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.
The group met at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas with then-UM President George Dennison and Larry Gianchetta, dean of UM's business school.
"They said they'd love to come back to the university and share with students a professional opportunity that they may have never thought about," recalls Gianchetta. "And that was the entertainment industry."
It's been Scott Douglas, however, who has been the driving force—and face—of the program. The UM alum was brought on board to run UMEM from the start. As a savvy management instructor with a doctorate in business, he was excited about his new position—even though he had no background in entertainment. His wife, Judy, notes that when Mannheim Steamroller offered to raise funds for the nascent UM program, Douglas didn't know the band.
"He thought it was monster truck show," she says, smiling. "And that's where he started. But he understood business, and entertainment is just a business. Eleven years later he's become an expert in it."
It took Douglas a few years to hatch the program while running it out of his office. It started as a special topics seminar available in fall and spring semesters to seniors only. Students had to apply, and the first year it was offered Douglas received 150 applications, which he had to pare down to 40. He brought in core instructors—alumni like Miller, Knaff and Mitchell who could fly in on the weekends to give classes on current entertainment trends.
"It's not unusual for a university to have retired people come and work in the program," says Miller. "But everyone we have coming to guest lecture was at their office desk earlier that morning, and so the information you get is that fresh. Whatever is trending you get right from the horse's mouth."
The main thorn in Douglas' side was funding. Over the years he met with UM's administration to seek out monetary support, but to no avail. The fledgling program wasn't yet an obvious success, enrollment-wise. So Douglas, who was already a full-time business management instructor, continued to spend what was left of his free time raising funds and negotiating the entertainment speakers.
The latter—connecting students with industry professionals, and creating success stories through internships and, eventually, jobs—would be the key to growing the program. Douglas continued to tap into alumni Rolodexes to attract industry big wigs for his classes. Laurie Jacoby, vice president of Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden in New York City, flew into Missoula for a weekend, as did film producer Jerry Molen (Schindler's List). The program didn't have much money, but Douglas' charisma made up the difference. He covered each speaker's airfare and meals, but their time speaking to students was done pro-bono.
"Scott has an incredible natural ability to see the scalability of projects," says Sonja Grimmsmann, UMEM's project coordinator. "He can take a dollar and translate it into something that was exponentially larger than life. I started teasing him about having this world domination tour, because for him, it couldn't be just what was happening now, it was everything that could happen five years from now, how it could affect China and India," she says, laughing.
"He knew this was going to blow up at some point."
The program began to see 300 enrollments a semester. It wasn't just business students, either. In fact, 50 percent of the enrollments came from other areas of UM including the fine arts department, the law school and the journalism school, among others, making it the most interdisciplinary program the business school offers. In 2009, the Board of Regents approved UMEM as a certification program, meaning students could get an entertainment management certificate that showed up on their school transcript. And in September 2010, when Royce Engstrom was named UM's new president, Douglas finally got another thing he had been waiting for: university funding.
The program had indeed blown up.
But a few months later, on November 30, Douglas suffered a massive stroke, and everything was turned upside down.
Grimmsmann has a tough, edgy quality to her that belies her recent sleepless nights. A Metallica fan with a dry sense of humor, the UM graduate paid her way through school by working on campus productions, starting with Pearl Jam's 2003 show at the Field House. As an adjunct professor for UMEM since 2009, she's been working as Douglas' right hand woman, taking care of office logistics and giving him feedback on the direction of the program, including the makeup of the curriculum.
When Douglas ended up in the hospital, it was Grimmsmann who suddenly found herself facing the enormous task of leading the program.
"Scott and I work very well together as a team and we would think out loud a lot together and bounce ideas off of each other," she says. "We complemented each other very well. I've had to deal with not having that anymore and having to make decisions on my own. I feel like everything I've ever learned my entire life is being put to the test right now."
In the last few months, Grimmsmann has worked closely with Klaus Uhlenbruck, chair of the department of managing and marketing, and Dean Gianchetta to develop curriculum for the next academic year. Her new role means not only planning the logistics of guest speakers, but also coordinating their itineraries and reimbursement, confirming classes and budgeting. It means taking over Douglas' weekend seminar class and coordinating with other staff and students who must now help cover office tasks and gaps in classroom teaching. It also means maintaining the relationships that Douglas has fostered over the last decade—with UM's administration, the program's faculty and staff, and students.
"Emotionally the bottom fell out from under our feet," Grimmsmann says. "It has been difficult. It has been emotionally draining, and it's been difficult for the students."
For Grimmsmann, the sleepless nights come from trying to fill the shoes of someone so well regarded by the entire community.
"It's a classic example of a very charismatic and strong leader suddenly falling out of the picture," she says, "and somebody else having to step in who wouldn't necessarily be welcome by everyone because they're not the other person."
UM alum Jeremy Sauter is also adjusting to the change. He has worked as a marketer for Paramount Pictures the past 15 years, and, since his move back to Missoula in 2008, he's worked closely with Douglas and UMEM. He says his goal is to help students understand the real—and often harsh—world of entertainment.
"A lot of young people were raised by their parents that they are superstars, that they get a trophy for everything they do—just for showing up," Sauter says. "That's not the way it is in business. The best thing you can do is work for a hardass or a badass. That's what I tell the students. If you work for someone who calls out your mistakes every day in a loud voice with a red face, then those mistakes go away. And if you work for someone who gives out praise only when it's really, really due, you start to think about what level of work will get you ahead."
That philosophy goes hand-in-hand with what's been Douglas' main goal of the program. "It's a meritocracy and you get ahead by actually having skills," Sauter says. "I'm a superfan of what Scott does for students. I'm a real believer."
Just before Douglas' stroke, he and Sauter created a class where students organize focus groups for actual use by Paramount Pictures. In addition, the two launched a private venture that hopes to capitalize on the success of the Paramount class. Rather than training students to make it in Los Angeles or New York, Sauter sees an opportunity to keep management talent right in Missoula.
"I would love to help create media companies or prospects for people to stay in Missoula and connect to the sort of decentralized media field so they don't have to pack up their car and go the second they're educated," Sauter says. "It would be great to have something here, and that's one of Scott's goals too."
Sauter says there's "a pause button" on the project because of Douglas' illness, but, like Grimmsmann and the rest of UMEM, he's still pushing on. In fact, during a recent visit, Sauter spoke with Douglas about the Parmount venture and found reason for hope.
"I was explaining something to him I was doing, and he had a better idea," Sauter says. "He's really smart, he's really energetic and he's sort of trapped in this shell where he can't speak. But he drew a flowchart of this deal we're working on. And, it's like, this guy is stuck in his house and in therapy and he's still better at this than I am. He'll be back."
The 1919 contract that sold Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees hangs on the UMEM office wall. Douglas likes to show it to his students as a reminder of a time when entertainment contracts were comprised of six pages rather than hundreds. On another side of the room is a framed photo of Douglas with Stuart Evey, founding member of ESPN. All this, plus several posters of Eric Clapton's Crossroads Festival—whose website is now run by UMEM students—add to the sense that, even hundreds of miles away from major hubs, it's still possible to be connected to the entertainment business.
The signs of how much Douglas is the heart of this program are just as evident. Below Douglas' Outstanding Faculty Award hang dozens of "thank you" cards from students over the years, cards from local celebrities like jazz pianist Jodi Marshall, and a personal note from Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
The messages he's received since his stroke, says Judy, have also been more "thank you" than sympathy.
"Through this whole thing I've learned so much about how many students are dedicated to him," she says. "It brings tears to my eyes. Whenever he was walking around kids would want to talk with him and follow him and say 'hi' and they'd send him letters about what he's done for them in their lives."
Douglas currently spends most of his days in speech therapy and physical therapy. The expressive aphasia caused by the stroke left him virtually speechless, at first. As he's begun to speak again, he has trouble expressing the words he wants to say, even though he can form them in his mind. Mild ataxia has made it difficult to balance and he has trouble with motor skills in one arm.
"There's no cure for aphasia," says Judy. "That part of his brain will always be damaged, but your brain has the ability to rewire itself to compensate. The rewiring is the big unknown and he is making tremendous progress."
UMEM is also making steady progress. At the moment, the program's kicking off the last three shows of its Saturday Night Shuffle, a concert series at Sean Kelly's that showcases local artists like Three Eared Dog and Kung Fu Kongress. On Saturday, May 7, UMEM will conclude the month-long annual Spring Thaw event with a festival, which features local band High Voltage, vendors, games and nonprofit booths. All of the shows are run entirely by students.
One of those students, UMEM senior Ashley Barber, recently finished working in Los Angeles with Elias Arts, the largest music production company in the nation. He started as an intern but eventually ended up in a paid position working for the company's president, wrangling recording sessions with stars like Annie Lennox. Climbing the ladder, he says, had everything to do with the budgeting and media skills he learned from Douglas and UMEM speakers.
"I used to think these places in the entertainment business were impenetrable," he says. "But it's actually not an unattainable dream."
Despite big opportunities in L.A., Barber returned to finish his senior year in Missoula. He aims to get the UMEM certificate as well as a film degree. But mostly, he says, it's the hands-on work he's doing for Sean Kelly's and Spring Thaw that will give him a leg up if he eventually returns to California.
"People ask you about it," he says. "Instead of saying, 'I studied it,' like you would for most classes, you can say you actually did it. Yeah, I've produced an event. Yes, we threw a party and it was very successful and we got sponsors."
Besides strong student support, Grimmsmann attributes UMEM's relative stability to strong alumni support and a faculty and staff that understands the program's mission. It's all thanks to Douglas, she says. He essentially made it an easy vehicle to steer.
"It's been a long, rough ride," says Grimmsmann. "But we've been pulling together. Between the chair and the dean and myself we've come up with some great changes that will actually move things forward for the next academic year. It's been a trying time, but there's no question the program is going to be okay. Every success, every happy ending comes with the expense and pain of a lot of hard work and heartache."
At the end of this month, Douglas will head to a treatment center in Chicago to further his recovery. As a send-off, a large group of his former and current students of the entertainment program are putting on a "Rock N Rally" concert through their newly founded group, Friends of Scott Douglas. The show features three bands including Darah Fogerty, whom Douglas chose to be the first artist for the program's popular Artist Development class.
Behind the scenes, of course, are dozens of other entertainment students who have been busy booking, promoting and organizing the event—using the skills they learned from Douglas about the important details and, now, finally, getting the chance to return the favor.
The Rock N Rally kicks off Friday, April 15, at the Wilma Theater at 8 PM. $10/$6 advance, available at the Wilma box office, Wordens Market, Rockin Rudy's, The Adams Center, and The Source in the University Center.