Sue McLean: 'Risk around every corner'

  • Article by: DAVID SHAFFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 2, 2011 - 11:00 PM

As an independent music promoter, Sue McLean knows arranging shows carries lots of business risks long before a band plays its first note.

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Sue McLean is the president of Minneapolis-based concert promotions company Sue McLean & Associates.

Photo: Jules Ameel, Star Tribune

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For more than 30 years, Sue McLean has been promoting rock, blues, folk and other musical shows.

Her company Sue McLean & Associates, based in Minneapolis' Warehouse District, is an independent promoter, surviving in an age of large, corporate booking operations.

She has staged shows for musicians John Prine, Etta James, Taj Mahal, the Avett Brothers and hundreds of others, often at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. Two of her best-known promotions are the Basilica Block Party in Minneapolis and the concerts at the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley.

McLean has spent her career in music after graduating from St. Cloud State University in 1973. She first worked as a talent agent, then booked musicians for bars and later the Guthrie. She started a promotion company with a partner in 1994, and founded her current firm in 1998. She also runs a four-day summer rock and roll camp for girls called Tweentown.

Here are excerpts from a recent conversation about her business and her career:

QWalk us through from start to finish what you have to do to promote a concert.

AOK, so the artist decides that they want to come to Minneapolis, a national artist. So they are on tour. Then, I put a bid in on them. That is where the competition comes in with other promoters. I negotiate fees and check availability at the theaters, decide on a theater, rent the theater, produce the show, which would include the hotel, backline [musical equipment], ground transportation and all the advertising, with the goal of motivating enough people to come to the show so that we break even and make the margin.

QWhat risk do you take as a businessperson?

AAll the risk from top to bottom, between the variables like weather for outdoor shows and the risk of the artist not being as popular when they come to town. Between the time you book the artist and they come to town a lot can happen. So there is risk around every corner.

QWhat is the most successful event you have ever promoted?

AJack Johnson, the singer-songwriter, is the best example. I formed a relationship at his earlier stages, at the club level, and was able to stick with him up to 17,000 people at Rivers Edge in Somerset, Wisconsin, last year.

QWhat was the worst disaster?

AWith outdoor shows there is always the possibility that the show will get called, and in one case it was because blues guitarist Johnny Winter was knocked over by the wind. We had to call the show for a while. It did go back on.

QHow does someone your age keep a pulse on what music young people are listening to?

AI have a great team of people who get information from all sorts of places, especially social media. So they are feeding me information from Twitter and Facebook. We look at the bloggers and radio and print reviews. So my team is really how I keep up with trends.

QWhy do ticket prices get so high?

ATicket prices are directly related to the artist's fee. So if the artist fee is higher, that gets passed on to the consumer. So the push-pull is when we want to keep ticket prices low but the artist still needs to maintain the money they have been making.

QWhat advice do you have for artists to make it in the business?

ADon't burn bridges at the beginning of your career. The same people will be there when you need them and your career isn't going so well. It is very much a people business, a relationship business.

QThe pop music industry has an image of drugs, booze and partying. Does that affect your work?

AI have to deal with it if the artist is late for a gig or not showing up. It depends on the age of the artist, and who the artist is. But I would say it is not as prevalent as it was in the '70s. The kind of music I do doesn't really lend itself. If I were a rave promoter, or something like that, there is definitely a drug culture with certain kinds of events.

QHow did the recession affect the music promotion business?

AIt affected discretionary spending, which in my business relates to ticket prices. So the recession was a wake-up call for super-high tickets. I think the good that's come out of that is that the artists are being more realistic with their image. For example, they don't want to be the band charging $100 a seat at my level -- 3,000 seats and under.

QWhat is the outlook for live performance?

AExcellent, because the industry has changed the way the artists tour. They are on tour all the time now to sell CDs. Before it was only a tour when they released an album. And live music creates community. It brings people together in a concert setting, and that is not going to go away.

David Shaffer • 612-673-7090

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  • Sue McLean

    Saturday April 2, 2011

    Hometown: Dayton, Minn. Current home: Minneapolis

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