Rocky Mountain News, December 26, 2005
Rare recordings in $5 million memorabilia purchase
Two and a half years ago, a Minneapolis entrepreneur named Bill Sagan spent more than $5 million to buy a trove of rock 'n' roll memorabilia: millions of T-shirts, posters, handbills, photographs, concert tickets and other items from the archives of Bill Graham Presents, the legendary San Francisco rock promoter that virtually invented the modern concert business in the mid-1960s.
But what neither Sagan nor the seller, Clear Channel Communications, Inc., realized at the time was that the archives contained an even more valuable bonus: more than 5,000 live audio and video recordings made between 1966 and 1999, featuring artists varying from the Doors to Nirvana. The recordings were made at rock concerts that the late Graham ran or promoted. They were uncaptioned and collecting dust when Sagan acquired the archive.
Today, the 55-year-old Sagan controls what may be the most important collection of rock memorabilia and recordings ever assembled in one business. Called Wolfgang's Vault - from Grajonca's given name, Wolfgang Grajonca - the company has a staff of 14, projected sales this year of $3 million, and nearly 20 million separate items in its San Francisco warehouse.
Having set up a business selling vintage rock T-shirts and concert posters on the Web, Sagan is only now turning his attention to the audio and video assets, where he faces a tremendous challenge. He is in the early stages of complex negotiations with artists, their representatives and record labels over the rights to sell the recordings on discs and as downloads.
In the meantime, Sagan plans to begin "streaming" some of these recordings as Internet radio feeds on his company's Website, which involves little more than paying royalties to organizations that represent songwriters.
The performances, many of which are professionally recorded and extremely high quality, amount to sweeping, unheard history of rock during its seminal years and beyond. The archives include performances by artists including Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Pink Floyd, the Who, Tom petty, Stevie Wonder, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Emmylou Harris, Aretha Franklin and Tracy Chapman, all of whom played shows put on by Graham.
There are videotapes of early performers by Crosby Stills Nash & Young and from 1978, the Sex Pistols' last show for nearly 20 years, before their reunion in 1996.
Though some of the recordings have leaked as bootlegs over the years, they contain some revealing moments that may surprise fans. For example, a recording taken from Led Zeppelin's first U.S. tour, in 1969 - when the band was opening for Country Joe & the Fish - find lead singer Robert Plant displaying little of the rock-god swagger that would eventually become his trademark. Instead, he makes nervous small talk to the audience as guitarist Jimmy Page changes a broken string.
"I don't know if (Sagan) really knew exactly how much rich material he had," says Bill Thompson, the longtime manager of Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship, which played Bill Graham events during the heyday of the San Francisco rock scene in the late 1960s and early 1970s. "This is a gold mine."
Memorabilia for sale
Graham's company mounted more than 35,000 concerts worldwide between its inception in 1966 and its sale, earlier this decade, to Clear Channel, which bought up a number of regional concert promoters during that era. Sagan bought the archive from Clear Channel, which had little interest in sifting though the thousands of items jammed into the company's warehouse.
Sagan and his staff spent their first six months in business doing nothing but organizing and cataloging the vast collection, much of which had been thrown haphazardly in cardboard boxes, and some of which had been damaged in a warehouse fire.
Today, on Wolfgangsvault.com, shoppers can find individual tickets to the Yardbirds' July 25, 1967, show at the Fillmore West for $51 each (a $48 markup over the face value). Prints of photographer Joe Sia's blurred shot a police officer arresting Jim Morrison on stage in New Haven, Conn., go for $550 to $750.
Even the Rat Pack gets the collectible treatment: A black faux-tuxedo T-shirt commemorating a 1988 concert starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., cost $82.
But the music and video recordings are the most intriguing and commercially promising. When, or even if, the general public will ever hear or see many of these recordings is unclear, however.
The recordings were made legally; Sagan has a filing cabinet filled with documentation to prove it. But selling them will require various permissions and revenue-sharing deals - not only with the artists themselves, but often, too, with whatever record label they were signed to at the time of the show, or its corporate successor. In the case of dead performers, permission is required from their families or other heirs.
Sagan's employees have already digitized more than 1,000 audio recordings and sent them to engineers to have the sound quality cleaned up. Now, they are in the process of seeking clearance to release the music. Sagan says he is in active discussions wit two major record labels and believes he is close to a deal for at least some music with one of them, although he declines to name either.
"Is it easy?" he asks. "No. But in some cases they're excited as hell they might be able to make some money off old bands."
By Ethan Smith
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