Paul Gongaware and John Meglen, co-presidents of Concerts West, the global touring division of AEG Live, worked closely with Prince during one of the most commercially successful and artistically fulfilling periods of his career.
Between 2004 and 2008, Prince, with Concerts West, embarked on the ground breaking Musicology tour; the six-month residency at the 3121 Club in Las Vegas; the first-of-its-kind 21-night sold-out residency at the O2 Arena in London (which, at $22 million gross from 351,527 tickets sold, captured Top Boxscore at the 2007 Billboard Touring Awards); Prince’s acclaimed half time performance at Super Bowl XLI in 2007; and an epic 2008 headlining stand at the Coachella Music Festival in Indio, Calif., that was replayed this year in tribute.
On a warm, windy day at this year’s Coachella, Meglen (fresh off The Rolling Stones’ historic Latina Ole tour stop in Cuba) warmly reminisced with Billboard about his and Gongaware’s close association with the man they knew mostly as The Artist.
Billboard: Talk about meeting Prince when you guys first started to work with him.
John Meglen: One day [my assistant] Teressa comes to me and says, “Prince is on the phone.” Prince says, “I’ve been reading about this stuff you’re doing with Celine Dion in Las Vegas and I find it very interesting.” So I said “why don’t you come out to Vegas this weekend?” And he said “I think I’ll do that.”
So Saturday night Prince showed up at the loading dock about 10 minutes before the show, we held him there and talked a few minutes, then the house lights went down and I snuck him in. He and I sat there and watched the whole show. He made all kinds of comments during the show, like “she’s on the box,” meaning her voice, I’m telling him “no, she’s not,” and by the end he was saying, “that’s the most perfect voice I’ve ever heard.”
Then I took him in to meet Celine and they talk for 20-30 minutes, then he left.
I get back to L.A. by Monday or Tuesday, he calls and wants to meet at the Beverly Hills Hotel. He says, “if this is the way you guys treat artists, I want you to handle my stuff.” So I call Paul, we drive over to the Beverly Hills Hotel and… there wasn’t much discussion, we got right into the tour. He had made his decision and we were done.
The Musicology tour of 2004 was influential in many ways, not the least of which is because, by giving away Prince’s new music with a ticket it was a physical manifestation of how the dynamic between touring and recorded content had flipped.
He had this record, Musicology, and he wanted to include it with the ticket. So what we did was we literally created the Tour Record Company, before Columbia or Sony was even involved. We added $5 to our ticket price, and when we settled each night we’d take $5 and put it over here in this other pile, an internal accounting thing. Then we would take our costs off, which was 38 cents a record — pressing, shrink wrap, cardboard sleeve. So Prince was making over $4 a record.
What did you learn about Prince on that tour?
Trying to do business with Prince was like chasing a phantom. The first meeting, I drove up to Paisley Park — before he went back to calling himself “Prince.” I remember driving up to the keypad thing and the first thought in my head was who do I ask for? “The Artist” was the most common term at the time. If he was pissed at you, he called you “sir.” When you started to hear “sir,” you knew he was pissed off about something.
Even with the $5 for the CD, Musicology was conservatively priced, a trademark of Prince’s tours. But lower ticket prices create a rich environment for the secondary market, how did you deal with that?
We didn’t go out with high ticket prices on Musicology. Prince had no problem playing. He liked to play. He’s the kind of guy who would play every night. We have a working artist. So Paul’s point was, “let’s go ‘play out’ the market and keep the ticket price down. What’s the best way to thwart scalpers? Add another show. And Prince was so into it, I remember once after Paul explained it, he was, “yeah, if we do five Phillies and we know there’s only a half [house] on the next one, we’re already there and set up, so let’s play the sixth one. And if we’ve got some empty seats, we’ll give ’em away to schools and people who can’t afford to go.” [AEG Live vp] Gord Berg created a whole system where we went out to the underprivileged, schools and music organizations, because we always knew that if we were gonna play out every market, we’ll hit a point where we have two or three thousand tickets left and we just said the house will always be full.
What was it like putting a major tour deal together with Prince?
When we worked with him, there was no manager, no lawyer, no agent, no business manager. It was just him and the two of us. And when we started this [Musicology] thing, Paul and I had a sit-down with [billionaire AEG owner] Phil [Anschutz] one day, we had to tell Phil that Prince won’t sign anything, there’s no contract. And Phil asks, “if he doesn’t show up, how much are we going to be out?” And I think we would probably have been out $2-3 million in production expenses, a couple million in advertising, so if he doesn’t show up we’re going to lose $5 million. So Phil looks at us and asks, “do you think he’s going to do it?” And Paul and I said, “yeah, we think he really wants to do this.” And that tour was flawless. We produced and promoted it, there were no other people involved in that tour. We hired everybody.
When you say flawless, does that mean financially?
Flawless. The tour grossed $88 million, and his net, after we paid for everything, was $44 million. When he got paid at the end of that tour, we handed him a check for what he made from those shows, and all he had to pay out of that was his taxes. It was the night before the last show, and he was so excited when we handed him that piece of paper, when he saw the number he jumped up and down. Then he sat down at a little electric piano in his dressing room and did a 20-minute Stevie Wonder rendition for Paul and I. He was so happy.
What was Prince’s approach to his business?
Honestly, he really didn’t like to deal with the business. The business bothered him. I think if there could have been no monetary side to the music business, that would have been a better world for Prince. He felt like people always ripped him off. We did that entire tour with him, we’re the two straightest guys in the business, we put every penny on the table. Others have in the past — and we could have — robbed him blind. Blind. The final number could have been half that and he still would have loved it. But we put every cent on the table, Paul is relentless on the operating expenses. Not only did we not rip him off, we didn’t let anybody rip him off. We made sure that he really benefited, and he knew it.
Let’s talk about the Super Bowl Halftime Show.
[ABC executive producer] David Saltz approached us about the Super Bowl. We talked to Prince about doing the Super Bowl and we set up a meeting. We went over to Prince’s house for dinner, it was just Prince, Paul and I, and David Saltz. His chef makes us a very nice dinner, then Prince suddenly produces this portable DVD player, and he starts critiquing all these previous half time show performers. He’s saying, “I wouldn’t have done that,” stuff like that, and finally one of us says, “well, what would you do?” He says, “I will show you, follow me.”
So he walks us upstairs into the living room and the entire band is in there, all set up and ready to play. They’d been there the whole time. So he plays us a 15-minute halftime show, just for the three of us. At one point, David holds up his lighter during “Purple Rain.”
Prince’s performance in 2007 is regarded as one of the greatest Super Bowl halftimes ever, was it a smooth week going in?
During Super Bowl week, Wednesday was the day we had to do the rehearsal. You’re supposed to run through it two or three times and they tape it, so in case something happens they can run the tape. So we run it once and it’s totally fucked, the microphone smacks him in the face. This tape is supposed to be security, so that if something goes wrong they still have a halftime show. He was having all kinds of problems. So he gets off the stage and suddenly you hear [Prince security] Trevor [Allen] on the radio, “The Artist would like to see John Meglen and [show producer] Don Mischer in his trailer.” So we go in and Prince pulls me to the other side of the trailer, and says, “I want you to get that tape.” Mischer can hear us, he’s over there saying “I’m not giving up the tape!”
So what happens is, he has to play when it’s raining because there is no backup tape. But it was the rain that kind of amplified that emotional connection, and made it into something special.
When it was over he goes up to his trailer, and Paul, Trevor and I are waiting for him to come out, to take him over to the suite so he can watch the game. It’s pouring down rain, he jumps in the back of that van, Paul and I are reading him the texts we’re getting from everybody, “greatest Super Bowl Halftime of all time,” stuff like that. You could tell he was scared, and he was really hard on us that week. So we’re reading those texts and I remember he leans over from two rows back in the van and starts high-fiving us, he was so happy.
Talk about how the residency at the O2 came about.
On Musicology Prince made more per record than he’d ever made in his life. We took it another step higher when we played the O2, when he gave away a couple million Planet Earth [albums] in The Daily Mail.
We booked 21 nights in London, that was before anybody else had done a residency in an arena. Strangely enough, Phil [Anschutz] allowed us to do this with no written contract. Eighty-eight shows on Musicology, then six months of the 3121 Club in Vegas, the Super Bowl Halftime show, 21 nights at the O2 in London, then he played here at Coachella, all with no contract. Our relationship ended after that. He wanted to go out and do other things that we don’t do; we’re touring guys, we’re live guys, we’re really not record guys. It’s no secret that relationships with Prince had a beginning, and also had an end. Sometimes people had multiple times with him, but everybody I know, whether it was Jeff Sharp back in the Purple Rain days whether it was Rob Light as his agent, it always had a beginning and an end.
What can you say about Prince as an artist?
He was one of a kind. When he performs, you think of guys like Mick Jagger. When you think about his idiosyncrasies and his style, you think of David Bowie. At the end of the day, there was nobody else like him. He added a rock ‘n roll guitar into R&B, funk and pop. And he loved to play.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.