How I Made It: Concert venue owner Lance Sterling
The gig: As the head of Sterling Venue Ventures, Lance Sterling runs the recently renovated Saban Theatre concert venue in Beverly Hills and also owns and operates the Canyon Club in Agoura Hills.
Early days: Sterling, 51, studied civil engineering at the University of Arizona. While in school, he worked in bars, nightclubs and concert venues that booked groups such as Grand Funk Railroad. “I was making more money running concerts than I would as an engineer,” he said.
After college, he briefly worked for a billboard company and then went into the hotel business.
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Music man: Sterling idolized his uncle, who owned a record label in New York. Sterling found he couldn’t play guitar or drums, but he was skilled at promoting shows.
In the early 1990s, Sterling met Hard Rock Cafe co-founder Isaac Tigrett, who was starting the House of Blues. Sterling joined the company when he was in his late 20s. House of Blues went on to book artists such as Eric Clapton and Aerosmith and became one of the industry’s best-known venue chains.
The Sunset Strip location presented logistical challenges for touring artists, who had to back their big trucks down a hill and unload heavy equipment. “I needed 15 guys to keep the piano from flying out the back of the truck,” Sterling said.
Atlanta calling: Tigrett sent Sterling to Atlanta in 1996 to turn a Baptist tabernacle into a House of Blues location in time for the Summer Olympics.
Sterling had his doubts and considered telling his boss he had missed his flight. He went anyway and built the venue in 60 days.
After the games and the bombing of Centennial Olympic Park, the company abandoned plans to continue the location. Sterling decided to run it independently as the Tabernacle while still working for House of Blues. Week after week, he traveled back and forth between Atlanta and Los Angeles.
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Mid-flight on Delta Airlines, he proposed to his future wife.
After three years, he sold the Tabernacle to SFX Entertainment Inc. for $6 million, even though House of Blues offered him $6 million in stock options for it, he said.
Family man: Sterling has five children ages 14 to 27 and coaches Pop Warner football.
After he left House of Blues, he decided to become a full-time father. That lasted about 10 months.
Club scene: Sterling, who lives on an avocado farm in an unincorporated area of Ventura Country, opened the Canyon Club in Agoura Hills in 2001. The opening concert was Pat Benatar. Sterling targets the 40-and-over crowd with legacy acts such as Kenny Rogers and Blood, Sweat & Tears. His customers are loyal. He said the average patron attends nearly 12 shows a year.
He also books the Canyon Club — owned by the Four Queens Hotel and Casino, where it’s housed — in Las Vegas.
David and Goliath: Sterling took over the 1,900-seat Saban Theatre, previously called the Wilshire Theatre, about seven months ago, complete with $5 million in renovations courtesy of billionaire Haim Saban.
At the restored, 1,900-seat Art Deco venue, Sterling faces competition from music industry giants such as AEG and Live Nation Entertainment Inc., which are both based in the L.A. area and operate many of the region’s most popular live entertainment destinations, including Nokia Theatre, Staples Center and House of Blues.
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It’s a daily struggle to book shows, Sterling said, but the beauty and the sound of the venue attract acts, and his location gives him an advantage with his target audience. People in Beverly Hills don’t want to drive downtown on a Friday night to see a concert, he said.
Upcoming events include blues man Johnny Winter, Iranian singer Ahmadreza Nabizadeh and “Slow Ride” rockers Foghat.
A novel idea: No late start times. “When you’re dealing with 40-year olds and you say a show is at 9 o’clock, you want it to start at 9,” he said.
Car hobbyist: His hobbies include restoring old cars with his children, such as his current rides, a 1970 Chevelle and a 1969 GTO. Sterling said he has probably owned 200 cars in his lifetime. He once received a call from the Department of Motor Vehicles, which said he had too many registered to him at once. “I guess you’re only allowed to have like 11 cars because you have to be a dealer after that,” he said.
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