Q’s With Hard Rock Entertainment President Keith Sheldon: ‘Moments That Differentiate Us From Other Organizations’


Revving Up: Keith Sheldon, president of entertainment for Hard Rock International and Seminole Gaming, shakes hands with Red Bull team principal Christian Horner (Left), ahead of the Formula One Miami Grand Prix auto race on May 5 after announcing a multi-year partnership. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Hard Rock International has not-so-quietly but seemingly suddenly become not just a music-related destination but an entertainment force. A more than $2 billion expansion announced in 2019 by Hard Rock owners Seminole Gaming meant new concert venues in the 6,500-seat Hard Rock Live in Hollywood, Fla., 1,500-seat Hard Rock Event Center at its Tampa property, and the creation of the “Guitar Hotel” at the flagship Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood. It also meant the hiring in 2020 of Keith Sheldon, named president of entertainment for Hard Rock International and Seminole Gaming. He joined Hard Rock from BSE Global, where he was EVP of programming and development, and oversaw the bookings at Barclays Center as well as the re-opening of a refurbished Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum and the launch of New York’s Webster Hall.

“Keith is doing an amazing job for us,” says Hard Rock International Chairman and Seminole Gaming CEO Jim Allen, mentioning the eclectic entertainment lineup at Hard Rock venues that has just recently included everyone from Post Malone to Van Morrison, Maluma, Alicia Keys, Maulma, Zedd to The Rolling Stones. Allen says Sheldon approaches talent curation far differently from a traditional promoter or buyer looking to fill a calendar and make a deal. “It’s nothing but a home run with Mr. Keith. And I hope he works for me for the rest of his life,” Allen adds with a laugh.

Pollstar: You joined Hard Rock during an unprecedented period with COVID, but also during a major expansion.
Keith Sheldon: COVID was unfortunate in the sense that we didn’t get to enjoy a honeymoon period after opening, especially for the entertainment venue, a beautiful, 6,500-cap state-of-the-art room. We were spending about $130 million on the room – it’s virtually unheard of these days, and it’s an incredible toy and asset for me to get to play with.

You’ve still had quite a run, hosting stadium-sized headliners like the Stones and Metallica in a 6,500-seat space.
We were very fortunate. I would put our lineup up against any arena, stadium or other venue’s lineup, really, in the world right now. These past eight or nine months have been just a phenomenal run and our good fortune continues with Maluma and Post Malone and Paul McCartney all coming up in the next month or so down in south Florida. This is our flagship property, right? So it’s important for us to use our flagship property to establish and reestablish and reinforce what the Hard Rock brand is all about.

The Rolling Stones’ 2021 “No Filter” date, which ended the North American tour, was not just any regular tour stop.
Anytime The Rolling Stones announce a tour, everybody looks at the tour dates, and seeing Hard Rock Live among these stadiums and giant (spaces) is a nice calling card for us. Nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd, right? When you have this and then acts like Eric Clapton or Elton John and Billy Joel and Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, and The Rolling Stones, it creates this domino effect where agents, managers, even artists themselves start reaching out and saying, “What’s the story here? How are you doing all these great shows and what can it mean for my artist?” It’s been a great door opener not just for south Florida, but also to have the conversation about other markets that we’re operating in, as well. It’s nice having a room for every sized artist.

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Big Events: Keith Sheldon (right) and Seminole Gaming vice president of entertainment Andrew Saunders pictured at the 2021 Sports Illustrated Awards, which took place at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Fla. (Rodrigo Varela/Getty Images)

Those high-profile shows probably aren’t your standard booking agreements either.
It’s not about, “Hey, can you play on July 14th, we have an open avail and we’ll pay you 500 grand.” It’s about cultivating the relationships and figuring out what the long-term could look like together.

We’ll take baby bands, too. Kane Brown was performing at FTX Arena in south Florida and we’re close with his management team and we said, “Oh, this band Nightly is opening up for them.” Bring them over to Hard Rock. We’ll put ’em in our Bora Bora Cabana so they can hang out by the pool all day. We’ll take them over to the memorabilia warehouse and show them around. They can jam on somebody’s guitar that maybe inspired them at some point and maybe feel the magic in their hands. And then they remember Hard Rock differently than, you know, getting the iconic T-shirt in Florence with their parents. They are now thinking of Hard Rock as an incredibly connected brand to the music community and want to be part of that.

What kind of opportunity does Hard Rock’s memorabilia element bring?
We worked with the company Artists Den who does shows on PBS and on a digital platform working with emerging artists. We did a cool piece with Mickey Guyton and she was about to release new music last summer, where we asked her who she was most inspired by. It was Dolly Parton. OK, we’ve got a ton of Dolly Parton memorabilia. Let’s surprise Mickey Guyton with a dress from Dolly Parton. She almost starts crying. And then she talks all about how Dolly Parton was one of the first women that she heard in the music space talking about needing more Black women in the country music scene. That wasn’t something she had necessarily shared in a meaningful way, but Hard Rock made that happen.

How do you manage and oversee entertainment at so many properties?
We have some really talented people at each individual property. If I’m doing my job the right way, I’m creating good processes, creating good strategy and we have terrific boots-on-the-ground folks that are coming up with their own ideas and executing on their end, too.

We would never wish for another COVID, but it was unique in the sense that I started this position while entertainment was in a bit of a pause. I hope to never have that type of luxury ever again in my career, but it did give me an opportunity to look at the landscape and fine-tune our approach as we came out of this thing. So I’m lucky in that regard that I didn’t get thrown right into the fire (laughs).