the club owners with providing the original obscenity.
The criminal trials of Pandora's Box was front-page news in the Ottawa Citizen, and Ottawa Journal in 1972. Local radio stations provided hourly updates.
In the trial against the club’s owners, Carleton University professor Charles Haines--an occasional patron of the club---spoke on the history of burlesque. The defense witness told the court that the girls at Pandora's Box were providing, "a medium to high-level burlesque. It would have been the same in Shakespeare's time. Perhaps, not quite as good.”
In both cases, judges acquitted the defendants.
Pandora's Box stayed open a few more years, before making way in 1978 for Barrymore's Music Hall, which remains one of the top live music clubs in Canada.]
Did seeing Harvey Glatt making $5,000 from a concert convince you to be a concert promoter?
It was more that the strip club was aggravating. There were legal issues all over the place. It was like, “Jesus Christ, we think of ourselves as smart guys, and look at the crap that we’ve got ourselves involved in.” One night I was in town (in Ottawa) and I asked Harvey what he was doing. “Let’s have dinner.” He said he couldn’t because he had a concert with the Guess Who. I went to the show with him, and we had a sandwich afterwards. He made a lot of money, and it was “Mr. Glatt” and it all looked very exciting. The fans looked like they were having a great time, and the show was exciting. That was a big inspiration. By then, I was already thinking about concerts too. Some other friends had already been doing concerts in Toronto. Solniki Gord Bregman and Brower-Walker-Eaton. So it was all happening around the same time.
Following some more failed shows, you had to borrow $35,000 from your Uncle Murray to keep going.
I had to borrow money from my Uncle Murray because after the three or four shows, I had lost all of the money that I had, and that I had borrowed. So he lent me $35,000. It was (from) my uncle, but it was my aunt that I had to talk to. I suspect that my mother sent me to aunty Miriam because she’d be, maybe, easier (to deal with). Uncle Murray was a real businessman, and aunty Miriam was just my aunt who lived next door. After the Buck Owens’ shows there was Ravi Shankar, Melanie, and Beggar’s Banquet. There were a string of losers. Bottom line, there were four or five shows that all lost money. So what the hell do you do now? You have all of the money from your friends so your family is your last resort.
A couple of years later, Maple Leaf Gardens was looking for a promoter to partner with. They were talking with Jerry Weintraub.
They definitely looked at Weintraub, and at (Toronto-based promoter) Marty Onrot.
Marty was doing shows at Maple Leaf Gardens.
We were all doing shows there. Everybody was doing shows there. They (the Gardens) were seeking a deal where they became partners with somebody. They announced it way in advance that they were going to do this. I said to myself, “There’s not a chance that I’m going to win” because Marty was doing the Moody Blues and Creedence Clearwater and all of the big acts. I was the Johnny come lately, really.
[Martin Onrot began presenting performers in Toronto in 1961 when he opened The Fifth Peg folk club. He later oversaw bookings for the annual Mariposa Folk Festival. In 1964, Peter, Paul and Mary asked Onrot to promote their Canadian concerts. He was soon handling the Canadian concerts of Albert Grossman’s other clients, including Bob Dylan. In 1971, Onrot and Columbia Records of Canada partnered to launch a concert firm, Encore Productions. In 1973, Onrot set up Martin Onrot Inc. which handled his concert activities, as well as the management of the Canadian bands Crowbar, and Bearfoot.]
Marty was probably doing 50 concerts a year in Toronto between Maple Leaf Gardens, and Massey Hall at the time.
But he wasn’t doing many shows at Maple Leaf Gardens. (At the time) the Philadelphia Spectrum had 35 concerts a year. The Chicago Stadium, which is an arena, had 35 to 40 concerts a year, and the Gardens had 10 or 12. They were frustrated. Of course, they were part of that same (hockey) clique where they go to NHL meetings, and they’d hear, “Harold, you are up to 12 shows. Aren’t you good? We had 12 shows 20 years ago. Don’t you know anything about the (arena) business?”
How did you finally get into Maple Leaf Gardens?
What happened was this. I decided that I was going to win. That was it. I was going to win. I told them in advance that I was going to win. I told Peter Larsen, who was looking at it (the deal) for the Gardens. I said, “We’re going to win. The way that we are going to win is that we are going to create shows that won’t otherwise exist without us. Once we come in, and work with you, we will do more shows like that. Furthermore, Creedence Clearwater and Elton John are all going to play the building anyway. Jerry Weintraub is likely to bring Neil Diamond and Led Zeppelin anyway. So the single most valuable player is going to be me.”
I did more shows over the next year at the Gardens than Marty did. Ninety percent of which would not have existed otherwise. They were Beggars Banquet type shows.
You did those shows under the Cheap Thrills banner.
That’s right. That was Steppenwolf, Three Dog Night and five or six other acts that didn’t belong in the Gardens at the time. It turned out that they (the Gardens) picked me, which was fantastic. .
You were a salaried employee of Concert Promotions International?
That’s right. For Maple Leaf Gardens which owned Concert Promotions, exactly.
You were getting 15%.
I think I made…you probably know better….I think that I made $30,000 (per year).
Concert Promotions International lost money on a number of shows starting out.
The first profitable show was Emerson Lake & Palmer, where you made a profit of $10,000.
I don’t know how you know we made 10 grand. I don’t even know that. How do you know that?
I found that mentioned in a newspaper clipping.
I don’t remember that. I probably made that up. We made more on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young at Varsity Stadium (Sept. 2, 1974)
That was with The Band. The ticket price was $12, which was declared a “rip off” by the local media.
Well, $12, there you go. Unbelievable. Hey, you know what? Throughout the years, I’ve been known as the guy who did make ticket prices higher. So if that was a rip off what can I tell you?
Eventually, you and others bought the company, and renamed it Concert Productions International.
It was in ’73 or ’74 that we bought the company from Harold Ballard and Maple Leaf Gardens. That was Billy (Ballard), Peter Larsen, David Wolinsky and me.
There were rumors of you having mob connections in those early days.
I didn’t have any. Not me. What are you talking about? I am a Jewish kid from the Eglinton and Bathurst area (of Toronto)
One of CPI’s first offices was behind the loading dock of a grocery store.
That was a great one. My friend Myron Wolfe was a good friend of Billy Ballard’s at the time. We were sitting around The Hot Stove Lounge (at Maple Leaf Gardens) one day, and I asked what he was doing. He said. “I’ve gone to work for my family’s business, The Oshawa Group. I look after the real estate.” Somewhere in the middle of the meal, he mentioned something like, “dead real estate.” I asked, “What the heck is ‘dead space?’” He said it was space that was unrentable. I said that we had a company that was bleeding money. “We don’t have any money. We don’t know how we are going to survive. I will look after the ‘dead space’ for you. If you do ever find that it’s rentable and you can get money for it. Throw me out. Free rent is just what I need right now to stay in business.” He said, “Fine.” So it was a shopping plaza. Then there was the warehouse, and we were behind the warehouse behind the plaza. We lasted there about two years. We didn’t pay any rent. It saved our bacon.
CPI published a great music magazine called Cheap Thrills.
It was for our Cheap Thrills Club. Everything was for Cheap Thrills. Thank you Janis (Joplin).
There were few music promoters in Canada then. David Horodezky in Calgary with Brimstone Productions; your partner, Donald Tarlton in Montreal with Donald K. Donald; and Ron Sakamoto with Gold & Gold Productions in Lethbridge, Alberta. In 1977, Perryscope Concert Productions came along in Vancouver with Norman Perry and Riley O’Connor.
We were Perryscope. Donald and I kept hearing one time too many from agents, who wanted to control everything and didn’t like anyone else getting in control, that, “You and Donald are getting too big.” So we found Norman Perry (to open Perryscope) whom Donald knew well; and who we had both worked with. We said “Go out to Vancouver, and call the company Perryscope, and don’t tell anybody you don’t have to that it’s us.”
CPI was probably doing 500 to 1,000 shows across Canada each year in the late ‘70s and ’80s.
Yeah we were. It was fantastic. It was unexpected. It was enormously successful.
Canada has been a productive territory for touring artists in recent years, but very few International acts toured Canada before the ‘80s. Agents thought of Canada as 6 cities.
More, it was (considered to be) two cities. Most of the time, it was two.
Montreal and Toronto.
CPI and Donald K. Donald developed extensive Canadian tours that showed everyone that they could make money in Canada.
A lot more of that, initially, was Donald (Tarlton) more than me. Truth be told. He had Aquarius Records, and he was doing (national) tours with the Stampeders and April Wine.
They were the first two acts to extensively tour Canada, and play all of the small markets.
Exactly. I simply adapted that idea by sitting with Donald. “Let’s start talking all of these other people into doing it too.” Donald and I both thought it was a great idea. It made much more sense to work with each other than to compete.
You two found money in those secondary markets.
There was money everywhere. The music at that time, you remember, it was happening. It was infectious. Everywhere we went.
I hate to say it, but you really took advantage of the beer war between Molson Brewery, and the Labatt Breweries of Canada.
I don’t know why you’d hate to put it that way. That’s precisely what we did.
How did CPI come to work with Molson?
We were looking for sponsorship from the start, but none of the companies wanted to touch us because rock and roll was (considered) dangerous, and unreliable, with people with long hair, and T-shirts who didn’t have any money. I was frustrated. There was a guy named Jody Bishop at Molson. I told him, “I’ve got to get you. I know that the next step for us, as a business and for our promotions, is to make it (the company) bigger and bigger. I’ve got to get you onside. How do I do it?” He said, “I don’t know.” So I asked, “What are you guys looking at sponsoring?” He said, “Well, we have done some research, and we really think that it would be really good to have a tennis tournament.” I said, “Fine. I’m going to do the tennis tournament. I’m going to promote it for you, and put it on. We’re going to make it as success. You have to sponsor it. I’m going to take the risk because that is what I do. By working with me through the tennis, hopefully, you will learn that we are great promoters, and you will sponsor our concerts.”
CPI first worked with Molson, but then you started working with its competitor Labatt, which had been losing Canadian market share to Molson. How did that come about?
It was a circumstance of being at the right place at the right time. Molson had, I thought, treated us unfairly on a particular deal that had actually threatened the existence of the company through (Harold Ballard’s accountant) Don Crump and Maple Leaf Gardens. They left us out hanging and forced us to do some things that we should never have had to do which basically wiped out all of the equity in the company; wiped out the value of any of our shares, and left us working for Molson as employees, essentially. It forced me to look around and ask, “What can I do?”
What happened next?
Now, we’re into mid to late ‘80s. They were building SkyDome (now Rogers Centre). A friend of mine (Toronto developer) Eddie Cogan called me and he talked about how SkyDome was looking for a promoter. He put my name forward, but people at the board had said, “No bloody way Cohl is getting in this building. He’s Molson’s guy.” It was clearly Labatt at the time.” So my friend was calling to say, “Can you work with Labatt?” I said, “Yeah. But, you know that Molson holds the paper on my company?” He said, “Well, do you think you can sell your company to Labatt, and we can clean all of this up?” I said, “I don’t really know, but I love that idea. Let’s have the lawyers look at it.” We sold the company to Labatt. Cleaned up all of that mess with Molson, and we were off to the races.
[in 1987, Cohl partnered with Labatt Breweries of Canada in BCL Entertainment, which became CPI’s parent.]
Labatt pumped in $25 million into CPI?
I don’t remember how much.
Yes you do.
No I don’t. But they gave us a lot of money. We were suddenly financed and able to do what we needed to do as opposed to living hand-to-mouth.
In 1990, Molson made a deal with MCA Concerts to create MCA Concerts Canada—a competitor.
They knew that their time was up. They had still two or three years left in the sponsorship (deal with CPI). So, for the first year or two, they didn’t do anything. Then they realized that they had to live on their own, and they did.
[MCA Concerts Canada morphed into Universal Concerts Canada, and then House of Blues Canada.]
Did you deal much with Michael Rapino when he was at Labatt Breweries of Canada.
A little bit, yeah. We connected. We became friends.
[Canadian-born Michael Rapino worked at Labatt Breweries of Canada for 10 years in various marketing and entertainment roles. While at Labatt, as dir. of entertainment and sports, he worked closely with Labatt's-owned Toronto Blue Jays, and with CPI. He subsequently became head of Labatt's marketing brands.
Upon leaving Labatt, Rapino co-founded Core Audience Entertainment which was acquired by SFX Entertainment in 1999, creating SFX Canada. After running Clear Channel Entertainment’s Canadian operation, Rapino ascended to the head of its European operation in 2001, before being named global music head in 2005.]
You have had many investors over the years. A lot of times, you haven’t used your own money.
That’s not true. For much of my career I used my own money. I sold those companies, and they became other peoples’ monies and properties. But quite often, almost always, I had money at stake. Donald and I always had our money up. Then we’d do a deal with Labatt or Molson and their money would be up. Then it (the deal) would expire, and we would go back to putting our own money up. That differentiates me from a lot of the other people. I still have money in “Spider-man.”
It’s about that much (laughing).
You’ve never had company “Michael Cohl Presents.” Why not?
I liked the other names better.
In 1995, The Toronto Star printed a 4,000 word front page article with the striking headline, "King Cohl of Rock'n'Roll and the Tax That Never Was."
I remember that. That was horrible. I hated it. It was the day of my son’s 13th birthday. So that was a complete piece of shit. On Jake Cohl’s 13th birthday. It was Dec. 17th. That’s the only reason I remember it. That sucked. We had a running go at each other for years.
[Investigative reporter Kevin Donovan wrote: “The world’s top concert promoter has pulled off a phony, multi-million dollar tax scheme at the expense of big-name rock ’n’ roll bands, and the Ontario public.
The scheme, orchestrated by Toronto-based Concert Productions International (CPI), has been carried out at the Grandstand concerts held during the Canadian National Exhibition since 1984.
Bruce Springsteen, U2, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Rod Stewart and Tina Turner--you name it, the big-name concerts have been hit.”
According to Donovan, Michael Cohl vigorously denied any wrongdoing. He reportedly told Donovan, "A hundred per cent of the box office goes to the CNE. It includes the 10 per cent tax, allowance, benefit, exemption or whatever you want to call it."]
Did you sue?
What was the outcome?
Nothing, really. They (The Toronto Star) stopped writing stories eventually. But their whole thing was just to get the police, and everyone involved.
The CNE told them all along that they had every penny that they were supposed to have. But we couldn’t let that get in the way could we? In the end, we saw what happened. Everybody in the country was doing it exactly as we were doing it. We were big prey so they (The Toronto Star) took a shot, and it didn’t work.
[The Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) is held each summer at Exhibition Place, a 192-acre site located along Toronto’s waterfront on the shores of Lake Ontario. Exhibition Stadium, built in 1948 and demolished in 1999, accommodated 54,000 spectators. It was home for the Toronto Argonauts football team, and the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team. In addition, Exhibition Stadium’s stage had many music acts over the years, including the Beach Boys, the Monkees, the Cars, the Guess Who, the Who, Billy Idol, Nine Inch Nails and Tina Turner.]
Unlike say Pace Entertainment in Houston, CPI never owned buildings.
I actually did look at it. It does make sense. It didn’t make sense in the position that we were in. Between Donald K. Donald, CPI, and Perryscope we had a firm foothold in Canada. The other expansion was in merchandise. The buildings didn’t help that. Another expansion was in doing world tours. Not owning buildings. Other people were looking at their foothold in their territory, and cementing it further and further. We were looking at a different approach. It just didn’t make sense to Donald or myself to build a $20 or $25 million building when we could take that money and get a whole tour.
Most of them, with Pace, and the Nederlanders (The Nederlander Organization), were amphitheatres. When you live in a cold weather country, it’s just a summer venue only.
In Toronto, we had the CNE which was really good, and we had Maple Leaf Gardens. In our home (turf), we were hoping nobody would build an amphitheatre. In some ways the good news was the bad news; meaning that we precipitated some of this battle between Molson and Labatt over music. We jumped from Molson to Labatt which definitely led to Universal/Molson, and the Molson Amphitheatre which led to a change in what used to be our home territory. But, by then, we had moved on.
There’s been significant expansion in venues overseas of late.
AEG is building arenas in Europe which was something that was sadly lacking. I’m sure it’s a great success, and it will continue to be. Listen, it’s a big players’ game now. Let’s face it. AEG is up for sale for billions, and Live Nation trades at a market cap of billions. It’s not Michael borrowing $35,000 from aunty Miriam anymore.
[In a March14, 2013 statement, AEG Entertainment owner Philip Anschutz announced that he has pulled AEG off the market, and the company is no longer for sale.
Anschutz said that he had made clear that he wouldn't sell the company unless the right buyer came forward. He said he will resume a more active role in the company and Tim Leiweke, who has served as president and CEO, is leaving.]
You went into the United States with CPI USA. You started out there by buying 50% of Feyline Productions in Denver.
I did. What a mistake. Holy shit! Holy Christ! We also took half of Brad Parsons in Michigan. We took half of Randy Levy in Minnesota, and worked with Cecil Corbett down in the Carolinas. There are probably more (companies) that I have forgotten. The idea was to try set up a CPI/Donald K. Donald venture in the United States, and to take on as much of the market share down there as we could.
With the partnership model you had in Canada with Donald K. Donald and Perryscope.
You got it. Exactly. And try to take on as many shows, as we possibly can and expand. That’s what it was all about.
Meanwhile, many of those regional concert promoters in America who sold out to SFX Entertainment were terrified that CPI was coming into their territory.
You know what? On the one hand, they should have been. On the other hand, Bob (Sillerman) was paying really good prices. What they don’t like to talk about is that they all thought Bob was crazy paying so much for their companies. Of course, he had the last laugh because he knew what he was doing. But it was just part of the evolution of what had to be. The business was growing. The acts were growing. The record companies were sniffing around as well.
Many of the promoters who made deals with SFX regretted it.
I didn’t. I didn’t regret selling my company any time.
We could do a contest on how many times you’ve sold companies including CPI, The Next Adventure, BCL, Grand Entertainment and so on.
At least 6 or 7 times. I loved selling to Bob (Sillerman) and being part of that whole opportunity, and seeing it happen from the inside. It didn’t change what I was doing very day. In fact, none of the sales of my companies ever changed what I do every day.
Because when you sold, you have always had clauses allowing you to do different things.
Well, they wanted me to. It was part of the new partnership. So that was all fine.
Grand Entertainment had a 360-style strategy of being involved in recording, merchandising, TV production, and touring. Previously, CPI had founded The Agency, and bought into the Canadian company, Love Productions which administrated its own Daffodil and Strawberry labels in Canada as well as Island Records.
All of this seems like the same 360-style template you brought to Live Nation Artists.
It is. It is because the vision never changed. Never changed. I always thought from day one that--what people call the 360 model now, right?---I thought that the 360 deal was going to be most effective; whether it was all owned by one central company or it was co-operations, and partnerships. It was always the best way to do it (operate). It’s the way things work in most businesses.
To think that you had live acts touring and touring and touring, and if the record company and the promoter aren’t completely aligned, and aren’t completely in sync, and in one with each other, and the merchandiser wasn’t part of it; it just didn’t make sense to me.
We’d walk into Maple Leaf Gardens, and there’d be some guy from the record label, who had done nothing to help our concert trying to take the band out afterwards. Then there was a merchandiser and he was trying to take the band out afterwards. Then the promoter was trying to take the band out afterwards. Later on, there were the TV channels, MuchMusic and the MTVs of the world trying to take the bands out afterwards. You sat there looking at it. From day one in 1970, I knew what I wanted to do.
At the end of the day, it’s about leveraging your assets.
Listen, even back in the early ‘70s, it made no sense that we didn’t sit down and say, “Radio station, TV station, newspaper, merchandiser, promoter, building,” every time that we’d work with an act. Let’s have a meeting. Let’s have a plan. Everybody decide what the nature of the campaign is going to be. What the tone of the campaign is going to be. What the color of the campaign is going to be; and what the campaign is going to be.
From the beginning, I thought that was the best way to do it.
Now the other side of it, of course, was that once I got into the business. I realized that every other promoter on earth--Marty Onrot and so on---didn’t want me to have a show. The agents only wanted me to have the shows that they wanted me to have or shows that I overpaid terribly for. You can go right down the line. It was a really insular business of people who wanted to cut your throat, and who wanted to keep you away. I wasn’t blind nor deaf about that. If I owned The Agency, and I owned the record label (Love Productions), and I owned the promoting company, I probably got to do the tour.
Plus you controlled merchandising through The Brockum Group.
Yeah. That came later too. It’s all the same thought. And the thought never changed whether it was called CPI and Love Productions or Grand Entertainment or it was called Live Nation Artists or it was called 360 deals. I was trying to put that together from the ‘70s onward. So, in some respect, people might say that he’s had a heck of a career, and he’s been really successful. On the other hand, if that was my original idea, I wasn’t very successful at ultimately putting it together. So be it.
[In 2007, Madonna became the first artist of Live Nation’s new Live Nation Artists division.
Live Nation’s deals with Madonna, Jay-Z, U2, Shakira, and Nickelback encompasses all of their music and music-related businesses, including the exploitation of their brand, studio albums, touring, merchandising, fan clubs/Web sites, DVDs, music-related television and film projects and associated sponsorship agreements.
After Cohl and Live Nation’s CEO Michael Rapino differed on how aggressively to pursue acquiring these unprecedented artist deals, as well as what kinds of artists to sign, Cohl resigned his position as chairman of the Live Nation board, and vacated his post as CEO of Live Nation Artists In 2008.]
These deals aren’t so much about record sales as they are about controlling everything around the artist, and their touring. Critics are missing the overall vision.
That’s right. They are missing the point. And the promoter had the greatest advantage because he was the only element in that circle of items he was the only one that wasn’t afraid of the concerts. Everybody else was afraid of the concerts. If you talked to anybody in a record label to put up $100 million for a tour they are going to vomit blood.
You must feel gratified that the Zac Brown Band’s “Uncaged” won the Grammy Award this year for Best Country Album. That’s one of the baby bands you signed while at Live Nation Artists.
That was fantastic. That was one of our first two signings. Paolo Nutini has also done fantastically. I think that in that respect had we had maintained there and stayed with Live Nation we would look back and say, “Holy Christ, wasn’t that good luck?” It’s gratifying to look back, and say we definitely were right the first two times.
In the 2011 book “Ticket Masters: The Rise of the Concert Industry, and How The Public Got Scalped” Mike Luba (S2BN’s president of music and family entertainment) was quoted as saying that Live Nation “chicken shitted out” when it decided to halt its artist signings. Did they?
I wouldn’t say chicken shit. If Luba said that then he’s out of line. The real truth is this. The numbers were huge. We were $100 million deep with Madonna and $100 million deep with U2 and Jay-Z. Here were at hundreds and hundreds of millions. Nobody chicken shitted out. Rapino and I had a disagreement. I wanted to keep going in one way, and he thought we had gone far enough. In the end, it was his company to run. I was just there to help him out. I was the friend who came in from the cold. But I don’t think that they chicken shitted out. They spent hundreds of millions of dollars.
The concern was the company was moving too fast with these deals?
That was a definite concern.
You had multiple roles at Live Nation. Did you take on too much?
I think we were all fine with that. I think that we just had a philosophical difference. That’s all. It’s a thing in the past. I get on fine with Rapino now. We chit chat from time to time, and we see each other now and then. We have a thing or two on the go. That (dispute) was just a moment in time.
Well, you and Live Nation sued each other after you left.
What did they sue me for? Oh yeah. Because I stiffed them. Yeah, I didn’t pay. Yeah, but they breached the (departure) agreement. Anyway, we settled it.
[Live Nation filed suit against Michael Cohl, and S2BN Entertainment in U.S. District Court in Miami on Oct. 18, 2010, claiming Cohl defaulted on $5.35 million in payments regarding the non-compete he signed when exiting the company in 2008.
According to the Live Nation lawsuit, Cohl had agreed when he left the company to pay $9.85 million in installments in return for various assets. As part of that deal, he was allowed to continue working for the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and Barbra Streisand.
Cohl countersued Live Nation in 2011, claiming that the promoter committed a breach of the agreement by attempting to interfere with his involvement with a potential Rolling Stones 50th Anniversary tour.
Cohl believed the company’s actions violated the deal by mischaracterizing its provisions.
It was announced on June 27, 2012 that Live Nation Entertainment had settled its litigation with Cohl.
Cohl continues to have a non-compete agreement with Live Nation that runs through to 2017.]
Any clauses in your contract with Live Nation that says you can’t speak poorly of the company?
No. But I don’t speak badly of people. You may have noticed that even with some of the worst situations there are only a few people that I will speak badly about. I am just not like that. Listen, we had a spat. It was mostly instigated by Irving Azoff. He stepped way out of line. Well, we all know Irving. He doesn’t know where the line is.
Why is that?
You’d have to ask Irving. It’s got to be about ego. It can’t be about money, because our contract with Live Nation was that we were going to be partners if Live Nation got to do the (Rolling Stone) tour. Irving was the chairman of Live Nation. Why would he mess with that? Well, I guess that he could have messed with that: A, To get my share, which isn’t something you can’t put past Irving; and B, The ego. To show everybody that he could do it. And, the ego to be The Man.
In the end, he was a contributing factor for wrecking it for all of us (with the Rolling Stones) I’m sure that it’s not the only thing. I’m sure you’d have to hear the band’s side. I haven’t got a clue of what the band’s side is.
You aren’t in the new documentary film, “Who The F**CK is Arthur Fogel?” Were you asked to appear?
No. I was surprised too that I wasn’t asked. I haven’t seen it. I’ve heard good things about it.
Have your disagreements with Live Nation put any strain on your long-time relationship with Arthur Fogel?
I don’t think so. We get along fine. I think that there are days that he has cussed my name and cussed at the sound of my name, and I have done the same. But I think we are friends, and we get along fine. I talked to him last week, and I saw Rapino in L.A. a few weeks ago and we get along fine. And I’ve renewed my non-compete. So I’m happy to be there, and help them in any way that I can.
[In 2012 Arthur Fogel, re-upped with Live Nation for a new five-year deal to continue his role as the Chairman of Global Music and the CEO of Global Touring.]
Do you have shares in Live Nation anymore? You used to have quite a few.
I have a few.
You sold off the bulk of your shares in 2009, right?
Yeah, I sold a lot of them, but I still have a few. I think that they (Live Nation) are turning the corner. I feel some real substance to that company. I think that a lot of Michael’s vision is coming home, and it will be really good.
[In 2009, Michael Cohl divested himself of a considerable portion of his holdings in Live Nation, according to SEC filings, which indicated that he sold 319,098 of his Live Nation shares, comprising all of his former company Concert Productions International, which he sold to Live Nation in 2006, and all 37,510 shares in his consultancy, KSC.]
What did you think of Irving’s recent surprise resignation as Live Nation Entertainment's executive chairman. Hard to figure Irving in a public company at any time.
Hey, it’s hard to figure Irving in life.
Is that a sentiment based on you working with him and the Eagles over the years?
No. That’s going back to the Rolling Stones (tour bid), and the Live Nation lawsuits. Irving was front and center in that mess. Good luck to him. My joke is that when I left (Live Nation) as chairman, the (Live Nation) stock went from $14 down to as low as $3 or $4, and when Irving left it went up 40 cents. I felt pretty good about that.
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, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”
The recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry, Larry will be honored at the 2013 Juno Gala Dinner & Awards on April 20th in Regina, Saskatchewan.
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