Dave Brooks

For this installment of the newsletter, we talked to Dave Brooks, who covers the concert business for Billboard and has organized its Touring Conference.

NACPA is neutral to all media, from trades like Pollstar to CelebrityAccess to Billboard. In fact, the Executive Director has worked for two of the three and has worked with several of the talents, from Ray Waddell to Andy Gensler to Deborah Speer to Ian Courtney.

Yet, we only thought it would be of value to share with readers the background of someone from the media, someone who may be calling soon, and Dave fits. Many times we pick up the phone and talk to someone without knowing the other person is as real as you. I can say that I’ve been fascinated by someone, yet they had no idea that I have fascinating stories, too. We hope that this helps give people a background on that mysterious person who calls you once in a while, and we hope this can be extended to ALL media personalities.

Brooks’ background includes his own e-zine, Amplify, and the daily email blast The Real, along with experience at Venues Now and Pollstar. He’s also moderated dozens of panels worldwide at various live industry conferences.

The interviewer has known Dave for years yet did not know his history, from his relationship with reporter Gary Webb (played by Jeremy Renner in “Kill The Messenger”) to his time exposing corruption in the community of Watsonville, Calif., to being administered a lie detector test by his father.

Where did you get your start? Do you have a degree in journalism?

I think of myself as a good writer and a great reporter/investigator. I should say I’m most passionate about investigating and finding things out before anybody else. How good I am at it is subjective.

But I got that from my father, Chuck. My parents split when I was young and I spent a lot of time with him. He’s an investigator with a degree in criminology.

He probably imagined he was going to go into the FBI, like a lot of young people do. But after a few years working for the government, busting welfare fraud or whatever, he arrived at the private side of the business and started working for retailers, catching shoplifters. For a while he worked for a company called Service Merchandise that had offices all over the country. My dad became a polygraph examiner. Sometimes he’d hook up a polygraph to the company’s own employees to find out if they were stealing.

I was always fascinated by the machine. Its outer case looks like a briefcase and you literally snap it back together at its half. You just go on your way; nobody knows what’s in that case.

My dad taught me a lot about how the machine works. He’d hook me up to it for fun and say, “Go into the other room, pick up a red ball or a white ball or a blue ball, put it down and come back.”

He’d ask me questions. I really thought that was fun and cool, and he was so good at it. He’s a master at detecting deception.

It eventually was outlawed in court. I asked my dad if that made his job harder or easier. “It makes my job so much easier,” he said,  “because all that stuff is a distraction.” He’s more comfortable going with his gut instinct.

He taught me a lot about how to deal with people in those situations – how to seek the truth. How to build rapport. How to sense if someone is being honest. Also, how to think logically. We used to watch the show “Unsolved Mysteries.” There’d always be something about aliens and my dad would say, “Fake!

People don’t have the skills to say, okay, did an alien intend to kidnap these people, like how to deduct that it’s BS. It really had an influence over me and how I approached my job.

And tell good stories.

Does that mean you have a BS Meter?

I do think so. What I’m good at is analyzing the facts. If someone tells me something, my BS Meter can tell me if I’m being fed a line, or if this is spin, or if it’s not realistic. It’s just based on the facts being presented to me.

What I struggle with is detecting if somebody is being deceptive about something that could or could not be true.

My dad says there’s a lot of disagreement in criminology about the tells of deception. I try not to rely much on stuff like body language because I haven’t been trained in that. Besides, journalism is different than criminology. I’m trying to get to the truth but I’m not trying to prosecute.

Don Henley has a song lyric that goes there are three sides to a every story – yours, mine and the cold hard truth. A local newspaper might paint someone as a bad guy but a simple phone call can reveal a little truth on both sides of an issue.

Exactly! Especially those stories involving assessing blame when things go wrong between promoters.

Until you hear one person’s details and delivery it’s easy to convince yourself that person is the good guy and the other is the bad guy. That’s so rarely the case. People are complicated. They have different motivations. Most people operate under the pretense under they’re doing the right thing. Also, a lot of times it has to do with money but it’s because they want to do the right thing because they deserve something for themselves. It’s rare that there are people completely motivated by greed and malice.

How often do you get the casually threatening suggestion of “If you report x, we will respond with y?”

More often than I like. A couple times a year. To me, that’s the worst tactic to take. It just lets me know I’m over the target. That means there’s no debate left, no explaining. You’re just going to go to a threat? Okay, well, we have counsel and, second, I know my rights and a decent understanding of libel laws.

I just don’t worry about it. But I try to be careful and, if I do, I know I’ll be ok.

It’s nice to publish something on Friday and know that nothing will happen on Monday.

Right? That’s the thing. You struggle with that sometimes. I’ll write a big story and, after a while, nothing comes of it. That can be frustrating if you think something should be done.

But I tell people that I don’t operate on outcome; I just want to share information. Now, if I think something is scandalous, I clearly want something to happen but that’s how I bring myself back down to earth. When I’m disappointed from a reporter’s standpoint, if nothing happens, it’s ego. I don’t see much upside in ego as a motivator.

Have you ever anticipated a big problem, and it turns out the explosion comes from something small, like a misspelled name in the tenth paragraph or misquoting an offhand remark from a fifth party?

Totally. Sloppy work. That’s on our shoulders. That’s not fun. That really sucks. It’s happened to me and will probably happen again. I hate it.

Fact check and challenge your assumptions. I try to do that a lot. You really have to break down the obvious assumptions and ask yourself why 1+1=2. If you don’t do that you can make mistakes. It’s embarrassing, especially when you’re about to put somebody on blast and you’re the one who’s wrong. Not only is that not fun, it’s not a way people should operate. It’s irresponsible.

Going back to your childhood. You were under your father’s wing until you were an adult?

I was under my parents’ wing the whole time. I was born in Iowa then mom and dad moved to Texas. When my mom met my stepfather, also a very influential man in my life, they moved to northern California when I was about 7. My dad stayed in Texas. It was school year with my mom and stepdad, summertime with my dad. I did that until I was 16 and had a license to drive. Then I basically stayed home and did teenager stuff.

My mom died of cancer during my senior year of high school. I had a 16-year-old sister and a six-year-old sister and I was really worried about them. I was still a dumbass at 18 and not emotionally prepared.

I didn’t know how I felt about it until much later in life. It was absorbing. I didn’t know how to deal with it. I didn’t even really deal with it. That was a mistake. I don’t think I was emotionally equipped. None of my siblings were. I compartmentalized it. I put it in a box and set it aside.

There was a lot of shame. My family was totally screwed up by religion. Irish Catholic. There’s so much more anxiety when it comes to death in the Catholic church. I’m not religious but I’m the most religious non-religious person you want to know.

So you go into college. Did you go into the sausage factory, with the background of your dad and polygraphs, expecting to be ground out as a journalist? Or did you just look at General Ed?

Yes. Yes I did. I loved newspapers. Always had. I read the Contra Costa Times. It was a great paper. I wouldn’t say he was a mentor but a very influential in my life was a reporter named Gary Webb.

Gary Webb? I have a buddy who worked beside him. Go ahead…

Did he work at the Mercury News? That’s where Gary did his best stuff.

I was introduced through a mutual family friend. He would spend time with me and talk to me at family parties. It wasn’t like I wanted to be a journalist; it was that I wanted to hear all the behind-the-scenes stuff, the way the world really works.  I loved that.

My stepfather was very liberal, my mom was really Catholic, and we would talk about the war on drugs, when I was at a very young age, just telling me how stupid it was. Gary’s best work was about the connections between the government and South America and cocaine trafficking. He knew all the people; it was so fascinating. I was, like, 14, and he wanted to tell me about drug dealers in Panama and the Sandinistas flying coke for Pablo Escobar. Hell yeah, I was totally into it. I loved it.

He felt bad for me because of my mom. She was sick a long time before she died.

Then, when Gary killed himself, it was really, really fucked up. I was hurting when that happened.

I remember it being acutely painful, unlike my mom’s death because I knew was going to die. I didn’t know what to do with the pain I was feeling.

He influenced me and I had a small personal relationship but I wouldn’t say he was a mentor necessarily. There were others.

At one point I worked at a newspaper that had the same partial coverage area as the San Jose Mercury News and I was super excited because I would work with Gary – because I didn’t know how shit really worked. By then he had already left. He was in his downward spiral which I didn’t even know about until long after his death and the book came out. He was basically betrayed by the entire journalism industry. I had no idea; I was a young dumbass.  But a fuckin’ cool ass guy, man. What a legend. Everything about him epitomized what a journalist should be. I think he’s awesome.

So, originally, I wanted to be in the Foreign Service. I didn’t even thing about being a journalist in college as a job. I wanted to work for the State Dept. I was also a newspaper reporter in high school. I just did it because I wanted extracurricular activities to help me get into college. I thought it was fun but my goal was to join the Foreign Service, take the exam, and I was studying Spanish, in Spain, partying my ass off.

Finally, I enrolled in a program called UCDC. A semester in Washington DC. I interned for the Atlantic Council, which is now a huge conspiracy theorist target. People distrust it. But it’s the most ineffective place I’ve ever been in. They couldn’t do anything right. QAnon calls it part of the New World Order. And I hated it. I hated DC. I hated the people. I totally changed my mind about being in the Foreign Service. I was a California guy.

I was challenged by really competitive people operating at a really high level and it was my realization that I wasn’t the shit. I just went back. I came back to Santa Cruz to probably bum around Europe. But someone from the paper at UC Santa Cruz got a job at a tiny little newspaper in Watsonville, about 15 miles south. I applied and became a beat reporter for the Watsonville Pajaronian. That’s when I became a professional journalist.

More there in Watsonville than cabbage, eh?

I just knew I could do this as a job as opposed to how I had treated it before, more of a social, fun thing. A lot of people take Drama for four years but don’t expect to become actors. It’s what you do for a hobby. That was my scene. A lot was about chasing chicks.

The way local governments are set up, people aren’t set up naturally to handle power. People are not equipped to purely serve the public good so there is always ego and scandal. I’ve always treated everything as if it was the most important thing going on in the world. Fights about building a Home Depot on whatever road. Farming issues about water. There was crime. Immense poverty. Some of the poorest people I’ve ever met. Then there were people preying on them. A guy with a dilapidated house with 50 migrants living in it. Is that unethical? I dunno. You could find stuff. It’s also where Cesar Chavez organized the UFW.

There was some cool shit going down. There was a group called the Brown Berets. They were the migrant Mexican group who wanted to be in the vein of the Black Panthers. They were militant. I found stuff.

I did some great work there. I revealed that the mayor of the city, who was 26 years old, was going out at night and getting in bar brawls. Straight up fist fighting people. Going out, getting drunk, hitting on a wife, then challenging a husband to a fight in a parking lot. A whole cadre of wannabees covering for him. I won an award and it’s basically how I got to the Los Angeles Times. Yeah, there was plenty to report about even if it was a sleepy place. That’s where I became the Dave Brooks that I am now.

I don’t know this progress. From there to the Times.

I graduated in 2002, wrote these stories, got a lot of recognition and Times had an opening in its community news division and I took it. I moved down to Huntington Beach.

Back in 2004, the Times was really invested in local news. They would do all these inserts for the various cities and I covered Huntington Beach. Most of my stuff would be inserted into the section every Thursday. I covered mostly government. I then got promoted to the Orange County bureau; now I was in the California section of the Times, covering Orange County. My area was mostly business in Newport Beach, Irvine, Costa Mesa.

I did that from 2004-2007. I didn’t realize that was when real estate was booming and when the meltdown happened. Many of the mortgage companies were based there – Nationwide, Countrywide. I had no idea what a default swap was or derivative financials. I didn’t know shit. I didn’t know anything about the financial housing market but I did know there were kids my age who were complete dumbasses making $300,000 a year.  I really questioned at times my pay. I think I was getting $13 an hour.

I just didn’t want to work at the paper anymore. It wasn’t as cool as I thought it would be. I saw a listing for Venues Today and I applied. I met Linda Deckard and started working for her. It was a very small company. I started when there were three people. When I left there were seven or eight. By year four I was contributing to every part of the business. It was really interesting. I learned more there than at any other job I ever had.

So, you got into reporting on the music business just like any other reporting gig: you had no background, but you learned.

Exactly. I love music but I didn’t know anything about trade writing. I didn’t know what a fuckin’ trade publication was! I didn’t know anything about the live music business.

But I knew how to do reporting and writing. I just happened into it at the right time. There were no raises there, only cuts. I learned from Linda how venues worked, how businesses worked. How concert arenas and stadiums have cyclical calendars. The IAVM crowd of people, our core.

There was always a back and forth with Linda. We did not see eye to eye on certain things. I viewed it could be done more artistically or in a different voice. But it was Linda’s magazine and I accepted that early on and did it how she wanted – folksy and informal. Linda has a detailed way of explaining things. It was written as if you were explaining something to a 65-year-old; I wanted it to be cool.

It wasn’t sexy but it was cool to go to concerts and travel. I wasn’t writing about the coolest bands; I was writing about how Feld was going to create ice faster.

But the readership was interested.

Yeah. It took me a while to understand that. It took a while to understand what we were doing. I disagreed with how things went down but I understood it was hers, it wasn’t mine. I just focused on what she wanted. She deserved that. It was her publication and I learned a lot from her – who the readers are, where the business came from. She’s a really nice person and this was her life.

Working for her was worthwhile. I got an education in the venue world. It would have been impossible anywhere else. Linda was always an insider. She was not peering in from the outside, and that was important to her. I learned so much about how venues were operated. I also met all the people who ran the arenas, convention centers and stadiums of America.

I regularly attended 15 conferences a year. I even went to Australia. I thought I knew it all. Once I left, I really quickly realized there were large swaths of the business I did not know, especially the agency business and to some level promotion. But, at Venues Today, I saw what we weren’t doing as an opportunity. I had a vision. I just wanted to create my own thing, to do it my own way, to use technology. I think technology quickly hastened the divide at Venues Today.  My view was that I could compete by using technology in a way that would close the gap much faster than anyone expected.

What’s funny is that I told a friend of mine what I wanted to do and that friend told Michael Roth (spokesman for AEG), who told Linda. I had to make a decision right then and there. I decided to go.

I pushed every button that I could. A lot of people asked me why I was messing with them. I would say it motivated me. I regret it. Somewhat.

You were growing up.

Yeah, I wanted to be my own guy. And I thought it could be cool. It’s the business of rock ‘n’ roll. And there was all this scandalous shit happening. I think I emailed that I was on a fact-finding mission. I ended up on the model of The Real, the email newspaper. I had all kinds of ideas. A concierge service! Anything that could make money.

But after a year I was done trying all this other shit and focused on running the newsletter. Make it a must-read for gossip and news nobody else had. I’d look at what people clicked on.

When you were putting it together did you have Billboard or Pollstar in the future?

I didn’t even know who Ray Waddell was. Pollstar? Up until the launch I didn’t know who a Gary Smith was. The first issue was August 2014 and by September I was at a panel where Smith was on it. He asked people about that album U2 uploaded to iTunes libraries. He asked who had listened to it; I raised my hand. He said, “Well, of course you would listen to it,” which acknowledged he knew who I was.

He sort of became interested in me. We went back and forth and it was a weird courtship. For all I knew he was a billionaire.

I ended up paying $600 for a subscription. I thought maybe they could buy me out or something. The Garys started to do some kind of dance. They wanted to be interested but not spend any money.

They paid me $200 a column. I made $800 a month, paid my office. I remember Bataclan happened. I called Gary B. He said that we were going to use the wire reports rather than original reporting. That disappointed me.

There was another story. The illegal venue that I exposed. It killed me. But they stood by me on that. And they didn’t have to. The Ghost Ship fire had just taken place. The band that played there the night before played this illegal venue. I tried to get them to talk. I wrote an email to them “Exposing you tomorrow you’re running an illegal venue.”

I got death threats. “I hope you die.”

It was just a low moment. At one point I was reporting on a panel where a member came up to me, “Hey, I want to talk to you about the damage you’re doing to the LGBTQ community.”

I was stunned. He rode my ass for 10 minutes. For the first time I heard, “You cis-gender, alpha male piece of shit.” What does that even mean?

I made a lot of mistakes. Would it change a lot of my personality? I had to overcome a lot of things.

How about your relationship with Michael Rapino?

It’s been really interesting getting to know him. Regarding Ticketmaster, I think those outside the business say things flippantly that are unfair. It doesn’t acknowledge the realities of what’s happening. But I’ve noticed with him that there’s this increasing lack of tolerance for “towing the line.” They do things that I deserve a lot of scrutiny. And I’ve noticed the expectation of loyalty and the demand to be given the benefit of the doubt.

I did a story on Michael Rapino’s pay. During the pandemic he was not going to take any salary. A year goes by and that was the assumption. Then the disclosure comes out covering the past year and, six weeks in, he started getting half salary. And they made a lot of money in stock options. Pointing that out drew all this intense rage. “The headline should have been How Much Money He Left On The Table.” No, it shouldn’t have been. That’s not how any ordinary person would ever view it.

Rapino has always said in interviews he has a fear of losing touch with the common man. He was the common man and if he really lost that he was done. I just see increasing evidence he doesn’t know what it’s like out there for most people.

You had mentioned the controversy regarding Morgan Wallen.

Cancel culture. Who is canceled and what does that even mean? And what Morgan Wallen did.

It’s an interesting thing. All this debate with what he did. Using the N word. And how long should he be canceled?

I noticed nobody every bothered to ask Blacks what they thought about Morgan Wallen drunkenly calling his friends the N word. What do they feel in general?

To me, I thought it would be a reasonable question to ask how long to cancel someone and to what severity. That said, he was canceled during a real demand for his music. He was canceled when his album was No. 1, he had airplay and it was interesting watching WME join in the initial reaction, dropping him. Slowly people changed their behavior and wanted to go see him.

Kevin Neal’s son, Austin, was basically booking shows for Morgan “off the books.” He wasn’t doing shows while representing WME but, you know, but he was doing it with their quote-unquote blessing. An independent promoter like Outback would pick up some of the shows. OK, it did OK, under the radar.

Then Live Nation decides to do his tour, but it’s couched cautiously, not mentioned like it would normally be, but they’re doing it. You gotta really wonder how these calculations are made. Like, what areas of the country want to see Morgan Wallen and don’t care and won’t raise a stink. It kind of goes around that. They’re already booking his tour dates and he’s making a comeback without announcing.

What’s your take on it?

I spend time at a local sports bar and when “Whiskey Glasses” comes on, guess what? Nobody cares. Nobody is upset, nobody stands up in support. It’s just a song and people are worn out. Lots of fatigue.

I agree. People are just worn out. Either they did it on purpose to float the reaction or somebody was not thinking. Right or wrong, it’s going to get a substantial negative reaction. It’s so weird to me. What is the end goal for Nashville? What are they trying to say? Are they trying to move on from past sins? Are you saying Morgan Wallen can’t apologize and be forgiven? That seems to be lost in all of this.

This whole idea of being canceled. Saying something racist, homophobic or transphobic will always be hugely problematic. It should never be done. Everyone agrees on it. But what does cancelation mean? People don’t really know. More broadly, domestic issues this country has been through that I don’t think there’s an upside to saying something political on a domestic issue because people are very hard to change their response to it. Can you be political anymore in music? I think the answer is no. There’s no upside. If you believe in it, will you make a statement about it? You’re not making a moral statement; you’re signaling an ideology.

I wonder if that’s brave or what the point is. I think music will become political again and it will be authentic. I think there are things to protest, especially authoritarian governments. It’s happening abroad.

A great example is China’s repression of Hong Kong. I can’t see a lot of people arguing that’s a good thing. There’s so much authoritarianism and so many totalitarian leaders over the world that, basically, there are interesting things to talk about. Human rights abroad. Issues like killing and tyranny. To me that’s what people should look at. Not domestically; that just makes things worst. The right is not going to take it like they have before.

Regarding Morgan Wallen and alternate routing ideas, Louis CK recently put out an advertisement where one can pay to watch a full performance, in front of a full theatre, via his website. It’s almost as if “life finds a way.” Louis CK may be “canceled” but he’s found a way to get to his audience anyway.

Right. I don’t like the phrase “life finds a way” as much as maybe “supply finds a way.” If there is demand for something, entrepreneurial people always find a way to meet it. If people want something, somebody will find a way to get it to them. And people always want their music.

That’s the underlying issue, right? People are always going to find a way to give people what they want. It’s like the failure of the War on Drugs. People want something, someone will get it to them. If Morgan Wallen was “canceled,” and people still want his music and be around him as an artist then, well, he didn’t really get canceled.

He could apologize and fix the situation but he’s going to have to determine how to do it. Nobody is going to defend what he said drunkenly to a bunch of white people but if they still want his music, the ruling class can’t really determine that he’s canceled.

For me, I think the wrong conversations are happening.