Michael Rapino felt it coming 30 years ago. That is when, at age 20, the Thunder Bay, Ontario, native booked his first artist, Jeff Healey, and realized that what he loved most about music wasn't million-selling records but "those magical two hours" -- the live show.
In the three decades since, as Rapino has risen to the top post at the world's largest global concert-promotion company, those two hours have become the reliable profit center of a music business in disarray. "Industry stories are being written daily about what's going to happen on the recorded side and the digital side," says Rapino. "We're very proud that on Live Nation's side [2015 is] a record revenue and ticket-selling year for the third straight year."
His pride is neither quiet nor Canadian, and there's no reason it should be: Through the third quarter of 2015, the 8,000-employee Beverly Hills-based live-entertainment giant reported revenue of $5.8 billion (adjusted for currency-exchange rates), up 9 percent from the previous year. Primary ticket sales through its Ticketmaster division were up 4.7 percent to 115.4 million for the same period, and according to Billboard Boxscore, Live Nation had 11 of the top 25 tours of 2015 -- more than any other promoter -- with One Direction coming in at No. 2 (total gross of $208 million for 80 shows) and U2 at No. 3 ($152 million gross at 76 arenas).
"People know Michael's reputation as a hugely successful businessman, but see him at a show and it's clear what drives him," says Bono. "You'd think every gig is his first, he's such a fan of live music. He's a very special guy -- someone who has dramatically transformed an entire industry but has no drama about himself at all."
The married father of three -- who maintains a reported $14.8 million residence with wife Jolene in Los Angeles' affluent Brentwood enclave -- is as serious about his health as he is about his business. "My kids, my health and my job are all equally important," he says. Rapino is a vegan who has started every day for the past five years with 10 minutes of morning meditation. Maybe that's one reason why even without a 1D or U2 tour on the books for 2016, he's stress-free about the coming year. "We've been public now 10 years, and every year somebody always [asks], 'My God, where is the next U2?' " he says. "I have zero concern about the pipeline. We wouldn't have known who 1D was five years ago. We probably wouldn't have said that Taylor Swift was going to blow out stadiums or that Luke Bryan would be selling stadiums."
But part of that confidence also comes from the dividends already being paid out from Rapino's aggressive strategy in the highly profitable festival space. Since he took the reins at Live Nation three years ago, the company has spent big on established festival moneymakers, starting in 2013, when it snapped up a stake in EDM specialist Insomniac (and its Electric Daisy Carnival) for an investment estimated between $50 million and $80 million. In December 2014 a reported $125 million bought a 51 percent stake in C3 Presents, which produces Lollapalooza globally. Five months later, Live Nation went for the hat trick with a controlling stake in Bonnaroo, the Manchester, Tenn., festival that sells out to more than 80,000 fans annually, with gross receipts estimated at $25 million. Key in the Bonnaroo acquisition is a permanent space -- more than 700 acres of farmland about 60 miles southeast of Nashville -- from which new festivals can be launched. Speculation runs to country or EDM, though step one, says Rapino, is tapping Live Nation's capital to upgrade infrastructure. "We're bringing in water and permanent bathrooms," he says. "Every festival meeting someone wants to talk about another Ferris wheel, and at the end of the day [people] just want a really clean place to pee."
With more than 800 sponsors, Live Nation saw solid growth in its sponsorships and advertising division in 2015, reporting $274.9 million in revenue through the third quarter of 2015, a rise of 19 percent. The company renewed its concert live-streaming partnership with Yahoo for a second year, after year one logged an average of roughly 369,000 viewers per concert and a grand total of 135 million live streams. Rapino says he thinks of Live Nation's more than 70 festivals and 25,000 shows as "studios" but knows that the company's strength isn't in content creation. A partnership with Vice has yielded Live Nation TV, and Rapino reports reaction to the beta site at CES in January was "a big win" with core customers like Budweiser and Citibank. "Being able to say we have a new channel launch with rich video content from Vice was very well received."
A frequent Rapino mantra is "we work for the artist," though he also believes "the fan is always first." "Our guiding principle," he says, "is to make sure we do everything in our power to fulfill that promise."
Do you support a 2016 presidential candidate? "I'm a recently new American, so I've only been able to vote since the last election, and I'm socially liberal. Hillary Clinton would be the best option right now."