The House of Blues/clubs and theaters division of Live Nation is the largest collection of small-capacity venues in the world. Ron Bension, CEO of the business since November 2010, hopes to bring the sort of national touring activity to small venues that Live Nation enjoys at the amphitheater and arena levels. At the same time, there seems to be real focus on developing emerging acts right down to the local level.
Small venues would seem an area ripe for this sort of endeavor; as it is, clubs and theaters are the sweet spot both for developing acts and those which work best in a more intimate presentation in terms of both drawing power and aesthetics. But to this point, national touring deals for Live Nation, AEG Live and other promoters are largely made up of tours geared to 10,000- to 20,000-capacity venues or larger, with varying results. Some acts in the past have played venues that are too large for them, and Bension believes many bands could benefit from the consistency a tour deal could offer across a small-venue portfolio, both in terms of production and cohesive marketing strategies.
Named to the position in September 2010, Bension is focused on consolidating the 36 venues that he directly manages into a national platform, creating new touring products and innovative consumer experiences. The portfolio ranges from the House of Blues to the Fillmores to more intimate rooms like St. Andrew's Hall in Detroit. Bension is armed with a wide range of branding and entertainment experience, most recently as CEO of TicketsNow, Ticketmaster's secondary ticketing operation. Previously he has led several major e-commerce, recreation and entertainment companies, serving as CEO of Wasserman Media Group's Sportsnet, president/CEO of Sega GameWorks and chairman/CEO of Universal Studios Recreation Group, a division of Universal Studios.
What was your primary objective when taking on this position?
Live Nation, with all the bad rap they get, was very smart about looking at the club and theater business-3,500-capacity and under-as a little bit of a different business. When you look at the live music business today, there is a ton of volume going through these types of venues, so more and more we see this is really going to be, from a volume point of view, the sweet spot of live music going forward. These venues are a little bit more "high touch" than the amphitheater business. We're much closer, have a greater impact on the fan experience . . . So when we look at these smaller venues, Live Nation said, "We want people waking up every single day who do nothing but worry about the bands and fans and booking and the volume that goes through these smaller clubs and theaters." That was the goal: make this the best portfolio, the most profitable portfolio, and create something that is special in the marketplace.
We've got 13 House of Blues, four Fillmores, and we have a lot of unique, one-of-a-kind venues . . . like St. Andrew's Hall in Detroit, the Tower Theatre in Philadelphia . . . At many of our venues, especially at House of Blues, we're doing a lot of weekly local-band nights, where we're working with either a radio station or another media company to go out into the marketplace and find local bands that need a showcase . . . and can't really afford to tour or can't make it into a bigger venue. We're putting together local positioning and local promotions that really take advantage of the venues' . . . unique capability to draw in the market.
The traditional model of building acts from club level to arenas-is that a strategy for you?
The promotion and nurturing that came from the record companies doesn't exist anymore. You have a lot of bands that make their entire living now off of live performances because, even with iTunes and the various distributors of online music, it's so stratified that it's very difficult to make money with records. That void has to be filled somehow or another.
When we look at our portfolio, we can go to bands and say, "Look, we get it. We know you're going to go and do a 25-city tour. We have 36 locations that we own and operate, we have another 25 that we have promotional arrangements with throughout the country. We're going to end up paying you just as much as the next guy, but you can have either 20 negotiations at 20 different venues with 20 different marketing plans and no cohesive control over your tour, or you can work with us. We've got the best venues in the biggest markets. We'll work with you on a customized marketing plan that we'll put out for the entire tour."
We have an unbelievable group of social networking engagement partners that we work with out in the marketplace, pushing out tours, tickets, the bands' music, and we work with . . . partners [including] Westwood One, MTV, LG, Fuse TV.
Most of what I see are legs of tours, 10-15 shows, particularly at House of Blues. Are you doing 35- to 50-date deals?
Yes. We're talking to the bands and saying, "We can work with you across the entire span of your tour, from launching it to promoting the upfront of it." If you have a record breaking, we can use the power of our digital resources, LiveNation.com, Ticketmaster.com and our 29 club and theater websites, plus the marketing team we have in place.
So you're doing tour deals in the model we see from Live Nation at the arena/amphitheater level?
To give you a sense, we'll do 5,000 shows through our portfolio this year, with over 5 million people. Of those, we'll do 1,200 via tour deals, and the rest of them, the large majority, will be booked as multiples, or we'll do five, six, seven, eight, two or one [show]. There's a lot of booking. We have bookers at each one of our venues locally, and in some cases a junior booker out in the marketplace.
You've worked with Live Nation chairman Irving Azoff for years, dating back to Universal in the late '80s. Can you now walk down the hall and pitch an act?
It's never that easy. Irving is well-known for managing that part of the business very carefully and making sure that he does the best for his acts, and, believe me, he's still the most difficult person to negotiate with. So it doesn't matter whether I can walk down the hall or not. We're not getting a discount on the Eagles tour, I can guarantee you.
Festivals are clearly taking on an artist development role. Is this at the expense of clubs?
I think it's to the benefit of clubs. It's a great way to leverage either the launch or termination of their tour through the festivals. We understand that come summer, it's festival time. We see a lot of what we would normally get at our venues being moved to these larger platforms. Where we do business a little different is, we say, "Let's fill that with local nights. Let's work with the different promoters in electronica, for example, and do things . . . that fill the gaps." We do a lot of emerging metal bands. We'll probably do 400-500 shows on the metal circuit. And we're looking at doing some mini-festivals within our venues ourselves. We've got the real estate, we've got the parking, we have the ability to provide great food and beverage.
House of Blues is the best-branded club chain in the world. How can you take it to the next level? What is the next level?
These venues have such a great vibe to them, the artwork and the funky little corners they have-they're great venues. We've announced a Toronto venue . . . we're out talking to three or four developers for opportunities to expand House of Blues. The other area where we believe we can do a much better job, and we're making great headway, is local promotions. In certain markets we have a great country series, [or] a great Latin series. We're doing some comedy series in certain markets, we're doing some urban series in some markets. Where we have the opportunity to provide local access and emerging artist access into these venues, we're getting back to basics and really immersing ourselves in the emerging artist business with ethnic or genre-based series.
When you go into a House of Blues, you know you're always going to see some form of live entertainment, you're going to get a great meal, and if you come for a specific show, stay afterward and head over to the Foundation Room or the bar, where there will be a local band playing after the show, and get a little bit more music.
How are sales for venues, under your watch, to date this year?
We're up about 9% year-over-year on tickets, our show count is up about 10%, and that doesn't count some of the local stuff we're doing. It's been a good run so far.