‘Odd couple’ behind amphitheater
Updated 3:52 pm, Saturday, August 12, 2017
BRIDGEPORT — To watch the two men behind the idea to turn the Ballpark at Harbor Yard into the state’s next major music venue brings to mind the 1960s Broadway hit “The Odd Couple.”
Jim Koplik, who knows as much about the live music business as anyone on the planet, is the laid-back purveyor of cool. He’s been promoting bands and booking venues since the late 1960s, and he looks every bit the part.
His partner on the project is Howard Saffan (pronounced “sah-FAHN”), who got his start about as far away from grooveland as one can imagine — owning a Bridgeport factory that fabricated aluminum-frame windows and doors.
In Thursday’s press event at McLevy Green, Koplik, in his black shirt, looked like he just got through playing bass for a Three Dog Night reunion concert. Saffan, meanwhile, was dressed in a very proper blue suit and red tie.
“I was the president of the Webster Bank Arena,” he said. “We’re very close friends — it’s a very exciting development for the city — what do fans want? They want concerts.”
It was Koplik — the regional president of Live Nation — who would book concerts into the Webster Bank Arena, and Saffan, at the time, was president of what’s usually thought of as home ice for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
Today, Saffan owns the Sports Center of Connecticut on River Road in Shelton and has a thriving real estate development business.
“Howard came in to the arena and created all sorts of relationships, turning the arena around to really make it a successful operation,” said longtime Bridgeport City Council President Tom McCarthy. “I attribute a lot of that to Howard and his drive and his ability to create good relationships. I will also say Howard is a strong business man, he’s a very tough negotiator.”
“The genesis of the Harbor Yard Amphitheater started several years ago over lunch at Michael’s in Wallingford where Jim and I would eat often,” Saffan said. “Fortuitously, the (baseball) stadium lease was ending.”
Live Nation is easily the biggest music concert promoter and Music entertainment company in the world, and they were having lunch in Wallingford because it’s near the Oakdale Theatre, one of Live Nation’s many concert venues.
Koplik’s journey to that lunch date was a long one, too.
What’s that sound?
1968 was a pivotal year for Koplik.
A student at Ohio State University, he was deeply involved with the presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who was assassinated on June 5 of that year while campaigning.
It was a year in which everything seemed to be happening at once — the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Apollo 8 orbited the Moon, the Tet Offensive and numerous, often violent protests over the Civil Rights and the Vietnam War. Almost every morning’s paper seemed to bring news of yet another calamity.
“My only other love was music, so after the Robert Kennedy assassination, one of my friends suggested that we become concert promoters,” he said. So, between by sophomore and junior years, I went into the city (New York) and I walk into the William Morris Agency and one of the guys there believed in me, and I became Steppenwolf’s concert promoter — it was a new industry back then.”
After his graduation from Ohio State he entered law school, only to soon leave. “I couldn’t run a business and study for law school at the same time, so I dropped out,” he said. “It was a decision that my parents didn’t quite agree with.”
At the time his company was called Cross Country Concerts. “It wasn’t really ‘cross-country’, but mostly the Northeast,” he said. “And in 1997 I sold it to Live Nation.”
Today, Koplik, 68, as the regional president of for Live Nation, oversees Live Nation’s concerts in Connecticut and upstate New York. It’s easily the biggest concert company today, staging some 26,000 concerts world-wide every year. He lives in Stamford.
“I can’t imagine having a better partner than Jimmy,” Saffan said.
For what it’s worth
Live Nation has annual revenues of $8 billion. It manages 350 major artists and bands and it owns “most every” amphitheater, as well as Ticketmaster.
“Not every concert makes money,” he’s quick to admit. “In a lot of them, we have to take a loss.”
Still, the live performance is the way most artists make a paycheck these days. The music business bears little resemblance to they way it was in the heyday of rock ‘n’ roll, when bands would make most of their money selling vinyl singles and LPs, and later, CDs.
This is where people like Koplik come in.
“The money for the artists comes from concert appearances now,” he said. “Ever since streaming came along, the days in which you used to spend eight bucks for an album or fourteen for a CD were pretty much over.”
So did Koplik ever play in one of those huge bands back in the early 1970s — maybe background percussion for King Crimson?
“No — I have almost no musical talent. I tried the piano as a kid — I was horrible,” he said. “But my musical talent is with my ear — I can usually sense what music people will want to hear, and sense what people will buy tickets to.”
It’s harder than it looks — one person’s Puccini is another’s car alarm.
“It’s like the question I was asked on WPLR the other day — ‘Who is the greatest guitar player ever?’ ” he said. “That’s a little like asking ‘Who is the world’s best dentist.’”
His answer to that question is Carlos Santana. “Although the greatest guitar player ever is generally recognized as Jimi Hendrix,” he said.
So does Koplik ever get to hang out with megastars like Taylor Swift, Rihanna and Daft Punk?
“No,” he said with a laugh. “I’m too old. If I show up backstage these days, they think I’m a narc.”