For Alex Hodges, some things haven’t changed since he started in the music industry. According to the Nederlander Concerts’ CEO, you still have to pick up the phone to work out a deal.
“That’s how it started. When we had one phone and no hold button,” Hodges told Amplify. “The phone would ring and you’d say ‘Let me see if he is in,’ and then change your voice and answer the phone. It was starting slim, but it was fun.”
Hodges had come from selling shoes at a store to trying to sell bands that people had never heard to colleges and fraternities in the 1960s.
“I had apprehensions about selling a band over the phone to somebody I couldn’t see,” he said. “When somebody needed a shoe, you could show them the product and you could look them in the eye. All of a sudden I’m on the phone with somebody at a college and they need a band and I tell them how great it is. They bought it and that led to me still sitting here today.”
Alex enjoyed his college years at Mercer University of successfully booking gigs with his fraternity brother, then headed to the military for two years. When he returned from service, his friend had compiled a roster of local musicians in Georgia for his management company and Alex jumped right back in, working with R&B greats like Sam & Dave, Clarence Carter, and the incomparable Otis Redding.
Amplify sat down with Hodges to talk about how his career progressed from those days without a hold button to Nederlander’s expansion out of their Los Angeles comfort zone.
How did you get your start in music?
A long time ago, a fraternity brother of mine were chatting about music, our favorite bands and songs. He said, “I’m going to start booking bands and I’m going to need some help.” He had signed a couple of local musicians, none of which were well known at the time. He got a little tiny office and a phone put in and we started writing letters to fraternities and colleges and entertainment directors and administration and club owners. He was really good at singling out and finding local musicians who could play cover tunes.
What kind of musicians were you selling?
Amongst the local musicians, one obvious star that was destined to make it was Otis Redding. He didn’t have a record contract and when I got out of the service, the same fraternity brother was managing him. We signed a bunch of big hit R&B artists like Sam and Dave and Clarence Carter and Percy Sledge who had the number one hit “When a Man Loves a Woman.” That was my second time in the business. When I got out of the service, Otis was a star and so were the other artists.
So you were working with Otis when he passed away?
It was an emotional blow. Otis lived in Macon and we lived there and went to Mercer University and Otis came to the office and called disc jockeys looking for new talent. He was very involved in all of the activity not only in his career, but in the business. He shared this vision with Phil and I on a daily basis. I lot of the feeling and the emotion behind what we were doing was taken away when he died.
Then all of a sudden there was the plane crash, Otis died in Wisconsin, and that changed everybody’s life. Six months after Otis died, I decided to go get a real job for a while. I went on to other things and was living in Atlanta. My friend, Phil Walden, called me one day and said let’s have lunch. He brought me an unreleased album from a new group called The Allman Brothers Band. He said, “Go home and listen to this and see if you want to come to the show tonight or tomorrow night.” Phil invited me to come back and be the agent. That would have been 1970.
So you came back to the music business?
Since then I haven’t taken that real job. I’ve been doing this. We started a new agency which we named Paragon Agency. We still had some of the R&B artists. I signed a singer/songwriter named Bobby Womack. We still represented Clarence Carter and Candi Staton. All of a sudden with the advent of the Allman Brothers’ first album getting out there, we signed a bunch of new artists that were equally unknown. I signed an MCA artist, Lynyrd Skynyrd, before their album was released. Then ended up signing the Charlie Daniels Band who were on Epic Records.
Were these the kinds of acts you were into in your younger days?
Music-wise, Phil Walden and I probably had the same taste in music as anybody at our school. But we had an inquisitive nature about music and who was new and what was coming up and going on. We listened to the radio and some radio stations you couldn’t get until late at night because the air channels were different. We would hear different sounds that we weren’t hearing on local stations in Atlanta or Macon, Georgia. At night, you could pick up music coming out of Jacksonville or Tennessee and hear some great new songs.
We heard all these new sounds coming out of England and we would get together on Saturday morning and listen to things we didn’t normally hear. That was the dream Phil had and I shared with him. It was to find new and young musicians to work with us. We figured you could do it from anywhere if you had the instincts and the drive and you were willing to work really hard. We did all of this out of Macon, Georgia. It took a lot of ingredients to fall in place, including the artist’s talent. We were kids and representing some of the best-known artists in the business. Besides the fun, we knew we had to make it a business and repeat it and have consistency.
Was there a secret to identifying artists who would succeed?
You never know where it is going to go with new talent. Between the record company or the public or the band themselves, you just don’t know where it is going to be. But you don’t have time to think or worry about that. If you hear it and you feel it, you’ve just got to have a piece of it and do it. If you believe it strong enough, you’ll find somebody to listen to you.
Our ears and eyes must have been pretty good, cause neither Phil nor I could sing or play. Our creative spirit was in representing artists.
Do you think that same spirit would work for individuals trying to make it in the industry today?
I don’t know if it was our challenge or just an innate understanding that we wanted to do this as a lifestyle, as a career, as a business. But in our business, if you don’t have an interest in music and new sounds and live performance, I would say it would be an uphill battle. Otherwise, it comes rather naturally in a way. I’ll add to that, that the business is filled with ups and downs. It’s tragic when Dwayne Allman dies or Otis Redding dies or Stevie Ray Vaughan dies. It changes your life, but it is in your system or blood to not only enjoy music, but to work with it in some capacity. Somehow the next step evolves and comes. The enthusiasm for me, it doesn’t wane and it doesn’t go away.
One thing as a promoter, is that you have to go beyond your personal taste, because we want to promote diversity. We want to promote different kinds of music so through our doors come all kinds of fans. But people grow up with a wider range of music knowledge than they recognize. For me, I’m equally comfortable listening to music I never represented and different types of music.
There has been a steady incline in live music attendance in the last few years, do you see that continuing for a while?
I think we have all seen a few ups and downs with economic change. During a recession, people have to choose more carefully what shows they go to and in that process some shows, some artists, some promoters have to suffer a little bit. Where you think you’re going to do 6,000 people, all of a sudden you’re doing 4,000 people. When you see economic woes there’s always an effect. Beyond that, I don’t see anything that is going to get in the way.
One of the interesting things today, with the record company changes the economics have shifted back to live music considerably over the last decade. Even with the little bit of a downturn that we had during the great recession that we had in 2009 and ’10, we’re seeing the strength of live music. It is amazing to see the increase in ticket prices. It’s amazing to see the sophistication of the secondary market and broker market. It’s interesting to see someone buying two to four tickets at $100 a pop for a concert. But I think, whether it is a $30 ticket or a $200 ticket, it speaks to the basic fact that a concert is once in a lifetime event.
Nederlander Concerts creates a lot of those once-in-a-lifetime events, especially in California. Can you talk about your presence on the West Coast?
What we are doing in California is growing. We’re growing outside of LA, doing more in San Diego, Orange County, and different venues in LA. We’re still doing the Greek Theatre and then The Pantages when it’s not filled with a theatrical show, we do concerts at the Pan. We’re seeing that the Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara is a favorite spot. One venue in particular that has changed the face of Central California is Vina Robles Amphitheatre.
About eight or nine years ago we started working in San Jose with the management of the Civic which is now called the City National Civic. That has changed the South Bay live music front with the renovations of that venue. We’ve also made an agreement with the San Diego Symphony where we book their summer series. They’re now having a better year than they have ever had.
Nederlander has also been working a lot in Texas, right?
As a part of this process, I ran into an old friend of mine and we started doing business with him in Austin. It wasn’t really a concert space, but it was a beautiful spot for a pop-up stage. We’ve done shows at the Skyline Theater at the Long Center in Austin looking over Lady Bird Lake. To bring that to fruition and have shows there is kind of thrilling. What we are also doing in Austin is doing more shows at the Frank Erwin Center. We’re now doing more and more shows in San Antonio, Austin, Corpus Christi, and other locations. It’s a growth and it’s been a lot of fun.
Since losing exclusivity of the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles in 2015, it sounds like Nederlander has been expanding a lot into other markets?
We’re not Live Nation. We aren’t buying national or international tours, but what we are doing is being much more mobile and flexible than in the past. We’re dedicated to many venues. I think last year we worked in 45 venues in 20 cities. We did some shows in Chicago, Indianapolis, and we recently did a show at the Bellco Theatre in Denver. Our repertoire is changing and evolving as we’re seeing all the other changes and needs for the artists and the agents. There are a lot of independent promoters and managers and they don’t always sell one whole tour to one promoter. Sometimes, when there is a tour out there, there is a need to go to a special place and maybe we have a unique history of promoting in that city or that market or that venue and it may be a national tour, but we’ll present the artist in two or three cities.
The Nederlanders started this process of amphitheaters and the outdoor experience with reserved seats and the lawn in the 70s and 80s. Then it caught on and you saw MCA and Pace Concerts and then the roll up which is now Live Nation came as Robert Sillerman rolled up a lot of local promoters and bought the Nederlander amphitheaters from other promoters. It took the amphitheater business public to the stock market. That’s been its own evolution and you’ve got to applaud Live Nation for what they’ve done in achieving a great stock price. That’s a different model, different than a boutique business that we are specializing in.
In 2017, do you think it is easier or harder to be an independent promoter?
It’s harder without question, but harder than what and harder than when? It’s never been easy. There’s always competitors. When I was an agent selling shows to a promoter in Atlanta, Georgia there was always somebody who wanted to come in and take your shows. The competition can be healthy and sometimes it can be uncomfortable. In those days and fairly recently, it was much more local promoters in different markets and an occasional promoter buying a whole tour. It’s not that it is a new phenomenon exactly, but now it is the dominate business of Live Nation buying a national or a worldwide tour.
It’s harder in a way, but if you really care and do what you do well the artists, agents and managers will find the opportunities where you are needed. Sometimes they do a national tour one year and the next year the band decides on a new strategy. The opportunities are there if you work diligently and keep repeating the assets that you have and tell your story. The agents, managers, and the artists need the variety and they need the flexibility. Easier: no. Harder: yes. But still very viable and very real and greatly needed.
We also look for any opportunity to co-promote with another independent or with a larger company. It’s not a major part of our business, but we look at every opportunity as being as a great one.