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'A Constant State of Bliss': Woman Nation's Ali Harnell Is Pursuing Her Passion for Advancing Women in Music

Ali Harnell
Diana King

Ali Harnell photographed on Nov. 21, 2019 at Live Nation in Nashville.

"My mandate is to our employees, consumers and shareholders," says the Live Nation exec. "I'm helping to create opportunity and access for women in our microcosm."

"Every day I wake up and feel like I am climbing Mount Everest on roller blades," says Ali Harnell, Live Nation's first president and chief strategy officer of Women Nation. The newly formed division, which Harnell took over in March, has a mandate to tackle issues of gender inequality and sexism in the live-music business even beyond the walls of Live Nation, allowing the longtime AEG veteran to shift her focus from developing female artists as headliners to identifying and recruiting the next generation of female leaders.

Last year, two major chapters in Harnell's life were coming to an end: Her third five-year contract at AEG was expiring, and her son was preparing to leave for college. "It was an emotional time for me," says Harnell. "I got some advice from people I trust, who said, 'Just get really quiet and figure out what you really want to do.'"

After some reflection, Harnell wrote out a mission statement for a project to help women advance in the music industry — and potentially beyond. The proposal made its way to Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino, who had greenlit the Women Nation Fund, an early-stage vehicle launched in May 2018 to focus on female-led live-music businesses. In March, Harnell was hired to manage the fund's initial investments and expand the company's effort to cultivate and support female artists and entrepreneurs.

Unlike other business units at the concert giant, Women Nation operates fluidly. Commuting between Nashville and Los Angeles, Harnell focuses on female-centric commercial endeavors, as well as initiatives to raise awareness about misogyny in the music industry and improve gender parity on the stage and in the boardroom.

Harnell's latest project is promoting Oprah Winfrey's 2020 Vision, a nine-city arena tour in partnership with WW (formerly known as Weight Watchers). "I literally have spent the last six months working on this project in a constant state of bliss," says Harnell. "Can somebody pinch me? Is this my life now?"

What are Women Nation's main goals?

I'm working with a flywheel model with Women Nation at the center. One quadrant is the female-led and female-driven projects, which include Oprah Winfrey, a 100-year celebration of women's right to vote and tours with women like Maren Morris and Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland. It's also supporting and developing female-led festivals. There's external-facing stuff like Spotify's efforts to introduce gender parity in their playlists, as well as our work as delegates to Anita Hill's Hollywood Commission, which is fighting sexual harassment and discrimination in entertainment. There are initiatives like She Is the Music with Stacy Smith at [the University of Southern California's] Annenberg [School], as well as Voices of Change leaders and Safe Tours. And there's working with Live Nation's human resources department and the Women Nation fund that was created before I got to Live Nation to figure out how we move the needle on all of those things.

How did you develop the concept of the Vision 2020 tour with Winfrey and her team?

The idea originated with WW, which wanted to put a wellness tour together, and because Oprah is involved in WW, it was a natural fit. It's the power of Oprah and her guests that make this format work — a different guest in each city for these one-on-one, kind of Super Soul conversations. We need it — the world sucks right now.

Did that feeling — about the state of the world — compel you to work on this project?

[After] 2016, it felt really palpable and clear that misogyny exists. We're living in an age, post-Harvey Weinstein, where men are like, "Oh, wait. I can't do that anymore. I'm on better behavior now." And that's starting to help shift things that are hard for women. But watching what happened with Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford, and knowing for myself and my sisters in the world that things are still so unbalanced, I asked myself, "What do we have to do to get heard and to have equity to advance?"

The WW tour made advancing gender equity full time for you.

Yes, and I eventually wrote this statement about how I envision a new breed of entertainment division that focuses on advancing women. [Live Nation CEO] Michael Rapino got his hands on it and within five seconds he said, "I love this. Let's do it." I'll never forget what he told me next: "Until we're focused on this 24/7, we're never going to change it. So come help me and let's focus on it together."

How will your mandate reach beyond Live Nation?

[Gender] inequality exists, and solving the problem means more women in leadership positions. I work for Live Nation, so my mandate is to our employees, consumers and shareholders. I'm helping to create opportunity and access for women in our microcosm.

As someone who spent a lot of time in country music, what do you think of the gender inequality debate about country radio?

The success of the bro country sound created this other narrative for the radio stations that led to them just playing one sound that they're now afraid to move away from. And the listener's ear moves slowly. Radio will tell you women-led country acts "don't sell advertising." Instead of trying to dig in and figure out how to get women's voices back on the radio, they just go to their corner and keep doing what they think is working.

You shaped artists like Little Big Town, Hunter Hayes. Would you ever do artist development full time?

Yes, if it is in the service of supporting and advancing women. I believe that Maren Morris can be a stadium act, and I believe in her manager Janet Weir, and I want to do everything I can to help them get there. The same with Brandi Carlile. Anything I can do to support the message that Brandi sends to young women is the kind of message I want to be behind. Jennifer Nettles — same thing. She came out at the Country Music Association Awards wearing a skirt that said "equal play." I have learned so much from these women.

What will you be most focused on in 2020?

Building awareness of these incredible female artists. If you help them get played on radio and playlisted on the digital streaming platforms, that helps strengthen their touring business and land festival spots. It's all part of the machine. Once you understand how the machine works, you can start to make real change.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 14 issue of Billboard.


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