Irving Azoff (right), Live Nation Entertainment chairman and Front Line Management Group CEO being interviewed by Billboard editorial director Bill Werde at the Billboard Touring Conference. (Photo: Michael Seto)
Irving Azoff doesn't tweet anymore, thanks to Live Nation lawyers who asked the candid chairman to keep mum in social media ("I don't think it's fair that they let Nathan [Hubbard] tweet and not me.") But in an hour-long keynote chat with Billboard editorial director Bill Werde at Billboard's Touring Conference on Wednesday, he had a whole Twitter feed's worth of opinions, stories and frank assessments of the music industry's past, present and future.
He began by sharing a few tales of how he got his start under the wing of the late promoter Bill Graham, who invited a young Azoff up to the Fillmore in San Francisco to check out a show. "I go to meet him backstage, which in those days was on the left side, and I went up to the door and my name was not on the list," Azoff recalled. "They said, 'You'll have to go find Bill.' So I go in front of the Fillmore and there's Bill with his arms folded. I said 'Bill it's me Irving' and he says 'There's a guy cutting the line.' So he goes up and he kicks him in the ribs, like you'd see in a movie, and had the police cart him away. And then he walked up and said, 'hey it's really nice to meet you now let's go see a show.'"
The manager-artist dynamic is a powerful thing, Azoff said. "I can't think of any more powerful moment than when you stand on a stage. Any of us in the business will learn from that experience. When we look to hire people, I'm more interested in the guy that ran the school entertainment program at a university in Missouri or Oklahoma or Arizona more than I am somebody walking in saying 'I just graduated from Harvard or Stanford or one of those.'"
He soon got on the topic of Live Nation's unique position as the only remaining standalone, publicly traded company that promotes, manages or other otherwise invests in music and how determining its market value "feels unnatural" to him. "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… The bad news is we're public, the good news is we have a very stable shareholder in Liberty."
From left: Bill Werde; Irving Azoff; Billboard's Ray Waddell; Dottie Mattison, CEO, Prometheus Global Media; Billboard publisher Tommy Page. (Photo: Michael Seto)
He's also hopeful that the current sale of AEG 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 four [hundreds.] My partner Michael Rapino does an incredible of job of managing the communication process, but we're kind of viewed like this record company type multiple, whereas Ticketmaster is the third largest e-commerce site in the world."
Another publicly traded company, Pandora, irks Azoff for its controversial royalty payments to artists - particularly when he considers the company's apparent value. "I heard a number from an investment banker this week that they're out selling for a $3 billion valuation. The sum total of our entire music business at the biggest music company in the world has a market cap of half of what Pandora's current valuation is - and they want to pay artists less? To me that doesn't make any sense."
Azoff reserved even more choice words for StubHub. "We as managers, and I think I can speak for my partners in promoting and ticketing, believe it's an artist-first business. The fan reserves the right for the first sale. I don't believe the first sale of the ticket should go to a scalper who just wants to sell it to somebody else. We believe the first ticket should just go to a fan who just wants to go to a show.
"Secondly," he continued, "they just have no skin in the game. Managers have money, promoters take risks, artists starve themselves to death. So a secondary ticketing company can profit mildly because they know how to employ an Eastern European bot who can sell some tickets? To my mind Ticketmaster is the only company that has made a substantial time and resource commitment to limit the way these bots grab tickets, which I think hampers the whole concert experience for everybody."
(Photo: Michael Seto)
To that end, one touring trend Azoff would like to see gain more traction is mobile ticketing - something Paul McCartney experimented with recently in western Canada and ended up selling more tickets for via mobile devices than retail for the first time in Ticketmaster's history. "Mobile will open the door to more paperless ticketing - I can't understand why that hasn't been embraced more," he said.
For the last 10 minutes of the panel, Werde engaged Azoff in a lightning round of preferential questions - starting with one of Azoff's clients at Front Line Management.
Christina or Britney? "Oh I'm not gonna do that," Azoff said, before transitioning into a mini-monologue about how the U.S. music competition series haven't been able to export stars the same way as the UK has with acts like One Direction.
Doug Morris or Lucian Grainge? "That's like the father or the son? Lucian was Doug's protégé. There's two great leaders of the two great companies in the business there." Werde rephrased the question to, "Which one has more staying power?" to which Azoff took a literal approach. "Lucian will be around longer because he's younger."
Bob Lefsetz or Hits? "Forget both of them."
Rob Light or Marc Geiger? "Rob takes me to Augusta [golf tournament] so he wins hands down. Both great agents, though."
Billboard or Pollstar? "Here's my beef with Pollstar," Azoff began, sharing a story about how attendance figures from the touring site were cited during the Ticketmaster Senate hearings. "It puts itself out to be a bible for attendance figures and it's not the SoundScan of the live performance business. I'm turning in my numbers, they're not turning in my numbers." Billboard, meanwhile, "is no longer a fluffy let's check the chart thing. It's providing a really good hard look across the whole business. It represents the business well. There's no comparison between the journalistic integrity between the two."
Irving Azoff (left) and Billboard's Ray Waddell. (Photo: Michael Seto)