The Barry Fey Interview
I have had the pleasure indeed of interviewing some of the coolest people and hope that pleasure continues for a very long time. The musicians and others connected to the music business that I have talked to have had some great stories to relate, insights I never considered and a world view that have made them unique in rock and roll history. Barry Fey is the bee’s knees when it comes to having had a bird’s eye view (birds and bees, oh my!) of the rock and roll world as a Midwest concert promoter from the late 60s through the early 90s.
Fey is the man who brought rock back after an extended hiatus to the Red Rock Amphitheater, near Denver, Colorado. He booked U2 there and they released it as the iconic Under A Blood Red Sky. He also put on early shows with Jimi Hendrix, Vanilla Fudge and Led Zeppelin, and was on board promoting a number of Rolling Stones tours. Fey also was known for his legendary backyard cook-outs where he cooked his famous Cajun shrimp for just about everybody he promoted. To put it all in perspective, he’s written a fantastic new memoir called Backstage Past (see our review). To show their support, Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne and Pete Townshend penned forwards for the book. And I have the pleasure of adding Barry Fey to my long list of wonderful interview experiences.
First of all, we really want to thank you for taking the time to do this. I know you’re very involved right now with promoting the book.
Oh no I appreciate it, really. I’ve had a marvelous six, seven weeks with this.
So why the book at this time?Well, ever since I retired in 1997, it’s been like a mantra in this community — I mean you’d have to live here — people come up to me on the street and say, “When’s the book coming out? Are you writing a book?” Then a couple years ago I got on Facebook and then it became relentless. But it’s like a mental thing you say, wait a minute, do I really have anything to write that some wants to read? That’s pretty pretentious.
While I drooled over every story in Backstage Past I also loved the insights you give about the concert business in general. You really did not pull any punches!When you are going to write a book you have a duty to tell the truth…unless you’re writing fiction of course. And everything in there-there is some unpleasant stuff, there’s some nice stuff-it’s the truth. I told it as I remembered it and I have a really good memory.
I was thinking when one considers all the heavyweights you have promoted, the people you write of that you admire so much, rock and roll icons to us all... what do you think really separates them from the everyday guy or girl that maybe has a couple of years at it and maybe only a few hits?
You know no one has ever asked me a question like that; give me minute to think…
We’ll first of all, they loved and were dedicated to the music; they weren’t just dabbling in it. I used to say and it’s a cliché, but in the early days we had a lot of great musicians dabbling in drugs, now we have a lot of drug addicts just dabbling in music. These people were devoted to the music — (Pete) Townshend and Keith Richards and Mick (Jagger), Bobby Plant and people like that, say what you want about their personalities or their demeanors, they were dedicated to the music. I think that has got to be the big difference.
Since you really are so honest in the book let me shoot straight from the hip…who’d you make the most money with?
Wow, where are you coming up with these questions man! (laughs)
Hey, this is Vintage Rock, we get right down to it!
I would have to say, because of the number of times we played them, though the money was on a much smaller scale at the time, I’d still say the Stones.
Now speaking of that smaller scale, one of the things in the book that I really love is where you compare ticket prices, figuring in inflation and it really illustrates how things have gotten out of hand.
I did that for a speech a few years ago. I figured I better know what I am talking about so I called the Bureau of Standards and Practices and I said in 1972 we did the Stones everywhere in the country for $6.50, can you tell me what the price would be today? And they extrapolated for cost of living and inflation and said $29.52 and the Stones are playing for upwards of $400 per ticket! When I retired, the highest price I charged was $71 for Pink Floyd.
What’s the reason for the current gouging?
The main villain here is Sillerman (Robert ‘FX’ Sillerman) who came along with his SFX company. A lot of people blame radio and record companies, which certainly have lots to do with it, but Sillerman bought up 65 % of the best promoters, Jack Boyle in Florida. He bought Bill Graham out, though Bill had passed away by then, thankfully…
You’re not the only one I've heard say negative things about Bill Graham.
Nobody liked that guy — you cannot fathom how mean he was. You can be ruthless because you want to protect your market, but don’t hurt people for no reason man. I had a reputation for being a tough guy. He made me look like fucking Mary Poppins!
But back to Sillerman. He bought up the best promoters and if that wasn’t enough he had to have a whole tour so he’d bid two and half, three times what the band was worth and get the tour and he figured he’d make money on the side, with the perks. Then he sold to Clear Channel and they abused it, that’s why they got to so many lawsuits, then they sold to Live Nation, then Live Nation bought House of Blues. I mean it’s just disgusting. Two fifty, three hundred, four hundred for a ticket — it takes the soul and the heart out of our business.
When I started I was lucky enough to have a fairly good pair of ears and I’d hear the groups and I’d book them and if they got big I’d get big with them, now…someone asked me at one of my book signings the other day, “Do you have any tips for me to become an independent promoter?” I told him to take up welding because it’s good honest work.
So there really is no chance for a guy like you coming up to make money in the business or the fans to see a cheap show because of the money that’s flying around from the big guys?
Yes, after one or two tours one of the majors comes in and offers a band 1 or 2 million for a tour and the small promoter who started with that band is gone. They pay those bands so much. A band used to tour to support their albums but now that the album business is dead they tour to support themselves. That’s why the prices are so outrageous.
And this is the reason you got out?
One of them, yes. But in the early 90s I started really not enjoying the business anymore, instead of being the music business it became the business of music, there was a polarizing effect on the people, the audience who loved it; it was either this band was great or this band sucked. I found I was enjoying myself a lot less. I used to have the greatest time of my life. So when the time came I merged with Universal, I believe it was 91, 92 and after five years, one of us had to buy out the other. I certainly wasn’t going to spend in excess of three-million dollars to be in a business I didn’t understand anymore.
Do you keep touch with what’s happening now?
I’m really on the outside. There were three or four years I didn’t even listen to music anymore. I just listed to talk radio, but now I listen to classic rock. I see nothing to take its place. The last good album I feel was Appetite For Destruction.
Until I read Backstage Past I didn’t know your specific connection to Red Rocks.
Those rocks were not that red until I took it over! Under A Blood Red Sky made it a must play place for everybody. I remember I had booked Springsteen three times but he wouldn’t play Red Rocks, he said he didn’t play outdoors, but I told Frank Barcelona to tell him it’s indoors without a roof and we got him to play and when he finally did he said it was the best place he’d ever played in his life.
From your enthusiasm for the music, the wonderful response from the book (the book was released November 2011 and saw its first printing sold out) and the fun you seem to be having at the signings, it sounds like your having a great time.
The book signings really have been so wonderful and I am so grateful. I’m used to seeing people tens of thousands at a time now I get to speak to them one-on-one and they come up to tell me how much I meant to their lives, now what they mean is how much the music meant, but they equate me to the music.
It just really comes clear how deeply in the trenches of it all you were.
It’s funny you say that because I used to describe a promoter as the infantry of the business. We go in first, we are the only ones who take risks. Everybody else: the record company, the sound and lights, they are guaranteed something and we are guaranteed nothing. And if there is anything left the promoter gets to put that in his pocket.
Are you still cooking your famous shrimp?
Yes, definitely. You mention the shrimp, how proud am I that Ozzy and Sharon (Osbourne) and Pete Townshend wrote the forward!
The book really was a delight all the way through. Thanks so much.
That’s nice of you to say that. I think it was a fitting end to the career.