'We Were Ashamed' of the Rock on the Range Experience: Wimmer and Hayes Talk AEG Divorce
The Danny Wimmer Presents execs say AEG's lawsuit came after a turning point for rock fests: "We couldn't just be this bare bones stadium festival, because at some point, fans would say 'I've done this.’"
Danny Wimmer and his lawyer-turned-business partner and longtime friend Danny Hayes have sage advice for anyone wanting to get into the rock space -- don’t do it.
“We want to take this moment to say rock music is really tricky and you’re probably not going to get it right, so don’t do it,” jokes Hayes from the offices of Danny Wimmer Presents in LA. Wimmer has his laptop open and is going through the company’s portfolio of events including its two new festivals — Sonic Temple in Columbus, Ohio and Epicenter in North Carolina, a multi-stage experiential camping rock festival near a drag-racing track that’s been rechristened Rockingham Festival grounds, about an hour east of Charlotte.
Wimmer also promotes a festival series in Louisville, Ky and is booking Woodstock 50, the golden anniversary of the famed 1969 festival with Woodstock co-founder Michael Lang and support from Superfly. Wimmer’s pupil’s widen when he talks about the Aug. 14-16 mega-festival in Watkins Glen, NY -- "it’s a really big deal,” says Wimmer, who hints he’s looking forward to discussing the sprawling lineup when it’s released later this month.
Add in Sacramento, Calif’s Aftershock festival, the Chicago Open Air festival and Rock Allegiance in Camden, NJ (which it promotes with Live Nation), plus its two festivals in Florida and Danny Wimmer Presents is producing 10 festivals in 2019.
"Festivals are our heart and soul and our main business," says Hayes, a former music lawyer who represented Wimmer and encouraged him to launch his own company in 2011. Four years later, Wimmer hired Hayes as CEO of Danny Wimmer Presents, which in 2016 was ranked No. 266 on the Inc. 5000 list of fast-growing companies.
Wimmer said the packed lineups for his two new festivals -- including Korn, Rob Zombie and Tool at Sonic Temple -- is the dream lineup he’s always wanted, but has also come at the cost of a split with former business parter AEG, who sued DWP in November after being in business for six years.
"The festivals represented different things in each of our portfolios,” explains Hayes. "For us, Rock on the Range is our Coachella and we're trying to build a business around some anchor brands. For them Rock on the Range is tiny little festival that just cashflows a satellite office and no one's interested in investing in its future. Let's just take the cash today, right?"
Earlier this week, attorneys for Wimmer filed a notice of demurrer to AEG's 25-count lawsuit, asking an LA County Superior Court judge to dismiss most of the breach of contract and copyright infringement counts against Wimmer. Wimmer's attorney also published both joint venture agreements with AEG for Rock on the Range and Carolina Rebelion, showing that each co-promotion deal ended at the conclusion of the festival and that neither party were obligated to move forward on future events if disagreements between the two weren't resolved.
Hayes said that Wimmer’s vision for the festival was "never fulfilled and it was very frustrating for us over the last six years to have a partner who won't agree to the investment needed for talent, art budgets and experiential elements needed to keep growing the business,” adding “the last two years really did not hold up to what we had done at our other events, like Louder than Life. We were ashamed and disappointed with the Rock on the Range experience. What got us through the first 12 years was not going to get us through the next 12 years.”
Wimmer said the two firms often disagreed about headliners. While Wimmer didn't discuss specific headliners for Carolina Rebellion, Billboard has learned that there was a disagreement in 2017 between Wimmer and AEG over the booking of Def Leppard. Wimmer said AEG had helped book Metallica for Rock on the Range and said he was concerned that Carolina fans would be disappointed not getting a band like Metallica.
“I had a different act I wanted to book, but I needed all three festivals to make it work,” Wimmers explains, saying he often shared headliners with his wholly owned festival Welcome to Rockville in Jacksonville, Flor. and Northern Invasion in Somerset, Wis. which is jointly owned with AEG and said disagreements over Rock on the Range and Carolina Rebelion were affecting his other properties.
“In 2017 the act we wanted to book needed three dates— Jacksonville, Carolina and Northern Invasion — to make the economics work, and not getting that act really hurt our solo shows. We could not continue operating that way,” Wimmer explains. The two sides went back and forth over ending their joint venture and AEG offered to buy out Rock on the Range and Carolina Rebelion (but not DWP's other events), which "is like ripping the heart out of a person” explains Hayes, because the other DWP properties would not have likely survived without Rock on the Range and Carolina Rebelion as anchors.
Hayes said the two companies operated on a year-by-year basis and provided a copy of the company's 2017 agreement for Rock on the Range which did not have a buy-sell provision. Instead both sides has been operating with only the “nuclear option” — essentially the right to end the partnership, mothball the two festivals and start from scratch.
"What got Rock on the Range where it is today wasn't going to keep going,” Hayes said. "We couldn't just be this bare bones stadium festival, because at some point, fans would say 'I've done this.’”
In September 2018, Wimmer and partner Gary Spivack announced on a Columbus radio station that they were "divorcing AEG” and hinted that a new event was coming under the DWP banner. In November, Wimmer announced the lineup for his new Columbus rock festival Sonic Temple at Mapre Stadium, which had been the former home of Rock on the Range. Free to book shows outside of the confines of hard rock, Wimmer booked six headliners including British electronic pioneers The Prodigy, fast-rising metalcore band Bring Me the Horizon and rock legends the Foo Fighters.
“This is the lineup I always wanted,” said Wimmer, who said AEG was aware of the artist list and tried to book the same bands at a rival event at Ohio State’s Football stadium — “the bands signed with us,” we won, said Hayes, explaining he felt that Wimmer had outmaneuvered his ex-partners and competed fairly for the headliners, adding it “was a little bit of both” credibility and Wimmer’s offer to pay more than AEG that helped him get the acts.
While Wimmer and Hayes describe the split with AEG as amicable, the Phil Anschutz-backed promoter accused DWP of using "deceit and fraud to achieve its goal of stealing" the "highly acclaimed festivals" Rock on the Range and Carolina Rebelion and filed a 25-count lawsuit against Wimmer.
"What DWP has failed to tell the public is that unlike in most divorces, where the partners liquidate the assets and distribute them to each of the partners, here (Wimmer) a latecomer to the partnerships, has unilaterally taken for itself the partnerships’ sole assets -- Rock on the Range and Carolina Rebellion -- in their entirety, without AEG’s consent and without compensating AEG for its share of such assets,” AEG’s civil complaint from November 2018 reads.
Wimmer said he is trying to compartmentalize the lawsuit and focus on his festival portfolio, which includes an event series for Louisville with Bourbon and Beyond and Louder than Life. Later this year, he’ll announce the lineup for his third Louisville concept, Hometown Rising, an alt-country and southern-rock driven beer, bourbon and gourmet food festival at Champions Park.
Also in the works -- a touring division to help book shows for some of the festival acts that play his events, booking one-off shows and headline tours for the growing roster of bands DWP books for its growing festival portfolio.
"We're really focused on rock and we have a great relationship with the consumer, a lot of trust in the community and incredible relationship with media and all the bloggers,” Wimmer says. “I’ll hear from bands that will say they’d love to play Welcome to Rockville, but it just doesn't make sense to just play one show. I’d want to be able to offer two festivals plus (headline concerts) in Nashville, Birmingham and Norfolk. That's five offers for the band, it makes a lot more sense and it takes some pressure off the festival guarantees.”
See all the festivals being produced by Danny Wimmer Presents here.