Ron Onesti: Music and meatballs
As I am sitting here pondering this week's column, I thought of the many, many artists with whom I've crossed paths. After doing on average 100-plus shows a year for more than 20 years, the amount of legends, icons and sidemen (and women) is staggering.
If you include opening acts, sound and light techs, tour managers, personal managers, agents, merchandise sellers and marketing people, the number gets exponentially larger.
I get asked all the time, "Who is your favorite performer?" and "What is your favorite band?" This has always been a virtual impossibility to answer. Not only do I love so many styles of music with each having a favorite within, but I also take into consideration the big picture that surrounds an act: the other band members, the quality of the show, etc.
I often get asked about the booking process. And that is where my first encounter with an act professionally begins. Since this is a popular question, allow me to welcome you into that "behind the scenes" of the booking process world.
I can't really speak to how the rest of the industry does it. But I believe this part of the business, like many others, has its own process with unique elements to every individual who does it.
There are many who approach it scientifically, in an actuarial fashion. They will look at past sales in similar venues, in similar markets. They will study the ticket-buying environment and do many other things to base their decisive charts and graphs.
My way is based on passion and relationships, with a bit of the above as well.
I say passion because I am truly a fan! I am a child of the classic rock era of the Seventies, but I grew up in a World War II Italian household, so I love Sinatra, Martin and Glenn Miller, too! I was surrounded by cousins a bit older than I, so the music of Elvis, the Beatles and Woodstock was constantly around me. As I continued to go to concerts into my early 20s, I got more into the heavy metal "hair bands" of the day. Whether it was Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, or Guns 'N Roses and Poison, I rocked it out … BIG TIME!
Yes, I will admit to wearing a terry cloth headband over my shoulder-length hair, an "Oates" mustache (from Hall & Oates), a half-cut sleeveless shirt exposing my six-pack belly, and dare I say it … leather pants!
So any time an act from the '40s through the 1980s became available, I JUMPED at the chance to hire them! This was before the concept of a "bucket list" came to be, but I was able to hire MY heroes, and the bands I liked! It just turned out that the acts I liked were loved by many, so the tickets began flying off the shelf.
I say this all the time when asked: "What is the most essential part of this business?"
"It by far is all about the relationships made throughout your career journey," I will say. Most businesses are like that, but with the music industry, it REALLY is!
Many times it's not about the money. I mean, the money must be there to be in the conversation. If an act is $20,000, it is $20,000 to me the same way it is $20,000 to another venue. Yet it comes down to the relationship with the agent that determines whether a venue is "awarded" the show.
I always thought the concept of "offer and acceptance" was a bit strange when I first started in the biz. I just thought you call up the act or its manager, tell them you want them for a gig, then you hire them and pay them their price. But actually, I have to fill out an "offer sheet," submit it to the agent, who in turn decides if it makes sense for the act, after which it is forwarded to the manager, who accepts, modifies or declines the offer.
Really! That's how it happens. You must be "awarded" the show. The money is the same; however, the hotel rooms must be comfortable, and the sound and lights must be up to par, or you won't get the show anyway.
Many times, the hospitality part, which includes all the stuff in the rider (the "Brown M&Ms," if you will), has much to do with getting the act. And I can't tell you how many times the deciding factor for a deal came down to the fact that I cook for the bands many nights, which is why they want to come to The Arcada!
When I first started at The Arcada, I needed an oven to make dishes for the bands. The only place that had enough power for the big industrial convection oven was backstage. So on many occasions, I was preparing the band meal behind the curtain on stage during their performances! Its true, and a little-known fact!
Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young said: "I never performed an encore quicker than I did tonight. I was so hungry and the smell of the garlic cooking 10 feet from me shortened the set by two songs!"
Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake & Palmer started the show 20 minutes late because I was making potatoes in the style his mother made for him in England. He couldn't wait!
Now, it is my meatballs that bring bands back! After being on the road anywhere from 30 to 50-plus years, these acts just want to feel comfortable. Home-cooked meals, thoughtful snacks and really good wine can be the difference between getting a show or it "skipping" a year.
So THAT'S how it's done! Fostering relationships and making them feel at home.
I often say: "There is nothing more powerful than the power of music." But what I secretly mean to say is: "All things being equal, it is the power of the meatball that keeps the music alive!"
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.