Former AEG Live Exec Rob Hallett Talks Essence Festival In South Africa, Brexit & Why the Live Market Is In Trouble: Exclusive Q&A

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Rob Hallett photographed at Hyde Park on July 4, 2013 in London.

In May 2014, Rob Hallett exited his post as president of international touring for AEG Live after 10 hugely successful years that saw him oversee some of the highest grossing and most successful tours of the past decade, including treks by Leonard Cohen, Justin Bieber, Usher, Backstreet Boys, the Rolling Stones, Prince, Rod Stewart, the Who, and Bon Jovi, as well as help establish The O2 arena in London as the highest-grossing concert venue in the world.

"It has been a fantastic 10-year run," Hallett told Billboard at the time of his departure, noting that "there are so many more opportunities out there, and I want to take advantage of them."

To that end, in January 2015 he launched his new venture, entitled Robomagic in homage to the 1973 Kurt Vonnegut novel "Breakfast of Champions," which features a company called The Robo-Magic Corporation of America. Born out of the "desire to make the lives of both established and aspiring artistes much fairer and more equitable" the London-based independent business encompasses live and capital arms, as well as a 360 division that offers publishing, artist and brand management.

Duran Duran, Will.i.am, Mary J. Blige, Maxwell, A.R. Rahman are among the list of artists that Hallett has worked with since going it alone, with British alt. duo The Nova Twins on Robomagic's management roster.

"It's been an eventful and exciting 18 months," Hallett tells Billboard ahead of the Essence Festival in Durban, South Africa, the sister event of the annual Essence Festival in New Orleans, which is co-produced by Robomagic and takes place Nov. 8-13 at the city's Moses Mabhida Stadium and the International Convention Center.

Billboard: You're part of the team that's bringing the New Orleans-based Essence Festival for its inaugural edition in South Africa. How did that come about and how will it differ from the U.S. event?   

Hallett: I've know the folks at Essence for some time and they made a branding deal with Durban City to produce as close-to-possible facsimile of what occurs in New Orleans every year. I'm working with two South African partners – Ben Moseme at C-Squared and Mike Fuller at Famous Concerts - to produce this in Durban. It's going to include two stadium shows, one of which will be a contemporary all-star night featuring Ne-Yo, Wizkid, Black Coffee, Burna Boy and Cassper Nyovest. Then on the Sunday, we're doing an all-star gospel shows headlined by Yolanda Adams and Mary Mary, along with the best of South African talent. It will be a joyous celebration and is an exciting and interesting project to be involved with. 

You've got a long history of promoting shows throughout Africa, including treks by Bon Jovi, Justin Bieber and Usher, among others. How do you think the continent's music scene has developed in that time?

I first went there in 1994 not long after Nelson Mandela had been elected president and was power sharing with F. W. de Klerk. I was there again recently at the Mangaung African Cultural Festival (MACUFE) and I was saying to people there how remarkably different it is now. To see 20,000 people in a field in middle of a town celebrating South African music and culture was just terrific. I think the whole of Africa is on a trajectory to catch-up [with the West] and I think it will certainly be flying within my lifetime. I'm sure we'll be doing major tours all throughout Africa soon, including Tanzania Kenya, Nigeria, Botswana and Mozambique. The continent is finally coming alive.  

Are large parts of the continent still untapped when it comes to live music?

Absolutely. It's taken years to throw off its shackles and start becoming independent economically. Education is now kicking to empower the next generation of Africans and in a couple of hundred years' time [the West] will probably be the third world. Sadly, as we've seen with Brexit, I'm probably not exaggerating.

How has Brexit impacted on your business? 

With the pound against the dollar the lowest it's been since 1985, to bring American acts over is really tough. $50,000 now costs me 20 percent more than it cost me before June 23 [the date of the EU referendum]. For English acts touring America and Europe, one could argue there are some advantages because the dollars and euros they are bringing back are worth more. But if they are getting tour support and are based on a pound economy, I doubt whether that will make up for the extra costs of hotels or services that they need to pay with sterling. It's very scary times. Is Brexit is a tsunami that's flowing through our economy that will soon end and we'll see regrowth? Will the weakened dollar expand into greater long-term export business and grow the economy that way? Who knows? It's interesting times for us all.

It's almost two years since you formed Robomagic. Looking back, how has it been?

It's been a turbulent sea, shall we say, and Brexit in the middle doesn't help. There's been three major highlights for me. My first arena tour as Robomagic was Duran Duran, who I have had a relationship with since the early 1980s, so the synergy there was kind of cool. Doing something original and different with Will.i.am at the Royal Albert Hall where we did two shows in a day to launch a product [Will.i.am's dial smart watch] and gave away every single ticket was a lot of fun. The other is working with Nile Rodgers to establish Fulham Palace as a new festival site in the centre of London. So it's been an eventful and exciting 18 months.

When you launched Robomagic in January 2015 you described it as adopting a new disruptive business model. Does that description still apply today?

Yes and no. It's certainly disruptive for myself, but I think it's it's morphed into quite a new model whereby I'm producing events in Africa. I'm helping Will.i.am launch his new product. I'm in talks about producing events around the IAAF World Championships [in London] next August. I'm managing a group called The Nova Twins. I'm having a lot of fun and I'm not being restricted into one little box or going down one track. I can bob and weave and disrupt as I please. The team here doesn't have boundaries, the same as I don't. If they find an opportunity that makes sense, then we go for it.

What's your view on the health of the current live market?

I don't think the live market is as healthy as people pretend it is. There's an unnatural amount of money sloshing through it that wouldn't under normal circumstances slosh through. That's because there's never been a player before who can afford to lose the kind of money as some of the current players dominating the market can. That puts a different slant on the business because it changes the revenues streams and dramatically changes the world that we work in. It's virtually impossible for a young kid of 17 to come into the business now and build a career the way I did. It's interesting. I don't think the event business is just going to be about music in the years to come. A new generation wants to be entertained in various ways. Music will still be the core of the event business, but not its only content stream.

What do you think the most pressing issue facing the industry currently is?

Getting record companies, promoters and agents to work together to grow new talent for the future. A lot of people say secondary ticketing, but we have got to get acts to sell the fucking [primary] tickets before secondary tickets become valuable. How many tickets remained unsold this summer? How much was lost in festivals this summer due to lack of content and the same old tired acts going around doing the same old festivals? Millions of pounds are dropped in this country alone. On a Pan-European basis it's tens of millions. And everyone is going: 'Secondary ticketing [is the biggest issue] because someone made a fiver ($6.00) out of me.' It is important, yes. It's wrong, yes. But I think technology will eventually stifle it anyway with new forms of mobile ticketing. The main thing as an industry is that we've got to stop throwing so much money down the toilet.

Is inflated fees for live bookings a large part of the problem?

Yeah, the money that's being paid, not just for veteran acts, but for newer acts who have had a couple of hits [is too high]. There's too many festivals. Everyone's fighting for artists, consequently the festival market gets messed up. One of the words that needs to be in the promoter's vocabulary more is the word no. It's a two letter, one syllable word that most promoters seems unable to use.