Executive POV: Mega-Tour Svengali Arthur Fogel on Tackling U2 and Madonna, Ticket Pricing and Live Nation

Christopher Patey
Arthur Fogel, President, Live Nation Global Touring; Chairman, Live Nation Global Music, photographed at the Live Nation offices in Beverly Hills on April 27, 2015.

The master of the megatour on U2's about-to-launch Innocence + Experience arena trek and why The Rolling Stones keep ticking: "That’s the magic of our business."

When a documentary in 2013 asked Who the F--- Is Arthur Fogel?, Bono answered: "The most important person in live music."

Such fawning is to be expected from the U2 singer. After all, Fogel, 61, is the master of the megatour. His Toronto-based, 25-person team, backed by Live Nation's international network of promoters, ­producers, merchandisers and ­marketers, has seen tour grosses of more than $3.2 billion combined during the past decade, according to Billboard Boxscore -- among them, five of the top 10 biggest moneymaking treks ever, all steered by Fogel.

A native of Ottawa, Ontario, Fogel got his start in music from behind a drum kit, then rose through the live-music ranks -- from booking nightclubs to arenas to stadiums, first in Canada and later around the globe. Titans of touring are his trademark; chief among them: U2, whose 360° outing grossed more than $736 million with attendance of 7.3 million over nearly three years (the band’s more intimate Innocence + Experience Tour kicks off in Vancouver on May 14), along with The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Neil Young and Rush.

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On deck for the fall: Longtime ­client Madonna, who has churned more than $1 billion in box office, begins her Rebel Heart Tour, her fifth with Fogel, in September, following Lady Gaga with Tony Bennett, and Sting, both with Paul Simon and solo.

Now living in Los Angeles with his wife Kaleen in the Laurel Canyon area (he has five children ranging in age from 5 to 27), Fogel works out of Live Nation's Beverly Hills headquarters -- until U2's Innocence + Experience kicks off, since he’s renowned for attending nearly every show that the group has played since 1997.

Producing U2 and Madonna tours in the same year seems a lot to tackle...

They've overlapped before. It makes for an interesting year. I suppose some would look at it as problematic, just in terms of time and attention, but part of the art form is managing multiple projects at the same time. It's funny, in my normal world, I make notes on what I've got to get done the next day and sort of lay it out. I'm now in a zone where I still do that, but before I can even start on that daily list, three or four things will hit the fan that I have to deal with before I can get to what I’ve laid out. These days it’s constantly playing catch-up. The reality is, there are other projects going on as well, so it’s all about managing your time and focus, and in this particular case U2 is starting May 14 in Vancouver and Madonna starts up after the summer, so there is a bit of a gap there.  

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But it’s not like the process starts this year. One would imagine the discussions go back many months for both of these tours.

It obviously ties into other artist activity [such as] a record release, but in its simplest form, once a timeframe is identified, it’s then a question of strategy, looking at historical activity, the state of various markets, the timing, and coming back with a sketch of what it could look like. That starts the discussion of actual timing, sequencing by territory, number of shows, and that sort of stuff. Once everybody has signed off after a bunch of back-and-forth, then you get into venue avails and laying it out so that it works against the sketch. Sometimes you have to change it up a bit, but for the most part, you’re following the road map that everybody agreed on, that makes sense.

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Bono has said that he won’t be able to play guitar in the near future due to his hand injury from his bike accident. Other than that, is he healing apace?

All is good and on track. Some things just can’t be planned for. No question, it was challenging to launch a tour without the benefit of participation by the band. But he had to overcome the injuries, which is a challenge on its own.

With a band like U2, what is consistent across the world, and what was the strategy for Innocence + Experience as a follow-up to 360°?

They have the distinction of being the biggest band in the world. ... Yet we made the decision to come out a totally different way this time -- in arenas, not stadiums, so they could play more shows in one city. It’s eight [nights] in New York, six in London, five in Chicago. Like 360° selling out stadiums, it’s a different way to come at it, but changing things up is good. And the results -- 99 percent of tickets have been sold -- are absolutely fantastic. This is the first time U2 has played arenas in 10 years.

There has been a significant amount of negativity in the media around this cycle.

It’s funny, because the most annoying thing I deal with is people who write about the live business and don’t have a f---ing clue what they’re writing about. It’s like people always want to look at some negative bullshit and not dive into what's the truth, particularly in the blog world. It’s not about fact-checking, it’s about steering an agenda. I suppose it comes with the territory -- when you’re the biggest and the best, you’re more of a target -- but it’s such a silly thing when you’ve sold 99.9 percent of the tickets, averaging over 16,000 per show, 1 million tickets, just crazy numbers. You’re talking about levels of business that most acts don’t see in a career, let alone one leg of a tour. It’s so ridiculous that it can be frustrating. My world isn’t about spin, my world is about facts, and the facts say it’s a home run.

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Fans regularly grouse about the price of tickets. Are bands at the highest level overpriced?

I don’t think so. There’s pricing ­reality and pricing sensitivity, but my belief is that the ticket buyer is sophisticated enough to know that these artists make a serious investment in the show that they want to present. It’s very expensive to create and move around. To a degree, that’s probably the greatest influencer on setting ticket prices.

And the people that it takes to properly execute all this production are also expensive...

No question. You’re dealing with hundreds of very skilled people and cutting edge technology. Most artists want fans to get a great experience and have their creative vision delivered. But it’s not a cheap undertaking to do that and to travel it around the world. I think most people understand that, and certainly with many artists, the fans expect it.

You were out with The Rolling Stones more than 20 years ago while ­working with Michael Cohl on the band’s Voodoo Lounge tour. Did you have any idea then that they would still be performing into their 70s?

It’s funny: I remember seeing Frank Sinatra do a show in his 70s and thinking to myself, “Shit, if Frank can do this, why wouldn’t everybody else?” So the answer is, “Yes, of course.” That’s what they do, and they’re still great performers, great artists, with a great catalog. I’m not ­really surprised -- there is a generation of ­artists who are such incredibly skilled live ­performers and people still want to see them. That’s the magic of our business.​

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There are big tours and big artists and their producers, but you’re in a league of your own as master of the global megatour. How did you end up being that guy?

It goes back to those early days in Toronto, looking at potential opportunities that existed outside of Canada, together with a view that the ultimate touring approach, if you will, would be to look at these tours on a global basis -- for any number of reasons: financial reasons, efficiencies, marketing, a lot of different elements that truly capture a global strategy for a tour. Once that became the model, then it was about gaining the knowledge and experience of the world to be able to execute it. I spent a lot of time and a lot of travel and made it a priority to gain that experience on a global basis. I think that’s really, apart from the financial aspects, the foundation of being a player in that game.

In late 2012, you re-upped for another five years with Live Nation. Given your unique talents, track record, and portfolio of the most successful tours in history, presumably you could do what you do for another firm or as an independent. What is it about your relationship with Michael Rapino and working with Live Nation that is appealing to you?

Ten years in from the spinoff from Clear Channel, I see a true global company footprint -- an industry leader with a great culture. This all comes from the leadership and vision of Michael Rapino. Not only is he a great and skilled CEO, but he is a better human being. When he leads the charge up the hill, he doesn’t need to turn around to see if I -- and, in fact, many others -- are there, and I know the same is true of him. In a community where people pack up in the middle of the night and move across the street, the bond here is unconditional.

How do you feel Live Nation is positioned heading into the next few years? 

This is a company with a number of great assets in terms of our activity and our reach, the perfect blend for our business at this time. The smart managers and business drivers have figured out that this machine has to a lot to offer and making it work for you is how to create the best value and success for their clients. I laugh sometimes when I hear people bemoan the power of the check. Really? This is a business, if I am not mistaken, and it is business between two willing partners, and anyone who thinks it is only about the check is either in denial or looking for an excuse.

Who the F--- Is Arthur Fogel? has been out a while. How do you feel about it?

I find the whole thing a bit awkward, but I’m amazed at the people who say they've seen the movie and enjoyed it. It could be a waiter, a driver; someone told me yesterday they'd seen it on a flight from Dubai.

Why is it important for you to go on the road with U2?

One of the great benefits is that it provides me the opportunity to get everywhere, to stay in touch with markets and market changes, things that are going on in our business around the world. It’s critical, really, that I get that opportunity every few years. On that level, I welcome it, because it’s part of the ongoing ­education ­process. Whenever I think I’ve got a handle on understanding what’s going on, shit ­happens. You can never take it for granted, never be complacent, because it’s ­changing constantly.

A version of this article first appeared in the May 16 issue of Billboard.


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