Three months ago, Live Nation Canada cheerfully announced its acquisition of the Opera House in Toronto. The beloved century-old rock hall with a proscenium arch that has hovered over the likes of Nirvana, Metallica and Lucinda Williams had been a family-owned operation since 1989 – but they were looking to sell the business and wanted the long-term security for the venue that Live Nation could offer.
“This venue has played an important role in shaping Toronto’s vibrant arts and culture scene and we’re eager to showcase the best of The Opera House and build on the legacy that the Ellinas family have built,” said Wayne Zronik, Live Nation Canada president, business operations, in an upbeat July media release.
The corporate-speak sentence at the bottom of the press statement, however, was more daunting: “The Opera House is the latest addition to the company’s growing venue footprint in Canada and the expansion of its global venue portfolio, Venue Nation.”
Live Nation Canada is part of Live Nation Entertainment, a publicly traded Beverly Hills-based multinational founded in 2010 after the merger of concert promoter Live Nation (the dominant player in the concert promotion business) and ticketing agent Ticketmaster. To some, the company’s “growing venue footprint” is a worrisome trend that threatens the livelihood of independent venues and promoters.
“It’s all about putting behinds in the seats, and Live Nation wants to control the world,” veteran independent Toronto promoter Gary Topp said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.
Nowhere is the company’s big-footing more apparent than in Toronto, where in the past four years, Live Nation has added such mid-size venues as the Velvet Underground, the Danforth Music Hall and now the 900-person capacity Opera House to its portfolio. As well, the historic Ontario cottage-country music hall Kee to Bala was acquired by the company this summer.
And there’s more: As part of its recently announced partnership with Great Canadian Entertainment, Live Nation is the exclusive booking agent for the 5,000-person Theatre at Great Canadian Casino Resort Toronto, opening soon. Two years ago, Live Nation opened its own 2,500-capacity History club in the city’s east end. That same year, the company revealed plans to redevelop its waterfront amphitheatre, Budweiser Stage, into a year-round facility.
Suffice to say, Venue Nation thrives in Toronto. But is Live Nation’s heavy presence healthy for the city’s live music ecosystem? The answer is nuanced.
“They’re providing a very valuable service,” said Shain Shapiro, the founder of global research and strategy consultancy Sound Diplomacy, and author of the new book This Must Be the Place: How Music Can Make Your City Better. “I support anyone who invests in live music, but if Live Nation or anyone else is the only game in town, that doesn’t benefit the collective.”
The worry is that by scooping up venues, Live Nation is squeezing out the less-monied independent venues and open rooms not tied to one particular promoter by funnelling booking agents, artists and smaller promoters toward using Live Nation venues.
“It is scary,” said Shawn Creamer, who manages the newly reopened historic venue, the Concert Hall. “Live Nation has their fingers in a lot of places.”
Creamer, the former owner of Toronto’s roots music venue the Dakota Tavern, was one of the few venue operators willing to speak to The Globe on the record for this story. Besides running their own clubs and halls, Live Nation books hundreds of concerts a year into independent Canadian venues – owners and operators do not want to offend the empire and risk losing all that business.
Creamer enjoys a positive relationship with Live Nation and sees the advantages of the company’s acquisition of other concert presenters, particularly the ones operating out of historic buildings: “I’m super stoked these venues still exist, however that happens.”
The suggestion is that Live Nation is a white knight saving venues that might otherwise go out of business. For example, the original Silver Dollar Room (which provided blues and other music on Spadina Avenue since 1958) was lost when the turn-of-the-century Hotel Waverly was demolished in 2018 to make way for a boutique residential complex.
Live Nation (which owns the Opera House and Danforth Music Hall businesses, but the not the buildings or property) declined to be interviewed for this story. But the company maintains that its expansionism was in part motivated by altruistic civicism.
“Our focus has been on saving historic performance venues, like the Opera House, that would otherwise likely been turned over for other development use. We are often invited in to help, and we look to enhance or improve the live entertainment community, providing a premium experience for artists and fans wherever we operate,” Live Nation said in a statement to The Globe.
Because it owns Live Nation and Ticketmaster, Live Nation Entertainment has long been criticized for perceived monopolistic practices. It was revealed late last year that the U.S. Department of Justice was investigating the company for potential antitrust violations.
As well, Ticketmaster was lambasted late last year after the record demand for Taylor Swift’s 2023 concert tour overwhelmed the company’s website.
Perhaps in response to the bad publicity, Live Nation announced last month a program it claimed would deliver “tens of millions of dollars in extra earnings to club artists and crew” by providing $1,500 to all headliners and support acts at select venues for “gas and travel” expenses through the end of the year. Additionally, the company would eliminate the merchandise-selling fees it traditionally collected from artists selling T-shirts, albums and posters at those same venues.
“It’s a wonderful thing for the music industry,” Creamer said. “But a lot of independent venues have been giving artists 100 per cent of their merchandise sales for a very long time.”
The Live Nation program, which may be a short-term intervention, is called On the Road Again, a nod to the song by singer-songwriter Willie Nelson, who provided his hit as the anthem for the scheme.
“Touring is important to artists so whatever we can do to help other artists, I think we should do it,” Nelson said in Live Nation’s press release.
Bringing the beloved Red Headed Stranger on board as the face of the plan was a shrewd move, but it did not stop some critics from railing against the initiative as a transparent gesture.
“Temporary measures may appear to help artists in the short run but actually can squeeze out independent venues which provide the lifeblood of many artists on thin margins,” said the National Independent Venue Association.
In a statement, NIVA, which represents more than 1,000 independently owned venues in the United States, characterized the program as a calculated attempt to “divert artists from independent venues and further consolidate control over the live entertainment sector.”
The closest counterpart to NIVA in this country is the Canadian Live Music Association, which declined to comment on the On The Road Again initiative, as it represents Live Nation venues in addition to independent venues.
The tension between the independents and the industry giants (Live Nation, AEG Worldwide, MSG Entertainment) coincides with a concert business that is booming. According to a report by the London-based research company Technavio, the global live music size is estimated to increase by 6.9 per cent – US$7.4-billion – between 2022 and 2027.
Still, the rising tide is not necessarily lifting all boats equally.
“There’s never been more opportunity for everybody in the music industry, but at the same time there are many, many more mouths to feed,” Sound Diplomacy’s Shapiro said. “As a result, you have more have-nots than haves.”