Chuck Morris used to open his college lectures with something of a warning: You don’t want to go into the music business.
“What I meant by it is that you’ve got to be willing to mop floors and sell tickets if you want to move up in the industry,” said the former president of AEG Presents Rocky Mountains, the region’s dominant concert promoter. “But if you’ve got the passion for it and you’re willing to work hard, it’s one of the best places you could be.”
Morris, who handed over his job to fellow AEG partners Don Strasburg and Brent Fedrizzi in January, is now chairman emeritus of AEG Presents Rocky Mountains. His new music business program at Colorado State University, announced late last month, will soon give the industry veteran a chance to groom the next generation of not only promoters and managers, but also entertainment lawyers, accountants, publicists and, naturally, artists.
“I’ve had this desire my whole career,” Morris said via phone from his home last week. “When I did everything I thought I could in the music business, I always wanted to have a second career teaching at a Colorado university. I don’t have a Ph.D., but I do have 48 years of experience.”
Several Colorado colleges bid on Morris’ program (he declined to name them) before he accepted CSU’s offer. The College of Music Business at CSU will start small — just one class with about 50 students who signed up to start in September. That’s the number of people interested after only a couple of weeks notice; Morris expects that to grow, potentially necessitating a second class.
The multi-disciplinary syllabus will draw on his network of friends and colleagues, including musicians such as Michael Franti and Lyle Lovett, both of whom have already asked if they can speak to students (he promised other big names but wouldn’t reveal them). The program will start as a one-course elective and could be expanded to a two to three-course certificate program depending on demand, according to the Boulder Daily Camera.
“Within three years, they’ll have a minor, and within five a major,” Morris said. “And I hope the program will build fast because it’s open to anyone, which is something I really wanted.”
As one of the most significant architects of Colorado’s music clout in the late 20th and early 21st centuries — the late Barry Fey, with whom Morris worked extensively, was another — Morris has helped remake the Denver and Boulder music scenes with his dogged promotion and fierce competitiveness.
Most major concerts and music festivals in Colorado flow into and out of AEG Presents these days, but it wasn’t so before Morris began building up Front Range venues such as Tulagi’s, Ebbets Field, Rainbow Music Hall and the Fillmore Auditorium.
Fresh from Queens College, the brash, fast-talking Brooklynite was a preternaturally gifted grad student when he landed in Boulder at age 20. But it wasn’t long before he dropped out of the University of Colorado’s Ph.D. program in political science to begin booking bands at Boulder venue The Sink, where there’s still a prominent caricature of him on the wall from the late ’60s.
From there he moved to Tulagi’s, where a stream of major national artists played their first or most successful Colorado shows under Morris’ booking, including the Eagles, ZZ Top, Bonnie Raitt, JJ Cale and the Doobie Brothers, in addition to countless locals who now populate the Colorado Music Hall of Fame (which Morris also helped start).
While building the folk and rock touring circuit in Colorado, he also managed bands for four decades, including Big Head Todd and the Monsters, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Leo Kottke, before handing off the reins to his protégés. As such, Morris’ music-business courses will visit a mix of topics: booking and promotion, management, financing and music law. Morris plans to kick off each topic with in-classroom appearances and press his connections to land internships and jobs for students.
The classrooms could easily be virtual, given the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Morris said the program has strong online and digital value, so no Plan B will be needed if students can’t assemble in-person later this year.
“We’ve already been doing a ton of work,” Morris said, noting that CSU is close to hiring the program’s first teacher. He has also raised about $700,000 to make the program self-funding, although he declined to name some of the biggest donors.
“I stopped asking for money a couple of months ago,” he said. “It’s not the time to ask people for money. But we are building a nonprofit foundation with some of my friends and industry people to keep raising money for the program.”
Morris has lots of friends these days, including Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz, who created AEG Presents, and former Denver mayor and Colorado governor John Hickenlooper. Morris’ ability to make and aggressively work his connections will come in handy as the live music business faces a murky future after COVID-19.
“Phil has been very supportive of this,” Morris said of Anschutz, who asked Morris to stay on at AEG despite starting a complicated new venture. Morris will continue to work on big-picture projects, he said, but the day-to-day operations at AEG are definitely in Strasburg and Fedrizzi’s hands now.
Morris vowed not to let his 14-year career at AEG — which he joined after leaving Live Nation and called “the best years of my career” — bias the classwork.
“I’m not going to be a rubber stamp for any company or music business in general,” he said. “My job as head of this department is to educate kids on the pluses and minuses of the music business. I’m not doing my job unless these classes are honest about that. I won’t sugarcoat it.”