Pollstar Live! Keynote Q&A: Michael Rapino

Live Nation President/CEO Michael Rapino sat for a keynote interview with Emporium Presents’ – and Promoter 101 podcaster – Dan Steinberg in a lively and candid session in front of a full house in the Wilshire Grand Ballroom Feb. 7 during Pollstar Live!

Michael Rapino
– Michael Rapino

Rapino explained that he was given a list of potential interviewers from which to choose for the keynote, and in an effort to “keep it real” he chose Steinberg, an independent promoter – a revelation that prompted Steinberg – Steiny to friends – to ask Rapino “did you bring your checkbook? Asking for a friend.”

Steinberg didn’t hold back in his grilling of arguably the most powerful concert promoter in the world. Among his first questions was: “Is there anything you don’t need to own?” Rapino joked that maybe he’d chosen the wrong interviewer, but explained Live Nation’s acquisition philosophy.

“Business changes and there’s room for everybody,” Rapino said. “Everything goes from being fragmented to consolidated. Pieces in the chain start getting their margins squeezed. When the pie was full, you didn’t need to consolidate and you vertically integrated. Well-capitalized companies are going to win in the end.

“We’ve had this strategy from Day 1. We have a big don’t-do list and a small to-do list. We want to be the biggest, to have the most boots on the ground, so that when U2 lands we want to be the best company to play for. It’s still a huge, fragmented business.”

Steinberg continued to needle Rapino about the company’s size and appetite for acquisitions, asking if the industry “has become a one-horse race, or are we all just fucked?”

Rapino responded that it was a “good thing” Steinberg has his podcast, laughing.

“It’s like, if you don’t have an iPhone are you fucked? Independents will survive. It’s the same status between Warner Music Group, UMG, the major labels. There’s still some 24 percent of the business that is still independent,” Rapino said. “In order to keep being innovative, and be best for your employees, it does require some level of capitalization and scale to be able to invest in the future.”

Changing gears, Steinberg asked Rapino why he didn’t buy SMG – a company it was known to be interested in before pulling out of bidding in November. Rapino explained that the venue management at that scale “isn’t our core business. Our core business is the 30,000 concerts we put on per year.”

Steinberg broached a series of “real or rumor” and among the tidbits from Rapino included mentors – Live Nation’s Bob Roux, Irving Azoff, and Jimmy Iovine – who keep him “centered.” He thinks his employees consider him to be “between the greatest boss on earth and the biggest fucking micromanager.” And the Live Nation website, on its first day live, landed on a Swedish porn website.

Rapino discussed the cost of booking tours. “Whether it’s us or AEG touring at that top level, if you’re touring at that market the best way to get value is to bundle. As you bundle, you extract the most value. When you hear about Live Nation or AEG paying a premium, the difference is I’m asking the artist to play 100 dates instead of 40.

“You make it up in volume. Does Jason Miller pay more in New York than Jim Glancy? No. I don’t get agents calling and saying, ‘I’ve got a deal for you.’”

The conversation took a serious turn to discuss security.

“We’ve got to figure this one out. Every year Brian O’Connell and his crew does USO tours and nothing in Iraq or elsewhere was as horrifying as a parking lot in Las Vegas,” Rapino said. “We have to solve this. We have to solve it through identification, and it’s a real challenge as well as a real opportunity to get rid of the bar code in ticketing. It’s the key to a lot of problems in the business. We’re the last business to still use a barcode. Even the airlines go to digital tickets.

“We don’t know who actually has the ticket with the barcode. Identity has to become a piece of our business. We have to know who the 70,000 people at U2 are. It’s a huge tool we can all use to limit the distribution of ticketing in the scalping market. Tech is our friend and elevates our game before, after, and even when the fan is at the show.”

The discussion ranged from mentors, to Rapino’s relationship with former Live Nation chairman Azoff, the philosophy of Live Nation culture, the sameness of festival lineups, and the secondary market before concluding with a “lightning round.” Examples:

Steinberg: “Are you Canadian or American at this point?”

Rapino: “As a Canadian, you can have dual citizenship and I would have stayed Canadian but my kids and wife are American. But as American you can’t have dual. I love both countries and I love America for the opportunity it has given me.”

“Tim Hortons or Dunkin’s?” Rapino: “Hortons”

“Private or commercial?” Rapino, after a pause and near-perfect comedic timing: “You bastard. Private.”

But Rapino concluded that “There is still a lot of runway left at what we do. We are the luckiest people in the business world. We’ve come from cavemen dancing to music, and people will gather to dance around music long after we’re dead. There’s huge geography left.”