How Adam Spriggs went from booking clubs to KAABOO, a new kind of music festival
by Mark McDermott
This weekend an estimated 30,000 people will gather at the Del Mar Racetrack and Fairgrounds for KAABOO, a major new music festival that is being marketed as Coachella for adults. It features headliners such as the Killers, the Zac Brown Band, No Doubt and Snoop Dogg. KAABOO includes features unlike most festivals, such as bourbon, wine, and tequila tasting rooms, a comedy tent, art exhibits, chef-prepared food, and toilets with running water.
The festival calls itself a curated “adult escape” and “new kind of arts and entertainment ‘mix-perience’ designed around comfort, quality, and good times.” And if all goes well, KAABOO will likely change the burgeoning landscape of music festivals, helping to create a new market for a mass music experience, blessedly lacking a single second spent inside a porta potty.
The chain of events that would coalesce into KAABOO began with an 11-year-old kid in Louisville, Kentucky, hearing an obscenity sung louder than he knew any sound could be and falling into a musical trance that would henceforth guide his life.
It was October 3, 1989, and Adam Spriggs had somehow talked his mother into taking him to Bon Jovi’s “New Jersey” tour, which also featured Skid Row.
“I had never heard the F-word that loud in my entire life, and that was just Skid Row,” said Spriggs. “And when Bon Jovi comes out and flies up the stage, it was mindblowing, like this is much more than these tapes I am listening to at home. I can’t believe this really exists…You mean, I can sing along at the top of my lungs and the band is still louder than me? So it’s perfect, nobody can hear how bad I sing and me and 20,000 people are having this moment.”
He had a realization that would never leave him: “This is what life is about. I just want this.”
“So that,” said Spriggs, a talent buyer who books local club Saint Rocke as well as the Hermosa Beach Summer Concert Series, the Redondo Beach Lobster Festival and now, KAABOO, “was my start.”
A year later at a concert on the other side of the country, 26-year-old Roger Leblanc had a similar epiphany. Leblanc, a native of Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, grew up playing guitar and singing and eventually worked briefly as a gigging musician. But on this night in 1990, he was standing in the shadows of the stage at the Ventura Theater, looking out at an audience of 1,200 people enraptured by a show he’d booked. He was new to the booking business, and — after a subsequent quarter century career in which he has booked somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000 shows — he can’t even recall the band who was playing that night.
But Leblanc knew he’d found his calling.
“Nobody knew I had any role in that show but me,” said Leblanc, who is Spriggs’ business partner and the founder of Madison Entertainment, the agency that booked KAABOO. “And frankly, I realized at that moment in time…I wasn’t on stage, I wasn’t gigging, but what I was seeing the audience get out of it was exactly what I wanted. I didn’t need to be the center of attention to do this. I preferred to be behind the scenes. For me that was an epiphany.”
KAABOO, which begins Friday and runs through Sunday, has been built with the intention of creating many more such music-empowered moments. The festival features seven stages and 100 bands. It is the brainchild of Bryan Gordon, a self-described “serial entrepreneur” who has launched endeavors in several fields, ranging from hotels to the wine business to commercial real estate and the oil and gas industry. KAABOO is his very first foray into music organizing.
But like Spriggs and Leblanc and most of the artists who will be on stage, Gordon fell under music’s sway as a child. It happened in 1971. He was nine years old and attending his first concert, the Allman Brothers at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, New Jersey.
“Music is a primal force in and of itself,” Gordon said. “If you take it in live and get that cocktail going, the true music, unvarnished, unedited, watching the interplay between musicians and audience basically riffing off each other…this thing happens where the crowd goes from being a bunch of individuals to a community mindset of sorts. It happens and you don’t talk about it; it’s like being at a church, a Baptist revival, just a really powerful phenomena you can’t get from listening to a record.”
Live music has become increasingly vital. The music industry has been going through a period of disruption since the advent of digitally available music. Recorded music sales plummeted by 50 percent from 1999 to 2009. But during that same period, live concerts sales filled the gap. Live music revenue increased from $1.5 billion to $4.6 billion in the U.S. During the economic recession, growth leveled off, but jumped again by 26 percent from 2013 to 2014, from $5.1 billion to $6.2 billion, according to Pollstar. Billboard magazine estimated live music globally reached a record $20 billion in revenues in 2014.
Festivals have been a key component of this growth. Pollstar counts more than 1,500 festivals worldwide. Such fests as Napa Valley’s Bottle Rocket, which features fine wines and food, and KAABOO are indicative of a trend.
“I’ve been really moved by the power of the live music experience,” Gordon said. “But I felt that the existing concert programs and festivals didn’t always make it easy and comfortable to relax. So it dawned on me one day that there was perhaps an opportunity that took advantage of all the aspects of live music and mitigated the negative aspects of the experience — to combine the music with really cool programming and create a really well-rounded, 360-degree experience.”
Thus was born KAABOO. Gordon made inquiries around the music industry and repeatedly was referred to Leblanc and Spriggs. Their talent buying agency has become the little mouse that roared. In an industry dominated by giants such as Live Nation, AEG, and Nederlander, their little firm, Madison, was named Talent Buyers of the Year by the annual Pollstar awards at the Ryman Theater in Nashville in February.
“Me and the other guys I work with, we aren’t looking for that kind of attention,” Leblanc said. “Humility is the best thing in the world and we do the best we can. We don’t toot our own horns and we fly under the radar. We got that award from Pollstar because I got so old they wanted to do something nice before I croak.”
KAABOO is the biggest undertaking yet for all involved. Music booking is rife with stress — hundreds of details need to be aligned for any concert to be successful, from the transportation to marketing to sound to the food in the green room and the abrupt and often shifting demands of both artists and fans and the uncertain financial outcome of the whole ungainly equation.
All this is mediated by the booker in the background.
A single day of rain can wipe out two years of planning and several million dollars of investment.
Spriggs, who just finished booking and running the Hermosa Beach Summer Concerts with Saint Rocke owner Allen Sanford, is trying to do what music has taught him to do: stay in the moment.
“Yesterday, I got a bit stressed out,” he said in an interview last week. “It gets a bit overwhelming, with the [Redondo Beach] Lobster Festival coming in a few weeks, and we are 10 days out from KAABOO, and I still have dates to fill for October at Saint Rocke. And then I kind of stopped myself for a second, took a deep breath, and was like, ‘You need to enjoy this moment. Because, and I hope it’s not, this could be the pinnacle of your career, and if it is, you need to enjoy every moment.’ And part of the stress is part of the fun: enjoy the stress. I hope there are going to be 20 more KAABOOs, and there are 20 or more festivals for me to book. But if this is the only one, I want to savor it, and enjoy every second of it.”
And in a larger sense, that is KAABOO, a word that the festival’s organizers made up (there was tequila and a late night fire involved) but one that has meaning — living in the moment, through music, and in music.
“The point, for me, of KAABOO is to take a group of people who surely live in a world of pressure — kids, jobs, homework, commuting — and just for a little bit get out of all that and into the moment,” Gordon said. “Just pure unadulterated joy, just for a little while. We all need that and we all don’t get enough of that in our lives. It’s not curing cancer, but it is a little antidote to the day-to-day character of modern life.”
Not Fade Away
Spriggs’ road to KAABOO may have begun at age 11 with exposure to a thunderous F-bomb and a flying Bon Jovi, but a key detour occurred a little more than decade later when, as a fresh graduate from Syracuse University’s film school, he found himself in Hollywood as a contestant on a gameshow.
The show was called Smush and his successful answer was Mutahjazzyjeffersondaviscupohstriad. The object was to “smush” answers together and his six questions involved the names of the remote control “sound off” button and and Karl Malone’s NBA team, the identities of Will Smith’s DJ partner and the Confederacy’s leader, and what you call the stuff that wraps around furniture and the capital of Saudi Arabia.
“I made $8,000 and the final round was against a MENSA member, so that was cool,” Spriggs said. “I swept the questions.”
The money Spriggs won allowed him to devote himself to finding a foothold in the music industry. He’d arrived in Hollywood a year earlier and worked as a production assistant. Now he made a conscious decision: his future would be in music, not film. He took low paying jobs just to be near music and learned lessons he’d never forget. His first job was with MTV.
“I’m fresh out of college, and they are flying us to St. Louis to hang with Nelly, and Houston to hang with Destiny’s Child,” Spriggs recalled. “It was awesome, and the people I was with were so bitter jaded about the whole thing. I”m going to be shaking with Beyonce? I don’t care. When am I going to meet Beyonce again? Everybody around me is rolling their eyes and so annoyed. And I told myself at that point, I am always going to be a fan. The reason I got into this business is because I love music, I love being fan of music, and I love being a fan of rock stars.” “Sometimes you can be friends with them, and it’s really cool. But at the end of the day I am still a fan…I never want to get jaded, man.”
He did a lot of music industry gigs. He loaded trucks at the Wiltern Theater. He got sushi for Britney Spears after shows. He met Poison. He met Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips. All along, he kept falling more in love with it. He kept thinking to himself, I’m getting paid to do this? But he also realized he wanted more.
“I want to be the guy who is a part of it, even to play a small role, but I want more,” Spriggs remembers thinking. “So I figured, how do I book these shows?”
His girlfriend and future wife, Carrie, was working as an assistant for Leblanc, who at the time was booking the Key Club on Sunset Strip in Hollywood. He needed someone to help with the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano and the Galaxy Theater in Santa Ana. She suggested Leblanc talk to her boyfriend.
“Oh come on,” Leblanc said. “For what? I can’t afford to pay him to drive down to Orange County every day.”
“Oh no, no, no,” she said. “You’ve got to talk to him.”
Leblanc finally did talk to Spriggs. “I absolutely fell in love with him,” he recalled.
He also stood back in amazement as Spriggs drove from Hollywood to Orange County every day for next to nothing, throwing himself fully into the booking business. He rose quickly from assistant to Leblanc’s partner. What started at the Coach House 13 years later has culminated in KAABOO.
And as the booking agency Leblanc founded has grown in reach and reputation — booking seven clubs from California to Nashville, several small festivals, various and sundry corporate and private events — Spriggs has remained its musical beating heart.
“This guy is brilliant,” Leblanc said. “A true music head. He never played on a stage, but he loves music more than anyone I have ever met. This guy goes to more shows than anyone I know. Music is his drug. I’m passionate about the music business; he’s passionate about the music. It makes me smile every time I hear him, how passionate he is.”
Spriggs doesn’t just go to his own shows. He and Carrie hit nearly every big show that passes through LA, especially his abiding passions, such as Springsteen, U2, and Pearl Jam. And there are some bands he has championed since his very beginnings as a booker — particularly the Old 97s and its lead singer, Rhett Miller, who was first brought to Orange County, at the Galaxy, through Spriggs (as were The Killers).
To witness Spriggs at one of these shows is to catch a glimpse of the 11-year-old kid at the Bon Jovi concert in Louisville. He bounces. He sings. He fist pumps. He might even tear up with emotion occasionally.
“When I go to shows, I live those songs,” Spriggs said. “I am the nerdy guy who jumps up and down and sings along at the top of his lungs. Especially an Old 97s show — I am there to live those lyrics. Those lyrics are in my head, in my car and at home, but at the show, I am feeling those songs. That connection, that religion.”
Leblanc said that this is a rare thing in the business, where years of ups and downs and glimpses behind the curtains often takes the music fan out of the music booker.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” he said. “Just so cool. It’s what I love about Adam, and it motivates me. I love him like a brother. He’s as kind as they come, as honest as they come…He’s got this naivety about him, a purity, and such heart.”
It was something Gordon picked up on quickly.
“He hasn’t become jaded at all,” Gordon said. “There’s almost an innocence about him that’s delightful and totally lovable. But he’s still a very effective business guy, notwithstanding that…and he’s got an encyclopedic knowledge of music, which is amazing to tap into, and great well of not only experience but opinions. He’s really got his finger on the pulse of what is happening with various artists and what’s happening with the sort of zeitgeist of the public. That is part of the art of putting something like KAABOO together, this mixing of flavors, and he’s just instinctual about it.”
Spriggs did have a brush with darkness. In 2008, he and Leblanc became part owners in a music venue at the Redondo Beach pier called Brixton, which was owned by an old friend of Leblanc’s, Dennis Needleman. The subterranean spot at the foot of the pier seemed ripe for a music club. Needleman came from a successful background in commercial real estate who’d been lured into the club business by another operator.
“Dennis really loves music, and sometimes that is the worst thing you can be — like the drunk who owns the bar,” Leblanc said. “Music guys with a little money sometimes fall prey to someone who tells them how cool it would be to open a concert venue.”
Leblanc and Spriggs tried to help him revive what had quickly become a financial sinkhole. They booked music more ambitiously than anyone had done in Redondo Beach since the heyday of such clubs as Sweetwater and The Strand more than three decades ago. Some of the great shows in recent South Bay history occurred there — including impromptu appearances by Prince and Stevie Wonder. But the pier location just didn’t draw people, and it nearly killed Spriggs.
“At the time, my dream was to own a venue, so getting to be an owner there, and Carrie was there working there alongside me,” Spriggs said. “She’s doing publicity, I’m doing booking, working with Dennis hand in hand. We went all in. We really lived and died by that. We’d have a good show, the next morning we’d be walking our dogs and feeling good. We’d have a bad show, the next morning we are walking our dogs with our heads down.”
At the time, he also developed, if not quite an enmity, then a fierce rivalry with another new club nearby, Saint Rocke in Hermosa Beach. Owner Allen Sanford had determined that the Beach Cities could not sustain two such similar clubs — it drove up the cost of obtaining talent, Sanford said — and it became a fight to the death.
Saint Rocke won. Brixton folded. But in the end, Sanford recognized that Leblanc and Spriggs could be of help to Saint Rocke. He hired them to book the club, and eventually, the Hermosa Beach Summer Concerts.
“I realized Adam and Roger were the missing piece to the puzzle,” Sanford said. “They’ve been a tremendous asset to Saint Rocke. Adam’s purity of love for music is really what makes him good at what he does. I lost it. I got too frustrated — it became more of a business for me.”
“Adam is our true curator…And Saint Rocke has let him grow. He now books the summer concerts and the Terranea summer shows. He’s my thesaurus and guide. My job is to go out and find new business and run the team. We’ve built trust, and in the owner-booker relationship, that is essential. I’m essentially giving him money to play at the poker table. And he treats my money like it’s his.”
Spriggs said that one thing got him through the demise of Brixton. Music, of course. Specifically, he listened to Bruce Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” almost daily for months. “If I ever meet Bruce,” he said. “I’m going to thank him for that album.”
Still, for almost two years, he and Carrie wouldn’t even ride by the Redondo pier.
“But then you realize, if I did not let that go, I would not be where I am right now,” Spriggs said. “In February, we released the KAABOO lineup, and that weekend we were out riding bikes and we went by there, and I had this moment where, I f***ing love you, man. I’m okay with what happened.”
Rhett Miller has nearly given up several times in the course of a 25 year career in the music business. He’s the lead singer for the Old 97s, and though the band has had its share of success, it’s also never quite reached the mainstream and reaped its financial rewards. They’ve continued on grit and love alone on a long musical journey that has circled the world several times over.
One friendly face at the bend of the road for a long time now has been Spriggs, who first met Miller at a merch table as a fan long ago in Hollywood and still remembers that Miller remarked on the coolness of his shirt. Eventually Spriggs championed the Old 97s, and particularly Miller’s solo work, bringing him to Brixton and later to Saint Rocke and Terranea.
“One of the big reasons I love my job is because of people like Adam, who do what they do because they love music and love artists and love the idea of bringing good music to their community,” Miller said. “It’s almost doing charity through music for your community — you make money on some gigs, lose it on others, and just try not to be at the losing end at the end of the day. Adam is really a godsend for that region. He’s got great taste and is willing to go out on a limb.”
Over the years, the two developed a friendship, and occasionally had heart to heart talks about whether to continue in the music business.
“So many times you almost give up,” Miller said. “‘Okay, fine, I get it. I’ll give up.’ But there’s a risk in not doing it, in not believing in yourself, in not having hope that you can ride this thing out — because this is the right thing to do, and I think Adam in the end believes it’s the noble thing to do. Because it makes the area a better place to be. There are kids who are in bands now who would not be if not for Adam booking a show that changed their lives.”
“It’s not curing cancer,” Miller said. “That’s not why we keep doing this. It may be something small, but it’s something good….All we have right now is this moment, this connection as human beings. We could all be dead tomorrow, so let’s do our best to make something beautiful, and appreciate this moment we made.”
The KAABOO booking began a year ago in June and didn’t wrap up until January. One of the first calls Spriggs made was to Miller.
“I’ve got this really badass thing I’m putting together,” he told him. “And I’m taking you with me.”
“F*** yeah, you are,” Miller said.
Sometime late Saturday afternoon, Spriggs will clear away his responsibilities for an hour, and he’ll arrive at the Old 97s’ stage. His mother, Donna Hall, who began this musical journey with him (and who he stopped attending concerts with for a few years after she napped at a Pearl Jam show) will be back by his side. His wife Carrie will dance alongside him. Rhett Miller will at some point climb atop a speaker cabinet and do his famous stage leap during the song “Timebomb” — something he’s been doing for 20 years, despite a few misses and a few sprained knees. Spriggs will be singing at the top of his lungs, and several thousand people will be singing along.
“I never,” Spriggs said, “want not to be a fan.”
For more information on KAABOO, see KaabooDelMar.com.