The first four decades of Irving Azoff's career were marked by fearsome advocacy on behalf of his clients that did much to set the parameters of the music industry. There's no reason to think that the fifth will be any different.
Two years ago, Azoff abruptly resigned as chairman of Live Nation, followed in the fall of 2013 by the announcement of a joint venture, Azoff MSG Entertainment, with James Dolan, executive chairman of the Madison Square Garden Company and CEO of Cablevision.
In January, Azoff made headlines when the MSG-owned Forum in Inglewood, Calif., reopened after a $100 million renovation that saw Azoff's wife, Shelli, playing a major role and his management clients, The Eagles, headlining the first six nights (at a total gross of nearly $9.9 million, according to Billboard Boxscore). He made news again in March when he helped broker the deal that brought Phil Jackson to the Dolan-owned Knicks as the basketball team's president.
Throughout 2014, AMSGE made expansive moves. Azoff's startup publishing rights organization, Global Music Rights, built a roster of 40 artists and 20,000 songs, then put YouTube on notice. Azoff took a strong position in the comedy world -- a $300 million-a-year live business, according to Billboard estimates -- first signing Chelsea Handler as a management client, then acquiring a 50 percent stake in Levity Entertainment Group, which owns comedy clubs nationwide and counts The Mentalist, Iron Chef America and Comedy Central specials among its TV division's production interests. AMSGE also took a 50 percent stake in branding specialists Burns Entertainment, experiential marketers Pop2Life and social media marketing and online talent management agency Digital Brand Architects.
Music publishing, branding, venue management -- virtually any way of making money in the music business, Azoff is now in it. And as always, he's in it not just to win it, but to reshape it.
"In the 40 years that we have worked with Irving, we have been continually amazed at his business acumen -- his foresight, timing, creativity, fearlessness, loyalty, wisdom and everything else the band expected ... and demanded. The only frustration being when we were on a tight deadline to deliver a record, he didn't help write one song." -- Don Henley
"The mission statement for the company is to be disruptive in a positive way for artists, fans and the rest of the industry," says Azoff, who maintains a $16 million estate in Los Angeles. "I think the timing to be disruptive in a positive way has not existed like this since the '60s, on both the live side and, now, the digital and marketing sides."
In November, Azoff showed digital services what he meant by disruptive when Global Music Rights demanded YouTube remove its catalog of 20,000 songs -- written by Pharrell Williams, The Eagles, John Lennon and others -- just as the streaming giant was launching its Music Key service.
"In the next year -- and it's part of our Global Music Rights strategy -- this whole Pandora, Spotify, iTunes, Apple-Beats thing is going to sort out," Azoff says. "And we're firmly on the side that [believes] the economics for artists, fans and record companies need to be better ... So we have to fix that, and the labels will be happy with me, too, because we'll drag them along."
On the management side, Azoff's heritage rock clients blew up the box office in 2014. With more than 1 million tickets sold, The Eagles grossed $107.3 million for 59 shows. With dates slated for Australia and New Zealand, the band is "in a tour of perpetuity -- every time we go back to a market it's bigger than the time before," says Azoff, attributing the growth to the History of the Eagles documentary, which "invented a new way of marketing a career. [It] has done way more for them at this point in their career than any album could have. It had the run on Showtime, then on DVD -- which Universal did a great job of marketing -- and now we've moved it over to Netflix, and it exploded again."
Also on the management side, Christine McVie rejoining Fleetwood Mac "ratcheted up their ticket sales to Eagles levels," with the 12 shows reporting to Boxscore grossing $23.8 million. New clients and acquisitions performed well, too. Handler sold out her Uganda Be Kidding Me Tour and cut a deal with Netflix that includes a talk show set to debut in 2016. Gwen Stefani landed on The Voice for an estimated $10 million salary (Azoff client Christina Aguilera is said to be getting even more when she returns to the NBC show for season eight in late February). Levity, meanwhile, brought in top-level touring client Jeff Dunham and plans to open as many as 50 comedy clubs within three years.
Azoff has venue plans of his own -- he's looking at building Forum-like venues in other markets. "We think music-only buildings are really important," he says. "Years ago, everybody was saying, 'The size is going to be 6,000 [capacity].' I think it's going to be everything from 6,000 to 20,000." He's keeping more details close to the vest. "I'm not going to name cities or places. The reason I'm a private company is so I don't have to tell people what I'm doing. Why do I need to tip my hand to the competition?"
Two of Azoff's four children are in the business, with daughter Allison Statter heading up AMSGE's commercial division, and son Jeffrey an agent at Creative Artists Agency, representing The Eagles, among others.
As for their father, he shows absolutely no signs of stopping. "I'm having so much f--ing fun I can't believe it," says Azoff. "And we're making a difference."
PERFORMANCE THAT MADE ME WANT TO BE IN THE INDUSTRY: "The Yardbirds at Indiana Beach on Lake Shafer [in Indiana] when I was about 16 years old, and The Beatles at Comiskey Park in Chicago in 1965. Those were the two that started me."
DEFINITION OF POWER: "The ability to execute one's dreams."