Advisory Board Member: 10th annual LA Music Awards
From 1993-97, Howard worked at Harrah’s Entertainment as a promotions, public relations and project manager. His duties kept him on the cutting edge of entertainment, from opening a casino in the newly emerging market of Tunica, Miss. to developing interactive software for in-flight gambling (a venture that never got off the ground, so to speak).
In 1997, Howard became the executive director of The Blues Foundation, a nonprofit organization with a mission to preserve and perpetuate Blues music and its cultural traditions. Best known for its annual W. C. Handy Blues Awards, the Blues Foundation serves as a resource to Blues fans and grass roots organizations around the world. During Stovall’s five-year tenure, The Blues Foundation grew dramatically, thanks largely to Howard’s leadership in creating brand identities for the foundation’s proprietary events and reconfiguring annual events to maximize marketing value and audience reach.
Howard achieved a longtime goal of the Foundation’s when he secured a nationwide television distribution deal for the annual W. C. Handy Blues Awards. The television broadcast, a joint venture between The Blues Foundation and the local PBS affiliate station, was carried on noncommercial TV stations across the United States, receiving repeat play in many markets. This gave the awards a much higher profile and introduced the work of The Blues Foundation to thousands of new patrons.
Howard also created the BluesFirst Weekend, which combines a convention for blues societies and aficionados with the Foundation’s International Blues Challenge (IBC), a battle of the bands competition featuring dozens of unsigned blues bands nominated by the Foundation’s global network of member blues societies. He took the IBC from a one-day, one-venue event to a three-day event encompassing multiple venues on Memphis’ famed Beale Street. The scale of prizes offered the winner also grew dramatically due to new sponsor and supporter alliances.
Howard also implemented the Foundation’s first premium level VIP membership program, the Charter Member program, which has resulted in a significant annual funding stream, and a new event, the Charter Members’ Dinner, held on the eve of the Handy Awards.
Howard has produced shows across the United States, from a Salute to Women in Blues in 1999 at House of Blues in Los Angeles that honored Ruth Brown, Koko Taylor and Etta James, to a Blues Hall of Fame Induction ceremony at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C featuring performances by Bobby Rush and the North Mississippi AllStars. He has shows featuring Little Richard, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson and others. He conceptualized and produced Ray Charles’ 70th birthday party at the House of Blues Los Angeles where Diane Schuur, Ashford and Simpson, Billy Preston and Willie Nelson performed.
In May 2001, while at the Blues Foundation, Howard became a partner in Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Miss. along with local attorney Bill Luckett and actor Morgan Freeman. Stovall did the initial talent buying for the club until turning the duties over to club management. The grand opening featured a reunion of the Stone Gas Band, the Clarksdale-based Blues band in which he was keyboard player from 1990-1996, and in its short history the club has featured a bevy of Blues greats from Bob Margolin to Charlie Musselwhite.
Howard left The Blues Foundation in 2002 to concentrate on the development of National Talent, LLC, a partnership he had formed with former Germantown (Tenn.) Performing Arts Centre assistant director Paul Chandler. National Talent was hired by the Memphis Botanical Garden to help save its financially troubled Live at the Garden concert series, which had experience staggering financial losses in its first year.
National Talent developed the second season and helped the Garden develop the infrastructure to manage the concert series. At the conclusion of its one-year contract, the Garden signed a two-year deal with National Talent to continue development of the series. After reporting losses in excess of $300,000 in the year prior to hiring National Talent, the Garden reported a $20,000 loss in season two, and a $200,000 profit in season three. Season four, featuring Harry Connick, Jr., Michael McDonald, Bruce Hornsby, Lyle Lovett, and a fourth of July concert with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, is scheduled for summer 2004.
In January 2004, National Talent merged with Mustang Productions of Memphis, a local agency representing regional entertainers to a wide variety of clients. The new company, Resource Entertainment Group, has quickly become a leading entertainment services provider in the Memphis area, representing both entertainers and venues as well as offering event and concert series development and production services.
Recent projects include development of a weekly rooftop entertainment series for Memphis’ premier hotel, the Madison, and production of Sun Studios’ July 5th celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Rock and Roll. REG also has been contracted to manage the W. C. Handy Performing Arts Park, a 1,500 capacity amphitheater on historic Beale Street, and REG is working on several different events for that venue.
REG has also secured licensing agreements to produce Tipitina’s branded New Orleans-themed events offering the unique food, music, and ambience of New Orleans and featuring the best New Orleans performers. Stovall also sits on the Advisory Board of the Tipitina’s Foundation. The Foundation operates a music incubator and co-op, operates educational programs, and runs the Instruments A-Comin’ program to put band instruments in New Orleans schools.
He is also president of The Stovall Company, Inc., which owns and operates The Papél CollectionTM, a Memphis-based business that creates invitations for hundreds of weddings and parties each year.
What is the state of the blues today as compared to five years ago?
There is a sense of disappointment that the Scorsese film series did not do for Blues what the Ken Burns series did for jazz. There wasn’t a huge groundswell that resulted from that or from the Year of the Blues. It may be that the only artist that really benefited directly from the Scorsese films was Bobby Rush, who was wonderfully depicted in Richard Peirce’s “The Road to Memphis” and that’s great because no one deserves it more than Bobby.
The biggest problem in blues today is lack of mainstream commercial radio airplay. Blues on radio is ghetto-ized into community radio slots, often late at night and only for a couple of hours at a time, and very frequently on noncommercial radio. Lack of radio airplay means that there isn’t a hit-making machine like there’s in pop music. Say what you will about the downside of that machine, but blues artists would love a little of that heft behind their records. The absence of the distillation process that broadly distributed radio provides means that excellent records find themselves on equal footing with unremarkable recordings that probably never should have been made. A by-product of the lack of radio is that artists ultimately may sell as much of their product from the stage as through record stores. This result is a need to continually develop new product in order to have something to sell the next time the artist passes through town. This creates a situation where artists may put out material at a faster rate than they would if they approached things from a purely artistic standpoint, and that diminishes the overall quality of the work.
Lack of radio leads to scant name recognition of newer artists outside of the core blues fans, and the casual Blues fan may walk into the blues section and be overwhelmed by a cavalcade of names that he or she does not know with the exception of the recognized masters. Blues labels have underutilized the marketing tools that are provided them by the Grammy Awards and the Handy Awards–making use of those award nominations in packaging may be the only way to separate the wheat from the chaff.
The good news is satellite radio. Bill Wax and his crew at XM Radio, for instance, have developed some very informed and compelling blues programming that can finally put the music where it’s available to a wide audience 24/7. As satellite radio becomes more prevalent, it could be the best thing to happen to blues record sales in years.
It seems any time blues is taken out of its comfort zone – clubs and festivals – it becomes fraught with complications. It all ties back to the name recognition and lack of hits. It creates a marketing challenge for blues that doesn’t exist in more mainstream genres. Kind of like bluegrass prior to “O Brother.” I’ll wager that a majority of music fans would identify themselves as liking blues but would be unable to name three blues artists under 50.
How were you able to turn the Live at the Garden concert series around financially?
The Memphis Botanic Garden went into the first season of the Live at the Garden series giving total control to a producer who proved unable to manage a profitable season. The financials were in such disarray that interim reporting was virtually nonexistent in that first season. We helped the MBG develop a template for internal management of the series, showing them where key personnel were needed to manage the big pieces of concert series development, sales and production. Once we got the right people in place to handle line production in the second season, we dove into their financial reporting to make sure that they could generate numbers that were accurate and useful. With knowledgeable people in charge and answerable to the MBG Board, and the addition of solid financial reporting, we could get a much clearer picture of how to control costs and how to manage sales and marketing. We continued to serve as their talent buyer, and by providing them with some compelling artistic programming, we set the stage for this new team to run a tight ship.
Why did you decide to merge with Mustang Productions?
Paul Chandler and I had done projects based around big event production and concerts, but it had really been a side gig for us both. We recognized that those big opportunities weren’t consistently available in the Memphis market, so when we decided to make this work our primary focus. We sought a partner that could fill the gaps between big projects with smaller events and with representation of local and regional artists to private and corporate clients.
After evaluating several different companies, we became convinced that Mustang had the combination of knowledge, potential for growth and integrity that we were looking for. The fact that Mustang’s principal Rollin Riggs had been two years ahead of me at Yale added even more comfort. On the flip side, Mustang had consistently passed on larger opportunities that came its way, and Rollin saw the value of adding our expertise to his model.
The merger has been mutually beneficial. Having just officially opened our doors in January, we have already added some excellent regional performers to our exclusive representation roster, and we’re working with the major entertainment entities in this market. We have contracts with Beale Street and with Sun Studio/Graceland, and we’re one of three firms bidding on the grand opening events for the Memphis Grizzlies’ FedExForum.
Where do you see Resource Entertainment Group in the next five years?
We are working on some branded corporate events that we think will allow us to market our services across the country. We have one licensing deal in place with Tipitina’s and are in the final stages of negotiation on another major entertainment brand. That’s really all we can say about that right now. We are also looking to expand into some niche markets for private and corporate events – resort communities where there is a lot of that type of activity.
I can see us in five years with a mature roster of regional artists and a client list that spans the country with a couple of seasonal offices in select locations to service private clients. And, while operating in the strict concert promoter model was not an initial priority for Resource, we’re already seeing opportunities to have a greater role in that arena than we had thought.
Do you miss being a musician?
Absolutely. It’s being my own roadie, driver, manager, soundman and stagehand that I don’t miss. Nothing in life can top the feeling of playing music to an excited crowd.
First concert attended
Chicago at the Mid-South Coliseum, Memphis in 1979.
First concert worked
Sunflower River Blues Festival, Clarksdale, Miss. in 1990. I worked security, which was VERY low key. Within three years, I was in charge of the entire event from funding to production.
First industry job
Executive director, the Blues Foundation, 1997-2002.
Producing Ray Charles 70th birthday party at House of Blues in Los Angeles in 2000, and in 2002 reuniting the living Sun Records blues artists (Little Milton Campbell, B. B. King, Ike Turner, and Rosco Gordon) with Sam Philips at the Handy Awards.
One for every career – latest – leaving the Blues Foundation with work undone.
To figure out how to promote live music in Memphis. There is a saying that on any given night, the worst band on Beale Street is better than the best band in Orlando. Memphis has been blessed with a multitude of fabulous musicians for generations, so much so that there is a sense of ennui that has to be penetrated to get people out of the house to see live shows.
The peculiarities of the Memphis audience have been made even more complicated by the arrival into the market of nine casinos 35 miles to the south in Tunica Mississippi. Needless to say, the economic model for live music at a casino is such that losses can be sustained indefinitely as long as the music brings patrons to the gambling floor. This creates an extremely competitive environment for buying talent, and it’s often difficult for an independent promoter to compete for acts that typically play 2,500 seat houses. Memphis also has a gap in venues. There are three large venues that seat 10,000 plus, but nothing in the 5,000 – 7,000 range, which is a good range for a great number of touring acts.
REG has had success in this range in buying talent for the annual Live at the Garden concert series for the Memphis Botanic Garden, where we set up a temporary stage for an outdoor 5-show concert series. This year, we will feature Harry Connick, Jr., Lyle Lovett, Michael McDonald and Bruce Hornsby on the season, along with the Memphis Symphony on July 4.
Most memorable industry experience
I produced the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony at the Kennedy Center in D.C. in 1999. We closed with Bobby Rush and his dancers on stage, and the biggest sponsor walked out in indignation. I loved the show. After, a bunch of old friends mobbed me, I drifted away from my wife, who thought I would be right back. At the VIP after party my buddy Ches asked, “Where’s Baylor?” and I realized in shock that I had abandoned her at the theater. Thank God my music director (a saint) was with her when the lights started going out. He led her through the bowels of the building and delivered her to the after party. It’s my most memorable experience because I’m not allowed to forget it.
What friends would be surprised to learn about you
My first instrument was tuba–started at the bottom and worked my way up–and I played keyboards in a Mississippi Delta Blues band, the Stone Gas Band, for six years. Also, Muddy Waters grew up on my family’s farm and worked for my grandfather, but lots of people know that.
Best business decision
To partner up and create Resource Entertainment Group this year.
Best advice you received
Marry your best friend because in 40 years you’ll both be ugly.
Best advice to offer
True success balances work and family. Good results in both arenas create life’s greatest satisfaction.
Industry pet peeve
Getting the “no” on deadline day when it could’ve been given two weeks ago.
A Son Thomas folk art skull, old Stovall Plantation photos, a signed poster from a random jazz gig in a cellar in Krakow, Poland, a Herman Leonard photo of Ella at the Downbeat in NYC in 1949 with Duke Ellington and Bennie Goodman watching from the front table, and Nesuhi Ertegun sitting in the shadows.
If I wasn’t doing this, I would be…
…expanding my wife’s retail empire.
Bob Merlis (publicist), Steve Berkowitz (Sony Music)
Howard can be reached at 901-543-1155 and by email at email@example.com