Business

CID's Dan Berkowitz on Being Live Music's VIP Authority, Curbing Scalpers and Why Artists Like Springsteen Resist

Dan Berkowitz
Gene Smirnov

“My biggest fear is people feeling like, ‘You know what? That wasn’t worth it,’ ” says Berkowitz, photographed May 27 at his office in Philadelphia. “That would be the death of us.”

?A pioneer of the VIP, or "enhanced," concert ­experience, Dan Berkowitz and his CID Entertainment (an acronym for Consider It Dan) will soon reach a ­milestone 10th year in business. No longer the upstart from Philadelphia, where he made his name tailoring jam-band tours for The Disco Biscuits, Umphrey's McGee and Gov't Mule, Berkowitz, 37, helped ­establish the upsell -- an evolution that began with premium seats and later added meet-and-greets, combination travel ­packages and destination concerts.

Overseeing a staff of 70 based out of offices in Philadelphia, Denver and Nashville, Berkowitz has worked with ­festival clients including Coachella, Desert Trip and Bonnaroo (kicking off its 15th edition on June 9), where luxury packages include "glamping" options like private tents with full catering and Bonnaroo's $32,500 "Roll Like a Rockstar" package (see sidebar), and such acts as Kenny Chesney, Muse, Blake Shelton and Kendrick Lamar, each of whom offers fans opportunities to get closer to the action, through backstage tours, photo ops and sound-check performances.

Berkowitz started out as a roadie, then worked his way up from "auxiliary backup merch guy" to tour manager for The Disco Biscuits in 2004, leaving in 2006 to join ­promoter Electric Factory Concerts to ­create travel packages and VIP ­experiences for ­marquee events in Philadelphia.

Gene Smirnov
A mural of Berkowitz’s “favorite hip-hop artist of all time,” The Notorious B.I.G. “Sometimes, when nobody’s looking, I hug him,” he says. 

CID launched in 2007, and in 2015 grew to include CID Presents, a ­boutique end-to-end event ­production division that offers "uber fans" all-inclusive music destination events with the sun- and sea-drenched sounds of Luke Bryan, Phish and label Mad Decent (Major Lazer, Diplo) in Playa del Carmen and Riviera Maya, Mexico. The VIP ­operation is a fee-based service business, while CID Presents is set up like a traditional ­promoter-producer, taking the risk and sharing a ­percentage of the gross. And thanks to a healthy economy, more ­consumer demand offers increased ­revenue opportunity.

Back home in the Society Hill section of Philly, Berkowitz and wife Deanne, CID's chief creative officer, live with their son Max, 2, while envisioning far-off locales that would work well with a light show.

How has the VIP market evolved ­during the past decade?

When we started doing this in 2007, we would call the venue and have to explain what a VIP program was, or explain to a ticketing company what a travel package was. Now, almost every artist has ­gotten comfortable with the idea of offering some sort of enhanced type of ­experience, and almost every festival is offering travel ­packages. It has become a lot more accepted as part of the fabric of a tour.

The 5 VIP Festival Promoters Behind Coachella, Bonnarroo, Lollapalooza & More

Some artists and events are ­cautious about creating an "us-and-them" ­environment with VIP areas. How aware are you of that dynamic?

We're really conscious of it. At Bonnaroo, our "Roll Like a Rockstar" viewing area isn't in people's way -- it's like 15 rows back and dead center, but it isn't impeding ­anybody's sightline. Also, no one is walking up to our viewing area and being told they can't get in. Our ­campground is back in the woods where no one can see it. There's no big neon signs that say "VIP Only, don't come this way." We're being very careful not to impede on the general-admission experience.

Gene Smirnov
Mementos from Coachella’s on-site store. Says Berkowitz: “I love to shop there every year.” 

How do you account for the different demographics and ­psychographics moving from a Luke Bryan to a Coachella to a Bonnaroo? What do they have in common?

People who love live music. They're not going to Coachella to be seen or do the "Coachella thing." They're leaving their homes, getting on an airplane and coming to a place that maybe they've never been before because they want to see the music.

Some artists are still VIP holdouts -- Bruce Springsteen, for instance. Why?

It has to do with what artists are ­comfortable with. If Bruce Springsteen were to offer an enhanced ­experience with an exhibit outlining his entire career and a good ticket and some sort of ­merchandise item, the demand would definitely be there. We've been able to work with artists that wouldn't traditionally offer a program like this because we can prove to them that we're going to deliver a lot of value to fans and provide them with an experience they would have paid more for, that they'll want to do again and again. We're on our fourth year with Kenny Chesney, our fourth with Luke Bryan. We've got a guy coming to 20 "Weird Al" Yankovic shows this tour that came to 12 last tour, we've got people that went to 15 George Strait shows, all VIP.

How involved are artists in planning the VIP offerings?

It ranges. Eric Church and his ­management are very involved in the experience of the "Outsiders Lounge." On any given night, he'll comment if something looked off, the food didn't look right, whatever. He pays close attention to make sure his fans feel really good about the experience. Some artists are involved in the merchandise we choose, the seat locations, the vibe and size of the room, and we love that. It's a testament to how much they care about their fans and that they don't take for granted that these people are paying a premium.

Gene Smirnov
George Strait-signed cowboy hat and boots. 

Putting on events in ­Mexico was a major move for CID and came with some risk. What led to that?

It was always the end goal. Literally, I was in high school making up dream festival lineups, thinking about what could possibly ­happen. I dreamed of ­throwing a Phish concert on the beach. To bring music people care about to an amazing ­location, that's the ­cornerstone of CID Presents. So we went for it. In 2014, we started ­conversations with artists, and Luke Bryan was the first one to give us a shot. His agent Jay Williams [at William Morris Endeavor] and ­managers Kerri [Edwards] and Coran [Capshaw of Red Light] believed we could pull it off, and frankly, they put their necks on the line for us.

The Pros And Cons Of The Ever-Growing VIP Sections At Music Festivals

Is scalping a factor in VIP, and if so, how do you deal with it?

We try our best to curb that. We do will-call when we can; we don't allow name changes when we suspect anybody of reselling our packages; we set ­reasonable ticket limits and cancel ­duplicate orders. But we're not here to punish fans that are buying tickets, through any source. We're doing our best to ­keep our packages off the ­secondary market. However, we couldn't sustain any level of service to our guests if we chose to focus on fighting that battle.

Do you do custom experiences?

We do, and it’s something we’re working on getting better at. We don’t have a department dedicated to this, it’s just people we’ve gotten to know over the years who’ll say, “You’re offering packages X, Y and Z at Coachella, I would like a little X, a little Y, I’d also like airport transportation and this or that,” and we’ll put something together for those folks. Especially at CID Presents events we have a bit more autonomy and we can provide people with really custom experiences at the shows we produce ourselves, and I’m sure we’re going to get to that. 

What’s the most over-the-top request you’ve ever received?

Legal? It’s hard to think of just one. Obviously, there are things people ask for from artists that we’re not able to do based on the artist’s schedule or what they’re looking for. Usually special requests like that, especially if it’s an arena or stadium headlining artists, if we did something like that it would be, “OK, donate like $10,000 to charity and we’ll do it,” but it’s hard to monetize those things and put a value on it. Certainly there’s a lot of things we’ve turned down over the years.

Gene Smirnov
“Golf has been an important part of my life,” says Berkowitz, who caddied in high school and college. “It’s where I learned to anticipate people’s needs. I wish I got to play five times much as I do.”

You were the first to bring contemporary VIP to country in a significant way. How did that happen?

It’s a crazy story. Kenny Chesney was bringing out Grace Potter on tour, so Hank Sacks, Grace Potter’s agent, got to know [Chesney promoter] Louie Messina. Hank and I are dear friends, and Hank asked Louie, “Do you guys do VIP?” and Louie says, “Nah, done it before, didn’t really work." I don’t know where Hank got the nerve, but he said, “What if I can promise you it will be awesome?” So Louie says, “OK, one phone call with your guy.” Hank called me and said, “Louie Messina will call you in five minutes.” I spit my coffee out, and while I was on phone with Hank a number came up on my caller ID. That was Louie, and by the end of the day we had him a proposal. The next week I was down there meeting with him, and we were lucky enough that he gave us a shot, and we’re proud to still be working with Kenny. 

Landing Kenny certainly gave us a lot of runway, and definitely led to George Strait and a lot of other great things. At that time, we did the Dead tour, we did Kings Of Leon, we did Maxwell, the Black Crowes, and all of a sudden it was like a catapult: Kenny Chesney in stadiums. It got pretty serious pretty quickly at that point.

There are things you can’t control. What’s a worst case scenario, your biggest fear?

The weather we can’t control. That’s a bummer, if something bad happens with weather and we have to cancel or something like that, we’re going to do everything we can to put on a show no matter what and we’re going to keep people safe. The risk of bad weather in January/March in the Caribbean is relatively low, we purposely chose a place that has low rainfall in that time of year, so if it happened, it would be a freak occurrence. We’ve had 11 show dates successfully with no weather issues.

To me, the biggest fear is that we produce an experience that people don’t think is worth it, and we have yet to hear that from any sort of statistically relevant group of people. Of course, you have 5,000 people come down for something you’re going to get a couple of people that didn’t love it, and we deal with those people on a case-by-case basis, and 100 percent of the time we make it right for them. My biggest fear is a group of people -- like the whole show -- felt like, “That wasn’t worth it, they didn’t do a good enough job for us.” That would be the death of us.

The May 25 shooting backstage at New York's Irving Plaza brings to mind the safety and ­security of such areas. Is it a ­challenge to keep them secure while giving patrons the access and upscale treatment they pay for?

Safety is our number one ­priority. Just because ­someone spent more money on a ticket or a shuttle pass does not mean less ­attention is paid to security. That said, we do have CID representatives on site at each one of our entrances to ensure that people are being treated with the dignity that all ­concertgoers deserve. The music is what draws them there, but the people ­buying the tickets are the ones paying all of our salaries.

This article was originally published in the June 18 issue of Billboard.