Obit: Concert Promoter Hits Rough Road in Vermont
THE BUSINESS: Concert promoter
CAUSE OF DEATH: New markets drained resources and failed to provide revenues
True to its name, Big World Productions Inc. broke into the major leagues last year. The entertainment company's founder and president, Joe Fletcher, staged a whopping 52 shows throughout New England, while upgrading the caliber of his performers. Among the headliners: Bill Cosby, Bob Dylan, and James Brown.
As long as Fletcher stuck to urban venues close to his home base of Portsmouth, N.H., his fast-growth strategy stayed on track. But when he booked big outdoor concerts in rustic locations--for example, B.B. King at the Sugarbush Resort, in Vermont's Green Mountains--he slipped badly.
Before long, it was Fletcher who was singing the blues.
Music runs deep in Fletcher's blood. Before incorporating Big World, in 1996, he had been a writer of children's songs and a singer who performed at New England-area schools, according to the Portsmouth Herald. Noting a lack of big-name concerts in New Hampshire, Fletcher decided to fill the void. He started modestly with a few shows in small Portsmouth concert halls, gaining a reputation as a meticulous promoter.
As the business expanded, so did Fletcher's ambition. He added a staff of three. "To cover overhead, the tendency is to do more shows," he says.
Top-name performers charge up to $100,000 an event and typically require a 50% deposit a month before a show. "It takes massive resources" to meet those requirements, Fletcher explains.
To front the hefty deposits for his aggressive summer schedule in 1998, Fletcher turned to private investors such as Bill Shaheen, a lawyer who is the husband of New Hampshire governor Jeanne Shaheen. Cutter Investments, in which Bill Shaheen is a partner with Matt Cutter, made a $133,000 equity investment.
With deeper pockets, Fletcher gambled big on summer concerts by Ray Charles and B.B. King, which were held on Sugarbush's ski slopes in rural Warren, Vt. (population: 1,353). Neither event was a huge success. "Logistically, they just didn't work," Shaheen recalls of the gigs. "The types of crowds that go to see B.B. King and Ray Charles want to sit indoors in comfort, not climb a mountain and sit out with the mosquitoes." Meanwhile, Big World was facing keen competition from larger, better-financed concert promoters in Boston and Portland, Maine.
But such factors don't demonstrate Fletcher's myopia except in hindsight, according to Tina Coulouras, director of events at Lowell Memorial Auditorium, in Lowell, Mass. "I would think people in Vermont would be starved for good entertainment and would have made the trip," she says. "Joe is a great marketer and really knows how to get the word out."
If Fletcher got the word out, it wasn't enough. He never recovered from his losses in Vermont. On April 6, Big World filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, reporting assets of $2,000 and liabilities of $596,000. Its large creditors include Canadian music group the Tragically Hip; the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers; and Cutter Investments.
In Shaheen's view Big World would have remained profitable if Fletcher had confined his concerts to the local markets that he knew. "The rule of thumb is that you stick near home. You draw yourself a 25-mile radius," Shaheen says. Fletcher concedes that he should have "focused on doing the right show, not just a lot of shows. It's not about volume of sales." As for the popularity of concerts in remote locations, he says, "The days of Woodstock are over."