Attracting Bands Relies on Risk-Reward Decisions

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — From playing host to up-and-coming young bands to some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry, every year the Mahoning Valley caters to a wide range of musical tastes and genres.

Country music, tribute bands, the blues, classic rock acts and live theater productions make up the menagerie of entertainment that promoters stage here in what can be a hit-or-miss market.

“At the end of the day, promoting shows is about taking risk,” says Eric Ryan, president of Eric Ryan Productions, which books and promotes artists at the Covelli Centre in Youngstown, Packard Music Hall in Warren, and other venues across the country. “Everybody wants to be a promoter until you have to write that big fat check.”

Ryan has been promoting shows since 1998, when he and his wife bought a small club in Struthers, which began as the Billiard Room and then morphed into The Cellar. At first, The Cellar was a venue that played host to local acts, but soon started featuring regional and national talent.

Blues players and rock groups were among the more popular attractions at The Cellar, Ryan says. Acts that had scored big during the 1970s and 1980s – Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, for example – played at the club, while regional favorites such as The Clarks from Pittsburgh drew a large following.

Musicians just setting out in their careers cut their teeth playing at The Cellar, Ryan adds. “I remember the first time Joe Bonamassa played at The Cellar – he played in front of about 20 people.” Bonamassa, scheduled to play at the Covelli Centre Nov. 28, is widely regarded by many critics as one of the best rock and blues guitar players in the world.

Back then, Ryan would guarantee the performer a certain paycheck that ranged from $500 to, on the very extreme end, $10,000. “Usually, it was about $5,000 to $6,000,” he says.

Critical was an act drawing a sufficiently large paying audience that allowed Ryan to meet – and hopefully exceed – that guarantee. Other factors play a role as well, such as the size of the venue and prices of the tickets.

The business model used in booking talent remains unchanged despite the size or scope of the show, Ryan observes. “You have to guarantee them so much money. Sometimes you win; sometimes you lose.”

Selecting the right act to suit the venue is important, he adds.

Since 2010, the Covelli Centre has hosted three 7,000-seat sellout performances of Elton John and another sellout from Carrie Underwood. For those shows, the Covelli Centre opened up all of its seating capacity – including behind the stage.

Ryan, also president of JAC Management, which manages the Covelli Centre, books and promotes about 40% of the shows at that venue. His promotions company also books shows at Packard Music Hall in Warren, which he says is doing very well.

But it’s also clear that the business has changed over the last 20 years, especially with the advent of the internet and services such as iTunes, Ryan says.

“We just bid an artist for Packard that doesn’t have a song on the radio,” he says.

“He’s an internet and YouTube sensation, and he’s selling 3,000 tickets everywhere he goes.”

Ryan spends considerable time determining a ticket price that can bring in the desired amount of people and do better than break-even.

“There are times when I’ll struggle for hours over whether I can get $5 more for a ticket,” he says. “The reward has to be worth the risk.”

Taking that risk is all part of being in the business, says Ken Haidaris, partner at Sunrise Entertainment in Warren. “You want them to sell and you hope the decision you made is the right one.”

Haidaris and his business partner, Mary Cohen, formed Sunrise 10 years ago to assume bookings and fill talent slots for the city of Warren’s summer concert series at its downtown amphitheater, River Rock at the Amp.

“We saw the potential in the area,” he says, “and we wanted to expand it to another level.”

Today, the company still books performances at the amphitheater, but also promotes shows at the Packard Music Hall, the DeYor Performing Arts Center in Youngstown, Stambaugh Auditorium in Youngstown and summer concerts in Lorain.

Among the higher-profile performers that Sunrise recently booked was a ZZ Top concert at Stambaugh Auditorium in March and The Temptations show Oct. 7 at the DeYor. Other productions were the Broadway musical “Stomp,” the 1970s acoustic band America, country music star Ronnie Milsap and Michael McDonald.

Local theater productions remain very popular as are smaller entertainment offerings, observes Todd Hancock, who co-founded Easy Street Productions with Maureen Collins.

Easy Street has produced live theater and musicals 28 years in Youngstown and sponsors workshops for young people eager to learn musical theater. At the same time, the company is promoting and booking cabaret acts at the Ford Theater at the DeYor Performing Arts Center.

“We’re doing three or four big events a year, and do the smaller things as well,” Hancock says. Easy Street’s holiday season musical production, “Miracle on Easy Street,” has become a tradition for many families each December.

During the early 1990s, the company staged one of its most popular productions, “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” every weekend for five years straight, he says.

“We’ll put on a spring, fall and Christmas show,” Hancock says, as it promotes the monthly cabaret series at the Ford.

The arts and theater community is working more closely together than ever before to boost the profile of the Mahoning Valley.

“When you go to New York, every show is promoted in every playbook. They support each other,” he says. “The theater community in Youngstown is collaborating more. It’s no longer viewed as competition.”

Pictured: The Covelli Centre was sold out each time Elton John performed there.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.