Any assessment of Live Nation’s 2017 will, now and always, come with a caveat.
The world’s largest live music promoter is, undoubtedly, having a successful and strategically interesting year. It has been voraciously acquisitive and it has sold a lot of tickets.
In the UK and Ireland alone, for example, in June, it admitted 1.1m fans to shows. That’s 26% up on last year. And it has plenty of major tours lined up for the back half of the year.
One of its shows, Ariana Grande at the Manchester Arena on May 22, was the subject of the most sickening terror attack. 22 people died and over 200 were injured when the most heartless, joyless, soulless lowlife imaginable used a suicide bomb to target teenage pop fans – some going to their first ever gig, some on their first proper night out without their parents.
Less than two weeks later, of course, in that same city, 50,000 people of all ages, genders and sexualities danced their hearts out and arses off to lovely, glittery pop music. Millions more watched through tears at home, feeling more connected and more love than the fuckwit who carried out the attack could ever imagine.
Denis Desmond, chairman, Live Nation UK & Ireland reflects: “Obviously the initial reaction was one of total shock. It was a Live Nation show, staff were traumatized. It’s an atrocity that in your worst nightmares you wouldn’t have expected to happen, but unfortunately, these are the times that we live in.
“What can we do going forward? I think security is always evolving, the body searches will continue, but it’s a balance, you don’t want to put fear into people when it comes to going to a show.
“The biggest thing that’s happening is people are carrying on. They will continue to go to shows.”
“People are more vigilant, doors are opening earlier – and people are happy with that. They like to see a big police and security presence, they like that everyone is searched; there is an element of inconvenience, but it makes people feel more comfortable.
“Overall though, the biggest thing that’s happening is people are carrying on. They will continue to go to shows.
“They, we, are not going to let a tiny number of fanatical killers stop us; that is not going to happen.”
Live Nation’s June numbers back that up, of course, and make them worth celebrating – even, for once, by those who may express concern about its increasingly dominant position. (A proposed joint venture between Live Nation and John Giddings’ Solo Agency for a stake in the Isle of Wight festival is currently under investigation by the Competitions and Markets Authority).
Desmond (pictured, main) has been in the live business for over 35 years and has a 15 year+ partnership with Live Nation in the form of co-owned LN-Gaiety Holdings (Reading & Leeds, Latitude, DF Concerts, MAMA, Academy Music Group).
He made his name in his native Ireland, with his family-owned promotions company, MCD (which has a 70% market share in the country).
He was always, however, a player on the global stage – and now he’s a player within live music’s ultimate global company.
How have you found being chairman at Live Nation UK & Ireland and what have you learned since you’ve been in the belly of the beast?
Well, for a start, there’s a great team of people here, starting at the very top with [CEO] Michael Rapino. The people who work here aren’t tired. There’s passion and there’s energy and I love that. There’s definitely an eagerness to succeed, but equally to enjoy it.
You look at bands who come in, like Pearl Jam, for instance; 20 years ago Ticketmaster was the devil [to them], and now they’re part of the Live Nation family and they’re looking at investing in a venue in Seattle with us.
And you look at people like Madonna and U2 who have been with the company for decades. That goes beyond any contract. That’s about working with people and about helping people.
You mentioned Michael Rapino. How much does his personality and drive shape and steer Live Nation?
I think what he’s achieved is quite phenomenal. He’s really passionate about what he does.
The thing about Michael is, he loves music. It’s not about the numbers. He goes to shows, he enjoys going to shows, and he has great relationships with the artists.
“Micheal is an inspiration and a pleasure to work with.”
A lot of the deals that are done come down to those great relationships that he and Arthur [Fogel, president, global touring] have, and their understanding of what those artists needs.
And they don’t bullshit. When they say they’ll deliver something, they deliver. And that’s crucial. That trust that they’ve developed over the years is so important. Micheal is an inspiration and a pleasure to work with.
When comparing timeframes in the live business, there will always be some fluctuation depending on who’s out on tour, but your June increase of 26% suggests a deeper lying upward trend than just a fortunate confluence of big name artists on the road, right?
Very much so.
The market is strong at the moment, the live industry is getting bigger and bigger. I think the great thing about it is that the industry is 60 years young and has grown to the stage where it caters to everyone, from six years of age to 76 years of age – a huge cross section of people and a huge range of shows.
“The market is strong at the moment, the live industry is getting bigger and bigger.”
And, of course, underpinning everything is the fact that there’s nothing better than a good live show.
And artists who put on good shows and invest in the shows, they see the returns, they see the loyalty, they see people coming back.
Depeche Mode, certainly. For a band that is going strong after 35 years old to sell out the Olympic Stadium (picture: Danny North) was a huge result. They delivered an amazing show and, quite rightly, got staggering reviews.
Similarly, for Guns n Roses to sell out two shows at the Olympic Stadium, 140,000-odd tickets, and to not only sell it out, but to deliver two spectacular performances and get rave reviews, just brilliant. I think a lot of people would have gone there not sure what to expect and were blown away.
Jeff Lynne’s ELO at Wembley Stadium, that was the biggest gig ever in his career, and that sold out well in advance.
Then in July we’ve had U2 and Coldplay, both of which again, spectacular shows. Stadium wise, it’s going very, very well.
The acts you’ve mentioned are ‘heritage’ acts and, whilst it’s an old bugbear, how much do you keep an eye on the grass roots side of things and how concerned are you about the next generation of stadium acts coming through?
I think the next generation is definitely out there. All you’ve got to do is look at the recent sales for The Killers arena tour, practically every show is sold out – multiple nights in London, multiple nights in Birmingham and Manchester. The Killers can be around for as long as they want to be.
Royal Blood are doing three sold out shows at Ally Pally, which is very strong for a band that’s only on their second album. Rag N Bone man’s doing really well. Drake was a huge tour for us, Bruno Mars was very, very successful, we’re looking at dates for Kendrick Lamar late this year/early next year. Kanye West will come to Europe some time next year, so there are plenty of big artists out there on their way up.
A classic example is Queens of the Stone Age. They’ve been around 15 years now – they’ve played the festivals at 3pm in the afternoon, they’ve worked their way up the bill and they’re now a headliner and they will be headlining their own open air shows next summer. They’ve already sold 20,000 tickets for their Wembley Arena and O2 shows later this year, and the [new] album isn’t out until August.
Twenty One Pilots are no doubt a headliner of the future, as are The 1975 and Catfish and the Bottlemen, who recently did Finsbury Park for us, where we sold 32,500 tickets.
Who’s the best live act in the world today?
There are a number of spectacular acts playing today. I’ll deflect your question slightly by telling you the best shows I’ve seen this year: U2, Coldplay, Adele, Take That and Hans Zimmer – there’s the curveball, the Hans Zimmer show, but you see it and, Wow, that’s good.
Guns n Roses at Slane Castle, in front of 80,000 people was also a special show for me personally.
I’m guessing you’ll have had mixed experiences with that band over the years?
My first experience with them was 25-odd years ago, when, again, they were playing Slane Castle, and in those days you had to do the shows there in daylight. I remember they were due on stage at 6:30pm, and at 6pm Axl was still in his hotel 25 miles away.
This time around, he was there the day before and they went on stage 10 minutes early. They played for three hours and it was awesome.
Do you think Axl’s stint with AC/DC changed his mindset a little bit?
I think most definitely. He clearly has a huge respect for AC/DC and I think the discipline that band has, and has had for 40+ years, rubbed off on him. I think Angus [Young, AC/DC guitarist] was very much an influence.
As the revenues have increased in the live sector, how has that changed the dynamic between companies like yourselves and the record labels?
I suppose the big change is that initially bands toured to sell records and now the live income is the major source for most artists and the record is the trailer for the gig. You bring your music out, you raise your profile and you announce your tour.
The record companies still play a huge and important part in marketing the acts, marketing them globally, and, to give them their due, they do write that cheque, from day one, and invest in those artists.
I wonder how they feel, then, when they put in that effort, time and money in, and then the majority of those artists’ revenues come from the live side. That’s an issue for them isn’t it?
It is, but I think the investment is probably more about time and effort than it ever was, and less about money. The days are gone of big cheques and big advances. No one’s spending a million making a video these days.
“The days are gone of big cheques and big advances.”
Plus there are a lot of 360 deals still out there, which means they are getting a percentage of live revenues.
Live Nation has been very busy acquiring companies in the last 12-18 months. Is that something that will continue?
As a company, yeah. We invest in people and we sometimes do that through acquisition.
A lot of the acquisitions we do are actually joint ventures, such as with Metropolis and Cuffe & Taylor, who do a lot of shows that involve acts and venues that we would not necessarily have promoted in the past. Those guys are entrepreneurs, they proved they could do it, they created markets and we recognized the potential.
We buy into existing companies who have good people and the objective is to grow those companies and work with those people. Mama’s another good example, with Lovebox, Wilderness, The Great Escape etc.
We’re looking at taking that [The Great Escape] on tour in May of next year, taking it to 10 European markets. And that’s about new talent – it’s us working with labels and giving acts the chance to play in Paris, Amsterdam and Berlin or whatever the case may be.
What does ambition look like for Live Nation look like these days?
Just to continue to do what we do well. We’re very good at selling tickets. Globally we have 100-odd offices, we invest in talent worldwide, we believe in music, we believe in the live performance, we believe in supporting artists, so a lot of the deals we’re doing are development deals, where I suppose we have kind of replaced the record companies, from an advance point of view.
So when you have artists coming along saying they would like to spend X on production, because we’re about to go on tour, that money can come from Live Nation, and that’s us investing in the artists, that’s us saying, we believe. And it can be a big investment.
“a lot of the deals we’re doing are development deals, where I suppose we have kind of replaced the record companies, from an advance point of view.”
So yeah, it’s great selling out stadiums, it’s great having big festivals, but we’re also committed to new and up-and-coming acts and we put a lot of time and effort into the future.
We will continue to grow, we will continue to launch new events, we will continue to develop the Lollapalooza brand internationally, which is already very successful in Berlin and this year is in Paris, you’ll see one or two more of those happening.
We will continue to develop the Wireless brand, it’s gone into Germany and will go into Spain next year. The Download brand has gone into France last year and Spain this year. We’ll continue to make those sort of moves.
Do you sometimes think Live Nation gets a bad rap from rivals and the press because of your size and success?
Actions speak louder than words, and the support we’ve given to artists over the last seven or eight years speaks for itself.
You will always get somebody who says, ‘I’m totally indie and I don’t want to part of Live Nation’ – and that’s to be admired as well.
On top of that, if you’re successful, there’s always someone who’s going to have a dig at you; that will never change.Music Business Worldwide