Photo: Jason Squires
Pollstar Live! 2016
Moderated by Dennis Erokan, former editor of BAM (Bay Area Music) magazine, the freewheeling panel recalled the famous stadium shows widely considered to be the precursors – if one doesn’t count one-offs like Woodstock and Altamont – of the modern-day festival.
Jerry Pompili of the Bill Graham Memorial Foundation told the audience that with the “linear progression” of shows staged by BGP from San Francisco’s Cow Palace to Kezar Stadium to the Oakland Coliseum, came an increase in problems.
“Someone’s gonna get killed,” Pompili recalled saying of the larger shows, including those with Led Zeppelin. “Nobody really had the expertise for these outdoor festivals after Altamont,” he said of the notorious concert featuring The Rolling Stones and Hells Angels “security” that resulted in the murder of a concertgoer.
Pompili got in touch with Dave Smith of the Haight Ashbury medical clinic to provide the first “rock medicine” and set designers to create elaborate stages and scrims the growth of which can be seen today at spectacles like Electric Daisy Carnival and Coachella Music & Arts Festival.
Dan Scher of Dansun Productions is also a director of BGMF, and told of his 40 years working with Graham, Pompili and Bob Barsotti of Black Oak Ranch.
“When I started in 1975 I was a booker with Bill. This was before Pollstar, before computers. We had to know music and what people in the San Francisco Bay Area wanted. Bill took great pride in this,” Scher said. “Numbers don’t tell you if it was a bad show. Every one of us walked around with 3x5 cards and pens. We’d walk in the office with a wish list of who we would like to see, and who we would come back to see. It was like a Ouija board and we’d end up with a roster without ever discussing the artist cost or the ticket price. We would talk about playlists with certain DJs at radio stations around town.
“The first show I remember doing was a Chicago/Beach Boys show for $6.50, $8 at the door. In 1980, the Eagles were $10. Bill wondered if we should charge that much. Bill thought you shouldn’t have to save up for a show, and people would come to the Fillmore on a Friday night without even knowing who the artist was, because it was a Friday and the Fillmore.
“That was the secret to Bill’s success – the people came first,” Scher said. Ron Bergman of Live Nation San Francisco – the company that ultimately grew out of BGP after it was sold to SFX Entertainment in the late ‘90s – was on the panel after having just come off a Metallica show during Super Bowl week at AT&T Park.
“How we started on Days On The Green was a progression. We have engineering firms, dealings with with city of San Francisco. We had timbers and plywood. We had to figure out things as they went,” Bergman said. “Things became more elaborate. I guess we hoped for the best. Going back to those days, it was an experience that helped to get our industry where it is today. The scrims were to offer more visually than just a bare stage. It was a forerunner to Coachella.” Bob Barsotti concurred, adding that the first Days On The Green in Oakland were geared for 50,000-plus fans in a modern, at the time, sports stadium.
“How do you line them up and get them in for a couple of hours? It’s not a football game,” Barsotti said. “Instead of a one-hour lead time, it was now two to three hours, and you give an audience that much time to wait, and they get in trouble," Barsotti said. "We walked through the crowds; kept an eye on things. A volleyball game at the back would start up. We had things going on just to keep people occupied. When we finished the ‘70s, we’d done 50-70 outdoor stadium shows and things began changing. Then the Grateful Dead started doing multiple-day shows and invited fans to camp out in parking lots, and you d have a little festival going on there.
“The Grateful Dead took a lot of chances with us and played places that maybe weren’t the best dollar, but created an audience and aura. They went away and it was a perfect time to transition to Coachella,” Barsotti said.
Alyxander Bear works with Electric Daisy Carnival and Insomniac. He explained that EDC, over three days, draws 400,000 and acknowledged the others on the stage for “blazing the trail on the festival scene.” Today’s festivals “are a lot more visual,” Bear said.
“Technically speaking, you have one individual on stage, and he’s a DJ. He literally plugs in his USB and pumps his fist and that is the act. We have to go a little bit further and give fans something to look at. “What you don’t see is outside the stage and we have to create an experience for the fans to enjoy themselves when they are not standing en masse in front of a stage. There are interactive installations, carnivals, weddings, all sort of things.
“Out of 400,000, a great deal of them aren’t in front of stages. Why you would spend $400 to $500 and not see the show is beyond me. EDC has eight individual stages and each presents a different genre. I don’t understand it, but I love it. We’ve come a long way since the ‘60s and ‘70s, since Woodstock, the US Festivals, Cal Jams and Days on the Green. We’re not done yet,” Bear said.
Kevan Wilkins, a production manager for Goldenvoice and Coachella, says the annual fest features seven stages for artists that are as diverse as they can come.
“We used to have an electronic stage but we’re spreading that scene around. The fans get in front of that stage and stay there all day,” Wilkins said. “We try to bring something special to the audience. We have a lot more technology. If you had what we have, you’d do the same. We’re not different. The earliest fests had no security, except for maybe the Hells Angels. It blows my mind.
“Stonehenge was such an experience and unfortunately an out-of-control one and was shut down in in 1985. We went to Glastonbury as well. So there was a festival scenario in Europe. I hope I’ve been able to bring it here and out through Coachella.
“I totally admire all you guys and felt a little intimidated. It’s a great honor to hear these stories,” Wilkins said.