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The head of global touring for Live Nation dishes on digital disruption, ticket prices and his most disastrous decision ever

CEO of Live Nation Arthur Fogel.David Kasnic/Globe and Mail

I think my first concert might have been Cream at a movie theatre in Ottawa, where I grew up.

After Grade 9, my parents decided I needed some proper discipline, so they sent me to Ashbury College, on the other side of town. Somehow it ended up working for me—at least I’m on time for everything I do. Unfortunately, some of my clients don’t share the same sense of punctuality.

I started playing drums in high school. There was no question I wanted to be in the music business, but I realized I wasn’t a very good musician. So I got a job as night manager at a club in Toronto.

I had no real skill or experience, but I guess these bands saw me as a somewhat responsible individual, so they gave me a shot as tour manager. I guess I can fake it pretty well.

I couldn’t have had greater mentors at Concert Productions International. They all had different strengths: Michael Cohl was incredibly sharp with the numbers; Donald K. Donald was the consummate salesman; and Noman Perry was very much a music-first guy.

There’s a long list of Canadians who have and still are enjoying success in the music business globally. Maybe the common denominator is that because it’s such a small country, there’s a drive to develop yourself and expand globally.

Because CPI was so dominant in Canada, and it was a mature market, we knew that to grow the business, we’d have to look outside Canada. But there was a CPI in every tour market, and the agents were kinda like the mob.

We had to change the rules. The opportunity presented itself in 1988, with the Rolling Stones’ Steel Wheels tour. Their manager agreed to allow us to make a proposal to buy all the tour dates. It was scary—it was either going to be the launching pad for a new way to do business or we’d go down in flames.

My view was to try to change the “us” and “them” dynamic to create a true partnership between the artists and us. Live Nation puts up the money, so we need to assess the strength of a tour in terms of selling tickets. There’s a lot of betting that goes on. Fortunately, most of the time we’re right.

Probably the worst decision I ever made was doing the Supremes reunion tour, with Diana Ross and two women nobody had ever heard of.

Whenever I go against my gut instinct, I get smacked. There are all kinds of tools and assets available to make decisions these days, but when you have to talk yourself into something, more often than not, it ends badly.

Back then, tours were promotional vehicles to sell records, which is where artists made money. That equation has changed dramatically—artists’ revenue now comes from touring. I’ll be honest, I couldn’t have envisioned in the early days of Napster how significant the live touring business would become.

The truth is, there are lots of better ways to listen to music. But you want to go to a show for that sense of community. People are prepared to pay for that experience, and it translates all the way up to the baby boomers. I just put a Phil Collins tour on sale, and people are climbing over each other to get the tickets.

Ticket pricing has always been a hot button. Shows today are incredibly expensive to operate on a weekly basis, so you have to create a model that supports that expense. But it’s important to price things in way that’s affordable to anyone.

The artists who continue to develop as live performers those are the ones that will be around for a long time. I had the great privilege to work with David Bowie starting in 1990. He was an incredible talent, cutting edge, very intellectual but an amazing live performer.

I have to say I’m most proud of being part of the No. 1 tour in history—the U2 360 tour, which sold over 7 million tickets for 110 shows. It was the first in-the-round concert experience in a stadium, with the stage in the middle. It was incredibly challenging but incredibly successful, and increased the capacity of available tickets by 25%.

It’s always important to find the balance between growth and great execution. When I started in the business, there were maybe 15 to 18 countries on the touring circuit. Now there are 60-plus. I don’t see anything but continued growth.

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