Emporium Presents’s Jason Zink grew up just outside the Ohio border in Kentucky. From the end of his street, Zink could look over the Ohio River and see Riverbend Music Center in Cincinnati where he would get his first job as a promoter.
“I generally spent my summers over (at Riverbend) because I would walk under the bridge from Kentucky to Ohio before I could drive,” Zink told Amplify. “Next to Riverbend was the local horse racing track. That was my misspent youth, going over there every day when I was 14.”
His brother was a stagehand at Riverbend and helped Zink get a summer job doing lighting at the venue. After attending college at Miami University in Ohio, Zink landed an internship at Riverbend with Nederlander Concerts, who were operating the venue at the time.
Little did Zink know that spending those days betting at the racetrack would be akin to his career as a concert promoter.
“There are certainly some similarities there,” Zink said. “As opposed to horse racing, what I like about promoting is that you can actually increase your odds by doing a good job. It’s not just rolling the dice. There is certainly some gut feel to it, but there is a lot of research and a lot of data that you can look at as well.”
Amplify caught up with Zink to see how his gambles have paid off and what Emporium Presents is up to now.
Yeah. We grew up going to River Bend to see shows. Because my older brother had worked as a stagehand, we had access on occasion to some free tickets to things like opening night of a Broadway show. I got some decent exposure that way which I thought was really cool. River Bend and the Cincinnati Riverfront Coliseum were the two places I saw most of my music growing up.
What kind of music were you listening to?
There was a rock station in Cincinnati called WEBN. It was king of our world there. Going to see Boston, AC/DC, and those kinds of groups. Cincinnati was a huge place for Jimmy Buffett. That annoyed me to no end. At the time, I absolutely hated Jimmy Buffett. It was all of my friends, always going to see Jimmy Buffett. I couldn’t bring myself to go. It seemed to painful.
Has your opinion of Jimmy Buffett changed?
I’d like to say yes, but actually no.
How did you end up starting Emporium Presents with Dan Steinberg?
After I had interned at Nederlander I took a job with them as the Assistant Production Manager at River Bend. I was the Production Manager at the Taft Theatre. Nederlander had just taken that over. I was there for about a year before moving to Colorado. When Barry Fey retired, Mark Norman came into take over that office. I was at Mark’s desk for about a year in Denver. Then I was General Manager at the Paramount Theatre where I used to co-promote shows with Steinberg.
He was an indie promoter in the market. We became friends there and started doing shows. In 2003, I moved to Nashville to work for Outback Concerts and do more touring. We did most of the shows for Dierks Bentley, getting him going in small arenas. We did dates with Black Keys.
I started Sherpa Concerts in 2009 in Nashville. Dan and I continued to co-promote a lot of shows together. We legitimately couldn’t figure out which ones were co-promotes and which ones weren’t. We decided we should just put it all together. We had been partners for a couple of years before we rebranded as Emporium in 2015. Nothing really changed but the name of the company.
Did you expand together or were you both already spread out across the US and Canada before you became Emporium?
We don’t try to be all things to all people in all markets. What we try to do is get really good at promoting certain acts. Once you fully understand how to sell tickets to an act, how to market that act, it’s a mater of understand what the artist’s needs are and trying to duplicate that process all over the country. We tend to get people who want to work with us and think we do a good job. The overall philosophy is do right by the artist and everything else takes care of itself. We didn’t have specific plans to do more shows in a market or a state. The artist just sort of takes us around and we try to do a good job for them and waste as little money as possible on advertising we’ve discovered doesn’t work.
Is there a specific type of act that Emporium likes to work with?
We try to go after and work with acts that want to have a long career. So that when you do the hard work of building a base with that artist, it doesn’t go away. We like to work with folks that understand the long term nature of it and price things accordingly and approach it in a way that will maximize things for the long run. It is fun for me to help an artist build a career.
How do you know an artist is in it for the long run?
It’s a question of looking at each show and saying ‘do we need to get as much money as possible’ which then leads to ticket prices that don’t necessarily reflect trying to build. Are you trying to squeeze every last dollar out of every date or when it is sold out do you go to a radio station and say ‘we want your listeners to be excited about this, so here are ten free tickets.’ We’re taking $500 out of the gross on this one, but it is in order to build this for the future. Small things like that where you are always focusing on the next day. Everyone has to make their money early on, but if you are pricing it so that you are getting fans to see it for the first time and you’re an act that delivers on stage, then you’ve got something.
You live in Colorado. What is it about Colorado that makes it such a huge market for live music?
It is the culture of being active. Whether it is going hiking or biking or going to see a symphony or going to see a reggae show, people just want to go out and connect with people. The mountains contribute to attracting people who like to be active. You find people here who aren’t a fan of just one genre. The culture is that they go to shows.
Has the legalization of weed affected its use at live events in Colorado?
Emporium started promoting the paid events at the new Levitt Pavilion in Denver. How is that going?
It is going great. It has gotten a really good response. There’s a need in the marketplace for something that size. We are 7,500 capacity as opposed to Fiddler’s Green way south or Red Rocks way west. We’re the only amphitheater that is actually in Denver. We’re in a neighborhood. People can come over and it’s not making a huge excursion. It is in an 88-acre city park and it is beautiful.
Who owns the Levitt Pavilion?
It is a partnership between Levitt Pavilion, which is a non-profit, and the city of Denver. We partner with Levitt Pavilion on producing paid admission shows. Most of the shows for the Levitt are free. We chip in with some of the free shows as well and we do all of the paid shows with them. We work with other promoters as well. We did 311 with Live Nation. They are great partners and we’re going to do more with them. We’re encouraging some of the other promoters in the market to come out and do some shows with us.
How is it for Emporium being an independent promoter in 2017?
This is a business of very individual people. They don’t want to be told what to do. As long as there are artists, agents, managers that appreciate some individuality and putting some personality into it, there’s always going to be a spot for independent promoters. There is always competition and the giants have the ability to throw money at things on the front side. That’s fine. At the end of the day, if you are working with us you’re going to end up making more money.
We work with Live Nation and AEG. I have nothing against those companies. We partner with them pretty extensively all over the country when it makes sense. We have a very good relationship with both companies and Nederlander and etc. The spirit of collaboration works. We stop as promoters and say, what is best for the artist, what is best for the show. You can put a lot of those petty differences aside as opposed to ‘We have to have all of this.’ It shouldn’t be forcing an artist into a building that is not the best building for the show. We want to do what is best for the artist each time and that tends to work.
You mentioned building careers earlier. Do you find that that is part of the niche Emporium has carved out for itself as an independent?
If you are an independent, it is a matter of finding your niche and going with it. For any independent, do you want to spend your day fighting with Live Nation in a market who is just going to throw money at something? There is plenty of opportunity out there. It is a big country with a lot of artists that need to work. Maybe don’t bang your head up against the wall so much and find your niche.
Are there any artist right now that you are listening to?
I am a fan of Sarah Jarosz and we’ve been doing a few of her dates. She is in the folk vain and she has a new project called I’m With Her that is her and Sara Watkins from Nickel Creek. I’ve been listening to a lot of David Rawlings, and between him and his partner Gillian Welch, we do a lot of those dates all over the place. Those guys are personal favorites where I will go to the show and sit all the way through. I listen to Cody Johnson a lot. I think he’s great and absolutely going places. We do a lot of dates with Tedeschi Trucks Band and, for my money, are probably the best band on the road right now.
Is there an artist you haven’t worked with yet that would like to work with?
That list is endless. Is Tom Waits ever going to tour again? That’s one of those shows I would buy a ticket for every day of the week if I could. He is a favorite for sure.
If you could see any show at any time in history, what show would you go see?
It would have been amazing to see some of the early Jimi Hendrix shows in London. To have seen the energy and the electricity that was there. I think that would be a crazy scene.
What do you do outside of work?
My hobby at this point is my two and a half year old who unfortunately has the initials X.Y.Z. Poor guy. His name is Xavier Yosemite Zink. We figured he’d have to have character right away. He’s going to have to be tough straight away. Between him and my wife and everything going on at Emporium, that is most of what I do.
Are you excited to take Xavier to shows?
I am. His first ever show was JohnnySwim at the Denver Botanic Gardens. He was still in diapers. It was fun to get to see his reaction. His first real show coming up will be Daniel Tiger which he just discovered a few weeks ago. He doesn’t call him Daniel Tiger, he says ‘dad teeny tiny tiger on tv.’ That show is coming to the Paramount Theatre in Denver this Spring so I am definitely going to get him down there. I want to get him out to shows and see his cute little dance moves.