Almost exactly a year ago, in the midst of a financial debacle, Bob Nocek left his seven-year post as the Carolina Theatre's president and C.E.O. Over his tenure, Nocek had watched the theater transform from an underutilized local concern into one of the Triangle's best venues, but in late 2015, Nocek announced that poor accounting practices had landed the historic 1920s theater in a one-million-dollar hole. He proposed that the City of Durham kick in $600,000 while the Carolina revised its operations to stop the bleeding, but Nocek abruptly resigned. Only a month later, he filed paperwork to start a new company, Bob Nocek Presents, to connect artists and comedians with performance venues. Beginning last June with a Jason Mraz show in Macon, Georgia, Nocek has since put together fifteen more events, including several at Greensboro's Carolina Theatre: names like Patton Oswalt and Paula Poundstone, David Crosby and Aaron Neville, as well as up-and-comers like Aoife O'Donovan. We sat down with the seventeen-year concert-promotion vet and talked about his new venture, the intricacies of concert promotion, and the whole Carolina Theatre debacle.
INDY: You're doing shows all over the Southeast now. Where do the Triangle and North Carolina fit in?
BOB NOCEK: The Triangle is so crowded that it can't be a focus for me. I'm looking for buildings that could use more shows that aren't getting the kind of shows they want. I do feel that a lot of North Carolina is still coming into its own. I look at markets like Greensboro or Wilmington, or even Asheville to some extent, and there's a lot of artists that haven't played those markets. Those are the places where I'm eager to do shows.
My sense is that when a nonprofit hits a financial crisis, someone's head usually rolls.
That comes with being in the top job. If something goes wrong on your watch, whether or not you were the one who actually did the accounting, and I wasn't, it was ultimately my responsibility. This is a difficult business to understand. We're in a business where we're risking large amounts of money, and sometimes you may lose some of that money. But people don't compare it to opening a restaurant, where you may spend two million dollars up front and try to make it back. They think, well, let's just not do shows that lose money and only do shows that win. First of all, nobody knows which ones are gonna work and which ones aren't. I feel like there's been this narrative that's come out of it, that this was all about losing money on shows. I would dare anybody to show me the eight hundred thousand to a million in losses on shows. Yes, we lost money on shows—because I booked things that I never would have booked had I known what our real financial situation was.
You couldn't be blindsided this way now?
I'm doing the books myself, because it's a small enough company. But I'm also starting to think about having to outsource that. I'm probably going to wind up doing close to a million dollars in ticket sales from the first show through a year.
When I took over Carolina Theatre in 2009, they were doing six hundred thousand dollars a year, including their school shows. So I've already blown past what the Carolina Theatre had then, and really I'm just getting started.
In your experience at the Carolina Theatre, do you feel you were made the fall guy?
I think what frustrates me the most is seeing people willing to buy into things that I just know aren't true. The bottom line is we took an organization that was doing six hundred thousand dollars in ticket sales and put them to two and a half million or more. Had we been given accurate books, we could have made the adjustments along the way. I'm not happy about the way things went down, but I still believe we did the best we could with the information we had. And I've moved on to something that's making me a lot happier.
What do you think of what the Carolina is doing now?
There's so much money being poured into it. Dan Berman's foundation—he's putting in three or four hundred thousand dollars, and they got to the city match, which is six hundred thousand dollars. If people had given us any portion of that, we would have been fine too. Most of what they're doing is repeating what I did. And honestly, how invested is an out-of-town company going to be in anything other than making money? I don't think you'll be see things like Brian Wilson and Lauren Hill or other artists that cost over fifty thousand dollars. And we made money on those shows. We weren't losing money on big-ticket artists.
What about concerts like Burt Bacharach in early 2015?
I think Burt probably lost. And Frank Sinatra Jr. We booked those shows because we felt like everything else was paying for it. I didn't book those shows to make money. I booked them because we hoped to break even, because it diversifies the audience. That's what's difficult, when I read stories and see things like that pointed out, as if somehow that was what I thought was the key to the Carolina Theatre's success. No, that was trying to round out what we offer. If their future is a big-money, high-donor, elitist organization with a smaller audience, and they can make that work, then God bless 'em.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Don't Call It a Comeback"
Correction: This article originally stated that Nocek had booked performances at The Carolina Theatre in Durham. He has worked instead with the Carolina Theatre of Greensboro.