A Conversation With Randy Phillips

Randy Phillips has been doing concerts long enough to get his start as a college buyer “trying to keep Bill Graham from killing me.”

And as president and CEO of AEG Live, he was instrumental in the huge comeback tours of Britney Spears, Usher and the tragically canceled “This Is It!” Michael Jackson O2 London residency, making him sort of a self-described “Doctor Rock.”

With that experience (and much more) comes candid stories, wisdom and inspiration. Maybe that’s why he gets his own Pollstar Live! panel.

“I’ve said before, I wish there wasn’t an AEG,” said Phillips, adding that people look at him like he’s crazy when he says that. “I wish this business was like it was 15 years, 20 years ago, before the rollup of SFX. And that there were more individual promoters in this country doing their own thing, sort of like how it is in Europe. But business isn’t like that anymore. It’s been consolidated.

“So I’m just glad that we’re all here, and that Phil Anschutz supports us, to give you guys a choice.”

And, according to Phillips, AEG might not be here to offer that choice as the second-largest promoter in the world if not for 2001’s Britney Spears’ “Dream Within A Dream” tour.

“That’s really what kicked off this company and gave us some traction,” Phillips said. “Otherwise there would be only one buyer on an international scale.”

Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz had just bought out of bankruptcy multiple movie theatre chains, and used those extensively to promote Britney’s upcoming tour. She had a movie out called “Crossroads,” which presented the opportunity to bundle her tour, CD and movie together and market it through the theatres.

The tour was a hit, but AEG stuck with Britney during a more uncertain time as well, when the former teen idol was making news for shaving her head rather than hitting the charts.

“We didn’t know what the show was going to be, how it was going to perform, so we were concerned about what word of mouth was going to do when it opened,” Phillips said, adding that it took a huge guarantee to get the shows. “So we front-loaded the tour with a massive, massive marketing campaign.”

Her “Circus” tour ended up being a hit, but that’s easy to say after the fact.

As someone who brought back Rod Stewart, who was “about as unfashionable as can be at the time” in America, and Usher, who was going through a difficult time and had hit a bit of a lull in his career before his huge “O.M.G.” tour, Phillips says never to doubt a proven star.

“When a star has had success and connected with an audience before, never count them out. They can always come back. They can unlock that door again.”

That is only too fitting in the case of Michael Jackson, of whom Phillips talked candidly and sincerely.

“He was actually incredibly nervous that people even wanted to see him again, which is why we went with only 10 shows on sale initially,” Phillips said. “Michael actually broke down in tears. He was tired of being a vagabond. He was a great father and he loved those three kids. He couldn’t stand not having a decent place to live. If you guys saw where he lived in Vegas, you would absolutely be shocked. It was like a hovel.

“He really wanted to show [his children] what he did and who he was, while he was still young enough to do it and they were all old enough to appreciate it.

“As much as I regret whatever happened in that house with Dr. Murray and that whole thing – testifying in that trial was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life, and the scariest – I would never trade the journey, and just the opportunity to touch genius like that. I don’t know if I’ll ever achieve anything like what that could have been.”

The mood was not completely somber, as Phillips fondly retold stories about Jackson leading up to the O2 residency, including about the show’s choreography director Kenny Ortega talking to Jackson about the show’s budget, which had ballooned to $36 million after being set at $12 million.

“I can’t stop,” Jackson said in response. “God is channeling all of this to me, and if I don’t receive it, he’ll give it to Prince instead!”

And the crowd got a laugh when panel moderator and AEG colleague Elliott Lefko, who warned that this might be a weird question, asked Phillips if Jackson ever comes to him in his dreams.

“That is a very weird question,” Phillips said, laughing and adding that Lefko is “so ethereal.”

“But, no. No.”

But there still could be a Jackson tour, as it were.

Asked whether the “This Is It” production can still be used in some capacity, Phillips said that once the various legal entanglements regarding AEG and Jackson are resolved, “I firmly believe the world should see this production. It’s one of the greatest productions ever, and would have been one of the greatest tours ever.”

Adding that it’s small consolation for losing a genius like Jackson, Phillips said, “The one thing I have, that I’ll always have, no matter what happens, is that I know that Michael realized before he died that he was the King of Pop, whatever that meant to him. He was the King of Pop.”


See Also: Pollstar Live! Panel Coverage