There's a classic story music buffs like to tell about Van Halen and M&M candies. While on its 1982 world tour the rock band famously gave venue promoters a backstage rider requesting a bowl of M&Ms with all the brown ones taken out. It's a story usually told to illustrate rock star decadence. But the story behind the story is this: The musicians knew that if the outrageous M&M request was met, then someone had read the rider thoroughly. And if someone had read the rider thoroughly, the band deduced, all the truly important details required to put on a good rock show—lighting, sound equipment, security—had also been met. In the end, the M&Ms were not about the whims and excesses of rock egomaniacs so much as they were about making the rock show a well-oiled machine.
At the University of Montana, a program called Entertainment Management (UMEM) teaches the business of the M&M bowl, so to speak. Over the last 12 years, program director Scott Douglas has brought in some of the most important entertainment producers in the nation on just a shoestring budget to show students the importance of details in the industry. Outside of his duties as a business management professor at UM, he's spent what would have been his free time developing a curriculum that puts Montana students in position to be powerbrokers in the industry—creating concert budgets, tracking down venues for bands, writing up contracts and marketing events. Sprung from the imagination of UM alumni who now successfully work in the business, the program offers the kind of insider tips and hands-on experience vital to making it in music, television, film, theater, sports and visual arts.
Recently, however, UMEM has found itself facing a real-life test that goes far beyond limited budgets, brown M&Ms or the challenges of preparing a student in Missoula for a career in Hollywood. The man who helped build the program, Douglas, suffered a debilitating stroke last November, and is fighting to regain his ability to communicate. While he recovers, students and staff are looking for a way to use the lessons he's given them to push forward a vision for the program's future.
Keith Miller is the agent for Nashville artists Trisha Yearwood, Terri Clark, Sara Evans and Diamond Rio, among others. His employer, William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, boasts a full roster of some of the hottest country stars from the last few decades including Taylor Swift, Brooks and Dunn, Vince Gill and Kenny Rogers. And because he's also a territorial agent, Miller handles all these stars for any tours spanning the Northeast United States and Canada.
But when Miller was getting his business administration degree at the University of Montana in the early 1970s, the department offered no formal guidance for how to navigate the entertainment industry. Surprisingly, says Miller, there was plenty of school funding available for students who wanted to put on concerts and other entertainment events, but there was no connection made between the school's business courses and the hands-on production of those shows.
"There was no class for it," says the Kalispell native. "It was just baptism by fire."
Nevertheless, Miller and other entertainment-minded business students over the years built up their resumes and went off to become professional concert promoters, agents and tour accountants.
"They did theatrical touring, rock and roll touring, some went to labels, some went to the recording industry," says Miller. "It was unique that there were so many alumni from UM—such a small school, in a fairly remote part of the country—that became successful in the music business."
In the late 1990s, seven of those alumni gathered to discuss the idea of creating a program at UM that would mentor students in all aspects of entertainment management. Among the alumni were Brian Knaff, president and a co-founder of Talent Buyers Network, the largest outsource of casino showroom entertainment in the country; Clint Mitchell, who represents artists Bernadette Peters, Mannheim Steamroller and Riverdance; and Glendive, Mont., native James Yelich, who, during the course of his career, signed country singer Alan Jackson before he became a chart-topping artist.