Why Concert Promoters Matter

In the third of our series on the theories that underpin our research into live music, Matt Brennan and Emma Webster attempt to define the promoter and how they operate, in an extract from ‘Why Concert Promoters Matter’, originally published in Scottish Music Review in 2011. The authors analyse existing accounts of live music promoters and offer their own analysis of what a promoter is and does, concluding that promoters may use one or more of three basic models of promotion within rock and pop: ‘independent’, ‘artist-affiliated’, and ‘venue’.

Our first task is to clarify what we mean by a concert promoter.[i]  Dave Laing writes that: ‘the term ‘promoter’ is widely used in the music industry to describe the person or company responsible for the physical organisation and presentation of a concert or festival’, which can be taken as the minimum requirement for what a promoter does (2003, p. 561). Keith Negus fleshes out this definition by describing some of the tasks a promoter may be responsible for, including ‘hiring venues, arranging stages, sorting out public address systems and lighting, employing caterers and security personnel, advertising the show and coordinating the sale of tickets’ (1992, p. 130). The promoter in both of these definitions is the person organising the technicalities of the show, and all that that entails, a view echoed in various music industry guides and industry organisation (National Music Council, 2002) and government reports (Competition Commission, 2007). It is also the promoter who has responsibility ‘for ensuring the safety of both the public and the artist during the course of the gig and for conforming with licensing regulations’ (Music Managers Forum, 2003, p. 23). Added to this, it is promoters who (theoretically, at least) bear the brunt of the financial, social and personal risk of promoting a show; they are the people hiring the acts and the venue for an event in a gamble that may or may not pay off. ‘Promoters take nearly all of the financial risk in organising a tour or concert, usually guaranteeing artists a minimum income from events. Their role includes costing events and tours, and booking venues’(Competition Commission, 2007, p. 13).

From these accounts it is clear that a promoter’s role is simple to define but complicated to describe. A live event happens because someone—a promoter—brings together performer and audience in a given space at a given time, and generally does so in a commercial transaction (musicians are paid to perform, audiences pay to hear them) that the promoter organises and plans to profit from. But the number of things that must happen for an event to take place can be extremely varied (and expensive) and it is this institutional complex to which ‘the live music industry’ refers. The live music industry is the professionalised network that exists to stage a certain level of live music events. It includes professional agents, promoters, tour managers, sound engineers, crew, ticketing companies, transportation companies and so forth. This industry may have little or no bearing on a sizeable proportion of do-it-yourself or amateur live music events that routinely occur in the UK but neither are these events completely irrelevant to the way in which the live music industry works. Even as we become familiar with the money-making strategies of new global promotional companies like Live Nation, the small-scale enterprise of idealistic (and/or decidedly shady) entrepreneurs at a local level remains equally significant for an understanding of the live music sector as a whole.

To return to the clarification of terms, agents are obviously a key profession in the live music industry, and the roles of promoter and agent would seem to be easy to distinguish. Thus Paul Charles of the Asgard Agency suggests that the role of promoter is to promote and produce the show (Charles, 2004), leaving the choice of artist, venue, and ticket price in the hands of the agent, who acts as a ‘valve’ between the promoter and the artist or their manager (Music Managers Forum, 2003, p. 221). This view is echoed by the Competition Commission which argues that an agent’s role includes planning concerts and tours, agreeing the venues where the artist will perform and then appointing a promoter to produce the shows (Competition Commission 2007, p. 13). Whilst such accounts assume that the division of responsibilities between promoter and agent is straightforward, the reality of the situation is much more complex. A promoter may also be an agent (and, indeed, a manager or a performer) and in practice roles within the music industries are continually shifting. For example, managers now routinely book their acts and even put out their records, while record companies are moving into the merchandise market and the record retailer, HMV, has moved into promotion and venue ownership.

The emergence of Live Nation as the largest promotional company in the world has challenged the common-sense definition of a concert promoter even further. Live Nation – a spin-off from US-based media giant Clear Channel created in 2005 – claimed to produce over 22,000 concerts for 1,600 artists in 33 countries in 2008 (Live Nation, 2008b), and is responsible for tours, festivals and other events, using both its own venues and others’ if required. The company also made headlines when, under the direction of former chairman Michael Cohl, it pursued multiple rights or ‘360-deals’ with major artists, acquiring rights to touring, merchandising, sponsorship, ticketing, and broadcast and digital media rights through direct deals with Madonna, U2, Shakira, Jay-Z and Nickelback.[ii] Although Live Nation has now since ceased pursuing such deals (Cohl, who was the driving force behind the 360-deals, left the company in June 2008), its current strategy is developing a one-stop distribution system for the consumption of live events and any related products and services. This distribution system could include tickets, merchandise, albums, or any artist-related product yet to be designed, and is built on the development of a long-term relationship between customer and brand, aided by databases containing millions of customers’ contact details and history of concert attendances (Reynolds, 2007, pp. 393-401). As evidence of its attempts to consolidate its vision of a one-stop distribution system for live entertainment, Live Nation’s most significant announcement in 2009 was a proposed merger with global ticketing leader Ticketmaster, a merger that was finally accepted by the Competition Commission in 2010.

With the rapidly shifting changes in music consumption affecting the traditional roles and responsibilities of the music industries, how does one now define the role of a concert promoter? Are promoters corporate entities? Gig organisers? Rights holders? The image of the promoter as individual entrepreneur does seem to be increasingly misleading, at least for medium sized and large events. These days the ‘promoters’ of such events are likely to be just the ‘rep’ for a promotional company, rather than the person who actually organised the show. As one agent puts it:

The truth is that the promoter is now rarely more than a figurehead. There are teams of people doing everything. In the good old days, the promoters would do the divvy up at the end of the night directly with the manager. Nowadays, the promoter’s accountant will do a 90-minute settlement (usually during the course of the artist’s performance) with the artist’s tour accountant. The promoter will still make sure he does a bit of back-slapping PR with the act, the manager or the agent to ensure he protects his position for the future (Charles, 2004, p. 140).

Comparing previous attempts to define the role of the promoter, it becomes clear that the term is used in a myriad of contexts and can describe a huge range of different functions. ‘Promoter’ is a word freely ascribed to individuals, small partnerships and companies, or vast multi-national corporate entities. One could potentially use a framework to simplify the network of intermediaries that bring together the artist and audience to create a live music event, such as the following (see Example 1):

However, such separate roles are frequently performed by the same person: artists can promote their own gig; an agent may hire a venue and put on a concert of the artists they represent; or, in the case of Live Nation, a company may own a venue, organise the publicity for a concert and have an exclusive rights agreement with the performing artist. Further, given the multitude of live music events that happen each year in the UK, many of which are outside the professionalised live music industry, distinctions between ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ blur, even within the event itself. For example, a promoter may use an agent to book a headline band but book a friend’s band as support without going through an agent (or paying a fee). Defining the role of the promoter in a way that can be applied across our range of case studies is not a simple task.

In an effort to explain the complicated nature of the rock/pop concert promoter, and given that promoters are described in a variety of ways and have a wide range of functions, our own approach begins with the premise that the role of the promoter is by its nature flexible and operates within a matrix of factors constituting the structural, the personal and the external. Structurally the matrix might include the following: the promoter’s level of responsibility and geographical remit (a promoter may operate locally, regionally, nationally, or internationally); the organisational scale and structure of their promotional operation; the conventions associated with particular music genres, and so on. The personal level of the matrix, which overlaps and interacts with the structural level, might include: whether the promoter is motivated by commercial or cultural interests; whether the promoter is ‘professional’, ‘semi-professional’, or ‘amateur’; the promoter’s own musical tastes, and so on. Finally, within the external level of the matrix, the role of the promoter will depend on how the other actors who may have a stake in the live music event are involved in the event itself, including the artist, the audience, the technical crew, publicists, record label, venue, agent and artist’s management. It is also possible that the promoter, in addition to fulfilling the role of ‘promoter’ (however it is defined), has additional roles as any one of the actors listed above. In this way, another common characteristic of the promoter—as with many occupations within the music industries—is a position integrated with another part of the business of music (or ‘wearing several hats at once’).

Despite the complexity of the promoter’s role, we think it is possible to categorise three basic models of promotion within rock and pop:

i) the independent model whereby the promoter acts as a facilitator whose income comes via door receipts. The amount of income is based on the share of profits or guaranteed fee that the promoter has arranged to pay the artist, depending on the contractual agreement, and the promoter hires the venue and the artist for the event.

ii) the artist-affiliated model whereby the promoter is linked to the artist in some way (or in some cases, is the artist), and therefore collects income from door receipts and performance-associated fees, whether directly or indirectly. The promoter will usually hire the venue for the event.

iii) the venue model whereby the venue acts as promoter or is provided as an empty shell for external promoters, either hiring the artist for their own event or leasing the venue to another promoter/promotion company. Even in the latter case income will be made from bar takings and catering.

Concert promoters may favour one type of promotional model over another but they are certainly not restricted to it, and in practice will adjust their role from one event to another depending on the particularities of any given concert.

[i]  The research project in which we were engaged investigated all forms of concert promotion. For the remainder of this blog post, though, we focus on promotion in the pop/rock world.

[ii]     Nickelback’s deal is for approximately 10 years (3 cycles) and the rights acquired include touring, tour sponsorship, tour merchandise, tour VIP/travel packages, secondary ticketing, recorded music, clothing, licensing and other retail merchandise, non-tour sponsorship and endorsements, DVD and broadcast rights, fan club, website and literary rights. Live Nation anticipated Nickelback’s financial performance over the term of the deal as earning $700 million in revenue, $60 million in operating income, with a margin of 9% and an internal rate of return (IRR) of 32%. Note that this deal does not include potentially lucrative publishing rights (Live Nation, 2008a).