The legendary promoters of rock: inside an eye-opening new documentary
Jim FarberWed 14 Nov 2018 04.00 EST
In new film The Show’s The Thing, the story of Frank Barsalona, who blueprinted the modern concert industry is explored with help from the major artists he helped to the stage
View of the Woodstock festival from backstage, August 1969. Photograph: Amalie R Rothschild
To date, more than 600 people have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, most of whom are fantastically famous. Yet, somehow, one of the least-known inductees managed to receive one of the hall’s highest honors. In 2005, Frank Barsalona, a concert promoter, received a “lifetime achievement” distinction at the Cleveland-based institution. So, how did a guy who, some might think, simply booked talent, earn such a lofty distinction?
The answers lie in an informative new documentary, The Show’s The Thing: The Legendary Promoters of Rock. In colorful detail, the film lays out how Barsalona blueprinted the modern concert business (now a $10bn industry), along the way changing how audiences relate to the music, while also providing crucial support for some of its greatest stars. “No act becomes huge without a key promoter doing his work,” says Bob Geldof in the film.
“These guys were as much tastemakers as any head of a record company,” adds manager Winston Simone.
“They’re at the center of it all,” said Philip Dolin, co-director of the documentary.
In fact, Barsalona was the one who established that center. After witnessing the size and passion of the crowd for the Beatles’ first Washington DC concert in 1964, he began to imagine a full network of concert tours by scores of rock bands. “The 40-, 50-date tour cycle didn’t exist back then because people did not realize that there was a market,” said Irv Zuckerman, who became an early rock promoter.
While other agents, journalists and music executives in the early to mid-60s viewed rock as a fad on the wane after Elvis entered the army, Barsalona recognized that “this wasn’t the end of something, it was the beginning”, said Dolin.
A key connection in realizing his vision came through the woman who became his wife, June Harris. When Barsalona met her, she was working in her native UK as one of the first rock journalists, scoring early interviews with the Beatles and the Stones. “She introduced Frank to all the British invasion acts and their representatives,” said the film’s co-director, Molly Bernstein.
Recognizing the depth of their talent, and their exponential popularity in America, Barsalona left his job as a talent agent to set up his own company. Dubbed Premier Talent, it went on to become America’s first agency that focused solely on rock ‘n roll. One of Barsalona’s innovations was to build audience loyalty by treating the music as more than just something for “the kids”. To accomplish that, he and his associates blew up the prevailing notion of rock tours, built on the corny old Vaudeville model where bands simply ran through their hits. “The change was to present full concerts where the main headliner played a long show,” said Bernstein.
Tina Turner and Janis Joplin at Madison Square Garden, 27 November 1969. Photograph: Amalie R Rothschild
The expansive concerts promoted by Premier encouraged a new level of awe from the audience, anchored on extended musicianship. The change mirrored ones the musicians were already making. As the 60s progressed, artists began recording, and performing, longer songs, driven by greater ambition. Bill Graham found himself at the epicenter of the iteration that was emerging in San Francisco with bands like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin. He found great success booking them into his hall, the Fillmore. It was Barsalona’s innovation to link promoters like Graham in San Francisco with others eager to carve out similar scenes in their own cities. Together, they created a tight network of hip venues in converted theaters and ballrooms. In a joking way, Barsalona based his system on the mafia, awarding each promoter his own territory to control: Larry Magid had Philly for his Electric Factory, Don Law, owned Boston for the Boston Tea Party, the Belkin brothers staked out Cleveland with the Agora Ballroom and so on. As one promoter told the film-makers: “It was like the mob, but without the violence.”
Not that the promoters were above squeezing out competition within their territories. More, not all of the money always went to the deserving parties. One observer in the film reveals how Graham would count the same number of patrons in a packed ballroom on two successive nights when, clearly, the head count in one was far greater than the other. “He was a very tough business man who took advantage of his position,” Bernstein said.
Santana at Tanglewood, 18 August 1970. Photograph: Amalie R. Rothschild
While Barsalona’s Premier team ruled the US, promoter Harvey Goldsmith performed a similar function in the UK. In the process, the names of these promoters became nearly as well-known to fans as those of the bands. “I grew up in Cleveland,” Dolin said. “And every show was ‘Belkins Presents’. You heard their name every weekend on FM radio.”
The promoters earned that fame by bringing the fans shows with improved sound, exciting lights and informed billing. Graham used his concerts to educate young rocker fans about the music’s roots by putting older artists like Chuck Berry, BB King or Miles Davis on with hotter stars just breaking, such as Neil Young or Ten Years After. He, and other promoters, then advised the bands on how to put on a show. In the documentary, Carlos Santana explains how Graham would give bands a little report card at the end of a performance, telling them what worked or what didn’t. “He would help a band develop stage craft, making suggestions like, ‘Don’t talk when you come onstage, play a great number first,’” Bernstein said.
The promoters also took pains to seed a developing band’s fanbase by putting them on bills with headliners whose fans would probably embrace them. While Premier may have been a national brand, the local roots of the regional promoters became a key way to break bands during the classic rock era. They would help an artist establish a power base at their venues in Philly or Cleveland and, from there, a band could fan out to eventually conquer the nation. Even those who never became national names could create a rabid fanbase in a given region, due to the connections and branding of the local promoters. Southside Johnny in New Jersey, the Michael Stanley Band in the midwest, and the Iron City House Rockers in Pittsburgh, all used this strategy to create strong careers in their day.
Beyond the music, the shows gave the fans a new sense of community. “You go to these places and hear the music and smoke pot and you had a family,” Bernstein said. “You’d think, ‘This is what I want the world to be.’”
The Allman Brothers at Fillmore East on 27 June 1971. Photograph: Amalie R. Rothschild
The concerts also provided one of the only ways a fan could see a band at the time. Back then, rock acts hardly ever got on TV and, in some cases, they didn’t even offer photos of themselves on their album covers. The result seeded a gripping sense of mystery. King Crimson didn’t feature a single shot of its members on its first three album covers, meaning you had to buy a ticket and see them in concert to determine if they were even corporeal beings. “Before they saw them, some people thought the Allman Brothers were African American,” Dolin said. “Can you imagine going to a show thinking you’re going to be seeing an African American band and then finding out the guys are blond?”
As a result, every fan who came to a show felt as if they were discovering a secret. That feeling was enhanced by the relatively small size of the theaters. “If you see a band live from 10ft away you become attached to them for life,” said Dolin.
That sense of intimacy and rarity started to evaporate after Woodstock. The massive scale of that event signaled to the business just how big rock’n’roll had become, ending its innocence. Starting in the early 70s, the bigger bands moved beyond the theater circuit controlled by Premier, and advanced to arenas, and, eventually, to stadiums, most of which featured hellishly bad sound at the time. As a result, Graham shuttered his Fillmores East and West and signed on to book far larger tours. The others followed suit. Barsalona sold Premier to the William Morris Agency in 2005 (he died in 2012). When an organization such as Concerts West came in, creating a uniform national touring system, it destroyed the regionalism, and personal touch, of the early promoters. It also killed the quirkiness of the shows, as well as the low prices. “It was the end of seeing the Who in a small venue for three dollars,” said Dolin.
Consolidation of the industry continued to balloon until, eventually, it metastasized into one monster company, Live Nation, which now has a stranglehold on the bulk of the business. For fans, that has meant greater distance from the stars, as well as ticket prices that, Dolin said, “are as expensive as flying to Europe”.
At the same time, more people are attending, and presumably enjoying, live music than ever. And the sound and production in the vast arenas and stadiums has vastly improved in the last decade. To the film-makers, the endurance, and escalation, of the industry only underscores the essential potency of the concert experience. “People still love live performances,” Dolin said. “They’re simply irreplaceable.”
- The Show’s The Thing is showing at the DOC NYC Film Festival in New York
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