Excerpts and photos courtesy of The New Haven Advocate
Jim Koplik Presents... Jim Koplik!
by Mark Oppenheimer – The New Haven Advocate - March 31, 2005
Photos by Kathleen Cei
If you grew up in Southern New England any time in the '70s or '80s, chances are you heard radio ads that began "Jim Koplik and Shelly Finkel present..." followed by the name of a musical act which could have been U2, Hall and Oates, Culture Club, R.E.M., Cyndi Lauper, the Grateful Dead, Aerosmith, Chicago, Journey, Asia, Boston, Europe - pretty much everyone who was anyone. What Bob of Bob's Discount Furniture is today, that dude whose name everybody knows through advertising, Jim Koplik and Shelly Finkel were in my youth.
The two men are still partners, but Shelly Finkel now concentrates on promoting boxers - Mike Tyson among them - while Jim Koplik remains the reigning king of concert promotion in the state. He books the Oakdale, the Meadows and Mohegan Sun, which means that if you want to play Connecticut, you probably have to go through him. (Which also means you really have to go through the music industry behemoth ClearChannel. Koplik and Finkel sold their company in 1997 to SFX, which in turn was sold to ClearChannel in 2001.)
But Koplik, now under contract to ClearChannel, still runs the business. From his offices at the Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford, he decides which music acts we can dance, thrash, sway and twirl to. In two lengthy interviews earlier this month, I got the scoop on Koplik's 35 years of making money by selling rock stars. We talked about how the business has changed and what the future holds.
He's a charming guy: down-to-earth enough to let my dog lick his face as we talked (he insisted I bring J.J. into the conference room, rather than leave her in the car), and confident enough to still wear a moustache long after even Tom Selleck realized he wasn't macho enough to pull it off.
Here are some highlights from our chat.
Mark Oppenheimer: How'd you get into the game?
Jim Koplik: I got into it back in 1968, when I was at Ohio State University. I was a sophomore in college, and I was working for Robert F. Kennedy's election for the nomination for president. When he was assassinated in June, it was very disturbing for me, obviously, and I didn't really know what to do as far as - I always needed something to do besides going to school, because I hated going to school. So I needed something to do that I liked. It was politics initially, but one of my best friends said to me, "Well, you love music, why don't you start booking concerts in Columbus?"
So I said okay, that's not a bad idea. It's a new business, there's very little coming into Columbus at that point, so in the beginning of June, I got out of school, I went into New York City, and I went to William Morris, 'cause I had never heard of another agency, but I had heard of William Morris. And the business was so young then that the agents were just a few years older than me. So I bring up that I'm from Columbus, Ohio, I'd like to book a concert, and this agent offered me Steppenwolf, Sly and the Family Stone, a bunch of other acts. I said, "Okay, I'll take Steppenwolf, no problem." They had "Born to Be Wild" out then. It was their first single. I liked the album; I knew "Magic Carpet Ride" would be a hit.
He said I had to put the money up front. I had my bar mitzvah money, my friend had his bar mitzvah money, so we combined the twenty-five hundred bucks each. So we started our business with five grand. I gave Steppenwolf thirty-five hundred bucks, and fifteen hundred went to the deposit on the building and buying my advertising. And in November of 1968, I did my first show.
It broke even, 'cause the other guy who was doing concerts in Columbus was out of Cleveland and he said, "We can't let another concert promoter come in." So the day after my show, he put two shows of the Doors in, who were enormous in 1968. And the day after that, two shows of Peter, Paul and Mary, who were also enormous in 1968. So I got crushed. I would have sold out normally.
So what I did was I called the guy up and said, "Look, do you really feel like coming down from Cleveland to Columbus 25 times a year? I'll take half the risk, I'll work the shows for you, we'll buy together." The guy's business was primarily up in Cleveland, so he agreed to it. So all of a sudden I had no competition. And from one show, I built it into 25 shows a year down in Columbus.
I finished college in '71 and I went off to law school back in New York (I grew up in New Rochelle). And I went back to live at home, and then got married. I was going to law school full-time, trying to run concerts in Columbus, Ohio. I got very, very tired. I was never the best studier in the world, and I had to make a hard decision. Already I had done three years of concert promoting, but I had to find a market other than Columbus. New York was already taken by Bill Graham, and there were very few concerts in Connecticut. There was the old New Haven Arena, which was the really the only place holding concerts. I went up and talked to the guy, and he said, "Yeah, you can do concerts here."
So I get up to meet with the guy at the arena, and he says, "Oh, there's another guy, who's bringing Jethro Tull to the arena." And I say, "Oh, I didn't know there was another promoter in Connecticut." "Yeah, there is, a guy named Shelly Finkel." I knew Shelly. I liked Shelly. So we became partners. I was still in law school, but I enjoyed going to concerts much more than I enjoyed going to law school. So I said, "Shelly, you know what, I'm gonna drop out of law school."
In January of '72, Shelly and I did our first concert together, at the New Haven Arena: Traffic. And in April of '72 I dropped out of law school.
In '72, the New Haven Coliseum opened, the Arena closed up. The same year, the Springfield Civic Center opened up. I started to do concerts in both Springfield and New Haven. They were very well separated, the two markets. There were some real good stations up in Springfield. WAQY was up there… PLR down here. And HCN really aimed its signal toward New Haven, and CCC aimed its signal toward Springfield. So there was a really good way for us to promote in both buildings. But then a year later the Civic Center opened up in Hartford, and the choice became between New Haven and Springfield, or just Hartford, because everybody could come into Hartford. But we mostly did New Haven and Springfield, about 20 shows a year in each building.
And then, in the early- to mid-'80s, the Springfield Civic Center started to get a little too small. What was great about it initially really got bad, which was it was only a one-level house, like 25 rows of seats all the way around. And it was fabulous. But what happened was that production got bigger and bigger with the bands. [Their sets] started to cover up more seats, more seats, more seats. And eventually what happened was what had been an 8,000-seat Springfield Civic Center became a 6,000-seat Springfield Civic Center.
MO: I have a friend who's an optimist who says, "Yeah, the music culture has returned to being song-oriented. But that's what it was in the early '60s, when Motown was sending revues around, where everyone got to play their one or two hits. Then we got to this heyday of album rock in the '70s, but that was a break from the past. We're just back to the old model - breaking the big single, the producers mattering more than the songwriters." Is it possible, then, that was has to happen is they have to start touring in revues again?
JK: Well, yes. That's what hip-hop bands do. We had a hip-hop show two years ago that had 50 Cent, Busta Rhymes there were five multimillion sellers. Jay-Z, Missy Elliott. And it was five acts that probably have sold close to 50 million albums together. Now, if I put five rock acts on a show that had sold 50 million albums, I could sell out Rentschler Field probably three or four times. So we need to do that. But it's still not in the nature of what a true concertgoer wants. A concertgoer goes to see a lot of songs that they're familiar with. And right now, a lot of artists don't get that catalogue. They're not around long enough.
I think of artists like Jethro Tull, which never had a hit single. And there were some amazingly great songs on Aqualung that were never released as singles. And Jethro Tull will still come here and sell 4,500 tickets, 35 years after they started.
MO: So what's going to happen to the concert business when Tull and the Allman Brothers and those guys aren't touring any more?
JK: I'm glad I'm 55 years old, unlike my son, who's 25 years old. I don't really know what's going to happen. Thank God Fleetwood Mac still tours. Thank God the Rolling Stones still tour. Our artists are dying - literally dying. Traffic was going to tour, and Jim Capaldi just dies. The Kinks were going to tour, and Dave Davies gets a stroke. We had to worry about drug overdoses in the old days, now we have to worry about actual death.
MO: Do you ever look at the kids and feel distant?
JK: Yeah, I feel distant. And I feel bad for them, because music was such an important part of my life, lyrics were such an important part. " Woodstock," " Ohio"- you lived by what they wrote.
MO: Who do you remember best, either for being nice guys or for being total pricks?
JK: Well, the total pricks, it's hard to talk about, because I'm still in the business. But there were plenty of them. The nice guys: The Charlie Danielses of the world, the Beach Boys, I was very close to them; Mike Love slept in my apartment in '73 or '74. The band Chicago, I'm still very friendly with them.
Great performances: Elton John, the last show at the New Haven Arena, was an amazingly special show, in 1972. The first time I saw Bruce Springsteen, at the Bottom Line. It wasn't my show. He's the greatest live performer I've ever seen. He's 55 and still amazing onstage, but at 26 he was just - it was the greatest experience. Bette Midler is one of the greatest live performers I've ever seen, and the best female performer I've seen. Pink Floyd at the Hartford Civic Center in '87 was, production-wise, the greatest show I ever saw. 1995, I think it was, the Eagles at the Meadows, was I thought the greatest singing I've ever heard coming from the stage. Their harmonies are still absolutely perfect, and they have a 30-song set list.
MO: Do you miss the Deadheads?
JK: Oh, very much. I loved the Dead, I miss the Deadheads. Back in the mid-'90s I ran their tours, and my daughter was 16 years old, and she was a pretty straight kid. And I said, "You gotta come and see what this is about, come out to Giants Stadium and see what it's like going to a Dead show. The music is great, but outside with all the dancing going on and the peace and friendliness" and she became a Deadhead, going to a Dead show. It was a very peaceful, wonderful thing, which I miss. Dave Matthews to some extent has it. Phish carried it.
But the best part of a Dead show wasn't necessarily the show, for many of us. It was the post-show. The tour manager and the promoter and the tour accountant would all get together in a suite at the Park Plaza, which is now the Omni. And we used to spend all night settling [the money]. And we used to stay up all night. I used to look forward to that so much. I loved the Dead, but I loved spending hours settling the show: Go over the gross, take the expenses, figure out how much the band makes and how much the promoter makes. Something that should take us 20, 30 minutes would take us 2-and-a-half to 3-and-a-half hours, because we would go into every piece of totally unimportant minutiae, and that's because we were blasted.
And you know what? I always saw that as an important part of their being. They understood what it was like to get stoned. And I always felt that the generation of the '70s was a very stoned generation.