During his 30-year career as a concert promoter, Barry Fey regularly sold out every seat at major Colorado venues including Mile High Stadium and the Red Rocks Amphitheatre, bringing the hottest musical groups and entertainers in the world to our state.
Fey, now 72, recently sat down as a guest on my weekly 710 KNUS radio newsmagazine, Business Unconventional, to talk about the money-making engine that drove him and the sustained success of his Feyline company. (Follow the radio show on Twitter @BUnRadio.)
Joining Fey and me in the studio was Cathy Langer, head book buyer for Tattered Cover, and a regular B. Unconventional contributor.
Fey will speak and sign copies of his new book, Backstage Past, on Tuesday, November 22, at Tattered Cover’s LoDo location. Tickets are free, but like so many of Fey’s concerts, his Tattered Cover appearance is likely to be a standing-room-only affair. Those rock-‘n’-roll fans wishing to meet Fey and purchase an autographed copy of Backstage Past, are encouraged to arrive early.
Fey attributes his business success – first and foremost – to the attention he paid to ticket holders and their experience.
“The greatest thing about Colorado,” Fey explained, “It’s [got] the greatest audience in the world. And they taught me one great, great lesson and I say it’s the key lesson to promoting.
“You love your audience. And you take care of your audience. I don’t care if you are selling Metallica or you are selling paper clips, don’t be an educator. Don’t go out and tell the audience what they want. You go out and find what they want and be a messenger – and you bring it to them. And you take care of the audience before anything else.”
[Hear It Now: Audio clip of Barry Fey discussing the need to take care of your customers as Priority #1.]
Fey said the best business decision he ever made was to drop out of The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, where, after completing service in the U.S. Marine Corps, he enrolled on a scholarship as a pre-law student.
“I used to look up at the law library and the lights never went off,” Fey recalls, explaining that he couldn’t picture himself putting in the kind of laborious hours expected of law students. “I said, ‘I’ll never make that,’ so I dropped out of school. And I think that turned out to be a very good business decision.”
Once he became a concert and event promoter, he says his best business move was to establish the three-day Denver Pop Festival in June 1969, two months before Woodstock. The festival took place at Mile High Stadium and included performances from Three Dog Night; Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention; Poco; Creedence Clearwater Revival; Joe Cocker; and the final appearance ever of The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
“Instead of doing one little show at a time, [I] put them all together and put Denver on the map,” Fey recalls of his strategy at the time.
“I put all my eggs in one basket and very many things happened right after happening wrong. The budget tripled but I ended up with a bigger basket. What it did do, all of a sudden, Rolling Stone [magazine] wanted to talk to me.”
[Hear It Now: Audio clip of Barry Fey discussing the two best business decisions he ever made.]
Fame and rock legends both clung to Fey for the remainder of his three-decade career as a promoter. He retired in 1997 and says he subsequently lost much of the fortune he earned as a promoter – in 1994, alone, he personally netted $3.6 million – on investments in the stock market and penny stocks that turned out bad.
What he does still have are some fabulously collectible rock-‘n’-roll memorabilia – such as Rolling Stones and U2 guitars; a very rare original poster from the Denver Pop Festival; and a grand piano signed by both Elton John and Billy Joel – and many priceless backstage memories of dozens of rock superstars.
Fey shares many of those memories in Backstage Past, including the time in the summer of 1992 that he carried a .357 Magnum pistol in his back pocket and was prepared, if necessary, to use it to compel Guns N’ Roses' Axl Rose to perform in Colorado as contracted.
(In August of that year, Rose was scheduled to perform at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium during a tour that also featured Metallica. Rose arrived at the Stadium almost an hour late and then after a short performance, walked off complaining of voice problems. Members of the audience rioted and generated an estimated $400,000 in damages. It was not the first time during the nationwide tour that Rose left early, prompting audience members to trash the venue.)
“What would I have done if he [Axl] didn’t go back on stage,” Fey asks during his 710 KNUS Business Unconventional interview. “In all honesty, I would have pulled it [the gun].”
Fey says in the early days, especially, he relied heavily on Denver-area radio stations to promote the musical acts he brought to Colorado. One business skill he mastered, he remembers, was pitting one radio station against another to create a bidding contests of sorts, ultimately leading to Fey obtaining from the winning station the kind of promotional backing that he needed to fill seats.
Many of those who grew up in Denver still fondly remember 950 KIMN-AM, the Top 40 music station that dominated the market for most of the 1960s and 1970s. Fey notes that KIMN’s local market share then was many times that of the top radio stations currently broadcasting in Colorado.
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