When John Scher was approached by an old friend about investing in a long-shot benefit concert, the 69-year-old promoter knew he should have walked away. But spellbound by the opportunity to work with superstar artists James Taylor and John Legend, Scher convinced himself that he could pull it off.
“I don’t know why I let myself get dragged into these things,” Scher says of the cancelled 2018 concert supporting Albany Med hospital that became a costly lawsuit and legal headache he didn’t need.
In late 2017, Times Union Center manager Bob Belber approached Scher with a proposal to co-promote a black tie gala celebrating the reopening of the SMG-managed arena in Albany, New York. He had sold music manager Sam Feldman on having client James Taylor head the concert and after months chasing a co-headliner, he landed Legend.
The concert would christen a $20 million capital improvement project at Belber’s arena and would be attended by governor Andrew Cuomo, he excitedly told the well known independent promoter who had produced Bruce Springsteen’s early shows in New Jersey and booked Frank Sinatra for the Times Union Center’s opening in 1990.
Scher was intrigued at by the idea, but thought the numbers didn’t add up. Belber had guaranteed $600,000 to Taylor and $500,000 to Legend. And the ticket prices were too high — Scher told Belber there weren’t enough people in Albany willing to pay $190 a seat to make the numbers work.
“He told me ‘that’s what the market charged for Paul McCartney,’” Scher tells Billboard. “And I looked at him and said ‘Bob, with all due respect, James Taylor ain’t McCartney.”
Scher thought his long time friend had gotten taken to the cleaners. Why was he paying $60,000 for travel fees? And how about this $124,000 producers fee being paid to Feldman, Taylor’s manager?
That fee covered the cost of hiring Feldman’s Toronto-based production company to produce the show, Feldman says, noting he agreed to the producer role before Taylor got involved and disclosed his involvement when Taylor signed on as a headliner.
Feldman also says he wasn’t thrilled that Scher was being brought onto the show. Feldman assumed either SMG or the county was subsidizing the concert — now “all of a sudden” Belber was “needing a co-promoter to be financed?”
Scher wasn’t particularly excited either — did Belber really want his expertise or did he just want someone to pay for his party? Scher says that he reluctantly signed on but would only commit to paying 10% of the artist guarantee, approximately $114,000, when it came due 10 days prior to the show. Scher also agreed to split any profit of loss with SMG and wanted to speak with Feldman about a fee reduction for both Taylor and Legend — $1.1 million in costs was crazy and Scher was worried the show could lose big.
Unfortunately for Scher, he was right. By the time the Scher’s payment was due, the concert had only generated $500,000 in sales and was looking at a $750,000 loss. When Scher asked Belber about fee reductions for Taylor and Legend, Belber wouldn’t give him a straight answer. Scher told Belber he wasn’t just going to wire over the funds without making an attempt to drop the guarantee — that would be like throwing money out the window, Scher said.
Belber tells a different story. According to the lawsuit SMG filed in 2018, on the day the payment was due, Scher called Belber and said “he cannot pay the deposit” and that “he has an (unnamed) investor who will not allow him to put up any money.” The next day SMG notified Scher he was in breach of the agreement and cancelled the show two days later. Then SMG sued Scher for $450,000 — the amount would have been far higher had Taylor not returned $253,000 of his $300,000 deposit.
Seeking to find Scher’s mystery investor, SMG’s attorney Robert Ganz initiated early evidence discovery, but after multiple depositions and months of searching, Ganz never found the mystery investor. Scher alleges Belber’s investor claim was a “total fabrication.”
The investigation did however uncover new details that put Ganz on the defensive. In his deposition, Feldman testified that Belber approached him after he had canceled the show and wanted to know if the headliners were willing to take significant pay reductions to avoid “disappointing the fans.” Feldman asked and both artists agreed — Taylor took a $400,000 pay cut and Legend dropped his fee by $200,000.
But because Legend didn’t sign off on the cuts by a 4 p.m. deadline imposed by Belber, (Legend apparently accepted the offer at 4:40 pm), the arena manager assumed Legend wasn’t going to agree to a reduction and signaled to Feldman that the show was officially cancelled.
“I want to throw up” Belber emailed a colleague when he learn the deadline had backfired. Belber tried to un-cancel the show a second time, but Feldman wrote back saying “you have cancelled this date twice now and it remains as such.”
Feldman now tells Billboard by that point, he had lost faith in Belber and didn’t want to go back to Taylor to pitch a show that had been twice cancelled. Emails obtained by Belber’s attorneys also showed Feldman was already in hot water with Taylor — Taylor’s wife Kim Hessberg Taylor read an article in a local newspaper about the concert and noticed that Belber had told a reporter that Feldman was the show’s producer. When her husband found out, he told Feldman he wasn’t happy seeing that in the newspaper.
In April, attorneys for Scher filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, saying Belber’s decision to impose an “arbitrary deadline” on Legend is what really killed the show.
“You never, ever, ever threaten an artist or use a phony deadline,” Scher says.
Scher’s attorney also alleged that Belber intentionally withheld evidence of the last minute attempt to save the show and asked a judge to sanction the arena manager. Belber would not comment for this story but Ganz, his lawyer sent Billboard the following statement:
“Despite John Scher’s attempt to smear Mr. Belber’s reputation, we believe the totality of the circumstances as presented to the judge show that the Gala Concert was cancelled due to Scher’s refusal to put up his share of the deposit money when due. The false claims of “hiding” evidence are nothing more than a smokescreen and will ultimately be rejected by the court as neither relevant nor accurate.”
Judge Brenda K. Sannes will begin deliberations on Scher’s motion to dismiss June 4. Ganz says he does “not expect a written decision from the judge for several months.”
Scher says he just wants the case to quickly be resolved.
“I can’t believe we couldn’t just get everyone on the phone and figure this out,” he says. “We’ve all wasted a lot of time and money fighting over something that could have been easily resolved.”