Ron Delsener made history by co-producing the landmark outdoor Beatles concert at Forrest Hills, N.Y., in 1964, and along the way virtually created the live summertime music genre.
It proved to be an ingenious concept. “Kids with a few extra bucks and time on their hands could enjoy a bit of entertainment,” he said during a recent presentation to Wharton’s media and entertainment club. “Providing quality talent at cheap ticket prices attracted thousands who waited in line for hours. Not having to pay for air conditioning and, of course, with heating not required, we made good money and had fun.”
Brimming with colorful anecdotes and often mimicking Lenny Bruce, the famed comic he showcased at the Village East, Delsener is now co-chairman and co-CEO of Clear Channel Entertainment, a division of Clear Channel Communications. Clear Channel Entertainment is the world’s largest producer and promoter of live entertainment.
An entrepreneur but most of all a survivor, Delsener credits his parents for allowing him to live at home while pursuing his dream of producing concerts. In Brooklyn, N.Y., he handed out leaflets on street corners promoting concerts to benefit the local high school or church club. He went on to become the first to seek corporate sponsorships for entertainment events, securing, for example, $35,000 from a beer company in Brooklyn to underwrite a Barbra Streisand concert.
His small yet successful company was tapped by former New York City Mayor John Lindsay in his quest to make parks more amenable to city residents. Live music was brought to Central Park, first for $1 per show and then for free.
Fast-forward 38 years during which time Delsener’s Delsener/Slater Enterprises grew into a multi-million dollar enterprise and was eventually sold to SFX Entertainment (Delsener retained a percentage of ownership in SFX). Delsener then became a part of Clear Channel Communications through its acquisition of SFX, which was renamed Clear Channel Entertainment and includes athletic and sport shows, motocross, ice shows, TV spin-offs and live music acts. Over the last decade, parent company Clear Channel Communications has become a conglomerate, with 1,200 radio stations in the U.S., a presence in 247 of the country’s 250 top radio markets and 400,000 billboards from coast to coast. It generates more than $3 billion in revenues annually.
Yet Delsener said that “while benefiting in the multi-millions from these mergers and consolidations, I’ve lost a great deal of my freedom.” Bigger, he added, hasn’t necessarily meant better. “Radio stations have lost their distinctive sound. A programmer sitting by the pool in Los Angeles calling the shots for stations nationwide can’t capture the local flavor. He has no idea what’s happening in the clubs, what’s new, what’s fresh. Besides, the same four [acts] are recycled so that all those cookie cutter bands sound alike. If you want to find anything fresh you’ve got to go to college radio.” Fordham University’s station is one example of an exciting sound, he noted, adding that “new acts just don’t get radio play.”
In reality, most small record labels can’t afford to have their songs played on the air, in part because the ranks of independent record labels, which once exceeded 500, are dwindling, Delsener said. Although payola – direct payment to a DJ for playing a record – was outlawed in the 1950s, modern day pay-for-play schemes involve independent middlemen – “Indies” – who bill record companies in excess of $3 million a week for “professional services rendered.” Professional services include providing promotional materials – such as contest prizes, T-shirts, key chains and other novelty items – to a radio station in order to build listener support for a record or artist.
In reality, these promotional incentives break down to a charge of $1,000 a song which is paid by the record company. With most stations adding about 150 songs to their play list each year and most Indies covering more than one station, the total tab multiples very quickly.
Further diminishing the variety of music has been the change in payment structure for live concerts, Delsener said. “The business changed when the acts got smart. Instead of paying concert promoters in percentages, acts started offering a flat fee from which all of the promoters’ expenses, including advertising, are deducted. This makes it impossible for guys like me to make a decent profit.”
As a result of changes in the concert promotion business, Delsener at one point turned his talents to the theatrical stage, producing shows for such stars as Bette Midler, Gilda Radner, Lily Tomlin and Sandra Bernhard.
Making money in live entertainment these days is not a matter of proceeds from ticket sales but ancillary services such as merchandise, concessions, VIP tents, and arena naming rights, Delsener noted, adding that “arena naming rights has become such a volatile commodity that their value has been cheapened.”
Amid all these new developments in the entertainment world, what is missing? In a word, creativity – both in front of the mike and behind the scenes, Delsener said, chiding the industry for its failure to seek out and nurture new talent in the style of, for example, Clive Davis or the Ertegun Brothers.
To counter this trend, several members of Delsener’s staff, including a young assistant fresh off an Idaho farm, are assigned to finding undiscovered acts in local clubs. For example, Delsener is keeping an eye on a band called The Stokes, singer Laura Jones and Sara Silverman, a “hot” comic with a dry sense of humor. He takes credit for providing a launching pad for Bernie Mac, star of a Fox TV comedy show. Ever the hands-on businessman, Delsener also monitors newspaper notices and listens to music from around the world. “I enjoy good music wherever it comes from.”
But doing it all by yourself, he cautioned, “can be quite stressful and over the years I have come to respect MBA-type organizational charts.” Having flunked accounting twice at NYU, he quipped, “always make sure you get good people you can trust – especially accountants.” In the same breath, he noted that some of the sweetest bodyguards he has ever known are 6′ 7″ ex-cons and that the only way to prevent scalpers is “to hire nuns to sell tickets.”
Delsener predicts that the consolidation of the radio industry and the similarity of sounds will bring back a demand for interesting live entertainment. “People will welcome a refreshing change in music & There is a big difference between a radio act that merely mouths what’s heard on the air and entertainment.” Van Morrison, who for 18 years sealed deals with Delsener on a handshake, “could enthrall any audience. Chuck Berry, Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell all sang from the gut, not the throat, and created memorable performances of a lifetime.”
Except for a rare tour package of vintage rock and soul stars, people don’t hear much from singers of that era either on radio or live on stage, Delsener said. His plans call for showcasing several rock guitarists such as Peter Frampton, Robert Cray and Jeff Beck as well as singers Patti Austin and Phoebe Snow.
Further, as the “Father of the Outdoor Concert,” having produced more such events than any other promoter, he hopes to continue producing important benefit concerts. His track record includes a variety of charitable organizations such as the No-Nukes Concert, Tribute to Nelson Mandela, Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Rehabilitation Center in Antigua, Earth Day and Tribute to John Lennon.
What, in his opinion, has hurt the music industry? Congressional removal of industry regulations has been a major factor, he said. The 1996 Telecommunications Act passed by a Republican Congress and signed by President Clinton threw out the ownership rules that had limited a company to only two stations in one market and 28 nationwide. As a result, companies such as Radio One and Clear Channel Communications grabbed control of AM and FM stations from coast-to-coast leaving local concerns behind in the dust. Nearly two-thirds of the stations in the top 100 markets are owned by three conglomerates.
Has the pendulum swung too far? Will the government allow the Federal Communications Commission to re-assert its regulatory authority? Delsener thinks so. Rather than focus on just radio, Delsener predicts, there will be efforts to break up vast holdings by single ownerships within all areas of communications: newspapers, radio, TV, and cable.
For example, consider the communications holdings of Rupert Murdoch that encompass numerous newspapers and television stations, Delsener said. “It’s the same thing.” He also suggests that the AOL/Time Warner merger was a disaster. “There you had two very fine companies and now they are both being dragged down.”
In a move that Delsener would no doubt have applauded, the Federal Communications Commission recently denied the proposed $18 billion mega-merger in the satellite TV industry between EchoStar and Hughes’ DirecTV. In rendering their decision the commissioners stated that a merger would lessen competition and subsequently drive up prices.
As to the state of American business, Delsener is adamant that an obsession with quarterly earnings is hurting everyone and forcing people to fix the books just to make the numbers look good. “Most businesses are seasonal,” he said. “Can you imagine what my winter months are like? Reviews should be made on a yearly basis which factor in the highs and lows for the entire year. That way you get the true picture. In my 38 years in the business I have never had a losing year.”