How powerful is Irving Azoff? So powerful that last year’s Power 100 list-topper arguably got more influential when he stepped down as chairman of Live Nation. After all, at Live Nation he had a specific agenda. Now the industry’s most legendary whirling dervish can apply his unmatchable contacts file and ambition wherever he sees fit, while maintaining his top-grossing management stable that includes the Eagles, Christina Aguilera, Van Halen and Steely Dan, as well as newcomers like Cassadee Pope and Chris Mann.
“It’s strange,” he says. “I’m getting a whole different class of emails now. Before, people assumed I would only advise them based on what made sense for Live Nation. Now I’m getting asked for guidance on everything.”
Azoff resigned his chairmanship just as Billboard’s Power 100 was being assembled, so we decided to give him a year off to decide what’s next. He’s relatively mum on the subject for now.
“I’m humbled and overwhelmed by the response I’ve gotten since re-entering the world of independence,” he says. “Right now I’m focused and extremely happy managing the handful of good friends that came with me when I took Azoff Music [from Live Nation]. I’m mulling a lot of things. Whatever I do will be predicated on being in business with people who are my friends.”
And whatever it is, it will immediately be a powerhouse. — Bill Werde
What do you think power means today?
The ability to get things done because of your credibility. And the credibility comes from having executed before. I don’t think it’s about who sits in what seat anymore. David Geffen probably became more powerful after he left the business. Power comes from two things: being able to analyze a business situation and then execute. A lot of people can do the former. David can do both. He still can pick up the phone and his network of influence is still very broad. If he calls you, you know how smart he is. You never make somebody do anything. But you certainly can argue the wisdom of your position with the history behind you of having been right over and over again.
What is the greatest power move in the music industry’s history?
The power move is the move that starts the two or three more chess moves that leads to checkmate. The  Geffen sale to MCA? It later leads to them acquiring PolyGram, and makes them the biggest record company in the world. The chess move was [then-MCA chairman] Lew [Wasserman] and [then-MCA president/COO] Sid [Sheinberg] acquiring Geffen knowing it was step one of the next move. It was always, “We believe in the music business, and we’ve got to get much bigger.” They knew there would be a second move. I don’t think they anticipated the sale of the company [to Seagram in 1995] being the second move. And then, of course, Seagram buys PolyGram [in 1998, creating the company that becomes Universal Music Group].
The launch of Napster, definitely. It destroyed the economics of the business. [’90s Warner Music Group chairman] Bob Morgado selling Interscope to Doug Morris [in 1996]. The power move was Morgado’s mistake in letting it go. It transformed Warner from the most important player in the business. It was steadily down from there. Morgado made two power mistakes: Booting Interscope out the door and forcing [longtime Warner Bros. Records president] Mo Ostin out [in 1994].
The other power move that really changed the business was [Robert] Sillerman’s rollup and sale of SFX [whose assets ultimately became Live Nation]. That triggered everything else.
What is your greatest power move?
Joining forces with Thomas H. Lee [Partners] to do the Front Line rollup. That was the move that set up all the other moves. It was my idea to put managers together and [THL co-president] Scott Sperling’s idea [was] how to structure and execute it. My concept was, I would merge three or four successful businesses into one company and we’d each keep half our own business and put half in the pot. But those managers were like, “Wait a minute, where’s my check?” Scott was able to structure the rollup in a way that let everyone keep their half but get the check.
Whose power is on the rise?
I think about it in terms of companies. Spotify, iHeartRadio, Pandora, SiriusXM—where do they take us? You have to take the Pandoras and Spotifys seriously because of their valuations. We have power players in the business because the value of their assets exceeds or measures up to the worth of a Live Nation or Universal.
The other rising powers are the Googles, YouTubes and Vevos. It’s all digital. The rising powers in the music business are the people who control them.
If there’s a new owner of AEG, that’ll be a new power in the music business. Clearly the people at AEG are in a very expansionary mood. Which would be more likely to happen under new management than under current. Perhaps [Guggenheim president] Todd Boehly. [laughs] Now you have to add a disclaimer. [Guggenheim owns Billboard, and is reportedly in the running to acquire AEG.]
Universal and Sony talking about bypassing BMI and ASCAP for collections—that’s going to lead to a whole new model of doing business, particularly as it relates to collection of nontraditional revenues. And those nontraditional revenues hold the key to the future of recorded-music companies. We had ASCAP and BMI for 100 years. When you and I talk in five years it will be totally different.
The third rising power in the music business will be Jim Dolan and MSG. I have personal knowledge of their plans to grow their business.
When is the last time someone pulled a power move on you?
[Liberty Media president/CEO] Greg Maffei and [chairman] John Malone. But I’ve signed a confidentiality agreement, so I can’t explain why.
When was the last time you were furious?
Dec. 10 of last year. After the Live Nation board meeting.
What’s a widely held misconception about power?
A lot of people refer to power as shooting a loaded gun. When you have to shoot the gun, you’ve lost the power. Other people’s knowledge of your gun should be enough. Lew Wasserman, arguably the most powerful person in the entertainment business ever, always said, “I’m not powerful. I just have a lot of contacts and friends.” I’ve certainly learned from that.