Randy Levy: The king of outdoor concerts

  • Article by: JON BREAM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 5, 2009 - 9:35 AM

One of the biggest "little guys" in the music biz, Twin Cities promoter Randy Levy reaches a new stage in his 40-year career.

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Music promoter Randy Levy.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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DETROIT LAKES, Minn. - The Soo Pass Ranch is Up North quiet. You can hear birds chirping, mosquitoes buzzing and an occasional car whizzing by in the distance.

Come Thursday, there will be 45,000 crazy country fans inside the Soo Pass corral, listening to Toby Keith's kick-butt anthems at We Fest.

But on this summer afternoon, festival co-owner Randy Levy is sitting at a peaceful picnic table, admiring the massive new roof over the stage that he bought from Tennessee's Bonnaroo fest.

"Widespread Panic looked stellar with this new roofed stage," Levy said, referring to one of the headliners at his 10,000 Lakes Festival at Soo Pass a week ago.

After 40 years in show business -- promoting everyone from Sinatra to Slipknot and as many as 400 one-nighters annually -- Levy has repositioned himself as Minnesota's king of music festivals. Forget all those one-night stands all over the country. Every summer, he stages four big events in his home state -- each with a different musical flavor -- for crowds ranging from 15,000 to nearly 50,000.

Today at Canterbury Park in Shakopee, Levy (it rhymes with Chevy) is presenting the 15th annual alt-rock Warped Tour, then he caps a busy month with the 27th annual We Fest camping-and-country hoedown. The promoter kicked off the festival season May 24 with the second annual Soundset '09 hip-hop celebration.

While the $6 million We Fest has been a gold mine for two decades, the $4 million, 50-band 10,000 Lakes Festival did not make money this summer despite its most ambitious (and expensive) lineup ever, starring the Dave Matthews Band and Wilco. Bolstered by his partners' support, Levy knows it's about building a winning brand. That's what he did after jumping in to rescue We Fest after its second year.

"Sometimes you have to separate the money from the event," Levy said of the seventh annual 10KLF. "We all do it to make money, but we also do it to produce really good events. That was a terrific few days of music."

Part unapologetic capitalist and part eternal hippie, Levy may sound philosophical as he's about to turn 60 this month. But, after four decades of highs and lows, he has gotten better at rolling the dice. He had to. Otherwise, the independent promoter would not have survived in an industry now dominated by such worldwide giants as Live Nation and AEG Live, who gobbled up the Rolling Stones, Billy Joel, Fleetwood Mac and other superstars Levy used to promote.

In fact, Live Nation and AEG each made offers to buy We Fest but Levy and his partners spurned the deals.

"I've learned how to say no more often," said Levy in explaining the mantra for his recent success and a pared-back schedule of maybe 50 events a year. "We try to be really selective. We're self-funding. I can't make big mistakes."

Not anymore. Three or four times, he has been close to closing up shop after losing too much on too many events, most recently on a poorly attended show by Kiss in Somerset, Wis., in 2004. But he handled that setback with his usual disarming humor.

"He dressed up backstage with bum clothes and makeup," recalled promoter Gary Marx, a former partner of Levy's. "He put a sign around his neck that said: 'Used to be a big-time promoter.' He had everyone cracking up."

Part parent, part cop

It was a scorchingly hot May afternoon on the parking lot at Canterbury Park. As Levy surveyed the crowd at the Soundset hip-hop festival, he spotted a skirmish. Nonchalantly he stepped into the fray, gently put his arm around a young woman bleeding from her pierced eyebrow and asked if she was OK. Part parent and part cop, he escorted her to the front gate and told her to go home.

"I told her that you don't fight at my events," he said later.

At Soundset, Levy didn't know Doomtree from MF Doom. But he does know how to produce and run a big event.

Throughout the 10-hour fest, he walked the grounds, looking for trouble spots (like shifting the location of some underutilized toilets), randomly buttonholing festivalgoers and vendors to ask about their day. After the last fan left, he toured the site, observing the litter, recycling and aftermath.

Intimidating but mellow

Levy sees the big picture but is cognizant of the little things, as well.

"If he's in a room with 20 people, he's good at organizing everybody in the right direction," said Jason (J-Bird) Cook, general manager of Rhymesayers, who handled the creative side of Soundset. "He's good at troubleshooting, whether in a conference room or on the site. Randy's very persistent and patient with us."

A streetwise hip-hop head, Cook was struck by the fact that Levy doesn't have a TV at home and that his business partner of 20 years, Gene Hollister, doesn't have a cell phone.

Together, Levy and Hollister look like a retired pro-wrestling tag team. And they truly complement each other. Levy, an intimidating 6-foot-6 with a salt-and-pepper Afro and Eddie Bauer-meets-Foot Locker wardrobe, is the visionary, while Hollister, a husky 6-foot-2 with scraggly hair and T-shirt and jeans, is the details guy -- the VP who mans their Minneapolis Warehouse District office on weekdays while the president shows up maybe two days a week for a few hours (when he's not at his Detroit Lakes summer home). Hollister does the bookkeeping and signs the checks for their company, Rose Presents, named for Levy's grandmother.

"I'm mellower than he is, if that's possible," said Hollister. "And he's mellowed quite a bit. He's happy in his new marriage, and we're not doing as many shows."

Levy met Petrina Iverson, a teacher, while walking dogs around the Minneapolis lakes. They married 14 months ago.

Mellow or not, Levy has long had a reputation for driving a hard bargain.

"I learned how to negotiate from him and how to stay cool under pressure," said Minneapolis promoter Sue McLean, who worked as a booking agent for Levy in the mid-1970s. "He loves the art of the deal. He can solve budgetary problems better than anybody.

"My style is different from Randy's imperialistic, take-no-prisoners kind of style, which is probably why he has a much bigger house than I do."

Nothing typifies Levy's style and approach more than what happened when Marx, fresh out of college, asked Levy for a raise after three months on the job. "Randy said, 'No, but I'll help you find a second job,'" Marx recalled. "That job turned out to be catering at outdoor festivals. Now 36 years later, I'm still catering as a second job at Randy's festivals in Minneapolis."

Son of a pro wrestler

Levy has been a hustler most of his life. Just as his father, Butch, bounced from Minnesota Gophers all-American lineman to pro wrestling champ to insurance, plumbing and stockbrokerage, Randy has hustled from job to job. As a kid, he delivered newspapers and sold souvenirs at Twins games, where he had the loudest voice of any vendor -- even the beermen. As a University of Minnesota student, he met Jim Peterson in the Army Reserves and they started booking local bands in 1969, graduated to arranging gigs for John Denver at colleges, and eventually promoting shows by the likes of Johnny Winter, Foghat and the James Gang.

Over the years, he has promoted everything from closed-circuit boxing and live tennis matches to kids' fairs and touring musicals. He has owned a booking agency, record label, ticket agency, management company, travel agency and Renaissance festivals (his ex-partner Peterson operates the one in Shakopee).

Levy has made -- and lost -- millions of dollars. One of his darker days was presenting the Doobie Brothers in their heyday at the University of Arkansas stadium on a July 4 weekend.

"It was over 120 degrees on the field, the AstroTurf was melting, and people were wilting," he recalled. "No one in their right mind would go out of their air-conditioned home; people were dying. You lose so much money on what you thought was a great idea. Back then it was $150,000, which is the same as losing a million dollars because you don't have the money."

One of Levy's better ideas was accepting an invitation from REO Speedwagon's manager to play golf at Pebble Beach in 1981. There, Levy met, among others, the Rolling Stones' tour promoter, the manager of Kiss, the president of Warner Bros. Records and Eagles manager Irving Azoff, who dubbed Levy "Rock."

Levy does business with all his golf buddies -- including Azoff, now the most powerful executive in the music business, who makes sure that "Rock" gets to co-promote some Eagles concerts and play golf at some of the nation's most exclusive courses.

A lesson in instincts

Levy's oldest son is researching Alzheimer's at a Boston hospital; his middle son is studying business at University of St. Thomas, and he has a 13-year-old stepson. Levy put his college son to work this year at Soundset, collecting commissions from the food-and-beverage vendors. Dad tried to explain the art of the deal -- when to cut the vendor a little slack, when to play hardball. It's a lesson in instincts they probably don't teach at St. Thomas.

Not that Levy is thinking of retiring anytime soon and turning the business over to his son. "I like what I'm doing," he said. "The beat just goes on. Our job is to be there to dance. Not a bad job."

Jon Bream • 612-673-1719

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