Pace on Earth

Houston megapromoter Pace Entertainment has built an empire stretching from Texas to Broadway, altering what we see onstage—and what we pay to see it.

THE FOUR THOUSAND FANS who filled the Austin Music Hall for Bob Dylan’s two performances in October can thank the state’s premier concert promoter, Pace Entertainment, for bringing the rock legend to Texas for the second time in twelve months. Of course, they paid for the privilege—a top ticket price of $50, as a matter of fact. But hey, we’re talking Bob Dylan here! Besides, compared with the $100 top for 1994’s Eagles reunion tour, another Pace show, Dylan was a bargain.

The times, they are definitely a-changin’. The concert- and theater-going experience has been irrevocably altered for millions of people as a result of the phenomenal success of Houston-based Pace. Founded in 1966 by Houstonians Allen Becker, an insurance salesman, and Sidney Shlenker, a banker, Pace has built a live entertainment empire that produced or presented more than 4,500 events, sold 13 million tickets, and had revenues of $150 million last year; Pace also owns an interest in twelve amphitheaters across the country. Chances are that any Texan who attends live events—from the recent Kiss concert tour to Miss Saigon at this year’s state fair in Dallas to this winter’s truck and tractor pull at the Astrodome—has seen a Pace production. Beyond Texas, magician David Copperfield’s Dreams & Nightmares, currently playing to sold-out houses on Broadway, is a Pace co-production. Just how big a deal is Pace? So big that despite one of the worst seasons in the history of concert tours this past summer, the company grossed almost $10 million more this year than in 1995.

But while Texans are being treated to more big shows than ever, the box office isn’t the only place where we’re paying a price, according to some critics. As the economics of concert promotion have changed and corporations—including Pace—have consolidated their positions, smaller promoters, venues, and artists have gotten squeezed, ultimately affecting what is seen onstage. “The corporate entities aren’t there for the music or the bands. They’re there to sell the parking, popcorn, Cokes, and beer,” Moss Jacobs, a talent booker for Los Angeles—based promoter Goldenvoice, complained during a panel discussion sponsored by the Los Angeles Music Network last April. “They don’t care about the music and they are slowly putting smaller promoters out of business.” But Pace president and CEO Brian Becker, the elder of company chairman Allen Becker’s two sons, dismisses Jacobs’ assertion as naive. The industry is “consolidating because the inefficiencies require consolidation,” he says, going on to challenge anyone to show him where artistic creativity is being stifled. “Independent labels are being started every day.”

Allen Becker, who’s 64, came of age in the entertainment industry when it was still “a real street business,” he says. The son of a shoe salesman from Brenham and a homemaker from Galveston, he was born and reared in Houston. After graduating from the University of Texas in 1954 with a degree in marketing, he signed on for a two-year stint in the Air Force and then went to work for the Kansas City Life Insurance Company, selling more than $1 million worth of policies in his first year on the job. But by the time the Astrodome opened in 1965, he was ready for a change. “I think it was a lark,” he recalls. “We said, ‘Hey, this is an opportunity. Why don’t we do something?’” Becker and Shlenker spent the next decade producing all kinds of motor-sports events, including motorcycle jumping and races, as well as a few concerts. Shlenker was bought out in the late eighties, and Becker’s 37-year-old son, Gary, now runs Pace Motor Sports.

Opportunity knocked again in 1975 when the New Orleans Superdome opened and Pace—now expert at producing events under domes—was awarded a contract by the State of Louisiana to produce the grand-opening entertainment. There Allen Becker met Louis Messina, the son of a New Orleans boxing promoter who had come up through the ranks of concert promotion, and together they founded Pace Concerts, which Messina now oversees. Becker recalls having to take acts that were “financial losers”—including Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in the early days—to clubs and music halls in small cities like Harlingen and McAllen to get the rights to promote the bigger acts in large cities. “We had to pay our dues to get into the business,” he remembers. By 1978 Pace had become a well-established Texas promoter. “They carved that from the ground floor,” says Ray Waddell, who covers the concert-touring industry for Amusement Business, a trade magazine. “They came in and kind of took over the Texas market.” One casualty of Pace’s rise was now-defunct Concerts West, which was the largest concert promoter in Texas in the seventies.

The highly fragmented concert game, populated by independent promoters who thrived on guts, instinct, and talent, was coming under the control of accountants and business school graduates. “We had a different perspective: paying the bills, for example,” says forty-year-old Brian Becker, who graduated from Stanford University and has a master’s in business administration from UCLA.

After establishing a beachhead in the Texas music business, Pace began to branch out. Brian joined the family business in 1982 and, together with partner Miles Wilkin, started Pace Theatrical Group. Today, it’s the largest U.S. presenter of touring Broadway musicals and plays, with an office and a staff of twenty in New York’s Theater District. “We built the national touring business,” says Allen. Indeed, Pace has brought Broadway to the masses and replaced the old bus-and-truck tours with expensive productions of megahits like Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera, and Miss Saigon.

The road is Pace’s lifeblood,” says Scott Zeiger, the 37-year-old president of Pace Theatrical Group. The company’s relationship with Andrew Lloyd Webber—the most commercially successful composer and producer Broadway has ever known—has been key. Pace has presented every one of Webber’s shows, from Cats to Sunset Boulevard, in its touring markets and was one of the original investors in Sunset Boulevard. Together with local arts organizations, including the Society for the Performing Arts in

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