Marcel Avram: 8 things I’ve learnt at 80
…now, as he celebrates his 80th birthday – and a remarkable 50 years in the business – the man affectively dubbed ‘the Emperor’ by his peers imparts some of the lessons learnt from half a century at the top to a new generation of concert professionals. As told to Jon Chapple
Be bold (it pays off)
Avram’s relationship with Michael Jackson began in 1972, when he promoted the Jackson 5 in Germany with MAMA Concerts – and by the late 80s he was promoting the European leg of Jackson’s first solo trek, the Bad tour, which became the second-highest grossing of 1988 (behind Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason – also an Avram tour in Germany).
“In 1988, I was just a fat little Jew speaking broken English, but I’d decided I wanted to work with Michael Jackson,” he explains. “I had to be creative and I had to be fearless getting my strategy together, as I was competing against the big promoters in England and America – everybody wanted to do MJ.
“In the end, I became the producer, the agent, and the promoter, all in one person. I’m very proud of that achievement.”
Loyalty is key
“The way I learnt the business,” explains Avram, “is that if you do a good job, you expect the artist will stay with you. It used to be that you’d discover an act in a 200-cap club and stay with them right up to arenas and stadia.
“Unfortunately, at the moment, much of the business has moved from the individual promoter to the stock market – as soon as some artists get big, the [corporates] go to them and say, ‘We can take you to the next level.’ It’s going in the direction of promoters working their arses off at a club-level, and then losing acts when they become big. How can you fight the stock market?”
Avram says this new business reality was laid bare by a meeting he had with an artist he’d “taken from the bottom” and their manager informing him their next tour would be with a major corporate. “When I asked about loyalty – where are the ethics? – I was told, ‘If you want loyalty, buy a dog.’”
On a related note, Avram laments what he sees as a modern obsession among some artists and their teams with getting rich quick – often at the expense of a proper long-term plan.
“Money shouldn’t come first,” he says. “If you have a good act, the quality is right, and you have good people working on it, the money will come.
“Look at the two biggest festivals in the world, Coachella and Tomorrowland,” he continues. “In the first few years, they had no money and made a big loss – it was all down to the creativity of the promoters, bookers and agents. Then it blew up, and that’s how it should be: the money should come at the end.”
The problem is exacerbated, he suggests, by managers and agents who – understandably – are under huge pressure to secure more income for their artists. On the buy-a-dog manager, Avram explains: “He said to me, ‘Marcel, you’re offering $100,000 a show, and I have another guy offering $120,000.’ How can I go back to my artist and say, ‘Sorry, you’re not going to make an extra $20,000 a show’? And agents are under similar pressure.”
“If you have a good act, the quality is right, and you have good people working on it, the money will come”
Keep your finger on the pulse
After a 50-year career in which he has regularly worked with greats including Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton, Metallica, AC/DC, Prince, Paul McCartney, Rod Stewart, Paul Simon, Jennifer Lopez and, most famously, his “dear friend” Michael Jackson, Avram could be forgiven for not keeping up to date with current musical trends.
However, nothing, he says, could be further from the truth, explaining he “still gets a kick out of growing an act” and “taking them all the way.” He has more recently promoted Justin Bieber and Arcade Fire, currently working with big-on-the-Internet American boy-band Why Don’t We (managed by former AEG Live CEO Randy Phillips and his long-time partner Dave Loeffler), who he says has the “potential to be a stadium act” in the near future.
Social is the future…
One of the biggest changes Avram says he’s seen in six decades in the business is how shows are promoted. “In the old days, you’d put up a poster or take out an ad, in print, or the radio or TV,” he explains.
“Now, we still have those methods, but we’ve added bloggers, social media, YouTube… Social media has opened up the world.”
… but meeting in person is still important
However, he continues, “I can’t explain myself in writing as well as face to face. [By meeting face to face] I can explain my strategy, my belief, and my enthusiasm in a way that’s impossible via email. This is my way of doing business – it’s been the same for the last 50 years.”
He adds that his well-known fondness for air travel – “I don’t know any single person who flies as many miles as he does,” Wizard Promotions’ Ossy Hoppe told IQ in 2013, when Avram was a spritely 75 – is a result of this dedication to in-person meetings. “I go to Moscow, to Tel Aviv, to India,” he explains. “It’s always been important to me to discover new markets all over the world.”
“Music is my passion, and I’ll keep doing this as long as I have enough energy”
Beware the taxman
Perhaps the nadir of Avram’s professional career was spending time in a Munich prison after being convicted of tax evasion in 1997. While he maintains the scheme, which involved paying artists through a company based in a Dutch overseas territory, was and is legal, he nevertheless has a few words of advice for younger promoters: “Don’t mess with the taxman! They will always find a reason to get you.
“But they’re stronger than you are, so let them fight the big companies with their offshore offices instead.”
At an age when most people have long been happily retired, Avram says – health allowing – he still has no plans to step back from his work.
“I feel amazing!” he says. “As long as God gives me health, and I can carry on doing whatever I like doing, I’ll still work and enjoy my life.”
Avram says artists such as French singer Charles Aznavour, who at 93 is still touring, inspire him to keep going. “When I’m 80 and I speak to a 93-year-old artist who says, ‘Music is my life, the stage is my life, and if I don’t do that I’ll die,’ I tell myself I can do it as well.
“I’ve had success with other businesses, but music is my passion, and I’ll keep doing this as long as I have enough energy. I’ve climbed to the top of the mountain – and when you’re at the top, it’s very difficult to come down. And I want to give myself plenty of time to do it.”
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