COVER

HIGH ROLLER

Michael Cohl is the most successful pop promoter on the planet

Brian D. Johnson August 8 1994
COVER

HIGH ROLLER

Michael Cohl is the most successful pop promoter on the planet

Brian D. Johnson August 8 1994

HIGH ROLLER

Michael Cohl is the most successful pop promoter on the planet

Michael Cohl remembers the day, in the summer of 1989, when the deal went down. He flew to Barbados with a cheque for the entire amount in his pocket. Cohl, the president of Torontobased Concert Productions International (CPI), still refuses to say how much it was. But it has been reported at $60 million to $70 million—the cash guarantee that Cohl was offering The Rolling Stones to tour North America for the first time in seven years. On the plane, the promoter kept looking in his pocket to make sure the cheque was still there. In Barbados, he met with the Stones, signed the contract and handed over the cheque. “I was totally, totally confident,” he recalls. “Rolling Stones. Can’t miss. Had a drink, had dinner with them, got on a plane to fly home. Then I turned to [partner] Norman Perry and said, ‘I think we’ve done it this time. We’re bankrupt. I know it. We’re going to be famous idiots.’ I didn’t say another word for three and a half hours of the flight. I just thought, ‘You cocky idiot.’ Everything was gone. It was over.”

His fears, of course, proved unfounded. Steel Wheels, the Stones comeback tour that Cohl financed and organized drew 3.2 million fans in North America and earned revenues of more than $100 million in tickets and merchandise. “It was the most successful tour ever. Period,” says the 46-year-old impresario. Now, after promoting Pink Floyd’s North American tour, Cohl is producing the Stones’ Voodoo Lounge extravaganza, which is set to touch down on four continents. Last month, he brought the band to Toronto for six weeks of rehearsal, and had the stage sets built at the airport. And he plans to spend the next year travelling with the band as its tour director.

Cohl, who got his start running a strip joint in Ottawa, is now the most powerful concert promoter on the planet. “There’s not a big world of people with the know-how or the money to do this,” Mick Jagger told Maclean’s. “I was very worried at first because I’d never worked with Michael before. But I found him easy to work with and I still do. He’s really lowkey. I think that’s what I like about him. You need a voice of calm and sanity, and he’s quite organized.” Keith Richards concurs. “Michael runs a tight ship,” says the guitarist. “He’s a very hands-on guy. He’s into every detail, but he’s not the voice from above. He’s very much part of the extended band.”

Popping open an early-morning Diet Coke and lighting up a Cameo, Cohl sat in his office last month and told the story of how he ended up as impresario to The Rolling Stones. While

at York University in Toronto, he decided “it would be terrible to work for a living.” Dropping out at 19, the Toronto native opened the strip club Pandora’s Box with some friends to make some easy money. But Cohl’s real passion was for music. Investing the club’s profits, he moved on to concert promotion, and by 1973 he had secured a powerful niche by teaming up with Bill Ballard, son of Maple Leaf Gardens czar Harold Ballard. Squeezing out the competition, Cohl expanded his concert business into a coast-to-coast operation. And with an infusion of capital from John Labatt Ltd. in 1988, he gained the financial clout to take on the world.

To get the Stones, Cohl had to usurp the franchise from San Francisco’s Bill Graham, who had pioneered large rock concerts during the 1960s. Cohl had his first run-in with him during the 1988 Amnesty rock tour, a Graham production that Cohl had booked into Maple Leaf Gardens. Recalled Cohl: “One of our guys phoned from the Gardens saying, There’s this lunatic down here screaming at everyone.’ ” Cohl assured them they would not have to work with Graham again. The next morning, Cohl’s colleagues asked him if he realized the implications of what he had said—that they would not be working with the Stones. “Don’t count on it,” Cohl told them. “Maybe we’ll get the Stones.”

In the fall of 1988, Cohl went to New York City to meet the band’s longtime manager, Rupert Lowenstein, who told him that he doubted the Stones would ever tour again. On the spot, Cohl made him an offer, one that he says “was big enough to knock their socks off.” It worked. Jagger and Richards, the band’s estranged leaders, finally began talking to each other again. And soon, Cohl was travelling back to New York to meet the band. “I was nervous as hell,” he says. “I sat in the hotel room having phantom conversations with myself: they’ll ask me this, what’s my response?”

Cohl walked into the meeting wearing a brown leather bomber jacket designed for the heavy metal band Def Leppard. “I took two steps into the room,” he recalls, “and Mick turned to Keith and Rupert and said, ‘That’s what I’m talking about.’ I didn’t know if he was talking about me or the jacket. Later, I realized he was talking about merchandise.”

Merchandise is a significant part of Cohl’s empire. He is president and CEO of BCL Entertainment Corp., which includes both CPI and a merchandising company named Brockum. BCL, now 75-per-cent owned by Labatt, earns a healthy slice of its revenue from selling rock paraphernalia such as T-shirts, posters and hats. Jagger, who keeps a keen eye on every aspect of his band’s business dealings, saw that Cohl was well equipped to market the band’s image as well as its music.

That first meeting led to further sessions in Barbados, where Jagger and Richards were working on songs for Steel Wheels. They summoned both Cohl and Graham to make their final pitches on the same day. “It was very much like interviewing for a job,” says Cohl. “I never hated Graham, but he hated me. He had a hot temper, and by this point I was the enemy.” After losing the Stones franchise to Cohl, Graham made no secret of his bitterness: he said the Stones had sold out to “someone who put up a whole pile of bullion.”

While the exact figure remain’s Cohl’s secret, it was certainly more than anyone had ever fronted for a rock tour before. And in the beginning, says Cohl, “everyone thought I was crazy.” During the first

week of ticket sales for Steel Wheels, he began wondering if they were right. “The first city was Cleveland, and it was disappointing as hell,” he recalls. “It gets beyond the money. The worst thing was being so wrong—could we really be that out of touch with our own business?” But the next week, after concerts in other cities sold out rapidly, Cohl’s panic subsided.

As the band’s tour director, meanwhile, Cohl has to do more than fill stadiums. In negotiating the original Steel Wheels deal, the Stones asked if he would travel with the band. “They said, We are going to be there every night—are you?’ ” recalls Cohl. He wondered if they were bluffing, but decided not to chance it. “I told them, ‘I’ll be there, just like you.’ ”

Embarking on the Voodoo Lounge tour, Cohl says he has mixed emotions about spending another year on the road. “There are parts of it that are incredibly exciting,” he says, “and parts of it where you just want to get on an airplane and go home. There are 200 people travelling with you, and they’re not all in a good mood all the time.” The promoter, who is divorced, has lived with Lori McGoran, a former secretary, for 15 years, and they have four children together. In the summer, the family travels with the band, but during the school year there are long stretches of separation.

Travelling with the Stones is more work than play, according to Cohl. “The truth is, it isn’t as wild as you think.” Richards, he concedes, “likes to have a drink or two, but he doesn’t go to the shows drunk—at the end of the day, they’re all consummate professionals.” During his early years in the music business, Cohl says he indulged heavily in drugs of almost every description. But he quit one day in the mid-1970s after deciding that “it’s crap and I can feel a lot better without it.” He adds that he has never been a drinker, and despite his association with Labatt, hates the taste of beer.

On July 24, the band’s last night in Toronto before heading off to launch their tour in Washington, Cohl hosted a barbecue for the Stones at his house. “We were being superstitious,” says the promoter. “We did the same thing for Steel Wheels.” Celebrity chef Jamie Kennedy from Toronto’s Palmerston Restaurant—where band members had dined several times—grilled lobster, chicken and steak. The promoter and his guests listened to old rhythm and blues and swam in the pool. With Michael Cohl, it seems The Rolling Stones have found a home away from home.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON