Minneapolis-St. Paul Star and Tribune
Published: May 4, 1994
QUEEN OF CLUBS AND CONCERTS
By Jon Bream; Staff Writer |
There were no tickets for Pat Miles, the TV anchor, at the Historic State Theatre box office, even though singer Sheryl Crow promised that she'd leave four.
The box office simply ran out of tickets, so concert promoter Sue McLean had to find a place for Miles (who grew up with Crow in a small town in Missouri) and 10 others who were on the guest list for the concert featuring Crowded House and Crow. First, McLean consulted with the box-office manager, then with the road manger for Crowded House, the headline attraction, and finally with the road manager for Crow. The promoter came up with a solution: Put Crow's friends on the wings of the stage.
McLean spent the better part of an hour before the concert sorting out the situation. She barely had time to see Crow sing two songs before she had to leave for the Guthrie Theater where she was promoting another show: Cowboy Junkies and Freedy Johnston.
Late on that Sunday night in March, nearly seven hours after McLean had walked into the State Theatre, she was leaving her office at the Guthrie. She encountered Margo Timmins, lead singer for Cowboy Junkies, wandering the corridors of the Guthrie. "Hey, Margo, I'm Sue McLean. I'm the promoter. I'm glad we could finally have you at the Guthrie. You did a great job."
This week, McLean, 44, will be leaving what many people think is a great job - special-events director for the Guthrie - to open her own office as a concert promoter. She's been on the Guthrie staff for nine years, she's been booking bands into nightclubs and bars for 20 years, and she's been presenting about 60 nationally known acts a year.
"She's at a point where she needs to spread her wings now," said Guthrie communications director Lendre Kearns, McLean's supervisor. "She'd like to do more than this facility."
Queen of niche marketing
In her new job, McLean will have the Guthrie as a client; she has a tentative three-year contract to book 40 performances a year at the theater. With her partners at an Eden Prairie-based company called Triad Entertainment, she will also book concerts in clubs and other venues. From those shows, she'll make a percentage rather than a straight salary, as she's been receiving at the Guthrie.
"The Twin Cities needs another promoter like we need a hole in the head," said Dick Shapiro of Company 7, probably the area's biggest promoter, who often works in conjunction with Jam Productions of Chicago. "Between the professional promoters and the wannabes, I wish her the best in a difficult situation."
Promoting concerts can be a cut-throat business. Several local promoters - and maybe one or two from out-of-town - often bid for the right to present an act in the Twin Cities, hoping to score a profit of maybe 10 percent of the net proceeds on a sold-out concert. McLean has had a built-in advantage - the Guthrie is a special venue and its charter requires that the stage be used only by nonprofit organizations (thus, no commercial promoter can use the theater). But McLean also bids to put shows elsewhere (sometimes after an act starts at the Guthrie and outgrows it), and she occasionally teams up with other promoters to present shows around town.
"Sue is a very good consensus builder," said Minneapolis promoter Randy Levy of Rose Presents, who gave McLean her start in 1974 booking nonmainstream bands, like Suicide Commandos and Skogie and the Flaming Pachucos, at high-school proms. "She's like a judge - she sees both sides of an argument and she knows what's right. She's very sympathetic."
Unlike Levy or Shapiro, McLean has never booked a concert into an arena or a stadium. She calls herself the "queen of niche marketing." "I couldn't tell you how to mass market like my boss [at the Guthrie] does," McLean said the other day over lunch. "I try to imagine if an audience is `tappable,' if you can easily promote to a college audience or if you can easily promote to a women's audience."
McLean likes to take new acts, find the right venue and watch their careers build from there. She booked Lyle Lovett, a critically acclaimed but little known country singer, into the 900-seat World Theater in 1987 and maybe 150 people showed up; now she has no trouble filling 5,000 seats at Northrop Auditorium for Lovett's concerts. This year, McLean decided to move Eddie Palmieri, the great salsa bandleader, from the Guthrie to a nightclub in Galtier Plaza so the fans could dance and also so the show would be closer to St. Paul's Hispanic community. This weekend, she'll present Canadian singers Sarah McLachlan and Loreena McKennitt in separate concerts at the 1,300-seat Guthrie after having first introduced them to the Twin Cities at the Fine Line Music Cafe.
"I've worked `baby' [beginning] acts with her and she's handled them all the way through [stardom]," said Los Angeles-based Jim Gosnell of the Agency for the Performing Artists, who has booked Johnny Cash, Tony Bennett, Harry Connick, Wynton Marsalis and comic Steven Wright with McLean. "Minneapolis is lucky to have her. I wish I had more Sue McLeans out there; it would make my job easier. I've never had an artist complain at one of her dates. She's creative on how she markets shows and how to work her market. She's not pigeonholed into jazz, R&B, folk, blues, country or rock; she's knowledgeable in all musical fields, and also comedy."
Hardest-working woman in show business
Three things separate McLean from most other concert promoters - she's not ego-involved, she has a sense of humor and she's a woman.
"She has no ego," said Susan Federbusch, managing director of O'Shaughnessy Auditorium at the College of St. Catherine, where McLean has presented concerts. "She is not starstruck. She does this because she loves it. What she and I do is art; world peace doesn't revolve around whether the curtain goes up at 8, or at 8:15.
It's not that she's removed; she's real involved. She just has things in perspective."
McLean used to answer her telephone with "This is Sue, the hardest working woman in show business."
"She's very funny. That's a good thing because a lot of people in this business have no sense of humor," said San Francisco-based Bruce Solar of Absolute Artists, who has booked more than 100 concerts (including Etta James, George Clinton and Adrian Legg) with McLean but has never met her. "She's the kind of person you could hang out with outside of the business."
The Guthrie's Kearns, who worked for a concert promoter in Vancouver in the 1970s, knows about being a woman in the music industry. "It's difficult to be a woman in this business; it's a very male-dominated business," she said. "Sue knows how to play the game and hold her own. A lot of people have said it: `She gives good phone.' "
McLean works two phone lines at a time, especially in the late afternoon when agents on both coasts are in their offices. On one line, McLean is telling an agent to which newspapers to send color slides of a performer. On the other line, an agent is pitching McLean on newcomer Ronnie Jordan. She has never heard of him but promises to research his box-office value in the Twin Cities. The next call is from a radio station inquiring about a ticket give-away and about the wording on an ad. Then McLean phones the Guthrie box-office; meanwhile, an agent for another singer calls to see how ticket sales are going.
Showing a good time
McLean's goal as a concert presenter is simple: "I want to show people a good time."
Her family in Dayton, Minn., was always very social, she said.
"Nothing is successful unless there's a lot of people," she said. "Even a funeral isn't a successful funeral unless it's packed."
Dad co-owned a 3.2 bar and later worked for a beer distributor; Mom was a school teacher. "We all went to school to be school teachers," said Terry McLean, her brother who teaches physical education and coaches football at Elk River High School. "Susan never did. It was too tame a life for her. She was the baby of the family and brought up a little different than the rest of us. She liked to laugh; she never took life too serious. She was the always into music and dance. The family was always waiting for her to settle down and get married, but she had other ideas."
McLean got her degree in speech and communications at St. Cloud State University, where she worked at the college radio station. She then followed a friend, who had booked concerts on campus, to Schon Productions, an entertainment agency in Minneapolis. "It was definitely the lifestyle I was attracted to," said McLean, adding that her goal in college was to "be a hippie." "I was a big concert fan. What a better way to make a living - getting paid to go to shows."
At Schon, McLean worked her way up to booking big-name bands like Elvis Costello and Talking Heads into local bars. She moved on to work for bars, including the now-closed Duffy's and Thumpers, as talent buyer, hiring the bands. She worked briefly for a local record label and for a local radio station. In 1985, the Guthrie hired her. Since then, she has turned down jobs at Glam Slam, Contemporary Productions of St. Louis and Disneyworld.
Building audiences, not profits
McLean describes her role at the Guthrie as "audience development," not money-making; she wants to reach "as many different audiences as possible" while staying within an annual budget.
"The special-events program is to bring audiences that otherwise might not come to the Guthrie," said Kearns, McLean's boss. "It's been very successful for us."
McLean not only brings name acts like Rickie Lee Jones and Dana Carvey to the Guthrie but she also books obscure ethnic acts, such as sitarist Ustad Vilayat Khan, which tied in with the Guthrie's Indian play, "Naga Mandala." The promoter scouts talent at the annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters convention in New York, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the Winnipeg Folk Festival and other major gatherings. Oftentimes she's more interested in watching how the audience reacts than how the performer carries on.
Before booking a concert, McLean sounds out local record shops, radio stations, record companies and critics about the drawing power of certain artists. And she also seeks the opinions of college students who work at her concerts around town.
"She stays in touch with record buyers and record-business people, and she's really tenacious with agents," said Reid McLean (no relation), Orchestra Hall's marketing manager and pop-music specialist, who was McLean's part-time assistant for three seasons at the Guthrie.
"She's a good buyer and she's a good negotiator," said agent Solar. "She's not a tough negotiator in the way Bill Graham was or Jam Productions is. She doesn't pull power plays. She'll have her figures and show you why you're wrong."
"She's a joy to work with," said agent Gosnell. "She looks after details. She covers the whole gamut; to be honest, I can't say that about many promoters. Usually the guy who buys the act is not the guy doing the advertising; they farm it out to the guy down the hall. She is in control of it all."
Which sometimes means picking up the artist at the airport. And booking hotels for bands. And checking on T-shirt sales at the concert. And making sure that the ladder Cowboy Junkies left behind gets shipped to them. And there was the time a veteran blues artist insisted on being paid in cash but a temporary Guthrie employee in the accounting department had not made the proper arrangements. So McLean spent the most of the concert picking up cash from the Guthrie's bar, stuffing it in her coat and shuttling it backstage.
Said Kearns: "It all worked out in the end."