One would be hard-pressed to name any single individual having more impact on the music industry for a longer period of time than has Irving Azoff, Chairman/CEO of The Azoff Company. That holds particularly true for live music, if only by virtue of the touring power of the clients he personally represents, led by the Eagles, who he has managed since 1974 as they have unofficially grossed more than any other artist in that time frame and remain box office gold. Other personal clients include Jon Bon Jovi, Gwen Stefani, John Mayer, Van Halen, Chelsea Handler, and others.
Azoff, who will be inducted as part of the incoming class of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, has been a key architect of the music industry we know today. From his earliest days promoting and booking bands during his University of Illinois college years to his success as an agent, personal manager, concert promoter, movie producer, independent record label owner, merchandiser, music publisher, and record company CEO, Azoff’s negotiation prowess, creativity, and ability to play chess while others are playing checkers are the stuff of legend.
Azoff was bullish on live well before it became dominant in the music industry, serving as Chairman/CEO of Ticketmaster Entertainment and Executive Chairman of Live Nation Entertainment and CEO of Front Line Management, the world’s largest music management firm, until his resignation on Dec 31, 2012. Today, the Azoff Company, founded in 2018, is a privately held media and entertainment company dedicated to investing in positively disruptive businesses that put artists and fans first. The L.A.-based firm’s portfolio includes leading artist management firm Full Stop Management (clients including Harry Styles, Anderson .Paak, Maroon 5, Florida Georgia Line, Lizzo and Dead & Company); Global Music Rights, a performance rights company transforming that space in favor of its songwriter clients; and Pollstar parent Oak View Group, a multi-faceted company focused on the sports and entertainment venue industry. Additionally, the Azoff Company has a consultancy relationship with the Forum in L.A. and the Madison Square Garden Company.
Despite keeping a (relatively) low profile in these strange times, Azoff admits he’s “busier than ever,” and is still wrangling innovative deals for artist clients and plotting a return to sellout shows when the industry is up and running again, though he’s as unsure of when that will be as the rest of us.
POLLSTAR: Speaking as a manager, how was the year shaping up back in February?
IA: It was shaping up as the biggest year of our history, by far. Harry (Styles), Eagles, everybody was working, tickets were sold. I always tell the acts at that point, “my work’s done, my vacation is coming out on the road and enjoying.” Our work was done for the year, we were all sold out and ready to go. Then the shit hit the fan. It was going to be our best year, and now it’s a disaster, just like everybody else.
You said you’ve never been busier, give me an example.
We’re doing everything from trying to put out records to making videos — with restrictions – to trying to record in recording studios for the ones not recording at home — with restrictions; we’re trying to be responsible. We did the New Jersey telethon [Jersey 4 Jersey], we have a lot of acts doing that type of stuff. We’ve been busy moving all the tours, some are cancelling, some are postponing, so you’re fighting for dates next year – and we don’t even know if we’re going to be able to play next year. I laugh and say, “I’m not very good at setting and routing tours, I need a lot of practice,” so we’re re-routing tours and all that stuff.
We’ve been saying that no industry has been harder hit than has the live entertainment industry, is there recognition of that at the Federal level, in your opinion, as compared to relief for the airlines, hotels, and other industries?
You guys reported that the British government just came up with 1.5 billion pounds specifically earmarked for live, the arts, and here we got a little bit of PPP money for some crews. We got nothing. They don’t care about the arts here, they don’t care about us.
I imagine you talk to artists every day, what are you advising?
I tell everybody, first, no matter how old you are, this virus is still too wild and unpredictable, and if you’re gonna get it, you don’t want to get it now, you want to get it later. Do what you can to follow the rules and keep your family and everybody safe. Second, be as generous as you can to your employees and your crews and your people, and if you’re really in trouble, let us know and we’ll try to figure out a way to help you.
I will say I was disappointed to see the big layoffs at AEG, which I think go a lot deeper. The owner of that company (Philip Anschutz) is one of the richest men in the world, what’s he saving, $10-$20 million by laying off all these people? In the big picture, I didn’t understand that.
I see where you are involved with the Black Music Coalition, talk about your involvement and what the goals are.
I’m not a principal, I’m an advisor, there’s four of us old guy advisors, and it will be public here pretty quickly what their plans are. If they need some advice they call and ask for it, but I know that it’s going to emerge soon. I’m absolutely supportive of their efforts. Everybody’s got to step up, whether you’re a streaming service or a record label, you gotta step up.
There has been a lot of live music streaming and live music on television, but the Eagles “Live From The Forum MMXVIII” on ESPN stands out. Talk about working with ESPN and how that came together.That show was from what I call the first tour with the new configuration, with Deacon [Frey] and Vince [Gill]. We shot the three nights at the Forum (Sept. 12, 14, 15, 2018) and, as you can tell, it’s high-quality, hi-def, 14 4k cameras, the whole thing, and we did our best. We’ve been sitting on it, wanting to do something rather than just give it to a streaming service that wanted to own it into perpetuity, and if you do the research, live stuff doesn’t do that well anyway. So, because our fans are a little old-school anyway, we thought we’d do the traditional route, we made a deal with Rhino, our longtime home, for a DVD and audio version of it, and we’re taking pre-orders. We had to reschedule the Eagles  tour for 2021 (begins Sept. 16 in Denver), and hopefully we’ll add more. People hadn’t had any live music for three months, and we were all sitting around watching ESPN on Sunday nights, we all thought it was cool as hell. We watched “The Last Dance” and then the two weeks of “30 For 30” for Lance Armstrong, and then they had Sosa-McGwire running. So we thought, it’s the Forum, it’s the Eagles, wouldn’t it be cool to be on ESPN?
So, just on a lark, Karim [Karmi] in my office called up his buddies at ESPN and said, ‘Hey, here’s an off the wall idea,” and they went crazy, we went crazy. Then [ESPN announcer] Chris Berman, who’s a longtime friend of Glenn [Frey] and Joe [Walsh] and the band’s, got involved, it happened very quickly, and it was wildly successful. We sold a whole boatload of tickets to the rescheduled dates, we took a boatload of orders [for the Rhino set], and a lot of people got to see it. It excited us, we had a blast. It just seemed natural to us, and we’re thrilled that the guys at ESPN agreed with us. We were trying to give everybody a Sunday night of touring when they’re stuck at home.
I consider you both an optimist and a realist, so what are your best hopes for the industry coming back in 2021?
As a realist, look, certainly for the people we represent and our tours, the economics don’t make any sense to go back partially. I read about treatments and vaccines every day, just like everybody else, and I’m hating the spike we’re going through now. This year’s gone. I personally would be very happy to get people back on the road by next summer, and if they’re not on the road by next fall, that’s a disaster, obviously. It’s a disaster either way. I don’t think we’re looking at anything before next summer. It all depends on vaccines and treatment how quickly we get back, and how much long term damage have we really done to the economy.
A summer without live music is pretty depressing, but it looks like that’s what we have.
And, by the way, the hardship of having to wait until summer is ridiculous, but we’re in jeopardy of losing the summer.
Yeah. I see nothing to convince me that a return the summer of 2021 is good.
I try to only think two weeks out at a time.
And that’s the right attitude, Ray, that’s what we all gotta do.
When we do return, the math is different now, with potentially higher production costs, lower capacities, and an uncertain economy with diminished discretionary income. How can that work?
There’s not going to be lower capacities for my acts, we’ll stay home. We’re not reducing any capacities. We’ll stay home until we can reopen. And, by the way, we’re not really good guinea pigs. I don’t want to subject bands to that [risk], we need to know it’s safe. We have to protect the fans and the acts.
What would you say to the live industry right now?
We’re not a group of people that gives up. Certainly, in our lives, we haven’t seen something like this, but history shows things will get back to normal at some point. We just have to be prepared to weather the storm until that happens.