The former William Morris executive has created an investment fund to ‘save’ the music by buying into ailing independent music venues. With the music industry already undergoing massive consolidation, will this concentrate power into even fewer hands? And why does a sacred cow WME exec leave a cushy yet influential job to slumming and oversee the consolidation of a few dozen grimey venues?
By Abu Khalil
Photo by Tom Dillon
It is indisputable that the music industry has taken a harder hit than most during the pandemic. “Independent venues were the first to close and will be the last to reopen,” the
National Independent Venue Association said. “Venues have zero revenue, but obligations like mortgage/rent, bills, loans, taxes, and insurance continue. We have no work to offer our employees for the foreseeable future. The shutdown is indefinite and likely to extend into 2021 as our venues are in the last stage of reopening.”
It has become abundantly clear that the executive and legislative branches of government can not seem to get it together to bailout the live music industry. Meanwhile, many seminal venues in cities across the country are at risk of going under and currently can not create revenues to pay their staff. In this tragedy, Marc Geiger sees opportunity.
Geiger, who formerly served as global head of the powerhouse agency William Morris Endeavor Music Division until this year, is an industry juggernaut. He founded Lollapalooza. In his 17 years at WME, he was the agent for David Byrne, The Flaming Lips, Jack White, Lady Gaga, Nine Inch Nails, Ozzy Osbourne, Black Sabbath, Steve Martin, Tony Bennett, Pixies, and Roger Waters. Geiger is now working with private capital to come to the rescue of an independent music scene on its deathbed.
SaveLive, which Geiger founded with fellow WME exec John Fogelman, has raised $75 million in an initial investment round to ‘partner’ with venues across the nation by acquiring at least a controlling 51% stake in each. SaveLive’s gameplan is to purchase controlling interests in dozens of venues across the U.S. to create a partnership of venues. “One of my favorite things in the world is to go to a club, be treated well and see an incredible band,” Geiger said. “So I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to raise a bunch of money and I’m going to backstop all these clubs. I’m going to be a bailout solution for them, and I’m going to call the company SaveLive.” If you think that statement is contrived and bullshit, you are not alone.
With a comprehensive return to live music looking no sooner than 2022, Geiger has these independent venues right where he wants them — wholly unable to refuse the demand for a 51% controlling interest. Ample reason to not see this project as philanthropy.
So why does a sacred cow WME exec leave a cushy yet influential job to slumming and oversee the consolidation of a few dozen grimey venues? Are we to blindly believe this dude has an unyielding need to save your favorite punk venue? The answer lies in the history of the live music business in the last 30 years — Geiger’s bread and butter.
The concert and festival landscape was built upon a series of dozens of independent concert promoters who often collaborated to route national tours and share expenses and production costs. With this multi-city partnership, independent promoters would share in the costs, for example, in bringing artists from overseas by sharing travel and freight expenses. The artists could then rely on shows in a series of cities and consistent production ( lights and sound ) through the whole of the tour. However, somewhere in the early 90s, a few folks in the industry got hip to the fact that they could buy all of the tours all of the time. This is, obviously, a very reductive history of Pace Concerts morphing into Clear Channel Entertainment and finding final form now in Live Nation.
The last 10 years have seen additional consolidation with medium size players buying smaller players and then flipping the bundle to Live Nation. At the height of festival mania in the U.S. around 2013, Coran Capshaw’s Red Light Management bought a few dozen independent festivals for bargain basement prices and then sold the package to Live Nation. This not only made him a shit ton of cashish, but allowed Live Nation to wrestle back control of the festival landscape from independent promoters who were (barely) hurting their market share. The ruse worked and now Live Nation once again dominates the festival market. Or at least they did before the pandemic.
Recently, the man who owns the owns the largest stake in Live Nation — Liberty Media owner John Malone — added iHeartMedia, Sirius XM and Pandora to his portfolio. This effectively gives him and Live Nation an almost tyrannical control of artist’s destinies from the root to the fruit.
What so many fear about the acquisition of independent venues is not so much industry related but rather the effects on these venues and their connected cultural ecosystems. It goes without saying, though we said it here, the crucial importance of smaller venues in the incubatory process of creating the music we all know and love. The potential implications for the art-form are innumerable.
It seems this sentiment is not lost on others in the music industry.
“Geiger’s solution on some level scares me,” said Frank Riley of High Road Touring to the New York Times. “He is going to buy distressed properties for money on the dollar and end up owning 51 percent of their business. Is that independent? I don’t know..”
Geiger later told the New York Times that SaveLive isn’t looking to later sell the venues but rather be a long term partner. SaveLive’s primary moneyman, Jordan Moelis of Deep Field Asset Management, regurgitated Geiger’s statement, saying “We don’t see this as a distressed-asset play. We see this as a business-building play, a play to be a long-term partner and to be around for a long time.”
Yet there are no guarantees. If you do not see this as a ‘distressed-asset play,’ then offer these venues fair money, do not demand a controlling stake, and make a public guarantee to not bundle up our cultural heritage and sell it to Live Nation or any other soulless, big-box, publicly-traded company.