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Believing in the show

Features
February 22, 2019

It is possible that having grandparents who were comedians and a mother who was a contortionist and an opera impresario father may have helped the young Claudio Trotta get a start in the live music business, but his relentless passion for what he does still propels him along today, as he celebrates 40 years in the promoting game. Johnny Black reports

He was punched in the eye by the first international artiste he promoted, became friends with Bruce Springsteen and helped Muhammad Ali shake Bo Diddley’s hand on stage.

He’s also been a radio DJ, taken to a British police station in a Saddam Hussein-related incident, after which a group of international promoters gathered outside and called for his release, and is renowned for instantly jumping to the defence of his homeland, Italy, at the slightest hint of disparaging remark during a certain annual conference.

Most importantly, however, Milan-based Claudio Trotta was instrumental in helping to transform Italy from a chaotic no-go zone for international artistes into a lucrative and enjoyable destination.

“I am, of course, mad,” he says, but really he means madly passionate about what he wants to achieve and the things in which he believes.

“Claudio was the first of a new breed of promoters in Italy,” reckons veteran agent Carl Leighton-Pope, who now heads UK-based The Leighton-Pope Organisation.

“Claudio and fellow promoter Roberto De Luca [now head of Live Nation Italy] changed the world of concert promotion in Italy.”

Thinking back to the early 1980s, Leighton-Pope recalls, “Italy, in those days, was really wild. I remember doing a show with Wishbone Ash in Milan and we had half the house sold, but the other half was in the car park smashing up cars, because they wanted us to open up the doors and let them in for nothing. In the end Claudio and his partner Franco Mamone, who were promoting the show, came over and said, ‘Look, we gotta let them in. They’re doing so much damage out there.’

“So we opened the doors and they literally ran all over us. It was mayhem.”

Having suffered a period of political turmoil, the youth of Italy was then undergoing an anarchistic fervour, partly expressed in demands for freedom of every kind of artistic endeavour.

It was a crazy time, but it was precisely this chaos which had enabled young visionaries like Trotta to emerge.

He was born into a theatrically-oriented family in Milan on 21 September 1957. “My mother Luciana’s parents had been comedians, and she became a show girl and contortionist. My father’s father was an opera impresario and also played violin at La Scala.”

By his own admission, Trotta “cannot play even a doorbell”, but the family always encouraged whatever career direction he chose to pursue and, during his early years, he pursued many.

In his mid-teens, for example, he had a brief flirtation with acting, appearing in the movie musical Yuppi Du, which starred Charlotte Rampling. He also spent several years playing basketball professionally, dabbled with marathon running, and had aspirations towards journalism, but it was not until the mid-70s that an opportunity arose which would set him off on his life’s main trajectory.

Traditionally, Italian radio had been government controlled and heavily censored, but in 1976 the Italian Supreme Court legalised commercial broadcasting and, as Trotta remembers, “every young man of my age was looking at that as a possibility – talking on the radio was a dream.

“Suddenly there were thousands of Free Radio stations. I was a huge fan of West Coast sounds, like Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Moby Grape, but when a friend asked me if I was interested in doing a programme about Italian music on Radio Montestella, well, I didn’t give a damn about Italian music, but I immediately said, ‘Yes!’.”

Despite the fact that Montestella was paying him for his DJ services, when he was offered a non-paying gig on Canale 96, he jumped at it. Canale 96 reflected Trotta’s left-wing sentiments,

“I stayed there for three-and-a-half years, completely unpaid, but it was one of the best experiences of my life, during which I learned so much about how the music business worked.”

To support himself during this time, he was, “doing a lot of little jobs. On Sunday mornings I sold encyclopaedias in local cinemas. Me and a friend were also doing 1,000 fly-posters a night. My brother and I also sold second-hand books.”

In business

Throughout this era, he was beginning to realise that what he really wanted to do was organise live events and in 1979 he was able, through the support of his family, to take his first steps towards becoming a promoter.

“My mother gave me a loan equivalent now to €1,000 [$1,100], my office was my room in my parents’ home, and the first car I used to transport artistes was my dad’s Citroen.”

He named his new venture Barley Arts, because of the well-documented love of strong drink among musicians.

The biggest hurdle Barley Arts faced was that the international music community still regarded Italy as something close to the Wild West.

“Some of the organisers of concerts in Italy in the ‘70s were not professional,” he acknowledges, but insists that the widely-held perception of Mafia involvement is wrong.

“The Mafia was interested in big money, and there was not enough money involved in live gigs in Italy to make it attractive to them. In my entire career I have never been approached by the Mafia.”

But when, later in 1979, he flew to London hoping to nurture useful international connections, that was precisely the sort of prejudice he had to overcome.

“London agents laughed at me, laughed about Italy. The agent for Eddie Grant wanted £30,000 [$38,700], when his regular fee was £3,000 [$3,870], simply because he did not want his artiste to go to Italy.”

But undaunted, Trotta continued to pursue his dream, and his indefatigable Latin charm started to pay off. “The first British agent who gave me an act was Steve Parker at Bron Agency, who let me have John Martyn.”

Parker recalls, “Like many London agents at the time, I’d had some dramatic experiences in that market. At least one promoter I knew carried a gun and incidents such as the tyres of a truck being shot-out to stop a band leaving a potentially dangerous show, a road crew having to break-out and run for the border after being locked in an unsafe venue – again to stop them abandoning the show, and a bank manager lying  about an advance payment being sent – it hadn’t – were par for the course.

“But I remember Claudio’s passion – he only wanted John Martyn and he knew exactly what kind of venues were right and how to make it work.”

Trotta wasted no time in exploiting this breakthrough. He remembers, “I then got a lot of acts from Paul Fenn and Paul Charles at UK-based Asgard – Van Morrison, Ry Cooder, John Lee Hooker, Rickie Lee Jones, Joan Baez. Others who helped me then were Carl Leighton-Pope, Rod MacSween, Martin Hopewell and John Jackson.”

The John Martyn concerts, however, proved to be something of a baptism by fire. At their first encounter, Martyn physically demonstrated his dissatisfaction with the hotel into which Trotta had booked him.

“He punched me in the eye. I don’t recall which one, but I certainly do recall the pain,” laughs Trotta. “John Martyn was able to drink 17 cans of beer, a bottle of whisky and one and a half bottles of red wine, all during the same concert, while at the same time creating the sound of an orchestra using only his acoustic guitar,” he recalls with a hint of exaggeration.

Trotta now rates that tour as “a discrete success” but its real significance was that it led to bigger things. “During this period I was associated with Lucio Salvini, president of the record company Dischi Ricordi, which helped me make contacts with Stefan Grossman and his Kickin Mule Records label, with John Renbourn, and with the managers of Bruce Cockburn and David Bromberg.”

“The boom started in November 1979,” recalls Trotta, “when I did 11 shows with Bromberg which attracted 35,000 people, and also with Bruce Cockburn, with whomwe did 10 shows for 25,000 people.”

Good connection

Barley Arts was now making headway, carving out a niche for itself as a reliable promoter in what had previously been a somewhat precarious market.

Still, the money was hardly rolling in, so Trotta had to be imaginative in finding ways to keep the business afloat. Dinners cooked for artistes by his mother at the family home were one way of keeping costs down, and in return for booking acts into a local hotel, he secured free use of the hotel’s Telex machine – a teletape predecessor of the fax machine.

“With our budget at the time I could not afford to buy one.”

By 1981, Salvini had moved on to become President of Caroselo Records where he started a new label, Blues And Rock, for which Trotta became label manager.

“We were re-releasing blues albums by people like Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters, as well as rock LPs by Jon And The Nightriders and Ray Campi, all of which I brought to Italy for shows.”

Trotta’s lifelong conviction that the show must go on was tested in 1981 when former Incredible String Band member Robin Williamson attracted only eight people to a 1,500-capacity theatre in Turin.

“He asked me if he still had to do the show. I said, ‘Yes, of course.’ To me, an artiste without an audience might as well be playing to himself in a mirror.”

Call-up challenge

With Barley Arts becoming well-established, Trotta faced another setback when he was called up for compulsory National Service in 1982, a problem he overcame with classic cunning.   

“I was afraid that my contacts in the UK and the USA  would be alarmed by this, so I did not tell them,” he explains. “Instead, I left my collaborator, Paolo Dal Bon, who could not speak a word of English, to run the office. Paolo told everyone who called that I was out, and I would call them back later, which I did by using the public phone at the army base. That way I did deals for artistes including Ry Cooder, Girlschool, Van Morrison, UK Subs and David Lindley.”

Massimo Gramigni, founder of PRG Florence, who has worked with Trotta on Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits and numerous Italian artistes, remembers how, “Claudio would call me from a telephone booth near the barracks. He was so desperate to talk with someone outside the army that he would keep the conversation going up to the last coin in his pocket.”

In later years, Gramigni and Trotta would work together to create the Italian national music trade organisation Assomusica.

Floating like a butterfly

One of Trotta’s most cherished memories from 1982 is a Bo Diddley concert he promoted at Odissea 2001 in Milan. “A journalist friend of mine, Gianni Mina, rang-up and told me he was in Milan with Muhammad Ali, who wanted to come to the concert and meet Bo Diddley.

“During the show we arranged for Ali to appear at the top of a flight of stairs leading down to the stage. Seeing him there, Bo immediately stopped playing, the hall went silent, and Ali walked down to shake hands with Bo. Then Ali left the stage, but even to have had him there for a couple of minutes in one of my shows was magical, one of the greatest moments of my entire career.”

On leaving the army, Trotta struck up an association with veteran promoter Franco Mamone, during which he dramatically increased his network of international contacts.

For example, Phil Banfield, now an agent at Coda Agency in the UK, remembers, “I first came across Claudio when he worked with the legendary Franco Mamone who promoted Sting for me in Italy, amongst other acts. Claudio is great because he doesn’t give you any bullshit and he is completely trustworthy.”

The Trotta-Mamone association, however, survived just 18 months.

Then head of Primary Talent International, Martin Hopewell points out that, “Claudio had a different style of working from the people who preceded him.

“For one thing, his command of English was much better than Franco’s, which made him easier to deal with.  He was also closer to my own age group which was great, because some of those older guys could be a bit intimidating.”

According to Leighton-Pope, “I used to do all my Italian stuff with Mamone, but we had a massive showdown – he came after me very aggressively, very threatening. So when Claudio left that arrangement I took Matt Bianco, Bryan Adams and others to him.”

Another who switched from Mamone to Trotta was Rod MacSween of ITB, citing among his reasons the fact that, “He’s reliable, honest and a man of his word. He also has a good sense of humour and is an epicurean.”

It was, reckons Trotta, his collaboration with MacSween which initiated the era of Heavy Metal shows in Italy. Trotta’s introduction to the metal hordes came on 5 September 1984, with the first Italian edition of the Monsters Of Rock festival, headlined by AC/DC, Van Halen and Gary Moore.

“Rod and I also did a tour with Accept and Dokken in 1986, and then John Jackson and I did Metallica, Aerosmith, Def Leppard, Iron Maiden, Guns N’Roses and so on.”Fortunately, it seems, he can.

Iraq and beyond

In the years that followed, Trotta was able to promote many of his own personal favourites, from Frank Zappa (1988) to Phil Collins (1990) and Stevie Wonder (1992), but he was also becoming a well-known figure on the international scene through his regular appearances at the annual International Live Music Conference (ILMC) in London, where his larger than life persona often landed him at the centre of some memorable moments.

“In March 1991, at The Portman Hotel, a large group of promoters went off to a curry house and returned around midnight, completely hammered,” remembers ILMC-founder Hopewell.

“In their inebriated state they decided that Claudio bore a strong resemblance to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, so they marched him into the bar chanting ‘Saddam! Saddam!’ much to the annoyance of a group of Kuwaitis whose country had been invaded by Hussein’s forces, just months earlier.”

Inevitably, police arrived to calm things down, and somehow Claudio ended up beneath a pile of London’s finest, before being carted off in a police van. “Not long after, a bunch of ILMC delegates arrived outside the local police station demanding to have Claudio released,”  Hopewell recalls.

“If you compiled a list of notorious anecdotes from the ILMC over the years, Claudio would feature prominently in quite a few.”

The latter half of the ‘90s saw Trotta launch his own ambitious festival, Sonoria, which ran in Milan for three years, but despite featuring artistes as diverse as Aerosmith, Bob Dylan and The Cure, it did not achieve the commercial success he might have wished for. Nevertheless, he still regards them as “among the best events I have ever put together.”

Although Trotta had known Bruce Springsteen on a personal level since 1996, they didn’t begin their working relationship until 2003. Hardly surprisingly, with Springsteen being a lifelong favourite of Trotta’s, it has resulted in some of the most unforgettable concerts of Trotta’s career.

“At San Siro stadium [80,000] in Milan in 2003,” relates Trotta, “it poured with rain but he played such an astonishing set that no-one in the crowd was seeking shelter. Every Springsteen show is special, but in moments like those you realise you are helping everybody involved to reach beauty.”

Fighting exploitation

Many of Trotta’s most celebrated achievements have featured major international acts but, as he points out himself, “The majority of tickets sold in Italy has always been for Italian acts, and over the years I have promoted and produced a lot of those.”

It perfectly illustrates this aspect of Trotta’s work that when he staged a remarkable show on 10 September 2005, in Reggio Emilia for Luciano Ligabue, he sold 165,264 tickets, establishing a record as the best-selling show by a single artiste which stood for many years.

It’s also too easy, when confronted with his many concert successes to forget that Trotta has been one of the main adversaries of secondary ticketing, which he describes as “an ugly cancer”.

In January 2017, for example, he launched the first International Conference Against Secondary Ticketing, during which he promoted the idea of what he calls Nominative Tickets, that is tickets bearing the name of the buyer, as a means of combating inflated resales.

He has already done concerts with such tickets for Queen, Madness, KISS and others, and reports that from July 2019, a new law will make it mandatory for any Italian concert with over 5,000 attendees to use Nominative tickets.

These days, Trotta’s reach extends beyond traditional concerts to family-oriented events like Walking With Dinosaurs, Queen’s We Will Rock You stage show, and even his own “food truck” festivals under the banner of Streeat, where he also acts as DJ for the event.

His first autobiography, No Pasta No Show, was published in December 2017, and he’s already planning a second volume.

So what next?

“I’ll always continue to do live concerts,” he says, “but another of my ambitions is to have a nice venue, where I can put on the live music that I love, and also have control over the food and the wine. It is always important to me to try to understand what is next.

“We only have one life, so let’s try to make it work.”

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