MUSIC

The music man

Michael Cohl gets the Stones rolling

TIM POWIS September 11 1989
MUSIC

The music man

Michael Cohl gets the Stones rolling

TIM POWIS September 11 1989

The music man

MUSIC

Michael Cohl gets the Stones rolling

It was a dream come true for any rockconcert promoter—even one as powerful as Michael Cohl. In March this year, the 4I-year-old president of Toronto-based Concert Productions International (CPI) made a series of business trips to meet with members of The Rolling Stones in Barbados. Three days after Cohl returned from the final meeting, a representative of the band called him to say that the Stones had accepted his offer to organize and promote their 1989 North American tour. “I felt great,” Cohl told Maclean’s before arriving in Philadelphia for the first of more than 40 dates last week. “I put the phone down, I threw my hands in the air as if we’d won the Stanley Cup and I hugged my girlfriend.” By reportedly guaranteeing the band between $60 million and $70 million, Cohl managed to outbid the formidable American promoter Bill Graham, whose lengthy history of dealings with the Stones includes running their successful 1981-1982 U.S. tour. Still, CPI’s victory did not surprise others in the industry. Said Donald Tarlton, head of Montreal promotion company Donald K. Donald Productions Inc. and a longtime ally of Cohl’s: “He’s one of the greatest deal-makers in the history of rock ’n’ roll.”

In fact, Cohl has co-ordinated some of the biggest recent North American rock tours— including those by The Who and Pink Floyd. And, through his 1984 takeover of New Jersey-

based Krimson Corp., which now carries on business under the name of the Brockum Group of Companies, he has become a worldwide merchandiser of T-shirts, posters and other concert souvenirs. Perhaps the strongest

testimonial to Cohl’s business acumen came in February, 1988, when Canadian brewing giant Labatt Brewing Co. Ltd. bought a 45per-cent stake in BCL Entertainment Corp.— the parent company of CPI and of New York City-based Brockum—for a reported $25 million. The Canadian business establishment

had finally given Cohl its seal of approval.

With the Rolling Stones tour this fall, the relationship between Cohl and Labatt’s has taken on an added dimension: the brewery is sponsoring the five dates on the tour’s Canadian leg. Labatt’s financial backing has added fuel to the ongoing debate over corporate sponsorship of rock concerts. In the past decade, the business world has increasingly recognized the marketing potential in underwriting such events. Now, with the exception of such holdouts as Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and U2, who actively shun sponsorship deals, most rock tours are sponsored by corporations. The Who’s recent swing through Canada was underwritten by Molson. Such performers as Robert Palmer have not only appeared in concert under the auspices of Diet Pepsi, but have also made TV commercials for the product. Proponents of sponsorship say that musicindustry economics make corporate support essential for tours. Those against it argue that rock ’n’ roll is selling out its rebellious roots.

But, for Cohl, renewed debate over the sponsorship issue scarcely detracted from his pleasure at winning the Stones contract, the peak of his 20-year career. Bom in Toronto, he dropped out of university and began running Pandora’s Box, an Ottawa striptease tavern, in the late 1960s. Using income from that venture, Cohl made a disastrous debut as a concert promoter in 1969: he brought Buck Owens and cast members of the Hee Haw television show to Toronto’s 18,000-seat Maple Leaf Gardens, selling only 2,300 tickets. But Cohl persevered—mainly, he says, because he could not bear the thought of a routine job. In a rare interview, the reclusive Cohl—known for his informal, jeans-and-sneakers attire—told Maclean ’s that concert promotion suited his passion for rock ’n’ roll. “It just seemed a perfect match,” he said. “What a way to make a living and have fun.” Financial success was not part of the fun until New Year’s Eve in 1970, when a concert at Maple Leaf Gardens featuring Johnny Winter generated revenues of $140,000 and enabled the fledgling promoter to get out of the strip-bar business.

Cohl entered the major leagues with the formation of CPI, bom in 1973 when Cohl and his then-partners David Wolinsky and Peter Larson teamed up with Bill Ballard, the now 42year-old son and sometime business associate of cantankerous Maple Leaf Gardens owner Harold Ballard, 86. The resulting near-monopoly on concert bookings at the Gardens soon ^ gave Cohl the muscle he needed to get the concert rights for the 50,000-seat stadium at 5 Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition È grounds (last year, CPI also obtained near| exclusive ticketing and merchandising rights to ° Toronto’s SkyDome). CPI also came to a jointventure agreement with onetime archrival Donald K. Donald Productions and owns a onethird interest in the Vancouver promotion firm Perryscope Productions.(Donald K.Donaldand Norman Perry, president of the CPI affiliate Brockum, own one-third of Perryscope each.)

Cohl extended his hold on the rock-concert industry by purchasing Krimson Corp. In 1984, after months of persistent negotiations, Krim-

son landed a major coup by obtaining the merchandising rights to the so-called Victory tour of Michael Jackson and his brothers. Since then, the infusion of money from Labatt’s has allowed Cohl to build Brockum, the name under which Krimson now operates, into the world’s biggest rock-paraphernalia merchandiser. Brockum, said Cohl, currently accounts for 50 per cent of BCL’s annual gross. Last year, BCL’s revenues of $200 million represented a dramatic increase since 1984, when it took in $55 million. Cohl predicted that, boosted by the Stones tour—for which Brockum has the merchandising rights (everything from running shoes to leather motorcycle jackets)—BCL’s revenues in 1989 will reach $400 million.

Along with Cohl’s rising financial fortunes has come adverse publicity and increased criticism of his rock-based empire. Many music fans have complained that ticket prices for CPI events are too high and the best seats too scarce. Smaller Toronto promoters have complained that CPI has too tight a hold on the city’s concert scene. Said Elliott Lefko, who books groups in Toronto’s club circuit: “Their connections are so huge that they tie up a lot of bands.” Recently, a number of local promoters on the Stones’ tour route objected to the $30,000 flat fee Cohl was offering them instead of the usual percentage of the net. Describing his own approach to promotion, Cohl has said, “What I do is make sure there’s no Mike Cohl coming up behind me.”

The Rolling Stones tour will put an even greater distance between Cohl and his competitors. Said Cohl, who is travelling with the tour: “It’s clearly the biggest undertaking in our history—and the most exciting and challenging.” With BCL handling every aspect of the tour, from minute organizational details to Tshirt concessions, industry analysts estimate that the company will make up to $40 million in profits from the package.

In Canada, that package includes sponsorship by Labatt’s, a deal that has caused some consternation at Molson Breweries in light of an agreement Molson made with CPI in 1985. In effect until 1992, the deal grants Molson primary sponsorship rights for CPI-promoted shows. But CPI is not officially promoting the Stones tour—BCL is the promoter, and CPI is the producer. And, according to Jay Whiteside, promotions director for Labatt Breweries of Canada, Labatt’s negotiated directly with Promotour, an organization representing the Stones, not with Cohl. “Our deal is a direct-toartist sponsorship, so we weren’t dealing with CPI as such,” he said.

Donald Antle, manager of promotions, sports and entertainment properties for Molson, said that he is unaware of any plans his company has to sue and acknowledged that Labatt’s purchased the sponsorship rights directly. Still, he said: “There are some questions that have to be asked and answered. They sort of got us on a technicality. Our deal [with CPI] was structured so things like this would fall under it. The Who fell under it; Pink Floyd fell under it. What’s different about the Stones?” For his part, Cohl said: “When I control the

rights, our shows are sponsored by Molson, period. There are a couple of years to go on the contract, and we will continue to honor it.” That type of complication is probably inevitable as corporate sponsorship continues to grow more prevalent. In the late 1970s, declining record sales caused record companies to cut back drastically on the tour subsidies that they had been providing their acts. Other corporations moved in as sponsors to pick up the slack. When record sales became healthy again in the latter half of the 1980s, the record companies did not restore tour support. While the earliest sponsorship agreements allowed

corporations to place their logos on concert advertisements and in arenas, contemporary contracts are far more complicated—and costly. Whiteside will not divulge the amount that Labatt’s is giving to The Rolling Stones but he said, “It’s got a couple of commas in it.” In return, Labatt’s TV commercials feature clips of the Stones in concert and in the studio.

Many people consider that involvement distasteful. Said Dave Marsh, a New York-based rock critic who has written books about The Who and Bruce Springsteen: “It cheapens and degrades the whole process by turning an artistic experience into a pimping experience.” Marsh does not accept the common argument

that the staggering costs of putting on an arena-sized concert make sponsorship indispensable. “That’s a lie. Mick Jagger and Pete Townshend [of The Who] are going to get richer off these tours than ever before,” he said. “If Mick Jagger can’t make a profit from a concert without Michael Cohl selling his ass to a beer company, he’s incompetent.”

But, for many others, sponsorship is an irreversible fact of life in the music industry. Jagger, 46, told Maclean ’s while preparing for the tour in Washington, Conn.: “I would love to live without it. But we’re living in America; it’s a huge capitalist society.” William Gray of Rockbill Ltd., an entertainment marketing company that is working on the Labatt’s sponsorship campaign for the Stones tour, sees sponsorship more as a benign force than an evil necessity. “It’ll be a black day for rock fans when the corporate world walks away from music,” he said. “There’ll be fewer tours and concerts and they’ll be more poorly produced.” For Cohl, sponsorship is a non-issue. “I don’t see that art is somehow damaged by an association with business,” he said. Cohl, who lives in Toronto with his girlfriend, Lori McGoran, and their four children, will be on the road with the Stones until late December. After that, he will be back to business as usual—promoting concerts throughout the continent. “Grand opportunities like The Rolling Stones aren’t something that comes along every year,” he said. But when those opportunities do arise, it is a safe bet that Cohl will do whatever he can to take advantage of them.

TIM POWIS

NICHOLAS JENNINGS