NASHVILLE (CelebrityAccess) Bob Romeo would be the first to admit that it’s impossible to summarize 65 years of promoting concerts but he tried. Romeo is in the middle of a family business, having bought a company from his father, Don Romeo, he handed over the day-to-day workings of it to his sister, Fran, and will be passing it along to the hands of his extraordinarily accomplished and well-respected kids, RJ Romeo and Michelle Romeo.
Below is the first part of an interview with Bob, who took his dad’s career, building an empire in the fair/festival concert business and, along the way, heading the Academy of Country Music for about a dozen years, taking it to Vegas and Dallas despite some consternation.
Here is a quick story about Don Romeo, told by Gil Cunningham, a former employee of Romeo Entertainment.
Shortly after I began working for Don Romeo, he asked me to accompany him to a fair board meeting to observe Don make his pitch for the fair’s business. When we arrived at the meeting, there were over 25 fair board members seated in a U-shaped configuration. Two seats were open at the end of the “U” for us. The president of the board was seated in the center of the “U.” He cordially welcomed us, explained to his fellow board members the purpose of our visit, and then went into a major dissertation about the evils of entertainment. After about 20 minutes of the president’s ranting, Don raised his hand. The president looked at Don somewhat annoyed and acknowledged him. Don looked at everyone in the room with a pensive stare. Then he spoke, “Mr. President, I’ve listened carefully to what you’ve just said and have concluded that you’re about the dumbest S.O.B. I’ve ever met, and I cordially decline doing business with your organization.” At that point, Don excused us and we left the meeting.
So it’s hard to figure out where to start asking questions about 60-some years in the music business.
I was thinking, what would I talk about? I dunno! I came out of high school when I started working for my father. All I wanted to do was go work in the business and he wouldn’t let me until I had a college degree, so he forced me to go to college to get one.
I thought you started working for him when you were 16 years old.
Well, I did. All through high school. I went out servicing shows and when I graduated I thought I’d start working full-time and he said, “Nah. You have to have a college degree.” So I went to the University of Nebraska. I ran through in 2-and-a-half years. I didn’t even go to graduation. I just had them send him the diploma.
I asked him if he got it, he said yeah, and I said, “I’m coming to work tomorrow.” I literally started full-time around ’78.
What did you take as a major, considering you didn’t care?
True story: I went down the guidance thing on career day. I go in and said, “What can I take? I just want to get in, get out.” The guy’s like, “What?” I said, “Whatever I can have so I can graduate in two years, three years. I just gotta get in and out.”
The guy’s laughing and he says, “Well, you’re not going to be a lawyer or doctor? What do you like?”
“I love hunting.”
“Well, there’s no degree for hunting. What else do you do?”
I said, “Well, I’m a volunteer fireman. I enjoy that.”
He said, “Well, you know, we have a fire engineering program that you’d probably love.”
So, basically it was a structural engineering program and I learned a lot of that and hydraulics, pressures. I was also a volunteer fireman for 10 years so I actually enjoyed that. It was the first time I had fun at school because I was taking classes I really liked, you know? So I got my degree in fire engineering, I got my arson investigation certificate, and I’m working in the entertainment business.
But, regarding structural engineering, you did design a roof to an outdoor stage. Did that tie in at all?
It’s funny. We were at a show. I think it was Marty Robbins, and it got rained out. We’re sitting there thinking, you know, it wasn’t that bad of a rain but you can’t get out there standing on a stage even in a drizzle.
So I went home and sketched out a plan and I think we built about 15 stage tops and sold them to a lot our fairs in the midwest. I think we’re one of the first builders of a portable stage roof. Clearly, they’re not designed how they are today. It was pretty simple but it was functional and we probably used it for 10 years until we started getting into the bigger structures and obviously, back then, crazy to say, I don’t even know if people gave a lot of thought to it. The whole business changed when that situation happened in Indiana.
It was rather crazy when that happened how it triggered across the country and everybody said they had to have everything engineered now. Every fair that we did, we were not sufficient in what we were doing. Every engineer report said, boy, if you have rain, this could fail, that could fail, winds could cause something else to fail.
Here we’ve gone for years thinking, boy, everything’s great. And that really changed the business. Every fair brought in engineers. We had studies done on the roofs and we found out how inefficient we were in so much of that and we correct it. So, out of a disaster, came information that probably prevented a lot of disasters from happening.
It’s scary thinking, looking back on the years, how many years we were setting up something in a certain way and the engineers would look at it and say, “This ain’t going to pass the mustard.”
Quick question: did you, or the industry, gradually become aware of liability over the years or was it suddenly? Michael Strickland always talks about the time a person, who wasn’t even his employee, used a harness, got injured, and caused Bandit Lites to suddenly become very educated in liability and safety.
Like I try to tell my kids in the business: when I started with my father, it was just about going out, having shows and making music, you know? I remember cutting my teeth going out with Johnny and June, and The Statler Brothers, Ronnie Milsap, and Barbara Mandrell package. That was the first show I did ticket settlements for. Back then, it seemed like it wasn’t even about the money. It was just about, hey, we’re doing a show and we used to have a lot of fun.
Marty Robbins had three prices: $10,000 for a small fair, $12,500 for a medium and $15,000 for a state fair. That was it! “Well what about …” nah, nah, that’s our price
structure. Just do that.
It’s not that it isn’t about the music today but the business has become such a bigger business. When I started with my father in the late ’70s, $25,000 was a lot for touring acts like that. You were buying a whole bunch of acts for $5,000. If you were to say back then, “Someday, Bob, you’ll be paying acts $1 million,” I would have said, “You’re drinking too much.”
Now, last week in Cheyenne, one of my accounts, we put Post Malone on sale and sold out 22,500 tickets in two days. $1.5 million in the bank.
I remember my father chewing on my butt the day I cut a deal with Dale Morris and Alabama at $100,000 a show. He yelled at me and I said, “Dad, they’re a hot act. I know it’s going to be big.”
And it was. But you look back at those monies and it’s so funny to see where we are at today.
And in the early days, it just seemed like we were going to have a lot of fun. There wasn’t a huge pressure. Today, you’ve got $1.5 million in the box office; that’s big business. I don’t think we’d even think about that 30 years ago.
And a thought about liability? Who’d sue you? Why would they sue you? You’re just doing a show. How could you be sued?
I learned that lesson the hard way at the South Dakota State Fair. I’ll never forget. I must have been 27, 28 and two stagehands took a spotlight. Usually, they’d carry these big spotlights up the grandstand, carrying them down, it would take four guys. We had a Wayne Newton show at the fair and for some reason, the stagehands decided to take the spotlights down using a boom truck off the back of the grandstand. Well, the boom truck swings away, breaks, drops these kids 85 feet to the ground. They got messed up so we all got sued. That was the first time I even realized that we could be sued and could be dragged into a lawsuit. It went down and finally, the judge sat us all down, we had our Romeo Entertainment, Pittman Manufacturing made the boom truck. We all had to cough up money. It was the first time I realized there was a liability in what we do. Not just with the patrons but the stagehands, with anybody on the stage. It was a hard lesson to learn when you’re 28 years old and the judge is saying, “Well, the good news is they can’t take your house and 40 acres.”
It freaked me out. And ever since then that liability issue has always been on my radar. Now, today, I don’t even know how many millions of dollars of liability that we carry and all the things we do, and weather.
If you go back 40 years ago, no cell phones, no internet. We just had a call yesterday with some of our service staff where we are now getting this new weather app that all my service people are going to have on their road. They can program the parameters of the app. We have three rings – a five-mile ring, 15-mile ring, 30-mile ring. If lightning hits it will automatically email or text our phone. We’ve gotten so sophisticated now.
Before, we’d rely on the sheriff. Literally. The sheriff would say, “Hey, the deputy is saying it’s raining out of town.” We just didn’t have the access to the real-time information we have now but we take weather very seriously. After Indiana, we’ve now set up protocols where, if the wind gushes so much or if a lightning strikes within 10 miles, we’re taking our people off the stage.
So, through the years, a lot has happened in the industry to make us more conscious of liability, about safety concerns. It’s a terrible thing but I think Indiana pushed that leaps and bounds. Every talent buyer and promoter is so much more cognizant of doing things safely.
It does appear to have been safe since then, knock on wood, with the exception of terror attacks.
There isn’t a promoter out there that doesn’t check safety protocols now. If they don’t, they shouldn’t be out there working. That’s become a fact. I just look back over the years and thank God that we didn’t have more problems because you’d rig and hang stuff without checking it. Hell, most days they didn’t know who was in charge of checking a portable top. It was never on our radar, not like it is today.
How about insurance or marketing, etc. – have those increased dramatically?
(laughs) I mean, I don’t think that other than my lawsuit, in my first 20 years in the business I ever talked to an attorney. Now, you talk to them all the time. Think about that. You’d call an agent and say, “Hey, I’d like to buy Charlie Pride.” OK, well, if we got a deal, we got a deal.
Contracts might or might not come, there was no fax machine, there was no email for an instant response. Back in the early days, it was all handshake and relationship.
None of that technology existed. I was talking to my ACM staff and they wondered how I could function. I remember when we would hop on a plane we would fight to sit up front and, when the plane landed, ya’ll could run to the airport and get to the bank of payphones. We would race in to call the office to see what was going on. Now, a generation like my kids was born with cell phones. They can’t even comprehend not having the internet. I remember when the fax machine came up and I had to explain to my dad that we could fax a contract back and forth. It was amazing how that technology changed our business.
Look at how it’s changed our business as far as sound or lighting.
I have to pause and mention that the very first Pollstar Awards had a winner for best technology and the winner was the fax machine.
(laughs) I mean, when I started, I thought it was relationships. So much stuff was confirmed on the phone. The act would show up; you’d hand them a check. Hell, I think half the acts I played we never had contracts on. It was just a handshake, and they’d call and ask about lunch or dinner. That was literally the advance.
And if you’d go back far enough, a lot of the acts would travel with their own sound. They’d have it in the bus bays. The Statler Brothers always had their sound in the bus bays, you know, and they’d pull it out. That eventually went away because crowds started getting so big they couldn’t carry enough sound.
I remember the upheaval when people like Marty Robbins, the Statlers and Conway said, “We’re not traveling with sound anymore. If you’re going to buy us, you’re going to have to have sound and lights.”
That must have taken place in the early ’80s. I would suppose that was the first big step to bringing in bigger production. Prior to that, almost all those acts carried their sound with them. After that, they went to outside vendors for production and that’s when you started seeing a lot of the growth and changes in the production.
I remember those buses would pull up and you’d have four or five guys open the bus bay, pull out the Shure vocal speakers, set them up. It was just so simple then.
I look back and the crowd seemed to enjoy shows just as much with less technology as they do with more. I say it as if more technology is bad, and I do think it makes, in many cases, for a more enlightened experience but when you go back to those old shows, I’m thinking about the first act I went out with, which was the Statler Brothers and Ronnie Milsap was the opener, and a gal named Barbara Mandrell was the baby opener. That act back then we were selling out every fair we played. It wasn’t uncommon to have 10, 15,000 people. I remember flying into airports with Charley Pride because Charley flew all of his dates, there’d be 2,000, 3,000 people at the airport to see these acts when they came in.
We used to, back in the early days in the fair business, we used to do a lot of variety acts. This was back when you had three networks. To this day, Lassie still holds the records at a lot of fairs. If you think about it, back then you had three networks, major hit TV shows, you used to book a lot of these people – Festus [actor Ken Curtis] and these different people from Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and you’d book them, they’d have novelty shows and it used to draw huge crowds. At that point, that was the only place people saw entertainment, those three networks. There wasn’t 300 cable channels. Just three.
Those shows had a huge impact on the business. And in the fair business, in the early years, it started with those type of variety shows and then, later, the variety shows started dwindling and then that’s when country music started replacing of those shows, and then country became the mainstream.
But pre-country it was variety shows.
I remember Festus would come out, he’d do his skit – and Lassie had a 35-minute show. A guy named Rudd Weatherwax was the trainer. He’d come out and Lassie would run and they’d have somebody in the grandstand trying to steal a lady’s purse, and Lassie would go up and tackle the guy, grab him by the arm, bring him down the grandstand. People flocked. We look at the business day and you pay a million dollars to have an act sell out; back then you had a dog and you did as many people.
I remember going through airports with Don Knotts. People would scream. “Barney Fife!” Or Lorne Greene from Bonanza. These figures were so recognizable you couldn’t get from place A to place B without thousands of people recognizing them. Again, there wasn’t a lot of entertainment. Three networks.
Then music started coming into those vaudeville-type shows, then the media grew and other types of entertainment came in. Music started to play more. Then came country, and rock, and classic rock. And now, fairs are integrated enough they can play anything a building would play. Post Malone being an example.
Would Cheyenne Frontier Days, 20 years ago, play a Post Malone? No. Would they have known what a Post Malone was? No.
And that goes to the question you asked me: that’s what’s happened because of social media. When I was at the ACM my philosophy was to look at what acts were charting and what spins they are getting, what is radio driving?
Well, all of a sudden, a big factor came into play. Matter of fact, Brooke Primero came down one day and said, “Bob, we’re going to have to really get into this social media. I need some help.” We had this guy working in the office, an intern, who actually specialized in that. So we created our first social media department. I’m looking at Brooke, like, “Social media, Brooke? What is it? People looking at their phones? I don’t understand why I have to worry about that. What’s that going to do for me?”
“Well, it’s important. It’s the thing coming.”
Uh, ok. Well, sure enough, before I left, here we are in TV meetings and having discussions and it’s about the album, it’s about the singles, it’s about the penetration of the music, but then it’s about the social media reach and how many followers they have. It became a whole other barometer to measure the success of an artist and what that could translate into TV viewers. We started finding out that the social media numbers were more important to us than the record numbers as it was related to TV.
I’ll never forget when Brooke came in told me about social media. What? Are we going out for cocktails?
Even today now, at fairs – Post Malone, when we announced him, our social media response was three times more than all of the country acts in our lineup for 2019 put together. So we knew right then and there when we went onsale, we were going to sell out, just off the social media interest. Sure enough, we did.
If you want to call how that technology has affected what we do.
Are you seeing others, like Post Malone, that are showing up outside your normal buying parameters?
Oh yeah. Our first entre was we did a show with Jason Garulo and Flo Rida. At a rodeo.
Uh, ok. We’ll try it. People loved it!
And I think people in the entertainment world look for new things and for years you’d think, “It’s a rodeo – it’s gotta be country music!” Wait a second. I think a lot of cowboys listen to classic rock. Sure enough, at these western events, you bring in a Bon Jovi, you bring in Foreigner and Journey and Styx and we did great business with those acts. I think that broke down a lot of stigmas.
And I think with the reach of social media, it’s easier now for us to market and try to get to those people
that are not necessarily in our wheelhouse.
You’re not on the staff page.
Well, uh, so Romeo Entertainment, oh gosh, when my father was 65, he said I’m retiring and I’m walking out the door. And at 65, he retired and walked out the door! I always thought he’d hang around! Nope. The day he turned 65, we had a party at the office, he left and never came back. I had bought the company at that point and I don’t think my father was at all bitter about the business, he loved it. He just felt that to get out of it, he just had to make a clean break. And he just walked out.
I think, for him, it was almost like a bad divorce. I love this so much but I’m at an age now where I see the business growing and I think as you become older, it’s somewhat of a struggle to stay up with the technology. It’s like I had to rely on people like Brooke telling me about social media. And the updates in production. And the video. It’s tough.
And when I had a chance, years ago, to sell the company, I did, to TBA Entertainment. Jock Weaver, Clarence Spaulding, a bunch of people were involved with that. It went on for eight years; I ended up getting the company back and when I did, I made my sister a partner and that was at the same point when the Academy job opened up. So I still had half the company but I sort of distanced myself from the day-to-day when I took the job at the Academy because I didn’t want anyone to ever feel I was using my position at the ACM to further Romeo Entertainment Group.
I just managed four, five accounts. My sister ran the day-to-day. As I left the Academy and transitioned back into the family business and moved to Nashville, I think, even as CEO of the company, that I take sort of a quiet profile and just do my thing and let Fran, my son and my daughter run the day-to-day. As you get up in years, it’s tougher to keep that pace. It’s a fast-paced business and you know it – you can be out every night. There’s a showcase, there’s a meeting, there’s something every night. As you start to get into your 60s, you start to slow it down. I can’t keep the pace that my son does. There’s no
Is this nature or nurture? If I changed my last name to Romeo, would I suddenly become a good talent buyer?
No. I think the sign of being a good talent buyer, for me, is today I still have a lot of friends.
I can name multiple people at every agency that I consider friends and I think having respect is what is going to allow you to grow in this business. If you don’t have respect, I don’t care if you have a lot of money, it’s a tough business to buy your way into.
And there are people who have tried. A lot of hedge fund people have come in wanting to buy into the business. It’s still, today, a relationship-based business and I think you have to have relationships with the agents you work with. They have to trust you, you have to trust them. I look back over the years, I can say I have some great friends in this business, people I grew up with who are agents that run agencies and I’ve worked with them for 40 years.
I think it’s relationships and sometimes the business loses sight of that. But if you peel back the layers of the onion, at the end of the day, it’s still a relationship business.
Is it a new artist or something like the Oak Ridge Boys that has worked with three generations of Romeos? They worked my father, with me and now with my son and daughter. Doesn’t that define success for an act? Charlie Pride? I think that’s cool.
So even if your sister, your son, your daughter was taught well, a bad apple could kill the whole system.
I think you can graduate from Harvard with a business degree and that may not give you any more of a leg up or not. At the end of the day, they can say, “You got this business from your father.” What I think is that my father gave me the best gift anybody can give me – A) allowing me to buy the family business but also to give me a name he worked hard at, to be honest, to be fair. When people heard the Romeo name knew we wouldn’t take advantage of them and we would do everything humanly possible to make their show a good experience.
My father worked for all of his might for that and that’s what he passed on to me, my sister, and his grandkids. That legacy.