Here’s a Tour That Introduces Untried Rock Bands to Public


Would you go see a concert featuring four young rock bands you’ve never heard of?

Even if the show were free?

Those are the questions posed by the Four Play Tour, which concludes a five-week, 26-city U. S. trek tonight at the Palace in Hollywood.

“It’s like getting a free box of detergent in the mail,” said Joe Blanton, singer in the Royal Court of China, a Nashville-based band on the tour. “You try it out and if you like it, you use it.”

Hurrah! of England, Northern Pikes of Canada, Will & the Kill from Austin , Tex. and Blanton’s band are the guinea pigs in this experimental marketing approach underwritten by A&M;, Arista, MCA and Virgin record companies.


“The problem with music right now is that radio is very tightly formatted and we’ve got to all work extra hard to find avenues to break in new talent,” booking agent Robert Light said. He originated the tour idea with Mitch Rose, his partner at the Los Angeles-based Creative Artist Agency.

Working with new bands, the plan was to put together a 1987 version of the kind of multi-star, rock ‘n’ roll caravans that toured the country in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Creative Artist Agency, which represents Hurrah!, began the planning more than a year ago. The agency signed up radio syndicator Westwood One and Coors beer as sponsors and took the plan to record labels.

“Today, a label has to spend $60,000 to $80,000 to put a band on the road for six weeks with no return,” Light said. “We went to the labels and said, ‘If we put a band on the road for half of what you’d normally pay and get your bands four times the usual exposure, would you be interested?’ We said the first four labels that come in with a commitment (of $30,000) and a band (are) part of it.”

The four bands have been pleased with the tour. They’re getting along well (“The best bunch of guys you could hope to be sardined with,” said Blanton of the Royal Court’s bus mates, the Northern Pikes), with the concerts often featuring spontaneous jam sessions.

But there have been problems.

Attendance was poor at some dates (crowds numbered less than 50 in Storrs, Conn., and Milwaukee), while shows in other cities, including Austin, attracted capacity crowds of up to 1,200. Light estimates 12,000 people will have seen the four bands by the time the tour ends tonight.


A full house is expected at the 1,200-capacity Palace, where fans had better plan on arriving early for the unreserved seats. Figuring some fans won’t use the free tickets, promoters distributed several thousand tickets to the participating record companies and to the public at the Palace box office and Ticketmaster outlets.

Occasional sparse attendance, however, hasn’t been the only problem encountered on the tour. Hurrah! missed the first two concerts due to U. S. visa delays, and the bands were confronted in New York by pickets protesting the involvement of Coors with conservative causes, allegedly including the Parents Music Resource Center, which has called for warning stickers on records with objectionable lyrics.

Royal Court drummer Chris Mekow, who had already pledged his tour salary to rock singer Jello Biafra’s anti-censorship campaign, found himself in an awkward situation as the protesters called for the musicians to boycott the shows.

“I told (the pickets) that I had to play,” Mekow said, noting that he and his band mates were unaware of the controversy over Coors before the tour started.

“I stood out with them for about half an hour and told them that this tour isn’t a political move, that none of these bands has anything to do with Coors. It’s just four new bands going on tour.”

Ken Markey, a marketing manager at Coors who was active in signing the company up for this venture, said he knows of no official relationship between Coors and the PMRC.

“The Adolph Coors Brewing Co. is not giving any money to that group,” he said. “We heard the rumor and I researched it. We are (upset) that rumor is coming out.”

Light said he sees no reason to tie Coors’ political activities to the tour.

“My concern was breaking in new artists, and here was a corporation that has sponsored other new artists and jumped into this before anyone else,” he said. “The only ones being hurt by the pickets are the bands themselves. The only way you hurt Coors is to not drink their beer.”

Still, some college and rock-oriented radio stations have objected to the Coors involvement. At least two--KCMU-FM in Seattle and WHUS-FM in Storrs, Conn.--refused to help promote shows, while about a half-dozen others--including KCSB-FM in Santa Barbara--attached a disclaimer to a Westwood One syndicated special about the tour.

The Coors issue was rendered moot for the four California shows because of a state law that prohibits makers of alcohol products from sponsoring free events.

Radio stations have been important because the tour has a little money for promotion on its small budget. Flyers were to be handed out Tuesday night at the U2 concert at the Los Angeles Coliseum as a means of attracting attention in Los Angeles for the free show.

Controversy or no, tour participants appear enthusiastic and Creative Artist Agency is already tentatively planning to make Four Play a semi-annual project.

“I think a lot of bands in the future can benefit from this,” said Liz Heller, vice president of artist development at MCA Records, which placed Will & the Kill on the tour even though the group’s debut album won’t be released until January.

Added Royal Court’s Blanton: “This is an easier way for us to pay our dues. We’re staying in nice hotels and we’ve got nice buses--and free beer. What else could you ask for?”