Features

Building a Crowd

How Sue McLean went from a college student booking bar bands for some extra scratch to one of the nation’s top concert promoters with revenues in the millions.

By Dan Emerson

In her roughly 35 years in the music business, Sue McLean has promoted hundreds of large and small concerts. But she has no trouble remembering her first show: booking jazz icon Charles Mingus at the Bronco Bar in Chanhassen. The west-suburban rock bar was a very unlikely venue for a jazz concert, and McLean was putting up her own money for the first time.

"I didn't know what I was doing, but people showed up. Back then, there were not many expenses involved, and the artist probably played for the door."

Today, the founder and president of Minneapolis-based Sue McLean & Associates is one of the most successful independent concert promoters in the music business, grossing $3.1 million in revenue in 2009. The industry magazine Pollstar included McLean on its list of top 50 concert promoters.

People are still showing up, and McLean has enjoyed enviable career longevity in a business where no one stays "hot" for very long, and a handful of giants dominate the concert-promotion landscape. She's built her business through the eras of LPs, 8-tracks and cassettes, then CDs and now MP3s and iPods, as musical trends have come and gone-and  come back again.

McLean, 60, grew up in Dayton, Minn., where her father owned a bar. Back in the early '70s, she was an avid music fan and student at St. Cloud State University, where a friend who was promoting local concerts introduced her to rock promoter Randy Levy. That led to a job with Levy's firm Rose Presents (then Schon Productions), booking local bar bands like the Suicide Commandos, Curtiss A and Lamont Cranston. In 1979, McLean became an in-house talent buyer for two local clubs, Duffy's and Thumper's.

In the '80s she sold radio advertising, worked as a booking agent for Minneapolis-based O'Brien Entertainment and in 1985 joined the Guthrie Theater staff, where she worked for nine years as special events director. "The Guthrie had such a rich heritage of live concerts, I had big shoes to fill there," she recalls. But using the contacts she had developed, "it grew into a successful revenue stream for the Guthrie."

In 1994 she and a partner, Jeff Arundel, formed Triad Entertainment (known later as Compass Entertainment). Then, four years later, McLean split from her partner and formed Sue McLean & Associates.

McLean's profession is one that may look like fun from the outside, but is more difficult than it appears. "Everybody thinks they can make money putting on concerts," McLean says. "But the important thing is figuring out the psychology of ticket buyers-what kind of music are they going to respond to?"

The concert-promoting field represents something of a paradox. It's always been a gut-feeling, seat-of-the-pants business. Still, the most important lesson McLean has learned, she says, is not to let her personal music preferences get in the way of making intelligent business decisions.

"One thing I've learned is, 'Do as few emotional buys as possible,'" she says.

Although that adage has become ingrained in her entrepreneurial DNA, McLean still has to keep reminding herself. She cites a concert by former Sly and the Family Stone bassist Larry Graham she promoted at the Minnesota Zoo last summer, which didn't sell as many tickets as she had hoped: "I might love Larry Graham, but the market didn't respond."

"I need to have other people's instincts to rely on," says McLean, whose handful of much-younger employees helps her stay in touch with who is hot and who's building a fan-base. Using social media to build fan communities has also become a major tool. "And radio really drives a lot of the choices. It's still a gut-feeling business."

Before deciding to book an artist, setting the date and renting a hall, McLean and her small staff do plenty of research, considering music sales, radio airplay, and checking with promoters and radio stations in other markets to find out how an act has been doing elsewhere. "When an act stiffs in one place, chances are they are stiffing everywhere, even though there are some differences between markets. I still come at it as a fan, but there's more method to the madness than there used to be. What separates us from the more "corporate," bigger promoters like Live Nation is that we can go with our gut more than [they]."

One of McLean's key helpers is Jesse Brodd, owner of Brodd's Garage, a Minneapolis-based Web development and online marketing firm. Brodd uses Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts to help McLean reach 20- and 30-something music fans who rely on the Web more than newspapers, radio and other old-school media.

"We have developed a brand that people recognize, and we also educate and develop online relationships with people who are going to shows," Brodd explains. Brodd and other McLean associates also use social media to let music fans voice their (post-concert) opinions on ticket prices, venues, security and other topics, "which helps us assess who is doing a good job."

McLean has another Web consultant who monitors Twitter posts and reports back to her. "There's a whole community that goes back and forth online and, after a show lets us know what they liked or didn't like." She also has a roughly 200-member "ticket club," regular concert customers who receive priority access and reduced fees when tickets go on sale.

Of course, it helps that McLean has long-standing business relationships with some artists who have also enjoyed trend-spanning career longevity. Some of McLean's most reliable, perennial draws have been gray-haired, boomer favorites like Taj Mahal, Jerry Jeff Walker and John Prine. McLean has a fond memory of booking Texas singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett to play the Guthrie back in the late '80s when he was a relative unknown. "Between the time we booked him and the night of the show, he got a lot of radio airplay and press coverage. So there was a huge buzz. That's what we're always chasing-the buzz. We're like stormchasers."

In 2008, McLean got a call about an obscure roots act called the Avett Brothers and "squeezed them in as an opening act at the zoo for 75 bucks." Two years later, the Avetts were one of the hottest roots acts in the business, appearing on David Letterman and amassing critic raves. McLean booked them at this year's Basilica Block Party before a sellout crowd. "All promoters live for that sweet spot: Performers who are on the rise yet still affordable for theater or nightclub-sized venues. So we can keep ticket prices reasonable. That's the fun of it, booking before they hit."
 
Young singer-songwriters Amos Lee and Brandi Carlile are more recent examples of performers they were "lucky enough to be involved with in the beginning." McLean booked both into local bars when they were starting out, and now helps them fill theater-sized venues. She recently booked Lee for a January concert at the State Theatre in Minneapolis.

While she's not a star-maker in the old-school, music biz sense, McLean does play a role in helping performers build careers. She spends time each day fielding e-mails from agents she has known "for years and years" telling her about a new project. McLean adds, "Two out of three times, touring artists are coming here from Milwaukee or Chicago and my job is to help them find the right venue. The agent will tell me what size venue they are looking for, we'll talk about ticket prices and negotiate a fee, and try to keep it a win-win situation."

"There are only a few independents like myself left in the concert promotion business; artists and their agents like to work with people 'on the inside' who have a feel for the market. Someone might call and say, 'I know you talk to Cities 97 [radio station], can you make sure they get this CD?' I, in turn, will ask Cities 97 if they can have the artist perform in [the station's] Studio C before the gig."

There was a time when performers toured mainly to support record or CD sales. Today, since they can't depend on CD revenue "they are constantly touring," McLean notes. "The biggest challenge for us is not to bring them back to town too soon. They all seem to want to come back every six or seven months, which is usually too soon."

"We always want to help a band out if we can, but sometimes we have to help their agent find alternatives to playing in the Twin Cities too often, by steering them into secondary markets," she says.

Another hurdle, in the era of three-figure ticket prices, is keeping prices at customer-friendly levels. "Sponsors make a huge difference in being able to do that," McLean notes. Her sponsors have included local car dealers, beer makers and a sandwich shop chain.

The fact that McLean's milieu is mid-size venues rather than stadiums and arenas works in her favor. She books more than 100 shows per year at venues ranging in size from Bunker's (300 capacity) to summer shows at the River's Edge amphitheater in Wisconsin, which holds up to 20,000 people.

"People need to have a decent ticket price. I'm lucky to be able to provide the size shows I do. It gets more difficult the bigger the show is." At the arena level, "there are a lot more expectations from bands on how much money they are going to make. A higher band-fee means higher ticket prices."

At McLean's mid-size venue level, the industry's standard deal gives the local promoter 15 percent of the net proceeds and only after they cover a lengthy list of expenses-for hall rental, stagehands, sound and lighting systems, ticketing, ushers, security and, sometimes, hotel rooms and ground transit. "When I started in the business, it was a 60-40 split, after expenses; then it became 70-30," McLean recalls.

Even if her share of the gate receipts has shrunk somewhat, McLean is still highly valued by her music-business colleagues.

Paul Lohr, a Nashville agent who has handled the Dixie Chicks and other major acts, says McLean could be considered one of a vanishing breed: the independent concert promoter. "She's been one of few who have been able to make a go of it on her own. It's a testament to what a bright woman she is and how creative she can be. This is a tough environment in which to sustain a business."

In turn, McLean's former boss, Randy Levy, lauds her open-minded approach. "Sue has always been willing to work with artists from all genres, whether or not they fit her personal or artistic preference. She's 'planted seeds' early, with many artists, so they have come to trust her with their live performances time after time."

Claire Ross, special events coordinator and concert manager at the Minnesota Zoo, credits McLean with helping make the zoo's summer concert series a success. "One thing she does is draw a base audience because she books perennial favorites, like Los Lobos. She is also able to fill seats because she has developed such a good reputation with the ticket-buyers. And she's helped us attract marquee artists like the Black Crowes and Crowded House, who really get people in the door. She's brought artists to our area that haven't had a following here, such as the Avett Brothers. Not many people here had heard of them, but they were one of our first shows of the 2010 season. By the end of the summer, everybody was talking about them and they were getting booked everywhere."

McLean can't spend as much time as she used to enjoying music as a fan. But she still chases the buzz. "Marketing is where my creative juices really get going, and I enjoy keeping up on the trends. It's the idea of getting people together and getting them to come out to a show that is so exciting. When people are at the show, that's the fun part."