This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Steve Gietka President at SMG Entertainment.
After nearly a two decade run working for Trump Properties in Atlantic City, Steve Gietka has found that he’s hit the jack pot
Operating his own company, SMG Entertainment in Hammonton, New Jersey, Gietka is a consultant to entertainment and casino industry, focusing on talent buying, brand strategies, and event production.
Among his clients are: The Four Winds Casino in New Buffalo, Michigan; The Golden Nugget Casino in Atlantic City; The Diamond Jo Casino in Dubuque, Iowa; and The Sugar House Casino in Philadelphia.
Gietka worked for the Trump organization until late 2011.
He started his Trump association in 1985, by first overseeing audio production for Trump Castle. From 1990-1993, Gietka was Trump Castle's entertainment manager. From 1993-1995, he was dir. of entertainment, and special events there.
These positions were followed by Gietka being dir. of entertainment and public relations at Trump Castle (1995-1997); as well as executive dir. of entertainment, and then VP of entertainment at Trump Marina.
In 2000, Gietka became VP of entertainment for the three Trump properties in Atlantic City--Trump Taj Mahal, Trump Marina, and Trump Plaza.
Gietka is widely lauded for overseeing the transformation of Atlantic City’s musical entertainment sphere—moving it away from its staid traditional roots to being a contemporary music hot spot.
After re-branding Trump Marina in 1997, Gietka piloted the Atlantic City debuts of Sting, Prince, and Chris Rock. As well, he spearheaded the bookings of a number of previously unlikely casino acts for the city, including Billy Idol, Pat Benatar, Cyndi Lauper, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Ted Nugent and the Stone Temple Pilots.
Coupled with his rise through the Trump executive ranks, Gietka was able to fast-circuit Atlantic City entertainment with an abundance of big-name bookings, including: Britney Spears, Andrea Bocelli, Backstreet Boys, Beyoncé, Keith Urban, Kid Rock, Norah Jones, Shakira, Sarah Brightman, Stevie Wonder, Sugarland, Tim McGraw, and others.
Gietka got his start in live music as an IATSE union stagehand at various theaters and arenas in Baltimore in the ‘70s. From 1980-1985, he worked for Maryland Sound Industries in Baltimore as a touring sound engineer for Stevie Wonder, Hall and Oates, Peter Allen, Melissa Manchester, Roberta Flack, Al Jarreau, Luther Vandross and others.
It’s not that long ago that you left Trump, and started SMG Entertainment.
Right at the beginning of 2012, I started my own company. I left Trump at the end of 2011. I was just like every other casino entertainment executive in that there’s not a lot of inside (casino) jobs anymore. Everything is farmed out with few exceptions. I just thought, “What are my choices?” Starting my own company is what I decided to do. I had to also ask myself, “What do I bring to the table for any client?” Speaking about the casino business, in particular. Obviously gaming is flourishing across the country. Everybody seems to want to be in the entertainment business, but they just don’t have the background or any access to resources to do so.
How has it worked out for you?
I was very fortunate timing-wise. Someone I had formerly worked with, Mark Harkness, was just planning a new venue out in New Buffalo, Michigan, the Four Winds Casino Resort. It’s a tribal casino. They were building a venue, and getting their feet wet in entertainment. The venue was already designed, and under construction when I got there. But I was able to make some venue changes and put their program together to the actual entertainment that would go into the building.
You spent more than two decades at Trump. Was it difficult to leave?
It was with mixed emotions. Obviously, there are a lot of people that I came to be very fond of there. I loved the work. There was a time during the golden years when I wouldn’t have traded it for the world. But as Atlantic City came to be faced with economic challenges, I couldn’t be creative at all. My job became more about how do I squeeze every dime out of a dollar; and how do I do everything with less people and all that kind of thing. All of the things that everybody is dealing with these days.
A lot of pressure on you as a talent buyer and senior executive overseeing entertainment marketing and operations at the three Trump properties in Atlantic City.
Yeah. It became more of a job, quite frankly. I was actually relieved (to leave). I’m much happier doing it for myself, although like anybody else who is self-employed, you sweat the money sometimes. I have three kids that have to go to college and all that. But I’m a lot happier guy, right now.
What staff do you work with now?
It’s myself, and my wife (Susan) is a partner in the company. It’s pretty much me at this point.
You must find the freedom and flexibility appealing.
Oh, it’s great. I am very fortunate in the clients that I have. They pay me to consult for them or they pay me to talent buy; or both. But whatever it is, they pay attention to what I’m saying. That’s how I sell myself. My relationships, and my experience. If I’m telling you that an act is going to work, there’s a good chance of it working. If you listen to me, people will have a great time coming here (to the venue), and you will have zero problems, especially if the client is Michigan Four Winds.
Why has Michigan Four Winds been such a great working experience for you?
It was great to get in on the ground floor with them because they started out doing it the right way. Everything from the ground transpiration to the hotel check-in, they understood that was the most important thing in those folk’s (performer’s) day. If that went well…the show is easy. Everybody knows how to do the show. They do the show every night. The show is not the challenge. The challenge is making sure that everything goes as it is supposed to. If it does, people (performers) are in love with you, and they want to come back.
Sometimes they want to come back, and they don’t even want a raise because it was an easy day.
Everybody likes easy. That’s what I try to provide. All my clients, I try to approach from a user point of view. I go in, and I look. Where does the truck back in? How far are the loading docks from the stage? That’s important. If you can get it closer, and if you can make it a straight run (to the stage), then you are going to have a better day. You are going to spend less money on stagehands. You are going to have a show that goes in faster. All of those things. One of the things that I have found working with architects and designers is that they are not users. Things tend to get done twice. I think that our economy runs on every job being done twice instead of once.
You bring a one-stop service in that you can provide everything from venue design to audio advice to talent buying.
Exactly. I have had my finger in operations for years. I started out as a tech so I sort of bring the whole pie to the table for somebody who wants to have an entertainment program.
Among your other clients are The Golden Nugget Casino in Atlantic City; The Diamond Jo Casino Dubuque, Iowa; and The Sugar House Casino in Philadelphia.
For Golden Nugget, I’m their exclusive talent buyer for one of their venues, The Showroom. What’s great for me is it’s kind of the room that I started doing that (contemporary) business in Atlantic City. That’s where I did Diana Krall, and Norah Jones. It’s just under 500 seats. It’s a really tasteful little room. Really great acoustics. Now I get to go back there, and try to put some other meaningful artists in there. So it’s cool for me.
[Opened in 1985 as Trump's Castle, the casino venue was renamed Trump Marina in 1997. It was sold in 2011 to Landry’s, Inc., a privately owned, multi-brand dining, hospitality, entertainment and gaming corporation based in Houston, Texas. Renovations were completed in the Fall 2012 and the venue started operating as the Golden Nugget Atlantic City.]
Sugar House Casino is booking a couple of headliners for the summer with a temporary venue. I’m doing that for them. Diamond Jo is a casino in Dubuque, Iowa, and I'’m one of the talent buyers for their Mississippi Moon Bar. The Four Winds is my biggest client in terms of the amount of shows that they do. This year I have Wanda Sykes, and Diana Ross. I just got a Train show done as well as Heart, Earth, Wind & Fire, and the Doobie Brothers. I am doing all of the headline booking for them, if they do a headliner. They also have a Hard Rock café venue which is a 500-seater.
It sounds as if every day is different for you.
Yeah. I think that’s accurate. But there was a time at Trump when it was the greatest thing going because Mark Brown (former CEO of Trump Hotels and Casinos Inc.) was running the Trump empire in Atlantic City at the time. He was very pro entertainment. He wanted action all of the time. He loved the excitement of having 5,000 people pour out of an arena into a casino. He saw the big picture. He knew that shows weren’t always going to make money, but it was important to have that (kind of entertainment event) going. To have that kind of atmosphere going on because with a big property it takes a lot of humanity to make it feel like there’s something going on.
Why is that?
People want to be somewhere where there are things going on. They don’t, necessarily, want to be somewhere where it’s relaxed. If you want that, you can find it somewhere else. Not in a casino environment. So he was just like, “Go do it.” That ‘s how Norah Jones was at Trump Marina. That’s how Diana Krall came. And it was people (performers) like that that if you were sitting in marketing meeting trying to figure out what you should do, either most of the people wouldn’t even know who it was or they certainly wouldn’t think that it was a good idea for the casino. But he was like, “Go out there and book shows and let’s see what we can do.” I had a time there where pretty much I did what I wanted to do. It certainly got a little tighter than that. It got fine-tuned, but it was just a great run.
You first came to Atlantic City as an audio engineer with touring artists.
I was working for Peter Allen at the time. We were working at Resorts and someone introduced me to Nancy Engler who was the entertainment director for the Atlantic City Hilton which built Trump Castle (who would become Trump Castle’s entertainment director). Then Hilton lost their license, and (Donald) Trump swooped in and bought it up, and opened it up as Trump Castle. Nancy was originally hired by Hilton, and she stayed onboard. So anyway I met her, and she offered me a job. I was living in Baltimore at the time. I looked around at all my peers that were also on the road, and they all either had bad backs or some kind of addiction, and they were divorced. I thought, “I love this life and it’s a great way to make money and be close to artists, but I think I’m going to try something else for a minute.”
Where did you start working with Trump?
Trump Castle is where I first started working in ’85. I ran the audio department. I hit it off with people. I wound up getting offered a job, and I took it. A tie (executive job) and I took it. I became a manager, and then I became a director. Then I got to be director of a couple of different departments, special events and public relations, and entertainment.
How did you come to book talent? It’s a long way from being an audio specialist to contacting booking agents.
It kind of parlayed itself. I first started booking more traditional casino entertainment. That’s how I started. Frankie Valli, and the Golden Boys (Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, and Fabian) at The Castle. Tom Cantone worked for Trump. I worked there when Tom was an executive. He certainly taught me a thing or two. I just kind of fumbled my way through it (booking talent). I didn’t have a lot of people telling me, “This is what you do.” I just started calling agents. I have a way of getting along with most people. I’m sure I was taken advantage of a couple of times, but I learned quickly. When we got into the more contemporary music, Electric Factory (Concerts) and others brought things to us once in awhile, certainly. I got to see how things were done to some degree by doing them.
[In 1987, Donald Trump brought Tom Cantone aboard as VP of entertainment, promotions and advertising for Trump Castle Casino Resort. Trump subsequently promoted him to the top spot as corporate VP of entertainment for the Trump Taj Mahal Casino and Trump Plaza Hotel Casino. He stayed with Trump until 1991. Cantone is currently VP for sports and entertainment at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn.]
Still, being a promoter is a big jump from being a sound tech.
Yeah, but I have always had an interest in the Bill Grahams, and Larry Magids of the world. Ever since I was younger, and got into this business, I had an interest in the whole (live entertainment) thing. The audio background came from being in a basement band (Leviathan) and being the guy who got stuck setting the gear up; and then working for my friend’s band (Taurus) when I got out of high school. Doing the club circuit with them. When you are around musicians, somebody has to be responsible for the business end of it (a gig) because that’s not what they should be doing.
How hands on was Donald Trump with the entertainment booking in his venues when you worked for him?
Occasionally he would call or he would have a suggestion of something that he wanted done or he would wonder why something was done. Certainly no way he was overbearing or intrusive. He’s a big music fan of certain things. He loves Neil Young, and he came down to see Neil Young with (television producer) Mark Burnett before he did (the NBC-TV reality show) “The Apprentice” there. He would come down to a lot of rock shows. He’s a rock and roller. He had his seats in the fifth row, dead centre.
Entertainment has always been a component of the casino business. Why is entertainment a key component of the casino experience?
Well, a game is a game is a game for the most part. Casinos have their employees who are supposed to make a difference, but they need other things--other amenities--to compete because the casino next door has the same table games, and the same slot machines, basically. It’s hard to compete on product because everybody has access to the same product, and the way (government casino) regulations are people are only allowed to vary their games to a certain degree. Pretty well everybody has that same range to vary their games from an odds standpoint or whatever. So entertainment, restaurants and spas and all those things…
Including rooms in the hotel themselves.
Sure. They all become a method of competition.
At one time in Atlantic City, casino entertainment was middle America entertainment fare like Steve Lawrence & Edie Gorme and Tom Jones. Today, with casino managers and some customers being under 50, they probably grew up with Pearl Jam.
So they are going to have a more enlightened perspective about entertainment.
Absolutely. I recently saw Zappa Plays Zappa in Atlantic City. Looking around the crowd, there were some folks that had the look of age on them, and for a good reason. If you think about how old an early Zappa fan would be today. This wasn’t the case of an old person who got a free ticket to a show, and wandered in and was sitting down wondering, “What the hell is this?” I saw a Frank Zappa fan, and he was an old guy. His wife was with him. And they were into it. It was like, “This is great.” It makes sense that people still embrace the music that they came up with. Putting my music hat on for a second, it’d be great if everybody continued to absorb new music, but people outside the business generally don’t. They gravitate to whatever they were fans of when they were pretty young, and pretty much hold onto that for the rest of their life.
That accounts for the popularity of classic rock as well as annual Top 50 live acts being veteran bands.
Doesn’t that factor bring casinos more in competition with the mainstream concert business? At one time, casino entertainment was considered to be a limited circuit.
Like you mentioned, the casinos have spread their wings in terms of who they have embraced to come through their door. They do want young people. They do realize that with all of this competition in gaming that they need to derive revenue from other sources. Whereas in the past, the food and beverage department in a major casino was not a profit centre. It was, basically, a loser because they were giving the food and drinks away to most of the gaming customers who were comped customers.
Considered a casino loss leader, entertainment was then a lure to attract bodies that could be separated from their dollars on the gaming floor.
Exactly because a casino was just killing it. They were crushing. They were making more money than they could count. Now there are more casinos, and it seems like there are more casinos for less gamblers. People (casino owners) now look around the room, and say, “How do we make money? We’d better take that food and beverage department and make it into a money maker.”
While casinos weren’t worried about making money from entertainment years ago, managers and agents considered a casino play a great payday. As casinos now struggle to hold onto customers in the face of a softer economy, and with increased competition from other casinos, I don’t think it’s true anymore that casinos aren’t worried.
It’s becoming less and less true. When we first tipped our toe into booking contemporary acts (in 1997), we basically had to overpay to get anyone’s attention. Nobody really needed to come to a casino. It was still a time when managers looked at it as a place where dinosaurs went to die.
Contemporary music programming for Trump in Atlantic City started in 1997 following failed negotiations with the Rank Organization, the owners of the Hard Rock Café franchise. Then the Trump organization did a $5 million renovation, and opened as the Trump Marina. True?
There was a conversation with them (Rank Organization) to do something like that, yes. The move toward a contemporary entertainment heavy marketing program was not so much, “That’s what we want to be”—although that’s the way that it was presented in the press release—it was that we didn’t have any money to improve the facility, really
In the casino world, a $5 million make-over is chump change.
Right. We had an older building that needed to compete with, and we had a very young, aggressive executive team--people who were looking to make a name for themselves in the business. We said, “Okay, let’s do this. Let’s bring in contemporary acts. Let’s pay what we have to pay.”
That wouldn’t seem to translate well within a casino’s overall budget. How does that work?
Because you know in these (casino) businesses, the brick and mortar money is a completely different thing to the marketing dollars. You can spend marketing dollars out of the wazoo. That’s a different bucket of money somehow in somebody’s mind upstairs in the finance department. You can’t necessarily build a hotel tower or 10 restaurants as easily as starting a marketing campaign because, quite frankly, you can turn a marketing program off at anytime. And that’s what we said, “Let’s do this. Let’s take a hard run at this. Let’s be young, and aggressive. And if it doesn’t work, we’ll stop doing it.”
The bottom line would still remain, however, “How does this translate into gaming floor profits?"
Right. Quite frankly, it was an experiment. It was like a social experiment. We didn’t really know what was going to happen. We just knew that we needed to do something. We needed something that would catch everybody’s attention. It was successful from all those points. Did we make money at entertainment in that building? Not all of the time. Not even most of the time because that we had to overpay to get anyone’s attention. Nobody wanted to come and play a ballroom, necessarily, in a casino in Atlantic City. It still wasn’t considered to be a cool thing to do.
Borgata wasn’t there then. Revel wasn’t there then. The Pool at Harrah’s Casino Hotel wasn’t there then. It was old Atlantic City. It was on the cusp of becoming something different. Later, Borgata started doing the same thing. They were more successful with it, and I think that it comes back to our previous comments, that it’s a timing thing. We were doing it a little too soon in terms of who we brought in. People were, maybe, a little too young. They were, maybe, experiencing the casino for the first time. And one of the things that hurt us was that at the time was that we didn’t have all of the other amenities. We did Sting and Prince in a ballroom. People came and they had a great time at the show. It was amazing to see artists like that in an intimate environment.
[In the ‘90s, Atlantic City was a place for gambling and very little else. The casinos’ customer base was almost entirely made up of people within driving distance who drove in, gambled a few hours, and left. A 1998 study, commissioned by the local tourism board, indicated that only 9% of convention attendees said that their experience in Atlantic City made them think they'd like to come back more often. Some 30% said that they were determined to come less often. The study also showed that the average age of the Atlantic City visitor was 55 and came to the city 13 times a year. Some 90% of the tourists came to gamble, and only 14% percent took in some secondary activity, like a show.]
It was Sting’s and Prince’s debuts in Atlantic City, as well?
Yes. But when people walked out the doors of the venue, they were looking for a great bar to hang in or a cool restaurant to go and eat in, and we didn’t have any of that.
You had also opened Trump Marina four years before the 13,800-seat Boardwalk Hall completed its renovations, and started drawing some top acts. When you launched Trump Marina, contemporary music acts weren’t accustomed to playing Atlantic City; if only because there wasn’t a major concert venue there.
Right. In due respect to (Philadelphia-based promoter) Larry (Magid) had an outdoor venue set up in the mid-80s in the parking lot at Bally’s Grand Casino (formerly the Golden Nugget). it was totally perceived as Larry Magid Presents or Electric Factory Presents. I’m not sure what name he was using (for the 35-40 shows including Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart, Jackson Browne, and Reba McEntire). It was an outdoor temporary venue (with 3,500 seats) in the parking lot. He had Stevie Wonder out there. I saw Todd Rundgren there. That was way early too. People went to it. It wasn’t huge in terms of size. But Larry could get an act to play there, and he probably didn’t have to go crazy money because he had a relationship with them, and he played them in Philadelphia.
[It has been recently reported that Larry Magid is partnering with Bart Blatstein to run entertainment and nightlife at Blatstein's proposed Provence casino on North Broad Street in Philadelphia. The Provence is one of the five applicants vying for Philadelphia's second casino license. The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board is currently weighing the applications for the casino license.]
Trump Marina attracted acts like Sting or Van Halen or Prince that might not play a casino. You even had the Wallflowers. There’s an obvious cool factor with those acts. I can hardly imagine the first call to their agents seeking to book them to play your venue in Atlantic City. Silence?
It came down to a lot about the money, and it came down to a lot about making a commitment. And it came down to what artists need and want; and the music itself. We are a fairly cynical skeptical lot when it comes to this business where we all talk about, “It’s just about the money.” It comes down to the money, but at the same time, the difference between one guy and one idea with the money and the other guy is if someone can walk the walk and talk the talk a little bit, and people (agents, managers and artists) feel comfortable and feel that there’s an investment in what is going on. That where I think that most people tend to go.
I’m going with being cynical. That agents, managers and artists looked at those Atlantic City dates like some celebrities look at doing TV advertisements in Japan. “Nobody will find out we played Atlantic City.”
Yeah, it was a little quiet some times.
If the artist did the date quietly, they wouldn’t have to look uncool.
The answer to “I don’t do TV commercials” is “Here’s $2 million to do a TV commercial.” Some celebrities will respond, “Right, I’m there.”
And nobody will see it.
For an Atlantic City casino play at the time that would be true but with the of the internet everybody knows their plays.
That’s true. There are no performances that nobody doesn’t see, right?
In booking entertainment for the Atlantic City Trump venues, did you utilize marketing studies or focus groups? Are those things used in the casino world?
To some degree. I think the flaw in that process is that any one of the ones that I had experience with was that they would bring in a handful of players, and always folks’ expectations about entertainment were not quite realistic. They were people who were outside the demo of what we were doing. Even at Trump Marina, when we turned it into this contemporary young rock the dock kind of thing, our bread and butter customers were still 60 years old. They really didn’t have any valid input into it (a focus group) other than, maybe, negative input like, “Why are these big crowds here?” And, “Why is it so hard to park?” Or, “Why am I waiting so long” for this and for that? Hardcore casino customers feel entitled. When something disrupts their atmosphere or experience, it’s a negative. When you ask them what entertainers that they want, they are going back to their youth. They bring up things that have no basis in reality. Barbra Streisand always comes up. “Well, Barbra Streisand is never playing here.” Not to beat that point to death, but the focus groups were typically that the wrong people were there in my experience.
You were largely viewed as a renegade going against the grain with your bookings for Trump Marina.
Yes. I’m sure we alienated some people. We grew some customers, and we alienated some customers. You do when you make a change like that.
On Aug. 25 2000, you really turned peoples’ heads around with Britney Spears playing the Arena at the Taj Mahal. Booking Britney Spears equaled increased casino revenue?
Yeah. That was a huge coup for the casino. On the surface, most people wouldn’t think that it would mean anything, gaming-wise. Well, it just happened that we hit the right age group. It was our great customers’ daughters or granddaughters that had to see that show. So they were there. Their kid was at the show or their grandkid was at the show. So they (our customers) came to gamble, and we had the biggest gambling night on record for the company. That was one where clearly an (artist’s) manager could say that we made money. The casino made a lot of money on Britney Spears’ back. Other shows and other managers, they think that’s what happened, but you know that’s not what happened. Some of them (shows) made money despite the (caliber of) shows sometimes.
An unusual booking you oversaw was Andrea Bocelli.
That might have been my first booking when I became vice president of all three properties. That was a coup.
How did you come up with that booking? Bocelli is hardly a cheap date.
We overpaid. We paid him a million dollars and we got it all back at the gate and it was a big gaming night. It was just a huge branding opportunity for the casino.
In 2011, you booked Charlie Sheen's "Violent Torpedo of Truth, Defeat Is Not an Option” at the Trump Taj Mahal. An usual casino booking.
That was just us wanting to be part of what’s going on.
As casinos began to diversify their entertainment offerings a decade ago, many of them featured the cast of “The Sopranos”
I guess it shows my age a bit, but I was a guy who didn’t want to embrace the whole reality thing. As it just became bigger and bigger, it was harder to deny it, right. I learned it first hand when (Donald) Trump did his first “Apprentice” and he filmed it at the Taj Mahal, l and I was part of the cast. I got to see it (the impact) for the first time. It was amazing, right? So you can’t deny the popularity of it (reality shows), and you have to go for it. We didn’t do anywhere near as many as a lot of people but, in Atlantic City. “The Sopranos” thing played so often I kept thinking to myself, “When is this going to stop? When are people going to stop caring about seeing these guys?” But they (audiences) kept coming out.
How did the promoter consolidations of just over a decade ago impact the casino industry?
I would say that the way it has affected it, is as a buyer or inside entertainment director or whatever, you kind of make a decision whether you are going to embrace someone as a partner or whether you are going to try and compete with them. Quite frankly, sometimes you just have to embrace somebody as a partner even if it costs you a couple dollars more if it’s something that you want to get done.
Particularly if Live Nation or AEG Live is holding a national tour of an artist.
Sure. I did a lot of work with Electric Factory, and then Live Nation. You know this. They dominate Philadelphia, and Philadelphia is one of the most important music markets in the country. Nobody skips Philadelphia. Philadelphia is important. It’s a play that has to be protected. It has to do well. So sometimes it’s easier to have a partner. I think you will see that just about every property in town is utilizing AEG or Live Nation when they can.
Both AEG and Live Nation are more open to partnering with casinos than previously.
I didn’t deal with AEG as much when I was the Taj Mahal. We had a 5,000-seater. They didn’t seem as hungry about coming into Atlantic City. But I was speaking to the guy who books Revel casino, and they are putting a couple of shows in the Revel. It’s a beautiful facility. I don’t know if it’s a co-production or not.
Today Britney Spears has a residency in Las Vegas with her show “Piece of Me” at The Axis at Planet Hollywood.
I think that the residency thing is good for everybody. I do. Celine Dion can go out on a tour anytime that she wants. But you know what? All of those people go to that city (Las Vegas). It’s a better lifestyle, I’m sure, for her with her family.
A residency offers entertainment consistency to a casino.
I think it would be a positive experience to work in a place where that worked. Unfortunately Atlantic City is not that kind of market. it’s the same visitors frequenting numerous times a year. A residency would not work.
Faced with the same set of visitors annually, do Atlantic City casinos have to watch exhausting local fan bases?
Yeah. One of the thing that comes out of focus groups or just casual conversations. People will say, “Why isn’t there a Cirque du Soleil show like there is in Las Vegas.? Vegas does what five, six, seven of them a year now. Atlantic City can’t even do one?” It’s because the same people are coming to Atlantic City every week or every month. It’s not unique visitors like Las Vegas. You have to spend multi-millions just to build the facility that a residency is going to be held in. Then you have to pay for the show. There’s no way to get the investment back. It’s not going to work (in Atlantic City). I ran plenty of shows for 12 weeks of the summer. They always had slow start-ups, and only started catching fire toward the end of the summer when everybody got the message. Then people said, “Oh yeah. That show. We’d better see it before it’s gone.”
Summers are big business for the concert business. When the Fall starts, don’t casinos have the advantage? “Summer is over comes and play us.”
Yeah, that Fall time after the summer was good for us. If an act decided to do another short leg or if there was enough money to keep them out one or two more weeks, we’d be able to book them. However, that was always a challenge because a lot of times the manager was like, “Yeah. We’ll take that money to do another show.” Then he’d come back and say, “Well, we talked to the band and these guys are tired. They want to go home.” I’d say that 50% of the time that that was what would come back. But sometimes people do extend (tours).
Or acts need a fill-in date.
You are from Baltimore?
You started out working on a Parliament/Funkadelic, Bootsy's Rubber Band, and Sly and the Family Stone bill at the Baltimore Civic Center. A baptism of fire?
Oh yeah. One of my best friends from my kindergarten, Brian Snell, his father was an IATSE (stage hand). When we were young, he would take us to the Baltimore Civic Center, and we would sit next to him as he ran the spotlight. I was enamored with the whole process. He would let us jump on the lights occasionally. So when Brian was 18, he was making more money than my father was, by being a stagehand. So I wound up getting work that way through him. I got put on calls and worked my way up.
While still in high school?
Did you go to college?
I took some music classes at a Essex Community College.
How many years did you work an audio engineer? You worked with Stevie Wonder, Hall & Oates, Peter Allen, Roberta Flack, Melissa Manchester, Luther Vandross and others.
I would say five years. I was fortunate that I lived in Baltimore, and Maryland Sound Industries was in Baltimore. I worked downtown at the Civic Centre and they were in there a lot. So I got to know those people. I started working in the shop and eventually became third man on a tour and wound up mixing. They were all just clients of MSI. They weren’t my clients. They were MSI clients and I was just out on the show.
I did many one-off shows in the Baltimore area for MSI. I would show up at Painter’s Mill Music Fair, a little theatre in the round (in Owings Mills, Maryland), and I got to mix James Brown there. That was a great experience. The first big tour I went out on was Stevie Wonder in 1980. I wasn’t the head audio guy.
Still on tour you were moving across the country as part of a family.
It was a great life. but it had its pratfalls.
From 2005 to 2007, you were co-producer of VH-I’s "Decades Rock Live!” taped at Trump Taj Mahal’s Mark Etess Arena. What crazy line-ups. Elvis Costello, Death Cab for Cutie, and Fiona Apple; as well as Cyndi Lauper with Scott Weiland, Pat Monahan, Shaggy, Ani Defranco, and the Hooters.
That was an unique time. It was an expensive venture. It probably didn’t pencil out very well at the end of the day, but it was a great musical experiment for sure. It was a featured artist with who they wanted on the show. So it was really cool. It was produced by Barry Summers (for World Productions, as well as and Eric Sherman, senior VP and GM, VH1 Classic).
Certainly, the series gave Trump PR mileage in Atlantic City and elsewhere.
A lot of thought behind green lighting that was that it was obvious that Borgata was going to pay Eric Clapton a million dollars to play there. They were going to dominate the market for high-end entertainment (in Atlantic City,) and they were going to pay the money to do so. This was a way for us to compete. We were able to talk to an act, and we had a vehicle that they could do with it what they wanted. It was a de facto competition thing.
It was a big education for me (as co-producer). I didn’t have a lot of television experience. I tried to insert myself into every aspect of it (the series) just as a learning point of view. Just the whole rights thing, and trying to get songs approved by multiple lawyers was amazing. It was crazy. The series kicked off with the Doors’ show (The Doors Of The 21st Century with Jane's Addiction's, Perry Farrell, Macy Gray, Antigone Rising, Vanilla Fudge, Pat Travers, and John Sebastian on Aug. 5, 2005). We thought we had the rights to another title. Then it had to be turned into something else. With the Doors (members), everything has to be unanimous. An agreed decision. (Doors’ drummer) John Densmore was the hold-out. At the 12th hour, we still didn’t know if we were going to be able to do the show. Then we get it done, and we had to change the name again.
As well, right in the middle of the show that night, we had the most halation (lighted) thunderstorm. The show lost power. It was just one of those things. Of course, it was the spirit of (the late) Jim Morrison there in the thunderstorm. After all, he’s associated with thunderstorms.
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.”
Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry. He is a board member of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ontario.
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