Who books acts for local venues?

In the bygone day of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, a plucky kid in a movie would say, "Hey, let's put on a show!" — and everybody's problems would be solved.

In today's world it's not so easy, say those who do it professionally. Presenting concerts requires you to be part accountant, part arts maven and part fortune teller, with maybe a touch of Don King.

"We have a lot of discussion of marquee appeal," says Craterian Executive Director Stephen McCandless, who books concerts for Craterian Performances, the non-profit's presenting arm.

He notes that the Craterian, like all presenters, faces the necessity of staying afloat financially, while the Craterian's mission statement calls for high-quality entertainment across a broad spectrum.

"But we also book several programs that we expect to lose money but we think are important," he says.

Examples are "Prairie Home Companion" regulars Robin and Linda Williams on March 23 and almost any jazz or classical concert.

"Jazz is a money loser," McCandless says. "Broadway titles fill the house, and we make a little money, but they're expensive. The community is most interested in brand-name entertainment, as in a Broadway title."

The challenge is getting both a challenging artistic mix and revenue-generating power. "When making a lot of money is not your motivating principle, how do we find these programs?" he says.

The Craterian, like the other big arts presenters in Medford and Ashland, is a nonprofit and must raise much of its annual budget from corporate and business underwriters and private donors. It has relationships with booking agencies that over time have come to have a sense of what the Craterian interested in. McCandless gets a stream of press kits and reviews and DVDs of touring artists from agents all over the country.

"But you know, you can still be surprised," he says.

The biggest misconception people have? "That we make a lot of money," McCandless says.

Headline acts on the Craterian stage cost anywhere from $6,000 to $60,000, and ticket sales don't cover the bills.

"We have to raise about $300,000 for the year to balance the budget," he says. "You can't charge enough for the tickets.

"We hire 50 extra stagehands for a Broadway show, and I can't believe how much 'name-an-artist' costs now. "

The biggest misconception people have about shows at the Jackson County Expo, Chris Borovansky says, is the same thing: "That we make a ton of money."

The music industry has changed significantly over past 10 years, leaving artists more dependent than ever before on live shows to earn money.

"With file-sharing and iPods and stuff, there are no large record contracts anymore," Borovansky says. "The good news is, acts are more accessible. The bad news is, they're more expensive."

The Expo now presents artists in the Lithia Motors Amphitheater, which was unveiled in 2005, and has deals with the Britt festival and several other presenters. The most Borovansky has paid for an act in the new 5,900-seat venue is $175,000.

"We like home runs," he says. "Like a few years ago when we did Tim McGraw for $25,000 just as he was hitting big.

"Kid acts are another story. They're difficult (to gauge), but we want to do something for young people."

The amphitheater opened Southern Oregon to bigger acts. For the annual Jackson County Fair, Borovansky tries for variety ("We don't want to load it up with five days or rock or country"). Much depends on routing, which bands are where at what point in the summer touring season.

"We look at the major tours to see who's coming to the Gorge or Reno," he says. "We also use the services of Wilson Events."

Wilson is a broker, not a booking agent, that works with fairs and casinos and other big presenters and will book an act for maybe a dozen dates.

"If I want Martina McBride, I'm negotiating for one event," Borovansky says. "But they're booking her for eight or 10 dates. There are economies of scale."

The Expo also works with Lowell MacGregor, a Portland-based promotion company through which it booked a Christian concert headed by The Newsboys in March.

Borovansky tries to present one or two big shows that require tickets for all seats, but for most fair shows, lawn seating remains free.

Borovansky markets the amphitheater within the industry. He was in Los Angeles in February seeing booking agents and passing out DVDs and brochures.

Mike Sturgill, who books talent for the Britt festival, says the biggest misconception he encounters is that you can simply pick an act and get it, like ordering in a restaurant.

"You don't get to order whatever you want," he says.

Britt presents a range of summer programming from classical to pop, rock, country, jazz, world music, folk and dance.

"Some of what we're doing is artists pushing the 4,000 to 5,000 (attendance) mark in San Francisco, and we're able to be a good routing date," he says.

A Ringo Starr or a Mark Knopfler might play a Jacksonville on a weeknight between gigs in San Francisco and Seattle.

"It's sort of the West Coast winery circuit of adult contemporary artists," Sturgill says.

Like the other nonprofits, Britt doesn't get enough money to pay its costs out of ticket sales. Sturgill says in addition to a downside (needing to raise money), there's an upside.

"We do things a for-profit promoter wouldn't," he says.

Jazz artists, for example, or artists who draw from a niche, such as Ani DiFranco, Cake or Michael Franti.

The Expo provides an opportunity for Britt to book several bigger acts each summer.

"Some of the artists, we can't charge enough to afford them in Jacksonville with 2,200 seats," he said.

The average cost of a headline act for a Britt-size venue now exceeds $40,000.

Asked for a wish list, Sturgill listed Ben Harper, Tom Waits, Wilco, Carole King.

He said trends change quickly, and presenters must find the pulse while looking to the future. World music, for example, is less popular than it was 10 years ago, he said. Country music is more unpredictable.

"We had Carrie Underwood last year, and her price has doubled this year," he says. "Country is like that. They take off like a rocket and drop back down just as quickly. Is it hype or reality?

"A lot of major artists have died or just cut back and work somewhat less. The question is, where's the next whoever?"


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