Neil Diamond and J. Cole Caught in the Crossfire as Irving Azoff and AEG's Booking War Escalates
A-list artists choosing Staples over The Forum can forget about playing Madison Square Garden, as Azoff and Jay Marciano clash over exclusives.
On Nov. 23, 2016, 10 days after William Morris Endeavor worldwide head of music Marc Geiger confirmed that his client Neil Diamond would play two August 2017 dates at the AEG-owned Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, he emailed the arena's vp of booking and events with bad news: He was moving the show to The Forum in nearby Inglewood, Calif., an arena owned by Azoff MSG Entertainment, after "getting squeezed" by one of its partners, longtime music power broker Irving Azoff.
"We explored all our options," wrote Geiger, explaining that Diamond had already played the AEG-affiliated Barclays Center in Brooklyn and wanted to play Madison Square Garden, which is programmed by Azoff MSG Entertainment, on his current tour, adding, "I'm just trying to be honest."
The email -- which prompted an angry response from AEG Live chairman Jay Marciano, accusing Geiger of "caving" to Azoff's demands -- has since become Exhibit A in an increasingly acrimonious rivalry between AEG and Azoff's two ventures in the live-event biz: Azoff MSG Entertainment, a partnership with Madison Square Garden executive chairman James Dolan and Oak View Group, run by ex-AEG CEO Tim Leiweke.
The epicenter of the clash is Los Angeles, where booking agents say they've been informed that acts can't play Madison Square Garden if they don't play the 17,800-capacity Forum, which grossed $64.1 million in 2016, according to Billboard Boxscore. Conversely, AEG stands accused of attempting to push hip-hop artist J. Cole into a similar arrangement in January: Play the Staples Center (capacity: 20,000; $53.6 million gross in 2016) or lose a chance to perform at their O2 Arena in London. (AEG backed off the demand amid threats of antitrust lawsuits from the promoter of Cole's tour, Live Nation.)
While several booking agents say it's normal for major promoters to offer incentives for acts to play multiple venues owned or programmed by the promoter, they feel increasingly trapped in a lose-lose situation now that AEG and Azoff MSG Entertainment have drawn a line in the Los Angeles sand. They add that the situation has worsened during the past year, in the wake of an aggressive pricing and rebate structure that AEG's Staples Center created to win back a number of shows that were moved to The Forum.
"We would prefer not to have to re-evaluate our current practices, but we need to protect our business," says Marciano. "This is all about artists having the freedom to choose which venues they wish to [play]." Asked to comment, Azoff sent Billboard a statement in which he characterized the behind-the-scenes dealings as "good, tough business."
"While I realize [AEG owner] Phil Anschutz may not be happy with Los Angeles being a competitive market, that's the American way," wrote Azoff.
He also called allegations that he was pressuring bookers "ass-backwards," adding, "What really goes on when Live Nation gets a big tour is, the good folks at AEG bombard agents, managers and [others] with blatant attempts to cost my team a bunch of money at The Forum. They offer huge rebates at [AEG venues] and a residency on the moon to secure an act [at] Staples."
From Azoff's perspective, tying Forum plays to Garden access is good artist relations. "We have far less nights available than requests by artists to play there," he wrote. "The premium MSG nights are going to loyal friends of the company, and playing The Forum ... makes you a friend of the company."
Los Angeles is not the only market where AEG and Azoff are clashing. In Seattle, Azoff's Oak View Group is attempting to wrest control of the city's KeyArena from AEG, which currently operates the venue.
Industry insiders note that the seeds of the feud may have been sewn around 2008 when Azoff was the CEO of Ticketmaster. He and Dolan approached Anschutz about merging the ticketing company with MSG and AEG to take on Live Nation. The negotiations collapsed resulting in bad blood among the parties (and in 2009 Azoff emerged as the CEO of a merged Live Nation and Ticketmaster). Leiweke’s relationship with Anschutz also deteriorated in the wake of his abrupt departure from AEG in 2013.
Although top-shelf acts such as Adele, who played both Staples and the Garden in 2016, have not been affected, and artists like Drake have sidestepped the conflict by playing both L.A. venues, Live Nation has relocated a number of shows to The Forum. "If it continues to blow up in AEG's face, they'll have to become more aggressive," says one top agent. Says another, "I think it gets worse before it gets better. Irving and Dolan won't drop the fight."
This article originally appeared in the April 29 issue of Billboard.