We’ve reached the end of an era.
After more than 35 years at Pollstar, founder and editor-in-chief Gary Bongiovanni officially retired on June 28.
His exit comes a year after he and partner Gary Smith sold the company to the Oak View Group, a decision that ultimately led to the layoffs of dozens of people at the magazine, some who had worked at the concert trade publication for decades.
Those who were left at the company gathered Thursday for a goodbye party for the man many affectionally called Bonge.
That’s him in the back row, bald white head, standing under the star in the ‘O’ of Pollstar.
Kind of fitting, since “oh” is the word I frequently used when dealing with Bonge, as in “oh, that idea from Bonge makes a lot of sense” or “oh, my God I can’t believe he just talked that way to another person.”
I haven’t spoken to him since joining Billboard last year, when Bonge sent me an angry goodbye email and copied everyone at his company. When he sold his company a few months later, he made some crazy accusations against me on Hypebot over one of their stories, saying the piece was “pure bullshit being propagated by a bitter Dave Brooks,” which wasn’t true. He swore he “retain(ed) total editorial control” over Pollstar, which he didn’t, and that his company would “continue business as usual” which I guess meant firing half the staff.
It’s almost a mirror of what happened to Linda Deckard at Venues Today, my old company of eight years, when she sold to OVG in 2016. About a year after Leiweke brought the staff into his OVG offices and pounded his fist on the desk insisting “this is not an exit strategy for Venues Today,” he fired most of the staff, closed the company’s Huntington Beach offices and handed control over to Ray Waddell. Deckard is halfway through her three-year contract with OVG and then is expected to retire. She’s a very nice person who probably deserved to be treated a little bit better by Tim, but hey, she took the money…..so…..you know.
And look, there’s nothing wrong with the way Tim is consolidating and redesigning both Pollstar and Venues Today (which is now Venues Now). That’s business — when someone buys a company, they have the right to implement their vision, fire a few employees and bring in their people. I think the mistake is to let the previous owners tell their employees that nothing will change, and I think that decision to try and reassure his employees that their jobs were safe will ultimately be part of Bongiovanni’s legacy.
There should definitely be some positive things in Bongiovanni’s legacy as well. He organized promoters, created a huge database of concert gross information and helped create countless tools to streamline concert reporting. He developed directories, encouraged producers to report their attendance numbers and created rankings for venues, festivals and promoters that are widely used today. He took all these different data points and financial figures that existed in the concert space and organized them into tools that helped make concerts a $25 billion industry. He deserves a lot of credit both as a pioneer and a visionary.
He also stood up to bullies and didn’t take shit from anyone. He couldn’t be pushed around, he couldn’t be guilted or cowed or coerced. Bonge was tough as nails. But he was also kind of bitter and one of the most paranoid people I have ever met. In my year-and-a-half as a columnist at the company, I spent a lot of time listening to his conspiracy theories and rampant shit-talking. He loved sharing stories from gossip sites like Hits Daily Double that humiliated people he didn’t like.
I’m not saying Bonge was a bad person — he was a leader at Pollstar and he tried to be a force for good — he just had very little capacity for compassion or empathy. And he had a lot of anger. I wouldn’t hear from him for weeks and then he would send me these rude emails. When he felt I stepped out of line — like the time I wrote the column “Where’s My Mogul?” — he told me I didn’t need a big name like Leiweke backing me cause I had Pollstar. What he didn’t tell me was that he was having secret discussions about selling Pollstar to OVG at the exact same time.
If all of this sounds like score-settling, in some ways it is. When I quit, Bonge effectively deleted the 75 columns I had written for Pollstar. You could always count on him to return the favor, carrying around bitterness and a Spock-like demeanor that was rational, yet insensitive. But he also let me do whatever I wanted — he never once worried about me pissing off some big wig. His attitude was “If it was true, write it.” If someone didn’t like it, then fuck them. That’s pretty punk rock. Or maybe it’s more gangster rap. Bongiovanni did spend a stretch of his early life working for former NWA manager Jerry Heller. It was before Heller managed Eazy-E, Dre and Cube, but still — Heller probably rubbed off on him. I remember when the movie Straight Outta Compton came out, Bonge told me he didn’t like the way Heller was portrayed.
“Not everyone you meet in life has their life threatened by Suge Knight and survives,” he said.
Look, ultimately Bonge is a good (yet very complicated) guy. In the end, I hope he got what he wanted in the sale of Pollstar to Oak View Group. Whenever there is a sale and a shakeup, there’s typically three kinds of reactions. Most rational people quit and look for new jobs, while others stick around thinking their loyalty will save them, only to get fired. And then their are the holdouts who hang in there and just pray against all odds that their number doesn’t get called. It’s that last group who was left to say goodbye to Bonge at his retirement party. The people who didn’t have a lot of options and aren’t going to leave until they are forced out the door.
Which will eventually happen since OVG has already announced plans to sell Pollstar’s Fresno office (while the remaining employees will work remote). I don’t know how much Bonge made on the sale of the company, but I do know it was divided up between investors, an ex-wife or two, and then Bonge and Gary Smith. But I’m sure Bonge made enough so he can now spend his golden years at his favorite little hotel near Puerto Vallarta where the beers are cold and the shrimp ceviche tastes like it was just pulled from the ocean.
I was only there for 18 months at Pollstar, I have only been to the office in Fresno one time, hell, I only met Bonge in person one time. That’s the irony of Bonge — he created the world’s large gathering of concert promoters, but refused to attend his own event because he didn’t want people approaching him.
When I left Gary told me “I’m sorry I was such a horrible mentor” which wasn’t true. He was a fine mentor. He taught me many things, gave me a shot writing for the magazine and stood up for me at times when no one else would. Perhaps, he could have been a better friend. Certainly, at times, I could have been a better friend too.
Maybe that’s the irony — we’re more alike than I’d like to admit. Sometimes I wonder if things could have been different for us, but deep down, I know there was a certain inevitability to our falling out. He’s on one side, and I’m on the other.
That doesn’t mean I can’t wish him the best in retirement. So long Bonge, and thanks for giving me a shot.
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