Executive Report, Pittsburgh 1996
Back in the 1960s, Rich Engler, drummer for the local band Grains of Sand, turned his hand to drumming up venues in which the band could play. If his band was booked, he'd offer the gig to another band--soon building a stable of groups, taking a small commission each time he made a deal.
From that grain of sand Engler has built a rock empire. Twenty-two years ago, he partnered with his largest competitor, Pat DiCesare, to create DiCesare Engler Productions. Though he says the crystal ball on his desk doesn't work, you'd never know it: The company's the largest promoter in the region and one of the top 20 nationwide. An ardent Beatles fan, he sports a McCartney-esque hairdo as well as the visible enthusiasm and drive of that famous Beatle. But scratch the surface, and Engler's just a nice guy from Creighton who keeps the pulse of the music industry worldwide from his office in the Strip District, bringing in and creating the events that shape the local music scene. ER's Lydia Strohl talked to him about it.
Executive Report: How'd you get started in this business?
Rich Engler: I played drums. I booked my band into clubs and colleges, and as my band started to become relatively popular, when we were booked I would call another band. I would take $20 or $30 commission for a $500 engagement. That really started to build, and it ended up that I had a corral of attractions under me.
The union called me one day and said 'You're doing all these bookings and you should have a license That was in late 1967. I got a booking agent's license and a bond and everything I needed.
The industry really started to explode at that time. There was a surge of talent trying to jump on that Beatles/Rolling Stones English movement. I just happened to be there at the right time to create a great agency.
I had a booking agency for several years, and then I decided to start promoting. The difference is that in booking, you sell attractions to another person. Promoting, you buy an attraction from a major agency and then try to resell it by the way of tickets and so on.
My first concerts were in Johnstown, Erie, Cumberland and Baltimore, because at that time I had a competitor in town, Pat DiCesare. Pat was a well-established promoter: He had a lock on the Civic Arena and the Syria Mosque. I was able to make a deal at the Stanley Theater to do two or three shows a year down there.
Being the money conscious person that I am, in my early years, when I started making the transition from having the booking agency to actually promoting shows, I put my act on as the opening act. So I not only was the promoter and organizer of these events, but I was also the opening act. Things were really rolling for me, at a relatively young age.
One day I got a call and it was Pat DiCesare--he said, "Let's meet and talk about the future We struck a deal and formed DiCesare Engler in 1974. I really had to put my nose to the grindstone, strictly on the business level. There was really no room for me as a musician. The drums went on the back burner and I went with this all the way.
ER: How is your firm structured?
RE: DiCesare Engler Inc. is the mother company. Within that we have Premier Advertising, headed up by Ed Traversari, a partner with Pat and myself. They do all the advertising for our events. We have Festival Consultants of America, which is headed up by Monica Patcharis, and she puts together all these festivals. DiCesare Engler Attractions is a booking agency; if you are getting married, or have an event at your college or your club, Steve Juffe has his people downstairs that handle that. We also have a management team that helps manage the A.J. Palumbo Center at Duquesne University; we own and operate the IC Light Amphitheater at Station Square, and we have a booking association with Star Lake Amphitheater. We also do the Celebration of Lights, at Hartwood Acres and in Philadelphia.
Our staff is around 15 or 16--it's not as big as you think. Whenever people meet me, they think DiCesare Engler is a huge operation--but we like to keep it lean, that's what works for us. We hire people on the street level as we need them--even in other cities. We would do all the advertising for a show in Harrisburg, for example, and the booking, from here.
ER: How does Pittsburgh rate at getting attractions?
RE: It's not in the top five, but it's definitely a must stop--every major record company looks at Pittsburgh as a great market and every attraction really wants it on their tour.
Usually we end up with about 42 to 44 shows at Star Lake, and about 20 at the IC Light Amphitheater. We've done a series of festivals the last three years called Pepsi Fest, and we're planning six festivals this year, mostly around the IC Light Amphitheater. We do one at the stadium, the Rib and Music Festival, which will be at the end of June this year. We'll probably do 10 to 12 shows at the Civic Arena, 1 to 18 at the Palumbo Center.
Three Rivers Stadium is always a big question mark. Back in 1994, we had the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Elton John and Billy Joel. The next year the Grateful Dead was the only show. At this point there doesn't look like there will be any stadium shows this year. Everything's based on artists, albums, album release dates and if they want to do stadium tours. But they've been booked as late as June for a September date, so it's not a dead issue.
ER: How has your company grown over the years?
RE: Our business, at least the promoting of the concerts, is based on how strong the music business is at the time, and how many acts tour. 1994 was our 20th anniversary; it was also one of our best years. We didn't plan it that way, it just happened that there were a number of major attractions out there. That was the best year, not just for us, but for the music business across the U.S. Will we continue to climb? We hope so, but it's hard to tell. But will our revenues continue to climb? Yes, because we have more profit centers. We have diversified with our booking agency, with the Celebration of Lights department, with our festivals.
We're working on a couple of other surprise festivals now that I can't reveal at this time. But that's a major move for our company. We're looking not only to do them here, but out in central Pennsylvania, eastern Pennsylvania and expand upon that. With the shrinking profits in the entertainment business, we had to diversify. With the festivals, we create the event, we own the event. It doesn't go away and maybe not come back the next year. It will come back the next year, and even stronger, because we own it.
ER: Do you think Pittsburgh is in step with the rest of the country when it comes to taste in music?
RE: Three or four months ago, I was very disgusted with the radio scene. But now with the X (106.7 FM) and the Revolution (104.7 FM) it's a whole new life out there, with a lot of new bands. This new generation of kids, they're finally picking up and holding onto some bands of their own. They're tired of dad's bands, all these dinosaur acts. I mean, they're all great acts, and they've made a lot of money for us and the industry over time, but we really need to build new attractions. These new radio stations are the key. If a kid's not exposed to a certain kind of music, he's never going to buy it.
MTV's out there, but they give too much away. Some kids are satisfied by seeing a concert on MTV. You still can't replace that feeling of seeing a live show, but MTV took a lot out. I'm not totally putting down MTV, because I think they've done a great job for the business, too. But I think anytime there's overexposure on video, that's a deterrent to live.
On the other side, I'm excited about the Internet. DiCesare Engler was the first promoter in the country to be on the web, with our own site. You can, on our site, bring up a band that's coming, get their picture, bios, and if you have the right equipment at home, get 15 to 20 seconds of their hit song.
ER: Has the industry changed?
RE: What has happened is that over time the attractions have been taking more money from our business. You used to be able to buy a show for $10,000 and that would be it. Flat charge. People would come through the door, and after people came through the door and you paid all the bills you would maybe make 40 percent. The acts have really eroded away our profit centers. That's why sponsorships and the ancillary incomes, the food and the parking, come into play.
Now, it's not uncommon to guarantee $250,000 to $500,000 on huge shows, versus a huge percent, like 90 percent of the door--whichever is greater. The percentage they get is after expenses, so they do allow us to subtract the expenses for the show, but not for office costs.
That has really escalated, against the promoters and the companies producing events. So with the creation of the amphitheaters, and so forth, (sponsorship) was a way of helping the bottom line. In the last 10 years it's become a major part of our business; not only the promoters and facilities have corporate sponsors, but the acts are finding sponsors for their tours.
So Fruit of the Loom might present Charlie Daniels at the IC Light Amphitheater. There can be a harmony, corporate sponsors can live together. But if Budweiser was presenting at the IC Light Amphitheater, that doesn't work.
ER: How competitive is your industry?
RE: It is very competitive, because there are only so many dates out there. If an act is going to do a 40-city tour, in the summer especially, there are probably 100 amphitheaters. It becomes very difficult for everybody to get a date. We may be bidding against Cleveland; we may be bidding against a city in South Carolina. Bidding does go on.
Our business, years ago, used to be very territorial--we respected the Cleveland promoter, and they would respect us and wouldn't come into Pittsburgh. But the past few years there's been a lot of national promoters that buy a major tour and come through the market without tying in the local promoter.
There are three or four companies that do shows in the Pittsburgh area; there are a few national companies that come into Pittsburgh throughout the year--free enterprise, that's the way it goes. And we get into bidding with these other companies.
ER: You said that as the industry has gotten bigger, it's gotten less personal. What role do you still play in the process?
RE: I scan the globe daily. I feel like I have a pulse on what tours are happening, what tours are being planned, and what acts or shows might be out there, because I'm on the phone all the time. When the time comes for the booking, we get our date for Pittsburgh and we do real well. I make all the deals with the performers.
I do go to all the concerts if I'm in town. I do not attend all of the dub dates, because it becomes a little too hectic for family life. I usually make my way to say hello to the attraction or the manager or agent, whomever might be in town. If they want to go out to dinner afterwards, and we can, we do.
ER: Do performers make wild requests?
RE: Bands used to go absolutely crazy. Fleetwood Mac wanted five limousines around the dock, at their beck and call. Stevie Nicks wanted a white one, Christie McVie wanted this one and Mick Fleetwood wanted this one--it was out of hand. In their rider they wanted all kinds of Dom Perignon and Remy Martin, and next thing you know, their catering bill was $6,000 for that night, and their limousine bill was $5,000 to 6,000 for the limos.
There's the old famous story of Van Halen. They wanted one of those oversized brandy glasses filled with M&Ms, with all the brown ones extracted. We were doing this show at the Aladdin Theater in Las Vegas. My partner called and said, 'Do you realize there are two color brown M&Ms--the dark ones and the tan ones. What should I do?' I think he ended up taking the dark ones out.
The acts paid all these bills, then tour accountants said 'Hold on.' Because the way the deal is set up, they're paying 85 to 90 percent of these bills. So now we find that they don't go overboard too often. Certain acts, when they get their first piece of fame and stardom, they overspend. But a lot of the veterans now are realizing that they can save outrageous amounts and go home with more in their pocket. It means more for everybody. On some of those bigger shows, it's still not uncommon to have a $20,000 catering bill on a stadium show.
ER: What's ahead for the industry and for DiCesare Engler?
RE: Our five-year plan is to keep expanding into our festivals, and in more markets. Probably within 500 miles from Pittsburgh--it's easier to handle from our main offices here. Whenever we get out too far, it becomes a little tougher. Ours is such a hands-on business--we don't send a product that sits on the shelf until somebody comes in and buys it. We really have to sell it, and everything is dated. We make an investment in a product; we have about 30 to 60 days to sell that product. And once it's gone, there's no resale. We're onto the next thing. We usually have about 20 irons in the fire at a time, 20 or more events that we're selling tickets for.