The Promoter Takes The Stage


Marcel Avram Speaks About The Business Of Music Shows

By Mike Hennessey

It is characteristic of Marcel Avram that, notwithstanding the host of memorable events and impressive achievements that have marked his 25 years as a concert promoter, he prefers not to dwell on the past but to look ahead to the future. Meticulous planning, vision and foresight have always been key elements in the Avram philosophy.

He says, "What has happened in the past is not so important—it is what is happening today and what will happen tomorrow that really count."

And when he looks to the future, Avram sees that "for concert promoters, the prospects are not as bright as for other sectors of the music and entertainment industry. I think that our branch of the business will, in the long run, be absorbed by the big record companies.

"The past years have seen major developments in the realm of mergers and of vertical integration. The big multinational companies have acquired more and more independents, and they have also taken over music publishing groups and merchandising companies. So they have a stake in almost every area from which their artists derive income.

"I think in the years ahead we shall see small promoters going out of business, because the risks involved in concert promotion today are huge. Record companies will develop their own concert divisions to organize tours for their contract artists.

"We in concert promotion and production have lagged way behind the record business over the years. The record companies have developed into huge worldwide industries and have become extremely powerful, whereas promoters are largely restricted to operating in one or two countries and are in a much riskier business."

But if you ask Avram why, when the outlook is so much better for record companies, he has remained in the concert promotion business instead of building a record empire, he says simply, "I am what I am. I don't want to run a record company, be an artist manager, an agent or a music publisher. They do a fantastic job, but for me those jobs are not exciting enough. Those people are not gamblers. A promoter, in addition to his creativity, his eye for developing talent, his flexibility, his know-how and his public-relations flair, also has to be a gambler. Record companies are gamblers to a certain extent, but they are not dealing with the same odds."



"What has happened in the past is not so important—it is what is happening today and what will happen tomorrow that really count."



For Avram, the risk element in his business is exhilarating. "I love the unpredictability of my business—the possibility of discovering someone today who might be huge tomorrow, and then to be able to say, 'I played a part in this big adventure that brought an artist from nowhere to No. 1.' "

Avram also knows the other side of that particular coin. "You discover a promising act performing in a little club and put up the money for the band to make a small club tour. The act might make money in two or three venues and lose money in four or five—and the promoter has to pick up the tab.

"The financial risk is bigger than ever today because we are facing a worldwide recession and a significant decline in disposable income. People are thinking twice before they spend money on concert tickets. In addition, the production side is becoming more and more expensive. The agents, the artist managers, the trucking, lighting, sound and security companies run very little risk. They always get their money. But the promoter can never be certain he will recoup his investment.

"Sometimes, we only start to earn money on the last 10% or 15% of the people entering the auditorium. You have a seating capacity of 1,000, but you start to make money only after the 800th person has taken his seat. And maybe you only get 850 people that night because the weather is terrible or because there is a major soccer game or a big movie on television.

"If you are a small promoter without substantial financial backing that can only happen two or three times. Then you are out of business."

Avram believes that, as a matter of urgency, the trend of escalating production costs must be reversed. "With major tours today we are getting millions of dollars in receipts, but we are also laying out millions of dollars," he says. "Production expenses are getting out of hand, and this situation cannot continue. There has to be control of expenses because we cannot control the income. We can spend less and still maintain the same profitability with less risk. I am not suggesting a return to the old days of using just three or four amplifiers, but the production costs are becoming crazy."

This year Avram was involved in the most ambitious undertaking of his quarter-century career—the worldwide Michael Jackson tour, which he saw as a unique experience for both himself and the artist. Says Avram, "We don't know whether we'll make money. We all hope at least to break even. Michael Jackson has a message to give to the world and was keen to take his big show to places where he never appeared before. From the start, the concerts were unforgettable experiences. People really had never seen anything like it."

Taking the Michael Jackson show around the world involves the use of two massive Antonov cargo planes—each able to carry 120 tons of cargo—a DC8 for the dancers and a Boeing 727 for Jackson.

"It was one of the biggest events of my life," says Avram. "I consider myself very lucky to produce this tour. I coordinated Michael's European tours in 1988 and 1992. When Michael decided he wanted to do a world tour, he asked me to produce it. It was a tremendous and exciting challenge for me.

"You know, for Michael Jackson, whether he goes on stage in Buenos Aires, Singapore, Bangkok or Mexico City, it is the same for him—same stage, same backing, same lights, same sound. But for me, the variations between one country and another are considerable. I am used to stadiums all over the world, and I know how to put a stadium show together. But when it comes to the matters of local taxes, airport clearances, different local conditions and regulations, logistics, weather, insurance, language, different mentalities and so on, it's a whole minefield.
 



'A promoter, in addition to his creativity, his eye for developing talent, his flexibility, his know-how and his public-relations flair also has to be a gambler."



"But I thrive on dealing with problems, on overcoming them and making things go smoothly. When Michael Jackson goes on stage, he puts all his problems behind him and concentrates 100% on his performance. He is, without doubt, one of the biggest artists of our time."

Avram says that one of the most gratifying aspects of his job is the warmth of his relationship with many of his artist clients.

"Rod Stewart—one of my favorite artists—is a really close friend. I go out with Rod, have dinner with him, and play soccer with him. We have been working together for more than 20 years, with one short gap in between. And now I am producing his world tour, which includes many American dates, open-air concerts in Canada and festivals in Europe. This is shaping up to become his most successful tour ever. His last album, 'Unplugged...And Seated,' has been an enormous success. He is also one of the world's greatest live entertainers, with a unique voice. I respect his talent enormously and I value his friendship equally."

The bond of loyalty between artist and promoter/producer is of vital importance to Avram, whose personality combines hard-headed business acumen with unashamed sentimentality.
 



"When it comes to the matters of local taxes, airport clearances, logistics, weather, insurance, language, different mentalities and so on, it is a whole minefield."



"Loyalty is not such a commonplace thing in our business," he says. "You can work with an act for 15 years and then, suddenly, they leave you to go with someone else who offers more money. That happened several times to my present partner, Fritz Rau, and to my competitors. And it sometimes happened to me. For example, when I was working with my former partner, we had Dire Straits on our books. But after our joint company split up, the band decided to go with my ex-partner. I don't know why, because I was the one who got them television at the beginning of their career, and I was the person who really discovered them for Germany and took care of their shows right from the start. But maybe they had some other reasons.

"It also happened with U2, for whom I got television appearances and festival bookings. I knew that they were going to become big—with or without me (though perhaps sooner with me)—but eventually they signed with another promoter. And that's the way it goes. You win some, you lose some. But the reality is that we promoters still have to put up the money to promote and break new artists and we never know if they will remain loyal when they start to get successful. Up to now, 95% of artists have been loyal to me, but the 5% that left me—that hurts, because there was no good reason for them to go."

Looking to 1994, Avram believes that the touring season will be less active than it was this year. "This year has seen tours by Michael Jackson, Rod Stewart, Guns N' Roses, Madonna, Dire Straits, Tina Turner, Prince, Whitney Houston, Eros Ramazzotti and Deep Purple. Everyone was on the road. There will certainly be fewer tours next year."
 



The bond of loyalty between artist and promoter/producer is of vital importance to Avram, whose personality combines hard-headed business acumen with unashamed sentimentality.



One of the major MAMA promotions next year will be a world tour of at least 80 concerts by Yes, accompanied by a large orchestra. Says Avram, with a typical lack of false modesty, "I have a lot of ideas for next year. I am a volcano of ideas. We will probably do a Neil Diamond tour of Germany and, at the end of the year, an AC/DC tour. And of course, all the time we will be looking to discover and develop new acts, to groom the stars of tomorrow."

Despite his prediction regarding the assimilation of the concert promotion business into the operations of the multinational record companies, Avram is completely confident that MAMA Concerts & Rau will continue to prosper for at least another 25 years. "I am not worried about the future," he says. "I have very talented colleagues in their 30s and 40s who will keep the company going. I think that by the time we get to the year 2000, I myself should be ready to step down."

The friends, business colleagues and worldwide associates of Marcel Avram can certainly be forgiven if they find that last remark a little hard to believe.

In terms of personal ambitions, Avram is quite clear. "The first priority is to remain healthy, to retain my family's love and to keep our relationship on a happy basis—which is not always easy for people in the music business spending a great deal of time away from home. I hope I don't fail in this. And I still want to go on presenting and producing new acts. We have highly promising artists like the Spin Doctors, Soul Asylum and also Lenny Kravitz, who I believe is going to be a major star. I am still a rock 'n' roll fan—you have to be in this business. You have to know the music, love the music and respect the music.

"Respect for the music and the people who make it is something that some of the people in the music industry tend to forget. It is especially important to respect the artists who try their best, even though their talent is limited. The other side of

that is to see very talented people who are lazy and self-destructive. That's a terrible waste."

Although he much prefers to look ahead rather than to reflect on the past, Avram retains some special memories of his 25 years as a concert promoter—not all of them happy.

"There have been some festivals I thought were runners that just didn't work out. One of my biggest disappointments was a huge touring festival I staged a few years ago with AC/DC, Motley Crue and Metallica, among other bands. The event was very successful in open-air venues in Mainz and in Munich, but indoors in Gelsenkirchen and Dortmund we could hardly fill the halls. Nobody could figure out why, and I still don't know the answer."

Not knowing the answer is not regarded by Avram as a totally negative state of affairs. "You don't always know what is right and wrong, but I think that is one of the good things about this business. You always try to get it right, but sometimes you just don't know."
 



"I am still a rock 'n' roll fan—you have to be in this business. You have to know the music, love the music and respect the music."



But the good memories immensely outweigh the bad. Avram recalls with enormous enthusiasm the Rod Stewart 80-concert European tour two years ago: "Unfortunately, Rod got a throat infection and had to cancel five or six dates. But that was a fantastic rock 'n' roll tour. We all loved that tour. The Michael Jackson tours have been superb. And the Tina Turner tours have been out of this world. She is a wonderful artist. Prince's last European tour was also outstanding."

One of Avram's most abiding music memories is that of seeing Ike and Tina Turner in Frankfurt in the late '60s, which he says was an unforgettable experience. "I will never forget the magical feeling I had, watching and listening to Tina on stage."

And does he get that same feeling today when he stands in the wings and watches one of his acts performing?
 



"When an artist is getting an ovation in a packed stadium and I come out and look around, I just think that a little piece of that glory belongs to me. And that's a special feeling."
 



"Yes and no. The thrill of the performance is the same. However, when I saw Tina, I enjoyed the music tremendously and I liked the way the musicians and dancers were performing on stage. But at that time I was not for a moment dreaming of ever becoming a promoter and producer of such concerts. Whereas today, when an artist is getting an ovation in a packed stadium and I come out and look around, I just think that a little piece of that glory belongs to me. And that's a special feeling.

"Another special feeling in this business is when you open the stadium doors and see an enormous throng of people moving into the auditorium. That is the joy and reward for all the hard work. It makes me feel that I am a very lucky guy."

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