The first thing I would say by way of describing Tony Rifugiato is that for someone of such smallish physical stature—he’s a fit 5-foot-4—the man has a big presence. The London native has wavy hair, flecked liberally with gray, and a ruggedly handsome face that melds the England of his upbringing with his native Sicily. Tony’s still-intact British accent about evenly splits the difference between Cockney and the Queen’s English, the perfect vehicle for his wit and candor.
Rifugiato is one of the deans of Bay area concert promoters, along partner Dave Hundley and Rob Douglas, who ran shows at Tierra Verde Island Resort and for many years at Jannus Landing, and is still an active independent promoter.
Tony and Dave launched No Clubs Productions in the early 1980s, and while the local music scene is littered with promoters who flamed out and left bad debts all over town, this troika has done business honorably, shrewdly and thoughtfully. That’s among the main reasons that they are still standing.
Under the Aegis of No Clubs, Rifugiato produces shows at the State Theatre, Jannus Live, Ritz Ybor and other venues, and he is the Tampa Bay point man for Live Nation, the country’s biggest concert company. He is also owner of the long-standing Daddy Kool, one of the few local record shops still standing.
(Tony Rifugiato is the only person with any type of public profile that I know of who does not show up on Google Images. The camera-shy chap did not change his policy for us. Use your imagination.)
The Bay area was hit hard by the recession. How did that affect the concert business here, and have you seen it making a recovery?
Yes, we’ve seen a recovery—very recently, in fact. During the recession, attendances crashed, the number of acts coming through thinned out. Acts that had been pretty successful were bringing lower [attendance] numbers. We really saw it come to a head in 2010. Our end of the concert business is supported by people who go to four or five concerts a year or more.
It’s not like when Lady Gaga comes to town, just to use that as an example: For a lot of people that’s their big concert of the year and they won’t go to another show. Our people tend to go to more shows. In 2010, we noticed that those people weren’t coming to that many concerts anymore. I suppose they were financially strapped, and they had to pick and choose.
As an independent promoter, what measures did you have to take to make sure that your business survived the economic downturn?
We had to tighten up everywhere—be a bit more careful in buying [shows]. And we passed on a lot of things that previously we might’ve booked and figured we’d make [any loss] up on another show. So that affected the number of acts that we put on. Some of the bigger promoters were doing the same thing, being a bit more careful.
We cut back on unnecessary or frivolous expenses, and instead of hiring more people, we kind of looked to see if we could do certain jobs ourselves.
So you said that things are looking up. How is that manifesting?
It just sort of slammed us in the face. In November, all of a sudden we got a lot more calls coming in—‘let’s confirm this [show], confirm that.’ And the people are coming out in bigger numbers. Last night, I was talking to a guy who owns a company that produces T-shirts for bands on the road, and he told me that—bam!—the orders started pouring in. The bands are back on the road and they’re selling more merch.
Who have been some of your favorite acts to work with over the years?
Nowadays that tends to be about 80 percent of the acts. It seems we’ve gone through ’80s and ’90s ego thing; bands are more professional and understanding of what the system is about. For their careers to progress, it’s not in their best interest to be dickheads. I’m seeing a whole new philosophy.
In terms of actual acts, the guys from Fun are always good to work with. We’ve done quite a few shows with them. Lady Gaga, she was great to work with. She’s a charming person, great with her fans. We played her at the Ritz [Ybor], about three years ago. We did the first Pearl Jam shows in the area, and they’re great to work with. They’re the same guys they were 20 years ago.
At the Bradenton Blues Festival a long time ago, Dave and I were managing the two stages. [The late R&B legend] Solomon Burke was headlining. He was immense, probably at least 400 pounds. Nobody at the blues fest had even thought about putting up a ramp for him to get onstage. He had to climb four steps. He looked at me like, ‘You’re expecting me to climb those steps?’ I said, ‘Sorry, there’s no other way.’ He said, ‘You’re going to have to give me a hand.’ So it turned that I had to push him by the butt up to the stage. Every time he took a step, I’d have to take both hands and push his butt.
Here’s another one that’s a bit more serious. Underoath played their final show at Jannus Live on Saturday. They got very emotional before they went on stage. Watching them was a very moving experience. You could tell that it had dawned on them: We’ve been talking about our farewell, but this is it; we aren’t going to do this again. The guitar player was in tears. I stepped away and let them have their moment. If Underoath was going to be a little late to the stage, well that was how it was going to be.