The Grateful Dead play in 1987 at Alpine Valley, which Wavra helped become the biggest amphitheater in the country at the time. (Getty Images)
What Brad Wavra, Live Nation Touring SVP, knows about playing stadiums could fill up, well, a stadium
With close to 50 years working in the live business, Brad Wavra, senior vice president at Live Nation Touring, has more industry experience under his belt than many top concert executives combined: from his earliest days working the Milwaukee club scene of the early 1970s to becoming a regional power player with the expansion of Wisconsin’s Alpine Valley Music Theatre to booking national tours with Magic Works in the late 1990s where he took the pop explosion of Backstreet Boys, NSYNC and Britney Spears and later One Direction to stadiums. VenuesNow caught up with the veteran promoter, who continues to operate at the highest level of the industry running tours by artists like Pollstar’s top 2019 Q1 tour Travis Scott, along with Khalid, Ariana Grande, Pink, New Kids on the Block, Luis Miguel, Jennifer Lopez and the Jonas Brothers.
How did you get your start in the business?
In the early ’70s when I was 17 I tended bar at The Stone Toad in Milwaukee which was a 450-seat nightclub owned by Joe Balestrieri and his brother Brian. I did everything from hand out flyers to run the front door. Willie Nelson, Bob Seger, Cheap Trick and REO Speedwagon were still club bands and played there. I used to hide in the beer cooler when the cops would raid the joint. They opened a second bigger nightclub called Humpin’ Hannah’s. Then I booked the Palms Nightclub, which was a 3,000-seat GA room where we had the Ramones and bigger bands. Then Joe and his wife Leslie West opened the Eagles Club Ballroom. I was also part of the evolution of Alpine Valley from an itty-bitty 10,000-seat amphitheater into a forty thousand seater, then the biggest amphitheater in the country. We could do four nights of the Grateful Dead, The Rolling Stones, The Who — 110,000 people. We would do Wham! and Madonna. We did 30 to 40 shows a year.
Who were your competitors?
We were fighting tooth and nail against Jam Productions and Nederlander in Chicago. We were a small company of four or five people fighting for business.
Where did you work after Milwaukee?
I went to work for Joe Marsh and Lee Marshall at Magic Works in the late ’90s with Bruce Kapp. He was in Florida and I was in Cleveland. We followed in the footsteps of some of the premier promoters: Bill Graham, Paul Gongaware, John Meglen in California; Michael Cohl, Arthur Fogel and Michael Rapino in Canada; and John Scher in New York. That model wasn’t as prevalent when Bruce and I joined forces and bought Janet Jackson’s Velvet Rope tour.
What was your approach?
We had a different version of what was being done in California and Canada. Bruce and I made it more North America centric. We did it with bands other than the top five. We bought Janet Jackson and then NSYNC, Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears. We built out tours that became the model for how most of our business is being run now with the touring divisions of Live Nation, AEG and the Messina Group.
How does that model work?
It’s one stop shopping: management and artists and agents work with us as a touch point to an army of marketing staff, production people and operators in hundreds of offices around the world. We have a strong team built for efficiency so that one or two phone calls can trip an army of energy.
Let’s say a manager calls and says, “I want to mount a stadium tour,” what do you do?
Stadiums don’t happen magically or overnight. An artist has to put in years of hard work building a solid touring foundation in clubs or theaters and a fan base and learn to perform. Generally, they’ve had a successful arena tour or two to give you confidence in them and the economic viability of a stadium tour.
If I come to you in March for a stadium tour, it’s not happening this summer, right?
It’s not happening. But there’s two tours I’m looking at that could still happen in September. You’d have to get into it right now and routing would be dictated by avails. If you get two or three production units, stages, production teams organized, you can hop around the country and route a tour that makes financial sense. Football stadiums are easier in summer; by September you pretty much know the baseball away holes. You need six days, minimum: two days to put the show up, a day to load in, a day to perform, a day to load out.
What’s best practices in terms of timing?
Time is your ally. The longer a show is on sale, the better it’s apt to do. Plan the on-sales around a launch — TV, books, awards, albums, press appearances.
What about expenses?
An arena set of expenses is in the neighborhood of three hundred grand. A stadium set of expenses is about a million-two to a million-five.
Are nerves of steel essential in terms of financing?
Oh, big time. You have to make a budget, decide what your ticket price is and what fans will pay and how you’re going to scale your building. You have to figure out the income streams. There’s an art form to scaling a stadium.
Is that harder now with so much VIP segmentation and packages?
The opportunities are broader. You want to be smart enough to capture the available income streams and allocate the proper amount of inventory to maximize gross. The idea is to deliver to your fans the most affordable experience you can and meet the expectations for income earning from the artist and venue.
How do you make those projections?
We’ve got a pretty good database. I’ve been doing stadium shows every year since 2001 and I’ve watched how stadiums have evolved and unfolded.
What about sharing stadium production with another artist?
Now you’re talking about an eight-day window. You spend three days building a production and band one goes in for a production day, plays a show, loads out; then band two goes in production day, plays a show, loads out, and then you tear down the infrastructure. But you can make a tremendous amount of money with shared expenses. We try to do that wherever we go.
What are your favorite stadiums?
One of my new favorites is going to be Lambeau Field in Green Bay. I’m a Wisconsin boy, so putting Paul McCartney there is fun. Fenway Park is beautiful. They know exactly what they’re doing. They’ve got a huge history of doing shows. Almost all the big city [ballparks], Chicago’s Wrigley or Soldier Field, San Francisco and L.A. The big cities do more events and the more you do the better you are. But when you go into Seattle or Milwaukee and everybody is so excited to do a stadium show, that what they lack in experience they make up for in going the extra mile with enthusiasm and excitement to get the show ready to roll.
What makes for a great stadium experience?
When you get a team of people all on the same page who have a realistic expectation of income and ticket prices and understand how expenses are organized. You have a professional production team, the handful of great ones who have done this before and whose reputation precedes them, who know the field guy, the ops guy, the stadium GMs. Who leave the stadium in the same condition they found it. And then God blesses the weather.