Getting To The Garden: How The MSG Co. Is Growing Artist Careers

Darren Pfeffer and Brandi Carlile
Courtesty MSG Live
– Darren Pfeffer and Brandi Carlile
Brandi Carlile ran through the streets of Denver to climb on to her first tour bus, after five or six years of touring in vans. Before that, she and her band drove their own cars – mostly to gigs in Seattle, about 30 miles northwest of her hometown of Ravensdale, Wash. Sometimes they drove all the way to Portland, Ore. 
It was so bad, they couldn’t bring their suitcases into venues because “they smelled like Cracker Barrel for a week!” Carlile tells Pollstar.
Her first box office report to Pollstar was for one such show: opening for Paul Kelly at Seattle’s 385-capacity Crocodile Club on March 20, 2002 for a crowd of 201 patrons paying $13-$15 per ticket.
Those days are far in the rearview mirror. Carlile headlines the 20,789-capacity Madison Square Garden Arena – “The World’s Most Famous Arena” – on Sept. 14, for the first time.
It might seem obvious, given the year Carlile’s had. She’d already built a critical following with albums like The Story, produced by T Bone Burnett; Give Up The Ghost, produced by Rick Rubin; and The Firewatcher’s Daughter. But 2018’s By The Way, I Forgive You, with standout tracks like “The Joke” and “Sugartooth,” elevated Carlile into the pop stratosphere from the Americana genre to which she’d been relegated.
Carl Scheffel/MSG Photos
Brandi Carlile warming up for the Avett Brothers at Madison Square Garden in April 2016.
Despite that leap into the popular consciousness, and three Grammy Awards in February, Carlile says the MSG booking was a shock to her.
“It was being talked about before any of the Grammy nomination stuff happened,” Carlile tells Pollstar. “My managers (at Red Light Management) were talking about it and I’m laughing, like, ‘You people are crazy, you’re absolutely crazy. There’s no way we’re getting booked at Madison Square Garden, let alone sell enough tickets for it to look good.”  
MSG Live Executive Vice President Darren Pfeffer is the first to disagree. He came to MSG Live from iHeartMedia in 2017 with a reputation for having an ear for emerging talent and an ability to suss out artists able to command big stages. He came on board at MSG Live after Carlile began her MSG relationship, but knew the Madison Square Garden Arena stage was in her future. 
 “I did have the opportunity to say hello to Brandi before her performance at Boston Calling last year and as we departed I said, ‘Looking forward to seeing you at Madison Square Garden,’ and she grabbed my arm and said, ‘I’ve waited my whole career for someone to say that to me.’ I think it’s a testament to the artists and their desire to play our buildings,” Pfeffer tells Pollstar.
Pfeffer continues MSG Live’s tradition of booking unique, iconic and sometimes unexpected experiences up and down its portfolio of venues, including Radio City Music Hall, Beacon Theatre, Chicago Theatre, and others. MSG Live also books the Boston Calling festival.ling festival.
Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for MTV
MSG Live EVP Darren Pfeffer joins reps from NYC

The crown jewel, of course, is Madison Square Garden Arena, with a history that dates to 1879 and a lease to circus icon P.T. Barnum. It’s moved three times, and not always without controversy – its location atop Manhattan’s Penn Station came with the demolition of a building once considered among New York City’s architectural finest. I
t’s hosted landmark sporting events including the Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier “Fight of the Century,” a Stanley Cup win for the N.Y. Rangers hockey team, the annual Westminster Dog Show, political events and even an appearance by Marilyn Monroe riding a pink elephant bringing the circus to town. 
Of course, it’s the site of concert history, too. Elton John held the record for most appearances at Madison Square Garden Arena until Billy Joel – in another example of unique concert bookings by MSG – broke, and continues to break, it with his ongoing MSG residency. John Lennon famously made his final concert appearance during an Elton John show Nov. 24, 1978. 
Lennon’s fellow ex-Beatle George Harrison staged the first mega-benefit, the “Concert For Bangladesh” there in August 1971.  And Bob Dylan introduced Muhammad Ali to a Madison Square Garden audience during his “Night of the Hurricane” benefit for boxer Ruben “Hurricane” Carter, falsely accused of murder, at the end of his legendary “Rolling Thunder Revue” tour in December 1975.  
So to play Madison Square Garden Arena is to become part of that history. Carlile is acutely cognizant of this fact. 
“It is crazy,” Carlile says, with an emphasis on the word “crazy.” “I remember, all these years ago, I was up for maybe getting to open for My Morning Jacket at Madison Square Garden and I was freaking out. I can dream pretty big, but I had never pictured myself being able to play Madison Square Garden before. Then I did get to open for the Avett Brothers there and I remember it being one of the biggest gigs of my life. To be headlining is unfathomable to me.”
It wasn’t unfathomable to Pfeffer. It’s part of MSG Live’s purpose.
“When you look at artists like Brandi Carlile –  they are able to start at the Beacon Theatre and then sell out a number of nights at the Beacon – we’re able to start having those conversations in real time about what the next step is and when the right time is for that next step. 
“We certainly want to put that artist first and make sure the time is right for them, and their music cycle, and their priorities. But we’re always having those conversations, whether it’s through the manager or their agent, the promoter, to insure that they know we’re always thinking about the next play.”
Carlile’s explosive year in 2018-19 may have been a happy coincidence, as her MSG headlining turn was being planned for prior to what Carlile calls “the Grammy thing,” but, by all accounts, the team at MSG Live had nothing but faith that her career was about to take flight.
“She’s had a major growth period in her career,” Carlile’s agent, Paradigm Talent Agency’s Duffy McSwiggin, tells Pollstar. “The MSG folks saw that coming, I think, because she’s played MSG venues through her career, and Madison Square Garden seemed like the natural fit for the next step.” 
Her tour history bears out McSwiggin’s theory. 
It begins with MSG venues as an opener for Train, at the Chicago Theatre where they sold out the venue with 3,431 tickets in April 2006 for a gross of $126,505. Less than two weeks later, they sold out MSG’s Beacon Theatre in New York City. Carlile returned to the Chicago Theater in October 2012 to sell 2,573 tickets and gross $86,875 as a headliner and smashed that June 15, 2018 with a headlining sellout of 3,543 tickets sold for a gross of $168,130.
In the meantime, Carlile appeared at MSG-operated Radio City Music Hall, opening for Sheryl Crow Sept. 26, 2010, selling 5,037 tickets for a gross of $364,471.
She returned as a headliner Oct. 9, 2015 and outdid that with 5,354 tickets sold and a gross of $267,877.
At the Beacon Theatre, she’s headlined since October 2009, with a single show selling 2,547 for a gross of $85,397, followed by a two-night stand in March 2013 (5,244 tickets sold; $209,720 gross) and three nights in April, 2018 (8,235; $413,785).
“For Brandi, this is a one-off event for her,” Pfeffer says. “If you look at her cycle and current tour, I believe this is the only arena she’s playing in the calendar year and she is taking it a step further. 
“She has a creative vision, specifically around Madison Square Garden, which made it even more special. It looks like we’ll have another sold out concert with Brandi Carlile at Madison Square Garden.”
Carlile couldn’t agree more. “It feels really right to have done it the right way, to have worked my way up with the appropriate gigs into being considered for an opening, to an actual opening slot, and into actually headlining Madison Square Garden. That trajectory is what really means the most to me.
“I always felt really partnered with MSG in that way because it feels really strategic from day one. From the first Beacon show, they’d always come and they’d say, ‘You’re going to be at MSG some day,’ and I’d just laugh. But I know they meant that and as much as I can dream big, I felt like the people at MSG saw it before I even saw it. They sort of chaperoned me through those years and through that process.”
That process, according to Pfeffer, is about relationships and helping develop careers. 
Courtesy MSG Co.
Sebastian Maniscalco sells out five shows in three days at MSG. L-R: UTA

“It’s cultivating and developing relationships within the music industry, getting involved with the artist at the beginning, and really being in tune with who is up next and who the hottest artists are that are about to break,” Pfeffer says. “We really try to grow those artists within our ecosystem of venues, whether it started at the Beacon, moving to Radio City Music Hall, and graduating to Madison Square Garden.” 
Shepherding emerging artists through a portfolio from club to theater to arena is part of artist development, but it takes more than a venue pipeline to engender history and success with artists on the way up. 
“I can say wholeheartedly that the MSG folks are very hands-on, from the ground up, way more so than most venues out there, which is very impressive and comforting and reassuring, especially when you’re talking about a very young artist who is playing these large, major venues for the first time,” McSwiggin says. 
“It’s just the sense of belief and hospitality and this ability to make you feel important, and to make you feel more about where you’re headed than where you are,” Carlile adds. “It’s something that’s been really unique to that group of folks to me. I’ve always felt as I’m as important as my next gig. It just feels good to know your potential is seen that way.”
Then there’s the little touches which, to Carlile, are not so little.
“They watch us play. For people that started out busking and playing at bars and stuff like that, just to have them in the audience and knowing that people believe in you enough to sit and watch you play means more than you think,” Carlile says.
“There’s two ways to approach being a performer: People are lucky to see you, or you are lucky to be seen. We’ve always come from the mentality of we’re lucky to be seen because of where we started. It’s going to always be more important than the cakes and the backstage accommodations for the kids and all the sweet things they’ve always done. But just watching us play means more.”
It’s hard to believe it’s been more than 17 years since Carlile dragged a guitar into a club and launched a career. Now, with a rush of international success, a much-talked-about Grammy Awards performance this year and a few pieces of the show’s hardware to boot, Carlile isn’t slogging the backroads of the Pacific Northwest, or anywhere else for that matter.
Now that she’s a Madison Square Garden headliner, she probably won’t have much more need for the bus. And that’s a good thing. 
“I started out doing regular 9- or 10-week tours on a bus, and just never went home. Then it got to, ‘Guys, I can’t do more than six weeks.’ Then I got a little older and it was like, ‘All right guys, I’m at a month, tops, on the bus.’ Then last year, it was, ‘I can’t do this for more than two weeks with two babies on a bus!’ And now I’m like, ‘I’m not doing fucking buses this year.’”