Q&A with Barry Fey, author of Backstage Past
Retired Denver impresario recounts the glory days of the independent promoter
- by Linda Deckard
- Published: November 9, 2011
Barry Fey’s first and last book, Backstage Past, appeared in bookstores today, Nov. 9. The memoir is littered with high-profile entertainers and industry luminaries with whom Fey worked during his 30 years of promoting concerts and events. His company, Feyline, was based in Denver, a town which is now served by Live Nation and AEG, both of which are staffed with Feyline alumni.
Fey took some time to tell Venues Today about his memories of rock and roll from 1967-1997, when he was promoting as many as 300 shows a year from Dallas to Denver. He sold Feyline to Universal Concerts in 1997 and from 2001-2003, he worked with House of Blues but, by then, the business had changed drastically.
“My real career ended in 1997. The way it’s going now, I couldn’t miss it. It would be like missing a torture chamber,” Fey said. He wrote the book in conjunction with Steve Alexander, who also has now penned his first of what he hopes will be many memoirs of famous people in sports and entertainment. It is published by Richard Wolfe, Lone Wolfe Publishing, and the hardcover is priced $24.94, with a jacket that unfolds into a poster of vintage backstage passes. Sample pages can be viewed on buythisbook.net.
What are the main things that have changed about the concert promotions business since you retired?
First of all, it used to be the music business; now it’s the business of music. The main things that are missing are loyalty and heart and soul. It’s really terrible.
Will it ever be a business for independent promoters again?
The genie is out of the bottle for everybody. You have to pay those ridiculous prices and charge those ridiculous ticket prices. You’re just killing yourself out there. No one is making any money.
What happened to Feyline?
I was bought out by Universal Concerts. Those were turbulent times. I never thought any one man could have the effect on our business that Robert Sillerman (SFX) had. He destroyed it [by buying all the independent promoters in a big corporate rollup]. Had our company stayed intact, had Universal kept Pam Moore and Chuck Morris and Brad Wavra together, no one could have bought them, no one could have beat us. We were the infantry. But they left, so it was an empty shell. Then Universal sold to House of Blues and HOB sold to Live Nation.
Why did you decide to write this book?
It’s a bunch of steps. In this city, people have been coming up to me for years, since I retired, asking when I’m going to write the book. I used to go on the radio and tell all the stories, good and true stories. But there’s a barrier you have to get through. You have to reach the opinion you have something to say someone wants to read. After so many years, I said okay, let me try. I’m kind of proud of it. It’s true. I have no master to serve, nothing to gain. I used to say there are only two kinds of people in the world, those who buy tickets and those who don’t. Now it’s those who buy books and those who don’t. I’d love it to sell, but I’m very proud because it’s my way of saying goodbye.
Who did you write it for – the industry or the consumer?
For myself and for the fans. It’s not an industry primer. It’s not how something should be done, because frankly we never knew from day one how long it would last. We just played it by ear and I was in the right place at the right time quite a lot.
Are there any venue managers in your book?
No. First of all, they were generally very, very nice to me, top to bottom. The only one I mention a lot is Richard Sturm, who was the first one to give me a shot in Vegas. I used to go around to all the casinos, starting in the 70s, saying you should get some more modern music in your buildings. Sturm was at Bally’s and gave me a shout and I brought in Sam Kinison and we started a long relationship. When he went to MGM Grand, we brought in Rolling Stones, U2, the Who, everybody, it was great. All the venue managers in general were very, very nice. Of course, I had to train them. Like in Salt Lake City with Earl Duryea. The first time I went there in 1969 he said you can’t do a show in Salt Lake on Thanksgiving Eve and we did Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and Santana, and sold out. Sam Finer from Denver, God rest his soul, thought nothing bad could happen if nothing happened, so he didn’t want to see any shows. I had to teach them when Barry Fey wants it, give it to him because he’s right. And they finally did.
How long did you promote concerts?
I started in 1967 and quit in 1997. I came back for two years in 2001-2003, but those were meaningless because I wasn’t worth near the money I was paid. It had passed me by. I say I promoted for 30 years and got paid for 32.
How did the promoter’s role change; how did it pass you by?
New things happened that never happened before. People didn’t care about making money on tickets as long as they were getting popcorn and parking. When the amphitheaters started giving away tickets because they could make $9-$10 from people who came in for free…that’s not promoting; I don’t know what that is. And people started waiting because they would give tickets away. Today, Barry Fey couldn’t get started. I wouldn’t know what to do. You used to depend on your ears — I like this group, I’m going to bring them. If you were right, they got big and you got big with them. Today, you bring in a new group and they get big and one of the giants offers them $150 million for a tour and you lose them. I teach a class at the University of Colorado-Denver and everybody wants to be a promoter and I say get a book on welding, you have more of a shot than making it as a promoter. There’s room for independents, but I don’t know if they can make it. The genie is out of the bottle and the record business went away. Acts used to tour to support a record; now they tour to support themselves. When I retired, the most I had ever charged for a ticket was in 1994 — $71. I did a Stones tour in 1969 and we charged $6.50 for every seat. I asked the Bureau of Standards to tell me what that would be today with cost of living factored in. They said $29.52. A month later the Stones top price was $440. Who’s worth that? I understand but it’s all gone.
You talk about a lot of famous people in the industry in Backstage Past. One is Bill Graham, the late promoter from San Francisco. Tell me about Graham.
I ended up hating the man. He was the most vicious and unnecessarily mean man I ever met in my life. In fact, I tried to have him killed. He turned me into a hypocrite and I hate hypocrisy. I literally turned him in to the IRS; I turned into a snitch. He had told me how he cheated the groups and where the money went in Switzerland. A few months later he was killed in a helicopter crash.
What about Frank Barsalona?
I loved Frank. He called me at 6 a.m. and said, ‘Barry, Bill just died.’ Frank asked when I was leaving; we have to go to San Francisco. I said 'why do I have to go?' He said 'it’s your place in the industry,' so I went to the synagogue and pretended to pray, but I couldn’t feel bad. I come clean in this book. I don’t come off as some great guy. I have a whole chapter called “Pricks.” It’s a list of 24 people who might not have been pricks to me but they are pricks anyway. You can draw your own conclusions. Bill is on that list. And Howard Rose and Howard Kaufman are on that list, but that’s okay. If I was a young act right now just starting in the business and I thought I had good music and I had a good chance and I needed representation, I would want Howard Rose to be my agent and Howard Kaufman to be my manager. That’s the way our business was. Some are pricks because of the business, but some are pricks above and beyond the call of duty.
Is Irving Azoff on that list?
No, Irving has never broken his word to me. He’s always treated me well, since 1970. He’d rather be known as a prick than be a prick.
What about Jerry Weintraub?
He was our nemesis in the early days because of Concerts West. Once at a Billboard convention in California, Frank Barsalona, Bill Graham and D. Anthony were on a panel discussing what to do about Jerry Weintraub, he’s going to kill the business. I remember Concerts West had had a show, Paul McCartney and Wings, and bypassed me completely, cut me out. And I remember that, mysteriously, during the show, the lights went on during the second half and the tires on the trucks got slashed and they had a hard time making it to the next city. I don’t know how it happened, but I stood up and told that story and said if Jerry Weintraub runs into that in 40 cities, he’ll stop this shit. All you have to do is fight him, any way you can. That was my answer. When I first met him he was John Denver’s manager; I never had a problem with him until he became the scourge.
What was your writing process?
I made the calls [to Steve Alexander] and talked into his recorder. It would be the Stone Age again before I could type anything up. He took out a lot of the gratuitous ‘f…ks’. It took about five months.
Are you headed for the number one bestseller list?
You must have the wrong number. But it’s not a regional book. The table of contents is terrific. It’s not about Barry Fey, it’s the people I talk about. I never met an opinion I didn’t have. I wrote it for the fans, I hope they like it.
What do you do now?
People in this town won’t accept that I retired and they keep coming to me with offers. I don’t know how to promote today. I don’t want to know. I have over 2,000 vinyl albums. I don’t download songs. Feyline, at the apex of our career, promoted in St. Louis, Kansas City, Dallas, Houston, Denver, Salt Lake, Albuquerque, and Phoenix on a steady basis. We did 4,000 shows total. My best year — 1994 — I grossed $57 million because of all those high ticket prices. I netted about $3.5-$4 million. The most ever in my employ were 35, and seven were in the accounting department. I didn’t like to go back there. I was scared of that department. I had some great employees.
Anything you would have changed?
In the epilogue of my book, the writer asked what I’d like to say to finish it? I said, ‘I wish I would have been nicer.’ I didn’t mean to hurt anyone. All the shouting and throwing things and turning over desks, that was only out of frustration. It’s a frustrating business, especially when people don’t keep their word. I had one person say they owed their job to me because they are in charge of human resources and people like me made their job necessary. You had to show everyone you were a little nuts. They didn’t know what you were going to do, so they didn’t bother you.
How did you sell tickets?
First, you have to love your audience. You are not there to educate them. You are a messenger. Figure out what they want and bring it to them. I sold air for $15. The old Denver Broncos and the old Oakland Raiders played a flag football game at Mile High Stadium. We sold 31,000 tickets at $15 each. I just knew how to sell tickets. You had to care about people; you had to spend money; you had to have good relationships. When I first moved here there were police in the aisles with flashlights telling kids to sit down. I wouldn’t let that happen as a promoter.
How would you sum up your career?
The Fan First. Bono said that once in a roast, that as much as Barry Fey cares about his acts, he cares more about his audience. Success is having an effect and changing your environment for the better. I know I did that. I had a big effect on this city and I’m very proud of that.
- by Linda Deckard
- Published: November 9, 2011