Adventures in concert promotion
LOS ANGELES—Which rock star jumped into a taxi cab upon arrival in Manila, not bothering to wait for the limo that would take him to the hotel? Which talents posed the biggest “challenge”? Which artists were “nice”? I found out from Renen de Guia, who dished about his experiences as a concert promoter for 35 years.
In this conclusion of my column on Renen, he also revealed the funniest, coolest… and more. Renen and his wife Cel own Ovation Productions, which has been bringing acts— as diverse as Bon Jovi, Taylor Swift, Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, Alicia Keys and The Killers—to the Philippines.
Talking to Renen again in Rochester, New York (where we watched “Beauty and the Beast,” which he’s bringing to Manila in January), was like walking back in time.
In 1981, Renen asked America’s Gerry Beckley if he could sing “All My Life.”
Gerry refused at first, saying he had never performed it live and didn’t even remember how the song went. When he finally relented, Gerry was shocked at the overwhelming audience response. After that, every time America came to the Philippines for a concert, the band performed the song as the first of two encore numbers (the second being “A Horse with No Name”).
In 1992, when Renen brought Toto to Manila for the first time, the band performed all their hits at the Folk Arts Theater to the fans’ delight.
When he booked Toto again in 2008, Renen said, the band refused to do their hits. “They were booed at the Waterfront Hotel in Cebu, the first show in that series. At the Cebu airport en route to Manila, I begged Steve Lukather, lead singer and guitarist, to perform their hits in Manila. He said he was bored with the old material. Predictably, the Manila crowd was disappointed, too. Toto was offered to me again earlier this year but I said no thanks.”
To avoid a repeat of that experience, Renen e-mailed Sergio Mendes in advance the songs that Manila audiences would like to hear in a 2012 concert. After being reminded by Sergio’s agent that “artists do not want to be told what song they can or cannot sing,” Renen sent a few more e-mails to Sergio. He never got a reply.
“To my surprise, Sergio did each and every song on my list!” Renen exclaimed. “What a guy! The show was a success.”
Dennis Lambert, who co-wrote Jefferson Starship’s iconic hit, “We Built This City,” “Of All the Things,” “Nightshift,” “Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I’ve Got)” and many more, brought pre-recorded backing tracks for his five-city Philippine tour.
Renen recounted: “In Cagayan de Oro, after Dennis lengthily explained to our production assistant how to properly cue each song, the staffer still played the track the wrong way. The equipment was stuck in the song ‘We Built…’ and we couldn’t move on, Dennis had to leave the stage and cue the song himself. It was very tense; you could feel Dennis about to go ballistic.”
Excerpts from our interview:
Name your three most memorable concerts?
1) My first time with The Lettermen in 2006. All (six) shows sold out everywhere we presented them, including the Smart Araneta Coliseum (two nights). It was a nationwide tour; this opened markets for foreign artists in the provinces and started the careers of many provincial promoters. Plus, I am so in love with The Lettermen’s music and know all their songs by heart.
2) Sting in 1994. We sold out the Ultra stadium. Also, Sting’s 2012 concert, which was transferred from the SM MOA Arena to Smart Araneta Coliseum due to some controversy about the cutting of trees. Huge headache! Now nobody remembers the issue, just how great the show was!
3) We loved America—Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell. This was in 1981; they were our proverbial “last card” after a string of losses. We sold out three nights at the Folk Arts Theater. With the money we made, we recovered past losses and got married! Cel and I then had our honeymoon in Hong Kong, both our first time to travel abroad. We have since done about 15 America concerts.
4) Then there’s Tears for Fears, in 2010. The audience sang louder than the band from start to end! I felt ecstatic because it had taken me 25 years to successfully book them.
Who are the nicest?
No. 1 will also be The Lettermen. After each sold-out concert, they stayed and signed autographs until midnight. They accepted a special invitation to a private party afterward and returned to the hotel at 3 a.m., only to wake up at 5 a.m. for an early-morning flight for the next show in another city.
Even in the provinces, where the venues were not air-conditioned, The Lettermen came out in their tuxedos and performed as if they were at the Big Dome or Manila Hotel.
They are very professional and accommodating. It was always easy to schedule TV guestings. They are engaging and energetic. America, Tony Bennett, Patti Austin, Marilyn McCoo, Billy Davis Jr. and some others were nice, too.
Incubus! You immediately felt their warmth and sincerity and they’re rock stars! They took their time with fans. They’re smart, too.
Matt Scannell of Vertical Horizon is also really cool.
Which one don’t you mind bringing to Manila again and again?
We’ve brought The Lettermen and America quite a number of times already.
Who have so far been the most challenging?
INXS was difficult. Also, Michael McDonald’s tour manager was unreasonable. Overprotective tour managers do more harm than good. Michael himself was okay, though. Don McLean, David Pack and the late Kenny Rankin seemed nice, but they’re temperamental.
Definitely Paul Williams. He told lots of funny stories. And his spiels were witty.
Tell us about the biggest problems.
We did two outdoor shows with Bon Jovi at the Rizal Baseball Stadium in September 1993. The weather was good when the first show began but, a few minutes later, it started to pour—some kind of a freak storm. We had to stop the concert. The next night, ticket holders from the first concert showed up in full force and pushed their way in.
The gates collapsed in the mad dash. Our beefed-up security was no match for the chaos. Even people without tickets entered, so it became a free concert. Many were injured; luckily, no one seriously. Of course there was much damage to the venue, which we had to pay.
Was there anyone who went to explore Manila on his own?
Bryan Adams impatiently took off by himself in a taxi from the airport to his hotel, while we were claiming the luggage. He didn’t take the limo I sent for him.
James Ingram didn’t inform his security, whom I provided, that he was going jogging along Roxas Boulevard.
Many artists said they wanted to come back on their own, to take vacations. They probably did. And there is one thing that everybody enjoys… the bangketa (sidewalk) sale in Greenhills!
Who is the first act you brought to the country?
In 1978, I was with the WEA Records team that brought teen star Leif Garrett to various commercial centers like Greenhills and Makati. There were no malls at the time.
As emcee, I introduced Leif to huge crowds of screaming girls, pretty much like what you see these days with One Direction.
I developed a good relationship with Leif’s manager, Stan Moress, who felt that I’d do a good job of promoting a Leif Garrett concert tour the following year.
How do you keep attuned to Manila audiences?
I am fortunate to have a wife who is a true rocker and knows all the current and upcoming rock acts; and two sons, Bogie and Enzo, who are into the latest music as well. Enzo plays drums and bass guitar.
Then there’s my mastery of the “oldies” library, having been a radio DJ and an A&R manager in the 1970s. The artists that Ovation Productions brings in represent six decades of music—from The Beach Boys to Backstreet Boys to One Direction and everything in between.
Other people line up acts on the basis of popularity. It doesn’t always work that way. In the record industry, we have a term for known artists whose albums don’t sell: turntable hits. It’s the same thing with concerts.
You can probably write a book on the dos and don’ts for hosting visiting entertainers.
One, never assume that artists want you to take them around—to lunches, dinners or private functions. They like to be left on their own. Any activity in their itinerary is work for them. People think that I spend all day playing host. I never do that unless they ask.
I assign them a guy “nanny,” a security person and a driver—with a vehicle. They can go where they want; I just need to be advised, just so I know where they are. They appreciate this. They feel pressured when the promoter goes around with them everywhere. It is best to just show up every now and check on things.
Second, just because the artist is friendly doesn’t mean you can discuss business or work-related matters with him. You still have to go through his management or agent, who is not necessarily with the touring team.
Third, never tell an artist that you lost money, just to gain his sympathy. The opposite happens. Because you made him uncomfortable, he will avoid you. Continue to treat him well and do not scrimp on things just because you lost money. There is no point involving anyone in your misery. You can tell the agent or management, but only if they ask. They really don’t care.
How has the business changed?
When I started in the 1970s, communication was done through telex, then through fax. But a phone line was needed for fax, and then for e-mail. Because of the corrupt monopoly system, it was almost impossible to get a line.
Responses used to take a while because of time-zone differences and the existing technology. Now, with e-mail and cell phones, agents and promoters can communicate continuously. Time-zone differences are almost a non-issue.
The most dramatic change is in the marketing of tickets. Online buying and a computerized ticketing system have made a promoter’s job easier a zillion times!
I remember how Cel and I used to check on our outlets, walking the entire length of Avenida Rizal starting from Shoemart Carriedo, through Good Earth, Alemar’s, then National Bookstore on CM Recto, ending at Merriam’s Bookstore on Morayta, collecting sales and delivering tickets on a daily basis; sometimes twice a day, if a concert was hot. Sales monitoring for all outlets was best done on site.
The releasing of tickets alone was such a big deal. Printing took days. Then there was the whole process of rubber stamping, bringing the tickets to City Hall, ticket delivery receipts and, finally, physically delivering the tickets to the outlets, which was an ordeal.
We often got reports of “lost” tickets by either the messenger or the sales lady at the outlet. Who paid for lost tickets was always a problem. Usually, we just absorbed the loss.
And how have music talents changed over the years? They have gotten a lot more demanding and harder to please.
Which talents do you dream of bringing over? And which ones got away—either they’ve passed away or retired?
There are very few remaining acts that I haven’t done. I feel the well drying up. I have promoted most of my longtime “oldies” idols—Tony Bennett, Jack Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck, Frankie Valli, Petula Clark, Dionne Warwick, The Lettermen, the Beach Boys…
We’re still trying to reschedule Tom Jones, who canceled in 2010 due to problems with his voice. Many have retired—Vic Damone, Steve Lawrence…
Many others should retire, considering the way they sound these days. There are a few more names out there, but not all of them are still marketable.
(E-mail the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at http://twitter.com/nepalesruben.)
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