'Montana Mafia' makes its mark with big names and bigger plans
By Sherry Jones
WHO’S THE BETTER DRUMMER?
Brian Knaff, president of Talent Buyers Network and a UM alum, stands next to fellow drummer Ringo Starr of The Beatles. The picture was taken during the Ringo Starr and His Allstar Band Tour of ’05 (left). James Yelich, an agent with Paradigm and UM alum, poses to the right of country music superstar Alan Jackson, whom Yelich helped “discover” (right).
Ask James Yelich about being a big shot on the national entertainment scene,
and he’ll tell you how 150 superstar agents once gave him a standing
ovation for introducing himself as a guy from Red Lodge, Montana.
It’s not the only time being a Montanan has paid off for Yelich, an
agent with Paradigm in Nashville, Tenn. While studying at UM in the late 1970s
and early ’80s, Yelich helped a roommate promote concerts for Associated
Students of UM Programming (now UM Productions). Initially planning to work for
the U.S. Forest Service, Yelich found himself dealing with a completely
different species of wildlife within a year of graduation.
Merle Haggard. Waylon Jennings. Reba McEntire. Trisha Yearwood. The Bellamy
Brothers. Yelich has worked with them and many more since he graduated in
“I always loved music, and I always had an ear for a great
song,” he says. Those traits helped him “discover” country
musician Alan Jackson and made him a Haggard fan before he ever worked with the
“I have more stories on that guy,” he says of Haggard. “We
would laugh every day he was in the office. He was probably the one who
entertained me the most. Crazy stuff.”
Just as beneficial to Yelich’s career, however, are fellow UM
graduates and members of the so-called “Montana Mafia” Brian Knaff
from Glasgow, president of Talent Buyers Network, and Keith Miller from
Kalispell, senior vice-president at the William Morris Agency in Nashville.
“We all talk,” Yelich says. “We have a very ethical way of
doing business with each other in a very crazy business. All of us that grew up
there have that core Montanan through us. We’re very proud of where
“It’s a very close-knit family. I’m proud to say I’m
from Montana,” agrees Rob Beckham, an agent for sixteen years with the
William Morris Agency in Nashville. “It’s a very cool and very
distinguished and very successful group of people.”
Not only has he worked with Yelich in the past, Beckham says, but he now
works alongside Miller at William Morris, where he has represented such big
names as Clint Black, Rascal Flatts, and Garth Brooks, and for whom he
“discovered” country music star Brad Paisley.
Left: Rob Beckham, an agent with the William Morris Agency (far right) stands with associates and country music star Brad Paisley, (center). Below: Rob Beckham (second from left) with (left to right) Joe Don Rooney, Jay DeMarcus, and Gary LeVox of Rascal Flatts.
The job has its perks. “I get to fly in private planes,” he
says. “The Grammies were the best time.”
But there’s plenty of fun to go around, and Beckham says he’s
more than happy to share. Over the years, he estimates, a half-dozen or so UM
grads have landed jobs at William Morris. “I’m happy to help other
people,” Beckham says. “Nobody does this by themselves.”
That spirit of altruism was behind the 2001 creation of UM’s
Entertainment Management Program, featuring guest instructors from various
walks of show business who share revealing tricks of the trade.
“What are we doing this for? For the students,” says Knaff,
self-proclaimed “godfather” of the “Montana Mafia” and
the brainchild behind the program. As founder and president of the Las
Vegas-based Talent Buyers Network, Knaff books shows for casinos, theaters, and
other venues. He got his start in Missoula as manager of his own rock band.
Then, after graduating from the UM School of Business Administration in 1967,
Knaff moved to San Francisco, where he put on concerts in Golden Gate Park and
the famous Avalon Ballroom. Since then, he’s worked with the likes of
Dolly Parton, Ringo Starr, and Chris Rock, and starmakers such as producer Bill
Graham—which is the real thrill for him, he says. As owner of his own
company and as an instructor of entertainment management classes, he says he
has helped a number of UM grads and undergrads gain purchase in what can be a
very slippery industry.
“ASUM pretty much meant everything because it gave me all the skills I
needed to do this as a profession,” Beckham says. Funded by students, the
organization allowed an autonomy unique on college campuses: ASUM’s
members did not have to report to the University administration or a board, but
they and their director were entirely self-sufficient.
Knaff, of course, didn’t learn his trade in the classroom. Nor did the
other “Montana Mafia” members. “What we had was ASUM
(Programming),” he says.
“We had the air space and the latitude to go out and experiment with a
lot of different things, big concerts, buying a new sound system,” says
Mike “The Goon” McGinley ’75 from Deer Lodge, who has
designed financial management systems for a veritable “Who’s
Who” in show business, including Sting, Paul McCartney, the Rolling
Stones, and Sheryl Crow. “It was a very, very cutting-edge kind of
program for a place like UM in the 1970s. So we could experience as students a
world most of us would have never had the chance to experience.”
Elton John, who performed in concert at UM‘s Adams Center last September and this April, came to the University through the help of alum Mike “The Goon” McGinley, who serves as a consultant with UM.
ASUM’s learn-by-doing approach not only offered the sweet taste of
success to students who put on shows, but it also provided valuable lessons in
failure—such as a Smokey Robinson concert in the late 1980s that lost the
student organization “tens of thousands of dollars,” says Tom
Webster, director of the University Theatre and an instructor in the
Entertainment Management Program. He’s also the only
“Mafioso” to have remained in Missoula.
“I’m sure I could have gone to a lot of places and done well in
the music business,” says Webster, “But I wanted to stay in
Missoula—and, by God, I created a career for myself here, and I’ve
always been thankful.”
He knows all the others in the group, including Clint Mitchell, a senior
vice-president at William Morris who asked that Webster share his story. He and
Webster, it turns out, went to high school together, and still play golf
whenever Mitchell visits Missoula from his home in Los Angeles. Mitchell
represents Bernadette Peters, Riverdance, Rob Becker’s Defending the
Caveman, Reefer Madness! and other acts.
Defending the Caveman, Reefer Madness!, Sting, the Rolling Stones, Brad
Paisley: If these names sound familiar, perhaps it’s because
they’ve all played in Missoula in recent years. That’s no
coincidence, Webster says.
“It’s really been a great asset to have all these people (from
UM in various sectors of the entertainment industry),” Webster says.
“I think our connections in the business really helped us out.”
It certainly helped where the Brad Paisley concert was concerned, Beckham
says, “Had I not been from Missoula and asked a favor, that show would
probably have never happened.”
The 2006 Rolling Stones concert offers another example of how those UM
contacts benefit Montana. Bill Graham Presents—now Live
Nation—approached Webster about putting on a Stones concert in Missoula
and, although the promoter had worked with UM many times before and “knew
we were very competent,” Webster says, its representatives negotiated
aggressively from the start.
“Scott Douglas (director of the Entertainment Management Program)
said, ‘If you’re over your head, go for the cavalry,’”
Webster recalls. So he and UM Productions director Marlene Hendrickson called
Mike “The Goon” McGinley.
“The Goon gave us some great advice, and we went from there,”
Webster says. He considers the sellout Washington-Grizzly Stadium show one of
the high points in his career—and the Stones apparently agree, because
“the scuttlebutt was that they thought Missoula was the best date on the
tour that they did.”
because it’s a
and it makes
McGinley shrugs off the notion that he’s doing anything extraordinary
by helping to bring his acts to Missoula. UM contracts with McGinley as a
consultant to bring concerts like Elton John here.
“They come because it’s a good place to play, and it makes good
economic sense,” he says, “or I wouldn’t make the
Call it old-fashioned ethics. Call it the Montana way of doing business. In
contrast to its criminal counterpart, the “Montana Mafia” has no
hit men, only hit producers. On the other hand, choirboys they’re
not—not during their UM years, at least.
“There could still be ‘Wanted’ posters for half of
us,” Knaff says with a grin in his voice. “We were wild children
Entertainment Management at UM:
Networking, networking, networking
Above: Tom Webster, the only member of the “Montana Mafia” to stay in Montana, is an entertainment management instructor and director of UM’s University Theatre.
Find an industry you love so much, you’ll think it’s a
So reads a sign in UM’s Gallagher Business Building advertising the
Entertainment Management Program, a series of classes designed to help students
navigate the mysterious world of celebrity agents, accountants, managers,
promoters, and publicists.
“There’s not just the concert industry out there; it’s
entertainment industry,” says UM alum Brian Knaff, founder of the program
and president of the Talent Buyers Network in Las Vegas, where he finds and
schedules entertainment for casinos, theaters, and other venues. “Whether
it’s fairs, festivals, special events, hotels, weddings—whatever it
is, this is the class you want to have.”
Apparently, a lot of people agree with him, and the number is growing. The
program began with a single class in 2001. In the 2008-09 academic year,
program director Scott Douglas says, four classes are offered, and, if trends
continue, they will all fill up.
“It’s a good problem,” Douglas says. “There are more
people that want to come here and share in this experience than we have class
One of the appeals of the program, Douglas says, is the visiting
instructors. UM alumni working on the national entertainment scene regularly
appear in the classroom to share what they’ve learned in showbiz. But
that’s not all: Douglas, a study in self-confidence, recruits visitors
from the highest echelons of the industry. With a sly grin, he tells of calling
one of the world’s most famous film directors with an invitation to
teach. From the pride lifting his voice, you’d think he was doing the
stars a favor, and not the other way around.
“We half-jokingly say that Scott’s out for world
dominion,” says Tom Webster, an entertainment management instructor and
director of UM’s University Theatre.
“There’s nobody that’s out of the question,” Douglas
says. “We have created the reputation and the brand that allows us to
reach out to anybody in the entire world.”
As long as they fit the budget, that is: expenses covered, but zero pay.
Although housed in the business school, the Entertainment Management Program
strives for self-sufficiency, funding itself via concerts and other events that
students plan and produce.
“This is the most in-demand class at the University right now, by
far,” Knaff says. One reason, instructors say: The subject matter is so
compelling, it hardly feels like learning at all.
“The really fantastic thing about this whole course is, we’re
doing it with students where they relate and want to learn,” Knaff says.
“We’re speaking the language of the entertainment business, which
is what they’re most interested in.”
And the entertainment industry is speaking back—with kudos. Pollstar
Magazine, which Webster called “the Bible of the touring industry,”
lauded UM’s program as “the place to be.” The publicity has
done wonders for the program. Recently, Douglas says, the CEO of Sony
Entertainment called to ask if there was any room in the teaching schedule for
The program gives students a chance to meet and mingle with established
professionals in the entertainment business. Jeff Ament of the rock band Pearl
Jam has taught; so has Huey Lewis; Rock Scully, former manager for the Grateful
Dead; and Stuart Evey, founder of ESPN. In 2007-08 alone, seventy-five visiting
instructors spoke to entertainment management classes, Douglas says.
All those names make for quite a Rolodex. And contacts can be invaluable for
students serious about landing a job in show business.
“It’s networking,” says James Yelich, a UM alumnus, guest
instructor, and talent agent. “The students learn a lot about what they
think they would be interested in, but it’s all about meeting us, and us
helping them to get jobs.”
Former Missoulian reporter Sherry Jones is an author and freelance journalist living in Spokane, Wash. Her first novel, The Jewel of Medina, about the youngest wife of the Prophet Muhammad, is scheduled for publication in spring/summer 2009.