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Between Rock and a Hard Spot

In the studio with Madison Square Garden honcho James Dolan

Plenty of executives have interests outside the office, but very few can pull off running a major company while moonlighting as a touring rock musician. For James Dolan, CEO of Cablevision and Executive Chairman of the Madison Square Garden Company, it doesn’t seem to present a problem.  

“I do my job during the day with the computer and the phone, and then, around about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, I switch over to musician mode,” Dolan says during a break from recording Where I’ve Been, the fourth album with his bluesy rock band JD & The Straight Shot. “They balance each other out.” 

And while owning three New York sports teams—the Knicks, the Rangers and the Liberty—has helped Dolan develop the thick skin necessary to withstand his share of heckling, the Long Island-based father of six says that nonchalance doesn’t translate to his musical life. 

“I want to try and please as many listeners as I can, and I am sensitive to criticisms,” he says. “When my audience is happy with what we’re doing, I feel good about it, and when I’m not inspiring them, I’m feeling that too.”

Inspiring audiences is something he should have plenty of opportunities to do. Dolan, who’s toured as an opener for the Eagles—the band’s guitarist, Joe Walsh, is producing the new album—says he’ll focus on playing locally to support his new as-yet-unnamed release, due out this fall.   

“This is the record I’d really like to push out to the public because I feel like it’s the best stuff I’ve done,” he says. “Hopefully they’ll agree.”

Here, he shares his thoughts on music, sports and business.  

How and when did you get started making music?

I started when I was 16. It was around 1971 and music was everything then. I was listening to the bands of the time: the Allman Brothers, the Grateful Dead, the Band, the Who, the Beatles. I just loved music and really loved playing guitar.

So now you’re working on your fourth album. How did 

We were on the road with the Eagles for a long time—we did a couple of tours with them—and did enough writing on the tour that we ended up compiling enough music. We knew we wanted to do another record because, with the last record we did, we were heading in a new direction that is much more acoustic and vocally oriented than the previous records, which were bluesier, rock kind of stuff.

How do you like being on the road with the Eagles. That’s got to be quite an experience. 

The Eagles are all friends of mine and I’ve gotten to know them pretty well over the years. It is kind of fun sitting on the sidelines as you go out with them on tour because they’re clearly the main attraction. I get into the unique position of just being an observer, and it’s fun watching the whole operation happen. You see these things on TV and in movies, but to actually be there and watch it happen is really interesting.

Is being a touring musician anything like a release from life as an executive? 

They kind of balance each other out. I don’t retreat into music; I was a musician before anything else, and I’ve always had aspirations in music. Music is the only thing that I do in my life where it’s my hands and my thoughts are the product. You know, I don’t make the TV shows, I don’t hook up anybody’s cable and I don’t shoot baskets, so the things that consumers are consuming aren’t coming directly out of my hands. In music, what you hear comes right out of a pen and me. That’s my voice, and I’m in the studio working the arrangements; it’s me and there’s no middleman in there.

You have some of the world’s most famous venues in your collection, but are there any smaller places you love to sneak off to to catch live music?

Of my own venues, I would have to say that the Beacon is the one that has the best vibe. As far as smaller venues go, I actually go watch my son quite a bit—he’s a musician, too—and so I’ll end up hearing bands at places like the Bitter End or the Cutting Room. 

Is there a venue you’d love to own?

There are a couple out there that are really cool. The Ryman Auditorium down in Nashville is a great venue; that one would fit right in. We love iconic places, we love places that have a lot of history in them, so Carnegie Hall, that would be a great place to own. But, you know, there are some things that will never happen.

Across your work at Cablevision and Madison Square Garden and with the sports teams and music, is there one part of it all that’s your absolute favorite?

Yes. Winning. 



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