Concert Giant Sees Cutting Prices as Ticket to Success
Live Nation blames high entry fees for turning off fans. But Ticketmaster poses a big obstacle.
BEHIND THE SCENES: Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino, next to a TV monitor showing a U2 concert at the company’s Beverly Hills headquarters, wants to expand his industry by driving down ticket prices from last year’s average of $57 for the most popular shows.
By Charles Duhigg
Times Staff Writer
September 26, 2006
The nation's largest concert firm and the industry's ticketing powerhouse may be headed for a behind-the-curtain tussle.
At issue: control over the spiraling cost of show admissions that are turning off many music fans.
On one side is Live Nation Inc. Chief Executive Michael Rapino, who has vowed to drive down prices that last year soared to an average of $57 per ticket for the most popular shows. On the other side is Ticketmaster, which dominates music ticket sales through its thousands of outlets and Internet sites.
"Seventy percent of people didn't go to a concert last year, and even the average concert fan only attends about two shows a year," Rapino said. "We can grow this industry by lowering prices."
So far, Wall Street is showing faith in Rapino's strategy. In the nine months since its spinoff from radio giant Clear Channel Communications Inc., Live Nation's stock has doubled.
But to make good on his promise, Rapino must wrest power from Ticketmaster, a near-monopoly that built its empire locking up exclusive rights to sell admissions to major concerts and other live events. Last year, Ticketmaster reaped nearly $1 billion in fees and surcharges. Rapino began renegotiations with the company this month.
For some fans, those charges are boosting already expensive ticket prices by one-third or more. Los Angeles rock fan Eugene Kang bought six passes last month to see the Killers at the Wiltern LG theater, forking over $210 for the tickets and $90 more in fees, he said.
Ticketmaster, based in West Hollywood, has exclusive rights through 2008 to sell tickets to most of the 29,000 events Live Nation produces every year. If Rapino doesn't cut a new deal, Live Nation could rely on its in-house online ticketing system, the third-largest in America.
Ticketmaster executives wouldn't comment on the company's relationship with Beverly Hills-based Live Nation, but the stakes for the ticketing company are high. Owned by Barry Diller's IAC/InterActiveCorp., Ticketmaster stands to lose more than $130 million a year — or about 14% of its revenue — if it doesn't sign a new deal, analysts say.
"It would be a huge deal if Live Nation left Ticketmaster," said Safa Rashtchy, an analyst with Piper Jaffray & Co. "If it happened, it could be the beginning of something very concerning to IAC's investors."
In addition to having more input on prices, Rapino wants greater control over the wealth of information Ticketmaster collects about fans' likes and dislikes. He envisions expanding innovative marketing programs that, for example, identify who might fork over $100 for a vintage T-shirt. Live Nation is already starting to mine its own database to create targeted ads for upcoming concerts, and potentially to sell products such as cellphone ring tones and DVDs.
Ticketmaster shares the data it collects on Live Nation's customers with the company, but also uses that data to advertise shows sponsored by other promoters. Some Live Nation insiders hope that keeping the company's data secret will permit better marketing.
"When a fan buys a ticket, we learn an enormous amount about them: What bands they like, where they live, how much they are willing to spend," Rapino said. "Someday, a fan will be sitting in a bar and his cellphone will text message 'Sonic Youth are playing tonight. Do you want to go?' He'll buy his ticket over the phone and walk to the concert."
Rapino, 40, has been shaking up Live Nation since taking over last year before it separated from Clear Channel and became an independent, publicly traded company.
Rapino attended his first concert at age 15, taking a bus for 16 hours from his hometown of Thunder Bay, Canada, to a Robert Plant show. He began promoting concerts in college, eventually becoming director of marketing and entertainment for Canadian brewer Labatt.
He left to co-found a concert company that was later acquired by Robert F.X. Sillerman, who was building SFX Entertainment Inc., once the world's largest concert company. Sillerman sold to Clear Channel in 2000.
Rapino rose quickly at Clear Channel, eventually heading European concert operations. When the concert division was spun off and it needed a CEO, Clear Channel President Randall Mays chose Rapino, who promised to focus on consumer service.
That plan is central to Rapino's initiatives, such as building a website to solicit consumer complaints. When a London customer complained about a bungled refund for a performance of "The Rat Pack," Rapino personally e-mailed an apology and offered extra tickets.
He also has tried to create an identity for the company by putting Live Nation's name on millions of posters and television ads.
"We want people to know that Live Nation can serve all their live-music needs," Rapino said. "If we're going to be the ones who have a relationship with the consumer, then we have a responsibility to be the ones accountable if things go bad."
Since going public, the stock has shot up, thanks in part to successful tours by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Mariah Carey. Rapino has also gone on a shopping spree, including spending $350 million to acquire House of Blues, one of Live Nation's largest rivals.
But picking a fight with Ticketmaster would be Rapino's boldest move yet. Ticketmaster built an empire giving venues and promoters — including Live Nation — a cut of its fees and establishing a powerful network of retail stores and phone banks that were too expensive for any one promoter to replicate. Last year, Ticketmaster sold tickets worth about $6 billion through the company's Internet sites, 3,500 retail outlets and 19 international call centers.
Fans for years have complained about Ticketmaster's fees. Now, the migration of ticket purchasing to the Internet has created more options.
"You don't need thousands of storefronts anymore because most tickets are bought through the Internet now," said Larry Magid, a Live Nation executive who operates the Electric Factory, a venue in Philadelphia. "There is an impression that Ticketmaster has gotten too comfortable and arrogant. You have to be more responsive to fans nowadays."
Alternatives include Irvine-based Paciolan Inc., which sells software that allows venues to manage their own ticketing. Recently, the Portland Trail Blazers, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Philadelphia Flyers — all previous Ticketmaster clients — have switched to Paciolan.
"The history of the ticketing business was about barriers to entry, which kept Ticketmaster protected," Rapino said. "That has changed."
People close to Ticketmaster say that other concert companies have made similar comments about the ticketing company, only to sign new Ticketmaster deals once they got the terms and upfront payments they demanded. They question whether Rapino's musings are a negotiating tactic.
Other industry insiders note that Live Nation pockets about 50% of the fees Ticketmaster collects, and if Rapino really wanted to lower ticketing costs, he could rebate those funds back to concertgoers.
Live Nation's real goal in challenging Ticketmaster, say some, is to keep the other 50% of fees.
Live Nation's contract with Ticketmaster doesn't expire for two years, and the House of Blues contract lasts until 2009.
Analysts and industry insiders say the outcome of negotiations will shape how Rapino is viewed within the industry and by Wall Street. So Rapino is wary to tip his hand.
"Ticketmaster is the largest, most widespread ticketing sales channel in the world, and they have a lot of tools that could help change our business," Rapino said. "It doesn't serve my interests to speculate about what we are going to do. We'll meet with them and talk about my needs and their needs."
At a glance
Live Nation, the nation's largest concert promoter, is renegotiating with ticketing giant Ticketmaster, which has exclusive rights to sell passes to Live Nation's 29,000 yearly events until 2008.
Company name: Live Nation Inc.
Business: Concert promotion
Headquarters: Beverly Hills
Founded: December 2005 (spun off from Clear Channel Communications Inc.)
Chief executive: Michael Rapino
Employment: 3,000 full-time employees; up to 15,900 part-time workers during peak periods
2005 revenue: $2.9 billion
Market capitalization: $1.4 billion