AEG-MSG Turf Battle Heats Up: Acts That Play L.A. Forum Cannot Play London’s O2 Arena

The WeekndThe Weeknd in concert at the Forum, Los Angeles, USA - 29 Apr 2017

UPDATED: The ongoing venue battle between Azoff-MSG Entertainment and AEG Live has taken another turn. In response to a recent challenge from MSG that, according to sources, found the company refusing to book acts into Madison Square Garden if they played at AEG’s Staples Center in Los Angeles instead of the MSG-operated Forum, AEG has informed agents and promoters that acts who perform at The Forum instead of Staples will not be booked at London’s O2 Arena. The O2 is operated by AEG and is the only venue of its category — 20,000 capacity — in the city.

A rep for AEG told Variety that agents and promoters were informed last week that the policy will go into effect on Saturday (July 1), adding that a rep for Live Nation responded unfavorably to this development, claiming it is anticompetitive and violates antitrust laws on the basis of the absence of a venue of comparable size in London, and threatened withhold shows from AEG venues worldwide. The two companies have been at odds since AEG Live moved most of its venues from Ticketmaster to AXS Ticketing in the wake of the 2009 Live Nation-Ticketmaster merger.

The MSG-Staples standoff has been in play for several months and has affected several artists — including Chance the Rapper, Tom Petty, and Hall & Oates — which has largely seen them performing their major New York shows at the approximately 16,000-capacity Forest Hills Stadium instead of the 20,000-plus-sized Garden, amid threats that they would be prevented from playing at the Garden on future tours as well. (The venue sizes in New York and Los Angeles are roughly comparable: Staples holds 21,000 and The Forum 17,500.)

In a statement provided to Variety, a rep for AEG said: “AEG always places artists and fans first and believes that artists should be free to play whatever venue they choose. However, MSG Entertainment’s aggressive practice of requiring artists to perform at the LA Forum in order to secure dates at Madison Square Garden is eliminating that choice, which serves neither the interests of artists nor fans. After exhausting all avenues, our hand has been forced by MSG’s actions and AEG will now coordinate bookings between The O2 arena and Staples Center to level the playing field for all. We believe that AEG’s offering of venues will provide artists the greatest financial potential and fans the best experience. While this coordinated booking strategy seeks to defend our business interests, our ultimate objective remains protecting and restoring choice for artists. Our policy is not intended in any way to deny Live Nation, or any other promoter, access to The O2 arena.  To the contrary, we desire to bring as much content as possible to all of our venues and we will continue to actively seek concert bookings at The O2 from all promoters, including Live Nation.

“Live Nation’s threat of antitrust action in response to our booking policy is the height of hypocrisy coming from a company that publicly boasts about its control of content and distribution as the world’s largest concert promoter and ticketing company and one of the world’s leading artist management companies,” the statement continues. “Given its asserted market dominance, we find it astounding that Live Nation would have the audacity to complain merely because it finds itself agitated by a competitor’s business response to heavy-handed tactics in which Live Nation has participated. Notwithstanding Live Nation’s recent threats to pursue legal action and deprive AEG venues of shows, we fully intend to proceed with our new booking policy.  We are highly confident of the legality of our booking policy and will vigorously defend any attempts by Live Nation to use the courts or the regulatory system to combat a practice they have aggressively pursued and benefitted from elsewhere.”

A rep for Live Nation declined to comment; a rep for Azoff-MSG was unavailable for comment.

The source also said the rivalry has spilled over into events around the Grammy Awards, which will be held at the Garden on Jan. 28 — only the second time since 1998 the show has been held in New York. A Grammy-related event that had been planned for the Barclays Center has since been relocated to MSG’s Radio City Music Hall, the source said. (A rep for the Grammys had not responded to Variety‘s request for comment at press time; a Barclays spokesperson emphasized to Variety that all of its venues have an open booking policy and welcomes to opportunity to work with all content providers.)

News of the feud began to surface late last year in the wake of William Morris Endeavor moving two confirmed Neil Diamond dates from Staples to the Forum, with the company’s head of music saying that he was getting “getting squeezed” by MSG partner Irving Azoff, as reported by Billboard in April. The situation pits AEG against two Azoff-affiliated ventures, Azoff-MSG Entertainment, which teams the veteran manager with MSG executive chairman James Dolan, and Oak View Group, a company run by former AEG CEO Tim Leiweke with Azoff that, among other businesses, operates the 27-member Arena Alliance that includes Boston’s TD Garden, Chicago’s United Center, San Francisco’s Chase Center and Dallas’ American Airlines Center along with the Garden and The Forum.

In the wake of the Diamond situation, AEG was accused of attempting to make a similar demand, but involving Staples and O2, on rapper J. Cole, but backed down after Cole’s promoter, Live Nation, threatened an antitrust lawsuit. A source tells Variety that AEG is confident in its legal position for the new O2-Staples arrangement, and that the Live Nation threat, while it attempted to use O2’s status as the only venue of its size in London — the nearest is the 12,500-capacity Wembley Arena — was largely bluster.

While AEG Live CEO Jay Marciano said the standoff is detrimental to artists, Azoff fired off a lengthy and colorful statement in which he claimed the maneuvers were simply “good, tough business.”

It’s a situation that only the very top-level artists have been able to sidestep: Adele played Staples and the Garden last year, and Drake performed at both Staples and The Forum.

A deep history exists between the players and the two companies. In 2008, when Azoff was CEO of Ticketmaster, he and Dolan approached AEG founder Philip Anschutz about merging the ticketing company with MSG and AEG in an effort to outsize Live Nation. The negotiations were not fruitful, and the following year Azoff became CEO of a combined Live Nation and Ticketmaster, a role from which he resigned unexpectedly on New Year’s Eve, 2012. Just 10 weeks later, Leiweke left AEG “by mutual consent” after the company, which put itself on the market in 2012, was unable to secure a buyer after several months on the market.