Music industry prepares for post-merger landscape

Sat Jan 30, 2010 2:05am EST

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NASHVILLE (Billboard) - After nearly a year of intense scrutiny, political posturing and consumer outcry, it's time for the music business to come to grips with its new superpower: Live Nation Entertainment.

At a time when live entertainment remains one of the healthier sectors of the troubled music industry, the combined Live Nation and Ticketmaster stands to dominate each part of that sector: touring, management and ticketing.

Live Nation is the largest promoter and venue operator in the world, owning the majority of North American amphitheaters and promoting most of the world's top-grossing tours, including U2 and Madonna in 2009. Ticketmaster's Front Line Management, which has for the past few years aggressively acquired rival management firms, boasts relationships with more than 200 major touring acts, including the Eagles, Neil Diamond, Van Halen and Christina Aguilera. And Ticketmaster Entertainment sold 14 million-plus tickets, valued at more than $8.9 billion, in 2008.

The new company, led by president/CEO Michael Rapino and executive chairman Irving Azoff, would control the majority of box-office dollars, the myriad revenue streams from concert ticketing and the growing e-commerce from fan-ticket interactions. Live Nation Entertainment will also aggressively pursue competitive advantages in merchandising, VIP ticketing, fan clubs and, ultimately, physical distribution.

"Those are the things where I think I'm going to add the most to the equation," Azoff told Billboard in an earlier interview. "And Michael is going to run the ticketing and the promoting operations."

As a result of concessions that the newly merged company made to secure the approval of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Live Nation will license Ticketmaster's primary ticketing software to competitor AEG for five years and is expected to sell Ticketmaster's automated ticketing service provider, Paciolan, to Comcast-Spectacor.

But ticketing is no longer the core business here. Instead, it will be the linchpin of a broader-based operation aimed at profiting from every aspect of the artist/fan relationship.

CLIENT CLOUT

With Front Line's unmatched client roster and Live Nation's long-term deals with U2, Madonna, Jay-Z, Nickelback, Shakira, Jonas Brothers and others, Live Nation Entertainment's clout with artists is unrivaled. It's similarly superior in its reach among music fans. Driven by its market-leading positions in ticketing, venue ownership and operation, Live Nation can market to fans when a show is announced, during the event and long after the tour buses leave town, even if it doesn't bundle tickets with promotion and artist services, or if there's a "firewall" between promoter and ticketing operations, as stipulated by the DOJ.

The appeal to sponsors along this pipeline is huge. And Live Nation has everything from merchandise to VIP amenities to recorded content to sell not only at live events but, more important, through its growing digital storefronts and information hubs at LiveNation.com and MusicToday, as well as through Front Line's I Love All Access VIP program.

Jim Guerinot, who manages such acts as No Doubt, Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails, takes an optimistic view of the merger.

"My function is to try and get the most opportunity for my clients, whether that is getting lower ticket prices or coming up with innovative ways to get our tickets in the hands of fans instead of brokers," Guerinot says. "This is going to give me a great opportunity to do that. It's very challenging when you're dealing with these siloed companies, where you have the promoter over here and the ticketing company over there and you can't do what you want to do."

'NOT A BETTER MOUSETRAP'

While ticketing contracts expire all the time, many Ticketmaster contracts remain current, and Live Nation will remain a formidable competitor in bidding for renewals and new business. This makes some independent promoters nervous, including I.M.P. Productions chairman Seth Hurwitz.

"Letting this move forward and allowing them to keep the existing deals in place accomplishes nothing," Hurwitz says, adding that he's skeptical of the value of government oversight. "What if the deals expire and (the venues) all decide to sign with Live Nation? Then nothing's happened." Hurwitz expects the company to offer incentives he simply can't match: "If they offer these incentives, and part of these incentives are things they can only offer because they have created a monopoly, then this is not a better mousetrap."

Many questions about the deal remain unanswered. The future of Live Nation Ticketing and its president, Nathan Hubbard, will have to be addressed. While all ticketing operations will carry the Live Nation banner, melding with the largest ticketing company in the world won't be easy. And how aggressive will the newly merged company be in acquiring new ticketing contracts under the watch of the DOJ? The DOJ has said that it may investigate the competitive effects of any acquisitions that Live Nation makes of other ticketing companies.

The government won't be the only party keeping a close eye on the company. So will its shareholders -- especially John Malone, chairman of Liberty Media, which launched a tender offer to acquire 34.5 million shares of Live Nation stock a day after the DOJ approved the merger. Once Liberty completes the offer, it will command a hefty 34.9 percent stake in Live Nation, up from 14.6 percent.

Malone has a complicated history with Barry Diller, chairman of Live Nation and chairman/CEO of former Ticketmaster parent IAC. In January 2008, Malone, then a majority shareholder in IAC, sued IAC to prevent a restructuring that would dilute his ownership stake. Malone lost, Diller broke up IAC, and Ticketmaster was spun off as its own publicly traded entity.

Another potential personality clash: Managers like Azoff have always sat on opposite ends of the negotiating table from promoters. Who has the edge now at Live Nation? The promoter with deep pockets, venues and marketing resources? Or the management company with 200 touring acts in its stable? And can artists trust Front Line to be aggressive on their behalf when negotiating deals with its sibling promotion division?

FAIR TREATMENT FOR INDIES

As for independent managers outside this system, Guerinot says he doesn't feel threatened. "I've always found it to be a plus," he says of his boutique status. "Even when they rolled up (promoters) originally, I've always found these guys to have a greater sensitivity to making sure the smaller companies are treated on par and fairly."

Guerinot cites two recent examples where he was able to work with both Ticketmaster and Live Nation on fan- and artist-friendly initiatives. "No Doubt wanted to do a (show with) $10 lawn (tickets)," he says. "That was a big deal to us -- trying to come up with a model that gave greater incentives to put more people in the place as opposed to fewer people at a higher gross."

He says Live Nation and Ticketmaster adjusted service fees to keep ticket prices down. And when Nine Inch Nails embarked on a 2009 farewell tour, Ticketmaster and Live Nation allowed the band to offer and fulfill direct-to-fan ticketing.

"You can talk about the innovation that may occur because of digital technology and direct-to-consumer, all of which I believe in, but those are two things an independent manager had happen within the last 12 months," Guerinot says.

The international attention placed on this merger has shined a spotlight on the inner workings of the concert business, not always in a flattering way.

"Some good could come of all this," says Vans Warped tour founder Kevin Lyman, president of 4fini Productions, which has thrived and innovated by working both with and outside the biggest companies. "The veil of Ticketmaster being the greedy party has been pulled back, and we have now learned that there were few innocents, (with) promoters, artists and their managers all getting kickbacks on the (ticketing) fees."

Whether they are pro- or anti-merger, most would agree that the industry model needs to be adjusted, and this corporate union will see to that. Guerinot considers it an opportunity to grow the pie instead of finding new ways to slice it.

"These guys are going to be prepared to rapidly have a direct-to-consumer model that expands what we're going to be able to do," he says. "I'm one of those guys who can't wait to get in there and start doing stuff."

(please visit our entertainment blog via www.reuters.com or on blogs.reuters.com/fanfare/)

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