He’s got a motto: “The Arts keep us a civilized society.” He’s got a platform: for 36 years, the CEO of one of the most venerated live entertainment venues in America. And he’s got a mission: to detail the key role that Boston and the New England area have played in the evolution of popular music and to enshrine that story within the walls of his theaters. His name is Josiah (Joe) Spaulding, CEO of the Boch Center and one of the most beloved figures in our national arts community.
Joe took the journeyman’s path to his eventual role as a live entertainment impresario. Though a three sport varsity athlete through his high school years, he found time to teach himself guitar and piano. He was in Newport, RI in the summer of 1965, wandered into the Folk Festival there and witnessed Bob Dylan unveiling his plugged in/electric side. But it was his attendance at a solo Tom Rush concert around that time that set a course for Joe. Watching the artistry of one man with one guitar left Joe thinking, “That’s what I want to do.”
Once Joe had entered Bowdoin College in 1970, the guitar was winning the wrestling match between his music and his sports. He stole time from football and hockey but kept active enough in lacrosse to be named a two-time All-American. He formed the Winhall Hollow Band whose lineup included his brothers, cousin and friends. They became regionally popular and by his senior year, Joe had snagged a record deal. Shortly after his graduation he released his first album, Josiah Spaulding.
The next few years were a crash course in the rigors of touring. For all of the highs, there are inevitable lows. But he was learning about the industry and the various roles played by managers, record label executives, booking agencies and venue operators. When topping the Billboard charts began to feel like a bridge too far, Joe decided to wrap up that chapter and begin a new one that would keep him involved with the music he loved. He started his own record label, SAIL RECORDS.
Joe’s vision was that Sail be more than just the record label, that it also would offer its artists management, booking and music publishing. He set out to find great talent, help them hone their skills and build an early fan base on the road then put them in the studio to make recordings of high enough quality to eventually be sold to a major label. He secured a distribution deal with the rapidly expanding Rounder Records and he put the model to work.
Joe took and active interest in a young artist named Robert Ellis Orrall. Orrall achieved mid-level success as a singer/songwriter and today is a successful songwriter and producer in Nashville. Perhaps his biggest score was to sign guitarist and songwriter Peter Green shortly after he left his spot in Fleetwood Mac. Green released the album In The Skies (on green vinyl, no less. An industry first) on the label, an event that taught Joe another lesson about the music business. It goes something like, “given how long it takes for the label to get paid for record sales when you’re waiting for the stores to pay the distributor so the distributor can pay you, the label has to go deep into its own pockets to keep supplying demand for a popular record.” Learning about the challenges that success presents to young labels, Joe again felt it was time to explore other aspect of the business. He sold Sail Records to a division of RCA and stayed on with RCA for a few years of transition. And he plotted his next act.
Through his years of touring and time leading Sail Records, Joe had come to know the New England booking powerhouse, Don Law. In addition to booking national acts into venues around New England, Law had begun managing acts like Livingston Taylor. Don brought Joe in to help with that, beginning a professional and personal relationship that continues to this day. Joe describes Don as one of his mentors. Together they developed a plan to build outdoor entertainment venues and acquire radio stations around the country, bringing those critical complimentary industries “in house.” Joe played a leadership role in the planning, construction and launch of the 20,000 seat venue, Great Woods Center for the Performing Arts (known today as the Xfinity Center) in Mansfield, MA which over time became one of the busiest venues in New England. Joe’s prior experiences had convinced him that in order to be successful, a large venue had to offer a diversity of entertainment, in this case folk, rock, country, classical, dance. To prove the point, the opening performance in the summer of 1986 was Michael Tilson Thomas with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. There were plans on the drawing board for similar amphitheaters in Georgia, Florida and elsewhere.
So just as that vision was becoming a reality, a new door opened for Joe. A recruiter who was representing the Board of a venue in Boston’s Theater district called the Wang Center approached Joe about becoming its next Chief Executive Officer. Built in 1925 and initially named the Metropolitan Theater and then the Music Hall, the Wang (renamed again after a gift from An and Lorraine Wang) was both steeped in history and mired in debt. And the beautiful bones of this historic early 20th century European-style opera house were in need of fortification and grooming. While initially reluctant, given the persistence of the Board and a desire to play a central role in turning things around, Joe accepted the offer in the fall of 1986.
Joe’s presence was quickly felt. While respecting the venue’s emphasis on opera and ballet, Joe again implemented a program of diversity. He brought in rock and other musical acts, Broadway shows and modern dance troops. At Great Woods, Joe had created community outreach programs with Wheaton College and other institutions. Continuing to insist that “Arts matter,” Joe established a nonprofit arts education initiative that today includes the City Spotlights Leadership Program, Teen Council, Target Arts, Interactive Readings Stories Alive, and Ticket Access. He and his team were early to adopt next generation technologies into the theater’s operations, for instance by becoming one of the first partners with Ticketmaster, allowing the convenience of online ticket purchasing. In 1996, the Shubert theater was added to the family and following a gift from the Boch family, the combined entity is today known as the Boch Center. Joe and his team returned the theaters to both financial and artistic solvency.
The covid-related health measures that more recently impacted many businesses hit the live entertainment industry squarely in the solar plexus. On March 20, 2020 the Wang and Shubert Theaters had to close down. Joe became a vocal advocate for support of the arts at the national level and instituted a number of innovative programs at the Wang that kept music and the performing arts in people’s lives. Joe created “The Ghost Light Series” that featured artists like Tom Rush, Noel Paul Stookey, Jonathan Edwards, Chris Smither and others performing acoustically – no microphones, no amplification – into an empty Wang Theater. The series was picked up by an NBC affiliate and broadcast around New England.
As international acts now come back into the theaters, Joe has a final act of his own. Shortly before the pandemic Joe launched a new initiative, the creation of “The Folk Americana Roots Music Hall of Fame” (FARHOF). To be housed in the Wang Theatre, the Hall of Fame celebrates the history of Folk, Americana and Roots music through displays, memorabilia, artifacts, multimedia, lectures and concerts. As much as any city in the country, Boston has been the musical birthplace for the styles and artists we celebrate, making it a fitting home.
As a capstone to a career of more than 50 years that has involved every aspect of making and presenting music to the world, Joe describes the vision for FARHOF like this. “There are living artists today who have penned the songs that will forever be staples in the songbook that defines the last century. They will be remembered a century from now. This is to be their Hall of Fame, and we will bring them to Boston to perform in it. There are artists past whose songs will forever be in that same songbook. This is to be their Hall of Fame also, and we will celebrate them in it. And there are the music lovers who provide the oxygen these artists breathe, and this is to be their Hall of Fame. We will entertain and thank them in it.”
It seems a fitting way to apply his passionate mantra, “The Arts keep us a civilized society.”
(by Chuck McDermott)