There’s a crucial scene in Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical depiction of the rock music world in the 1970s in Almost Famous that comes about midway through the film. It’s when the fictional band Stillwater are performing a gig in Phoenix, Arizona. They’re just kicking into their big hit song “Fever Dog,” when guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) reaches out to his microphone and gets a big electric shock. He hits the ground, the show ends, and the band storms out with the local promoter (played by a pre-podcast fame Marc Maron) chasing them down.
The group is boarding the bus, trying to make their getaway, but the promoter is having none of it. Stillwater’s manager tries to brush him off, and just as they’re about to leave, the promoter evokes a name. It’s the biggest threat he can think to come up with, and he uses it as a last-ditch effort to get the band to go back on. “I’m gonna talk to Frank Barsalona!” he promises just before the bus guns up the ramp and through a locked gate. They don’t know it, but Stillwater has just run afoul of maybe the most powerful man in the entire music industry.
Frank Barsalona was the visionary who invented the modern concert industry. He died only recently, in 2012, after a long bout with Alzheimer’s, and that’s when venerated rock critic Dave Marsh explained his impact better than anyone.
“The most significant entrepreneur of ‘60s rock was not a record company president like Atlantic’s Ahmet Ertegun or CBS’s Clive Davis, or even a sharp promoter like Bill Graham,” Marsh told The New York Times. “That title belongs to a balding, rotund booking agent named Frank Barsalona.”
In the early 1960s, Barsalona recognized rock’s true potential as a live force and created the initial infrastructure that allowed it to spread across America. He saw that the future of live entertainment lay in the hands of the up-and-coming crop of young, counter-culture artists like Jimi Hendrix and The Who, and jumped to sign them before anyone else really even knew who they were. He was also a shrewd businessman, amassing one of the greatest talent rosters the industry has ever known — it included Led Zeppelin, U2 and Bruce Springsteen to name just a few.
As record sales revenues continue their steady decline, touring has become the necessary mechanism by which most musical acts sustain their career. It was important in the ‘70s, sure, but the full impact of touring is even more critical in the present day. Barsalona recognized the full potential of live performance as a primary revenue generator, not just for himself, but for the artists hitting the road, playing night after night for the faceless, frenzied masses. With dollar signs in his eyes, he created opportunities where they didn’t exist before. That’s his legacy, and it endures to this day.