Concert promoter Sue McLean's eyes are shooting darts at John Prine's tour manager. The singer-songwriter, who's driving himself to the Minnesota Zoo, is a half-hour late. Instead of reading the riot act to the tour manager backstage, McLean tracks down the on-site coordinator and arranges to extend the zoo's usual curfew by 15 minutes. The promoter does her part and relays the good news to the tour manager, just as Prine pulls his SUV into the backstage area. McLean doesn't even say a word to old pal Prine as his road manager gives him the news about the extension.
Sue McLean & Associates (SMA) of Minneapolis staged 130 concerts in 2011 -- not counting the annual Basilica Block Party, for which she books the bands. The company grossed nearly $3.7 million on shows at bars, theaters and the Minnesota Zoo, which is celebrating its 20th year of concerts.
That may sound like small potatoes in the big-bucks world of concerts where Bruce Springsteen grosses $5 million a night in a stadium, but Sue McLean is one-of-a kind.
"In terms of a company completely run by a woman risking her own money on shows, I can't think of another person," said Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the national concert journal Pollstar. "There are women in talent-buying at Madison Square Garden, AEG Live and Live Nation [and at such Twin Cities venues as First Avenue, Orchestra Hall and the Cabooze]. But Sue is competing with the big boys. She's managed to carve a little niche for herself. In Pollstar last year, she ranked No. 97 in the world, with 126,000 tickets sold. Live Nation sold 22 million. She has her corner of the universe."
McLean doesn't hesitate to use her Pollstar ranking when making pitches to booking agents. "Little old us," she jokes.
A little old promoter whose concerts have read like a music cognoscenti's iPod playlist: giants including Johnny Cash, Al Green, Etta James and Tony Bennett; beloved heroes including Emmylou Harris, Los Lobos, Gil Scott-Heron and Lyle Lovett, and newer favorites including Adele, Jack Johnson, Derek Trucks and the Avett Brothers.
McLean pulls into a parking spot behind the Fitzgerald Theater, and she can't find her checkbook. She swears she had it in her bag 15 minutes ago when she left the k.d. lang concert at the O'Shaughnessy. She texts her associate back at the O'Shaughnessy, where McLean had written a last-minute check to singer lang's favorite charity, as part of the concert contract. Then she marches through the back door of the Fitzgerald, where British soul man James Morrison is midway through his set, and makes a beeline to Tamsen Preston, her operations director. The boss explains the situation. Problem solved: Preston has extra blank checks. McLean sighs and watches three songs from the wings.
McLean is not your stereotypical loud, aggressive, name-dropping, egomaniacal blowhard concert promoter. She maintains that she's never hung up on anybody -- a claim few promoters could make.
"The only time I've heard her raise her voice is with an agent over the phone," said Kimberly Gottschalk, SMA's director of operations from 1998 to 2006 and overseer this year of the 30-some shows at the zoo. "When she is pushed, she doesn't back down. She's not going to be taken advantage of. She has integrity. She has incredible passion for live music. She's a problem solver. She's a cancer survivor, a female entrepreneur who, after all the consolidation in this [concert] business, is still standing."
California booking agent Fred Bohlander of the Paradigm Agency, who has worked with McLean "forever," finds her friendly, with a hard-working Midwestern attitude. "She's unique in this business in that she gives you her honest opinion," said Bohlander, who represents lang, Lovett, Leo Kottke, Chris Isaak and others. "She's flexible, always willing to work out finances and put the artist in a good situation."
Longtime Minneapolis promoter Randy Levy, who gave McLean her start in 1974, is not surprised at McLean's success. He calls her tenacious and consistent. "One of the reasons we're a terrific music market is that she's nurtured these young bands and artists and been at the right place at the right time," he said. "She presents a good argument for artists to choose her versus her competitors. She does intimate shows with very personal service. Her business model is that she's willing to make it one show at a time."
Indeed, in more than three decades as a promoter, McLean never has staged an arena concert or a big festival with her own money. (She has been hired to book bands for big events, including the Prince-headlined, 125-act Mill City Music Festival in 1996.) Her biggest show -- and payday -- was laid-back singer-songwriter Jack Johnson outdoors at a tubing park in Somerset, Wis., that drew 17,000 people in 2008.
"I've just never had deep pockets," said McLean, whose worst year (2008) resulted in about a $70,000 loss. "Any loss, for me, over $20,000 is devastating. The big guys lose that before breakfast. Seriously."
McLean rolls her eyes. It's only two hours into her 11-year-old daughter Lilly's four-hour birthday party. Twenty high-energy kids run around a suburban audio/video studio that also has a full musical instrument set-up on a little soundstage. The kids have the singing microphones and drums turned up to concert volume. Whose idea was it to have a pillow fight in the movie-watching room? Since some kids who didn't RSVP showed up anyway, are there enough party favor bags for the end of the party? And, oops, the boys don't want the nail polish, do they?
McLean, who has been engaged but never married, became a single mother at age 53, adopting 2-year-old Lilly from Guatemala. Lilly used to be a familiar site backstage at Mom's concerts at the zoo and the basilica. Now it's more likely that McLean is seen at Lilly's soccer games and school talent shows.
"I wasn't sure about having kids until I saw Sue do it," said Gottschalk, who has her own production company and an 8-month-old daughter. "Being a mom is a priority for Sue. She has been able to marry the two things -- and Lilly gets to see a mother who is a businesswoman and an entrepreneur."
Lilly also has more honorary aunts and uncles than you can count (actually, there were 10 of them at the birthday party). It appears that it takes a village to raise a promoter's daughter.
"I have to depend on my staff a lot more [at work] and they do a great job. Neighbors, relatives, friends -- the FedEx man," chuckled McLean, who has only one full-time staffer and several part-time, seasonal and contract employees. "This business is hard on [romantic] relationships. I've never had a nanny. I piece it together week to week."
Cities 97 radio station provides the background noise, Preston and social-media consultant Marnie Gamble banter back and forth, and McLean charms the agent for actor/singer Kevin Costner over the phone at the SMA office in the Minneapolis Warehouse District. She's trying to sell the Guthrie Theater's smaller 700-seat stage for a July concert. "I have worked with him before," McLean tells the agent. "He was awesome. It's not like other celebrities' bands. He seems serious. I'm shocked he takes time to do this." As she talks, she punches numbers into her calculator. She confirms Costner's fee and proposes a $39 ticket price. On cue, Preston checks the files and shouts that SMA charged $25 at the Cabooze and $35 at the zoo for Costner. "I think the Guthrie is worth another $5," McLean counters. "He is Kevin Costner," Preston says.
Despite writing checks to big names like Adele, Steve Winwood and Norah Jones, McLean rarely gets to meet the stars. "I live in the world of tour managers," she laughed.
What motivates McLean?
"Fear," she said with a chuckle. "At the beginning, it was the love of the party and the music. But now I like bringing people together, the community of it all. That's my big thing. I get a really good sense of fulfillment like when we're at the zoo and there's all these people having a shared good time."
Some artists are aware of that.
"She always makes our shows as fun as they can be for us and for the audience," said Seattle-area singer Brandi Carlile, whom McLean has promoted since 2004. "She's pretty personable. She likes to talk about the show and what can be better next time."
She started Sue McLean & Associates in 1998. Prior to that she'd been a promoter with a couple of local companies and spent 10 years on the Guthrie's staff (she's still the exclusive concert booker for that theater). She has booked the Basilica Block Party for all 18 of its years, and she has been the sole booker for the Minnesota Zoo for the past 17 years.
McLean, 62, grew up in Dayton, Minn., daughter of a schoolteacher mother and bar-owner father. While earning a degree in speech and communication at St. Cloud State, she worked on the college radio station and then followed a friend who booked concerts on campus to Levy's company, where she graduated from booking local bands Suicide Commandos and the Flamin' Oh's to budding stars Elvis Costello and Talking Heads.
It's a brainstorming session for Year 3 of Tween Town Girls Camp, an overnight camp in Excelsior where girls learn how to play instruments and perform in a rock band. Topics bounce around like a pinball: Should the girls have any access to their cellphones? Should we add a DJ component? How much can we pay that assistant? The camp's founder -- who's paying for lunch at this meeting at Bunkers Bar and Grill -- repeats her mantra: "Our girls have to have magic moments at this."
McLean remembers those tween years. "Girls that age -- 10 to 14 -- are tough," she said in an interview over lunch. "You can go in a lot of different directions. In my case, I was hanging around with the wrong crowd."
Thinking of her own experience, McLean established Tween Town, a three-day camp with swimming, canoeing and musicmaking. "It was the mom in me," she admitted. "I wanted Lilly to have the experience of performance and team building. Being in a band is a good complement to sports -- even if it's just three days. I think it's important for self-esteem."
Self-esteem, self-confidence, team building, girl power are the buzz words on the Tween Town brochure and website. They could just as easily describe a promoter named Sue McLean.
Twitter: @jonbream • 612-673-1719