One of the highest-ranking female executives working in the concert promotion business today, Canada’s Debra Rathwell is the New York-based executive vice-president of global touring and talent at AEG Presents, the second-largest promoter in the world. She recently oversaw the top-grossing tour of all time, Elton John’s Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour. She spoke to The Globe and Mail in advance of her keynote appearance in Toronto at the industry convention Canadian Music Week, June 5-10.
You started in the music business as an executive assistant to Canadian music pioneer Harvey Glatt in Ottawa. How does that story go?
There was a time in my life when I needed to rent a room while living in Ottawa. I was finishing at Carleton University. I tore a little piece of paper off a bulletin board, as we used to do in the olden days. I ended up living with a poet, Cyndela Whitney. She was active in the music community, and I was fascinated by this. Harvey was operating the Treble Clef retail music stores and the concert company, Bass Clef.
What kind of boss was he?
He was a sweetheart, and still is. I applied for a job as his executive assistant, which I was not really qualified for. I believe he liked the fact that I read The New York Times every Sunday. He thought it was unusual and hired me. Then I got into concert management with him. If he hadn’t hired me all those years ago, my story would not have happened.
In the early 1980s you went to work with Donald K. Tarleton, of Donald K Donald Productions in Montreal. How different was the concert business back then?
We were partners with Michael Cohl and Concert Productions International in Toronto. And there was a little company, Perryscope Concerts, in Vancouver. It enabled us to promote from one coast to another. The hardest thing for us was to get American artists to come to Canada, because we had a devalued Canadian currency against the U.S. dollar.
You were sticking to Canada for the most part?
Donald didn’t have the appetite to move outside the country. Michael Cohl did.
Was the business kinder and gentler before Michael Cohl? His taking the Rolling Stones away from American promoter Bill Graham in 1989 seemed to mark a shift in the industry’s decorum.
Michael was upsetting the old world order, but there’s context to that. Bill Graham liked things just the way they were. Michael showed artists like the Rolling Stones that there was another way of doing things. And he was right.
Do you think music fans are well served by concert promoters today?
If you go back in the time machine, we used to have a few club dates and more arena dates. In Montreal, we used to budget our club losses, because you couldn’t make any money on them. Now the paradigm is upside down. Everybody is building smaller rooms.
It’s the internet, with artists and promoters being so connected to fanbases, right?
That’s it. It’s not hard to find 500 people or 1,000 people to go to a show now. Are those people well served? I think so. Ticket prices are pretty friendly at that level.
A competitor of AEG, Live Nation Entertainment, has faced congressional hearings on what some see as its monopolistic practices, and Ticketmaster is a source of a lot of frustration with fans.
Not all companies are the same. AEG is a private company. We conduct ourselves in a different way. The other company you’re talking about has tried to own all aspects of the business so that they can be in control. That control is what is wrong, and I’m not sure it’s just the ticketing situation.
Let’s say you were appointed concert czar. What is your first order of business?
It would be to explain to everyone how the concert business really works. Let’s go back a long time ago. I promoted Miley Cyrus when she was doing Hannah Montana, the big Disney TV show. We sold out so quickly when I put the arena tour on sale that I had 11 attorneys contact our office wanting to know if we had overadvertised and underdelivered. The answer was that we just didn’t have enough tickets to meet the demand. This happens, and it’s a story that has gone on for a very long time. It’s the thing people want to talk about, but nobody wants to talk about the show I can’t sell.
Any other priorities as concert czar?
If it were me, I would say that one company doesn’t get to control all the levers without leaving something for other people.
In your actual job as someone who oversees tours, you were once described as the “bossy girl with the clipboard.” Other than you being a woman, not a girl, is that accurate?
Yes. [Laughs] I’m happy with that one. It’s pretty true.
This interview has been edited and condensed.