Q’s With Live Nation Clubs & Theatres COO Ben Weeden

Ben Weeden
– Ben Weeden
Live Nation Clubs & Theatres

Mention Live Nation and most think of worldwide arena and stadium tours, the promoter’s merged counterpart in Ticketmaster, maybe its U.S. amphitheatre network or – in recent years – major festivals such as C3’s Austin City Limits and Lollapalooza events. 

However, more and more Live Nation is becoming a force in the clubs and theatres space, which means more national tours in those venues and more in-house relationships as developing artists move into larger rooms or join other artists on tour. 

The recent announcement of a long-term deal to operate the Belasco Theatre in Los Angeles gives the promoter a bolstered presence in the region, as in just the last 12 months the company has made deals to acquire or operate SoCal mainstays like the Observatory (Santa Ana and San Diego), Soma, Spaceland Presents and Chain Reaction. 

Ben Weeden oversees the talent side of Live Nation Clubs & Theatres as COO, and works closely with division President Ron Bension on the business development side. In the last 10 years, the division has grown from about 30 owned or operated venues to now closing in on 100 clubs and theatres, with 70-80 talent buyers booking about 16,000 shows, rentals and special events in the United States.  
Pollstar: Let’s talk about Los Angeles. 
Ben Weeden: Over the past 12 months it really has been 180 degrees for us. It’s no secret, when the House of Blues on Sunset went away a few years ago, we knew we needed to fill that 1,000- to 1,500-cap space in a town like Los Angeles. The Belasco filled in that venue ladder for artist development. It’s been an exciting time. 
What else is happening immediately? 
We opened Fillmore New Orleans last year, we’ve got Minneapolis Fillmore opening up in a little less than a month, we got the Hi-Fi in Dallas, a 1,000-cap beautiful new club opening up in May, and then we’ve got Irving Plaza reopening late second quarter/early third quarter after being shut down for just about a year for a complete renovation.
Some of these venues are full builds (Fillmore New Orleans) while others are major renovations of historic spaces (The Met Philly, Irving Plaza).  
Specifically, on the theatre and club side, I believe we’ve become very, very skilled at taking historical venues and keeping the ethos and look and feel and historical value of that while bringing up certain amenities inside and infrastructure into the 21st century. 
On the ground-up builds, that’s been an evolution as well, to the point where we feel we have best-in-class design to maximize the artist experience and fan experience. Nowadays, with the VIP aspect, with the fact that different fans want different types of amenities – some want to sit, some want to stand, some want to be in the VIP lounge – we’re really trying to cater to the fans but also make sure when the bands step into the room, they know they’re stepping into a first-class venue in production, hospitality and personnel. 
Theatres like The Met Philly, the Aztec Theatre in San Antonio, the upgrades we’ll make at the Belasco, it’s very difficult to build those types of theatres these days. We’re lucky enough to have teams in each market to oversee these venues and bring up the infrastructure to the 21st century and still maintain the artistic quality of the building. 
Clearly it’s a corporate goal to be aggressive in this space.   
Mr. [CEO Michael] Rapino has been very supportive of what we’re doing and supportive of our business model and strategic plan. We’re here to service the bands and the fans and to work from the 200-cap level up. Our strategy is to make sure we’re able to work from the ground up in every market we can be in. 
How have you managed the venue portfolio growth internally on the booking/promotion side?    
As we have grown the venue portfolio, we’ve had to keep up on the national touring side. Over the last couple of years we’ve added six or seven tour buyers and marketers. Our average club and theatre tour has gone from 15 venues to 25 or 30 venues. It’s a high-class problem, having to keep up with more venues and shows. And it’s something we’re not afraid to invest in. 
We want to have the best team of bookers in the world, and I think when it comes to high volume, trying to get 150-200 shows booked, but also have financial prudence, it really is a skill set. I really do think we have the best in class when it comes to booking, a couple hundred shows per promoter. 
It’s a lot of work, they work very hard and I’m proud to have them on our team. It’s the combination of expertise locally and overlaying that with the national expertise. It really is a team effort where we provide support from a national standpoint but we have best-in-class marketers at the venue locally who have the relationships at radio and can effectively market using the local assets, while we can help with the national assets. 

We can expect more growth right?
Yes, our flywheel really is based on increasing our venue portfolio. That powers everything in our division. That really is one of our key plans going into each year, right? Expansion into different markets – whether it’s a market we’re already in and can complete the venue ladder, or it’s a new market we’ve identified and done our research on. We have a list of those that we want to take a look at.

What about the indies and competition there? There’s no denying you’re hard to compete with. 
I know it seems counter-intuitive, but we take a hard look at it, and have done our research, when there’s competitive venues coming in or us building new clubs, what we see is there is actually more content traffic going into that market than less. 
On the face of it you’d think there’s another promoter in town, how are they going to divide up the content? We’ve seen actually the opposite. 
When we went into Louisville, for instance, or when our competitors built a club in Philadelphia, there’s plenty of examples where the high tide raises all boats and the show count in those markets actually goes up, which benefits the fans. s