Ali Harnell, President / Chief Strategy Officer, Women Nation

Ali Harnell

President and Chief Strategy Officer, Women Nation

By Holly Gleason

Ali Harnell, the originating President of Live Nation’s Women Nation, has a concert-promoting pedigree that would make anyone envious. The two-time IEBA Promoter of the Year got her start in New York City working as a talent buyer for the legendary Ron Delsener.

In 1996, she moved to Nashville as the Vice President of Pace Concerts Southeast, where she revived concert activity at the iconic Ryman Auditorium, co-created Nashville’s River Stages Festival and booked the Starwood Amphitheatre.

A visionary, she spent 15 years at AEG, overseeing national tours, running their Southeast regional division, and in 2013, co-founding the wildly successful international C2C: Country To Country Music Festival, which has expanded from the UK to Europe to Australia.

The SVP made a mark on the business, earning Pollstar Talent Buyer of the Year and Bill Graham Promoter of the Year honors, being a five-time Billboard Women in Music and Nashville Power Player honoree, making the Nashville Business Journal’s Women in Music City list six times as well as earning multiple nominations for the CMA and ACM promoter of the year.

For all the accolades and success, the MusiCares, IEBA, ACM, MAKERS, Music Artist Coalition (MAC) and Lifebeat board member has spent her entire career building to this moment.

As the world changes and women are stepping up to demand more, Women Nation stands as Harnell’s opportunity to level the playing field, open doors and help shatter the glass ceiling for women in the industry.

Kicking things off with Oprah’s tour, the woman charged by Michael Rapino with finding a way to gender parity and opportunity has committed to studying, listening and seeking new ways. At the end of her first true year, she pauses to assess where she is, what she’s learned and how far we as an industry still have to go.  (Q&A begins after video)

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Pollstar: When you said “yes,” did you have any idea what Women Nation could be?
Ali Harnell: No! And I’m still shaping my vision and my purpose. It’s been a fascinating year. I went from 30-plus years of slugging it out for the show, the tour, the act … and the always present tyranny of the profit/loss … and the boys club in all the ways one imagines that to be to a wide open new space of thinking about gender inequality in a totally different way.
It’s like I’m getting a Ph.D in the subject matter and figuring out how we identify the issues and needs, then figure out how to help solve it. 
What was your mandate? I remember at the time it felt awesome and open.
The mandate was “take a year and get your arms around the company and the issues, then decide how you want to do this work.” And trust me, it’s taken me that long…
A lot of people have had ideas of what it should be, what I should be doing … I’ve listened to all of them, tried to understand their perspectives. But mostly I’ve tried to be really intentional about how to approach the mission.
How has it evolved?
I think about it through these lenses: how do I help advance women internally at Live Nation; how I do help advocate for women in the industry (and life in general) through partnerships, funding, contribution, and participation; and how do I amplify what women are doing that empowers and inspires other women.
What lessons did you learn in your previous incarnations that really
Hmmmmmm, I need to go sit on a beach with a therapist and a writer for a year to unpack all my thoughts and feelings around what I’ve learned and what I need to unlearn. I love what Taylor Swift said in “Miss Americana” about having to “deprogram the misogyny in her own brain.”

Ali Harnell Women of Live Cover
(Photo by Alex Ferrari)

Ali Harnell of Women Nation on the cover of Pollstar’s 2020 Women of Live issue.

What was the first “OMG” moment?

Too soon! Or maybe there’ve been so many, they don’t register the same
You said when you started there was a huge amount you wanted to learn/take in. What did you find out? Any surprises?
I say this a lot: I’ve been a woman in the world for 52 years now, and I’ve been a woman in the live entertainment business for over 30 years, and I’m still utterly shocked at how little we have moved the needle towards true equality. The stats are alarming.

How femme forward are your initiatives?

How do you create? Define your goals?
I look at my three priorities – and let them inform if I should be doing something. It’s some pretty straightforward calculus: It starts with the idea of internal/external/core, as well as asking do the actions advance/advocate/amplify? How am I helping shift the company culture to a more equal/diverse/inclusive place for women?
How am I creating connective tissue to other people, companies, organizations doing work in this space because we are stronger together?
How am I developing and/or producing projects that are female-led? Either artist/speaker/influencer-wise or how are we giving the female executive in charge more access and opportunity?
It sounds simple, but with so many layers, priorities and alliances, it gets complicated. But now is the time and it must be done.

The Color Purpleish:
– The Color Purpleish:
Oprah Winfrey whose “2020 Vision: Your Life In Focus Tour” hit the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., Feb. 28. She’s pictured with Ali Harnell, who promoted and produced the show.

The Oprah Tour! What better way to start? How did you make that happen, and what have you seen and learned?
There’s a Hebrew word b’shert that means “meant to be.” Everything about the Oprah tour has been b’shert… From setting my intention that I was ready to truly devote myself to the work of leveling the playing field for women and having the Oprah tour float into my stratosphere to meeting the entirely female team that led it, Amy Weinblum and Mindy Grossman most notably.
Seeing every week how many women’s lives are being touched and shaped and empowered by Ms. Winfrey’s message, it’s a blessing, and it’s a blessing that in particular helps empower women; I’m just grateful I get to play a role.
How about a couple “glory moments,” an “oh wow…” and even a challenge you hadn’t imagined?
Glory moments include the first time I met Oprah and every single interaction I have had with her since.
There’s definitely this insanely kismet set of circumstances around connecting with that team, as well as every single show; and especially the love and connection I now share with the most amazing unicorn-like group
of people from the tour.
Working with my team from Women Nation and Live Nation to execute the tour has been such an affirmation of everything we’re trying to achieve. Seeing this women-forward transformation, I actually could go on and on.
Our biggest challenge, truly, was to make lunch great again, as we served an average of 15,000 boxed lunches per event in an hour. It is so much harder than it sounds! Emily Mayer on my team led a Herculean operational effort and WE DID IT!
What do you know now that you didn’t? How does that impact your plans going forward?
It’s not what I know now that I didn’t know before, it’s “OMG, this is harder than I could have even imagined or prepared for.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m always up for the challenge and I know it’s my life’s work. It’s the best thing I could be doing, period. I have loved getting to work for and with Michael Rapino.
He’s a remarkable leader, and I feel trusted and supported. He knows we have work to do where women feel heard and valued, as well as have equal access and opportunity. He gets it and wants it for his female population.
What’s coming up? And after Oprah, what’s your great white whale?
So many exciting things! Maren Morris is hitting the road after having her bambino very soon. She’s such a boss and a true example of how women are leading and will lead going forward. Annie Clements, her bass player, is expecting a baby as well, so Maren will have a “girl” bus that Annie can travel on, too, and continue to work and tour and live her life’s dream of being a working musician without having to decide between music and motherhood.
These are commitments that need to be embraced for women by our industry. We need to be generous with women to level shit out.
The incomparable Jennifer Nettles is out this summer on a Sugarland tour! Anyone who knows me knows I love me some Sugarland. 
We are putting together a summit for the 140 global female Live Nation promoters.
I’m super excited about that.
Bringing them together to group-solve, identify, specify and empower each other. We’re all in this together, so togetherness is our greatest strength.
And the white whale is All Womxn Vote 2020 Live, a one-day, multi-city event celebrating all things women and activating the women’s vote. 2020 is the hundred year anniversary of the 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote. We aim to inspire all women to understand our history and continue the fight for progress! Our votes don’t just matter, they are game-changing, so lets own our power.
How do you move from AEG to Live Nation, create initiatives and seemingly burn zero bridges? Everyone I talk to thinks so much of you.
AEG was my home, I raised my baby in those halls and love so many people there. This is a brutal business …”Game of Thrones” is like kid’s play by comparison… but I always come back to holding a space for the places you come from and the lessons learned as a part of life because the work I’m getting to do now is so important and purposeful.
This was the opportunity of a lifetime! The work and the progress we’re seeking matters to me deeply, so I’m proud as hell to be carrying this torch.