The live-entertainment business is a large but traditionally close-knit community, with relationships (and grudges) going back decades. Yet Oak View Group’s recent acquisition of Pollstar, the long-running trade publication covering the concert and ticketing industries, strikes many — most notably giant promoter and venue operator AEG Presents — as too cozy.
Founded in 2015, Oak View is led by former AEG CEO Tim Leiweke and backed by Azoff MSG Entertainment. Four years ago, Azoff and MSG joined forces in a $300 million deal that combined some of the companies’ operations while others remain independent, at least officially. James Dolan’s MSG operates New York’s Madison Square Garden and Los Angeles’ Forum; veteran manager Irving Azoff consults for the company and his wife, Shelli, is managing partner of The Forum and oversaw its $150 million 2013 renovation. Among other businesses, Oak View leads the 27-member Arena Alliance, designed to create efficiencies and cooperation between venues including Madison Square Garden, the Forum, Chicago’s United Center, Dallas’ American Airlines Center and others.
Pollstar has long been the definitive chart for the live-entertainment business; its chief competitor, Venues Today, is already owned by Oak View. All of which means that Oak View basically owns the live-entertainment media and chart business — only Billboard Boxscore is a significant competitor in the U.S., and it receives reports from far fewer entities than Pollstar.
Due to what it perceives as a conflict of interest, AEG is seriously considering not only pulling all of its advertising from Pollstar, but stopping its venues from reporting to it, which would mar the credibility of the publication’s charts.
“A conflict of interest clearly arises when individuals with vested interests in our industry own and control two influential trade publications,” an AEG rep said in a statement. “We don’t believe that a company that touts its partnerships with others in the business, including affiliated venues, a promoter and a ticketing company, can control publications that impact the music industry and operate them with the perception of objectivity.”
While an MSG source called the accusation “fake news” and claimed that Azoff and Dolan were far more interested in Pollstar’s conferences than its charts, longtime editor Gary Bongiovanni responded, “Pollstar has always tried to speak to and for all facets of the concert industry, and that has not changed.”
Another source adds that, at least so far, Azoff and Leiweke have not ventured into Pollstar’s editorial, and don’t plan to. And while it’s unclear whether AEG has given official word of its intentions to pull out, “it would be counterproductive for AEG to try and wall themselves off from the rest of the business.”
While Oak View’s intention to acquire Pollstar had been widely known within the industry for many months, it’s the latest salvo in an ongoing turf war between Azoff MSG and AEG Live, which operates Los Angeles’ Staples Center and London’s O2 Arena, among others.
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 Staples Center instead of the MSG-operated Forum, AEG informed agents and promoters in June that effective July 1, acts who perform at The Forum instead of Staples will not be booked at London’s O2 Arena. (The very biggest touring acts, including Drake and Katy Perry, perform at both Staples and the Garden, but sources say even top draw Neil Diamond was compelled to move his forthcoming L.A. shows from Staples to the Forum.)
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 an executive at Live Nation, the world’s largest concert promoter and AEG’s main rival, is incensed with the ban, claiming it is anticompetitive and violates antitrust laws on the basis of the absence of a venue of comparable size in London, and threatened to withhold its shows from AEG venues worldwide in response.
In a statement to Variety, Azoff and Dolan said: “We would like to clarify our booking policy. We always do what is best for artists. Both MSG and Forum are open buildings and will accept business from any performer that wishes to play there.”
Live Nation and AEG have been at odds since AEG moved most of its venues from Ticketmaster to AXS Ticketing in the wake of the 2009 Live Nation-Ticketmaster merger. But the animosity goes deeper: 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 grow larger than 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 in 2012. Just 10 weeks later, Leiweke left AEG when the company failed to secure a buyer after several months on the market.
All of which provides a backdrop for the ongoing drama. The mandate at AEG, according to a source, is that “they won’t even display Pollstar on their office coffee tables anymore.”