To hear the words "I have Irving Azoff on the line" and not experience at least a twinge of anxiety means a pulse check is in order. Azoff helms the world's largest promoter, ticketing company and artist management group from behind one desk. (OK, he probably has several desks, but you get the idea.) He has moved mountains in the worlds of film, TV and music; transformed mere artistry into superstardom; sustained and resurrected careers; and is a force of nature in the world of philanthropy. Music industry careers come and go, but Azoff's sphere of influence is enormous and ever-expanding.
The cultural touch points--and the business trends that followed--that can be traced directly back to Azoff range from 1980's "Urban Cowboy" film to famously shattering the $100-ticket glass ceiling (and, in the process, revealing true market value) for mainstream rock/pop acts with the Eagles' 1994-96 Hell Freezes Over tour. That tour sold every ticket, with Azoff famously saying at the time that the only people who complained were journo types who got their tickets for free. Regardless, the business never looked back. Azoff has found success as a movie producer, agent, promoter, label CEO, label owner and publisher. He remains many of those things and more.
But even though, from atop the silo, he commands companies with diversified areas of focus, most see Azoff as a manager at heart, and the manager's chair is where he seems most in his element. In consolidating management companies to create the unparalleled leverage of Front Line Management Group (before Ticketmaster and Live Nation were ever in the equation), Azoff was at the forefront of the shift in the balance of power from labels to managers and has shown that, in his world, labels can be valuable partners but aren't always necessary-because artists create the content, content is king and live is the thing.
Consisting of 13 management companies, Front Line bills itself as "the world's largest music management firm," but the number of artists affiliated with it seems a bit of a moving target. "Approximately 200" is a figure that's often used, and a large portion of those acts are arena-level headliners: Artists affiliated with Front Line companies include such established superstars as the Eagles, Christina Aguilera, Neil Diamond, Van Halen, Journey, Kenny Chesney, Fleetwood Mac and scores of other big names, developing acts and everything in between.
Azoff insists the affiliated managers maintain autonomy. Management is and will always be a personal business, the manager/client relationship is sacred, and it makes no long-term sense for Azoff and his team to be anything more than a resource to use if needed. But for this number of artists to be aligned in any way is a powerful statement.
Even if artist management is what he's best-known for, Azoff still has Ticketmaster and Live Nation under his watch, and both are reinventing the business as they fight to maintain supremacy and, in the case of Live Nation, consistent profitability. Live Nation is aggressively trying to improve the margins of live concerts by increasing revenue opportunities before, during and after the show, in ways that include venues, long-term multi-rights deals with artists, branding and merchandising, as well as marketing from global to local. And, of course, ticketing.
Ticketmaster is boldly reacting to increasingly fierce competition by ramping up its evolution from a service provider to a marketer and smart, innovative user of unmatched data that can sell more tickets and play a role in building careers and bringing enormous value to clients and sponsors. One can only guess at the role Azoff played in passing muster with the Department of Justice's Antitrust Division during the merger of all these entities-Ticketmaster, Front Line, Live Nation-but one can only assume it was a crucial one. The number of plates Azoff spins on a daily basis is mind-boggling. Spinning them under the watchful eye of Wall Street surely makes it tougher. One wonders how long Live Nation Entertainment will continue doing business with that little distraction, but that's another story.
In the end, the intangibles make Irving Irving. He has been called everything from the smartest guy in the room to Satan, but he is always taken seriously. Alternatively disarmingly witty or shockingly intimidating, in a world where one's ability to give good phone can dictate survival, Azoff's phone skills are unmatched, and he's equally unflappable and effective face-to-face. More than a few big players (and journalists) have surely hung up the phone or walked out of a meeting thinking, "What the hell just happened here?"
Whether Azoff's actually thinking five moves ahead in the chess game or not, people believe he is, and that's a difference-maker. Maybe, when all is said and done, Azoff will get the last laugh when, on his tombstone, he reveals, "I was just winging it.
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