If academic degrees were awarded for expertise in the “ins-and-outs” of the concert business, Charlie Blum would possess a Ph.D.
During his more than 40 years as a concert promoter, talent buyer, theater executive, television producer and artist manager, the Marco resident has forged a stellar reputation as an esteemed entertainment industry executive. Now semi-retired, Blum has worked with such luminaries as Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra, Christina Aguilera, Tom Petty, Frankie Valli, Liberace, Liza Minelli, Dolly Parton, Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld.
A behind–the–scenes look at the business’ inner–workings, first-person memories of entertainment heavyweights and more were provided during Blum’s recent presentation at the Marco Island Center for the Arts. Entitled “There’s No Business Like Show Business,”
Over the course of roughly one hour, the high-energy and humorous speaker interspersed stories about his background and experiences in entertainment with information on the key considerations for promoters, artists and their managers that lead up to a concert being held at a venue.
“It’s, ‘How do you get a show into a city, and what numbers do an artist, an agent and a manager look at to decide if a show is going to play?’” is how he explained that dynamic.
Blum said people often pose the same questions about the entertainment industry, one of them being, what’s it like to be involved in what Blum defines as simply, “the business of putting on a show.”
He further explained that, “It’s also the one business that I know where you can pay somebody a million dollars and you end up working for them. That is pretty much the business that we’re in. You hire somebody, they work for you and take directions. We pay somebody; unfortunately, they often call shots as to what we can do and what we can’t do when they come to town.”
The ‘South Jersey’ native moved to Marco, full-time, after concluding 28 years as president-CEO and talent buyer for a premier Chicago-area concert facility, the Star Plaza Theater. He got his start in the business in 1975 while attending American University in Washington, D.C., where he majored in Political Science, with the goal of becoming a lawyer and entering politics.
After his freshman year, Blum applied for a summer job as an usher at the Shady Grove Music Theater, in suburban Baltimore, only to find those positions were all taken. However, he was offered a position as assistant to the publicity manager, an opportunity he quickly seized upon.
Part of his job involved handling promotion for an artist’s engagement and driving them to interviews at newspapers, TV and radio stations for their engagement, which usually lasted one week, unlike the single performances that are common today. That enabled the 20–something to rub elbows with such entertainment heavyweights as Sonny and Cher, Liberace, Victor Borge and Wayne Newton.
“Back then, when I started doing this,” said Blum, “it was exciting for me because I got to work with some of the top names that were out there, and it was great experience in learning how to promote and get accustomed to how show business works. I loved it.”
With that, the die was cast and a professional journey had begun and at age 21, Blum became the theater’s general manager.
During his time there, a mishap occurred during an engagement by The Spinners that left him worried about losing his job. A provision in the group’s contract stipulated they must have four stools onstage for their performances. The venue’s stage crew painted them the morning of the first show, expecting them to be dry in time for the curtain call. Blum saw the Spinners take the stage and sit on the stools during a song before he departed for his office.
The sound of laughter brought him back into the theater, where he was quickly horrified by what he saw.
“They went into ‘Rubber Band Man,’ one of their biggest hits at the time, and they got up to move around and on their backsides was a round circle from the paint from the stools,” recalled Blum. “Needless to say, these weren’t suits that you could walk into J.C. Penney and buy.”
Replacing the four suits cost him $1,000 apiece. “I thought, ‘I’m getting fired the next day,’ but I didn’t. I did learn a few lessons at the time that helped me as I moved forward in my career.”
A few years later, he joined the New York City based Nederlander Organization. The company produced shows and concerts, and owned such large outdoor venues as Pine Knob outside Detroit, Poplar Creek outside Chicago and the Greek Theater in Los Angeles.
Publicity and marketing were again his focus there, including arranging artist interviews and event commercials, which he wrote himself. Blum contrasted how promotions were handled then and now to illustrate how the business has evolved with the rise of digital technology.
“Back then, an artist would say to you, ‘What are you going to do to sell my show?’ We would have to submit a marketing plan, which you still do, but back then it was extremely important. Nowadays, through social media, it’s the other way around. So we say to artists, ‘What are you going to do to help sell the show? Who do you have on your social media? How many Twitter followers? How many on Facebook?’ Today, social media is what sells. That is what’s changed this business dramatically.”
When not delving into the business, Blum also regaled the audience with amusing, revealing and touching tales about some of entertainment’s greats, such as Red Skelton, Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5, Bob Hope, Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin, among others. Citing Franklin, Leno and Chris Rock as examples, he said, “There are so many artists who are just the nicest people no matter how big they get, who are just wonderful, wonderful human beings and it doesn’t go their head that they’re making that kind of money.”
Where booking concerts is concerned, Blum advised being “really choosy” given the high-stakes finances. How much the artist must be paid and the likelihood of robust ticket sales are two of the key factors that must be weighed because calculating incorrectly can lead to a promoter losing their shirt.
Rather than a flat fee, Blum said that today, it’s common for top-echelon artists, like Taylor Swift, to demand the bulk of or all ticket sales proceeds—in her case, 125% of the take. Promoters must make their money from such things as parking, at large venues such as Hertz Arena, and from refreshment sales. If the promoter owns the venue, their profit is even higher because there’s no lease payment involved.
“The reason for that is back in the day, I did all the work,” he explained. “Today, Taylor Swift sends a tweet and says, ‘I’m going to be at the Hertz Arena,’ and she sells out in sixty seconds. So, things have shifted and because of that, Taylor Swift and the others are saying, ‘I don’t need you. I’ll pay you a fee. I’ll give you five grand for your work and thank you very much.’ Or it’s 10 grand. Whatever it might be, it’s very minimal.”
He cited Seinfeld, whom he used to pay $15,000 a show, as an example of another industry trend that has changed the landscape for promoters.
“Jerry got smart and thought, ‘Why am I going on the road and having somebody paying me X amount of dollars? I’m going to go and rent the building and take everything,’ and that’s exactly what he does.”
Tribute bands that harken back to the music of the Beach Boys, Doobie Brothers, the Four Seasons and other hit-makers of the 60s and 70s are hot in today’s concert world. “Financially, it’s more conducive and somewhat risk-free for a promoter to pay $7,500, $10,000, whatever it might be,” said Blum.
Marco Island Center for the Arts is located at 1010 Winterberry Drive. For more information about its exhibits, classes, programs and performances, visit www.marcoislandart.org or call 239-394-4221.