The inquiry was prompted by a complaint filed this week to the U.K.'s Competition and Markets Authority by Live Nation, the promoter’s U.K. chairman Denis Desmond confirmed to Billboard, over AEG’s booking policy that forced artists who wanted to play the O2 in London to sign a promise they would play Staples Center in LA. Artists who didn't agree could be effectively blocked from the O2. AEG says the block booking policy is a response to an alleged tying arrangement between The Forum and Madison Square Garden.
Azoff tells Billboard that there is no mandated booking link between his group’s venues, the Forum and Garden, which are often promoted by Live Nation but open to all promoters and touring shows.
“A show can play (AEG’s) Staples Center and still play the Garden," he tells Billboard. "You might have to route around basketball and hockey, but you can still play the Garden no matter where you’ve played before.”
AEG officials acknowledged they’d been contacted by regulators and tell Billboard that the “UK Competition & Markets Authority has requested that AEG provide information regarding our booking practices, which AEG will of course provide. We believe our responses will clarify some questions recently brought before them and will be sufficient to allow all parties to move on."
AEG officials also say they are considering ending the pairing of bookings between Staples Center and O2 arena now that Azoff has said that no block-booking exists between the Forum and the Garden. Last night, an official from AEG released the following statement to Billboard:
"We have always been staunch advocates of artists having the freedom to play the venues THEY want to play. That choice was taken away when MSG, supported by others, implemented their restrictive practices forcing artists who wanted to play The Garden to play the Forum in LA. This past July, after protracted use and explicit adoption of these bullying booking policies by MSG with the collaboration of powerful actors in the market, we reluctantly implemented booking practices we felt necessary to protect our company including the artists we serve, our customers, the communities we operate in and our partners, but we have been very clear all along - if market conditions change, AEG will consider reverting to its previous long-standing position that its buildings are open to all artists. The only thing that would make us happier than if Mr. Azoff officially declared that MSG will no longer prevent artists from choosing Staples Center would be if they then actually follow through with it."
An end of the booking wars could be good news for acts and London music fans, who were caught in the middle of the dispute. Touring shows have four venues to chose from in New York -- the Garden, the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Nassau Coliseum on Long Island and the Prudential Center across the river in Newark, New Jersey -- but in London, AEG has a much larger market share with its O2 Arena and SSE Arena at Wembley, while it books the concert series at Hyde Park. (A source at AEG tells Billboard neither Wembley nor Hyde Park were affected by the dispute.)
Following AEG's statement to Billboard, Azoff issued another statement, telling us that he and Madison Square Garden owner James Dolan "are thrilled that AEG has listened to the artists and is going to adopt the same booking policy as MSG. For the record, and at the risk of being redundant: MSG and The Forum are open buildings. We said it and we mean it. Just ask the artists like Katy Perry who played MSG and Staples. So, that settles the matter: AEG and MSG have open buildings."
How the venue wars started is a matter of debate. Officials with AEG first accused Azoff of block booking in April, an accusation Azoff denied, saying that a tying arrangement was never an official policy, explaining in a letter in April that "the premium MSG nights are going to loyal friends of the company” and said that “playing the Forum -- the obviously better music venue in Los Angeles -- makes you a friend of the company."
Two-and-a-half months later, AEG issued its own statement, making explicit a long-deliberated policy to implement block-booking between Staples Center and O2.
"While this coordinated booking strategy seeks to defend our business interests," a July statement from the company reads, "our ultimate objective remains protecting and restoring choice for artists."
That decision prompted Live Nation to file a claim with the U.K.’s Competition and Market Authority, a non-ministerial government department responsible for preventing anti-competitive activities. The commission now has 30 days to respond to the complaint and potentially launch an investigation.
The filing comes one day after the U.K.’s Association of Independent Festivals (AIF), which represents more than 60 festival owners and operators, called on the CMA to investigate Live Nation’s acquisition of the Isle of Wight festival and the concert promoter's growing dominance of the U.K. live music sector.