Whether you’re talking about the Rolling Stones, The Who or Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, there’s nothing quite like hearing a great rock group play their third encore to an arena packed with ecstatic fans. But the next time you clap rhythmically and chant the name of the favorite song you desperately want to hear, thank Frank Barsalona that you have the chance to do it.
Barsalona, the talent agent who died on Nov. 22 at age 74 in New York City, wasn’t a recognizable name to rock fans, though his clients – who included Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix – were legendary. But within the music business, Barsalona was a rock god, because he pretty much invented the rock concert tour as we know it. Noted rock critic and Springsteen biographer Dave Marsh labeled him “the most significant entrepreneur of Sixties rock,” even more important than famed moguls such as Atlantic Records executive Ahmet Ertegun or concert promoter Bill Graham. (Here’s Barsalona’s profile from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which inducted him in 2005.)
As E Street Band guitarist Steve Van Zandt details in this tribute that he wrote for Rolling Stone, before Barsalona came along in the mid-1960s, rock performers had a much harder time reaching the public, because record companies and radio controlled the concert business, and promoters weren’t interested in booking acts for shows unless they already had a current hit single on the radio. Barsalona, a Staten Island native who broke into the business as a junior agent for the old-school agency that handled the Beatles‘ 1964 tour, was dismayed by how the industry treated rockers. “If you were young and had a hit record, to them you had no talent, you were just lucky and manufactured, and they would treat you like that,” he once said, according to Marsh.
Barsalona, in contrast, was convinced that rock was something bigger than anyone realized, and that live performances helped make hits, not the other way around. He quit his job and started his own agency, Premier Talent, which circumvented the labels and radio. Barsalona “knew the old ‘Mustache Pete’ promoters had to go,” Van Zandt explains. “They didn’t understand or even like rock, and they were strictly take the money and run. What Frank did, again like the American Mafia, was to divide the country into regions, and then make alliances with young promoters who would be loyal to him.”
Just as important, Van Zandt notes, Barsalona made it possible for artists to develop, by persuading local promoters that the key to making money was to take the long view. If they booked an up-and-coming act into a local club, they might lose money, but by the band’s third album, they’d be breaking even. After four or five records, the band might be big enough to fill arenas, and then after that it was all gravy. “The promoters learned patience,” Van Zandt writes.
Using that approach, Barsalona was able to nurture several generations of rock performers – from Herman’s Hermits and Mitch Ryder to Bruce Springsteen and U2 – before retiring in the early 2000s.
Here’s some vintage 1971 concert footage of a longtime Barsalona client, The Who: