Interview: Summer Camp Promoter Ian Goldberg

For Ian Goldberg, founder of the highly-successful Summer Camp Festival (which begins Friday), concert promotion is truly a family business. His father Jay has been putting on shows for nearly 40 years, while Ian also runs the Canopy Club in Champaign, Illinois.

The family vibe can be felt in every aspect of Summer Camp, which has become the signature Midwest festival for its resident annual headliners, moe. and Umphrey’s McGee. It also shows through in Ian’s views on the corporate side of the concert business. In this candid interview, he shares how Summer Camp was born out of a night of debauchery with moe.’s manager Jon Topper; he also shares his thoughts on the merged Live Nation and Ticketmaster. In Ian's view, Live Nation tried to take fans and “turn them into a product” that can be “sold to corporations.” He calls Ticketmaster “another horrible corporate entity that has the same monopolistic approach to things.” Through it all though, Ian says there's plenty of room for independent promoters like him, especially those taking the family business approach. Here's some proof: Summer Camp is expecting 20,000 attendees this year.

HeadCount: Summer Camp has become quite a large festival. Tell me how you got from point A to point B.

Ian Goldberg: I guess you can trace it back to the Summer Sessions tour, which is the tour that String Cheese Incident, moe., Galactic and Government Mule did together (and Keller Williams was debuting as the kind of tweener thing on that). That was in 1999 that they did that tour together, and we were approached with the opportunity to do the show, but we wanted to do non-traditional venues. So we were looking for a place to do that, and we found Three Sisters Park and so we did the show out there. Quite frankly, it didn’t do too well. But we did incorporate the camping and stuff into it. Of course, after the first year, I don’t think the tour did that well anywhere, so it didn’t come back for the next year. In the meantime, moe. played a headlining show at my club, The Canopy Club. It happened to be at a time when the CIC (Concert Industry Consortium) was going on in Vegas, so I was out there with Jon Topper – not with him, we actually met for the first time out there at that event on the day that moe. was playing a sold out show at my club. He invited me to come along with him; he was going out with [legendary booking agent] Chip Hooper that night in the limo, and hitting the town in Vegas. So we spent the night hanging out together as we were getting reports back from the club about how awesome the show was going, and just kind of developed a really strong relationship. From that, when the Summer Sessions tour went away, I went to Topper and we put our heads together and came up with Summer Camp. That’s how the whole thing got started.

What would you say sets Summer Camp apart from other festivals?

Certainly the relationship with moe., and the idea that this is a festival -- although it doesn’t have the moe. name in it per se -- it was started with the concept of building this around an artist. Then, of course, in 2004 we added Umphrey’s McGee to the mix. That makes it even more interesting: now we have two artists that we partner with on the event and really kind of try to make it a haven for their fans – you know, the one event a year that their fans absolutely must be at, and come from all over the country to be a part of. We also tend to broaden out and go with some things that are maybe a little bit different. As, for example, I would say Wiz Khalifa this year being on our festival which is, you know, a number one hip-hop star. So, I think in our own ways we branch out and do that. Certainly there’s probably some other festivals that branch out in their own ways. So you know, Camp Bisco certainly goes more on the electronica vibe, they’ll go a lot deeper into the electronica stuff than we do. But with Summer Camp, we try to be broad-based and do unique things. We’re bringing in Huey Lewis for a sit-in, a special performance with Umphrey’s McGee. We’re just always trying to broaden it, and make it as wide-scope as we can, while still keeping true to what is our roots.

How big do you expect it to be this year?

I think we’re gonna be close to 20,000 people this year. It’s amazing, the growth that we’ve experienced.

And has the feel and character of the festival changed with all the growth?

I don’t think you can argue that there’s been no change, but I’d like to think that most of the change has been positive. The comment that I get most from the people that have been coming since the early days is that they feel like it’s amazing that we’ve done such a great job of keeping the small feel at a festival that has grown to such a big size. One of the reasons that I think we are so successful at that is the fact that we don’t allow car camping. All the cars are kept in the parking lot, and everybody brings their stuff in – it’s allowed us to keep the size of the festival, the geographical size, still relatively small. So although we have two main stages and a third kind of side stage, you can get to those stages within five minutes easily, so it’s really easy to catch all the music that you want at Summer Camp, even though we’re offering such a broad amount of it. We’ve remained really true to our roots with the “Make a Difference” area for the not-for-profits that we partner up with (including HeadCount, of course). And we provide platforms for doing that with a tent where we have our artists perform special acoustic shows and different things to attract the audience to that area. That, to me, is such an important part of the festival, of where we got started – that it remains a huge focus for us, trying to keep that grassroots connection. I think people really feel that we’re really doing this from our hearts, and that we’re doing it with purpose and intent, rather than just going out there and saying 'How do we build this so we make the most money in the world.' It’s definitely more for us about how do we connect with those patrons, and how do we give those patrons the opportunity to connect with some important groups that we think are doing good things in the world. So I think with all that, we’re able to keep that feeling. Certainly, you know, things like how many port-o-potties we have to have and trying to keep all those clean and how far you have to go out in the field and camp and stuff like that have changed, and I think our patron base feels that, but I hope that we do a good job of mixing the change that’s inevitable with growth with keeping true to our roots and making them feel what a great intimate family experience it is for all of us.

What do you see as hot right now? Both from a standpoint of booking Summer Camp, but also The Canopy Club? What waves are you riding a bit?

Certainly the Jamtronica, Electronica scene is just blowing up with all the DJs and producers that are out there doing their thing. Obviously headlined by Bassnectar, Pretty Lights, and of course the huge DJs like Tiesto and things like that. Um, and Skrillex, that was an amazing thing this year for him to just blow up on the scene and immediately all of his shows just selling out everywhere he goes – doing 2-5,000 seaters and just packing the place. So that’s definitely I would say the thing that’s high growth at the moment.

It seems like there’s been a pretty strong resurgence in the Bluegrass kind of Jamgrass side of things, or progressive bluegrass. As you know, I also manage the band Cornmeal, and we’ve had just stellar exciting growth over the last year. It really seems like a number of bands, Greensky Bluegrass and others that are out there, that are really kind of starting to do great business in that scene. So, I’m finding that really exciting as well. And just overall, the kind of return to the roots of the Jamband scene. Everything I’ve been hearing from moe., Umphrey’s, Yonder Mountain, all those bands in the past year, the numbers are really kind of jumping up again, which is great to see. I’ve got to be honest and say that although certainly the explosive growth seems to be more in that DJ world, overall it seems like the industry is starting to get healthy again. And people are going out and seeing more shows and buying more tickets, which is great to see.

As an independent promoter, what is your take on Ticketmaster, Live Nation, and the big players that are making big moves together? Is there still a place for the independent promoter out there?

There’s definitely still a place for the independent promoter out there. They’re leaving plenty of room, I think, for us independents to really do what we do best and connect with the audience from the beginning with bands and grow them to the level of being strong performing artists. You know, I have a lot of very serious issues with Live Nation, and, certainly, once it merged with Ticketmaster even more so. I had a lot of issues with Ticketmaster before it was merged with Live Nation. But the primary problem I’ve had with Live Nation from the beginning, when it started its assets being rolled up was it was done with the intent of turning the live music industry into a marketing and advertising vehicle for large corporations. You know, that was their business model from day one -- how can we take all these people who are buying tickets in these amphitheaters and shows and turn them into, you know, eyeballs that we can sell to corporations? Luckily, I think they were a lot less successful with that business model than they hoped. But the downside for the concert industry has been that they drove a period of just crazy greed with artists because they started offering deals to artists which were not feasible from a ticket-selling standpoint. [Their approach was] “We’ll pay you more than you would make on tickets, because we’re gonna take your fans and turn them into a product that we can sell to these corporations.” And they invested a lot of money in that business model and fortunately for us, unfortunately for them, it did not work very well at all.

And so, I think that now that’s starting to stabilize and change. But, it’s already created this behemoth that is Live Nation that just doesn’t seem to be able to do what is good for the music industry as a whole. They’ve driven up ticket prices, they’ve driven up competition. You know, going in and outbidding independent promoters and just knowing that they can’t make money off of the show, but just trying to drive them out of business. And that kind of anti-competitive business practice is not good for any industry, which is why there are laws that are out there to try and stop it. We’ve gone through a long period of that kind of mentality being bad for us. And now, just when I thought things were looking so bad for Live Nation that it was going to really make a difference in their business practices, they instead chose to team up with Ticketmaster which is another horrible corporate entity that has the same monopolistic approach to things. And now they’re kind of going at it from the point of view of “OK, now we own everything, let’s try this again.” All I can hope is that they’ll be as unsuccessful as they were in the past. I think that there’s still a lot of room for us independent promoters to get out there and connect with our fan base. I, as an independent promoter, really consider the people that are coming to my shows. Yes, they’re fans of the band that I’m bringing in, but I try to connect with them on a personal level as well. I try to find out -- who do you want to see, who would you like to see us bring in more? What is a reasonable ticket price? What can we do to make this experience better for you? So, I think that there’s a lot of opportunity for us as independents out there to create that real connection and community.

You grew up in the concert business, right?

I did. My father [Jay Goldberg] started doing this back when I was born, back in 1971. He actually started in retail – from the retail side, he started a chain of record stores and kind of started saying “hey, we’re selling all these albums, we should be bringing these bands to town,” and started doing it. Interestingly enough, he started at the same time that Jerry [Mickelson] and Arny [Granat] were starting up in Chicago with JAM Productions. So, they became very good friends, and started a working relationship that lasted forty years, and we still partner and work with those guys a lot. So I grew up going to concerts and being at festivals and events my whole life. From the time I was a little kid. I remember being like six years old the first time I was at a KISS concert, and being blown away by Gene Simmons spitting this blood out of his mouth and all this stuff – all the early days of everything like, KISS, The Grateful Dead. Fleetwood Mac for some reason is one that really stands out in my mind as a little kid being at. All that kind of stuff, that’s how I grew up, at live music events, so it’s very dear to my heart. It’s been really my whole life.

You still kind of approach it as a family business, don’t you?

Oh, absolutely. Our business is a 100% a family business. Of course, my father is still involved. He largely operates on his events that he does in the Peoria area. He’s branched out, and now there’s a hot air balloon festival, and he does a Blues festival and he does a motorcycle weekend and a women’s lifestyle show and all these things. So, he’s still involved in the inside of our business. My mother does all our bookkeeping and accounting and all that stuff. My brother’s involved. He’s our head of IT, all the computer stuff, because he actually has a degree from the University of Illinois in engineering and worked for Lockheed Martin on the missile defense program for many years as a computer software engineer, but got sick of all that and came back to work for the family business. So, it’s very much a family business. That’s our core base.