Indie Orbin Rides Away
After 43 years as an independent promoter, Stone City Attractions closes
by Linda Deckard
Published: March 10, 2015
Jack Orbin is closing Stone City Attactions, San Antonio, after 43 years as an independent promoter.
“My mantra lately has been that the music business has been too much about business and not enough about music,” declared Jack Orbin, founder of Stone City Attractions, San Antonio, Texas.
When he set up shop, promoting his first concert in 1972, independent promoters ruled. They built the acts from clubs to arenas. They built careers for acts and brought affordable entertainment to the masses.
Today, the big conglomerates rule, booking most of the shows and acts who used to be loyal to those who helped them grow are declaring free agency once their careers are off the ground.
Add to that, age and a change in personal circumstances and Orbin has decided to close up shop, though he will keep the phones open and fulfill any tentatives and other obligations that can’t be rerouted at least through the end of the year. The six people who currently work for Stone City Attractions are dispersing to other gigs.
“My wife and I are raising our three-year-old grandson and my wife, thank God, is considerably younger than me,” Orbin said. “She started working as a teacher for Head Start for underprivileged kids and her career is blossoming. Since I’ve raised so many kids – six kids – I don’t believe in kids going to day care five days a week and both parents working unless financially they have to, and we don’t. Somebody has to stay home. It’s probably my turn.”
But he will stay busy. Orbin’s roots are in the hippie movement of the 60s. He has been a member of the War Resisters League all this time and has been active in various charities, preferring nonprofits that do not get government aid and use music as part of the cure. His involvement in causes has led to “more for charity than I’ve made myself, at least a million dollars,” he said.
His last concert promotion was Trans-Siberian Orchestra in December for 9-11 shows. He loves that TSO contributes a dollar from every ticket sold to a charity in the community in which they are playing. For years, they have let Orbin pick the local charity.
Taking down his shingle has brought on a lot of reflection. “The business is strange. It’s not like it used to be. I’m not having as much fun. All the heavy metal shows in the 70s and 80s and hair bands in the 80s and 90s, that was fun. In those days we would actually have parties after the gig. Bands would come and we would have a good time. These days, rarely does anything like that happen. It’s get on stage, get back on the bus, take off for the next city,” he said.Orbin is lifted away by Van Halen after a sold-out show.
The promoter used to have more responsibilities, he added. He recalled promoting Rush in Texas and Oklahoma, for example, and providing staging, sound and lighting for the band. “That made it easier for them to not have to go boom, boom, boom day after day since they are spending so much money on production on a weekly basis.”
And the promoter packaged shows. “We had Van Halen opening for Journey headlining and Montrose in the middle. We had AC/DC as the third act on shows. Def Leppard opened up with Scorpions and Ted Nugent headlining. Those are the ones promoters put together. Packaging has gone a lot by the wayside. I’m not a believer in making bands pay to tour. It’s hard enough for musicians to make money,” Orbin reflected.
Orbin said Stone City Attractions has been profitable all but a few of those 43 years, including recently. The decision to close is not financial. “With Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Perfect Circle and Santana, we’ve been fine. They’re just a slam dunk. We’ve done really, really well the last few years.”
Passing the Baton
Orbin is “passing the baton to young indie promoters like Erica Vigilante [Twin Productions, San Antonio] who is ready to fight the battles that I fought back in the 70s when we started.” He recalled there were national promoters then, as well, namely Concerts West. “They did the Led Zeppelins, Moody Blues and all the big bands. We were out there doing local and regional bands, handing out flyers in the rain, for the Bon Jovis and Rushes and U2s in clubs. We had an ear to the music and we built those bands and they stayed with us all the way up to the stadiums. We had Metallica in a 350-capacity theater here in San Antonio. They stayed with us to the arena days.”
With free agent artists taking national tour monies up front, Stone City Attractions can’t compete, he said. “That’s what has really ruined the music business for regional promoters and raised the ticket prices dramatically.”
An independent promoter has to love the music, Orbin believes. “I think there’s a void space. I think the conglomerates sooner or later will have to fall by the wayside to a certain extent. Already, supposedly, some of the bigger promoters have cut back on their guarantees and number of dates with those kinds of guarantees. I think there is room to build.”
Back in the day, Orbin owned five clubs in Texas. Agencies like Premier Talent Agency believed in loyalty and made the bands remain loyal, he recalled. “Managers were appreciative of career building. Most promoters don’t do that anymore.”
And the fights …Orbin hopes young indies will take up the mantle. “I fought the rock censorship issue with Frank Zappa and Dee Snider. Even in San Antonio, the mayor was trying to do a rock ordinance in the mid-80s and it got national attention. We fought ASCAP and BMI when they were trying to charge us for empty seats. We fought the Live Nation/Ticketmaster merger with a brief. We are not always successful.”
Though Orbin has had offers to buy his company, he has deferred. “One of the things I’m most proud of is that, besides being fortunate to be in an industry built on the fact that music matters, we’ve been able to maintain the core principles of trying to keep ticket prices low and make sure everything is handled on a personal basis. I’m still a believer; I’m old school. I still believe regional promoters have an asset that national promoters don’t.”
An Arena Manager's Ally
He knows every radio PD, every music director, every building manager and every building’s marketing director in the cities in which he promotes. He has even been known to follow the building managers to new markets when they change jobs.
“Bill Graham was my mentor,” he said of the late, great promoter from San Francisco. “He always believed in regional promoters, that they had an asset and talent national promoters didn’t. It’s a little less important when you can’t build a band. It’s easier when you know the program director and music director and the formats weren’t so homogenous.”Jack Orbin with Bill Graham
When he promoted his first show, The Crackerjacks with Stevie Ray Vaughan on guitar opening for Johnny Winters, he took their reel-to-reel tape to the radio station and they played it.
And he doesn’t believe the arena should pay if the show doesn’t do well. “I don’t think it’s the building’s responsibility when a promoter overpays for a band. I expect them to be reasonable, professional and fair in the fees, but I think it’s important to have a relationship with the building manager. Most of the building managers we dealt with in the last few years know me personally. We stay involved in routing to get them the best date we can. That personal touch is still there,” Orbin said.
Orbin has seen venues improve over the last 40 years, both through renovations and through staff. “Big buildings know they have to have professionals working with and for them. The acts require that,” Orbin said.
Stone City Attractions has promoted in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. He’s gone to Verizon Arena, Little Rock, Ark., to work with Michael Marion for 10 straight years. He counts Gary Desjardin, Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, as a longtime compatriot. He’s played as far afield as Wichita and Memphis.
When Jerry Goldman left San Antonio for the BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla., “we included Tulsa in our next routing with Trans-Siberian Orchestra,” he recalled. For Orbin, it is a relationship business with venue managers.
“I am always on the building side, as long as it’s fair and reasonable,” Orbin said. “You don’t see me going to the buildings saying, ‘I lost $250,000, and your $80,000-rent needs to go to $20,000. We did Simon and Garfunkel, paid a good amount of money and grossed a good amount, but it didn’t come out the way we needed it to. I didn’t approach the buildings; I approached the artist's manager. It’s not the building’s responsibility. They don’t partake in the profit when all of a sudden it does better than expected.”
Orbin also believes in spending a lot on advertising and marketing, even when the agents and managers tell him his budget is too high. “I believe in advertising and marketing. If it doesn’t help this time, it will help next time. That’s another old-school situation – we look at the longevity of the bands, it’s not just this year and this time.”
Orbin is looking forward to more time to revive his political activist leanings. He does not envision reviving Stone City Attractions (“it’s not a city, it’s a state of mind”).
He’ll keep his career highlights close to heart, though, like his first promotion of The Crackerjacks, when “I had $500 max. So we did a benefit for the War Resisters League. We had four bands for $2 and we made $700 profit.”
What were the low points? When he was expanding Stone City Attractions in the late 70s and had booked Badfinger for Texas and Oklahoma? “They canceled their tour and didn’t come to the U.S. That almost put us out of business because one of the hippie mantras is always pay your bills.”
And in the 80s when Robert Sillerman began the rollup of regional promoters into what was then SFX (now Live Nation). “That was a major disappointment; the beginning of the end.”
And the high points? The Rolling Stones in the Cotton Bowl, Dallas, in 1981, which sold out in two days at $17.50 per ticket. “The first day, after ZZ Top and the Fabulous Thunderbirds played, it poured down rain. And, once again, I thought I was going to go out of business because I had to pay the band and give refunds. Instead, the Stones went out from underneath the canopies and played in the pouring down rain, thanks, I think, to Bill Graham who was the tour director at the time. And to see them do that and see the crowd appreciate that was definitely a high point of all time.”
Bottom line, though, “nothing is better than giving away money,” he said of the passion he is not giving up. That’s why he is going to keep the phone going for awhile. To help raise money for good causes that use music to cure and improve the world.
So you aren’t going to disappear? “Maybe in the crowd somewhere,” he said, smiling we hope.Interviewed for this story: Jack Orbin, (210) 493-3900
Click On Image Above
|Stone City Attractions and Trans-Siberian Orchestra presenting donation to Edgewood Ind. School District's Academy of Fine Arts & Communications department. Presentation was made at TSO's 3pm show on December 23, 2006 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio. Present in photo are L to R: Jack Orbin (Stone City Attractions); Delicia Herrera (Councilwoman – San Antonio District 6); Patti Radle (Councilwoman - San Antonio District 5); Richard Bocanegra (Superintendent - Edgewood ISD); David Munoz (KQXT personality); Al Pitrelli (Music Director/Lead Guitarist Trans-Siberian Orchestra).||Stone City Attractions and Trans-Siberian Orchestra presenting donation to the San Antonio Winston School. Presentation was made at TSO's 8pm show on December 23, 2006 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio. Present in photo are L to R: Al Pitrelli (Music Director/Lead Guitarist Trans-Siberian Orchestra); Chris Sifuentes (KISS-FM personality); Ginger Karulak; Cha Karulak (Headmaster - The Winston School); Jack Orbin (Stone City Attractions).|