In a career spanning 45+ years as a concert promoter, Danny Zelisko estimates that he’s put on about 12,000 shows around the country. But the average entertainment consumer likely doesn’t know what a “concert promoter” does any more than what the tasks of a “recording engineer” or “key grip” are in other arts.
But the basic description runs something like this: Contract with a performer to do a show, rent a venue, advertise it, sell tickets, make sure the show happens, and hope when the last light is turned off and the band’s truck is on the road to the next gig, you’ve made more money than you’ve spent.
But it may also involve other activities, ranging from scoring weed for blues legend Muddy Waters, or arranging for a private plane to fly Mick Jagger to England to see his dying father—and make it back in time for the sold out performance.
“It’s like a magic show. If you go to a baseball game, somebody’s producing it. You pay for a ticket, you get in, and you don’t worry about how it actually happens. And it better be good,” Zelisko says.
“It’s the same thing with concerts. It’s all the moves and mechanisms that make the concert happen, from 1 person to 100 working to make 8 p.m. that evening happen. And it all comes together. I really enjoy that.”
Zelisko has written down what’s he’s learned about the concert business, how its changed, and packed an awful lot of stories and more than 600 photos into his memoir, All Exce$$—Occupation: Concert Promoter (350 pp., $49.95, self-published).
Before his entry in the music biz, the then Chicago-based Zelisko was involved in sports memorabilia collecting and player appearances, booking athletes like Brian Piccolo and Ernie Banks while in his early teens. After move to Phoenix, he picked up a hitchhiker who was involved with an Alice Cooper concert, and Zelisko talked his way into working “security”—though not before spending much of the day sharing beers with Cooper in his dressing room.
He was still holding down a day job when he promoted his first shows with jazz players Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and rocker Jeff Beck in 1974/75. Another early success was working with legendary promoter Bill Graham setting up the giant March 1976 concert at the Arizona State University Stadium that was filmed for a key concert scene in the Barbra Streisand/Kris Kristofferson remake of A Star is Born. Though, perhaps to ensure a full audience, Peter Frampton, Santana, Montrose, and other acts were added to the all-day bill.
In fact, it might be easier to list the performers who Zelisko was not involved with during his career. But just a sampling of those who appear in memories and anecdotes in the book: The Rolling Stones, Santana, Journey, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Chuck Berry, the Outlaws, Van Morrison, John Mellencamp, Tina Turner, Bon Jovi, Frank Zappa, Leon Russell, James Brown, Tom Petty, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Guns ‘n Roses, Bruce Springsteen, U2, and James Taylor. The book has photos of him with scores of other artists.
Zelisko also developed more personal friendships and relationships with artists like Alice Cooper, Todd Rundgren, the Grateful Dead, Willie Nelson, John Prine, and Roger Waters. He says he’s been able to do this—and maintain it—by not talking business on personal time.
“You don’t sit down with Kris or Willie and talk about their [contract] riders. They just want to be around friends and people they feel comfortable with. Just being casual, loose, and humorous,” he says. “And then when it comes time for the show, you’re not there to be their best friend, but to make them look great and take care of what they need.”
Outside of music, All Exce$$ features great anecdotes about his time with comedians Rodney Dangerfield, Andrew “Dice” Clay, and Sam Kinison. Zelisko was especially close to Kinison, and on the evening the comic died in crash when his vehicle was hit straight on by a drunk driver, he was actually en route to higher-paying gig he took which caused him to cancel a show he’d already booked with Zelisko. After the accident, Kinison’s brother called Zelisko in tears, knowing if his Sam had kept that original date, he wouldn’t have been on that road at that time.
“I was about to put the [Kinison] tickets on sale, but got a call on a Friday afternoon. And when you get a call late in the day on Friday, it’s typically not good. It was about the better offer. I didn’t like [cancelling the show], but I did, and I forgot about it,” he says. “The next thing I know, I heard on the TV he had been in the accident. Isn’t that incredible? When it happened, I was kind of like in a coma for a week. He was such a good guy, and I think he was destined for a lot more.”
There’s a Houston connection in the book in the form of legendary promoter Louis Messina, who Zelisko calls “probably the single largest concert promoter on the planet today.” The co-founder of PACE Concerts in 1975 was (and is) a powerhouse booker who helped create and build the modern concert industry. Messina (like Zelisko) later sold his interests to SFX, which morphed into Clear Channel, and then spun off into Live Nation.
Live Nation, along with competitor AEG, now basically control the concert business in the United States bringing acts, venues, ticketing, merchandise, marketing, and other aspects all under one umbrella. Messina now runs the Messina Touring Group (which is affiliated with AEG), while Zelisko has his own Danny Zelisko Presents company.
“Louis was one of the guys who encouraged me to sell to SFX in 2000 or 2001 when I did it because he did it. And, well, misery loves company!” Zelisko laughs.
“I’ve never asked him if he thought how different [our lives] would be today if we didn’t do that. He would have been one of those Old West Deadwood poker players. Such a smart guy! He was way ahead of me. [Because] he’s older than me, not because he’s better. You can tell him I said that!”
Today, Zelisko says that when people ask him advice on how to become a concert promoter, he tells them “don’t.” But he also says the only way to get a foothold in the business in 2021 is to foster relationships with newer acts who haven’t broken through yet, or book markets for concerts that are smaller or less explored.
“These days, there’s no way to compete with the money that [Live Nation and AEG) have assembled. But you gotta hand it to them. You may have great assets, but you’ve got to manage those assets,” Zelisko sums up.
“Imagine [basketball coach] Phil Jackson screwing up the Chicago Bulls with Michael Jordan. He didn’t do it, but there was a General Manager that dissembled the whole thing! They should have had a dynasty for two decades! That’s a weird analogy, but what the hell!”
To order All Exce$$, visit DZPlive.com
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