Making it sing
By DENNIS DARROW THE PUEBLO CHIEFTAIN Sept 5 2004 Photo: Mike Sweeney
If your image of top music executives involves a bunch of suits bunkered in board rooms chewing up Tums and their assistants, Bob Romeo and Mark Hartley will disappoint you real fast.
Romeo, the Fair’s concert promoter recently named executive director of the Academy of Country Music, and Hartley, a veteran talent agent whose clients include Vince Gill and Brad Paisley, spent Thursday evening lounging around the Colorado State Fair, seemingly without a care in the world.
The only complaint eating away at the easy-going Romeo, dressed in a button-down Hawaiian shirt and making the latest in his periodic summertime visits to the State Fair, stemmed from the high cost of housing in Los Angeles compared with his longtime home in Omaha, Neb. (His new job required him to move.)
Hartley, who traveled to Pueblo with client Olivia Newton-John, is now co-owner of the Fitzgerald Hartley Co. based in Los Angeles and Nashville, Tenn., talked about how he still likes to visit his childhood hometown of Denver as often as he can.
One of the reasons Hartley came to Pueblo with Newton-John was to visit Denver, where he headed right after her Wednesday night show. Aside from his many friends in the area, he continues to co-manage the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band with Colorado promoter Chuck Morris, he noted.
Hartley also expressed his delight at the chance to travel with Newton-John, who in private is every bit as classy and cheery as her public persona, he said. A breast cancer survivor, the Australian native put her singing career on hold for 16 years before deciding to ease back into the concert scene, starting in 1999.
“Her deal is real simple. She loves to sing,” Hartley said. And she’s also now considered the world’s top spokeswoman for breast cancer awareness.
Moreover, a star of Newton-John’s stature gets to choose where and when she wants to perform, and her stop in Pueblo wasn’t just another paycheck, Hartley said. She loves state fairs and horse shows and, as far as he knew, her visit to the Colorado expo was her first chance ever to perform at one.
Maybe the music fan most happy that Newton-John made the Pueblo stop was Hartley, a longtime admirer who said he was happy to finally get a chance to visit with her. He talked with her for nearly an hour before showtime. (Obviously, the job isn’t without some perks.)
Romeo and Hartley also talked about family. More precisely, the importance of family in the music industry. Romeo, whose father was a top concert promoter, talked proudly of his own son, who recently finished his first year in law school and spent the summer interning for a record label. Hartley, whose father was a record label executive based in Denver, said his son now works alongside him. The son helps to manage newer acts.
As the talks turned more to the music industry, Romeo and Hartley left no doubt there’s one worry that dogs even veteran music industry executives. It’s as old as the industry itself. Do they still have the eye for talent?
Despite all their combined years in the business, and all of the sights and sounds that go with the job, the two men grew noticeably more chatty when their talk turned onto the subject of up-and-coming new artists, both the new ones on the concert circuit and the ones waiting in the wings, known - they hope - only to them, at least until contracts are dotted and signed.
Not unlike a pair of buddies meeting over beers to get ready for a fantasy baseball draft, the duo swapped insights on new acts such as Big & Rich and Gretchen Wilson - sure winners, Romeo judged - and they also marveled at the turnaround in country music’s fortunes as veteran stars such as Paisley worked hard to become even more popular. Two years ago the industry was in an admitted sales funk.
Hartley said he admires today’s emerging stars for their work ethic and, while his own fortunes rise and fall with them, he’s glad they’re finally getting bigger paydays. A couple of years ago, “The difference was there were established headliners and middle artists. But now more of the middle artists have popped into headliners.”
Romeo agreed. And as the new chief of the Academy of Country Music, a job offered to him after he helped push the telecast to adopt a higher-energy approach, Romeo pledged an even bigger focus on new artists and also more exposure to mid-level stars who demonstrate a knack for the concert circuit, not just record sales.
He also wants the ACM annual award show - now staged in Las Vegas and considered an edgier version of the industry’s other big awards show sponsored by the Country Music Association - to become still more dynamic and push harder for emerging stars to help them reach new heights, Romeo said.
Hartley, a periodic ACM board director, said he enthusiastically supports the changes. Too often “it seems like we (in the industry) want to build them up and then devour (emerging and mid-level stars).”
Other clients of Hartley’s agency include country newcomer Buddy Jewell, a rising star who won the Nashville Stars televised talent search; Dwight Yoakum, Billy Ray Cyrus, Restless Heart, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Toto.