There was no palace coup two years ago when Geoff Gordon took over the Philly branch of Live Nation, the concert-booking behemoth responsible for a good percentage of local shows by artists you’d hear when flipping through radio stations. It was more like “Tag — you’re it!”
Both men who’d hired him were gone: Electric Factory co-founder Larry Magid had left the company to go back into business for himself, and executive VP Neil Jacobsen had already moved to Miami to take a promotion within the company.
“I was the last man standing,” laughs Gordon.
Booking and promotion companies might not be foremost in the average live-music fan’s mind, but they ultimately determine who that fan will get a chance to see live, and where. Most venues tend to pick a team and, for the most part, stick with it.
In Philly, some of the biggest players are Larry Magid’s new group, now booking at the Electric Factory and sometimes the Kimmel Center (among other venues, which also applies to the other companies); R5 Productions, at the First Unitarian Church, Union Transfer and sometimes Johnny Brenda’s and Kung Fu Necktie; AEG, at the Trocadero, Mann and Keswick; and Live Nation, the biggest of all, which books, among others, the TLA, the Tower, Penn’s Landing and the Susquehanna Bank Center.
And Live Nation, under Gordon’s leadership, has been making some moves.
“The biggest change Geoff made when he got in was that he literally knocked down the walls of the president’s office,” says James Sutcliffe, Live Nation Philadelphia’s longtime marketing director. “Now there’s this big, loud, intense, swirling energy, never there before, that Geoff moves through.”
Sutcliffe has been around long enough to have endured several business-card changes: the independently owned Electric Factory Concerts was bought by the “Godzilla of the concert presenting business” (as the Daily News put it at the time) SFX, which was bought by even huger radio conglomerate Clear Channel, which then spun off its live-music arm as Live Nation.
Previous Live Nation Philly head Magid co-opened the original Electric Factory venue in 1968 in an old tire warehouse at 22nd and Arch and has been an integral part of the Philly live-music scene ever since. He stayed on when he and his partners sold Electric Factory Concerts to what’s now known as Live Nation in 1998 and served as regional chairman until 2010, when they couldn’t agree on financial terms for him to stick around. When he left, Magid took with him several staffers and the Electric Factory venue at Seventh and Callowhill, which he owns, to form Larry Magid Entertainment (which made those Springsteen shows at Citizens Bank Ballpark happen this fall). Gordon’s former boss, then, is now among his competitors.
“I respect and learned a lot from Larry,” says Gordon. “Some [lessons] I use daily, some are ways of how not to do things. Either way, being in that new position gave me the freedom to try new ideas.”
And he has been. This year found Gordon and Live Nation launching three festivals — the most familiar is probably the Jay-Z-curated Made in America on the Parkway, plus the Allmans-led Peach Music Festival in Scranton and the boy-band-focused MixTape Fest in Hershey — and expanding to do shows at SoundGarden, the new electronic-music playground in the old Egypt space at Columbus and Spring Garden. Gordon’s also behind the surprising relevance of the city’s Independence Day event on the Parkway of late, with hometown heroes The Roots as house band and ?uestlove as curator, and working further with the Roots on their annual Picnic.
But the biggest news is Live Nation’s new live-music club being built with developer Michael Samschik just off the Columbus Boulevard entertainment superhighway. Rising on the site of the former Ajax Metal Company property, the still-unnamed space will sit in that sweet spot between small club and amphitheater/stadium. The new venue, planned as a 2,400-plus capacity room, is an order of magnitude larger than 250-capacity Johnny Brenda’s and an order of magnitude smaller than the 25,000-capacity Susquehanna Bank Center. The new venue’s size will put it in the same weight class as (and, presumably, in competition with) Magid’s Electric Factory and R5 Productions’ smaller Union Transfer. It’s a bold move.
It might seem odd, then, that Gordon’s been all but silent since taking the reins, but it’s in character — he’s stayed well behind the scenes since arriving at Live Nation Philly in 1997 from Washington, D.C.’s Cellar Door Booking.
“I’d rather let my work do the talking,” says Gordon. “I’m not really into talking about myself.”
These days there are obstacles, of course, to doing that work: a lousy economy, in-home entertainment options, formidable competitors (like AEG’s efforts with the ever-being-refurbished Mann Center). But Gordon is, in the words of legendary talent agent Jonny Podell, “all about solutions, not exclusion.”
“Everybody said Made in America was going to be a disaster in every which way possible,” Gordon says with a snort, and that’s true. A year after the summer of flash mobs, local media wasn’t shy about expressing doubts about the ambitious outdoor Labor Day-weekend event. But it went off basically without a hitch. “Instead, hotels had 92 percent occupancy and restaurants were packed on a weekend that’s usually dead,” says Gordon. And instead of the riots predicted by doomsayers, “we had one guy out of 84,000 attendees arrested for stealing beer.”
Few people could have talked Mayor Michael Nutter into taking a chance on Made in America — but Gordon had already earned Nutter’s trust with his efforts on modernizing the Fourth of July Jam, and even then it still took some star-shine from Hova to convince the mayor that the two-day, multi-genre festival could be successful, cost-effective and safe.
Indeed, Philly’s big summer shows do seem like a pretty safe bet at this point, and Live Nation handles the biggest ones. There will be a second Made in America next year, claims Roots co-manager Shawn Gee, one of Gordon’s collaborators on MiA. (Gordon neither confirms nor denies, stating nothing is signed.) The Peach and MixTape fests will also be coming back. There’s also WXPN’s XPoNential festival and Loaded, the dubstep-and-dance fest at Festival Pier, both of which get bigger every year.
A good portion of next summer’s Roots Picnic is already booked. “?uest and Black Thought are judge and jury for the Picnic, but I start conversations with Geoff about the next one the day after the last one,” says Gee. “Same with The Roots Fourth of July Jam.”
According to people who know him, Gordon’s ability to pull off large-scale things boils down to personal relationships. His proximity to Eddie Vedder is legendary to industry insiders, and Gordon claims his longtime friendship with Vedder was crucial in getting Pearl Jam to headline four nights of shows for the Spectrum’s 2009 finale as well as the second night of Made in America. Gordon was able to build on Live Nation’s established relationship with Jay-Z, producing tours nationally for the Watch the Throne spectacle, and then enlisted Jay-Z to help talk Philadelphia into Made in America.
But how does a promoter form close relationships with artists who swing through Philly maybe once or twice a year?
“Geoff’s not a guy who pats you on the back at the end of a show and says, ‘See you next year.’ He’s the guy [who’s] friendliest with every artist, telling jokes, remembering birthdays. Acts look forward to playing Philly because Geoff pushes them in the market and is a genuine pal,” says Jared Paul, once an intern for Gordon at D.C.’s Cellar Door agency, now manager of New Kids on the Block (whose Donnie Wahlberg is another friend of Gordon’s) and rep for the TV-based tours from Glee and The X-Factor. Paul, Wahlberg and Gordon hashed out the MixTape fest over dinner one night.
“He never forgets that it’s not his name on the ticket, but rather those musicians he’s befriended,” says Paul. “Take a survey of young rock guys — they all know Geoff.”
Gary Clark Jr. certainly does. Gordon landed the Austin blues guitarist on bills for both Made in America and next year’s Roots Picnic, to help build a local audience. His gut tells him Clark will be a perennial.
There’s a sense of being in it for the long haul that Gordon finds appealing about Philly.