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Live-music czar Law returns to roots of his success

DON LAW DON LAW
By Joan Anderman
Globe Staff / May 22, 2009
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Reclusive. Savvy. Ruthless. Honest. Whip-smart. Shy. These are just a sampling of the words that come up over and over when people talk about Don Law, the man who has virtually controlled the live music scene throughout New England for almost four decades. And right now people are talking. In an era when out-of-town corporate behemoths have scooped up some of Boston's biggest name-brand institutions - Fleet, Hancock, Gillette, to name a few - Law, Boston's biggest concert promoter, has stepped forward to protect three of this city's live music landmarks from following that trend.

"He's a gentleman in a jungle," says former Aerosmith manager Tim Collins, who found himself engaged in a contentious lawsuit with Law, who was then Joe Perry's manager, in the early 1980s on the eve of the band's reunion. (The suit was eventually settled.) "Don was ruthless, but whenever he crushed someone it was fair competition, never character assassination or anything illegal. He would crush them by being a better businessman. He's smarter than every other promoter in America, and he doesn't want to be a rock star. That's the key to his success."

That approach has colored Law's career, the last decade of which he has spent working behind the scenes at Live Nation, America's biggest concert promoter. But earlier this month Law and his onetime business partner David Mugar, whose family founded the Star Market grocery chain and who is best known today for producing the city's annual Fourth of July blowout, re-teamed to purchase the restored Opera House, the operating contract for the Orpheum, and a half-stake in the Paradise Rock Club, which Law himself opened in 1977. And while Law plays down the significance of the $22.5 million acquisition, the question on many people's minds is: What's next?

Is Opera House Ventures LLC the first gambit in a fresh power play by the legendary promoter? Does Law's move, at a time when the concert business somehow manages to defy the recession and continue to soar, signal his return to a more hands-on role in the city where he built his business and became one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the live music industry? One thing is certain: It comes at a significant moment, as massive consolidations in industries as far-flung as music and mortgages are crumbling.

Law is intimately familiar with the story line. For years, nearly every live pop-music act that played in Greater Boston had his fingerprints on it, from Springsteen and Sting to up-and-coming garage bands. Law cemented his reputation by offering what matters most to bands: a smooth show, tight security, and a timely paycheck.

After managing small acts in college and running the legendary Back Bay nightclub Boston Tea Party, he went on to either build, manage, book, or own everything from Great Woods and The Orpheum to the Worcester Centrum and the Providence Civic Center to the Cape Cod Coliseum, the old Harborlights, the Paradise, Avalon, and Axis. But in 1998, in a surprising move, he sold the Don Law Company for a reported $80 million to SFX Entertainment and signed a five-year management contract. Two years later, Clear Channel Communications bought SFX and named Law president of its New England division. In 2005, Clear Channel spun off its concert arm into a new company, Live Nation.

But now Live Nation is selling real estate to pay off $800 million in long-term debt, and when Law got wind of his employer's plans to unload the Opera House, the Orpheum, and the Paradise, he knew there was a risk they could fall into the hands of an outsider who might not have Boston's best interests - and those of the venues - at heart. "I said to [Live Nation chairman] Michael Rapino, 'If you're determined to sell, sell to me.' I didn't go looking for this. It was convenient. I thought the asset was special."

Law made that comment during a brief phone call whose chief purpose was actually to decline a request for an interview. Mugar, likewise, declined to comment for this story. An intensely private person, Law disdains attention from the press as vehemently as he has pursued his business life. He is the proverbial man behind the curtain - hidden from view, yet with his hands firmly on the controls.

"Don lies in wait for a good opportunity," says Law's longtime friend, musician Livingston Taylor. "When the corporate rollups were happening in the late '90s, he knew that to buck that tide would be futile. And now he is armed with profit, in no small part derived from that corporate rollup, with which to buy pieces of it as it is unrolling."

Master plan or simple serendipity? Law pleads the latter, and many around him note the nimbleness with which he reacts to shifting circumstances. But the frequency with which those same observers refer to Law as a big-picture guy, skilled at reading the lay of the land and then navigating with surgical precision for maximal profit, leads one to believe that little in Law's world is left to chance. Boston real estate developer John Rosenthal, who counts himself among Law's small inner circle, believes "Don would be very happy to get local again, and these three venues are a start. It's a little bit like back to the future."

Former Boston journalist Jon Landau is known for saying back in 1974 that he saw the future of rock 'n' roll after hearing a young Bruce Springsteen play in Harvard Square; Law saw there was a lucrative industry to be built around attending a Springsteen show, not to mention shows by most every other musical act that comes through town. He cobbled his empire methodically, on a bedrock of cutthroat determination and genuine integrity, with the simple goal of controlling live music in New England. Even those who have battled Law speak of him with begrudging respect.

"We've had instances where we've come not exactly to blows, but to standoffs," says Steven Mindich, publisher of the Boston Phoenix. The alt-weekly's coverage of the local music scene has long been an attractive advertising outlet for Law. "He's a tough negotiator, and I have great respect for him despite the fact that over the years we have not seen eye to eye."

From his early days booking bands for the campus special events committee at Boston University, Law, whose father worked in the music business as well and founded the country music division of Columbia Records, has been an anomaly. In the publicity-crazed entertainment world, he is a reserved, buttoned-down presence surrounded by spotlight-hungry hipsters. He rarely shows his face at the rock concerts he promotes, preferring the more refined pleasures of sailing and vintage sports cars. Born in Westport, Conn., and a longtime Dover resident, Law, who is married and has two sons, is by all accounts a devoted family man, loath to miss a high school baseball game. While his aloofness has been interpreted as arrogance, over time most have come to see him as shy. At 66, he has the crisp good looks of a well-sunned preppie. When Law opened Tea Party Concerts in Boston in 1970, his distinguishing qualities served the mission well.

"He's not a guy with a bong in one hand and a big ego in the other," says Mike Dreese, cofounder and chief executive of Newbury Comics. "There were always six or eight people running around thinking they were going to be the next Don Law, and they invariably ran into ethical or capital issues. They were in it for the glamour or the quick buck. The main thing about Don, and it's true for most successful people, is he's a class act. His word is his bond."

From helping to shape the nightclub landscape, to boosting the careers of major-league exports like the J. Geils Band and The Cars, to oiling the virtual gears of nearly every tour bus that rolls through, Law has had an impact on the evolution of the city's music life. He carries a deeply held belief that concert promotion is a local phenomenon, according to Liv Taylor. A band, after all, can be in only one town at a time. Whether by design or happenstance, Law's return to the day-to-day job of running three Boston venues is widely hailed. Mindich sums it up this way:

"It's not that out-of-towners are cruel and don't care, it's just that they don't live here. They don't touch the fabric of our community. There's real value there for Don, but I think he also feels a greater responsibility, and that pays back over time in ways you can't even know. There's that item on a balance sheet called good will."

Rosenthal believes that selling the Don Law Company was a lucrative but painful business decision that left a lasting, bittersweet residue.

"I think it was very hard for him to lose control, but Don was patient and watched the trends in the industry. He sold at the top and now he's buying at the bottom. With this acquisition he's become an owner again," Rosenthal says. "He's back to his roots."

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com.

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