Michael Rapino likes to hold court in a corner seat of Live Nation's new employee lounge and bar, a space stocked with high-end tequila and craft beer that feels more like a miniature House of Blues than the first-floor reception area of the company's Beverly Hills headquarters. With 50,000 employees spread out across 40 countries, the firm's Southern California office serves as the de facto boardroom for the world's largest music entity, which in 2017 helped artists reap record revenue despite two terrorist attacks at live-music events, including the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
While streaming has revived the recorded-music industry, touring put far more money in artists' pockets in 2017. Spotify "spends a fortune trying to figure out how to get you to spend $9.99 a month. I'm trying to get you to spend $190" for a ticket, says Rapino. "That's a different exercise."
Live Nation is on pace to pay an unparalleled $5 billion to artists in 2017, and, more than ever, live entertainment is driving the music business and fundamentally changing how artists release material, communicate with their fans and earn a living.
That influence is vast. Through Live Nation's Ticketmaster division; its Maverick Management arm, which represents U2 (Billboard's 2017 touring champion), Madonna and Jason Aldean; its recently renewed 10-year, $200 million touring deal with JAY-Z; and its network of venues, festivals and tours, Rapino's empire touches almost every artist who plays a live show.
"He can make the impossible happen and always seems to be available," says Rihanna, whose 2016 Anti tour grossed over $100 million, "which is not an easy task when you are working with hundreds of artists in hundreds of different countries."
With its 2016 acquisition of a majority stake in Greenlight Media & Marketing and the addition of film/TV head Heather Parry, Live Nation has gotten into artist-support businesses that were once the exclusive domain of labels. "We're an important marketing partner," says Rapino, a native of Thunder Bay, Ontario, noting the sales surge that bundling new album releases with tour tickets has achieved, a strategy that sent U2's 2017 album, Songs of Experience, to the top of the Billboard 200.
"We're also helping artists and their managers talk to fans using our data," he says. "Rihanna has 86 million followers [on Twitter]. I have 500 million people who bought tickets on Ticketmaster and 80 million who went to Live Nation concerts. I have a whole sea of data to mine," he says, adding that the more a manager can build an act's audience, "the more control he can have of the business."
From a business standpoint, Live Nation's vitals are strong. Since taking the helm as CEO in 2005, Rapino has quadrupled the company's value to $9 billion, and Billboard estimates the company accounted for 64 percent of tickets sold in North America in 2017, fending off Amazon's advances to disrupt the ticket market. Live Nation also grossed an estimated 43.5 percent more in ticket sales for the year than the next top 10 North American promoters combined -- triple that of its nearest competitor, AEG. The company's stock grew 60 percent from the end of 2016 to the close of 2017, jumping from $22.60 a share to $42.57. During the past nine months, revenue has climbed a staggering 19 percent with Live Nation's three major divisions -- concerts, advertising and ticketing -- hitting record totals.
In the coming year, Rapino says he'll continue focusing on Ticketmaster's Verified Fan platform, which is designed to protect fans and artists from scalper bots, and on aggressive market-driving pricing -- the crux of Taylor Swift's and JAY-Z's "slow ticketing" strategy -- that'll help acts claw back millions from the secondary market.
He'll have time to solidify his strategy. In December, the father of three renewed his contract through 2022. At the top of his agenda is directing Live Nation's resources at preventing terrorism, the live industry's greatest peril and cause of the company's darkest moments in 2017: the attacks in Manchester, England, and at Las Vegas' Route 91 Harvest festival -- events the company promoted -- that, combined, left 82 dead, and have led to drastic reappraisals of security at outdoor events.
Rapino cannot discuss the incidents at length, in part for legal reasons. "They're both horrible," he says. "In Las Vegas, our promoter Brian O'Connell was texting us while hiding underneath his trailer," says Rapino, adding, "Was there any way we could have predicted it?"
He's working on practical solutions. "I can't say that we can stop shootings from the outside, but protecting the venue and what happens around that venue is a key part of being an event producer," he says, adding that action, not fear, drives his decision-making. "I've got a small to-do list," he says, "and a big don't-do list."