Tom front-row at the Butthole Surfers, the Island, 1982.
Tom with soundman extraordinaire Chris Grayson (TSOL, Chili Peppers, Suicidal Tendencies, Dead Kennedys, Concrete Blonde)
RHM: Tom let’s draw this towards a close, but is there anything that I have left unsaid here, is there anything you think I should have touched on or asked you, but I didn’t; is there anything you want to add that we didn’t get to?
TB: Well, you know, when I was young I was sure that rock-n-roll was gonna save the world, and then life got in the way, and the horrible things that have happened with our economy and society since Ronald Reagan started de-regulating everything, Bill Clinton continued to de-regulate even more, George Bush de-regulated anything else that was left over, and now Donald Trump’s gonna de-regulate and privatize the very last few things that the government oversees. We were all in this together at one point in time, it felt like a city, a country, and a community and now it’s the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. It’s not fun anymore. People are uncomfortable and nervous and concerned about basic items that they were never concerned about, so the world has become difficult when it doesn’t have to be, and un-fun when it could be fun. The corporate takeover of America and the de-regulation that Ronald Reagan started is responsible for it. But now I have come back to rock-n-roll is gonna save the world! It’s the only hope we have! So seriously, I’m going to go full-force back into the music business and start a media company that includes radio stations and start selectively promoting and producing events with entertainers, agents, managers, companies, and businesses that I like and have similar methods of operation, goals, and reason for being. I’m going to put together a company that is larger and more diverse than anything I’ve done in the past, but all things that I have extreme experience in and talent for. Things I’ve been successful with in the past. People are getting tired of LiveNation and Cumulus and Clear Channel and the crap that they’ve been fed.
When I was a kid we had a buffet of entertainment; to make a food allegory. You went to a buffet and you had lobster, shrimp, crab, steak, vegetables, salads, and all kinds of things. You had all kinds of music, all kinds of entertainment, all kinds of sports, and it was all affordable and you could have it whenever you wanted. With the privatization, de-regulation, and merging and conglomeration of all of the businesses, specifically in the entertainment business, it’s been shrunken. Do you want plain rice, boiled potatoes, spaghetti with no sauce, or a piece of bread? I mean its rap music or pop-crap music or rap music or pop-crap music. Those are your options, and the people were like okay, I’ll take the boiled potatoes, but you know people are now going well I don’t have to do any of that! There are other choices. I can grow my own food, and I can make my own music. For music and movies and entertainment people are now going to the beach. For a $300 ticket times two plus $40 parking and $15 beers, you can take your whole family to the beach for three days or a week, and eat out, instead of going to a concert for two people one time. So people are saying wait, I don’t have to choose between boiled potatoes or plain rice. I can just not listen to music, and I can buy a boat! I can go to the beach. I can take up crocheting or croquette-ing or something like that. But when I was a kid the options were unlimited. You just had to figure out what it is you wanted to do and apply yourself. And I say this all the time, I didn’t have a computer, or a cellphone, because we didn’t have computers and cellphones. So what you did when I was younger is you chose sports, you chose music, you chose academia, what were the other things? Motorcycles were really big, but if you saw my friends that had motorcycles, they would ride them on the weekend, drive them out two hours into the desert, ride them, and for the next two or three days they would take the whole thing apart, clean it, put it all back together just to ride it again for three or four hours. But that’s what they did because they loved that. The same thing with the guitar. You didn’t say lemme go check my emails in between your guitar playing because we didn’t have emails. So when you picked something, sports, people played sports eight hours a day, six or seven days a week if they loved that sport, tennis or whatever. And now you don’t have to pick anything. You just have your cellphone flicker in your eyeballs 24 hours a day showing you the whole world, which is really not the world. You can’t see the world through your cellphone, you can only see the world through going out in public and touching the world. There needs to be more choice and people need to be more focused and willing to work hard, and take risks. And I don’t know if you know this, but Jesus is going to come back soon, on his golden-winged steed, and he’s going to wield his nine-bladed sword upon the sinners and free all of us into Valhalla. Or something like that. After that I’m not sure, just duck when the nine-bladed sword comes and you’ll end up… no wait. You end up in Valhalla if you get killed by your enemy in battle. So yeah, I’m looking towards some Valhalla time pretty soon! Either I’m gonna vanquish LiveNation and Clear Channel and become the most well-known and successful entertainment executive that the world has ever seen, or I’m gonna drink in Valhalla for eternity. If it doesn’t work out for me and they stick me in the throat, I’ll just drink in Valhalla. Either way I still win! At least I got that going for me!
RHM: Well then let me turn you around in the other direction; are there any shows you remember as being particularly catastrophic or a train wreck, something that should never have happened but your name is attached to anyway?
TB: Ooohhh… no. The only one that even falls into that category was the Death, Pestilence, and Carcass show at Fitzgerald’s. This was right before the Vatican opened so this would be ’89 or early ’90, and I rented Fitzgerald’s which I had 20 or 30 times before in the past, and I booked Death, Pestilence, and Carcass. Pestilence and Carcass played, the place was sold out, it was packed, and they played good sets, everybody enjoyed it. I remember the sound check. One of the bands’ singers just stood up there for 30 minutes and repeated (in death-metal guttural voice) “Your rotting corpse… your rotting corpse… yoouuur rottiiiiiing cooooorrrrrpse!!” and that was his sound check! So we’re watching him going, well, but when Death came on to play someone threw a cup of water up in the air and a piece of ice hit the bass player in the hand and he ran offstage and refused to come back on and finish the show. They got like two minutes into the first song and…. For some reason the wise people at Fitzgerald’s had decided to store their empty longnecks out in public. Back then you could not buy longnecks at a store, longnecks were only for bars and they were refillable. When you looked at them, there were wear lines on the bottles because they would send them back, soak them in water and peel the label off, then they would sanitize them and refill them, and there would still be lines. So they would stack them up and send them back to the brewery to get refilled, and people picked up the bottles and started throwing them through Fitzgerald’s windows. Then some lady picked up a fire extinguisher and started spraying everybody, and luckily that ended everything! But they called that a riot, the cops came, there were helicopters, there was damage to the facility but I paid for it, and no one was hurt. And it’s not legendary; it might be legendary in a handful of people’s minds, but it’s not anything that people associate with me. But the death metal thing was really hard to deal with. People like to smash stuff, and the bands were often not very pleasant. The other bad thing that happened was at a Morbid Angel show about a year or two later at the Vatican. It was sold out, big show, and after the sound check a bunch of Christians showed up to protest the show, and so the singer from Morbid Angel went out there and stood around with them to listen to what they were saying. I was standing out there to see what they were doing, and one of the Christian protesters came up and gave the singer from Morbid Angel a flyer and said “Jesus loves you.” And he says, “He loves my cock up his ass!” So that was the sound check, and during the show this young kid stabbed somebody pretty bad.
RHM: One of the Christian kids?
TB: No, nothing to do with the Christians, the Christians had left, the Christians were completely gone, we’re in the club, the show is going on, and they pull this guy out, he’s like probably 28 years old, they pull him out to the front of the Vatican and lay him down on the floor, and he’s got two or three puncture wounds, bleeding all over the place, and there’s like 50 people still in line waiting to get in and get their tickets and about half of them leave. What happened was that this older guy had been picking on a younger kid in his neighborhood, just bullying him brutally for a year or two and the kid decided to stab him at the Vatican. He stabbed him three times with a nice-sized knife and punctured and collapsed his lung. So the cops go get the kid and they bring him in my office, and they’re sitting with this kid for like an hour. They call his dad, and the hospital finally calls back and says okay, we put a tube in the guy’s lung and inflated it, so he’s going to live, and the policeman, Dwayne Reddy, who is now one of the highest-ranking cops in downtown Houston, he’s the head of the Homicide department, but he used to be the head policeman at the Vatican and the Unicorn, he tells the kid hey the guy’s gonna live, you should feel lucky, aren’t you glad? And the kid goes no I wish I woulda killed that motherfucker. And so I’m like all right, maybe death metal is not the way to go here! I mean, people played for me very well. Texas concerts were legendary. I fed people very well, my crews were very friendly; the concert halls were indestructible. There was no “Oh my God don’t do this or don’t do that,” it was more like do whatever the hell you want. Just don’t stab anybody, or light anything on fire, don’t fuck the children, you know, just your basic things.
So I mean, Eddie Vedder loved the Unicorn, man, he called it the Supermarket of Rock and he said it was his favorite venue in the United States. The bands performed very well. I did a good job of getting them newspaper and radio; when they showed up into town or if I had them for a week touring multiple cities, on their off days I would take them to radio interviews, I took them to in-stores, I took them to dinner, I took them to lunch, I filled up their schedule, they were well fed and my crew was very good, and the Texas audiences were great, so I would say 90% of the shows that I promoted are considered legendary concerts by everybody that went to them.
RHM: My next two follow-up questions I think you’ve already answered, Tom, because they dealt with topics like what you think were the keys to the success of TAB Productions, and then how did you get into the opening of the Vatican and the Unicorn?
TB: I had great staff. Rob Slaughter was my head of production, and Chuck Coy was my head of production as well. Rob worked the Unicorn and the Sam Houston Coliseum and some of the bigger shows; Chuck did the Vatican and the Unicorn all the time. The crew I put together were not hipsters, they were not scenesters, though some of them turned into it after working for me for a while, they got an earring or a tattoo and started blending in, but for the most part they were suburban country kids that I’d known for a while. I trained them well. I worked at a record store, I had a concert promoting company, I promoted concerts myself. I’d done every job you can think of, so I can train anybody to do anything. At retail I worked the counter, I did returns, I ordered classical, I stocked the new release wall, did the singles, stocked the rock section, and stocking the other sections are no different than the rock section; I can train anybody how to work retail from the lowest level to the top level. I can train anybody to work at a club from doorman to general manager, or I can teach anybody everything there is in the business of concert promoting. I spent lots of time training people. I trained 350 people over five or six years to retain 35 of them for ten years. My spiel always was why do you want a job here? Its long hours, low pay, hard work, and when everybody’s partying we’re mopping up and loading the shit in or loading it out. You don’t get to go to the after-party with the band, you don’t get to go to the radio station with the band; while they’re doing that we’re setting the equipment up. When people are having fun we’re making sure they’re safe, we’re feeding them and selling them beer, and making sure everything’s done. And when everybody leaves and goes to party at 11 o’clock, we’re here from 11 till 1:30 or 2:00 cleaning up and putting everything away. But that’s why at 1:30 or 2 I would open up the beer bar and let the people eat whatever they wanted for an hour or two. We would talk about the show, and they would drink and you know, we fed everybody. That was one of the things, everybody was always fed. No one went hungry, and everybody always had water and soda pop, and if they needed a place to sleep, couldn’t get home, there were places in the Vatican or in the dressing rooms behind it or in the offices where people could crash, so we treated everybody more like it was a small company than a large company. And it was a small company. But I trained everybody well and then we treated everybody well. I mean, 350 people trained and I kept 35 of them. I spent so much time. I’d spend three months training somebody, and I would tell them long hours, low pay, hard work, we don’t party with the rock stars. Then six weeks later they come back and say I quit, this sucks. These are long hours, hard work, low pay, and I don’t get to party with the rock stars! And when I was telling them that they’d say “I don’t care, I don’t care, I want the job” So, um, the staff, you know? We had personable people who were well trained and they did it because they liked rock music and wanted to be around it.
RHM: Excellent! So let’s change gears just a little bit and move on to the Butthole Surfers themselves. I’m sure that there are millions of Rivethead readers around the world anxiously awaiting the inside scoop on your involvement as manager of this group for what, like 10 years? How did you get hooked up with those guys in the first place and what was that ride like?
TB: Well I saw the Butthole Surfers play at Joe Starr’s Omni on Westheimer in ’81, and I saw them play at the Island in ’82, but I didn’t meet them until ’83. I booked TSOL, and Mike Vraney, TSOL’s manager, called me and said they want the Butthole Surfers to open. Now, I’d seen the Butthole Surfers two or three times at that time before, so I knew who they were, and so he gave me Gibby Haynes, the singer for the Butthole Surfers, phone number, and I called Gibby and said TSOL wants you to play and we can pay you $150. He said “I would love to but I have no band. It’s me and Paul Leary, the guitarist, but our drummer and bass player quit recently. This is two months away, and I don’t have enough time to find anybody, and, um, we can’t play!” So I told Mike Vraney that, and he said well offer them $300. So I called them back and I offered him $300, and Gibby tells me the same thing. Mike says offer him $500. I call him back and Gibby goes “ok, we’ll do it, but I don’t know what we’re gonna do. I don’t have a bass player or a drummer.” So I talked to him maybe once or twice in February, and then March comes around and we’re setting everything up at the Lawndale Art Annex, it’s my first concert, I’m using sound and lights from a cover band from Northwest Houston called Tempest, they played the churches, and all around here they played, maybe Pacer’s on 1960. So they had a PA and lights, and I had dated the girl that was their singer in 1977, five years earlier when I was 13 or 14, and the other guys in the band were friends of mine, so very inexpensively I got a very nice, very professional sound and light set-up. Then here comes Paul and Gibby, late, in this OJ Simpson-looking white Ford Bronco, and they show up just high as fuck on acid. Stereo blaring, car skidding into the gravel that was Lawndale’s parking lot, comes kicking up all this dust and shit and they both literally jump out of the thing just high as shit and unable to talk. They had a reel-to-reel tape player that they put a bunch of beats and stuff on that they planned to plug in to the PA and Gibby and Paul were going to play along to this reel-to-reel tape player. So they plug the reel-to-reel tape player in and they start playing along, and it’s horrific. I mean they’re so high, it might have been PCP, or it might have been acid and PCP. I’m not sure, they were both into acid and PCP, and a funny thing, I read in an interview with Paul Leary recently and he said “I don’t know where people get this whole acid and PCP thing, I mean we did it a few times, but the legends and the stories…” but they were always on acid at shows. Not daily, but at shows they would do acid and PCP. All of them, like the Grateful Dead, would drop serious amounts of acid, then go out and play a show, and then hang out and drink beer afterwards, so they were on stage, and it was a train wreck. They were not playing along to the tape player, it did have beats on it but they couldn’t follow, and Gibby’s pants fell off. His clothes used to fall off all the time, he would have these clothes that were like hanging off of him, and he’d walk around and do stuff and his clothes would fall off, and he’d be like totally naked. So his fuckin’ clothes fall off and he’s up there buck naked on stage screaming into the microphone, and Paul’s playing guitar to this looped tape thing, and it’s horrible. People started booing, and throwing stuff, and then people started flicking lit cigarettes at Gibby, and he was like dancing around dodging them, and one got stuck in his pubic hair and he’s like “Oh, a singe-er!” So then this guy Kevin Jackson, who was the sound man at the Island, jumped up, turned the tape player off and started playing drums with them, and it ended and it was a horrible debacle. It was horrible. I have it on video, we videotaped it and I have it somewhere; it’s horrific, and it’s why we didn’t videotape them a year later when they opened up for the Dead Kennedys. We taped the Dead Kennedys and Really Red but the video guy didn’t want to waste the tape on the Butthole Surfers, and for the Dead Kennedys they came out and they just blew everybody away. Just rock solid, one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, and the videotape guy is like we had it all set up and plugged in but everybody was off drinking beer, and they’re like whoa, what happened? And it was a short set; they couldn’t get everybody back together to get any of it, and everybody was like what, is that the same band? So after that I was in contact with them, I’d booked them to open up for the Dead Kennedys, and then I just started promoting lots of shows with them in Houston, Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, and New Orleans.
From ’83 to ’89, I promoted lots of shows with them, and they were nomads. They would go on tour, and then they would have money and wherever they were they would live for two, three, four, five, six, seven months. Chicago, New York, Athens GA, Austin, San Antonio, they would just tour and then stop and wherever they were they would rent a cheap place and just live until they ran out of money, and then they’d tour some more. During that period, like ’83 to ’89, I was a well-known concert promoter and I had a phone, so people could get ahold of me, and the Butthole Surfers were nomads with no phone, and they wouldn’t be heard from for months, if they weren’t touring nobody would know where they were, so people would call me. Spin, Rolling Stone, concert promoters, attorneys, other people, they would call me and say where are they and can I book some dates with them? Or, do they want to do an interview? So I started setting up dates, and setting up interviews with major publications and stuff for them, in ’84, ’85, ’86, ’87, ’88, ’89, and at the beginning of their tours they would play Houston. I would rent their truck for them on my credit card cause they didn’t have a credit card, I’d go up to Austin and rent a truck, get their equipment and drive to Houston, then we’d play a show or two in Houston, then Austin, Dallas, San Antonio. I’d pay them five grand a show, and they’d play three, four, five shows for me, and that was their road cash. They wouldn’t start another tour until they were dead broke, which meant they couldn’t start the next tour, so I would put everything on my credit card and then promote three or four or five shows at the beginning of the tour, and very regularly one or two or three shows at the end of the tour. The beginning of the tour was what gave them their crew money and all that. So I wasn’t managing them but I was doing way more than a concert promoter would do for a band, but I was doing it because I thought if I did that they would give me more dates to promote in Texas and Louisiana, and I did that until ’89. Then I started managing them in ’89 and I managed them from ’89 to ’99. And very similarly to what I said about concert promoting, ’83 to ’89 was fun, and in ’89 I said I’ve either got to turn this into a business or just do it for fun and go get a real job. So I started ‘officially’ managing them and getting a commission for the work that I did and not just more dates and some friendly accolades from them. I actually started receiving a management commission for doing the work. From ’89 to ’99 I managed them, and signed them to Capitol Records, did the Lollapalooza tour, toured with Nirvana, toured with Pearl Jam, I mean just tons and tons of all the stuff that people know them for I had a hand in. To go back to your question earlier, the Beastie Boys Check Your Head dates were some of the best things I ever saw in Houston, Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, New Orleans, and then on the… I can’t remember… I either did Houston and New Orleans at the beginning of the tour and then Houston-Austin-Dallas-San Antonio-New Orleans at the end of the tour, or vice versa, but I did seven dates, I believe, on the Check Your Head tour. They played the Unicorn, and then they played the Sam Houston Coliseum and both of those were just some of the best concerts I’ve ever seen by anybody anywhere. The Sam Houston Coliseum one was on a Friday night and it was Mike D.’s birthday. After the show I took the Beastie Boys and their friends to Mai’s Vietnamese Restaurant, and we sat there from midnight till 3 a.m. and ate everything you could eat Vietnamese, and this was when Mai’s was one of the best restaurants in Houston. What we didn’t know was that one of the Vietnamese waitresses had called her son, who was a huge Beastie Boys fan, and told him that the Beastie Boys were eating, and so he got like 20 of his friends, these are all 15-year-old Vietnamese kids, and they all got their hip-hop stuff on, hats, zippers and stuff, and they all waited outside of Mai’s so we didn’t know they were there. When we went out, they were all like “Beastie Boys! Beastie Boys!” and they all started singing Beastie Boys songs and jumping up and down! And Mike D. was just blown away, he was like man this is the best birthday present! At the show he goes “it’s my birthday Tom, you wanna take me out afterwards?” And I’m like “what, titty bar?” And he goes “no I’m not a titty bar guy, do something fun. No titty bar. No strippers.” So I’m like allright, what do I do? We’re going to Mai’s. You know the whole thing afterwards, you couldn’t have set anything up that cool, and they wrote about that. There’s an article in a magazine later that year, one of the roadie’s tour diaries and I think Adam Yauch (MCA) it was also part of his tour diary, but they mentioned that prominently; they mentioned my New Orleans show and they mentioned the Houston show, and they mentioned going out to eat afterwards and the Vietnamese kids, and they dropped my name a couple times. I think I have a copy of it somewhere. But the Beastie Boys were great to work with. The Chili Peppers were great fun to work with. I even had really good relationships with all the people that were ‘difficult’. Glenn Danzig was extremely pleasant to work with; I’d known Glenn since 1982 and hung out with him 10 or 12 times, worked with him two or three times, never had a problem with him. Al Jourgensen the same way, although I’ve got a great Al Jourgensen story when I did Ministry at the Sam Houston Coliseum, but Al’s a notorious asshole, and he was always pleasant to work with. Man, I mean we fed everybody well and my crew was always there and we engaged them and kept their attention, and kept them away from the dope and the alcohol as much as possible just by keeping them busy. And they liked and respected me, and didn’t wanna be fucked up and didn’t wanna perform poorly, so conversely they performed extremely well. It’s not just me saying this and my “ego” bragging, you can ask the people that went. My shows were legendary, and lots of people that travelled and followed these bands, and they would come to my dates, and I would see them in other cities and they would always tell me that the Texas dates, and specifically the Houston dates, were always wild.
Tom Bunch loves to talk, this much is certain, but he rarely agrees to interview because he does not see himself as a celebrity. He sees himself as a businessman, and businessmen are not rock stars. In the business of rock music, though, few businessmen know the industry so intimately, fewer still have devoted as much of their life-blood and sweat to it, and none are more qualified to speak on the business of music. As founder of TAB Productions in the 1980’s, owner of both the Vatican and the Unicorn in the early 90’s, and band manager for the outrageous Butthole Surfers through the rest of that decade, Bunch’s credentials stand tall in an industry peopled with sleaze and fly-by-night operators. Today, he sits down with Rivethead Magazine to reflect upon his lengthy and illustrious career, the many famous artists and bands he’s been involved with, politics, the economy, sports, why manners still matter in today’s society, how LiveNation is nothing less than the Devil incarnate, that rock-n-roll may yet save the world, and he might even have a sandwich for you!
Tom is a natural interview subject and I am grateful for his willingness to share with Rivethead.
Tom with Eddie Vedder, 1991
And the bands played for a long time back then! I would contract them for 75 or 90 minutes and they’d play two hours, and want to play more. Now you try to contract somebody for 90 minutes, and they’re like well what about 60 minutes and an optional encore on our part? Something’s happened in the last 20 years. Before, you couldn’t get Pearl Jam off the stage. They only had one album and they’re playing for 2 hours and 20 minutes! And I’d be going come on guys, its 11:30. I didn’t want to have them stop, but at the same time it costs money to keep a place open, and you ask them in advance how long they’re going to play, so you tell your sound company and your crew and everybody, and if its 45 minutes later your sound guy is going dude, I got four people or six people working for me at $30 an hour and it’s an hour longer than that. So I usually paid them a little bit more, or opened up the bar and let everybody stay and goof off, but now bands want to play as short as possible and get as much money as possible. The amount of time is important to them and the amount of money is more important to them, and back then the money wasn’t the motivating factor. It was important, but it wasn’t the motivating factor, and I think that’s what’s changed with money being the only or most important thing people are less concerned about the audience or their performance, or anything else other than the money. But we made good money, everybody was making money, paying their rent, nobody was going hungry. The money we made back then was more money than we thought we would ever make in our whole lives, and it was teeny compared to what bands charge now and what the ticket prices are.
RHM: Yeah, it’s crazy these days. So, bringing all of this up to the present, then, what are you doing these days? What are you planning in the future, and what obstacles do you think you might face along the way?
TB: I produce corporate events, and I buy talent for corporate events, and buy talent for festivals. People hire me to do portions of the work that I used to do for myself. As a concert promoter I had to buy the talent, do the marketing, sell the tickets, hire and train the staff, organize the staff, set up the catering, collect the money, run the show, pay everybody at the end, account for everything, close down the event, and I also did sponsorships and other things like that. Today, a venue will hire me just to do sponsorships for them and I will find them a sponsor or two, or three, and they will pay me to get them sponsors for their series of events or for their venue. A corporate client will hire me to book an entertainer for an event that they have. For a long time I was consulting for Asset Management Companies that purchased LiveNation and TicketMaster stock, and I dissected the different deals that TicketMaster and LiveNation were doing, and I gave them accurate projections, information, guidance, and advice on what they should do and where I thought TicketMaster and LiveNation were heading as far as profitability. I also consulted for alcohol companies; I consulted for a lot of companies that wanted to enter into the concert business or the record label business that were outside of the traditional label and music business. So where are we at? From probably 2010 to 2015 I did a substantial amount of consulting work on LiveNation and TicketMaster and I became considered an expert on TicketMaster and LiveNation, probably more than anyone else on the planet. I am still one of a company called Guide Point Global, it used to be called Vista, but it’s a New York based consulting firm and I am considered their number-one rated consultant on live events, concert promotion, TicketMaster and LiveNation.
RHM: So you haven’t faded away at all, you’ve just kind of shifted.
TB: I took from 1999 to 2005 off. I did very little work. I lived in Malibu on the beach.
RHM: The spoils of success, I suppose.
TB: Eh, you know? I found out that you can spend 15 years of profits from concert promoting in Texas in 8 years in California living at the beach. So in 2005 I returned to work out of necessity, and I’ve been consulting and producing events and buying talent, I call them ‘spot jobs’ or ‘project work’; I do bits and pieces of what I used to do for myself and for my rock clients and businesses for corporations, and that’s what I’ve been doing.
RHM: Well Tom, as a whole, I think it’s safe to say that you have a perspective, you have an outlook, you have an eagle-eye view of the old Houston music scene that very few people have ever had. You saw the entire forest, not just the trees.
TB: Yeah eagle-eye view is what I specialize in. Big-picture stuff. I can kind of see what’s coming, and where it’s going to go and how it will end, so I try to gracefully move things from small to large, and then maintain them for as long as they can be maintained and then gracefully exit before they crash. I can’t say I always pull that off, but that’s the goal.
RHM: So, our old music scene from between 1987 and 1995, whenever it was, you know, the Rivethead days, and a little bit before and a little bit after, from this point of view and these many years later what would you say is your overall perspective of that scene, and are there any specific memories or anecdotes that you would prefer to share?
TB: You know I don’t want to sound like a jerk or an asshole, but I promoted international and national acts and that was my main focus in Texas. And I represented Texas entertainers to the rest of the world. I put local bands on my shows because I needed support for my acts. I honestly was not thinking about how that was going to affect the scene, it was just that I had one band, or two bands, and most shows are three or four band bills everywhere else. So I would listen to the Houston music bands and figure out who would fit with Slayer or Testament and I would offer it to them. But here’s another thing, more than which bands musically fit, after I met everybody in the Houston scene, and the Austin and Dallas and San Antonio, all the local and regional bands, I would often pick the one that the guys were the nicest to deal with, the most reasonable human beings, the people I enjoyed being with. So I put dead horse and Spunk and Sprawl with the Chili Peppers, I put a bunch of bands opening for national bands, and it made the scene five times bigger than it was. I mean, 150, maybe 200 people were coming to see Sprawl. They opened up for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and played in front of 2,200 people and then there’s a thousand people coming to see Sprawl. Same with dead horse, 200 people seeing dead horse, 1,000 to 1,200 people after Slayer, Testament… Pantera? Fuck I don’t even remember. But the dead horse guys were fun, and nice; and Nick Cooper from Sprawl was a professional nice guy and really easy to deal with. I wasn’t trying to grow the Houston scene, I was trying to fill in the spaces on my national tours, but in doing that it made the Houston scene substantially larger, and I did not realize that to its full extent until the When We Ruled H-Town documentary came out. Have you seen that?
RHM: I have. I was at the premier, in fact.
TB: Yeah me too. So Jay, Jay Schneider, the filmmaker, calls me, I’m living in Austin in 2011, 2012, he calls me and says do you want to be in a documentary about the local Houston scene, and I said no. I mean, I didn’t do much. I didn’t work with any of those bands, I put on my shows but in between my shows I was in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Austin, or New Orleans. In between dead horse opening up for Slayer and Sprawl opening up for the Chili Peppers I was gone a lot, and I would come back and I would do my work, but I didn’t realize how much it was impacting. And then Jay called me two or three more times, and he finally said “hey look, you know I talked to Nick from Sprawl and I talked to Mike Haaga and I talked to Tod Waters from Spunk and they all said that you put them on the thing and it went from 100 people to 800 people and then went from 800 people to 1,200 people, and the Vatican and the Unicorn and your other shows were the key things that made the scene explode.” And I said oh, ok, well if that’s the case I’ll answer questions about that. I didn’t see what I could add because I didn’t go to Fitzgerald’s to see dead horse and I didn’t go to the Axiom to see dead horse, I saw dead horse at my shows at my places and then whatever the next band came through I saw at my places. I didn’t follow Sprawl, I didn’t follow Spunk, I didn’t go to the Houston scene shows that were not at my venues, so I did not realize… but when Jay explained what Tod and what Nick and what Mike and a couple other people had said, I was like okay I see where I can be in that. He came out to Austin and filmed me. You asked about the obstacles? There used to be four or five hundred concert promoters in the United States that were considered full-fledged concert promoters, you know, earning a few hundred thousand to a few million dollars a year, and in 1999 the consolidation of the music business started, and we now basically have two concert promoters; LiveNation who has 85% of the U.S. market share, and AEG who has maybe 15%, and then there’s only a handful of other promoters, maybe five or six or seven. JAM in Chicago, Seth Hurwitz in D.C., Another Planet in San Francisco. There are hardly any concert promoters left and concert promoters used to make money. That was the reason to be in business. LiveNation has been in business for 16 years, they’ve lost hundreds of millions of dollars every year except for one when they made $25 million. But they’re over $10 billion in debt, they over-pay the bands all the time, they under-pay their staff, they’re some of the worst-trained people I’ve ever had the displeasure of working with, yet they somehow seem to come up with money to over-pay the acts and continue to lose money. I mean, to compete with them I would have to be willing to out-lose them and they lose three, four, five hundred million dollars a year. Nobody can afford that. So, in the concert promoting business pre-1999, concert promoters worked off of a 15 to 20% profit margin. You risk $10,000 to make $12,000. Downside was you could lose, upside was you could make, and you’d have to invest $10,000 or so into that. Now, LiveNation works off of a 4% profit margin, you basically risk $100,000 you could lose $100,000, and if everything goes right, you make four grand. So if you do one show where you lose $100,000 you have to have 25 winners in a row just to break even. Nobody has 25, so LiveNation has lost 10 or 12 billion dollars. I’m not 100% sure, last time I looked it was $9 billion, and that was a few years ago. I haven’t done much consulting on them in the last few years but to compete with companies that are willing to lose money is impossible for a small to medium-sized business.
RHM: How do they even maintain above-board status with such huge losses?
TB: They’ve re-financed multiple times, but I believe they’re out of re-financing options and I believe in the next six to twelve months, maybe 18 months, they’re going to come to a crashing halt. They keep over-paying the entertainers, cutting what they pay their staff, they keep spending less and less and less on security, and they keep giving their executives bonuses. Their philosophy is we can do whatever we want because we have an 85% market share and we’re so big that nobody can stop us, and they are solely responsible for the ticket prices. LiveNation is solely responsible for the ticket prices going crazy. They’re the company that decided to over-pay the bands but sell sponsorships, jack the parking up to $40, jack the beers up to $12 or $13, they figured that they would over-pay the bands so much that all the other promoters couldn’t compete and that they would just jack up the prices everywhere else and sell every bit of fence line and everything to sponsors, and they did all of that. It did not work for them, they’ve lost more money than ever, they’ve alienated everyone because of the excessive ticket prices, and now they’re in a horrible situation. They lose money on every deal they do. They buy another concert promoter for $50 million and they “project” in three to five years they’ll get their $50 million back and in another three to five they’ll make another $50 million; they’ve done a hundred deals like that since I’ve been consulting and been watching them, and none of them – and they’re 8, 10, 12, 15 years into some of these deals – none of them have even paid their money back, much less a profit. And nobody ever asks, well what happened to Madonna? You gave her $150 million; did you get it back yet? They gave Jay-Z $150 million ten years ago, it didn’t work out, they didn’t get their $150 million back, they just re-upped his deal to $200 million for the next ten years, and the Jay-Z tour is not selling out. They’re in serious, serious trouble, and are going to have major problems and are either going to completely fall apart or be drastically restructured in the next year or two. And they’re going to be found largely at fault for the Las Vegas incident where 58 people got shot.
RHM: Just on the security concerns? Because that’s a hell of an accusation to level.
TB: Mostly their corporate structure, on the way they set up their company. They have multiple times stated, after the Paris shooting with Eagles of Death Metal and after other terrorist attacks and other problems, that they were going to re-do their security and the only thing they’ve done is tell the venues they need more security and that they need to up their wands and electrical monitoring. They haven’t re-structured their security, they haven’t re-structured their way of doing business; they continue to give the entertainers more money, they continue to charge more for their beer and food and parking, and they continue to spend less on their employees. Every time somebody quits they hire somebody less trained and don’t train them because they don’t have very many people who know what they’re doing, they save money, they give their executives bonuses, they pay Jay-Z more, they cut back on their staff, don’t bolster security, and don’t do any of the things that they say they’re going to do. They like to tell people they’re going to do things and then they just don’t do them, they don’t think people will check up on them. Their corporate culture, the way they do business, has given all of the money to the entertainers and the executives, jacked the ticket prices up sky high so people can’t afford them, and put the people at security risks that they shouldn’t have to be. They’ve had crazy people with guns in the last year, killed people, and they haven’t changed. The daily situation that the attorneys for the people that got shot are going after are they didn’t have enough security guards and they weren’t trained. On that day, they’re at fault. But that’s not what I’m talking about, I’m talking about a culture of greed and incompetence and arrogance.
RHM: Sadly, that seems to rule all aspects of society these days.
TB: It wasn’t like that. I mean, when I was in high school and got my job at the record store, the owners of the company and the managers said there are a hundred record stores within 20 miles. The only reason that people are gonna come here is because we’re cleaner, we’re nicer, we know more, we provide a better service. People can get the same thing for the same price at a hundred different places very close, so customer service, quality of work, cleanliness of your surroundings, professionalism. And there wasn’t the executive culture dividing the kings and gods from the crap proletariat that worked for them. Everybody was in it; we all were employees of Mr. Music or Cactus. Every week I saw Pappy Daily, who was the owner of Cactus Records, and he managed George Jones and a bunch of others, he was an extremely important guy in the 40’s and 50’s and 60’s and 70’s, and as a $2.15 minimum-wage employee, once a week I saw the owner of the company who had thousands of employees that worked for him and he always said hello. He’d had a stroke a few years earlier so he didn’t speak that much, but I mean now the executives fly in private jets and shit in golden toilets and everybody else gets minimum wage and gets their benefits reduced and their vacation taken away from them, while the guy that lost $300 million for his company is making $13 million a year and gets a $5 million bonus and everybody else gets crapped on. People don’t feel like they’re part of a larger, healthy organism anymore; they feel like they’re the shoe-shine boy or the trash man.
RHM: That’s an exact allegory for today’s entire system of economics. Not only rock-n-roll, not only music, but across the board it’s become that way in every single industry today.
TB: Right. And they don’t give you free food anymore! “You get a 30% discount at our fine establishment for working 10 hours at minimum wage!” Fabulous.
The first concert I promoted by myself was in March of 1983 and it was TSOL and the Butthole Surfers. I had seen TSOL at the Island a year or two earlier and I had seen the Butthole Surfers three or four times before then, but I had not promoted a concert before, so I took what information Ronnie Bond gave me, coupled with the knowledge that I had from working at a record store and doing the videotapes, and I rented the Lawndale Art Annex on Lawndale Road, at Telephone and Lawndale, it was an annex for the University of Houston’s Art Department. It held about 800 people, and I rented that, and I promoted TSOL and the Butthole Surfers on a Tuesday night. I had worked at the Island for two or three years before helping, and I had booked a couple bands, and I had passed fliers out, but I had never booked the band, passed fliers out, ran the door, hired the sound, fed everybody, collected the money, paid everybody, and then account for it all afterward before. I had done all these as different things, but I had never done them all together at once. Now I had worked at the Island for two years before, and I booked Black Flag and the Circle Jerks and a couple other bands there, but TSOL / Butthole Surfers was the first show I promoted for myself, top to bottom. It was on a Tuesday and 350 people showed up. I made money, and I was like oh, this is fun! But I had like 1200 bucks in the bank at that point in time, I had no backer, and it cost me most of the 1200 bucks to put the show on, but I got that back plus like another $1200, and I said this is nice!
At that point in time I was driving to Austin or Dallas or Los Angeles every couple months to see punk rock, because our punk rock scene in Houston was never as big as Austin or Dallas, and definitely not Los Angeles. So a lot of bands passed by, and when the Island closed there was no place for them to play, so there was a year or more when there was just nothing going on and I was travelling to go see bands I wanted to see. I decided why spend $800 driving to LA to see a band or two, why not take that $800 and put it into a concert, and have those bands come here so we can see them in Houston? So the second show I promoted was Black Flag / Meat Puppets at the Lawndale Art Annex, I think ’83 still or early ’84, and the one I promoted after that was the Dead Kennedys, the Butthole Surfers, and Really Red at the Island. The Island had closed and the Lawndale Art Annex didn’t want the Dead Kennedys because they were afraid of them, they thought too many people would show up and there would be a problem, so I had to re-open the Island and I paid for them to have their water and electricity turned on, and I promoted the Dead Kennedys, Butthole Surfers, and Really Red. I have a video from the TSOL / Butthole Surfers show from March of ’83 and I have a video of the Dead Kennedys and Really Red. We didn’t do the Butthole Surfers that time, unfortunately. But my first three concerts made money, and they made progressively more money, and I mean we were charging five, six, seven dollars for tickets and I was making money, and people were showing up and having a good time, and I just said oh I’ll do this, but I never planned to be a concert promoter. I loved concerts, and I went to concerts as often as I could from 1976 to 1983, and I started promoting concerts in ’83, so I had seven years of going to 50 concerts a year, and then I started promoting you know, 30, 40, 50 concerts a year. By the early 90’s I was promoting 150 concerts a year between Houston, Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, and New Orleans, but it just made money, and it was fun, and nobody else was doing that kind of music.
I brought all my friends from northwest Houston, from Klein and Klein Forest, to be my crew which meant that they didn’t know any of the hipsters or the musicians in town which meant that they didn’t let anybody in free, and they didn’t know anybody, and they weren’t trying to be ‘cool’. They were my friends from high school and if somebody didn’t have a ticket or a pass they didn’t let them in. No matter how much they bullied them, or yelled and screamed, they just said if you’re not on the list and you don’t have a ticket then you don’t get in. Which was a big problem at the Island, maybe 400 people would show up and 300 of them would have snuck in or got in free, and a hundred of them would have paid five bucks to get in, and the Island failed not because not enough people were coming in but because the business model was bad. The hipsters and the punks in Houston would bully their way, or bum-rush their way, or smash in the back door and run in. I mean, that was like a thing and one of the things I did at the Island was stop that. I did that by bringing my friends from northwest Houston to run the door, and the backdoor, and all the stuff inside the Island. But this is 1982, I’m 19 years old, and there were about 10 or 12 people who worked at the Island that all stole money and stole beer, and they wouldn’t leave. Phil Hicks said these guys are killing me, you know? They’re killing me. So he asked me if I could help him, and so I replaced all of them, and they threatened my life! They threatened my employees, and for about three months after I’d fired them they would show up to every show and hassle everybody and they finally left because we didn’t let them in. They went to 10 or 12 shows and it didn’t matter what they smashed, we’d go clean up the broken bottles and have four or five big guys standing outside and not letting them in, and after three months of not getting in they left. But I’m 19 years old and I’ve got 35 and 40 year old drunks and junkies and assholes threatening my life over punk rock. Over getting in free to a $5 show. So I refused to deal with any of those people, I brought all my childhood high school friends in, who were all not ‘country’ people, but Klein High School in the 70’s, I mean, punk rock was a world away from what they knew, but they were all honest and honorable and loyal, and they enjoyed it. It was a world that they never thought was possible. So from ’83 to ’89 I ran TAB Concerts as a “for fun” business. Maybe 12 of my childhood friends and me would do 15 shows a year, and we would only work with bands that we liked, or loved, and I started promoting shows in Austin and Dallas, so we’d do Houston and Austin and Dallas with the Dead Kennedys, with Black Flag, with TSOL, with a whole bunch of other bands that we liked, and then we would often go out on the road with them for another two or three dates having nothing to do with us, we just would ride in their van with them and go to New Orleans and go to Atlanta and go to Florida just to see more shows, and then I would come back broke cause I spent all the money that I made partying with the band, and we would re-group and do another set of concerts with bands that we liked. We would get offered like 10 bands a month and we would pick the one or two that we wanted to work with, and we’d make those offers and forget the rest of them.
The producers of WWRHT have requested that we provide the following DISCLAIMER: Unedited footage not included in the music documentary “When We Ruled H-Town”. The opinions expressed in this video do not represent the opinions of the producers or representatives of When We Ruled H-Town.
Tom with Mike Vraney (TSOL / Dead Kennedys manager) and Mike Carrol (Poison 13) in background. RIP both Mikes.
Taste of Garlic doing pyro at the Unicorn. Photo courtesy Taste of Garlic.
TOM BUNCH INTERVIEW
Los Reyes Mexican Cantina
January 21, 2018
by Andrew C. Schlett
Rivethead Magazine: All right. Its January 21st, 2018, we are sitting down with Tom Bunch at Los Reyes Mexican Restaurant, and we are live! Tom just in case there’s anybody out there somewhere reading this who hasn’t actually heard of you, which I know is unlikely, but for the benefit of any such person could you tell us who you are, where you’re from, and what you do?
Tom Bunch: Well that’s a broad enough opening. Okay, my name is Thomas Andrew Bunch, I’m a 54-year old white male currently living in Houston Texas. I was born in Chicago and moved from there at 7 to Los Angeles, and found myself in Houston at 14 years old. I’ve resided in Houston, Austin, Los Angeles, and New Orleans most of my life. I’ve been in the music business since 1978, first working at a record store, and that’s what I do. I am in the music and entertainment business. I have worked retail early in my career, I owned a video company that videotaped live music for broadcast when I was in my teens, in 1983 I started promoting rock concerts for a living; and in 1989 I started managing rock bands and music producers and entertainers. I currently produce private events and buy talent for festivals and corporate events, and consult for a wide range of companies in and outside of the entertainment business.
RHM: How did you start TAB Productions?
TB: There is no easy answer to that; I never had any plan on any of this. When I was 15 years old I got a job at a record store called Mr. Music in the North Oaks Mall in northwest Houston. I was not legally old enough to work at that point in time, but back in the 70’s they really didn’t check your credentials. At the record store I learned retail music business, but back then the record stores were very intertwined with radio stations, concert promotion, and rock bands. We would have in-stores where large bands would come in and sign autographs and meet fans, we would have contests with the radio stations and we would have contests with the record labels, which one would put the best displays up in the store, and whoever put up the best display got larger display space and we did more work with them. So working at a record store back then I was introduced to all the people in Houston that were in the radio business, I got introduced to all the major record labels, I got invited to listening parties, and I got free tickets to concerts. When a major record would come out, like The Pretenders, a brand-new band that nobody knew, they would rent out Birraporetti’s and invite three or four hundred people, record label employees, radio station people, media people, and they would play the record like 10 times, and they would give you free food and drink. Once again, back then I was 15 or 16 and the drinking age was 18, but no one cared. I still got invited, the bar was open, and I drank, and I ate free food. So just from working at the record store, and from being open and honest and available, I got indoctrinated quickly into the Houston music scene. Most of the people that I was working with were 25 to 55 years old. These were the adults that were working at the record labels and running the radio stations, and even the people that owned Birraporetti’s I met, and I was 15 years old.
From participating in that, I got invited to all of these major events in Houston, and I went to all of them, and at these major events I met everybody else. Then about two years later a Cactus Records opened up on 1960, and Cactus was much bigger than Mr. Music. Although Mr. Music was a 19-chain store in Texas which was bought soon after that and ended up turning into Sam Goody that ended up having like 2500 stores and a store in every mall in the United States. Mr. Music was the beginning of Sam Goody, which was nationwide, and Mr. Music was a mall chain in Houston Texas. But Cactus opened up, and Cactus was a much larger store, it was owned by the Daily family, Pappy Daily owned Big State Distribution in Dallas; he owned Daily’s Distribution in Houston, and Cactus Records in Houston. Big State was the distributor for most of the records of the southeast, Texas over to Florida, and Daily’s was in Houston and also was a major one-stop distributor that covered Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. Then there were 5 or 6 Cactuses, I think, very huge stores, and Cactus did a lot of in-stores. I worked with Aerosmith and Kiss and Ian Hunter and tons of really big bands in ‘79 and ’80, into ’81 and ’82 at Cactus. When I went to work at Cactus there were probably 35 employees at that store, and minimum wage was like $2.15 or something like that, and the first month I was there the manager said who wants to stock the new release wall? If you stock the new release wall, you’ll get a little bit of a raise. All 35 of the employees were there and nobody raised their hand, so I raised my hand and said I’ll stock the new release wall. Having no idea what it was I got a nickel an hour raise! About a month later, the boss goes who wants to stock the rock section, and again nobody raised their hand, you get a raise so I said I’ll do that, and about a month later he said who wants to handle the singles? We had the top 200 singles, and you had to go through each single, there was a card in the back of the 45’s, and you had to count each week how many were still there and how many were sold, and I said I’ll do it, so I ended up doing the singles, the new release section, and the rock section, and I didn’t know this at the time but that meant that once a week Billboard Magazine and two other major publications would call our store and talk to the person that stocked the singles and stocked the new release wall. Those were the big things, the top 200 singles, what was selling. The new releases wall was the same thing, there’d be 10 in each slot and there’d be 500 slots, and I’d have to go through and count them and I would spend one whole day a week talking to these publications, and I would have to manually do it cause there was no such thing as a personal computer back then, I would be on the phone for two hours with each of the publications and I would tell them all the sales figures. So in doing that, they also invited me to things. New York, Los Angeles, Austin, Dallas. Do you want to come to our event in Dallas for all of the industry, and I’m 15 or 16 years old and most of the people going to these things are 25 to 45 year old managers and assistant managers.
I went to everything that I was offered, every ticket that I was given, offered through the record stores or the radio stations, or the record label reps, or Billboard, or the other publications, they all had events, they invited me to them, and I went, and I met more and more people. So by 1982 I was 19 years old and I knew everybody in Texas that was related to rock concert promotion, rock radio, record stores, guitar stores, I had met everybody and they knew me, and in ’81 I decided I wanted to start a video business. My friend Dave Ritz owned Infinite Records, but that didn’t open until ’82 or ’83, but before he opened that he had some video equipment and I ran camera and I also set up for him videotaping bands. I would contact the venue and get the approval, I would talk to the band and the record label and the publisher and the manager and get their approval, and we would show up and videotape bands. We did the punk rock. Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, I also did Peter Frampton, Jethro Tull, Peter Gabriel, a couple larger things like that. I don’t think I did those with Dave, but I did 10 or 12 things with Dave, professional shoots, and that was like ’81 to ’83, and then Dave Ritz wanted to open up a record store, so I had gotten out of retail about a year earlier but I agreed to work for him for a year to help him open up Infinite Records in 1983 in Lower Westheimer. During my time as a video producer I met all the venues, I met all the clubs, I met all the concert halls, I met the club owners, met the theater owners, met the general managers of the venues because I had to get their approvals, and it was, you know, the Sam Houston Coliseum, Cardi’s, University of Houston, the Music Hall, I met all of these people. At that time I started going to punk rock shows a lot. 1980 I started going to this club called the Island that was open from 1978 to 1984 and it was the main punk rock club in Houston. There were a couple other clubs that did punk rock, but they closed, and the Island closed in ’83 and when it closed all of the bands that I’d worked with, mostly punk rock bands, had my phone number because I had videotaped them before. They called me and asked where they should play now that the Island was closed, and the few other clubs weren’t booking punk rock, and I called every venue in Houston, every club, every art warehouse trying to find a place for the Dead Kennedys to play, or Black Flag to play. I had no interest in promoting concerts, I was just the guy that did videos, and they knew that I knew the club owners and the venue owners because they worked with me through the videos. I called every venue in town and nobody wanted punk rock. Everybody was afraid of it; they were not friendly when I called. I called Fitzgerald’s and this guy Scott Weiss was the general manager of Fitzgerald’s in ’83 and said do you want the Dead Kennedys or Black Flag there and he yelled at the top of his lungs “I don’t want that punk rock shit in my club! Fuck you!” and he hung up on me. So I was like oh, okay. Scott’s still around, and he probably hasn’t changed all that much. Scott ended up managing The Reverend Horton Heat in the mid 90’s and he still does that to this day, but his response was ‘fuck you no’. And his was one of the more friendly ones! So, I called them back and I said no, there’s nowhere for you to play in town, and this guy Mike Vraney, died a year or two ago of lung cancer, he managed the Dead Kennedys and TSOL, and I videotaped the Dead Kennedys twice, or three times, and I videotaped TSOL in ’82 and ’83. And he said why don’t you do them? Why don’t you promote the concert? I said I’m not a concert promoter. I was probably 20 at this point in time, and he said yeah you are. You signed the contract with us, you found us a hall, you showed up with a crew of people, you set your video up, you sent us the video afterwards, you know, you did everything that anybody would need to do to produce an event, slightly different but not much. At this point in time there was a punk rock band in Houston named Really Red, and they were around from I think ’79 or ’80 to maybe ’84, and the singer Ronnie Bond owned Real Records on Shepherd. I had videotaped Really Red three times at that point, and became friendly with Ronnie, and he knew the Island was closed, he knew all this was happening because he played there, but he said why don’t you promote the shows, Tom? You know what you’re doing. I said I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m not a concert promoter, and Ronnie had toured with the Dead Kennedys and he had played with a bunch of bands, and he had toured outside of Texas, and he said well I’ll tell you what the promotors pay us, how they pay us, what they give us, and what we have to do in the other markets. I’ll tell you all I know about concert promotion or band touring, and he did.
Tom Bunch, having lunch recently.
Features - Tom Bunch
In mid-1989 I was 26 or 27 years old and I decided I have to make it into a business, or get a real job. I would make a couple thousand bucks on a few shows and I’d blow it all in a few days, or a few weeks, or whatever. So I went from what I thought was rich, five grand, to nothing, to five grand, to nothing, five grand to nothing, multiple times that year. But we always found another band, I’d be down to like $1200 and I’m like that’s enough to promote a show. So we’d throw that out, we’d do three Black Flag shows and I’d make 10 or 15 thousand bucks and we’d be good for another couple months. But I decided I can’t keep doing this. Life isn’t a party always. I had friends that were getting out of college and were having businesses and careers, and so in ’89 I decided I was going to do my best to turn it into a “business”. The problem that I had in concert promoting was that the venues kept going in and out of business. One of my specialties in the 80’s was finding venues. Established places of the day didn’t want punk rock, so I found warehouses, art warehouses, skating rinks, ethnic ballrooms, I found all kinds of different places to do shows. That was my specialty. I found places. But we kept going from place to place to place, and the venues I would use a lot, and I would pay them rent money, they made plenty of money to stay open but they were all doing cocaine and partying and stuff, so they’d take the money that they made off my show and a week later it’d be gone, and I’d come in the next week to talk about my show the next month, and there would be pink notices that their electricity and water was being cut off, and I would say what the hell, I paid you $12,000 three days ago and these things only add up to three or four grand! And they’re like “(sniff sniff) I don’t know where the money went man (sniff) I don’t know what happened” and so I decided that I needed to own a venue or lease a venue, and control a venue so I knew the venue would be there. In 1989 I signed a deal with The Unicorn to manage and book all of the rock and pop and then in mid to late 1990 the same thing with the Vatican. Both of those meant paying taxes on time, meant having a liquor license or a beer and wine license, meant having employees and keeping them full-time, having enough business to keep good employees and not have to scramble for new people every couple of months.
That completely changed my business; I had to have 10 or 12 full-time employees, I had to make 20 grand a month to pay everybody and pay the leases and everything, so the Vatican and the Unicorn were a huge step forward in my career and a huge commitment on my part. I had to partner with people, bring more people in, and spend more time and effort and money on it. I did have a club in 1985 that I shared with Gene Bartholomew, but it was only open for a year. It was called the International Club and it was right across the street from Numbers. It held about 500 people and it was open from early ’85 till the end of ’85, so probably only nine or ten months. The building’s no longer there, but we did attempt owning and operating a venue. We did some great shows there, Black Flag, the Minutemen, we did a bunch of metal, I can’t remember all the metal bands. Omen, I remember Omen. Omen was one of the first shows we did, they were on Enigma. They were so happy with the show Gene and I promoted and the articles that were written about them that they put Gene and my names in their next album as special thanks in the liner notes. But the Vatican and the Unicorn, ’89 and ’90, were my big commitments and they ran until around ’94, so for four or five years I ran those two venues.
And that’s where my business took off. I was doing punk rock from ’83 to ’89, around ’85 I started working with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and around ’86 I started working with Jane’s Addiction. After that came Nirvana, I mean that was ’85, ’86, ’87, ’88 and it was called post-punk. For me, punk rock started in 1980 and ended in ’86. I was into rock-n-roll much longer before punk rock. At eight years old I bought my first record, which was Johnny Cash at San Quentin, and then after that I bought all the Doors records, Uriah Heep, David Bowie, Black Sabbath, Elton John. I just started buying music, so I was huge into rock-n-roll before punk rock came, and for me punk rock was only six years, ’80 to ’86, but then all the original bands fell apart. So I stopped doing punk rock in 1986, but what grew out of punk rock was the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, the Screaming Trees, just all kinds of stuff that ended up being ‘alternative rock’. But they had no term ‘alternative rock’ nor ‘grunge’, those terms weren’t even around until ’91, and they were purposely coined to name what Nirvana did and what the record label and radio business knew would be the next wave of music. They had to have a new format, they had to have a new chart in Billboard, so they termed it ‘alternative’ and they termed the heavier part of alternative ‘grunge’. But before 1991 it wasn’t called grunge or alternative, it was just called post-punk. So I started working with all kinds of bands in that time period, and also in the early 90’s I worked with a lot of the Manchester bands – the Happy Mondays, the Soup Dragons – and a lot of the US pop bands, the Lemonheads, Dinosaur Jr., I mean, a lot of the post-punk bands started having pop songs that were being played on KRBE, the top 40 radio, and then the grunge stuff was played on KLOL. During my record store career, I dealt with radio all the time, from like ’78 to ’83, but during my punk rock career, ’80 to ’89, radio wanted nothing to do with it. Major newspapers shied away from it. But then in like ’88 or ’89 the Chili Peppers started getting on the radio, ’89, ’90, ’91 Jane’s Addiction, Nirvana, and all the sudden I’m back in dealing with KRBE, KLOL, the various news channels. The Vatican and the Unicorn were extremely popular for the Oilers and some of the Astros too. I like sports but I don’t follow it, so I would get calls weekly and they would tell me their name and say hey I’m the punter for the Oilers; can I get into Nirvana on Friday? And I’d have to go, hey man, is this guy the punter for the Oilers? And everybody in my office would say, yeah, yeah, so okay, sure! And they’re like can I pay you, or do I need to do something? I said just introduce yourself when you get here, and I would like to trade you two tickets for two tickets, or four tickets to Nirvana for four tickets to see the Oilers play next week, and they did that. So from like ’89 to ’99 I went to Rockets games, Oilers games, and Astros games for free because they would show up, either two or four people, I would get them all a beer or two, find them a place to stand, and they would put my name on their list and I always got great seats! So I got into sports but I still never followed them on the TV, I still never knew the stats, and still didn’t know who was who. I still had to ask my employees, hey, is Earl Campbell… no, I’m kidding. I knew Dan Pastorini and Earl Campbell, but beyond that not really. And neither Dan Pastorini nor Earl Campbell ever came to any of my shows, it was always the younger, newer guys, but you know. So the Vatican and the Unicorn were ’89 through ‘94ish. I also promoted shows at the Sam Houston Coliseum and other places. I promoted concerts full-time in Texas until like 1997. In ’98 I moved to Los Angeles and still had a few things going on here until about 1999. ’98 and ’99 is when TAB Concerts in Texas wound down, and I spent about 8 years in Los Angeles, mostly at the beach, mostly not working.
RHM: Over the course of time that TAB was in existence, can you point to any shows that were particularly great or anything that really stands out in your memory as being special?
TB: Almost all of them were because I picked bands that I liked. Although at the Vatican and the Unicorn I had to do some bands just to keep the lights on, we still tried to do stuff that I wanted to see. I stood on the side of the stage, and stood on the soundboard. I watched almost every band that played for me. That was the point. I went to concerts when I was a kid because I liked concerts, and if I could work and do concerts, I wanted to see the show. And very often the tour manager would say ‘hey let’s go settle’ like halfway through Pearl Jam, and I’m like no, we gotta wait. “Oh,” they cry, “we’re not gonna get out of here till 2am!” I said “hey, its rock and roll, you’re gonna give me another hour and I’m gonna see the whole show.” You know, I won an award in 1991 from the Texas Music.. ah fuck I don’t know what it’s called, but it’s still going on. Every year they have the Texas Music Awards in Austin and in ’91 I got an award for the best concert tour of Texas, which was the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Pearl Jam. I promoted all the Texas dates. I did Houston, Austin, and Dallas and had the option for a second Houston and a second Dallas show, which I was going to pick up, so I was going to have five dates, but the Chili Peppers called me and said “We just got offered a slot on MTV’s Music Awards and it’s right then, so can you not pick up your other two options? Warner Bros. is going to send the jet to Houston to pick us up and fly us to New York, we’re gonna play the show, and then we’re gonna come back and do your Dallas show.” I said yes, because I loved the Red Hot Chili Peppers but I’m not sure that was the right thing to do though. Five, six years later I stopped working with them and um…. ummm…..uuummmm. It was fun because we had two days off in Dallas and I had the Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam with me, and they were both brand new bands. Pearl Jam’s record came out maybe a couple months earlier; they had one song. Smashing Pumpkins just had their first album out, Gish, and it didn’t have a hit off of it. It was well-received in the alternative world but there wasn’t a radio hit yet, so I got to spend two whole days with the Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam, and then the third day we had our show, so I spent two days off with them and I took them out to lunch and dinner and bowling and I got to know them really well and had fun with them. It was a good time, and the Chili Peppers went and played at MTV, and it was a major, major, major push for them. And the tickets were $18! 18 bucks to see those three bands! The TicketMaster surcharge was no more than $2, it was always free to park at the Unicorn and the Vatican, we never charged to park. The beers were always $2 for a tap or $3 for a bottle, and the T-shirts were 14 or 15 bucks. There was very rarely anything more than $15, so everything was extremely affordable.
I say that all the time: nobody ever said can I afford to go to one of those shows? They said do I like that band, can I get off work, do I like that venue and that part of town, but nobody ever questioned whether they could afford it, ever. The highest ticket price that I ever had was a $20 ticket for the Black Crows. Nine Inch Nails at the Vatican was $5. Pearl Jam was $7, Nirvana was $8. At the Unicorn, Danzig and Soundgarden together was $15, Social Distortion, and they had another good opening act or two, was $12. The Unicorn was $12 - $20 because the Black Crows were $20, and it took me weeks to figure out whether or not I would pay the Black Crows enough to need to charge $20. They wanted, I forget, 35 to 50 grand back then and I was like well I’m gonna have to charge $20 a ticket and I’ve never charged $20! And I fretted over it. Will people pay it, you know, or will they boycott and take it out on the Unicorn? Fans don’t take it out on the bands; they always take it out on the venue, or the promoter, whatever the problem is. I worried for weeks, and then I finally did it, and it didn’t matter as after that ticket prices skyrocketed anyways, but I’ve never charged more than $20 for a ticket for any of my shows, even the shows that went on all the way through ’97 and ’98. There were people that went to 35 of my concerts a year. A large part of the fan base of the Unicorn and the Vatican, I would see 35 times a year and I was not the only concert promoter! So people were going to 50 concerts a year, they were going to a major concert every week back then because they only cost 10, 12, or 15 dollars. You could go out to a major concert every week for what it would cost you to go out to dinner by yourself, so there was never a question of price back then. Could I afford it was never a question. Do I like the band, do I like that venue, do I have the time, can I get the day off or can I come into work late the next day, these were the questions. But the Chili Peppers / Pearl Jam / Smashing Pumpkins tour was absolutely amazing. Pearl Jam at the Vatican, there was only 199 people that paid and showed up, it was maybe eight weeks after Ten came out, and they played for two hours having one record. Nine Inch Nails at the Vatican was mind-blowing. Nine Inch Nails was way bigger than the Vatican but they were on their way to start the first Lollapalooza tour in Phoenix in July of ’91 and they needed somewhere to set up their equipment and try everything out, and they lived in Ohio, so they came down to Houston. The only date they played before the Lollapalooza tour was the Vatican and they just wanted to set everything up and they wanted to make sure it sold out, so we did a $5 ticket, paid them next to nothing, but my crew at the Vatican helped them construct their lights and their smoke machine and everything that they ended up using. They spent the whole day at the Vatican constructing what they would use for the next two months on the Lollapalooza tour, but I knew Trent Reznor and I’d worked with him before, and I managed the Butthole Surfers at the time who were on the Lollapalooza tour too, so I talked to Trent and said, you know, use me! You gotta go down I-10 to get to Phoenix anyway, stop off in Houston, and they did. I mean there are just so many shows! It’s so hard to say! Every Black Flag show I ever promoted was just mind-blowing. Every Dead Kennedys date was spectacular.
Pearl Jam jamming at the Unicorn, April 30 1992.