When so-called “rollup king” Robert F.X. Sillerman and his SFX Entertainment in 1997 began acquiring heritage concert promotion companies like Bill Graham Presents, Cellar Door Concerts and Avalon Attractions, it seemed like every week broke with a new acquisition announcement of a major promoter.
“There’s not much left in the major and larger venue markets, so that means going into the secondary and club levels,” Paradigm Talent Agency’s Tom Windish said. “Strategically, this makes a lot of sense for Live Nation because they are buying so much talent on a national level.”
But consolidation’s not just happening in smaller markets. AEG and its Goldenvoice subsidiary announced it inked a booking and management contract Jan. 24 with San Francisco mainstays Slim’s and Great American Music Hall. The agreement gives Goldenvoice, which already controls Regency Ballroom, Social Hall and the Warfield Theatre, another club booking pipeline to rival that of Live Nation in the market, with its two comedy clubs, The Fillmore, Concord Pavilion in the East Bay and Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View.
While not an acquisition, the deal isn’t the only game-changer for independent promoters to be made public in just the last two weeks.
The announcement Jan. 10 that Live Nation took a majority stake in Madison, Wis.-based Frank Productions took many by surprise, but it shouldn’t have.
The world’s largest concert and ticketing company has been snapping up promoters in secondary and even tertiary markets for the last five years as has, to a lesser extent, competitor AEG Presents and, in fact, so has Frank Productions.
“Yes, we have a big footprint in Madison but the bulk of our business is outside of Wisconsin. Whether it’s in Green Bay, Wis.; or Akron, Ohio; I can go through and list hundreds of these markets,” Fred Frank told Pollstar. “Our focus with secondary markets and down is our bread and butter.”
The impact is significant, affecting not only independent promoters but venues, artists, their agents and managers, fans and local economies in markets that may have never seen the likes of a Paul McCartney or Garth Brooks grace a local stage.
While Live Nation was creating partnerships or acquiring majority stakes in companies like CTTouring in Boise, Idaho, which it picked up in Jan. 2017; and United Concerts of Salt Lake City in October, Frank Productions was busy finalizing an acquisition of Madison’s Majestic Live in November. That deal brought in venues like the Majestic Theatre in Madison, and the Blue Note and Rose Music Hall in Columbia, Mo.; and the High Noon Saloon, also in Madison.
Frank Productions is also constructing its first venue, The Sylvee, in their hometown, and already books the Capitol Theatre and outdoor Breese Stevens Field there. In addition, Live Nation picked up the Frank’s holdings in Nashville-based promoter NS2 and Boise’s CMoore Live.
At the same time, AEG was busy in January 2017 acquiring The Bowery Presents in New York, giving itself a powerful artist development and venue portfolio through which to build history with venues including Music Hall of Williamsburg, Terminal 5, Rough Trade NYC and the recently opened Brooklyn Steel to join other market venues like PlayStation Theatre and Webster Hall and in NYC and Starland Ballroom in New Jersey.
This emerging AEG pipeline is now capable of taking on Live Nation in the Big Apple, which has a portfolio including Mercury Lounge and Bowery Ballroom (formerly with Bowery Presents), Irving Plaza, Gramercy Theatre, Warsaw and Ford Amphitheater at Coney Island Boardwalk, and Madison Square Garden Arena and Theatre.
Control of venues is nice, but it’s the territories that matter – and the move into so-called “flyover country” by the major promoters is especially notable. When major markets are dominated by Live Nation and AEG, the need for growth dictates moves elsewhere.
Which brings us back to Frank Productions, which in the last five years has reported to Pollstar an average of 3,249 tickets sold per show for more than $213 million in grosses. Fred Frank says there are smaller markets to be mined – something his business excels in.
“There’s the Top 25 markets in the country, or the Top 50 markets, but there are hundreds more that are way underserved. We work those markets, we build those relationships, we do everything right and build upon those markets and those artists. One day, those five dates turn into 20 dates and then that turns into ‘Why don’t you do all of our shows?’ That’s kind of been our formula for success.”
And that’s the formula that attracted the attention of Live Nation. Add in the spike in construction of new venues, or rehabilitation of old ones, in those secondary markets, and the strategy becomes clear.
“A lot of the secondary markets have built fabulous new arenas,” Bob Roux, Live Nations’ co-president of North American concerts, he explained. “If you think about places like Lincoln, Neb., or Sioux Falls S.D., you’ve got brand new, state of the art arenas in markets that have never had them before.”
What consolidation means, according to Roux, is that the division of markets gets smaller with more locally based promoters who apply their knowledge of booking and promoting to towns with nuanced economies, ticket buying habits, and services.
Roux said that Live Nation is meeting with major agencies to convince artists to add more dates to tours and play more dates in smaller markets. The formerly independent promoters in those markets then apply their own specialized knowledge to the markets they already know well.
“Artists are becoming more and more in tune with the promoter’s suggestions as to how various markets should have their tickets priced or how to be scaled to ensure sellout business night after night,” Roux said. “Many years ago I can tell you there was more of a one-size-fits-all philosophy … without a lot of regard for the nuances that might have to do with populations base, local economy and number of competitive events in the venue.”
Promoters from multiple regions, however, expressed concern over Live Nation encroaching on their territories and fears of being outbid on shows, tours being locked up by the promotions giant, and ticketing services being undermined by the company’s control of Ticketmaster.
Windish agrees they have legitimate fears, but that consolidation also presents opportunities for independent promoters – pointing to Seth Hurwitz and I.M.P., which built an elaborate, hotel-like backstage lounge, including swimming pool at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md., and recently opened The Anthem in Washington, D.C., a flexible 2,500- to 6,000-capacity venue on the city’s newly developed waterfront that is winning raves from fans and artists alike.
As for Hurwitz, he doesn’t look to be selling his company anytime soon.
“I don’t blame anyone, ever, for selling their company,” Hurwitz told Pollstar in a written statement. “If they feel it’s time to cash in, or the walls are closing in and they need to get out while they can, or this is simply a great opportunity to get some big money while it’s going around…whatever.
“One of the hallmarks of great business is knowing when to get in and knowing when to get out. And these people all worked very hard to get to this point.
“But let’s make no mistake about it. You can put our all the press releases you want all day about ‘resources to do what you want always wanted to’ (buy things and travel) or ‘We still are who we are” (you haven’t changed the name on your driver’s license). You sold your company.”
But not every independent promoter feels that way. Back in San Francisco, Slim’s and Great American Music Hall will have the benefit of a partner to book the venues, handle digital marketing and social media, and other functions. Musician and co-owner Boz Scaggs explained that the time was right after the departure of longtime GM Dawn Holliday in January 2017.
“We realized we would have to respond by filling [the venues] up with some big shows and moving into new territory. We had a number of years of success and were the only game in town of our size, but other venues came in and there were other things going on around town,” Scaggs said. “In order to respond to our own position, we felt we had to make a decision to .. cast the net wider.The Goldenvoice situation [in San Francisco] has also evolved over the last few years, we know and respect them, and we’re in a very attractive place to be.
And the Frank Brothers, who once rallied against the Live Nation-Ticketmaster merger are now converts. “Yes, [the merger] was a concern of ours as it was for a lot of independent promoters,” Larry Frank said. But there were a lot of rules put in place [for the Live Nation/Ticketmaster merger to close]. There were things done and, as far as we are concerned, Live Nation, and Michael Rapino, have been true to their word.”