Grammy Awards: Staples Center GM Lee Zeidman on 14 Years of Hosting Music’s Biggest Night
Since launching in 1959, the Grammy Awards have been held in various locations throughout New York, Los Angeles, Nashville and Chicago.
In 2000, Music’s Biggest Night tested the waters with downtown Los Angeles’ four-month-old Staples Center. And it's called the 20,000-capacity arena home ever since (with the exception of 2003, when the Grammys was hosted by Madison Square Garden in New York).
Staples Center senior VP/GM Lee Zeidman was the first employee hired at the AEG-owned facility. Prior to joining Staples, he had spent 10 years working at Los Angeles’ iconic Forum. Even with hundreds of live events under his belt, Zeidman remembers his first Grammys as a “very stressful” experience.
“I ended up spending the first four nights in the Lakers locker room, because we had never hung that much weight or put up that many points in our ceiling before,” Zeidman recalls. “We designed the building to hold 350,000 pounds, but we have never done it before. So we hired a surveying company to make sure the roof didn’t deflect too much and the steel didn’t drop. Nobody had ever done that big of a Grammy show in a building before.”
Despite his initial concern, the inaugural show went off without a hitch. “I think the only problem we had in 2000 was all the excitement that [Jennifer Lopez’s] dress garnered,” Zeidman says jokingly, referring to Lopez’s exotic green Versace silk chiffon dress.
On Jan. 26, the Staples Center will host its 14th Grammy Awards. Zeidman still believes there’s no better location to hold the annual ceremony, given the many resources within AEG’s L.A. Live entertainment complex, which consists of numerous hotels and restaurants. The four-million-square-foot downtown area also boasts the Nokia Theatre and Club Nokia. Additionally, AEG operates the nearby Los Angeles Convention Center, which houses the Recording Academy's annual official Grammy after-party.
“You don’t need wheels,” says Zeidman, who oversees L.A. Live. “We’ve got two hotels and 22 restaurants that would be more than happy to take meetings, lunches and dinners. They take those during Grammy week. It’s the center of the music universe.”
In the interview below, Zeidman gives Billboard.biz an inside look into what he does on Grammy night, how the deal is set up to keep the Grammys at Staples Center, why he panicked during a U2 Grammy performance in 2009, what the arena does to "trick out" artist dressing rooms backstage, and whether he’s concerned about losing Music’s Biggest Night to the newly renovated LA Forum.
What are you typically doing on Grammy night? Do you get to enjoy the show at all, or are you running all over the place?
I don’t think I ever enjoy myself. It’s gotten easier over the years. But for those three-and-a-half hours, it’s pretty stressful and nerve-racking. It’s a live event and music’s biggest night. It’s one of the highest profile events we do at Staples Center. It’s on par with the Oscars and Golden Globes. There’s a lot of running around and making sure everybody gets what they need. I use the time to make connections with the agents, promoters and mangers, as well as the artists themselves, on why they should route their tours here.
Does Staples Center do anything special for the artists performing at the Grammys?
We trick out the dressing rooms for the artists backstage. It’s tough to do a lot of different things in there, because with so many acts on the bill sometimes you have three or four artists in one dressing room. But we’ll take care of food and beverage for them, find out what their favorite drinks are -- be it alcoholic or non-alcoholic -- and we try to make sure they’re accommodated. We also give them a personalized gift. This year’s it’s going to be JBL headphones and the JBL Flip. So each artist will get a set of JBL headphones and a Flip with the Grammy and Staples Center logo.
Do you attend any Grammy after-parties?
AEG does a big pre and after-party at Staples Center, where we invite 800 to 1,000 people. I’ll typically be one of the hosts for that party. This year we’re focusing on Staples Center and L.A. Live, and why they’re a must-play for artists coming through. I’ll be front and center greeting people during that event. I’ll spend the night at the Ritz-Carlton/JW Marriott, where there will be other functions potentially taking place there. Or I’ll walk over to the Los Angeles Convention Center to see the big NARAS party as well.
How far in advance do you plan for the Grammys? Are you already having discussions about 2015?
We sit down with [the National Academy of Recording Arts and Science (NARAS) and Ken Ehrlich Productions] and hold dates. Because of how busy we are, as it relates to the Lakers, Clippers and Kings, it’s not like we can just carve out 11 days at the drop of a hat. We need to submit our schedules to the leagues in the summertime. So in the summertime we’ll sit down with NARAS, or talk to them during this event, and make sure we’ve held the right amount of dates for them. It’s a year-to-year deal with them.
Explain how the deal is set up for the Grammys to be held Staples Center each year.
It’s a rent-free deal. We’re in partnership with them as it relates to the various costs. Then we go out and sell the suites. As a sweet owner, these are one of the carved-out events you have. We’re actually able to generate revenue from the sale of suites for this event, no different than what we’d do for the NBA or NHL All-Star games. Having 150 suites in the building allows us to go out and put together packages to sell them.
The Grammys moved up about two weeks this year. Did that cause any scheduling complications at Staples Center?
It actually worked out much better for us, because it allowed our teams to spend more time at home in the months of February, March and April, when they want to be here as they gear up for a playoff run.
Do you have any standout memories from hosting the Grammy Awards over so many years?
One thing that caused me the most concern was in 2009, when U2 opened the show. I was standing next to then-producer John Cossette, who passed away a couple years ago. As the show started at around 5 p.m. and U2 took the stage, I noticed LAPD coming into the building. I looked at John and said, “I don’t remember LAPD coming in for the rehearsal, what is this?”
We immediately high-tailed it out of the arena and went to our security command center to ask what was up. [The LAPD] has apparently gotten wind from some Kinkos employees that there were a group of men on a computer counterfeiting Grammy credentials. They took it very seriously and tried to follow the group of men via helicopter. They weren’t sure if the men would try to make their way in. The officers asked if there was a moment during the show when I thought something might happen. Alan Jackson had a song about 9/11 called “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).” I told them, “If anything is going to happen, they may choose to do something during that song.” And during the song, you heard nothing but police radios crackling in the background. I watched as the LAPD looked up in the stand to make sure nothing happened.
Fortunately, nothing took place during that show and we got off without a hitch. We didn’t find the counterfeit credentials. Everyone now and then, though, our security staff comes across counterfeit credentials. We detain those people and turn them over to the LAPD.
Does Staples Center hire extra security during the Grammys?
We do in-house security, as it pertains to inside of the venue. NARAS contracts their own security, as it pertains to the red carpet and walking across to the pre-tel. This year the pre-tel is different. It’s generally held in the Convention Center and this year we’re doing it in the Nokia Theatre. We’ll do the security in the Nokia Theatre as well. We have a tremendous relationship with the LAPD and the L.A. fire department, to where we sit down and meet with them on a regular basis, almost daily now, to talk about any security issues.
Outside of the Grammys, there’s a lot of talk about the newly renovated LA Forum. What are your thoughts on the arena?
I worked at the Forum for 10 years, so I’m very familiar with it. Irving Azoff gave me a walk-through [on Jan. 7]. I think for $100 million they did a phenomenal job. It’s a very artist and industry-friendly facility. It’s one of the competitors to Staples Center. We compete with the Hollywood Bowl, the Honda Center, the Greek Theatre, the Sports Arena and the Galen Center. There’s a tremendous amount of venues in Southern California and this is another one. You may hear the fact that this is great for the industry, because there will be more dates available and multiples, because Staples Center has four franchises playing in it. In the 14 years we’ve been open, we’ve never had an artist who hasn’t been able to route into the building and we’ve never had an artist who wanted to play multiples that couldn’t. In fact, of the 53 shows we did last year, 10 of those artists played multiples. So obviously we don’t believe that is an issue.
Any concern that Staples Center might someday lose the Grammys to the Forum?
Do I think [the Forum] will steal the Grammys? I don’t believe the Grammys would actually fit into the Forum. It’s 330,000 square feet; the Staples Center is 1 million square feet. They use every inch of this building, including outside. I don’t think the footprint is big enough for the Grammys to actually pull it off in [the Forum] and make it run as smoothly as it does here. When I was working at the Forum we did a site survey one year for the Grammys and it was going to be tough for them to move there, because of the lack of space. You need a tremendous amount of dressing rooms and back-of-the-house space for all the sets, carts and band gear. You also need a lot more hospitality and press areas. So it’s a tremendous footprint. And you know what? It fits pretty well in the Staples Center and we’ve got a formula that makes it work very, very well here.