Facing financial disaster after disastrous ticket sales, desperate times had called for desperate measures during Greek superstar Anna Vissi’s 2002 Australian tour, so promoter Michael Chugg called in his ‘Mr Fix-it’.
That included high-pressure tactics to force Vissi to agree to a drastic $200,000 reduction in her guaranteed fee, the ABC’s Background Briefing radio program has revealed.
Greek-Australian investigative reporter Mario Christodoulou delves into the brief collaboration between Australian music industry legend, Chugg and others, including promoter Aresh ‘AJ’ Maddah with American financier Jack Utsick, now serving an 18-year jail term over his role in a Ponzi scheme.
Utsick spoke with Christodoulou by phone from his cell and provided Christodoulou with documents which chronicle his Australian music industry partners as the Ponzi scheme wreaked havoc.
Unaware Utsick’s money was generated by fraud, his Australian partners continued to pitch acts for local tours, including some spectacular flops – Vissi’s tour among them.
Promoter Constantine Nellis convinced his mentor and long-time employer Chugg to take a chance on Vissi.
Chugg took the idea to Utsick, hyping Vissi as the ‘Greek Madonna’ with the promise she’d be a hit in the Australian market.
“Every Greek would come to see her because they all loved her. She was the biggest star in Greece and she would have a tremendous following in Australia,” Utsick told Background Briefing.
But it all went horribly wrong. With only half the seats for Vissi’s Sydney tour date sold and two thirds of seats at Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena empty Utsick and Chugg were facing a loss of more than a million dollars.
Among the documents supplied to the ABC is an urgent fax to Utsick in which Chugg labelled the concert a “Greek Tragedy” and reported deploying a “fixer”, fellow promoter Maddah, with whom he flew to Melbourne on a mission to cut costs.
To start, the pair renegotiated venue hire agreements and lighting costs and axed “unnecessary staff and hangers on” but reducing Vissi’s guaranteed fee was also necessary.
Maddah, who wasted no time delivering Vissi an ultimatum.
“AJ negotiated a further $200,000 off the artist’s fee by explaining that he was there to cut costs and it would either come via a break in the guaranteed fee or by […] filling the spare seats full of homeless people to boo her after every song,” Chugg added in his dispatch.
Christodoulou also spoke to Maddah who remembers and confirmed the tactics used.
“I actually did that, thankfully they didn’t question how I was going to round up all those homeless people in a matter of 24 hours,” he said.
“That was a very unique case and it’s not something that’s ever been repeated or done before that or done after.
“It was more of a jest thing.”
With the cost-cutting mission complete, the financial result far worse than expected, with Nellis a chain-smoking wreck. He was nominated for the unenviable task of delivering the news to Utsick.
“I rang Jack up and said ‘Jack I’m so sorry, we’ve just dropped x amount of dollars’ and he just laughed,” Nellis told Background Briefing.
“I said ‘what’s funny?’ – he said ‘Constantine, I lose more money on the tables in 15 minutes than that’.”
Chugg declined to respond to questions about the concert, citing a related confidential settlement.
The experience, thankfully has not discouraged Vissi from visiting Australia on multiple occasions to perform since, with another tour scheduled for October this year.
You can listen to the full Background Briefing report here.