U2's Bono on Frank Barsalona: 'They Just Don't Make Them Like That Any More'
U2's Bono on Frank Barsalona: 'They Just Don't Make Them Like That Any More'

While the seeds that produced the modern concert business were planted decades ago by pioneering agent Frank Barsalona -- who died Thanksgiving day -- and though he effectively quit the business when he merged his Premier Talent with what was then William Morris Agency in 2002, his impact is still very much felt today by those he touched in the industry he played a significant role in building.

Barsalona's influence reaches the top of the contemporary music business. "He offered me my first job; he sold me my first national acts," recalls Irving Azoff, chairman/CEO of Live Nation Entertainment/Front Line Management, who describes Barsalona as a "principled and classy guy." In fact, Azoff tells Billboard.biz, Barsalona "doesn't get nearly enough credit for his impact on the business. An era has passed."

Frank Barsalona, Remembered by U2 Manager Paul McGuinness

One instance where Barsalona was given credit for his influence was at the 2007 Billboard Touring Awards, when Barsalona was the first agent recognized as Legend Of Live, which honors a concert business professional who made a significant and lasting impact on the industry. (Barsalona was in ill health at the time and the award was accepted by his daughter, Nicole.)

One of Barsalona's key promoters, Larry Magid of Electric Factory Concerts in Philadelphia, told Billboard at the time, "Frank Barsalona is probably the single most important person in the touring business in the past 40 years. He single-handedly revolutionized the concert business."

As a young agent at New York-based GAC, Barsalona booked the first U.S. appearances by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds and others, and quickly saw the potential of live rock. Unhappy with both his and rock's status at GAC, Barsalona started Premier with a small roster that included the Who, Herman's Hermits and Mitch Ryder, and immediately set about getting rock acts better pay and better performance settings. Barsalona focused on British talent at first, because Premier wasn't established enough to compete for the top American rock'n'roll acts.

"The other American agents weren't so prominent over there-I worked on a more even level in London," Barsalona told Billboard in 1984.

The late Barbara Skydel joined Premier in 1968 as Barsalona's assistant, and stayed on with William Morris until her death in 2010.

"Frank was a pioneer first of all in recognizing that rock'n'roll was a significant business and the acts were talented and not throwaways," she told Billboard in 2007. "Frank realized when he left GAC that his bosses were wrong-these bands had longevity if they were handled properly, if there was artist development instead of getting the last penny prematurely and killing the act's career before it even began."

Barsalona basically created the regional promoter model, building acts with the promoters in each market. "The one-promoter/one-city concept was followed by almost everybody, and it turned out to have helped this business greatly because it allowed promoters to grow with the act as opposed to whoever had $5 more," Magid told Billboard. "It gave our business an incredible amount of stability, which until that time was lacking. We laid the groundwork, and I don't know if that would have been possible without the assistance of someone named Frank Barsalona."

Most of the promoters whose companies were consolidated by SFX in the late '90s-many of whom are still with Live Nation-were "the young guys that Frank started in the territorial business," Skydel recalled. "He'd say, 'If you do a good job, the acts like you and the offers are what they should be, you'll have the act.' That promise was fulfilled to the benefit of the whole team: the artist, the manager, the agent and the promoter."

One of those promoters was Don Law in Boston. "Frank built a network of regional buyers that established a reliable business platform for touring artists that had not existed previously," Law told Billboard in 2007. "Before Frank, talent was bought by bar owners or club owners who insisted in writing on five or more future options as a precondition for an artist to play in their club or market. Frank ended the practice of options and replaced it with an honor system that was built on a recognition of a buyer's investment of time, staff, cash and resources in the risky development of an artist's performance equity in the market."

In short, Barsalona was loyal to promoters if they built the much-coveted "history" with an act, which was not only good behavior, but good business. "This preserved the artist's leverage and control over its future appearances while fairly rewarding the inherently risky investment of the buyer," Law said. "This system is now referred to in the live appearance business as 'history,' and still provides the basic underpinning of the modern talent agency system. We owe this all to Frank."

In time, most of the biggest names in '70s-'80s rock gravitated to Premier. Bruce Springsteen, Led Zeppelin, the J. Geils Band, Grand Funk Railroad, U2, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Van Halen and others signed to the most impressive roster in rock, and Premier suddenly had huge leverage in its own right-and power. Barsalona graduated acts from clubs to the first rock shows at large sports arenas. The birth and huge popularity of "arena rock" can in no small part be traced directly to Barsalona.

Peter Luukko, president of Philadelphia-based venue management firm Comcast-Spectacor, says Barsalona, "was the first agent to work not only with promoters, but with the buildings. Frank and the whole crew at the agency always wanted what was best for the artist. He was a true personality. It was always a special treat to be with Frank in his office as be held court with the other agents."

Barry Bell was the Premier agent handling Springsteen, and still does to this day with Creative Artists Agency. "I'll say it's a great loss to the entire music business," Bell says of Barsalona's passing. "I learned so much from him in my 24 years at Premier Talent. He was someone everyone looked to for advice because of his insight and intelligence."

Few agents-if any-had as much influence as did Barsalona in his time. "There were two agents in my lifetime who dominated their respective genres for a time," Dennis Arfa, president of Artist Group International, told Billboard.biz today. "Frank Barsalona was one, and [CAA co-founder] Mike Ovitz was the other."

Despite playing a huge role in developing modern "agenting," Barsalona's most lasting legacy will probably be organizing-and to a degree legitimizing- a scruffy group of free-wheeling pirate promoters that weren't inclined to work together much without Barsalona's influence. One of those was Phoenix promoter Danny Zelisko, who began working with Barsalona as a young promoter in the early '70s.

"I quickly learned that there was an order of the way things work, that Frank had instituted," Zelisko says in reminiscing of Barsalona. "As a promoter, you would get shows from Frank's incredible artist roster in your 'territory.' You started with baby acts, and grew them into bigger acts. If you did a good job, you would continue to promote these bands he and Premier Talent represented."

Zelisko notes this practice stayed into effect roughly until Barsalona left the business amid promoter consolidation. "Frank and Premier were the royalty in the live concert business before there was a business," says Zelisko. "It was hard to get into their Rolodex and then impossible to get out, not that you would want to. This was a family you wanted to be welcome in."

Barsalona's kind probably won't come along again, Zelisko and several others who worked with Barsalona believe, though Zelisko says he wouldn't completely rule it out. "They said there wouldn't be anything like Elvis either, and along came the Beatles," he says. "And you know who booked them."

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