Dell Furano: The Guy Who Made Concert Tees Cool Looks Back
“Go talk to Dell.” Those four words, uttered by legendary promoter Bill Graham, changed the course of Epic Rights founder and merchandising pioneer Dell Furano’s career. It was the early 1970s, and Furano was taking a year off to learn the concert business before heading to law school. He was employed at Graham’s renowned 5,500-seat Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, where he had worked part time during his undergrad years at Stanford University. The then-wife of Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann asked Graham whom she should see about selling T-shirts during a show, and Graham sent her to Furano.
“That simple ‘Go talk to Dell’ changed my life,” recalls Furano, who permanently shelved law school to go into business with Graham. Along with Furano’s brother, Dave, they debuted Winterland Productions in 1974, a groundbreaking merchandise company with clients including Fleetwood Mac, The Rolling Stones, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen and, of course, the Dead. But it wasn’t easy in the beginning. “In the ’70s, it was not cool selling merchandise, so we had to be careful,” says Furano. “Groups would say, ‘OK, you can sell, but don’t embarrass us. Stand in a corner.’”
Licensing now annually generates $12 billion in revenue, according to the Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association, which will induct Furano into its hall of fame on May 23. Past inductees include Walt Disney, Jim Henson, George Lucas and Charles M. Schulz. Though concert tees will always be a staple of the business, Furano has helped usher in a new era of merchandising during the last 40 years. Following Winterland, the Nevada native founded and was CEO of Sony Signatures, later renamed Signatures Network, and became CEO of Live Nation Merchandise.
Furano’s latest endeavor, Epic Rights, which launched in 2013, builds celebrity brands through a global network of retailers and licensees, as well as tackles social media, VIP ticketing, fan experiences and trademark consultation for clients such as AC/DC, Kiss, Billy Joel, Aerosmith, Def Leppard, Sting, Barbra Streisand, Zac Brown Band, Lionel Richie and the estates of John Lennon and David Bowie. During the last three years, Epic Rights has executed more than 500 license deals, including Madonna’s skincare line, Celine Dion’s handbag collection, an apparel deal featuring the lyrics of Lennon & McCartney and even Kiss waffle makers.
Furano, 65, and his wife, Kym (a partner and executive vp at Epic Rights), live in the Hollywood Hills near their West Hollywood office, where he spoke to Billboard about his 40-year-plus career.
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