The New Pioneers: Irving Azoff on His Plan to Deal With the 'StubHub Factor' -- 'You Have Lots of People Escaping With Lots of Money'

Monica Schipper/Getty Images for AWXI
Irving Azoff

Some music executives see things as they are and say why. Irving Azoff dreams things that never were and asks, "Why the f-- not?"

During the course of his half-century in the music business, Azoff, 68, has asked this so often -- usually at high volume, seldom politely -- that he has changed more facets of the industry than anyone else.

Two decades ago, Azoff asked why his biggest management clients, like the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, weren't getting higher percentages of concert grosses and merchandise sales -- and changed the economics of the touring business. Then he wondered why the live-music industry was so fragmented -- and helped bring together Front Line Management, Ticketmaster and Live Nation into a concert colossus. And he has spent much of this year calling out YouTube for paying creators less than Spotify. "Artists aren't getting their due on YouTube," he tells Billboard. "And I don't give a shit what YouTube thinks -- I'm right."

Through Azoff MSG Entertainment, a company funded by the Madison Square Garden Company, Azoff still manages '70s icons like the Eagles and Steely Dan, plus such pop artists as Christina Aguilera and Gwen Stefani. But his most potentially disruptive project is Global Music Rights, a for-profit firm that will compete with performing rights organizations ASCAP and BMI to represent top songwriters, then collect money on their behalf when their compositions are performed in public and online. It's a part of the music business that no one has entered for more than 75 years.​

Irving Azoff Calls on Music Industry to 'Work Together' in National Music Publishers' Assn. Keynote

"I can't understand how a couple of nonprofits that are supposed to represent the interests of writers have operated their businesses the way they have," says Azoff with characteristic bluntness. The goal of Global Music Rights is to assemble enough songwriters -- including Pharrell Williams, Smokey Robinson and Bruno Mars -- to negotiate better public performance rights payments from radio stations, restaurants and online music services. "We have a full roster of songwriters that nobody can, shall we say, comfortably exist without," he says.

Azoff ran two labels (MCA Music Entertainment in the '80s, Giant Records in the '90s) and a concert conglomerate (he was CEO of Ticketmaster and chairman of Live Nation after the companies merged), but he is best known as a manager and dealmaker who has leveraged artists' power for their own benefit. (Earlier this year, his son Jeffrey formed a new company, Full Stop, that will manage Harry Styles and other acts.) At Front Line, he bought up enough management companies to win better terms from promoters, merchandisers and sponsors. A similar concept is behind the Arena Alliance, a new organization run by Oak View Group that brings together 24 of the top 27 U.S. arenas to give them advantages in marketing and selling tickets. (Azoff also oversaw the Madison Square Garden Company's restoration of The Forum in Inglewood, Calif., and its deal to build a new entertainment arena in Las Vegas.) "If roll-ups are done properly," says Azoff, "they provide better economics for artists."

Next, Azoff plans to enter the high-end VIP ticket business for sports and music, in partnership with Live Nation and a technology company he is not ready to name. "It's my answer to what's broken in the system, which is what I call 'the StubHub factor,' " he says. "You have lots of people with no skin in the game escaping with lots of money."

To Azoff, it's only natural to wonder why that money doesn't go to artists themselves. "If you make the right decisions for creative people, it will eventually be the right decision for your business," he says. "I don't consider a lot of what we do disruptive -- I consider it common sense."

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 20 issue of Billboard.