Saturday, May 12, 2012

Jon Rinaldo & Joker Productions

Jon Rinaldo

Born in Syracuse, Jon Rinaldo's family moved to Squirrel Hill in late 1977, and a few years later he attended Allderdice High. In 1985, the Rinaldos moved once again, to Mt. Lebanon and a new high school for Jon. How does a kid get himself noticed in a new school? Easy enough - find some classmates with an ear and join a band. Jon became the lead singer for a new wave group - think Depeche Mode - called the "Wallflowers" (Jakob Dylan, you're welcome).

Beside Rinaldo, the band consisted of Joe Matzzie (Guitar), John Trivelli (Keyboards, Drum Machine), Jim Nix (Keyboards), Ric Nix (Bass) and Glen Fisher (Drums). They did a handful of live gigs and cut a demo. It was just a four song tape, consisting of the tracks "Walls," "Flowers," "This Time," and "Let The Snow Fall." They recorded their tunes at Heart Sound Studios and had the tracks remastered at Air Craft Studios, both of which are now gone.

Then the Wallflowers went their separate ways to school. Rinaldo took his studies to New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire. But unknown to the band at the time, a friend had sent the demo to NYC for the "Snickers New Music Search," a sort of radio-based American Idol program of the era sponsored by a group called Campus Voice.

Pushing the tracks "Walls" and "Flowers," (kinda copacetic, considering that the band was the Wallflowers) the radio voters pushed the group through the quarterfinals, then to the semis, and eventually the band ended up runner-up in the contest after the final tally. Not too shabby, considering there were originally 10,000 participants.

After a couple of A&R guys called following their Big Apple success story (including reps from Elektra, Virgin and A&M), Rinaldo moved back to Pittsburgh. The band reunited briefly in 1988 before breaking up for good when the brass ring eluded their grasp. He eventually graduated from Pitt in 1993 with a BA in Art History, and got his first taste of the industry as a college DJ and promotions director at UP radio station WPTS-FM.

He and a bud chose Graffiti as their college hangout. The room was a break-out venue that furnished a stage for bands like Hector in Paris and The Affordable Floors while providing a mid-sized club venue for local promoters such as Mike Elko, Jack Tumpson of Next Big Thing and PJ McArdle. Rinaldo though he could do that promoting thing, too.

Tony DiNardo, who owned the club, wasn't so sure. He wasn't very receptive to Rinaldo's request to let him book an act or two for Graffiti. Rinaldo kept banging the drum and finally wore down DiNardo for some dates. He worked the phone hard to bring in a couple of bands; his first show featured Peter Case of The Plimsouls.

That was the genesis of Joker Productions, formed in 1989. One of Rinaldo's friends was watching "Batman" and thought Joker would be a good name, not particularly because of the character but because it started with a J and ended with an R, the initials of Jon Rinaldo. His first logo became a dancing joker from a deck of cards before morphing into its familiar black and white trademark.

Over time, Rinaldo went from booking seven shows during his first year to well over 200 annually. He did it the old fashioned way, through countless phone calls, miles of pavement pounding, and building personal relationships with the artists and their managers. Rinaldo also forged working ties with the local print and radio media, a necessity in the days before web-based promotion and distribution were options.

It wasn't easy. He only booked two national acts that first year, and managed to burn through the $10,000 his grandma had fronted him, rarely netting more than a C-Note or two per show. It took him a couple of years to finally break out to the point where he didn't need a day gig.

But Rinaldo eventually turned Joker Productions into a Pittsburgh contender, working the local radar beneath the DiCesare-Engler/SFX juggernaut at the club level. He brought the Goo Goo Dolls, 311, The Toasters, Michelle Shocked and other national acts to Graffiti, and served as the club promoter/producer from 1994-96. He also picked up a rep as the "ska king" because of the brand of bands he brought into town.

Things were beginning to bottom out in 1996. His business relationship with DiNardo was unraveling as he began to expand to stages other than Graffiti, and the ska wave had crested. Rinaldo needed something different.

After talking to hall owner Ron Levick, the someplace different popped up: Club Laga in Oakland. The pair hit it off from the start. Rinaldo said "We were the same age and had the same vision." As for genres, he began to book a mix of emerging and indy college acts, mostly national with some local performers sprinkled among them.

Joker Productions left Graffiti ("tossed out," as Rinaldo recalls) to book at Club Laga in 1997. Acts such as Macy Gray, Wu Tang Clan, Blink 182, Maroon 5, The Roots, Dashboard Confessional, Smashmouth, My Chemical Romance, Taking Back Sunday, George Clinton, Less Than Jake, Death Cab For Cutie, and Chevelle performed at the club. It became one of the city's big time all-age stops on the indy circuit.

That groove at Lago ended when Levick, without much warning, told Rinaldo in 2004 that he was selling the building. The clubs it housed were creating messy situations with both the police and his insurance people, playing heavily into Levick's decision. The emphasis on all-age cards also figured into the equation. Over-21 shows and their beer sales were any rock club's biggest profit center, and the house couldn't fully tap into that make-or-break revenue stream.

So Rinaldo bought the defunct Rosebud in the Strip and renamed it The World, after the old New York City club. The World was Rinaldo's stage for a year before the promoter pulled the plug; the story in the Strip then was more centered on the late-night violence rather than the music. But he had other irons in the fire.

Club Café became the Joker hall from 2003-07. He brought in 1,300 acts during that time, booking both national and local performers. Rinaldo also was the prime mover for "Club Café - The Next Stage In Music" TV showcase. The series ran from 2005-06 on UPN-TV and Comcast On Demand.

It wasn't, of course, his only house. He regularly placed acts at the Upstage, 31st Street Pub, Diesel, Thunderbird Cafe and Ches Arena.

He brought in shows for other venues, too. In 2009, Joker Productions booked outdoor concerts at the Riverplex Amphitheater featuring Neko Case, All Time Low and Gov't Mule. That year, he also promoted a sold out concert with Morrissey at the Carnegie Music Hall, the first Pittsburgh performance by the singer since his days as the frontman for The Smiths in the eighties.

Rinaldo also booked groups at Metropol, the Byham Theater and Benedum Center. He figures he put together about 6,000 shows during Joker's 22-year lifespan, igniting quite a bang for the city scene. Rinaldo was selected as one of "Pittsburgh's Top Fifty Cultural Brokers" from 2001-04 by the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, and in 2003 ranked as one of the Top 50 Nationwide Concert Promoters (Overall Sales) by industry bible Pollstar Magazine.

For a club promoter, Rinaldo got noticed. From 2000-2010, at least one of Joker's acts made the Post Gazette's "Concerts of the Year" list. Three performers (The Avett Brothers, Macy Gray and the Donnas) cracked the top five, while Erykah Badu was ranked as the top show in 2003. It's not an easy task to consistently lure hot acts when you're going tête-à-tête against arena and amphitheater cards, but Joker and Rinaldo pulled it off.

In spite of his success, in June 2011, Rinaldo and Joker Productions closed down shop.

The game had changed over the past two decades, explained the promoter. "Bands still wanted to play," Rinaldo said, "but now there are no ties. It used to be that bands rarely left their local promoters. Now whoever writes the biggest check gets the acts." He even got into the bidding wars, trying to lure acts away from their traditional Pittsburgh backers.

The new paradigm hurt him a couple of ways. First, it obviously cut down on the promoter's share of the concert take. But he was also hampered as a solo operator, not having the deep pocketed sponsorship support or outside investors of some other promoters who could spread out the financial risks.

The market was static and also becoming more segmented, with more promoters and venues hustling for a slice of the pie. So pocketbook issues were a big factor. As he told Scott Mervis of the Post-Gazette "I was bleeding to death."

And the kicker - well, hey and congrats, Jon. He and his bride Tanya are proud parents of a pair of one-year old boys, Nicholas and Alexander. Now Rinaldo's life is boisterous enough baby-sitting his own clan without grinding 24/7 as part of the industry rat race.

He's looking to segue into a steady day gig. It's an on-time transition for Jon, who's now 43 and been in the promotion biz since his late teens. And Rinaldo can rest easy on his laurels, knowing that Joker Productions and its run at Graffiti, Club Laga, Club Café and other city venues wrote a lasting chapter in Pittsburgh music history.

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