Not long after the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival announced its 2017 lineup Tuesday and tickets sold out almost immediately, attention turned to a very different subject regarding Philip Anschutz, the founder of the festival’s parent company. Through his pyramid of financial holdings, the 77-year-old Colorado billionaire businessman owns the Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) and AEG Live, the world’s No. 2 live-event promoter, which operates Goldenvoice, the company that launched Coachella in 1999 and also promotes such events as Stagecoach, Panorama, Firefly and 2016’s most lucrative festival, Desert Trip.
Reports surfaced tying Anschutz to a number of conservative organizations, whose missions, some would say, run counter to the spirit of freedom and inclusiveness embodied in events like Coachella. He is an associate of the fiercely conservative Koch brothers and many of his financial commitments have been purely partisan: Along with his wife Nancy, he donated just over $1 million to Republican causes (according to OpenSecrets.org), with $500,000 directed to the Senate Leadership Fund, a Super PAC that focuses on maintaining and expanding the party’s Senate majority. He has operated for decades with minimal outcry despite accounts that he has backed conservative advocacy groups, including Greenpeace’s 2013 charge that he was a “financier of climate science denial.”
However, there has been greater hue and cry over recent stories identifying his financial support of organizations with aggressive anti-LGBT agendas, such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, the National Christian Foundation, and the Family Research Council. And in 1998, Colorado’s Westword magazine reported that five years earlier, he had contributed $100,000 to Bob Dole’s Republican think tank and that he also “quietly gave $10,000 to the backers of anti-gay-rights Amendment 2.” (At press time, Billboard had not been able to independently verify those claims.)
In response, Anschutz himself has issued a rare public statement on the matter, challenging some of the assertions now circulating: “Recent claims published in the media that I am anti-LGBTQ are nothing more than fake news — it is all garbage,” the statement reads. “I unequivocally support the rights of all people without regard to sexual orientation. We are fortunate to employ a wealth of diverse individuals throughout our family of companies, all of whom are important to us — the only criteria on which they are judged is the quality of their job performance; we do not tolerate discrimination in any form.
“Both The Anschutz Foundation and I contribute to numerous organizations that pursue a wide range of causes,” the statement continues. “Neither I nor the Foundation fund any organization with the purpose or expectation that it would finance anti-LGBTQ initiatives, and when it has come to my attention or the attention of The Anschutz Foundation that certain organizations either the Foundation or I have funded have been supporting such causes, we have immediately ceased all contributions to such groups.”
Anschutz’s political leanings certainly have not been a secret, and a source close to the situation questioned the timing of the articles, which seemed to stem from a Washington Post article published in July that identified him as one of the “enemies of equality” for the LGBT community. The Afropunk site appears to have been the first to publish such a report on Wednesday, although the news quickly spread and gained steam via a post on Teen Vogue.
Billboard reached out to multiple acts on the Coachella lineup for comment, although none have responded as of press time. However, Mitski posted on her Twitter account, linking to the Teen Vogue report and writing, “Ah f—.Well I agreed to do this+not going would only hurt me not the fest, but u can still not go,” adding that those who do attend can “make sure the spaces we inhabit are made safe.”
ah fuck. well I agreed to do this+not going would only hurt me not the fest, but u can still not go (cont’d part 2) https://t.co/a7Nq2MtNc4
— mitski (@mitskileaks) January 5, 2017
At this point it’s difficult to gauge what impact these news reports will have on Anschutz’s live-entertainment companies, as his political views have been public for many years and he has not been known to engage with the AEG Live division, let alone Goldenvoice and Coachella, on a localized level. While for many years he spoke on a daily basis with Tim Leweike, who headed AEG from its founding through his departure in 2013, rather than directly implement strategy with any of the regional offices, Anschutz has opted to focus on larger-scale financial engineering.
The billionaire made his fortune through the oil, railroad and telecom industries, later branching out into real estate and entertainment. His father Fred was an oil wildcatter, who founded the Anschutz Corporation in 1958 and turned it over to his son in 1962. Twenty years later, the younger Anschutz achieved his first stratospheric success (and a $500 million payday) when he sold half of his stake in a tract of Utah land brimming with oil and gas reserves to Mobil. His purchase of the Southern Pacific railroad four later years later yielded a billion-dollar profit when he sold it to Union Pacific in 1996. His next financial triumph came through the formation of Qwest Communications, which Anschutz founded in 1988 after devoting resources to lay fiber-optic cable alongside his railroad land, a smart bet that eventually resulted in a $2 billion IPO in 1997 and larger financial gains in the years to follow.
Through the Anschutz Corporation, the entrepreneur subsequently diversified his portfolio. The Regal Entertainment Group operates over 500 theaters and 7,000 screens across 42 states. The Clarity Media Group owns the San Francisco Examiner, the Weekly Standard and Examiner.com. Xanterra Parks & Resorts is the largest national and state park concessioner in the country. Walden Media, which focuses on “entertainment for the whole family,” is best known for its Chronicles of Narnia films based on the C.S. Lewis book series strongly associated with Christian themes.
The Anschutz Entertainment group came together in 1999 to focus on Anschutz’s expansion into sports and venue ownership. Over the preceding years, he had taken ownership stakes in the Los Angeles Kings hockey team, the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team and three Major League Soccer squads: the Los Angeles Galaxy, the Colorado Rapids, and the Chicago Fire. In 1999, the company opened the 20,000-seat Staples Center, which became home to the Kings, the Lakers, and a second NBA team, the Los Angeles Clippers. AEG Worldwide now owns and operates properties across the globe, including The O2 in London, Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, the Colosseum at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Sydney’s Allphones Arena, Hamburg’s Barclaycard Arena, and the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai.
The AEG Live division was founded in 2001 after the company purchased regional promoter Concerts West in December 2000. Its next major acquisition was Goldenvoice in 2001, and the company’s live-entertainment arm now owns or operates more than 35 venues, produces over 5,000 concerts through its regional offices, and is the promoter of recent tours by The Rolling Stones, Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Kenny Chesney, George Strait, Bruno Mars and many others. All told, the company generated over $1 billion in worldwide ticket sales in 2015, according to Billboard Boxscore, with 2016 on track for similar numbers once the final results are tallied.
And while Coachella 2017 has already sold out and all performers’ contracts have presumably been signed, given the mood of the country in the wake of the recent presidential election, it seems likely this situation will take several more twists and turns before the last act leaves the festival stage on April 23.
–Additional reporting by Jem Aswad