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COMBO PLATTER:
IRVING + HITS 2021

It’s a rare thing to be granted an in-person audience with Irving Azoff; this time our summit with the mogul’s mogul took place outdoors over matzo-ball soup and whitefish salad at Shelli-owned Beverly Hills eatery Nate ’n Al’s (we’d have done The Apple Pan, but the counter would’ve been awkward). We found the legendary manager, exec and entrepreneur in fine fettle a half-century into his unbelievable career as he discussed the post-pandemic touring landscape, artists’ rights, the catalog marketplace and the lure of the green (by which we mean golf).

LB: Do you believe the pandemic is largely over?
I wish I could say that. I'm guardedly optimistic that it is. But when you realize that Canada’s shut down, Germany’s shut down, India is a disaster… we learned through this whole thing that the medical experts don't always really know; it went from “don't wear masks” to “wear masks” to “wash everything that comes near your house” to “Oh, that's not how it spreads.” It can't be bad that so many people are vaccinated. And then when you look at countries like Israel, the U.S. and the U.K., their rates are way down. It tells you that—perhaps—we're going to be OK.

SG: How have you handled what the artists have been going through? With touring on hold, so many have been in crisis.

LB: And they’re all calling you. And maybe for the first time ever, you don't have the answers.
But we always have the answer, whether we know or not. The key to the management business and dealing with clients is you always have the answers, whether you know or not. You have to say it with confidence because you can only take your best guess and hope you're right. None of us are right all the time. I don't think anybody predicted what we're seeing here. It’s going to be a full 18 months of no shows, at best.

LB: And now we’re coming back, so what about booking tours?
Look, if you've got a tour up in August that you've moved from last year, you're going to have to commit millions of dollars to pre-production—hiring people, building and everything. And then what if four states say you can't play at all? Or a bunch of states say you have to play at 50% capacity? We know all the economics in the touring business are at 85% of ticket sales. So it's a crapshoot, and you cannot buy insurance against it. So many artists are just wishing for this to end. They need to pay themselves and their crews. Some people go out as quickly as they can, even if it ends up that they can only play dates regionally.

LB: Does that include you and your team?
No. Luckily for us, we're a large group of managers with a lot of artists. So different acts, I think, are going to make different decisions. The earliest full tour that we have is early August, and some of our acts, like Earth, Wind & Fire and Steely Dan, opted to start in the fall and not even try to fold in their summer stuff.

Obviously, you're going to see a lot of action in the amphitheaters and outdoor situations because they're more likely to be approved at higher capacity. So, for example, on Maroon 5, we've moved into mostly outdoors and we're hoping we can go. We're gearing up to try. Obviously outdoors feels smarter. The two big ones that I'm trying to get out the door are both outdoors: Maroon 5 and Dead & Company.

We're all in the business of gambling. So if I had to handicap it, I feel 75-25 that we're on the road to prosperity. And when it is 100% open, I think we're going to see unprecedented demand. Oh my God, I can't even imagine what it's going to be like at some of these first sold-out shows—people are going to go nuts. If you look at what went on in Orlando on the UFC thing, it was 16,000 screaming, unmasked, happy people.

SG: There’s been no public life. People are just starving.
I agree. The 1920s are going to be nothing compared to the 2020s.

LB: What about pricing? Is there going to be a pricing boom?
We haven't done a very good job and the pandemic has set us back. As long as scalping is legal, we, as managers, promoters and artists are allowing a bunch of it to escape. As an industry, we don't take a stand against it and these big scalper companies have been bought up by big private equity companies.

LB: If I had to pay X to see the Eagles two years ago, will I pay 2X now?
No, you can pay whatever you want. You can wait until the day of the show and some scalper is going to have a ticket up in the fourth balcony that he didn't get rid of and rather than throw it away, he's going to sell it to you for $25. If you're a fan, you can pay $2,500 for something down front or $25 and we can't legally stop that though we're still trying. [Ticketmaster’s] Verified Fan was off to a great start and then the pandemic hit. But we're going to take up the fight again.

LB: Are you going to make deals with the secondary markets so that your artists make more money?
No. We're going to price our tickets right and try and police it as best we can. I don't know how any artist thinks their fan would think it's OK for them to scalp their own tickets. If you want to charge $2,500 per ticket, charge it. But to charge $200 and then get $1,100 of it back under the table from the scalper? That’s not transparent or in keeping with the commitment you have to your fans. If you want to charge what your tickets are worth, go ahead, but have the balls to do it. Don't hide behind scalpers.

LB: So let's play out the boom mentality. We've seen in the last couple of years that the value of music assets has gone crazy. What Merck started, which people thought was a lark and were badmouthing, now seems to be more and more of a general practice. Even the majors are buying Bob Dylan and spending enormous amounts betting on this.
Well, I've raised hundreds of millions of dollars to provide an alternative in that marketplace. Our model is different than other players. I don’t want any artist who doesn’t want to sell to sell. But if they want to sell, I want them to have the opportunity to work with a company that is a safe haven for artists where their IP is going to be looked after forever—long after I'm gone and everybody on our team is gone. Record companies exist for decades to look after records. Publishers exist to look after songs. Iconic is going to look after the legacy of the artist with a holistic view.

We're kind of niche buyers. I'm looking at the iconic artists where I really think we can add something. We're going to announce a major deal with a streamer for the definitive documentary on The Beach Boys and a 60th anniversary celebration. We’re planning a tribute concert affiliated with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and SiriusXM, with amazing acts. That’s adding value, and that’s why I invested in The Beach Boys. And when you've got artists like Linda Ronstadt and David Crosby—well, we’re planning some awesome things.

I’m thrilled, because people can say what they want about me, but I've always been the artist person. I believe in artists’ rights and that artists, in most cases in the music business, get the short end of the stick. I wish more of them owned more of it, but for the pieces that they do, for it to finally be recognized as valuable is an incredible thing. Especially for a lot of my clients and friends who are now in their 70s, pondering retirement, for them to be able to make this decision: What do they want to do with it?

At Iconic, we’re committed to making an artist’s legacy bigger and better and having it managed properly in perpetuity. Merck's play and Larry Mestel’s play is a little bit different, but I'm thrilled that they’ve proven the worth of some of this stuff, too. My friend Ryan Tedder sold to KKR. Merck validated a lot of these valuations. I'm happy to compete, and I'm happy to be an alternative in the marketplace. I'm doing it because I think we have something to offer.

LB: Do you think valuations will continue to rise?
Well, the smart financial players tell me it will. What’s better—do I want to own a Treasury bill? I can get a better return because I know we're going to make them more valuable and drive value for Iconic and the artists.

SG: For most of the time that I've been doing this, the prevailing wisdom has been that creators should hang onto those rights like grim death.
Let me say to you that every one of these people that I've talked to has a reason why they're doing it. But I spend my day asking every creator, “Why do you want to sell?” And some of them have a compelling reason to sell. And by the way, Ryan Tedder’s got a brilliant future ahead of him, so he's just going to start his catalog all over.

Selling rights can be important for estate planning. An artist’s legacy is never best served when there is fighting among heirs. An artist may not have heirs, or you may have heirs that they want to protect or who don’t want the burden of being the steward of their parents’ legacy. There are a lot of reasons to do it, and I'm thrilled that there's newfound value across the whole spectrum of the music business. The three majors between them are worth $100 billion. Live Nation since the days when Michael [Rapino] and I first merged it [with Ticketmaster], has gone from $2 billion to—counting their debt—over $20 billion, a tenfold increase.

So the live side of the business is getting respect, as are publishing and performing rights. We're all getting respect and valuation that we never got before. It's great for the industry. That’s not to say I'm thrilled with some of the imbalance that several hundred billion dollars in value has created. I'm not sure that I think the balance is fair in terms of how some of the money is moved around.

So is it a great time to be a new artist? Hell yeah. It's a great time to be a new artist.

I'm a board member of the Music Artists Coalition and one of the three major managers there, along with Coran Capshaw and John Silva.

We manage Roddy Ricch; Apple Music gave him their Album of the Year and Track of the Year on his first record. Roddy, Billie Eilish—these are new artists who are already huge. Bad Bunny put some tickets on sale last week—three shows in L.A., $5.4 million gross, sold out in 10 minutes.

The really exciting thing about the business right now is you can break a new artist on streaming, live, merchandising and all that. These are great times, and that shows me there’s a shifting need. Every business needs to take a hard look and modernize itself. It just needs to be equitable for the artists. I predict that the labels and the artists will sit down and fashion something that works in the 2020s. 

LB: You feel there will be a moment when everyone’s in the room?
Yeah. I think that artists have respect for the fact that labels have made significant investment and the labels’ big threat is they will never renegotiate a deal. The labels can’t use the definition of an album to keep an artist for 25 years on a label. It's preposterous. This law doesn't work in the streaming era. Let's face it, labels and artists have a common goal; they’re trying to make the artist bigger so that everybody can prosper. So it feels like cooler heads will prevail. If the politicians do it, they’re going to find a way to make both sides unhappy. I think you want to get in a room and find a way that works for everybody. I can't predict where it ends up, and I'm one of many people who has a seat at the table.

The term should be seven years. That's what the law says. Every other California resident is protected, saying you can't enter into anything for more than seven years. So the term needs to be seven years.

SG: This begs the larger question of why everything is still built around albums.
Well, that's just because they're trying to protect their phony-baloney old contracts. It's because that's how they keep artists under contract. One, contracts shouldn't be written by the album anymore, and two, the compromise on the old is, "Hey, every time you do X number of streams, it will count as an album." But look, I ran Universal [MCA at the time] in the ’80s. OK. When you're in one of those seats, you get caught up in fear of change. What makes Michael Rapino so successful is that he’s not afraid of change, and he knows you have to reinvent. Guys who run labels have traditionally played defense. And right now, they're playing defense and keeping all the money.

They're all going public. Does it bode well for the relationship between artists and labels that they're all going to be public companies that have to live quarter to quarter? I don't think so.

I'm an artist manager. Everything else I've done is an outlet for that. If you're an artist manager, one thing you always know is you're playing long ball—you're playing for the long-term career. Why would you want to be in business with people who have to play quarter-to-quarter with recorded music?

One reason I left Live Nation earlier than I ever thought I would was that they wouldn't let me take the company private. I don't believe a music company is best served, for the long term, when you’ve got to think quarterly. If you really think of every decision as what's in the best long-term interest of your artists and their fans, it will eventually be the right thing for your business, too. That's why I get crosswise with certain other managers that might think short term.

SG: So what's the alternative?
These are incredible times because there's so much money flowing everywhere. If you're brave and you want to try it a different way, you can. We have a lot of representatives in the business: managers, business managers, lawyers, specifically, who are being caught up in the old-school “get the biggest check; collect the commission and move on.” But some people are smart enough and brave enough to own their IP and bet on themselves. And certainly technologically, you can do that.

SG: From a structural standpoint, all the resources are there, all the opportunities are there, for you to build a career without a major.
The majors would say to you that it's a worldwide business. You need us there. You need us for promotion that you can't do on your own; we have the army, the war chest that we can extend for you on promotion. Artists are more chart-driven and statistic- and radio-driven than ever before. We do our research because so much of our business is live; what makes someone buy a ticket? And they'll still say, “I heard it on the radio.” Radio is not going away. Maybe it's not as important as it once was. Certain label people will tell you radio doesn't matter anymore. If you talk to artists, radio matters.

We have an ecosystem where radio, I think, is going to be healthy. Streaming's going to be healthy. Live is going to be hopefully healthier than ever. If there were a stock you could buy called “music business,” I'd buy the shit out of it. We're all fortunate to work in it. And I think we’ve got boom times coming. I’ll be shocked if we don’t.

LB: What about the issue of re-recording that’s now on the table with Taylor Swift?
I always say that if you landed on earth from Mars, the music business would never look like it does today. I can't even tell you why through the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s… that at the end of a recording term almost every contract says after X years, you can go re-record your songs. Taylor Swift has rapidly proven that that's a problem for labels. If I were the labels, I'd be asking for relief there. All I'm saying is it's time for some give and take. Just be respectful of what the marketplace gives you. That law wasn't written during streaming when somebody can sit at home and make the records and put them up that night on Spotify or Apple. So, if I were the labels, I'd be deciding how I solve that.

LB: And what about rock 'n' roll? Do you think the reopening of touring will help it come back?
There’s still a market; it isn't just old people. There are kids who care about it again, too. Any time that you rule something out, like “rock music is dead,” or whatever, you'll be proven wrong. Kings of Leon have a Top 5 track and are going to have a great tour. There are great artists like HAIM and Harry Styles who are taking their rock influences and making them their own.

You can be amazingly famous and prosperous as a rock artist just with rock fans, and you can reach them easier than we used to be able to. And that's one reason I think that when we say “new artists happen quicker now,” that’s partly because it's easier to reach your audience.

And along comes TikTok, and there'll be more like it. I am disgusted by how you have to drag a new technology to the table to pay for things. They always build their business, and then it's worth a zillion dollars and then they hand us their crumbs. Whether that was a Facebook or a TikTok or anybody, they never call up one day and say, "One of the building blocks for our businesses is that we're going to build up blocks of creative content of music people; here—can we pay you?" No. They wait until they've all gotten rich, and then they give you crumbs. But hopefully, we're going to get better at collecting. And that's an area where the labels, the publishers, the artists, everybody's on one side, right?

LB: Tell us a little bit about your company and the different parts. Some of your key people.
The power base is always the talent. The management division will always be first and foremost for us. We’re a big company and we're proud of it. We operate along many music genres and many ages and we've got some incredibly talented manager partners there. I really don't want to name names because I may forget somebody. Obviously, Shelli Azoff’s son, Jeffrey [Azoff], is the CEO of the management business. He does an incredible job. We’ve just had an incredible run. The younger artists and the younger people there this year, even during the pandemic, the run that Harry Styles, HAIM, Roddy Ricch and Anderson .Paak had this year has been amazing. Lizzo had an incredible year. The management business is growing and has grown during the pandemic. We're now working with Tears for Fears, James Blake came aboard recently and Jimmy Buffett has come home and is full-time managed again.

And then Iconic has just gotten loads more attention and press. I've actually been pretty shocked by it. Just like Full Stop, it is about the talent at Iconic. We partner with artists who have had a significant impact on music history and a broader cultural impact. Artists like The Beach Boys, David Crosby and Linda Ronstadt—they have stories that we will continue to tell for the next generation of fans and the generation after that.  

The Music Artists Coalition, which we were asked to join with a bunch of other people, we take a very active interest in that. The music business has given me my career; I think it is an obligation to give back to the artists who are the business. Some executives make the mistake of thinking it is about them and forget that there is no business without the artists. 

We’re probably in our fifth, sixth year now at Oak View Group, our company with Tim Leiweke and Silver Lake. We’re excited as hell because we've got over $3 billion of arena construction going on. Our first openings are Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle in October, UBS Arena in New York in November and in early spring, Moody Center in Austin. Those are our first three openings. We're in the ground now in Palm Springs and about to go in the ground in Manchester, England. We were just awarded another big contract. We also have the Arena Alliance and Pollstar and other things.

Global Music Rights is now I think in its eighth year, representing close to 100 major writers, most of whom are also artists.

SG: And that’s invitation-only?
Yeah. This year, everyone from Roddy Ricch to Nicki Minaj to Post Malone and others have joined. GMR continues to add great songwriters including TV and film composers like Kris Bowers. We just announced a long-term deal with Audacy. So that whole fight with the RMLC (Radio Music Licensing Committee), that lawsuit, after years, some broadcasters have seen the light and want to pay artists, instead of litigators.

LB: So how many of you are there? How can you do all of these things?
Look, I'll always work hard on the management side, in personal contact with clients, but we're kind of steering these ships. We got a lot of great people and Beth Collins and Susan Genco are the co-presidents of the company. So, between Jeffrey, Beth and Susan, I’d say that's our steering committee, kind of our management committee, the four of us.

LB: What does it do to your golf handicap?
Listen, my golf game—as you know, Lenny, because you've witnessed it—has never been nor will ever be that good. But I still enjoy it.

LB: When we played you were talking to one of the Eagles boys and you would put the phone down, hit the ball and pick it up again.
I still do that, but I’m really happy. Obviously, it was really frustrating to see the clients go dark all this time on the live side. And it was harder to find ways to launch new music during the pandemic...

SG: And then here you are launching giant new venues…

LB: …and launching 14 other companies and being more successful.
One, I'm very old and two, we don't know what else we’re going to do.

SG: That was the Dennis question, “Does anyone with real game ever retire?”
I have no intention of retiring because Shelli said to me, if I retire, I'll get old. But I really love it. I enjoy it. I work with my daughter Allison [Statter], who does a lot of branding work through her company with our company. I mean, I'm working with  Allison, I'm working with Jeffrey, working with people I really like—it's fun. I can't think of what could be more fun than doing this. So I have no intention of retiring. Unfortunately for those that want me to go quietly, it’s not going to happen.

Everybody has kind of a moment of inspiration. I didn't realize what a big deal it was going to be to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I can't tell you how many artists have said to me, “We're really counting on you to fight the artists'-rights piece." I didn't really raise my hand and say, “I need to do this,” but I'd been doing it longer than anybody consistently for a number of years. And it isn't bullshit; I really believe it and I live it. And now the Hall of Fame thing has made artists that are my friends or acquaintances—not clients—go, “We as an industry are counting on you. Somebody has to lead.” And I guess I'm one of the last guys standing of the old guard, and I intend to lead. I'm not interested in compromising on this artists'-rights side when it's fair, necessary and needed. I love some of the work that I'm seeing the Black Music Action Coalition do. They’re doing some great work and we've worked hard with them.

We take this artists'-rights thing really seriously. Artists by their very nature as creative people don't know how to organize and stand up and do it themselves. So those of us that have run businesses need to do that for them. We're not trying to punish anybody or ask for too much. Any expert that's got any expertise in business that would come in and look at the balance, 99 out of 100 times, they'd say, “The artist hasn't gotten their fair share.” Are we going to get there for sure? No, but can we make it better? Yes.

LB: It seems like in your third act you’re starting to use your superpowers for good. For everyone.
I’ve always used my superpowers for good, I think. And by the way, I honestly, with no ego intended, realized that because I've been doing it so long and partially because of this Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction, I do have some superpowers. I do have a seat at the table, but it's not my seat. Okay? My seat is the artist's seat in these negotiations, and the artists can't do it. So I'm happy to step up and do it and take the grief for it because, honestly, at my age and my level of success there’s not much anybody can threaten me with.

SG: I guess the other question that we had to get to was, is it true you and Joe Walsh set fire to Lavinthal’s desk around the time “Rocky Mountain Way” was breaking?
Set fire to it? I thought we pissed on it. Oh, maybe we pissed on it to put out the fire. My best recollection is, I don't remember the fire but I remember we pissed on the desk. But a logical explanation seems to me that we pissed on the desk to put out the fire. Joe had more of a fetish for playing with fire than me. So he likely started the fire, and I likely put it out. One of the most famous photos of me happened at, I think it was on Hollywood Boulevard or Sunset in the office of a company called Record World. We were very fond of a guy that I think was only running the charts department at that point, and we were standing on his desk with a finger in the air [that person has been identified as Lenny Beer].

LB: So as a wrap, I was wondering if you’d go this year to an NBA finals? Would you go and sit on the floor for an NBA Finals?
Probably not. Honestly, I'm using this time to play more golf rather than go to games and shit. So, to give you an example, if I could go to a Laker game or a Dodger game tonight, or I can go to bed at 10:00 and get up at six and go play golf at 7:45 and be done at 10:30 tomorrow... I’d much rather do that.

Weeks later, Irving—the man who seemingly has everything and has done everything—scored a hole in one at Hole 6 at Augusta National, home of the Masters. Yet we somehow don’t think he’s completed his bucket list.

 
Photos, from top: Three Jews, no waiting—our hero with Beer and Glickman at his outdoor office (photo credit: Larry Solters; thank you, Larry); a towering headshot; with The Eagles and Bill Graham in a shaggier era; figuring out the lunch order with Solters, Terry Bassett, Robert Kardashian, Mel Posner and Joel Katz; lounging, Swirv-style; side by side with Live Nation topper Michael Rapino; flying high with Warner Bros. brahs Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker; exchanging surfing tips with Brian Wilson; sharing a platinum moment with Steely Dan, along with Howie Klein, Bob Altschul, John Beug, Craig Fruin and Larry Jacobson; Irving's manifesto; a jester in Sir Lucian's court; Jeffrey Azoff carries the nutty tradition forward with Harry Styles and Rob Stringer; classic elegance with Joe Smith, Gil Friesen, Shelli and Ahmet Ertegun; one of many Halls of Fame; with fellow industry legend Clarence Avant; making plans for Lavinthal's desk with Joe Walsh; a rendering of Irving on the green by the late, great Van Arno.

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