Country singer Lyle Lovett was to perform Saturday at Ruth Eckerd Hall before a bull shattered his leg. Disaster for the promoter? No, but it hurts.
By MIKE WILSON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 19, 2002
As his disappointed fans already know, country singer Lyle Lovett will not be performing Saturday at Ruth Eckerd Hall because he got his right shinbone smashed to bits while rescuing his uncle from a rampaging bull.
These pop stars, always making excuses.
What happened to Lovett, 44, teaches a valuable lesson in respect for animals with a low brain-to-brawn ratio. Coincidentally, it also affords some insight into the economics of concert promotion. As painful as the incident was for Lovett -- whose leg was rebuilt with "an apparatus of wires, rods and rings," according to the Houston Chronicle -- it was also highly inconvenient for Ruth Eckerd Hall, which had sold 1,419 tickets (its capacity is 2,200) by the time the public learned of the mishap.
The concert-promotion business is weird, so having your headliner trampled by a bull can have advantages. But mostly it just hurts.
To understand why, you have to know something about the business.
The first thing you need to put on a concert is a venue. That's no problem for the folks at Ruth Eckerd because they have the hall at their disposal. They can book what they want when they want.
You also need an act. Promoters should plan to pay about $10 a seat for the performer, according to Cordelia Wilkes, senior agent for Entity Entertainment Inc. in Portland, Ore. Wilkes' company reveals this and other tips in a book called The Concert Promoter's Pocket Bible.
"Lyle Lovett, to a promoter, is just like the cow that ran him over," she said. "You buy him and you sell him. Hopefully, you'll get what you paid for and a little more."
According to the industry tracking company Pollstar, the going rate for a Lyle Lovett show is $25,000, plus his travel costs. That figure is negotiable, though, and Bob Rossi, who books pop acts for Ruth Eckerd, said the venue paid a little more. He won't give the exact figure.
"It's an area of the business that I find is not for anybody's knowledge but us," he said.
After the promoter and the act agree on a price, the promoter forks over a deposit, typically half the total fee. The money is held in escrow until the gig is over. If Ruth Eckerd paid $30,000 (or $13.63 a seat) for Lovett -- we're guessing now -- it had to send $15,000 to his management.
Rossi, Ruth Eckerd's director of entertainment, had reason to believe the investment would pay off. Lovett's 1998 Ruth Eckerd gig, a near sellout, grossed $70,973, according to the industry tracking company Pollstar. His March 2000 performance at St. Petersburg's Mahaffey Theater was 85 percent full and grossed $59,532.
Once it had a deal with Lovett, Ruth Eckerd could begin publicizing the show. The venue budgets $7,500 to $10,000 to promote shows such as Lovett's, according to Lex Poppens, Ruth Eckerd's director of marketing and communications. But it doesn't always spend the whole budget. (Sometimes promotion costs next to nothing, as was the case with Ruth Eckerd's Barry Manilow show on Tuesday night. It sold out instantly.)
According to Wilkes, the Portland promoter, advertising and promotion should cost 15 to 20 percent of the artist's fee. So if Ruth Eckerd spent $30,000 on Lovett, $6,000 would be about right.
Concert promoters are always a little nervous spending money on advertising and promotion. If a performer cancels, the promoter can get the 50 percent deposit back, but the money spent on radio and newspaper ads goes down the drain. Rob Douglas, who books acts at Jannus Landing, had this unhappy experience when the lead singer for Blind Melon died of a drug overdose two days before a 1995 gig at the downtown St. Petersburg club.
"You're out of pocket with no recourse," Douglas said. Of course, so was the band.
Ruth Eckerd's efforts promoting the Lyle Lovett show paid off. For the average show, promoters should expect to have sold 40 percent of their seats three weeks before the event, according to Wilkes. (The last 30 percent generally sell in the week before the event.)
Three weeks before the Lovett show, Ruth Eckerd had sold 64 percent of the house.
"We were on track for a sellout," Poppens said.
Three weeks before the show -- March 27, to be precise -- also happened to be when Lovett visited his uncle's farm in Klein, Texas, near Houston. Lovett and his uncle climbed into the paddock of a 3-year-old Charolais that Lovett raised from a calf after its mother abandoned it.
Lovett's uncle's name is, no kidding, Calvin Klein. The bull's name is Cotton.
The Houston Chronicle account of what happened is worth quoting verbatim.
Klein petted Cotton, and the bull shook his hand off, so Klein smacked him.
The bull moved off but came back bristling, so he smacked him again. The bull bellowed, turned on him, drove him to the ground and mauled him with his head. . . .
. . . Lovett ran over and slapped Cotton with his cap, and the bull turned on him, chasing him to the fence. He almost made it over, but the bull pinned his leg against the rail and raked him over to a post, shattering his shin bone.
Klein later told the newspaper, "There wasn't no joke about it. It was a bad cup of tea. . . . If it wouldn't have been for Lyle, I wouldn't be here talking to you."
And if it hadn't been for Cotton, we'd all be getting dressed for a concert.
Clearly, Lovett wasn't going to be singing Stand by Your Man for a while. And no way was he going to play a gig in Clearwater on April 20. So Ruth Eckerd immediately canceled the show and issued refunds, right?
"We were assured . . . that the event was going to happen," Poppens said. "And we did speak directly to the management of Mr. Lovett."
What was he going to do, hop onto the stage? No, he'd sit and play with a cast on his leg, Rossi said: "It's not like he's Ricky Martin running around the stage."
Besides, Rossi said, "Cowboys heal fast."
Apparently Lovett's fans were thinking the same thing. Ruth Eckerd sold 66 tickets after the bull incident became public.
On April 11, 15 days after the accident, Ruth Eckerd released a letter that began, "Dear Ticket Purchaser." It said the concert had been postponed and would be rescheduled. Watch the Ruth Eckerd Web site for the date, it said, "or call the Ruth Eckerd Hall ticket office."
It didn't say a word about refunds.
Poppens, the marketing guy, said Ruth Eckerd's policy is to issue refunds when a show is canceled or postponed. So why not mention refunds in the letter? Because, Rossi said, the venue hadn't arrived at a new date for the show. If Ruth Eckerd had offered refunds, people might have assumed the show was canceled when it was only postponed. (By the way, the venue offered Lovett's management a selection of dates between May and August and was waiting to hear back at press time.)
Now, the cynic might suggest that Ruth Eckerd had a financial incentive to insist the show was still going to happen on April 20 and to avoid mentioning refunds when it was postponed. Think of it: Tickets to the Lovett show cost $33.75 and $37.75 (with a few VIP seats priced at $60, but never mind those for now). Assuming Ruth Eckerd had sold 1,419 tickets at an average price of $35.75 by the time Lovett got hurt, the hall had racked up just over $50,000 in revenue. Take out $5,000 worth of seats sold through Ticketmaster (which holds the money until after the event is over) and Ruth Eckerd was still sitting on $45,000.
Even if it spent $15,000 on the deposit and $7,500 on advertising, the venue had more than $20,000 of other people's money. It could put that money in the bank and earn interest on it until the show finally happens, or use it to promote other shows.
Except it doesn't want to.
"We're not in this business to cancel shows or make money on interest. That's not our mission," Rossi said.
Ruth Eckerd Hall is a nonprofit. Its purpose is to serve the public by presenting a rich and diverse schedule of events, which it does. It books 130 events a year, from Barry Manilow to Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to the musical Ragtime to Herman's Hermits.
So what Ruth Eckerd really wants to do is keep Lovett's fans happy by getting a new date for the gig as quickly as possible, he said. No promoter ever wants to postpone a gig.
"It looks bad," Wilkes said. "Their hall is dark one night when people were planning to have a grand old time."
Finally, the figures above might give the impression that promoting concerts is a great way to make a killing. In fact it's a great way to get killed. Ads don't work, tickets don't sell, acts don't show up -- it can be a real mess. When a show sells out, today's performers are savvy enough to ask for a cut of the profits, so promoters don't clean up the way they used to. A 15 percent profit is considered excellent, according to Jannus Landing's Douglas.
Still, Wilkes offers hope to those dreaming of riches as promoters. She once staged a Beatlemania gig in which she spent $3,200 on the act and an unusually high $5,000 on advertising. She sold $19,000 worth of tickets. Bonanza!
Being a promoter is easy, she said: "When no one gets run over by the bull."
Ruth Eckerd Hall plans to reschedule the Lyle Lovett show originally scheduled for Saturday night, but a new date had not been announced at press time. For updates, please see www.rutheckerdhall.com.