Joel Peresman isn’t just a buttoned down chief executive at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he is an enthusiastic supporter and diplomat. He doesn’t think in terms of controversy and isn’t up on rock and roll conspiracy theories. He prefers the harmony of musicians, and notes any dissonance as a passing tone. Like many CEOs, he started near the bottom of the industry’s jobs. Not as a roadie, but as concert security guard, a job he took for a chance to see shows for free.
Peresman moved up through concert promotion, through talent management, working with artists like Genesis, Pink Floyd, Depeche Mode, and Duran Duran and into the rock Mecca Madison Square Garden, where he was at the center of the push for the Concert for New York after the Twin Tower attack of 9/11.
Mr. Peresman chatted exclusively with Den of Geek about the upcoming 31st Annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, which happens live at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Friday, April 8 and will be broadcast on HBO on April 30th.
Den of Geek: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame CEO sounds like a contradiction of terms. Chief executing doesn’t sound like a fun job, but The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sounds like a great playground.
Joel Peresman: I’d walk that back, Tony, I think it’s a fun job all around.
What was your introduction to rock and roll?
When I was a kid, like most kids growing up, I started listening to transistor radios and people playing records in the neighborhood. I was in second or third grade and heard Peter, Paul and Mary and my older sisters were starting to listen to the Beatles. I remember watching them on The Ed Sullivan Show with my sister and going crazy in my living room. Just a lot of exposure to rock and roll and it really just took off from there.
You started out in concert promotions.
I did that in Pittsburgh, where I grew up. I started talking my way in with a concert promoter in Pittsburgh to be a security guard so I could see shows. I figured that was a way to get in for free and make money at the same time. Then eventually going to school in Texas, the concert scene in Austin was incredible. It really furthered my interest to stay in the music business.
I wanted to start off with one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame controversies, the induction of Hip Hop’s NWA.
We don’t see it as a controversy.
How is the Rock and Roll hall of Fame different from the Country Music Hall in how they deal with offshoot genres?
We have always looked at it that rock and roll, by definition, is very broad. When you start tracing the influences, not only of rock and roll, but of country music, it really all goes back to the blues.
If you really want to siphon and push everything together, where it came from. If you really go back, to even the roots of blues, to slaves working in the fields and singing and how that music and those rhythms really evolved into the blues and R&B. How that influenced a lot of different people who went in a lot of different directions. Some went into country. Some went into rock and blues, and the further evolution of that music created various offshoots, whether it’s Hip Hop or thrash metal or hard rock or progressive rock. All these genres of music had their roots pretty much in the same place.
You worked at Madison Square Garden. Do you have a favorite concert that you oversaw or attended?
I worked at Madison Square Garden for about almost ten years. A lot of great shows. Some things that stuck out for me were the U2 shows about a month after 9/11 which were really incredible. Some of the first big rock shows that came in after that. It was interesting to see people coming in and really letting go.
There are things you don’t really think of: Ricky Martin, I thought, was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen at Madison Square Garden. He was as hot as can be. The Latin shows like Marc Antony, things that were off the beaten rock and roll path in a sense but there was such a variety of events there. Then you get into the awards shows like the Grammys and the concerts. There were so many great shows.
Was there anything different about the Concert for New York City after Sept. 11 and how the artists were with you?
I think everybody really came together because everyone had a common goal. Everyone in the city and the country was hurting at that time. I think artists were really looking to see what they could do to help. The idea that we came up with, was to put this event together with such a disparate group of artists, to raise money to go to victims.
It was just three weeks after 9/11, four weeks, if that, no one knew what was going to be needed, money-wise or whatever. It was in one way to raise money for whoever needed it but in another way it was a kind of collective way for artists to get together to do what they could do to help.
International Talent Group represented David Bowie when you worked there.
One of the centrals of the company was David’s agent, going back to the mid-seventies. When we started that company, David hadn’t toured in a while, and that was for the Serious Moonlight tour. It was the first big tour he had done in a long time. We did that tour and the Glass Spider tour. He had a side project, Tin Machine. We booked that as well.
Did you get to work with him?
People don’t really realize what agents do. They are really hands-on working with the artists and working with management, plotting out how to build the career of an artist. Or if an artist is already established, what they want to do and the best way to present their concerts.
Do you have any particular memories or thoughts to share?
I remember him wanting to be very involved in the shows. He had the idea of what the vision should be, what size places he wanted to play, what the production was, if it was a band. He wasn’t a guy who’d just show up and play. He was the guy who was really interested in being involved in all aspects of the concert and the tour.
You mention being a hands-on worker. In your interviews you give special thanks to stagehands and crew. How hands-on are you when it comes to production on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame shows?
Well, being as I’m sitting here doing seating, actually where people are sitting on the floor and working with HBO and our press people and our partners, talking with people like you to promote not only the live show this Friday, but the HBO broadcast on April 30th, it’s like chief cook and bottle washer, as my dad used to say.
It’s like being executive producer, in this position, I have to be on top of everything down to what color the table cloths are going to be or what we’re having for dinner and the pre-show and what’s being served on the tables as well as working with our creative team on the actual programming and the flow of the show to what guests we are getting in.
I’m from Brooklyn, so this is not a complaint, but why do you host the ceremony in Brooklyn when the hall is actually based in Cleveland?
Part of it is historical, the foundation started well before there was a museum in Cleveland. They started doing these shows at the Waldorf Astoria, 31 years ago, before there was an idea of where a museum should be.
Part of it has to do with raising money. One of the things we do, like most foundations, especially ones connected to a cultural institution like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, is to raise money. To raise money in New York, as Willie Sutton said when people asked him why he robbed banks, that’s where the money is. In the early days, all the record companies were very supportive of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and they were the ones who were buying tickets and buying tables to raise money that goes into the foundation that we, in turn, use to fund projects at the museum, whether it’s educational programs or exhibits.
We’re just about to begin a major redesign of the museum to upgrade the visitor experience over the next two or three years. We’re funding that to the tune of millions of dollars that we’ve raised.
One of the other things, in Cleveland, they really just came around in the past few years to being able to afford to do the fundraising they need to do for an event of this size. We’ve done it in Cleveland a few times. We’ll be back in Brooklyn next year. After that, we’ll flip every other year between New York and Cleveland.
Is the Hall of Fame award like getting a medal from the Queen of England? Do the bands have to pre-confirm that they will accept the honor before being officially nominated?
No, it’s funny you say that, because people say, especially when you’ve had issues about someone not showing up or being negative, but that’s not what we do. People are picked on whether they’re worthy; whether they’re influential; whether they important in the business. You can’t really get into the personality issues of it, otherwise probably a lot of people wouldn’t be inducted. You really have to go with what the influence of that particular artist or that particular band and their place in the music.
When a band like Kiss finally gets in to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after years of lobbying, is it tough to make eye contact when you first see them?
Why? It’s interesting you say that. You hear that a lot, that the artists are pissed off because they haven’t been inducted.
Once people hear what I do, they always ask why so and so didn’t get inducted. I always feel badly, especially when you’re a fan of a particular artist, but when they do get in, they’re happy about it and that all falls to the side. This year, for example, with Chicago and Deep Purple being eligible for a pretty long time, they’ve had their interviews where they said they should have been inducted years ago. But they’re over the moon about being inducted. It’s just that when it happens, it happens. Nine times out of ten, people are really happy about it.
You mention Deep Purple. I read there was a problem with Ritchie Blackmore being a part of it. “Smoke on the Water” is one of the first songs most people pick out when they pick up a guitar. Does the fan in you ever get disappointed by the legal wrangling of the bands involved?
Well as a fan you hate to see that. A lot of these artists have been together forty or fifty years and it’s like being married. People get divorced. People get separated. They have these issues. It’s really no different for bands. They get along swimmingly for years and years and some bands have issues and wind up fighting and suing each other or not talking to each other. We always try to do what we can to help the band, for one night, get over those things and come and celebrate their induction.
Any fun stories of rock star ego clashes that won’t get you in trouble for talking about?
No, most of them will get me in trouble talking about it.
[Laughs] Good answer. Is there anyone who you’re surprised isn’t in yet?
As a fan, before I had this job there were a lot of bands who were just being inducted who you thought would have been already. It’s nice to see Chicago and Deep Purple and Steve Miller finally get in. There are others, bands who come up a lot like Journey or Bon Jovi, as a fan we like to see it. But there’s a process we go through that hopefully these people will get their time.
Are there bands that you’re surprised haven’t come up in the conversation?
Not really. Not surprised but one of the things that’s weird about this job is you learn something new all the time, especially being a fan of music. Last year there was a band that was inducted called the Five Royales, who I’d never really heard of. But then you start digging in and you see that they were important. The guy who wrote “Dedicated to the One I Love,” was a guitarist Lowman Pauling, who had a certain style of guitar playing that Eric Clapton talks about. Steve Cropper was one of the greatest guitar players of all time, and he talks about him. You find these stories about some of these acts who you kind of don’t know who they are but when people talk about it when they come up and you find out how interesting and how great these bands were, how important they were.
How does one become a Rock Hall scholar or historian?
One is that you grow up loving and listening. If you look at a lot of the writers who do rock and roll books, or people who we have working at the museum, grew up with a love of rock and roll. They want to soak it in and really want to know everything they can. Some people are just focused on a certain genre or act. Some people know everything there is about progressive rock. Some guys know everything about heavy metal or country rock. They have such a depth of knowledge, that you can tap into for use in the museum or a lot of different things.
You mentioned prog rock. I’d like to ask about one specific band, Jethro Tull. You worked at Madison Square Garden and they held sellout concerts there for years straight.
They played there a bunch of times.
And I saw them every time. Does anyone at the Rock Hall have anything against prog rock?
I’m a big fan but it’s not up to me, I’m not on the nominating committee so I have to leave it up to those guys to move those people forward and hopefully they will find their time.
How do Jon Landau and Jann Wenner play into the selection process? Do they have special influence?
They get a vote like everybody else. Jann isn’t on the nominating committee. He’s the chairman of the Rock Hall Foundation. He fills out a ballot just like everybody else does.
Jon Landau is the chairman of the nominating committee but, again, just like the other 24 or 25 people, he gets one vote. He can put together two or three options but everybody votes on it. He doesn’t get a weighted vote. He gets one vote and it counts just as much as anybody else on the nominating committee.
The story that these guys sit in a dark room and pick these people really isn’t true. It is a relatively democratic process.
So bands don’t put themselves into the race, it’s just drawn from nominations.
Correct. The nominating committee comes in with ideas of who they feel should be nominated by who first becomes eligible twenty-five years after their first record’s come out and people who’ve been eligible for a while.
One of the Den of Geek writers is a big Cheap Trick fan and he wants to know if you had to make any special accommodations for Rick Nielsen’s five-neck guitar?
No, they have a really together crew and they’ve been doing this for a very long time. They know how to get things around and make them happen.
Is there anyone who’s been consistently lobbying that you think has no chance of getting in?
People always think they have a chance so I don’t know. There are people who you think are kind of silly. Sometimes it comes up and sometimes it never does.
Do you walk around the museum at night, I know you’re not a musician, but do you secretly pluck the strings on famous guitars?
No, but you know what I do? I do walk around, I’m there a lot, they’re always changing exhibitions up a lot and you always find new things. You find yourself noticing things you didn’t see the first time and it’s like ‘wow, that’s really cool.’
Then you have the people who really know the business. If you have any question that you want to know about rock and roll there are a dozen people there who are a thousand times smarter than me about this stuff. They can give you the whole history of everything and it’s great.
Is there any exhibit you find yourself going back to more often than others?
Different cities have different cityscapes, like San Francisco or Texas and that’s really cool. We also have this great new exhibit about rock in politics that opens in May. Cleveland is hosting the Republican National Convention and this amazing new exhibit is going to be up the whole time and that’s exciting.
That is exciting. When does the exhibit’s time period start?
Really back to the fifties and we found a variety of things that have to do with politics.
Would something like “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” by Chuck Berry be considered as a political allegory?
I’m not sure whether that’s in the exhibit or not. Once it’s up and open there will be more stuff online. It opens in mid-May and runs through probably October or November and it will travel to Washington’s Newseum during the inauguration.
Will you be exhibiting Lee Atwater’s guitar?
[Laughs] We try to be equitable and include Republicans and Democrats. We’ll see.
I’m a John Lennon Socialist. Do you have a “desert island” band?
Bob Marley and the Wailers, when I first heard it I got into that sound and it never went away. I like the message. I like the beat. I like the music. I like the way his voice sounds. It’s just one of those things. If you have to pick one artist to listen to for the rest of your life on a desert island, that’s the band for me. They are that kind of band.
Do you prefer his protest music or his love songs, which are beautiful?
There really is nothing he does that I don’t like. They are one of the best acts I’ve ever seen. Live they were a great act. That music never gets boring.
Do you miss the simple days of concert promoting?
Nah, I like this. I like what I do. I’ve been lucky to have been able to stay in the same business and still do different things. I’m still promoting shows. I enjoy this. It’s great fun. It’s great working with the museum in Cleveland. It’s spectacular.
The Museum is really the only place dedicated solely to the preservation and exhibition of rock and roll. The exhibits and the wonderful education programs we have for kids. It’s really a magical place to walk through if you have a shred of love for rock and roll.
What the most fun part of the job?
Just the way it changes, dealing with musicians and artists and people who love rock and roll. It’s been such a big part of my life, my whole career. Since I was a little kid I liked it, so having a job like this is just great. I don’t know what else I would have done.
The Rock and Rock Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony takes place on April 8th 2016 from Barclays Center in Brooklyn and will air on HBO on April 30th. For more stories in our Rock Hall series, click here.