Two hours before the first of three punk bands is scheduled to hit the stage for a mid-February concert at Denver's Mammoth Events Center, the only people inside are musicians, crew members, promoter Doug Kauffman and a teenager named John Ferrucci whom Kaufmann has grown accustomed to seeing.
"That little kid?" he asks as he glances at Ferrucci, a diminutive fifteen-year-old wearing a knit cap pulled down low over his forehead. "I first saw him outside the Violent Femmes show we did in January. It was, like, three hours before the show, and he was out in front crying that he'd lost his tickets. And he was really crying--tears and everything. I listened to this for a while and then said, `Shit, get in here.' So he came in and hung out backstage during the show, and the Femmes even let him thump the bass a couple times while they were playing. And since then, he's been coming early to every goddamned show, saying he'll `help out' if we let him in." As a grinning Ferrucci waves at him, Kauffman grumbles, "I don't know how we got by without him."
On this night, Kauffman, who's 34, can use all the assistance he can get. The Mammoth show--headlined by the Offspring, a SoCal quartet riding a triple-platinum album--has been sold out for weeks, and ticketholders are so enthusiastic that they started lining up outside the venue hours before its doors were set to open. Meanwhile, at the Ogden (a block away from Mammoth on East Colfax), Eighties hitmakers Simple Minds are the night's main attraction--and there are no more tickets available for that date, either. Kauffman's role for the Simple Minds appearance is as landlord, not promoter, but he still feels compelled to monitor the gig. "I try to go to every show I'm doing," he says. "I can't not know what's going on, but I can't just sit and watch it, either." He gestures at the vast interior of Mammoth, whose capacity tops 3,500. "That's why the design of this place is perfect for me. I can circle around and around and around all night long.
"Besides," he continues, leaning against a guardrail as a guitarist tunes up a few feet away, "it's close enough to walk over to the Ogden and make sure there aren't any disasters. Got to keep Barry happy."
"Barry" is Barry Fey, the promoter who brought Simple Minds to the Ogden. The acknowledged king of Denver-Boulder concert booking, Fey claims he isn't bothered by Kauffman's rising profile in the music community--but last year he was bothered enough by something to have offered Kauffman a job that would have brought him under the Fey umbrella. Although Kauffman was then in deep financial trouble (trouble that he only now feels comfortable discussing), he turned Fey down, and the choice seems to be paying off. Friends and enemies alike agree that Kauffman's promotion firm, nobody in particular presents, has become a preeminent force in local event booking--perhaps not a direct threat to Fey, but certainly a considerable thorn in his side. For example, the summer season at Red Rocks this year opens not with a Fey-booked concert but one from Kauffman--the Beastie Boys and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, on May 1.
Moreover, Kauffman's ownership of the Ogden and Englewood's Gothic Theatre has forced both the competitors who respect him and those who do not to knock on his door. And his early 1995 decision to drop Ticketmaster, the largest ticketing service in the entertainment industry, has resulted in a growing reputation for hardheaded independence among his peers across the country.
Not all of Kauffman's bets have come in, of course, but none of the failures he's suffered since he took his first steps as a promoter nine years ago have made him gun-shy. "I've always had the attitude that life is short," Kauffman barks over the noise of the ongoing sound check. "You only live once--and what do you have left if you totally fuck everything up? Fifty years?"
Ducking into a ratty space outside a Mammoth dressing room, Kauffman sits down on a folding chair and tugs at what for him is a new chapeau--a promotional hat for the band Tool, which he picked up when the combo appeared in Denver in 1994. "I had this Pride Seed hat that I wore for something like ten years, but I had to retire it--the bill was falling off," he says. "And I had another one that said `Gunnison' and had a fish on it. That one lasted for about five years. So when it wore out, I had to get some more."
Even Kauffman isn't sure why he's so attracted to hats. After all, he's not balding. Chalk it up, then, to his fondness for anonymity, for disappearing into a crowd. When he's clad in his usual uniform (well-worn jeans, a tattered jacket, a crummy T-shirt and one of his hats), he might as well be the Invisible Man: just another lanky, distracted palooka into rock and roll.
That's as apt a description as any of Kauffman during the first phase of his music career. Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he was already a fancier of rootsy rock and roll and a bass player of no small skill by the time he graduated from high school. The problem: He didn't like Michigan much. "I wanted to live in the mountains," he says. "So I looked at a map and saw Gunnison."
The year was 1981, and musician Neil Grudzen was attending Gunnison's Western State College and working in an area music store when, as Grudzen remembers, "I got a phone call from a fellow who said he was looking for a band and wanted to move to Colorado. We talked, and when I found out we both liked the blues, I said, `If you're ever out this way, maybe we can put something together.' Then I kind of forgot about it, but a few days later I'm at work and this guy comes in and says, `Hi, I'm Doug.'"
Grudzen and Kauffman discovered that they were indeed musically compatible, and subsequently formed a group called the Groove Kings. "We were good," Grudzen boasts. "We had a groove and a half." Shortly thereafter, the Kings mutated into the Works, which featured Kauffman, Grudzen and Jim Swanson, another Western State student who was initially wary of Kauffman. "He turned out to be a nice enough guy," he says, "but he's kind of hard to get to know."
Others don't put such a positive spin on Kauffman's personality. He's certainly not without friends, and his communications skills have gotten better as the years have passed. Yet a considerable percentage of those on the local scene find him distant, unapproachable. "I guess I'm kind of a loner," Kauffman notes, "so people think I'm aloof. But it's not that I don't want to be bothered. It's just that I have a lot on my mind."
After achieving as much fame as was possible in Gunnison, the Works decided to take a shot at the slightly bigger time and relocated to Boulder. The act soon received its baptism of fire. "We opened up for [hard-rockers] Y&T at the Rainbow in 1983, and we got booed off the stage," Kauffman recalls. "It was amazing being booed by that many people. I mean, the first twenty rows stood up and gave us the finger at exactly the same time--it was an organized protest. Man, that was awesome."
To Kauffman, however, this response wasn't so much an attack on the Works as an indication that appearing on a bill with Y&T was a very bad idea. As a result, he started booking the band himself and succeeded in making several better matches--with X and the Blasters, for example. In the process, he discovered that "I wanted to be in charge of my destiny. A lot of musicians hate doing that kind of thing, but I wanted to do it. It was the control thing."
Still, Kauffman wasn't ready to switch careers quite yet. He moved to San Francisco in 1984 and stayed for over two years. He describes the period with typical brevity: "I auditioned for Chris Isaak's band. Didn't get the job. Then I auditioned for Sweethearts of the Rodeo--that was in Nashville. Didn't get the job."
By 1986 Colorado was looking pretty good again. He returned to the area, got an apartment in Denver with Swanson and joined Bop Street, a band that spawned the roots-rocking Jinns. He also began managing the Rock Advocates, which for a time featured both Swanson and Grudzen. It didn't take him long to discover that doing so wouldn't make him rich, however. "It was nickel-and-dime stuff," he says. "When you're getting ten percent of a band that's only getting $300 to play, that's a waste of time."
Clearly, Kauffman needed to find something else to do. One night while brainstorming with Swanson, he hit upon a scheme that led him into his future. "Neither of us liked the stuff that Fey was bringing in then," Swanson says. "We thought it was really weak. So I told Doug he should maybe try bringing in something himself. It was just a matter of figuring out who."
The inaugural Kauffman bookee turned out to be ex-Velvet Undergrounder John Cale, who performed a solo show at the now-defunct Broadway. "Doug did well with it. I think he actually made a little money," Swanson says. He chuckles before adding, "And the rest is history."
Not quite. Kauffman didn't instantly develop into a promotions powerhouse. In fact, he continued to play in various local bands for the next several years, and he still does the occasional gig, once filling in for the Paladins when their regular bassist became ill (according to Kauffman, "It was either do that or refund everyone's money"). Even when he was booking bands in his spare time, he managed to bring some impressive talents into the area--John Hiatt, Joe Ely and the Red Hot Chili Peppers during 1987 alone. But the thanks for these achievements was due more to sheer moxie than to his nascent negotiating skills.
"I met him in the mid-Eighties, when I was working with [entertainment attorney] Ed Pierson," reveals Dolly Zander, who's handled most of the financial aspects of Kauffman's operations for several years. "And he had a certain quality of stick-to-itiveness even then. But he wasn't what you'd call professional. Do you know the way he got the name for his company? He'd get an idea that he'd want to book somebody, and he'd cold-call these agents, these barracudas, before he'd developed a relationship with them and ask how much they'd charge for somebody. And when they'd ask who wants to know, Doug would tell them, `Nobody in particular.'"
Barry Fey also got a hint of Kauffman's nerve during this period. "The first time I met him, I was doing a Pink Floyd concert at Mile High in about 1988," he says, "and it was the earliest in the season we'd ever done a stadium show, so ticket sales were slow. But on the day of the concert, the skies cleared up and we did the biggest walk-up business we'd ever done--almost 12,000 tickets. So we had huge lines, and I was negotiating with the police to try and move the pat-downs along faster when this guy, this kid, comes up to me and says, `Are you Barry Fey?' And when I said yeah, he said, `I'm Doug Kauffman, and I'm a friend of [Fey Concerts booker] Bill Bass. Can you get me in?' And I said, `Son, can't you see what I'm doing here? Get away from me.'"
But Kauffman wasn't so easily dismissed. He kept booking the bands that were slipping be-neath Fey Concerts' radar--Primus, Nirvana and Jane's Addiction among them--thereby establishing professional relationships that are exceedingly valuable today. "I got lucky, because the alternative thing was really the only thing I could afford to go after," Kauffman concedes. "If I'd tried to go after heavy-metal bands, Fey would have killed me, but I was into this music. And now I've done almost all of these bands from the club level up. I've grown along with them."
This process accelerated when Kauffman rented Englewood's Gothic Theatre in 1990; from its very first dates (a three-night run with Ministry), it was an unexpected smash. Kauffman bought the Gothic a year later, and by 1992 he put plans into motion to renovate the structure. The rub? He needed a liquor license in order to make the investment viable, but this goal was strongly opposed by South Broadway businesspeople and residents. When Englewood turned down his license application, he began searching for another building. With the Ogden, he found it--and after receiving a generous loan from the Mayor's Office of Economic Development and support from organizations such as Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods, he was able to start work on the venerable structure in early 1993. He hoped to have the Ogden in operation by June, but various construction delays (and cost overruns) pushed the grand opening back to September. Worse, a high percentage of the early shows at the Ogden were commercial disappointments. Meanwhile, an attempt to expand his promotions operation into the Kansas City marketplace proved disastrous: "We got stomped," Kauffman says. Since he started promoting shows, he'd worked without much of a safety net and survived. This time, he almost lost everything.
"The work was a lot more expensive than I'd ever imagined," he says. "I went into it with this idea that we were going to have the Ogden up and running right away, but because of problems with the building, I couldn't do it--and I should have been prepared for something like that to happen. In retrospect, I should have given everything a lot more thought."
"Doug went into this balls-out, just like he always does," Zander reiterates. "I was handling the checkbook back then, and I would wake up during the middle of the night with sweat running down my back, I was so worried."
It was during these dark days that Fey invited Kauffman to join him for a barbecue lunch at Big Eddie's. "I told him that if he was to come under the Fey umbrella, he wouldn't have to worry about getting lost," Fey says. "I give my people a lot of room. But he said he'd like things to stay the way they were, and I said fine."
As it turned out, everything was fine. By early 1994 Kauffman had begun to figure out what worked and what didn't at the Ogden. His more astute booking, supplemented by his energetic effort to keep the theater hopping more than half the nights during any given month, resulted in a monetary turnaround that's been growing more robust with each passing month. Kauffman hasn't eliminated all of the Ogden's outstanding debts, but he's dispensed with the vast majority of them--and he assures creditors who've not yet been compensated that they will be in short order. He's now so sure of the Ogden's stability that he's again looking into renovating the Gothic, which has been up for sale since last year. Zander, whose more cautious nature counterbalances Kauffman's crap-shooter mentality, is not surprised. "He's always had this confidence," she suggests, "that is borne out by fate."
With Kauffman's success, of course, has come something of a backlash--and it's an indication of his muscle that many of his critics will only air their gripes if they're guaranteed anonymity. He may not be Barry Fey, but most of his peers would rather avoid pissing him off.
Except Bill Bass, that is. In many ways, Bass was the Kauffman of the early Eighties: His Image Productions brought the first punk, postpunk and new-wave shows to Denver (he also established his hipster credentials by giving early recognition to speed metal and reggae). But rather than continue on an independent road, Bass accepted an offer to join the Fey forces in the mid-Eighties. Today, his Small Axe Productions splits its focus between self-promoted dates and co-promotions with Fey, most of which are booked into the Ogden, the Gothic and other small halls. As a result, Bass and Kauffman work together quite often and maintain a bizarre cordiality. ("They call each other `honey' on the telephone," Zander divulges, laughing. "It's hysterical.") But Bass isn't afraid to say aloud what others only whisper.
Bass's primary charge is that Kauffman isn't nearly as "alternative" as he'd like consumers to believe: "Anyone who masquerades under that pretense is full of shit." Kauffman, Bass points out, uses virtually the same security staff that Fey Concerts employs at Fiddler's Green--and he further says that nobody in particular presents doesn't pay enough attention to details like sound and production quality. As for Kauffman's decision to use the Rocky Mountain Teleseat service rather than Ticketmaster, which has been knocked for price-gouging by groups such as Pearl Jam, Bass says, "Anyone who doesn't think Doug is benefiting financially to a very heightened degree is kidding themselves." Furthermore, Bass thinks that Kauffman frequently offers bands unjustifiably large guarantees to work with him, thereby inflating costs. "If Doug offers $20,000 for a $10,000 act, that does nothing for the market except to raise ticket prices for everyone. Now, does that sound very alternative to you?"
In defending himself against these accusations, Kauffman comes close to copping to several of them. He uses the Fiddler's Green security crew because "they're the best," and he doesn't offer any apology for doing so. As for alleged shortcomings in the presentations of his concerts, he says, "That maybe would be a legitimate criticism five years ago, but I don't skimp anymore. If I really cut corners like that, I wouldn't be getting the acts. And I'm getting the acts." He acknowledges that the Ogden's sonics can sometimes be shaky but believes that spraying the ceiling with acoustic foam, which he hopes to do within the next few months, should improve the room's acoustics (a pledge to install sound-absorbing curtains, made shortly after the theater's 1993 debut, has now been shelved).
And Ticketmaster? Kauffman insists that consumers are saving between $1 and $3 on each ticket they purchase through Teleseats--but he doesn't deny that he's earning more profits. "The key thing is that I get advances on my money faster, so I can use that money for deposits," he says. "That allows me to be a self-backed promoter who can be more effective and more competitive. So it's a 100 percent better deal for everybody." And, he allows, if it makes the Pearl Jams of the world more apt to work with him, that's good, too.
Finally, Kauffman refutes Bass's allegation of high ticket prices even as he admits that he sometimes overbids for artists he believes have growth potential. "The Fox wanted Sebadoh, but I was not going to lose that band," he says. "And I did Bush at the Mercury and lost money on it, just because of the size of the place. But Bush is going to be huge--and when they come back through, I'm the person they've had a history with. The same thing happened with the Offspring. They played the Ogden and did okay. But now they're playing Mammoth. And they're playing it for me.
"This is a business, and I treat it like one. But this isn't about greed. My only extravagance is my house--I rent the one that Pat Schroeder used to live in. But that's all. I mean, it's not like I'm blowing a lot of money on clothes."
As showtime nears, Kauffman starts moving and hardly stops for the next four hours. He supervises the 37 security staffers on duty (including six police officers) as they allow the Offspring fanatics into Mammoth. Afterward, he walks to the Ogden and pitches Baldo Rex, a Boulder band with which he's enamored, to a Virgin Records representative touring with Simple Minds. He then returns to Mammoth, and while opening acts Nouseforaname and Quicksand run through their repertoires, he walks practically every inch of the venue, making sure nothing catastrophic has escaped the notice of his crew. "My worst nightmare is that somebody gets hurt--that's why I do everything I can to make sure it's not going to happen," he says. "But I still have this sick feeling in my stomach all night long."
To dampen this pain, Kauffman orders a beer at Mammoth, slugs it down and then walks to the Ogden, where he repeats the process. While there, he listens to a song by Simple Minds, looking undeniably out of place amid the 900 or so young, affluent types swaying to the act's signature sound. After five minutes he's had enough. "The Offspring is more my thing," he declares as he goes back to Mammoth again--and as if to prove it, he listens to the group's hit, "Come Out and Play," from the barricade in front of the stage, his ear two feet from the public-address system.
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As the next song begins, Kauffman leaves the barricade and sequesters himself in an office, where he and Zander hash out the split of the gate receipts with the band's handlers. He's deep into facts and figures when Offspring lead singer Dexter Holland starts encouraging the people up front to stage dive. Several willing volunteers manage to sneak through a gap in a curtain and scurry past the footlights before hurling themselves into the mosh pit below. John Ferrucci, who's been watching the action from a position near the soundboard, brightens while telling a little about himself.
"My dad was a jockey--he's dead now--and my mom's real short, so that's why I'm so small," he proclaims as he gets ready for launch time. "I'm fifteen years old and I only weigh 65 pounds. But I can still do lots of things around here--and I want to, because of Doug. He's the greatest."
With that, Ferrucci shoots past Holland and executes a delicate belly flop onto the craniums of those below him. Kauffman misses this display, but when he's told about it at the end of a relatively uneventful night (no major injuries, no big hassles), he rolls his eyes and sneers. "That's great," he grouses. "I let him in here for every damned show and then he does that. Well, I can tell you one thing for sure. He's not doing it again."
A few weeks later, in the midst of the Sebadoh concert Kauffman fought so hard to book at the Ogden, Ferrucci appears from behind a backstage curtain and goes airborne again. Kauffman is standing nearby, but he doesn't seem to notice. He's got a lot of things on his mind.