22Jun

How Bill Graham Transformed Himself From A Failed Actor Into The Ultimate Rock & Roll Entrepreneur

Originally published in Forbes.

Bill Graham is the godfather of the rock concert as we know it. In 1965, he began promoting shows in San Francisco featuring iconic artists such as the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane alongside poets, jazz musicians and traditional blues artists. At the Fillmore Auditorium and his other venues, he introduced innovations that shook the rock concert from the dusty influence of the concert hall and turned it into a multi-sensory community-building event, thereby facilitating the birth of today’s multi-billion dollar concert industry.

Graham, who is the subject of an exhibition in Los Angeles’s Skirball Cultural Center, “Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution,” was the ultimate entrepreneur, a man who identified an opportunity and founded a successful business to capitalize on it. He recognized that a rock concert could be about more than bands playing for audiences, but also a community-building experience, where like-minded people can be themselves and participate in the joy of creating a new youth culture.

Bill Graham, circa 1972. Photo credit Baron Wolman, courtesy of Photofest

Bill Graham, circa 1972. Photo credit Baron Wolman, courtesy of Photofest

Graham applied a service mentality to rock concerts, paying attention to minute details and treating rock fans as if they were VIP guests at one of the Catskill resorts where he once waited tables. “He certainly brought a sense of professionalism,” said exhibit curator Erin Clancey. “Nothing escaped his attention. He would pick up garbage on the floor. He would make sure that the concessions were all good. It all went into the experience.” In the heyday of the loose hippy counterculture, Graham’s attention to details separated the Fillmore shows from other concerts and upped the ante for the industry as a whole.

Another one of Graham’s innovations was to recognize that a concert is a multisensory experience. To that end, he invested in light shows, sounds systems and special gags and effects that enhanced and went beyond the music. “He regarded the concert experience as a theater experience. It wasn’t just about the music. It was about the entire environment and providing the best,” said Clancey. The theatricality that now pervades rock & roll performances, with their moving lights, kinetic stages and sophisticated props, originated at Graham’s Fillmore Auditoriums.

All of these innovations came from a man who, at the age of 35, had no career to speak of, a failed actor who couldn’t hold a steady job. Born in Germany, Graham had spent two years as a child running away from the Nazis with a group of orphans, most of whom died along the way, including his beloved older sister. Upon arrival in the U.S., he was taken into the care of a Jewish family and grew up in the tough streets of New York. He had stints in the military, in college and as a waiter in high-end Catskill resorts. He spent his 20s crisscrossing the country and bumming around in Europe. He tried and failed to become an actor. At the time he started promoting shows, he was the business manager of a radical mime troupe.

How did Graham suddenly transformed into a shrewd entrepreneur and the architect of the rock & roll concert as we know it? And what does he teach us about entrepreneurship?

Entrepreneurship isn’t necessarily planned. The event that energized, enabled and motivated Bill Graham to enter self-employment was the fund-raiser he organized as the business manager for the San Francisco Mime Troupe on November 6, 1965. The event was held in the Mime Troupe’s loft—legal capacity 600 people—and attracted a crowd of more than three thousand people. Graham later recalled that it was the most exciting experience in his life. He set about organizing another concert, and another. He had ideas about how to make it better, bigger, more successful. The rest of the mime troupe were not interested in rock & roll show promotion, so after the third show Graham went out on his own.

The Mime Troupe Benefit was a vitalizing opportunity for Graham, activating his entrepreneurial spark. As for Graham, most entrepreneurship comes out of action, not planning. Data from the Panel Study of Entrepreneurial Dynamics show that most entrepreneurs don’t spend a lot of time planning before they start a business. Like Bill Graham, they take action first; they start their businesses and then clarify their ideas and vision as they go along. Maybe they weren’t even interested in starting a business, but they had a vitalizing event that energized them and gave them a goal toward which to exert that energy.

Anyone can find themselves an entrepreneur given the right opportunity.

Entrepreneurs come from surprising places. Research suggests that like Bill Graham, many entrepreneurs have itinerant backgrounds. Studies find that they are more likely than non-entrepreneurs to have changed jobs often. They are more than twice as likely than non-entrepreneurs to have spent some time unemployed. They are even more likely to have dealt drugs. One study found that people who dealt drugs as teenagers are between 11 and 21 percent more likely than other people to start their own businesses in adulthood. As Scott A. Shane writes in his book, The Illusions of Entrepreneurship: The Costly Myths that Entrepreneurs, Investors, and Policy Makers Live By, entrepreneurs often have characteristics that society considers undesirable.

People become entrepreneurs to express themselves. Before he started promoting rock & roll shows, Graham did not base his career choices on maximizing financial gain. He took a significant pay cut to work as the business manager for the mime troupe, and he might have continued promoting the shows within the mime troupe if they had been interested in doing that. Although he ultimately became a wealthy man, his primary motive in starting the business was not purely financial. As a recent study of rock concert promoters reveals, most promoters go into business because they see concert promotion as a creative act. One respondent in the study explained, “You’re trying to engineer epiphanies for people.” For Graham, organizing the mime troupe benefit was an opportunity for him to do something creative and make money.

The success of the benefit gave him the confidence to do it as his own business.

As a failed actor who couldn’t hold a steady job, Bill Graham seemed an unlikely candidate to become one of the most innovative, pioneering and successful entrepreneurs in rock & roll. But actually, Bill Graham is the archetypal American entrepreneur.

“Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution” runs until October 11 and will later travel to San Francisco and Cleveland.

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