The ninth annual Billboard Touring Conference & Awards were held Nov. 7-8 at the Roosevelt Hotel in a weather-flogged Manhattan still recovering from Hurricane Sandy and its associated power outages, not to mention a nor'easter that blew through the area on the first day of the conference. Despite all that, the event brought in a record 650-plus attendees and, whether it was a hunker-down mentality in the wake of the storms or the relief of putting the slump of 2010 two years in the rearview with a healthy 2012, the overall mood was solution-focused and far less acrimonious than past events. Even the sometimes cynical Seth Hurwitz, president of Washington, D.C., independent promoter I.M.P., felt it, telling Billboard after the awards (where he picked up yet another top club award for D.C.'s 9:30 Club), "I was sitting there listening to Neil Diamond, and sometimes when you hear a guy like him it's just surreal that you're a part of this business. Sometimes you just think, 'Wow, how lucky am I to be a part of this?' And this was definitely one of those times."
That's not to say everyone sat around and sang "Kumbaya." The panels were sharp and informative, the discussion high level and the outlook cautiously optimistic. Here are five takeaways from the conference.
1. EDM is a force in live music, but must evolve to become a permanent part of the mainstream.
The power of EDM (as well as a rejuvenated hip-hop scene) came up frequently, specifically on a panel targeting those two genres, "EDM and the Hip-Hop Revival: WTF's Going On Here and Can It Last," which was bullish on both scenes' growth.
On a venture capital-related panel the next day, Charles Johnson, managing director of SunTrust Robinson Humphrey's sports and entertainment specialty group, said, "If I put my lending hat on, I personally don't understand if [EDM] will be sustainable five or seven years from now without significant change. You got to do something to make a DJ in front of a bunch of people more creative."
On that same panel, C3 partner Charlie Walker admitted, "That scene has certainly got some risk in it that we don't see in other parts of our business," to which Todd Boehly, president of Guggenheim Partners (co-owner of Billboard parent company Prometheus Global Media), added, "If it's a problem for the promoter, it's a problem for the investor."
2. The value of live business Âproperties is a moving target.
On the topic of Live Nation's unique status as the music industry's only publicly traded company and how determining its market value "feels unnatural" to him, keynoter Irving Azoff, Âchairman/CEO of Live Nation, said, "We have very complex businesses-sponsorship business, e-commerce business, ticketing business-so to understand all those, especially when there's no public comparisons to make, it's very difficult .Â .Â . The bad news is we're public. The good news is we have a very stable shareholder in Liberty."
On a panel discussing new players and strategies in the live business, Guggenheim's Boehly confirmed that his group was one of those kicking the tires of on-the-block AEG, but added that he needed to see some real numbers in order to bid. "So far we have a picture book. Our bid's not going to come back with a picture book, unless they want us to win pictures."
Azoff hoped a hefty price for AEG, Live ÂNation's biggest rival, might "shine some light on our value" when it comes to bridging the perception gap on Wall Street. "We're a company where the stock price has gone from the mid-$11s to the low $9s during a time when our cash flow has gone from $350 million to high [$400 million]."
Boehly also offered an assessment of the promoter rollup of the '90s, orchestrated by Robert Sillerman at SFX, which eventually became the much different company that is Live Nation today. "SFX took down a strategy that was [capital expenditure] intensive and heavy around real estate with one type of theme, and [the rollup] worked really well at the time. The benefit of debt financing was all in place to have a really nice run. The combination of great content and fantastic real estate makes for a very self-fulfilling prophecy. But the dynamic around who's playing what and where and who can actually play in big amphitheaters is changing dramatically. And as tastes continue to broaden and become more and more diverse, it's clear the festival model is kicking in nicely. The legacy SFX model isn't that attractive to the eye."
3. Focus on fans first.
At a panel on the Coachella festival with its three key executives, Goldenvoice's Skip Paige quoted colleague Paul Tollett as saying, "What's better than Coachella? Two Coachellas." But Tollett added that the motivation to add a second, identical weekend of the event this year wasn't really motivated by doubling profits. "The problem was we're turning all these people away," Tollett said. "The problem [was] there's 80,000 people out there totally bummed that they can't go to Coachella. We had all these different options. Do you go to another city? Or do we sell another 30,000 or 40,000 tickets and just jam them in there? If it was two different lineups, if someone goes the first weekend but wanted to see bands the following weekend, it's just a bummer. You feel like you're missing out."
Both weekends sold out in three hours. Later at the Billboard Touring Awards when Tollett accepted the award for top festival, he quipped, "Fans don't have a rider, so it's kind of easy to deliver for them."
4. The people in this business are funny.
The conference and awards were marked by one-liners worthy of Jeff Dunham, winner of top comedy tour for the second year. And the humor wasn't limited to panels or award stages. During prep for an investment panel, moderator Bill Werde, Billboard's editorial director, was overheard telling C3's Walker that a potential question might concern how C3 utilized a recent influx of capital from Raine Group. "Lifestyle," Walker deadpanned.
The day prior, Azoff's stories about legendary wild man Joe Walsh firing up a chain saw and cutting an Azoff-sized hole in a hotel room wall were highly memorable.
At the Billboard Touring Awards, Legend of Live honoree Neil Diamond was nonplussed when introduced as "Mr. Young" by this admittedly brain-dead writer, quipping, "Neil Young couldn't make it here tonight, I'm sorry," then added he was still grateful because "it could've been Neil Sedaka."
5. Artists make this world go 'round.
On an artist panel with Mark Farner and Tre Williams, guitarist Warren Haynes (Gov't Mule, Allman Brothers) scoffed at being labeled rock's hardest-working man. "Housewives work harder than I do. I don't consider what I do work," he said. "No matter how bad you feel or what problems anybody in the band may have, at showtime, people don't want to hear that. They paid money, they came a long way, and you have to deliver. There's something that happens when you walk onstage and you're able to give it your best. That's something that drives all of us."
At the Billboard Touring Awards, Kenny Chesney picked up his eighth top package award and then later the Road Warrior honor for his touring work ethic and commitment to the art and craft of playing live. He thanked those that came before him. "I have a lot of heroes that have busted down the door for guys like me that help me make music like I make it and tour like I tour," Chesney said. "And [top draw winner] Bruce Springsteen is one of those. It was an honor to meet someone like Neil Diamond, who continues to have focus and record music and go out and entertain people. To be able to do that in my life is one of the biggest honors and thrills that I have."
The awards were hosted by Sandra "Hurricane Sandy" Bernhard, whose merciless hilarity inspired laughter, awe and fear. "I've been in the business since 1969 and I've never been so frightened as I am in this moment," joked Roger Waters' manager Mark Fenwick, accepting the top manager award for his work with Waters (whose The Wall Live won top tour). "I've met the nastiest people in the whole world and I am frightened to be on the stage with Sandra Bernhard." He then turned serious to share his sustained awe at the success of Waters' tour. "Roger wrote The Wall in 1980, and toured it with Pink Floyd for 29 shows and then in Berlin in 1990. We've done 191 shows now and it's been unbelievably successful. It's Roger's dream, and this [award] is for the people who actually worked on it."
For his part, Diamond, after more than 45 years on the road, said he has no intention to retire-perhaps ever. "I'm still doing it, and I'll do it until the day that I die. Although if you bought a ticket to the show on the day that I die, there will be no refunds. It's a souvenir, enjoy it. I got a lot of bills to pay."••••