When you buy a ticket to a rock concert these days, you’re feeding the coffers of soulless mega-corporations without a human face. But it wasn’t always that way, as illustrated in Molly Bernstein and Philip Dolin’s documentary chronicling the evolution of the rock concert business and spotlighting the pioneers who championed it. The Show’s the Thing, which recently received its world premiere at DOC NYC, shines a spotlight on an underappreciated aspect of music history.
The film largely focuses on two pioneers of the industry: Frank Barsalona, the founder of the Premier Talent Agency, the first major rock booking agency in America; and Bill Graham, the legendary promoter and mastermind of the influential venues Fillmore and the Fillmore East. But we’re also introduced to such major regional players as NYC’s Ron Delsener, Philadelphia’s Larry Magid and Chicago’s Arny Granat, among others.
According to the documentary, the modern touring business began with the British Invasion. Shows were first packaged like vaudeville, featuring multiple acts and disc jockeys often acting as hosts. Barsalona, the only agent to ever be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, revolutionized the industry by cultivating local promoters and creating a nationwide chain of venues for his acts to play. Graham’s genius was showmanship; he enhanced the shows at his venues with elaborate lights and projections and aggressively marketed T-shirts and other merchandise.
Barsalona and Graham are both gone now, but the documentary includes interviews with several of their surviving fellow promoters who look back on the old days with fondness and pride. “There were no rules,” says one. “You flew by the seat of your pants,” says another. Performers Jon Bon Jovi and Carlos Santana also weigh in, expressing gratitude and fondness for those promoters who helped them in the early stages of their careers.
As anyone who’s been to a rock concert in the last few decades well knows, the environment has changed dramatically. The Woodstock festival opened promoters’ and artists’ eyes to the massive audiences and profits that were there for the taking. Theater concerts gave way to arena concerts, which in turn led to stadium concerts. The business become consolidated, with small agencies bought up by such behemoths as Clear Channel and Live Nation.
One of the lengthier segments deals with the massive Live Aid benefit concerts in North America and England which required a whole new level of organization. The subject seems tangential to the rest of the film, but it does provide for some entertaining commentary by its organizer Bob Geldof, who describes the travails involved in droll fashion.
Featuring a wealth of archival performance clips showcasing the musical acts who benefited from the promoters’ business savvy, The Show’s the Thing presents a distinctly rosy portrait. If you believe the film, the rock business was competitive but happy-go-lucky. Little mention is made of its darker side, giving the proceedings an air of hagiography. Nonetheless, it remains essential viewing for anyone interested in music industry history.
Directors/producers: Molly Bernstein, Philip Dolin
Executive producers: Justus Haerder, Zach Katz, Kathy Rivkin-Daum, Winston Simone, David Simone, Steve Martin, Cathy Greenwold, Carleen Simone
Directors of photography: Eddie Marritz, Philip Dolin, Ollie Verschoyle, Carlos Diaz-Munoz
Editor: Molly Bernstein
Composer: Michael Leonhart
Venue: DOC NYC