With the touring business increasingly dominated by concert promotion giants Live Nation and AEG, it ain’t easy being an independent promoter. Vaughn Millette, though relatively new on the scene, may be better prepared than most.
“I’m kind of a self-taught, obsessive student of military special operations — a small unit trying to take out a bigger army with a quick strike,” says the soft-spoken, 42-year-old father of three. “The main theory is you’re trying to achieve relative supremacy before the opponent knows you’re there.” Millette merged his small startup, Jobu Presents, with the 20-year-old, Nashville-based indie promoter Outback Concerts in December, acquiring the majority of the shares, quietly relaunching with Outback founder Mike Smardak as Outback Presents in January and doubling staff since then.
A former wealth adviser, Millette first tested his special-ops skills in another industry — the energy sector — founding a power-plant-finance startup that competed “with the Shells and Chevrons of the world” before selling his pipeline to Panasonic in 2014.
Scouring the business world for industries to disrupt, Millette became intrigued by live music and set out to understand it from the inside. He started by helping promoters distribute thousands of tickets to the secondary market before they went on sale widely.
As he armed himself with insight, he launched Jobu Presents in 2016, and was hired to produce the Prince tribute concert following the pop star’s death that April. Millette backed out and sued the Prince estate and its former administrator and advisers for fraud. That landed Millette’s stealth unit in the press for the first time — and hurt business, he says.
But then he landed his first big artist client: Jason Isbell. Millette promoted Isbell’s tours through 2018, while pitching a wide range of top acts and their teams on why they should let him promote their concerts. Artists often “only see 50% of the actual revenue” from a show, says Millette, when a promoter might have promised 90%. Now working with nearly 100 acts — including Alan Jackson and Alabama — through Outback Presents, Millette spoke with Billboard on his plans to become the third bidder for major tours.
Five years ago you were building power plants. What led you into the concert business?
I wanted another big challenge in a new market, so I started to look at the monopolies, or so-called monopolies out there, to see what looked the most vulnerable. I was looking for a life that would be a little better than the power plant business, with better travel and less regulation, so I landed on live music. As I started to learn how it worked, I quickly became obsessed and started a mission to clean it all up.
What did you want to clean up?
I saw how a show settlement happens. The promoter’s expenses are not always how they are printed. As an outsider to music, it struck me as jaw-dropping. It might be common practice in music, but that doesn’t change the laws of our country. The ways tickets get out to the secondary market also struck me as very, very wrong.
How do tickets get there?
Through sponsorship, through direct-to-broker deals. I think that if Live Nation woke up tomorrow morning and decided there should be no secondary market, there wouldn’t be. That technology exists. Minimally, it could be an option for artists who want to sell tickets to fans at reasonable prices. But they’re making $1 billion-plus from the secondary market and they need to grow that as a public company.
So what was your first move?
I thought I needed a perfect understanding of how it all functioned before I could possibly concoct a plan to make it better. I started by putting myself out there to people in the industry and my future competitors as someone who could help them sell tickets. Seeing the tickets flow directly to me in the thousands per show, before the on-sale, was eye-opening. But I never bought a ticket as a broker. I was just seeking proof of how it worked.
Then you launched your own company. How did you get anyone to buy in?
I went around and pitched my idea, and how it could work and what a tour could look like — and I got a lot of, “That sounds great, come back to me when I can be No. 2.” It took about 12 months before I got client 1, Jason Isbell, to whom I will always owe the largest debt of gratitude. He said, “The music industry needs this, and someone’s got to be first, so I’ll do it.”
How do you run your current business differently from your rivals?
We differ through being real partners and perfectly transparent with artists, so all our expenses are the exact dollars we spent, and we show that. If rent is rebated back, that rebate flows back to our artists. If the venue rebates it back, we don’t print a $50,000 rent but then get $30,000 back from the venue and continue to pretend as if the rent was $50,000 when it was always agreed that we would get $30,000 back. Also, we do not ever put a ticket anywhere without our artists signing off on it.
Given your experience helping promoters move tickets on the secondary market, do you offer your artists that service?
We do not. I don’t want to be putting tickets on the secondary market in any way. That said, we have done an experiment or two to see if there are ways to hurt broker pricing. We’re really trying to make sure fans can buy tickets at the price the artist wants them to.
But what if an artist wants to sell their own tickets on the secondary market?
Our artists would actually use Ticketmaster Platinum. That way they’re being up front with their fans.
You also promise year-round media support. What does that mean?
There’s opportunity for every tour to be better marketed — it’s often done in too cookie-cutter of a way. As a thank you to Jason Isbell, we ran a couple hundred commercials on the History Channel for his album, which was nonrecoupable to us. I think the album recharted for a time. Tour marketing itself is rather ineffective. We need to spend a year trying to market the artist’s music, to convert a bigger percentage of locals to fans.
Have you seen that work yet?
We more than doubled the ticket sales and gross for two artists that were previously working with a competitor, who claimed we couldn’t sell tickets. One artist went from grossing $250,000 on average to $600,000.
Where does your funding come from?
We have a private equity fund that supports our tour advances and guarantees, and otherwise we’re self-financed. We’re fortunate that we can match any tour offer — the nine-digit offers that most independents can’t.
The live business is booming and many artists think they’re making plenty of money with their current promoters. Why would they switch?
To artists who want to be treated as true partners and not just cash cows, and artists who care about their fans and don’t want them being gouged by their own promoters, you should come work with us. To employees of our competitors who are tired of having to do the things they do to people they consider friends, you should come work with us. This is still the beginning. But we are here to change it all, and we are not going anywhere.