Keynote Q&A With WME’s Marc Geiger At This Year’s IEBA Conference
Here we look at a recent Q&A with American music executive and co-founder of Lollapalooza Marc Geiger who shared his message on the importance of eliminating consumer frustration, and smoothing out the process of getting music into the hands of said consumers.
Guest post from IEBA’s 47th Annual Conference in October of this year
William Morris Endeavor’s head of music Marc Geiger began and ended his talk at IEBA with the same message: we must eliminate frustrating experiences for our consumers, we must deliver music to consumers with ease, and we must make the process better for consumers.
“Business is spectacular. Anyone in live entertainment – no matter what role you play – is probably having the best year of their career. Independent or major. Agent, promoter, tour manager, lighting company, trucking, venue, ticketing company – everything is up. And I think it’s going to continue for a while. We’re lucky to be here. We have to protect it, and obviously there are some things to sort out.
“The fundamentals of what’s driving this success have very little to do with the people in this room. It has to do with our consumers and how much music they’re listening to.”
Waddell reference the great economic slump of 2009/2010 and asked how we got from that to such a strong position in less than a decade. Geiger responded, “If hindsight is 20/20, then we should have a good look at 2009 now. It’s my belief that it was not just the real estate crash and economic uncertainty everywhere. That was one of the key points in our history when consumers were seen as criminals by record companies, when it was not cool to listen to a lot music and, if you did, you were a pirate. I think those were bigger factors, and we had a disrupted ability to buy, rent, or listen to music the way we wanted to. It was a disorganized mess. We’ve been talking about this for 20+ years. I always believe if you can get the top-level right – meaning people getting music the way they want and the next piece is getting them concert information and tickets the way they want – we can have a great economy.
“We then put together the growth outside North America, because everyone else in the world was less serviced than us and Europe. If you live in any other part of the world, you now the same access as anyone in London, New York, Nashville. We’re seeing huge growth. Our business here in Nashville has grown by growing the marketplace, not just the number of artists but the places they can play. And a lot of the high growth is ex-U.S.”
Waddell switched gears and asked, “When you have so many people discovering so many artists, how do you – as an agent and an agency – decide where to place your bets and where to invest time, effort, energy, and everything else. How do you curate your roster in such a boom time for artists?” Geiger’s answer: “More great colleagues. The only way you can is with better and better teammates. To absorb more music, make more decisions, sign & book more artists, continue to do the right things, and then cross them over to make movies, write a book, star in Hamilton, get 15 commercial endorsement deals – the pressure is on to deliver all of that. And you can’t just say we have to be better. All the young folks in the mailroom, training to be assistants, trainees, agents – we all have to grow. And we have to find better and better people. That’s really the answer. AND we have lots of meetings and we listen to lots of music and we collaborate.”
The conversation moved to streaming with Waddell asking, “Consumers have voted and streaming is what they want. You told me a couple of years ago, when there is a way to buy a ticket within the streaming app without leaving, there would be a huge impact on the business. Are we seeing that and is it having the impact you forecasted?” “We are not seeing it yet,” said Geiger. “I think it’s one of the things on the checklist of improvements that we, as an industry, can get to. It’s in-app show information – while you’re listening to Chris Young on Pandora or YouTube and it says ‘Hey, you’re in Nashville and Chris Young is playing so-and-so. Use your thumbprint to buy a ticket.’ I think it’s going to happen and it’s going to make the consumer experience easier. We’re seeing it everywhere. If you have Alexa or Google Home, you can say ‘Hey, Alexa. Play Brantley Gilbert.’ At some point, it’s going to be ‘Hey, Alexa. I wanna go to the show at Bridgestone. Get me two tickets. I wanna sit in the 10th row and I don’t want to pay more than $190.’ As long as we keep making parts of our process better for consumers, we are golden.
“The threats to our industry are in our rearview mirror. The recording industry has picked streaming as a format. We got past all of our live content on YouTube. And the consumer not wanting to sit at home and look at a show for two hours and stare at their computer. They want to go out at night. All that stuff is in the past. Now we just have to protect what we have. And we’ll have growth. In a good market, everybody wins. More music consumption equals more music consumption of every kind, including the live experience and all its ancillary revenue. Our job is to get content to people and to do that with ease.”
Waddell asked, “Who will get us there first? We hear a song. Wow, that’s cool. We Shazam it. And we immediately find out they’re coming to our town and we buy the ticket. Who can get us to that point?” “My gut says Ticketmaster,” Geiger answered. “Because they have the most market clout and Michael [Rapino] thinks about these things and thinks ‘If I can make things better for the consumer, it will be better for Ticketmaster and Live Nation.’ I think it would take a big player to introduce change in a fragmented industry. There are a lot of pieces to our business – buildings, promoters, and all kinds of players. To get everyone to agree on anything is hard. You need to get everyone in a room and get to an agreement – and that’s impossible, right? So, in the absence of that, you need a big player to say we’re going this way. A big player can institute change. In technology, we used to look to the garage and the start-up for innovation. Looking to Google and Apple and Amazon for innovation is weird. But I think we’re in a weird place where big can drive change. They also make enough money to invest.” Waddell asked for clarification, “So, Ticketmaster and maybe partner like a Google or an Amazon?” and Geiger responded, “I hope it comes from other places too. But I just don’t see it.”
“I think the way our industry is set-up in anti-consumer and pro-artist. I don’t know anyone who knows where they’re going to be seven months from now, nor are they available to buy a ticket at 10am on a Tuesday. But all of us want the show to be sold out that day. I challenge everyone to get home from this conference if the airlines were sold out the way our concerts are. You’d be stuck in Nashville and you’d be furious. We’re not seeing our consumers’ anger because the consumers who really want to go to shows are going to StubHub. We’re not servicing them. The other thing that is nuts is the notion that someone sitting in the first row is not a true fan of the artist. If someone spends a few grand going to the show, they’re a true fan. I think the person sitting up there for $39.50 is a fan too. I think we have to change some things about ourselves and the industry. Artists and managers have to participate. How do we make it better for Fans? Amazon is winning because of choice. Airlines and hotels that offer us choice win. We are slow to understand this. This is going to take a lot of work. This is probably the biggest issue in our industry.”
During his hour-long chat with Waddell, Geiger had this to say about competition: “Competition either freaks you out and gets in your head, or you think about your business. A lot of our time is spent thinking about what we are going to do. And we have a lot of business to do. We’ve found the more good work we do, the more wins we have, the more business grows. We super-service srtists outside of just booking. Artists want that. If we do something unique, like great artist development, other artists want that too. I think that’s the driving principle of the business. Worrying about what someone else is going to do, or what move they might make, or who they’re going to buy – that doesn’t really feel like a good use of time. But we talk about those things all the time and we try to have a healthy awareness.
“The players and the business have gotten much bigger. The companies are bigger. Our own company has 6,000 employees at 85 offices. That’s not what a talent agency was x years ago. Live Nation and AEG are big companies. We have to find a way to do business with big companies, companies who have a chief legal officer and an accounting department. It’s not like you can just yell at a promoter anymore. These companies have buildings, and everyone has vested interests. You have to be more sophisticated. I don’t think competition has changed.”
On the topic of tech, Geiger said, “More marketing is done by fans on their phones at venues – everybody is a reporter. And soon the phone will be your entry device.” He added, “We’re seeing the early versions of voice control. The wearables have missed several times but they’ll probably come up with something that sticks.” He’s excited about instant in-ear language translation and was only half kidding about waiting for the chip-in-the-brain. He also wants add-to-playlist buttons for music services embedded in web content that mentions specific artists or songs, and he wants Spotify to tell him when the artist he’s listening to is coming to town. In 12 years, he’ll be ready to report on AR, VR, blockchain, and bitcoin.
On data: “Timetables got longer with eight-month on-sales so decisions must be made before new data arrives. We have tour history, and geo-data is important, but feel and gut knowledge is more important than data, right now. We’re in a data-noise world. Charts are a mess and we don’t take any of them that seriously. Trust your gut.”
On festivals: “There are ten good things that happen at festivals. Bands play with other bands. Artists can perform for 8,000 people instead of 800. The festival experience is like the record store experience: fans go through the poster and the app and make their plan for the festival – that’s where all the discovery happens. It’s more important than how many people actually go see the band. If fans do, that’s a bonus. Festivals are also an agent’s sales tool – ‘Hey, they played Coachella at 3pm. You should book them in your 800-seater.’ Sometimes, in our job, we will crop-rotate — festival, club, theater, festival, club. Festivals are a technique to grow an artist. Our life blood is development.
“The headliner game is a different. That’s a money game. Can I play the stadium? Should I play the arena? Should I play the festival — I haven’t done that in 3 years? Having a lot of choice is wonderful.
“The North American festival market is incredibly healthy. People make a big deal of festivals that don’t work. How many were there? Five? Eight? Out of 3,500. Festival numbers are up globally. A lot of festivals didn’t do a great job of booking – they don’t have a point of view or lost their way. Or three other festivals cropped up around them. They didn’t keep up with the VIP. They tried something that failed and they have to recover. And every festival is different. It’s a diverse, vast market and, like kids, they have their own essence. You can’t compare a festival in Medford, Oregon to Coachella and use the same standards. 30 million people go to festivals every year and they go every year. It’s massive part of their social life and it’s also part of the music discovery life. Our job is to protect that and grow it. Most of the companies that manage festivals now have them in portfolios and they look at them like a portfolio.”
When Waddell moved to the topic of safety, he asked if WME clients have expressed concern for their safety on tour in North America or aboard. “We don’t give specific advice to artists about security. This is something others deal with,” said Geiger. “I’ll give you a couple of stories though: while I was meeting with Mike Rapino, he happened to wave over a lady who just left the FBI and went to work for Live Nation. I talked to her for a while and it was fascinating. I had no idea they had these people on staff – 24 people or so from the FBI, CIA. That felt good.
“I was in Paris [for Lollapalooza] and backstage there were three security teams outfitted in full paramilitary gear with submachine guns. I was in the Paris and Brussels airports and saw the same thing. At one point, artists would have said ‘That’s not cool. Get ‘em out!’ I was asking artists about it and they said they felt safe. I probably saw ten groups of three teams in the audience – again, outfitted in full paramilitary gear with submachine guns. At one time in our world, that would freak people out. Now, I think everyone feels safe.
“I grew up watching the movie Black Sunday in the late 70s, the one where Robert Shaw saves a stadium from a weaponized blimp. How much has happened since then? Not that much. I think we’re extraordinarily lucky as a community of event participants – sports, music, fashion – millions of events worldwide. Thank God there aren’t more nut cases. That’s how I feel about it. I think we’re going to have an increased security presence. It is not my job to judge whether it’s effective or not. But I do believe it brings some comfort in today’s times.” Waddell agreed and said, “You’re almost scared to talk about it, to jinx it.” He followed up by asking if security concerns have dampened international touring growth. Geiger responded, “I haven’t found that to be the case. I think you’re asking from an American perspective. Overseas, everything is touring globally all the time. We’ve had conversations and asked questions. But I’m a weird guy who thinks the worst two cases happened in the States. I don’t think it’s about international. I think there are general safety concerns because of the way the world is. But I don’t think people stop playing Vegas. That would be an irrational reaction to a nut job. I know the whole world is looking for copycats in the hope that it doesn’t happen again. The ones that are really scary are the ones with trucks because that could happen 50 times a day. My hope is that most humans are good people and don’t want to hurt others. Society, the police force, and government organizations have to do their best to manage the few that do.
“I think promoters have a new challenge. We all have to be smart and not fight those costs. We would all support whatever makes us all safer.” Waddell added that industry, promoters and venues especially, are wrestling with perimeters and responsibility.
Artists Marc Geiger is excited about? [Without hesitation] “Greta Van Fleet. Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile.” [Consults his phone] “Sampha, Kendrick, Vince Staples, Jane Weaver, Sza, Solange, D.D Dumbo, Agnes Obel, Kaytranada, James Blake, Anderson .Paak, Michael Kiwanuka, Jason Isbel, Banks – I love music so whatever makes my list gets me excited. Liz Hewitt, Lauren Daigle. When we sign a new client, there’s excitement because you’re getting in on something. To be able to get people to see what you see, that’s the exciting part of our job. The first time you get a million-dollar deal for someone, that’s exciting. But then you think, I want 1.5M. The real truth is breaking an artist and discovering a record you can’t stop talking about is … Man! Wow! I went to see Courtney and Kurt and I was psyched! And we don’t rep them! It wasn’t about that.”
Waddell closed with this important question: What’s the one thing that could derail us and what’s the one thing you can control? Geiger: “Greed … and one other thing – if we mess with consumers. The answer is to eliminate frustrating experiences for consumers. If we do that as an industry – and we’re not greedy – we’re golden.”