Michael Cohl has built a concert promotion empire over a career that’s now stretched over 33 years, which makes him very worthy of receiving the Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award for his valuable contributions to the music industry. And with the great success he’s attained, it’s a bit difficult to fathom how humbling his entry into the business was.
When Cohl hears that country legend Buck Owens called him a “real pro” when he was asked about his appearance with the Buckaroos at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens in 1969, the concert promoter laughs. “He’s probably being polite,” he surmises.
What the 73-year-old Owens might not remember is that the show marked Cohl’s first foray into the concert promotion business, and the self-described “little Jewish kid from Vaughan Road” - who went on to produce international tours for such acts as the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, U2 and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - didn’t have enough money to pay him.
“I was just this kid who didn’t know what he was doing,” recalls the Toronto-born Cohl. “I thought there was going to be a riot. So I asked the manager of Maple Leaf Gardens if Harold Ballard was there, and he said, ‘Why, he won’t talk to you.’
“And I said, ‘Will you at least ask him?’ And for some reason, Harold agreed to see me.
“This was in the middle of a 20-minute break that’s now been a 40-minute break because Buck’s not going on if I don’t pay him. So I walked upstairs and I got down on my hands and knees and asked Harold Ballard to lend me the money to pay Buck Owens. I swore I’d pay him back. And God knows why he gave me the money - it was $12,500 U.S.’
“He just went, ‘I don’t know why I’m doing this, but here Cohl,’ I do this often to people, but no one ever pays me back.’
“I said, ‘Mr. Ballard, I swear to you I am going to pay you back.’ And that’s how I got through the first show. That was March, and in January I paid him back because we had a good run of shows.’
“So my memory of the Buck Owens show was meeting Harold Ballard and living in terror the entire night.”
Notwithstanding that less than auspicious debut in the world of concert promotion, Cohl persevered and continued to produce shows for his company, Concert Productions International (CPI). His first few shows included performances by Ravi Shankar and Sha Na Na.
In 1974, after a bidding war over a Bee Gees tour, he convinced Montreal’s Donald Tarlton of Donald K. Donald Productions to join forces with him.
“In a 4 a.m. meeting over a pizza in an Edmonton motel room, on tour with the Bee Gees, we shook hands on an arrangement that CPI and DKD - who had been vicious competitors - would share concert and tour promoting across Canada 50-50, with CPI retaining Toronto and DKD retaining Montreal,” Tarlton recalls. “This verbal contract lasted for over two decades prior to Michael and BCL’s acquisition of DKD.”
Tarlton calls Cohl the “maestro” when it comes to inventing new ideas, finding competitive niches behind numerous adventures, and dreaming and then executing the impossible. “I viewed him as one of the all-time great dealmakers in show business and was always amazed how he could utilize all the skills of that room to tinker, refine, massage and work what appeared to be crazy possibilities into terrific and successful ideas and profitable projects.”
One such vision was presenting U2 at Toronto’s El Mocambo nightclub in 1980. Seventeen years later, he produced the group’s worldwide Pop Mart Tour.
“Michael Cohl was the first guy to realize that the talent agents had started to think and behave as if the promoters were their clients, not the acts,” says U2 manager Paul McGuiness. “He became the promoter who treated the big acts as his clients, and the rest is history.”
“I think in a way that’s true,” responds Cohl when told of the assessment. “I think what did happen was many of the talent agencies developed strong bonds and relationships with various promoters. What always frustrated me was once we got reasonably good, and then very good, at what we did in Toronto, I wanted to expand my business and we would bump into all the rules of the game as dictated by the agents: ‘You can’t go into Philadelphia and you can’t go into Denver…’
“My answer was, ‘We have a value added, we have a service to provide. It’s a good service and I’m not going to let them dictate to me. Who are they to tell me that my income and my success are limited to Toronto - or, for that matter, limited to Canada?’
“I just recognized that if you play within the rules of the game, as dictated by the various talent agencies, your horizon is limited. And I was not willing to accept that.”
Cohl first entered into the global touring market by handling the second half of Michael Jackson’s Victory Tour. Then, in 1989, he landed the contract to become the tour director and promoter for the Rolling Stones’ Steel Wheels onslaught, which became the #1 tour of both the year and the decade. Through the ‘90s, Cohl was at the helm of five of the top six highest-grossing tours of all time.
“Michael Cohl is probably the most successful individual promoter on the planet,” says Pink Floyd manager Steve O’Rourke, who has known Cohl since 1975. “He has one particular advantage over every other promoter I know. He loves music. I happen to know that he actually buys records.”
Despite such success - and the great financial rewards that have come with it - Cohl has remained very down-to-earth, according to longtime associate Arthur Fogel, who’s now president of Clear Channel Entertainment touring division.
“Years ago I was at one of our shows, and the agent for the act was attending the show from New York. He was dressed in a suit and tie and I remarked on how unusual it was for someone in our business to dress like that at a show. He told me that he thought it was important to dress as your boss would. I responded that that would dictate that I shop at the Salvation Army.’
“Despite the wardrobe, there is no one more deserving of the recognition than Michael. His business sense and promotional savvy are unmatched in the live presentation side of our business, and I am proud to say he is my mentor.”
Cohl - the visionary, pioneer and adventuresome, fearless rule-breaker - built CPI into the largest concert promotion company in Canada. He then developed BCL with Bill Ballard and Labatt. He later created The Next Adventure (TNA) and sold it to Clear Channel Entertainment. With the profits from the deal, he’s now formed a new venture called The Next Investment (TNI).
“Whether you have worked on the same teams as Michael Cohl or have competed with him, it is safe to say everyone crossing paths with him has an admiring respect for his talent, foresight, and passion for the live concert business, “ says House of Blues Concerts Canada managing director/executive VP Don Simpson.
“He has defined the concert business in Canada over the past 30 years and he has created, shaped and perfected the worldwide touring concept - which he successfully oversees to this day.
“Over the past 12 years, I have had the opportunity to compete with Michael, co-promote events together with him, play on the same team with him, and negotiate deals with him. Throughout it all, regardless of the intensely competitive nature of our business, I have always held the utmost respect for Michael and all of his achievements in this business. He is a legend in this industry and, more importantly, he is a Canadian legend in this industry.”
Cohl characterizes his ride thus far as fun challenging and, above all, satisfying.
“That’s the best word I can use because we’ve succeeded,” he says.
“We’ve survived through those perilous times of near bankruptcy and financial problems and struggling and groups not liking us and Toronto Star attacks and all that stuff. If we had failed, then we could go, ‘Now that was a mistake,’
“It’s a journey that has great memories with a lot of difficult times, but in the end, I’m really glad I did it.”
Written by Karen Bliss