Gus DeGrande is one of the most influential people in the music industry, a man who controls which concerts many people in America see. Heís also one of the most reclusive, shunning the spotlight and almost never granting media interviews. Itís been rumored that he is working on an autobiography, a transcript of which we offer below. And as to how this fell into our possession, well, thatís off the recordÖ
GUS DeGRANDE on This Business of Music
So what does a concert promoter do? The short answer is easy: promotes. Itís like with record producers, nobody except the people who actually do it really understand just what it is and how to do it. There are lousy hack promoters just like there are lousy hack politicians, lawyers, doctors, whatever. Yeah, you can just plunk down a deposit for a building, hire a band, print up some tickets, open the doors and see if anybody shows up. Lots of people do business that way, the ones who donít last for long. Itís sort of like driving around throwing handfuls of seeds out the window, and hoping you get a crop of corn out of it.
Drive-by farming, drive-by promoting, itís all the same. The RIGHT way to book a show goes beyond what happens with one single concert. Just like, say, the right way to pitch a ballgame involves more than any one pitch, or even one game. You canít just be thinking about the 2-2 pitch youíre about to throw in the bottom of the fourth inning with one out and a fast runner on second. You have to remember what you threw this batter last time he was up, not to mention what you threw to the same guy a month ago, a year ago, three years ago; what you threw in your last start ≠ which he didnít see, but his teamís scouts did ≠ and what youíll be throwing three pitches from now; whoís up next; which way the windís blowing; whoís got the sun in their eyes, the batter or your right fielder; or if itís twilight, or what the ball looks like leaving your hand under the lights.
See what I mean?
The concert promoter equivalent: Youíve got to keep up with release schedules, airplay, videos. You have to know what a band plays, who theyíll draw, what those people will drink, how much throwaway cash theyíve got, what else is going on theyíll want to spend it on. Because you donít want to sell them just one ticket, you want to sell them tickets and T-shirts and pretzels and beers again and again and again. Just like you donít want to get a batter out only once, you want to get him out three times in the course of a game. And there are certain situations where youíd rather have a groundball than a strikeout. Now it helps if youíre the only promoter in town, of course; sort of like itís a lot easier to pitch with a 10-run lead. But if you get careless, even a 10-run lead or a monopoly wonít be enough. Iíve seen it happen. Actually, a better analogy than baseball might be football, or even warfare. You have your control of territory, defensive moves to protect it; offensive moves to get more territory; trick plays; even dirty tricks when the refís not looking. If youíre good enough at the dirty tricks, nobody notices ≠ not even your opponent.
Iíve had to lock horns a lot over the years, because thereís always some yo-yo who thinks he can promote concerts better than me. But itís not as simple as it looks. You might go to a show and see a bunch of people there, all of whom paid 20 bucks to get in; do the math and come up with an astronomical sum for the gross; come up with a figure that you guess the band costs ≠ ďThey couldnít POSSIBLY be getting more than $30,000, could they?Ē ≠ and figure the rest is pure profit. Rookie mistake. There are a lot of hidden costs that nobody takes into account when they try to break into this. You canít just rent the hall and pay the band; you also have to buy insurance, pay security, rent limos, buy advertising. And unless youíve been doing this for a while, youíre also going to have to pay for your access to talent ≠ a cost that goes beyond what youíll pay for Band X.
If Band X is a draw, theyíve got a booking agent who wonít give them to you unless you also agree to book shows with bands W, Y and Z. These will be either ďbaby bands,Ē new acts the booking agent hopes to develop into money-makers at your expense, or washed-up has-beens that should be playing state fairs. If you want the payday from X, youíll have to also take W, Y and Z. And unless you know what youíre doing, youíll pay more than you should for them.
So yeah, you might net ten grand off Band X. But then you might also lose five grand apiece on those other three turkeys, which puts you $5,000 in the hole. The booking agent, he could care less if you go out of business because he knows some other sucker will be there next time Band X wants to come to town ≠ or somebody like me to pick up the pieces.
Hereís where the ďdirty tricksĒ part comes in. Iíve been in this game a long time and I know all the booking agents, and they know me. They also know that in my territory, other promoters come and go, but Iím the one thatís still gonna be around next week, next month, next year. So if they screw me, I have ways of making their livesÖwell, letís say ďinteresting,Ē in the Chinese curse sense of the term (ďMay you live in interesting timesĒ). The agents know this. They also know Iím a pro, and if I book a show itís going to happen, people will buy tickets and everyone will get paid.
Anyway, letís say Band X is on tour. Joe Blow saw them last time they were in town when I booked them at City Coliseum. He sees that tickets cost $20, and 3,000 people showed up, for a gross of $60,000. He ascertains that you can rent City Coliseum for $5,000 and figures heíll offer the band $40,000, leave aside $5,000 for miscellaneous expenses and make himself a cool ten grand.
So the guy calls the booking agent and makes an offer. At which point the booking agent usually calls me: ďHey, thereís this guy Joe Blow down there who wants to book Band X for $40,000.Ē At this point, a couple of things can happen. If the agent owes me, heíll turn down Joe Blowís offer and let me have Band X for the same price. Maybe even lower, if he REALLY owes me. Itís a complicated sort of backscratching that goes on, and weíre always keeping tabs on both ends to see what and how much we can get away with.
If the agent doesnít owe me any favors at the moment, I can earn myself a future one from him by offering more for Band X than Joe Blow. If Joe is then stupid enough to counter-offer with a higher bid, this will at least insure he loses money. And even if I donít match or beat Joeís offer, Iíve got a jump on knowing that Band X is coming to town, thanks to the agentís tip. So I can work on bringing in Band XX, which draws the same audience as Band X. And if I book XX at the right place at the right time with the right ticket price, I can guarantee Joe will lose his shirt with X.
Since Joe is a novice, heíll also swallow the agentís line on how bands W, Y and Z are ďa steal at ten grand each.Ē He wonít know how to maximize his share of concessions and parking and T-shirt revenue, or how to get a piece of the ďhiddenĒ seats in the building (the ones the booking agents donít know about, that go straight to the brokers). And heíll pay too much for things like security and insurance and production.
Net result: Joe does four shows in six weeks, runs through his entire life savings and quietly leaves town in the middle of the night to escape his creditors.
Now, then, did I put Joe out of business? Nope. The thing Joe didnít understand was that there was already someone else here doing this: me. And if you happen to get in my way on my turf, youíre gonna get stepped on. Thatís just the way it is, in any business. You protect your assets, and my assets are my contacts and my presence in markets across the country. So I guard them, zealously. Nobody books anything in my territory without me doing something about it. Nobody.
Youíll notice we havenít really talked about music, and thatís because I hate music. Well, ďhateĒ might be too strong a word. Instead, letís say I have no illusions about ďart.Ē Who was it who said that ďartĒ is a manís name? Andy Warhol? Thatís funny, me quoting Warhol. There are some people who would find that VERY funny.
Most people who get into the music business do it for the wrong reason: because they ďlove music.Ē So they make decisions with their heart rather than their head. Theyíre aware of that, of course, so they try to compensate. But then they canít fully trust themselves, either. So their gutís all wrong, too. Unreliable head, untrustworthy gut ≠ very bad combination.
Me, I got a gut thatís never wrong, because the heart never enters into it. I just flat donít care about anybody elseís artsy-fartsy bullshit. You want to be an artist? Then go buy yourself a set of finger-paints. But this ainít art weíre talking about, itís the music business. The music BUSINESS.
If you think thatís cynical, well, youíre either a fool or a wannabe or
both. And take it from me, you wonít last.