Summer 2019 - Features

Live at the Garden

Nicole Klein

NO ONE TOLD NICOLE KLEIN ’05 how much negotiating there would be. The everyday give-and-take over booking contracts, artist lineups and compensation is a skill mastered after more than a decade in the entertainment industry. The only person she never compromised with? Herself. She knew what she wanted to do since day one — the next step was figuring out how to get there.

Like many high school students, the Hoover, Ala. native chafed at her college options — Auburn, or that school in Tuscaloosa — and made her own third choice: Georgia. But for the daughter of a Georgia Tech dad and an Auburn mother, her tour of Athens felt anything but personal. Things were different on her tour of Auburn. Wearing a Third Eye Blind T-shirt was a spontaneous decision at the time, but would have a pivotal impact on the rest of her life.

“My tour guide instantly picked up on it and said ‘there’s actually an organization on campus that brings bands to Auburn called UPC, you should definitely get involved with them,’” said Klein from her office in New York City. “Now I know that every college has that, but he picked up on it.”

The University Program Council (UPC) gave her a crash-course in negotiating: which acts to book, what they would be compensated, what ticket prices would be and more.

“That’s not something you’re really exposed to until you get into the real world,” said Klein.

Years later, while working with students to book her artists for their own shows, she understood not only what they needed, but also what was expected of them.

“I could be a little kinder than a lot of other booking agents, because I was in their shoes once.”

Another, less-visible challenge was managing students’ expectations of what UPC should, or could, bring to campus. To the uninitiated, booking groups like OAR and the Dave Matthews Band seemed as easy as picking up the phone. For Klein, it meant looking for bands that were already traveling through the area, then negotiating for them to make an “unnatural stop” in Auburn.

Nicole Klein in NYC

One year, she helped bring Sugar Ray to the Coliseum, then Three Doors Down and the Nappy Roots together the next year. Those who liked Sugar Ray didn’t want Three Doors Down, the Nappy Roots fans didn’t want Three Doors Down and the people who like Three Doors Down didn’t like Sugar Ray or
the Nappy Roots. Tired of explaining, she turned her dilemma into a presentation for her public speaking class.

“We had to explain ‘how to do something’ and I explained how to book a band at Auburn University, just to try and beat this into my fellow students’ heads that this is not just plucking a band out of the air and setting up a stage. There’s so much more that goes into it.”

Klein was named director of major entertainment her senior year and put fully in charge of signing the acts. That year, UPC booked their biggest concert of Klein’s time at Auburn: Switchfoot, Ingram Hill and Five Star Iris. Riding the wave of their enormous rock-radio hit “Meant To Live,” in Switchfoot Klein had finally found a band that everyone agreed on. Students camped out in line for tickets. The Coliseum was sold out. Even her parents drove down to attend.

“Instead of a band that was up-and-coming, or a band that was on the decline — which is normally how we could secure artists — [Switchfoot] was peaking right at that moment. It felt like a real concert, for lack of a better way to say it. It felt like we really did something amazing.”

While the Switchfoot concert was the biggest event of her UPC career, it was another, smaller concert that would impact her career the most. To placate some of UPC’s more vocal, anti-mainstream critics, Klein booked jazz-rock group Littlehorse to play on the concourse during the 2005 Hey Day. None of those critics attended, after all, but while talking to Littlehorse singer Joachim Horsley about work in the music industry, he told Klein to contact a friend of his who worked at Virgin Records.

That person recommended her for an internship with Blue Note Records, a fellow subsidiary of Virgin EMI Records. At Blue Note, her biggest responsibility was hot-gluing press clippings into a binder, but it was a foot in the proverbial door.

“You knew you were busting your butt to do something greater later on,” Klein said.

Touring Auburn, Sugar Ray, Three Doors Down, Nappy Roots, Switchfoot, Ingram Hill, Five Star Iris, Littlehorse

KLEIN WAS SO CONCERNED about losing opportunities to grads with music business majors or better connections that when she came back to Auburn, she worked twice as hard to graduate a semester early. Leaving Auburn with a degree in public relations and marketing in December 2005, she returned to New York the following February to beat them to the punch.

In New York, she waited tables for rent money and interviewed for jobs whenever she could. Like many alumni alone in the big city, the New York Auburn Club became a home-away-from-home, helping her make new friends and stay connected.

In February 2006, a Blue Note connection recommended her for a job as a booking agent with Artist Group International (AGI), one of the world’s premiere artist booking agencies. 

“That was a position I was familiar with, I just wasn’t sure if I wanted to go into the live entertainment route. But now, live entertainment is the most lucrative of all the facets of the music industry, so it ended up being a very wise move that I couldn’t have foreseen at the time.”

Her boss, senior AGI agent Peter Pappalardo, said he knew after their first interview that Klein would be a great asset to the agency.

“I basically hired Nicole to work for me when she was right out of college,” said Pappalardo. “Even fresh out of college, she presented herself as experienced beyond her years. She was a natural leader.” 

I AU NY; Like many alumni alone in the big city, the New York Auburn Club became a home-away-from-home, helping her make new friends and stay connected.

Klein began as an assistant to Pappalardo, managing the day-to-day bookkeeping, building tour itineraries, confirming venue addresses and learning how to wrangle vastly different personalities. Once, Pappalardo created a national comedy tour featuring comedians like Bob Saget, Jim Breuer, Amy Schumer and Dave Attell, with Klein as the all-in-one manager, agent and talent-wrangler. For Klein, still in her mid-20s, being the boss of famous or soon-to-be-famous comedians was a surreal experience. For Pappalardo, it was confirmation that Klein could handle bigger challenges.

After four years, she was given free rein to sign her own acts, commanding a wide network of industry “insiders” — venue promoters, band managers, record labels — to discover new groups around the country. But “discovering” the band is only the first step — finding which groups they could be paired with, estimating their ticket-selling potential and getting them in front of the right audience became the most critical aspects of her job.

One of the first groups Klein signed was the Vegabonds out of Auburn, Ala. Talented but trapped in the college-venue circuit, Vegabonds bassist Paul Bruens ’09 credits Klein with giving the band the break that they needed.

“She pulled us out of the whole Alabama scene and literally started legitimizing the band,” Bruens said. “She really cared about us — she even played manager for a while, because we didn’t have a manager. She went above and beyond what you could do.”

Bruens said while bands in major markets have more exposure to industry connections, many from southern states do not, making it hard for groups like the Vegabonds to reach a wider audience. That Klein was from Alabama, went to Auburn and understood their situation was what separated AGI from the other agencies attempting to sign them. 

Klein brought them up to New York City for their first industry ‘showcase,’ even stalling the show for time when their van suffered not one, but two flat tires on the drive up. Days later, they were touring with Lynyrd Skynyrd, playing the Peach Music Festival and gigging at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. Nearly five years later, several world tours and four studio albums — including 2019’s “V” — the Vegabonds are living their dreams.

When Klein announced she was leaving AGI for Madison Square Garden, the group decided to leave AGI rather than sign with a different agent. “When we were with [AGI], it was all through her. I could call her anytime of the day, even if it was at night. She learned from the best — it’s no wonder that she got the job where she’s at now,” said Bruens.

AFTER NINE YEARS WITH AGI, Klein had reached a ceiling. Unless she signed an already famous artist, or discovered a soon-to-be-famous one, she could go no further. Her thoughts turned back to her marketing degree and how she could apply it more.

Through her AGI connections, she knew there was an opening for director of family entertainment and performing arts at Madison Square Garden. Pappalardo, sensing the move, actually called MSG to recommend her for the job.

“Working with her for close to 10 years, it was a pleasure to watch her grow professionally,” said Pappalardo. “I was sad to see her leave AGI, but understood she was ready for the next challenge.”

The next challenge was actually not one, but seven: the Madison Square Garden Arena, the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall, the Beacon Theatre, the Chicago Theatre in Chicago, the Forum in Los Angeles and the Wang Theatre in Boston — the “crown jewels” of The Madison Square Garden Company (MSG). After working with the biggest artists in the world, going to a smaller venue or business would have felt like a step backward, she said.

In her new role, Klein was responsible for scheduling family-friendly events for the venues, then overseeing the marketing and sales strategies for each. The most important factor for each is the size of the show (and how many tickets it will sell) but whereas her previous job was focused on day-to-day details, this new role was entirely about the bigger picture. A typical week might include a Billy Joel concert, games for the New York Knicks and Rangers, a UFC fight event, all-access arena tours and more.

“There’s no set schedule, there’s no set tasks every day, it’s constantly evolving based on what’s happening in the venues tonight or what’s on sale next week,” said Klein. “It’s a different experience every morning, which I love.”

One of the biggest challenges for Klein was learning how to actually release tickets for sale. Instead of just “pushing a button” and the show would appear on Ticketmaster, Klein had to learn how to code a computer program for their website.

In September 2018, Klein was promoted to her current role as director of MSG Live for the Madison Square Garden Company, overseeing the family entertainment and performing arts programming for all venues. After working in so many fields and rising to meet the scope of MSG’s enormous challenges, Senior Vice President of MSG Live Josephine Vaccarello said Klein was a natural fit.

“I think that one of Nicole’s biggest strengths is that she truly embraces every challenge and helps to find a way to move things forward,” said Vaccarello. “She approaches tasks from all angles, and gives each project everything that she can – and then, jumps right into the next project!”

As Klein’s superior, Vaccarello watched firsthand how she embraced learning all the details of the job, growing into the position and helping propel the company forward. Unlike her time with UPC, every show has a different target demographic, and Klein is responsible for finding how to promote each one according to its market.

But MSG’s event calendar isn’t the only thing Klein is leading, either. Around the same time she left AGI, she was elected president of the New York Auburn Club, taking on even more administrative and communication duties.

Under Klein, the club became significantly more active. Besides football game-watch parties that drew hundreds of guests, it also offered increased diversity-themed events, a sign language class, even a ‘volunteer day’ where the club cleaned, then rode the Highbridge Park Mountain Bike Trail. In the fall of 2018, Klein helped coordinate a Freshman Send-Off inside the One World Trade Center for 17 first-generation Auburn students.

Sometimes, her two roles overlap, like in 2016 when the Auburn men’s basketball team played Boston College in MSG for the Under Armour Reunion tournament. Knowing well in advance about the game before it was publicly announced, Klein pulled an entire section of seats off the market — behind the visitor’s bench, directly in front of TV cameras — so that Auburn club members could all sit together.

At the annual Club Leadership Conference in February 2019, the Freshman Send-Off was named “Club Event of the Year.” At the same conference, for helping to raise the profile of both her own club and other clubs around the country, Klein was the recipient of the “Club President of the Year” award.

“It’s been wonderful to give everybody this home away from home, because it can definitely be hard and it’s easy to be disconnected,” she said of the award. “I haven’t been to a football game in Jordan-Hare since I graduated, so it’s nice to know there’s somewhere where you can go and find a little piece of home.”

AS THE SUMMER TOUR SEASON BEGINS, Klein is already looking ahead to next year — game-watch parties to plan, concerts to book, events too distant to divulge yet. But she still remembers the drive that brought her here, how she wouldn’t compromise on her vision, even as a student.

“Long story short, even though there’s not a music business program, Auburn is literally how I forged my path into the music industry.”