2017 Pollstar Honors Award Presentation To Don Law
Don Law received the third annual Pollstar Honors Award at Pollstar Live Feb. 2 in one heck of a classy presentation.
Law, the current president of Live Nation – New England, has kept a low profile but that was contrasted by the introduction from WME’s Marc Geiger, who said he was more like Tarzan than a concert promoter. His history and contribution were certainly noticed by artists who videotaped their congratulations: Jimmy Buffett, Robert Plant (and his dog), Peter Wolf, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, and U2’s The Edge and Adam Clayton. CAA’s Rob Light and Bruce Springsteen’s right-hand-man Jon Landau also gave their thanks.
However, the presentation that brought applause came from manager extraordinaire Peter Rudge who told how Law once stopped a riot at Boston Garden, got the Stones sprung from jail, and recruited Massachusetts Gov. Kevin White for assistance all at the same time. “Now that’s a concert promoter who knows his market,” Rudge said.
Law, the son of Columbia Records producer Don Law Sr. and a mom who practiced piano around the house so often that neighbors would pull up their lawn chairs outside, built the legendary Boston Tea Party club where he broke bands like
Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac. He eventually sold his company to SFX Entertainment for $92 million.
Law accepted his award by finding a way to squeeze 50 years of his life into about 10 minutes, talking about managing Barrie & The Remains and how the Boston Tea Party got popular – via owning a radio station.
“It’s important to point out what radio was like in the late ’60s,” he said. “Airplay was dictated by crummy AM radio stations which meant you often had to pay payola.
By taking over WHCN in Hartford and WBCN in Boston, we then hired college disc jockeys and hired a guy named Steve Segal (“The Seagull”) who trained the DJs and broadcast it from the back of the Boston Tea Party. WBCN went on to be the highest-rated station in New England.”
He said the culture was most accurately portrayed by “Mad Men.” It was a period of “great upheaval” on college campuses. His contemporaries included Chet Helms with the Avalon in San Francisco, Bill Graham with the Fillmore, Aaron Russo with the Aragon in Chicago, and Larry Magid in Philadelphia.
Prior to Don Law’s contribution to Boston, “It was largely bar owners who put a stage in the corner.”
The Tea Party used to be a Baptist temple with steep stairs to the second floor. It was a 19th century brick and wooden building and “in reality, it was a frightening fire trap” with one main out – the front stairs. There was a single fan over the ballroom and the staff was not allowed up there for fear of fire.
“My building manager was a guy named Mitch with a long beard and ponytail who had taken acid quite frequently but was a great worker and kept the building in terrific shape,” Law said. “One night when Van Morrison was playing, I was standing on the ballroom floor and I looked up to see flames coming from that ceiling fan. I rushed upstairs, grabbed a fire extinguisher and at the same time saw Mitch doing the same thing. We had one chance to put it out before it became a disaster. We noticed Van Morrison had the presence of mind while he was singing a song called ‘Up The Ladder’ to keep singing because if he had stopped he probably would have caused a riot.
“I emerged back on the floor and noticed there was a large pool of water on the floor. I asked a security guard what the audience said. One said, ‘Far out. Light show.’”
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the flamboyant owner of The Troubadour, Doug Weston, would only agree to give an artist a play there if they’d agree to give him five replays. This occurred while a young guy named Frank Barsalona was trying to make a name for himself as an agent. A shift would soon happen where Weston’s power was overshadowed by the guy who would one day simply be known as “Frank.”
“When I spoke at Frank Barsalona’s memorial, I said I mentioned I owed my start to a guy named George Papadopoulos. George owned the Psychedelic Supermarket in Boston. He was both arrogant and not altogether trustworthy.
“Barsalona had just started Premier Talent and called George to book some of his recently signed English acts. George proceeded to give Frank the bum’s rush. Frank soon appeared at my door. He longed to be a country singer and had gone on the road under the name Greg Mitchell.
“Frank Barsalona and later Herb Spar really changed the business. There were no longer options granted on replays unless you added something significant to the equation for a return play. Over time it became clear that one to make a difference was to create better performance spaces.”
In the ’90s, Law and his team entered into a long-term agreement with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood.
“That’s when I realized a venue can add to attendance, but creating ambience meant putting our business at risk.”
Eventually, Tanglewood moved to Boston Harbor although “financing a single purpose venue was extremely challenging, particularly when we decided to do our own ticketing.”
The model, built for the internet and including a large phone system, was the first system where a customer could view a seat before purchasing it.
“Everything we built had the challenge of being built better; I’m proud to say all of the venues have won awards. But even though the promoter writes the check we are still a service company and get strange requests.”
Law talked about an English act that’s no longer touring that had an unusual request for bottled water that was no longer available in Boston. They ordered massive amounts just to be covered but it was a hot day and Boston Garden’s air conditioning was from 1928 and the road crew drank all of it. The band refused to go on unless more was brought in, according to the tour manager.
“Forty-five minutes to show time I said, ‘We have a very good high-quality bottled water here in New England. I wonder if you would consider trying it.’ We gave him a sample. He said, ‘The act thinks it’s fine and the show’s going on.’ Of course, it was Boston Garden tap water.”
Law, who once sang with John Sebastian of Lovin’ Spoonful, said he does believe in magic and it’s getting to do this for a living.
“It’s a refrain for our business. When everything is right and the performance is exceptional there is truly a magic in the air, which all of us have been fortunate to witness on occasion. It is an honor to be part of that experience which makes this such a unique business. Someone asked me recently why I’m still doing this when clearly I do not have to. It’s still fun, it’s challenging and I also happen to like Michael Rapino. I think he’s doing a really good job. So, to my detractors, I have no intention of retiring.”
Law wrapped by thanking many of his friends-slash-coworkers like Neil Jacobsen, Jodi Goodman, Declan and Anne Marie Mehigan, Diane Snow, Tim and Linda McKenna, and Doug Borg (“who came to us as security officer and helped me look good for 45 years. His financial modeling made much of the company possible”).
He saved his final thank you to his wife, Sara Molyneaux, herself a recent recipient of the Dover Historic Preservation Award, who has “put up with me for 40 years.”
– Joe Reinartz