High Road’s Frank Riley: On Creating A ‘Beacon For Working Musicians’
By Andy Gensler
It Takes A Village: Frank Riley at the 2016 Pollstar Awards podium accepting the Independent Booking Agency of the Year honors with his team.Frank Riley, High Road Touring agency’s inimitable founder, has one of the most compelling careers in the agency business. For those who value independent music outside of the monochromatic mainstream and small businesses that don’t have to do the ROI corporate shuffle, Riley has established a thriving business that is something of a model for all. Working with hallowed artists from the golden age of independent music, including The Replacements, Television, Alex Chilton, Husker Du, Meat Puppets, Robyn Hitchcock, The dB’s, Violent Femmes, 10,000 Maniacs and The Gun Club, among others, Riley helped develop the independent touring market, with its network of indie clubs, labels and festivals, that didn’t exist when he began in the early 80s and launched his own Venture Booking. His driving ethos to fight hard for his artists has guided his success throughout.
After joining Marc Geiger and Peter Grosslight at Triad in the 80s, Riley moved to Monterey Peninsula Artists in the early-90s before launching High Road Touring out of Sausalito, Calif. in 2002. There, he lived up to the agency’s appellation with an artist-first and an integrity-filled approach to business that led to expansion with offices in Austin and Brooklyn and a growing staff of eight agents. High Road continues to thrive with some of the best artists out there today including Patti Smith, Wilco, Brittany Howard, Soccer Mommy, Robert Plant, Mitski, Drive-By-Truckers, Portugal. The Man, Tank & The Bangas, and Lucinda Williams among many others. Pollstar caught up with Riley just as he was jetting off to for Wilco’s two night stand at the Chicago Theater.
Pollstar: Where did it all start?
Frank Riley: I started in 1981 with a partner and we began as a management company. I didn’t know what management meant. In the process, I realized the clients we “managed” needed to work so I started getting dates for them. The genesis of this was purely practical. It was to generate money for the artists we represented and consequently generate some money for me. That partnership lasted for eight, nine months. I broke away and started a small company in New York in 1983 called Venture Booking. It lasted through 1988. I represented The Replacements, Husker Du, The Meat Puppets, 10,000 Maniacs, Indigo Girls and Television. The Violent Femmes were the very first band I ever signed. So that’s where I started.
What an amazing roster. The Replacements are my favorite band. I saw them at O’Cayz Corral in Madison, Wis., in probably 1984. They were a mess and out of control, but the greatest rock show I’ve ever seen.
I booked that. That’s what it was. It was either the greatest show you’ve ever seen in your life or the most terrible thing that ever happened. There was no in between.
What was it like being the agent for the Replacements, a band that basically couldn’t play by the rules?
Complete joy, are you kidding? I was so proud. My wife would take the calendar out when she found out The Replacements were coming, and ceremoniously get out a Sharpie and X out the week before and the week after. Because I’d go off with them in their van and do their drugs, smoke their cigarettes, drink their alcohol, just carouse through wherever they were. It was insane. But I was young, you know.
Was that the most fun you ever had?
No. I continue to have fun or I wouldn’t do this job. I had a bunch of things like that. Certainly, the Huskers weren’t as wild as The Replacements, but they were more intense. I had this really great band from L.A. called The Gun Club that I loved, I found Alex Chilton working in a kitchen in New Orleans…
You’re kidding. Feudalist Tarts! He’s another all-time favorite.
I resurrected his career. That was a big deal to me.
That was before Big Star started getting the recognition they long deserved.
Legendary. But they weren’t then, that’s for sure. I mean, he was a dishwasher in a kitchen in New Orleans.
Oh my God. How did you find him?
I represented the dBs from North Carolina who I sent down South, and they played Atlanta, Athens, North Carolina and they made it to New Orleans. When Peter Holsapple came back, he brought me two presents, one of which was a slip of paper off the edge of a newspaper that had a 504 area code on it, and said, “I think you might want this, Frank, this is Alex Chilton’s phone number.’ And the other one that he brought was a single on Hib-Tone Records called “Radio Free Europe.”
It took me a month to get ahold of Alex, because I didn’t know I was calling a restaurant and they wouldn’t get him on the phone. Who’s going to do his job while he’s on the phone? Finally, I got ahold of him and said, “You want to play some dates?” He said “And get the fuck out of here? Are you kidding? Yeah.” That was the beginning of me and Alex. We became really good friends. I absolutely loved Alex Chilton and he and I got along famously. I have a sheaf of notes from him that he faxed to me over the course of a lot of years downstairs in a file.
Your A&R skills and foresight are amazing. A lot of the artists you worked with presaged the independent-minded music scene that exists today and is still an incredible part of the business.
What isn’t clear is that there was no such thing as an independent agent in those days. There were two or three agencies, and if you didn’t get represented by them, you didn’t work outside of your region. I didn’t know any of that, I didn’t know shit. I just thought I could figure this out. I was living on the West Coast from ‘78 to ‘81, and became friends with a lot of bands on Slash Records. Slash Magazine then, which became Slash Records. My first forays into booking outside of our “management lines” was bringing the Gun Club over, or bringing a number of bands from the West Coast, to the East Coast.
Like Los Lobos, Green on Red, The Long Ryders?
I did Green on Red. The Long Ryders, Dream Syndicate, True West. I did a lot of the Paisley Underground bands, although they weren’t called that then.
It sounds like you did a lot of it out of necessity.
All I wanted to do was get in the music business. I mostly, honestly, wanted to be able to go to any show I wanted. I didn’t have any money. I was completely broke.
Mad Indie Cred: Frank Riley at The Club Talent Buyers Meeting at Pollstar’s 2002 Concert Industry Consortium at The Renaissance Hotel in Hollywood Ca. Feb. 7, 2002.What were your tent poles at Venture?
As these artists developed and became recognizably valuable, those premiere agencies William Morris and ICM started getting in my world. And the establishment at large record companies like Bob Krasnow [Elektra and Nonesuch, founder of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame] and other people like that went after me and tried to rip these things away. I had a couple of battles to fight: promoters, who were mostly laundering me in one form or the other; and then the establishment, which didn’t need or want anybody like me anywhere near them.
When you were working with regional promoters, before they got rolled up, was it like it’s been portrayed with bags of cash and .38 calibers at settlement?
It’s true. Absolutely. It was the wild west. There were a few people in that time period that were really reliable, Steve McClellan in Minneapolis at First Avenue, Seth Hurwitz at the 9:30 Club in DC, and my best friend in New York, Ruth Polsky, booked Danceteria. She died in an unfortunate accident. She was my pal.
What were some of those wild west stories?
When I first started, I brought the Gun Club across America, they opened for The Cramps at this venue in Boston called The Channel. The guy who ran it promised us a $500 guarantee plus $500 at sellout. So I’m up there with The Gun Club, and I walked back after the show and say, “Okay, I got the $500, where’s the $500 bonus?” And he opened up the drawer and there was a pistol in there. He said, “That’s your bonus.” And I said, “Fuck you, I’m never booking another thing in this room until you pay me that money.” And about a month later he called me up and said, “I’d like to book The Violent Femmes.” “Five hundred dollars.” And he sent it to me in $100 bills in an envelope, and then he booked The Violent Femmes.
What an asshole.
He wasn’t even close to the worst guy. There was this guy in New York at the Peppermint Lounge he fronted a group of Mafia guys, I didn’t know it at the time. I only found out about it when I was on the subway towards the end of my time in New York in the 80s, like ‘87-’88. It turned out that one of the guys I had a huge fight with was convicted of killing three people and I think he went to jail for life. But a month before I found out about this, I was in the back office in a room I didn’t even know existed at the Pep, and made this guy give me a thousand bucks for this band called Joe Pop-O-Pie, nobody ever remembers now. When I found that out, I go “Holy shit, he could have fucking killed me!”
When did you leave Venture?
I started in early ‘83 and left Venture in 1988, because I had met this guy named Mark Geiger [head of music at WME].
Oh, I’ve heard of him…
I met Geiger in like ‘86 or ‘87 because my friend Ruth had represented New Order and Sisters of Mercy and basically any black-clad, leather-coated, drug-consuming musician out of the UK. She had all of it. She was just a wonderful person. I still miss her, but it’s a long time ago. When she died maybe around ‘85, Geiger started to pick some of those bands up. I wasn’t really that interested in European stuff; a little bit here and there. I loved Robyn Hitchcock and brought him over, that was my first international client in ‘84-’85. So Geiger, I don’t remember if he found me or I found him in New York – all those people, like Alan McGee, who started Creation, that was another really good friend; I represented The Pogues when they first started, for 10 years – So I had all these absolutely fucking insane people that were around me. So Geiger started telling me why I should move to L.A. and join Triad and help him and a couple other people build a contemporary music department there. Even though I hated LA and never wanted to go back, I said, okay, and in August ‘88 I went to LA, joined Triad and worked with Geiger until ‘91. He left for American Recordings and I stayed until ‘92 and went to Monterey Peninsula Artists.
What did you get out of the experience at Triad?
How to not be afraid of anybody. I’ve got to tell you one thing: I love Mark Geiger. He’s been one of my pals since the mid-80s. He’s incredible, he’s somebody that other people don’t like something about. My wife goes, “How would you let anybody say those things ever around you? You’d smash anybody that…” And I go, “Love is blind.” I love that guy. I really do. I think the world of him.. He’s incredibly impressive, the things he’s achieved, obviously. He’s on a different path.
What did you learn from him?
No, he didn’t teach me. You’ve got to understand, Geiger didn’t know anything then. We were in the same boat. Our clients were at pretty much the same level. [Peter] Grosslight made him represent Kenny G, you know, that kind of shit. So he had exposure to big things, and I got exposure to some big things through Triad also.
Grosslight would come to me and say, “We need you to be more part of Triad, so we want you to represent blank.” And I would go “No.” They’d go, “You can’t say no, Frank.” And I’d go, “No.” And they’d say, “You have to.” And I’d go, “Then I quit.” And they’d look at me like I was crazy. Grosslight would run around the corridors at Triad with a golf club trying to hit me. And then finally he came to me and said, “Okay, how about the Neville Brothers?”
And I’d go, “Maybe.” He said, “Oh, that’s better.” And by luck, they were in the process of recording Yellow Moon, which was the high point of their career, with Daniel Lanois. So I was the agent for the Nevs when they actually had their big, huge moment. And then they came to me and said, “Okay, that did well, Frank, how about Joan Baez?” And I’d go, “Maybe.” I’ve represented Joan, mostly on, a little bit off, from 1991 until now. Triad taught me a lot.
There was a guy named Michael Gormley, who was known as The Goon, who was the first of the big touring accountants. He taught me how to settle shows, how to look for where money is hidden, that was a big deal. All those guys like Frank Rio and all the middle-of-the-road agencies started with Bob Hope. They taught me how to swagger around and tell people to kiss my ass and not be frightened of it.
The Neville Brothers and Joan Baez are of another generation than Husker Du or the Replacements
In the mid 90s, I woke up one morning and I said, “You know, just because you get older doesn’t mean you lose your talent.” So I started going backwards. My favorite record in the mid-90s for one of those years was Emmylou Harris’s Angel Band. I love that record. And I was living in the woods, I’m a hippie, Angel Band just rang true. The two things that are true about me—I’m from Western Massachusetts, I love folk music, and I grew up and I embraced and understood part of the LA punk rock scene. That’s who I am. I’m a mixture of Western Massachusetts— Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Chris Smither—and I’m The Gun Club, The Clash, whatever. You mix that, that’s me. So if you think about it that way, then Joan Baez makes sense, and in a weird way, so do the Neville Brothers.
So then you went to Monterey Peninsula.
Yep. I raised my kids there and moved to south of Carmel Highlands, which is between Carmel and Big Sur. Lived in a nice house that had a view of the ocean and raised my kids. They were zero and two. I was there from 1992 to 2001.
Were you close with Chip Hooper?
Chip and I shared an office which was about six by six, and Dan Weiner’s second house for maybe as much as four years, back-to-back. He’s a huge person. I’m not very big. I’ve got a huge voice, he does too, so we had to be careful with each other. And at one point I turned to him and I said, “Hey, Chip, you know what? I know more about you than anybody else in the world.” And Chip turned around and said to me, “You know what, Frank? I know more about you than anybody else in the world.” When we moved to the office at the Courthouse in Monterey, that was the first step out of the little house in the back. We got offices next to each other and the first thing we did was open the doors between us because we were so used to having each other’s voices in our ears. Yeah, I was really close with Chip. And my wife and Chip were incredibly great friends.
What did you get out of your Monterey Peninsula experience? And who were some of your mentors along the way?
I didn’t have any mentors. I had friends. Geiger, a little bit Peter Grosslight and Richard Rosenbloom from Triad. I really like Dan Weiner. I think the world of him. I don’t agree with him on a lot of things, that’s for sure. The whole idea of Bob Sillerman rolling up Monterey Peninsula Artists into an agency conglomerate like they did with the promoters was anathema to me.
Did Sillerman try to roll up Monterey?
No, but at the same time he was rolling up promoters he was attempting to roll up agencies. I don’t remember what other agencies he was rolling up, but he was attempting to roll Monterey Peninsula into it and he wasn’t able to. By the way, Fred [Bohlander] is the best agent I ever worked with. He could get money out of a tree stump. Just an amazing agent, like wow. But when that happened, it made me realize I needed to do something more independently. My wife calls me the world’s worst employee. At some point, when my kids were nine and 11, my wife turned to me and said, “You’re not getting younger, it’s now or never.” So that’s how High Road started.
Where did you open it?
I opened High Road in Sausalito. I’m still in the same office I was then. I have the same view out to the Bay, it’s beautiful. All my clients that were at Monterey came with me to High Road, every single one of them. And I didn’t think about it, but a friend of mine called me up and said, “Riley, I know you’re fucking crazy right now, but I got to say one thing. You left what everybody considers the best agency in America and you didn’t lose one of your clients. Think about that.”
What was your roster?
It was the Violent Femmes, Bob Mould, The Replacements were long gone by then, The Meat Puppets. Oh, the biggest ones, and I think that this is the reason why High Road exists, was Wilco. I saw Uncle Tupelo in 1988.
Woah, No Depression was my jam!
And then they became Wilco in 1992 or three.
That Wilco movie “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” is one of the greatest docs ever made.
Can I tell you something? You’re going to laugh at this. I’ve never seen that movie.
You’ve got to see it.
No. Because I lived it. Apparently, my voice is in it because they tried to get me on camera and I wouldn’t. I don’t need to see what somebody else’s interpretation is. Wilco is a shining example of that. If you look in their box set, there’s a couple of notes I wrote. I watched that whole thing implode. They were on the verge of not being there anymore. When they got dropped, the next thing that happened in the calendar was 9/11 and their tour was set up to begin at the end of September. And if that tour didn’t happen, I’m not sure that Wilco would have survived. But that tour happened because it had to happen. They played in New York a few weeks after 9/11. There’s a pretty incredible story about all of that
It’s a great example of a record being so friggin good and the label being blind to it and sometimes great art cuts through all the distortion. I’m sure you’ve seen artists who deserve to be bigger than they were.
I told my wife that I believe that every single artist I’ve ever signed is great. There’s so many people that haven’t been successful that I’ve represented, so yeah, it’s a hard road. It’s really difficult.
How did you get Robert Plant?
Eight years ago. I was sitting in my office and a phone call came through to the receptionist who was really young. She goes, “Hey, Frank, there’s a guy on the phone. His name is Bill Curbishley and he said that if I say his name out loud you’ll take his call.” And I go, “Abby, that’s the manager of The Who, I’ll take that call.” And I picked up and he said, “This is Bill Curbishley. Would you be interested in representing Robert Plant in North America if he became available?” I said, “I think I can do that.” He said, “I’ll call you in a week.” That was it. The other big one that came through, there were tons of them, that I’m really proud of is Patti Smith. She’s my hero.
Your roster is just insane. My favorite show this year was Brittany Howard; what were yours?
My two favorites were the two Mitski shows in Central Park, they were the culmination of her two and a half year long touring that was spectacular. And then Brittany, I’ve seen her six times this year and she’s one of the most astonishing women I’ve ever seen because she’s got something to say that we all need to hear. She took the personal and made it universal. She’s a fucking genius.
Without question. So I want to ask you about how the industry has changed since you opened High Road. How did you book national tours and remain independent while having to compete against consolidation and these very deep-pocketed corporate entities?
In the beginning, there was no traffic. If you had a date you wanted and you were working with reliable people, they got you the date you needed and you could do it five weeks out from when the tour began. Then the dates you needed to fill— I got to get from Chicago to Toronto, what’s in between? You’d look at the map and call up the Akron weekly newspaper and say is there a club in town? And they say, yeah, it’s called blank. Then you call the club about 147 times and finally somebody would answer and say, “Do you know who The Replacements are?” And they would go, “Oh, The Replacements, I love The Replacements. Are you the agent for The Replacements?” And I’d go, “Yeah. This is the date I have,” and that’s how I would get a date. It was that simple.
How about contracts and deposits?
You hardly ever got deposits. Of course, in that situation you had to have a tour manager instructed on exactly what to do. When they walked in, if you didn’t believe these people, you got to get your 500 bucks before you unload your gear. If you believed in the people you go, okay and get paid. And then you get a call at 2:00 in the morning saying, “They don’t have enough money here because we only sold 47 tickets.” “Okay, you should leave now, I’ll get the money out of them in the next few days. Don’t worry about it, it’s my problem.” And that’s how it would go. As things became more regular and promoters started to establish their own territories, there began to be a semblance of order, just a semblance, not completely. You could easily get stiffed if you overbooked something. You started having to be creative about deals.
Then with consolidation, what happened was it wasn’t about the money you generated from tickets, it was about the money that the promoters generated from your tickets. There was a memorable moment, probably 25 years ago, that I stood up at the Pollstar Conference and said, “I think the whole question is who owns your tickets? Is it the artist or it is promoter? “I got yelled at by a bunch of people. I felt like I had to leave the room because what I had to say was not accepted. And it turned out the promoters were right, they do own the tickets. They’ve been screwing artists for years and they continue to. That’s the big battle between an agent and the music business right now is how do you get more of that money that’s generated by those ticket sales?
You’ve mentioned combative negotiations you’ve had in your career and with the industry, what does that do to you being in a pugilistic combative mode like that for decades?
It’s your responsibility. You’re entrusted with the livelihood and careers of human beings and if you let them down, you have no right doing your job. I consider this an essential part of what I do. The people we represent here at High Road, within humane and reasonably sane limits, I’d do just about anything I could to protect the integrity and rights of the people that we represent. I do not represent a company, I represent artists.
How many agents are working for you?
I don’t count them very often, but Matt Hickey, Dave Rowan, Dina Dusko, Brian Jonas, Zachary Cepin, Wilson Zheng, Al Marano –I’d say eight including me.
What’s been your most successful year?
You’re not going to like my answer. But every year that I’m in is the best year I’ve had. So this is the best year.
Has there been steady growth the whole way?
There’s been incremental growth on certain years, but the only year that we actually took a relatively small step backward was the financial disaster around 2009.
We just did our decade issue and grosses for the Top 100 Worldwide grew roughly 90% from 2010 to 2019.
You can see all the new venues that are opening, that shows you how well everybody’s doing.
What’s your takeaway from those dynamic contractions and expansions?
Don’t spend more money than you have. We live within our means. We have no outside investors. The company is wholly owned by me, I hope that’s not true forever, but it is. I famously have said I don’t want to sell it. I really do intend on trying to have it last beyond me. Because High Road is distinct and unique, and when I started it I had this thing in my head, a beacon for working musicians. A beacon for working musicians. A beacon for working musicians. That’s what I wanted it to be.
The live business did become a beacon of light as the bottom fell out of the recorded music business around the millennium—your timing with launching this agency in 2001 was perfect.
Yeah, it’s true, I didn’t think about it that way. I’ve been really fortunate, I’m a lucky guy. My timing’s been really good generally. I was born at the right time. I intuitively understand what music is, this kind of music. I don’t know everything about music, but I grew up through it. It’s in every part of me.