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Star Tribune, April 17, 2006

Selling rock 'n' roll history, one ticket stub at a time

A Wayzata entrepreneur bought the world's biggest rock memorabilia collection. Now you, too, can buy a piece on the Web.

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Entrepreneur Bill Sagan, shown in his Wayzata home, sells vintage rock memorabilia on the Internet, including T-shirts priced from $12 for a 1988 Kenny G tee to $1,250 for an autographed 1989 Huey Lewis model.

But he doesn't have any souvenirs from those priceless experiences. "I did buy a T-shirt when I saw the Rolling Stones," he said. "My older sister, who was in college at the time, stole it from me and I never saw it again."

Not to worry. Sagan, 56, of Wayzata, now owns arguably the world's biggest collection of rock memorabilia.

There's no shortage of Stones T-shirts among the catalog of 31,000 items stashed in a San Francisco warehouse, along with posters, photos, tickets and live tapes of just about every star Sagan saw back in the day (Janis Joplin, B.B. King, Jethro Tull) as well as more contemporary acts such as Green Day.

"This isn't a hobby, and this isn't 'Let's just have fun.' We're in this business to make money," said Sagan, a button-down-shirt and chinos kind of guy who made millions as chief executive of EBP, a Twin Cities-based health-care insurance company, and has invested more than $10 million in music collectibles.

At his website, you can buy an original poster of the 1969 Woodstock rock festival for $4,525, a 1982 John Denver concert T-shirt for $157 and a 1978 Sex Pistols' ticket for $814.

The real gold mine, however, is high-quality recordings of 5,000 concerts from the 1960s to the '90s -- Otis Redding to the White Stripes. You can hear some of that music on his site, ("Where music lives"), but Sagan is negotiating for the rights to sell downloads and live CDs and DVDs later this year.

Worth $50 million or more?

The collection Sagan has dubbed Wolfgang's Vault was largely accumulated by rock's biggest promoter, the legendary Bill Graham (born Wolfgang Grajonca in Berlin).

Graham was a forceful, visionary businessman who hoarded ticket stubs, posters, backstage passes, programs, postcards, concert tapes and videos, and other collectibles in his basement. After his death in 1991, the archives changed hands four times before Sagan bought it from Clear Channel in 2002 for $5 million. He has since spent another $5 million to buy other poster and photo collections.

Sagan thinks the collection may be worth $50 million to $100 million. Right now, the website is receiving more than 15,000 unique hits per day, and traffic has tripled in the past three months. Better yet, "orders are up immeasurably," he said.

When Sagan talks business, he sounds like any other jargon-using corporate wonk. But when he talks music, he gushes like a fan.

Last week, he was excited about the Vault's tapes of a 1970 concert series featuring, among others, Miles Davis, Chicago and the Who.

"We just mastered Santana's set, and it was two and a quarter hours!" he enthused. "The good ol' days, right?"

As a kid in New Jersey, Sagan got hooked on rock listening to famous New York radio DJ Cousin Brucie. His first concerts were the Beach Boys, the Lovin' Spoonful and the Stones in 1965. While studying political science and engineering at Northwestern University, he became a big fan of the Doors, Cat Stevens and Led Zeppelin, all of whom are represented in Wolfgang's Vault.

Lucky 3M tape

After Sagan bought Graham's stuff, he and a staff of 14 spent nearly two years cataloging it before launching the website in late 2003 and the streaming music early this year.

Sagan thinks he lucked out. For one thing, there were far more items in the archives than he bargained for. Also, Graham's vintage posters were packed so tightly in boxes that the damp basement did not damage them. And the big payoff: The concerts were recorded on 3M Scotch tape, which proved incredibly durable.

"Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of what we have on the website is in mint condition," Sagan said on a recent afternoon at his Wayzata home, which is decorated not with vintage psychedelics, but Russian Impressionist art.

The Vault's hottest seller is a reproduction of a 1968 T-shirt declaring "Jefferson Airplane Loves You," with a peace symbol on the back. It costs 46 bucks.

When Airplane co-pilot Paul Kantner heard the news, he said, "Awww. I ought to get one. People are reliving their lost youth. Actually, a lot of young college kids like it, too. When my kid first went off to college, there were some kids standing in awe of me: 'You were in Jefferson Airplane? Ohmigod!' "

Likewise, Sagan says his three children suddenly think he's cool. With the youngest now off to college, he and his wife, after 15 years in the Twin Cities, plan to relocate to San Francisco, where he's commuted the past few years.

He still manages to get to an occasional concert, too -- usually one of his employees' bands but also, most recently, Queens of the Stone Age, Ben Harper and Jack Johnson. But he doesn't buy any souvenirs.

By Jon Bream

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