Apple’s iTunes may get credit for saving the music industry from piracy, but the concert business saved it first. That’s because, even though big acts like Katy Perry sell far fewer albums than their predecessors, they earn far more than ever from their live shows. But as the vice-president of L.A.-based concert promoter Goldenvoice, Elliott Lefko knows that any business has its ups and downs. He tells Simon Houpt the key to success is the same as it has always been. (It starts with ignoring the bean counters.)
You began booking bands for Toronto’s alternative club scene in the 1980s. Now, you promote acts from heavy metal to Leonard Cohen. Is that a challenge? My job is to fit into what’s going on wherever I go. What people like in Hawaii is different from what people like in Alaska. Hawaii is more easy-going, like pop music; they don’t like rock down there too much. When you go to Alaska, it’s more conservative. They like country music and hard rock—and that’s it. Like, Megadeth and Slayer. The people up there are Republican by nature and this is the kind of music they like.
So you actually see their politics reflected in their music? Yeah, definitely. And in a nice way.
Of course. It seems every few years we hear the concert business is on the verge of collapse. Then along comes something like Goldenvoice’s massive Coachella festival: It sold out in three hours. People aren’t stupid. If they want to see something, they’ll make sure they get a ticket, and if they don’t, there’s nothing you can do. We see that with some larger bands, like Radiohead and Coldplay. They don’t tour very often, so when they do there’s a sense of excitement. Now, there’s very little money coming in from recorded music, so some bands feel like they need to go on the road. Some people may overdo it.
Do promoters care if concert-going is a pleasant experience? One of the things Coachella prides itself on is that it’s completely clean. They have this crew of people walking around, cleaning things up. Nobody wants to let people sit in garbage. I’ve been guilty of that, and afterwards I’ve said: Okay, how can I make it better the next year? Like, reach into my own pocket and hire a crew so people don’t have to sit in garbage.
In the old days, promoters were a shaggier bunch. They survived on instinct. Now, some companies, like Goldenvoice’s competitor Live Nation, are aggressively mining customers’ data. Did we lose something when the number crunchers began to dominate? Personally, for me, the only thing that I can trust is my gut, and I’m not a fan of, like, too many numbers. I’m really good at going with my gut. If only my gut would work in Las Vegas.
Your gut seems to work fine. You’re 53 years old, and you program shows like Toronto’s Edgefest—with bands like Death From Above 1979 and Silversun Pickups—for people who are, what, half your age? The thing is, 53 is a state of mind. I could be, like, 75 and still be successful. I’m promoting concerts for 16-year-old kids, for the most part, and that’s what I’ve been doing for my whole life. People say, oh, how do you find out about this, do you go to concerts every night? No, I don’t do any of that kind of stuff, you know? It’s just a matter of keeping your ear open to what’s going on. I think that’s it in any business, just keeping your ear open to what’s going on.
COACHELLA BY THE NUMBERS This three-day California music fest (April 13 to 15 and April 20 to 22) is built on one very efficient idea: Secure the lineup and the fans will com
$285 (U.S.) Cost of a weekend pass
135+ Number of bands slated to appear
x2 This year, a repeat performance will take place the following weekend
3 hours How long it took Coachella 2012 to sell out 150,000 passes
$42,750,000 (U.S.) Revenue from box office alone