London's O2 Arena caught up in US touring turf war

The O2

A dispute between rival live music companies AEG Live and Azoff MSG Entertainment could prevent some global touring acts from appearing at London's O2 Arena.

The row began in the US when Azoff MSG reportedly started refusing to book acts into its prestigious Madison Square Garden venue in New York unless they also played the company’s Los Angeles venue, The Forum, over AEG’s Staples Centre.

Now AEG has hit back, informing agents and promoters last week that acts that choose The Forum over the SC will not be booked into its premier London venue, The O2. But the situation has been further complicated by Live Nation – the biggest concert promoter in the world – apparently wading into the row on MSG’s side and accusing AEG of anti-competitive behaviour. AEG and Live Nation are long-time competitors in both live promotion and venue operations, with the rivalry given added spice by AEG’s decision to move most of its venues away from Ticketmaster ticketing following the 2009 Live Nation-Ticketmaster merger.

Senior AEG sources have told Music Week the company had resisted playing the O2 card but accused MSG of “forcing our hand”.

“Artists should have choices,” one source claimed. “Live Nation should be taking the artists’ side – they should be pushing back on MSG, not us. But we have to defend our position.”

The MSG-Staples dispute has seemingly already affected several artists, with Neil Diamond moving two dates from the Staples Centre to the Forum, while the likes of Roger Waters and Chance The Rapper have performed at Brooklyn’s Barclays Centre rather than the Garden.

Throwing The O2 into the mix ups the ante considerably. The venue, which recently celebrated 10 years of operation, is the world’s most popular live venue and has become an essential stop-off for global superstars. Its capacity of up to 21,000 makes it the largest indoor venue in London, with its closest rival, the 12,500-capacity Wembley Arena, also operated by AEG. Nonetheless, AEG sources told Music Week it believes it has a watertight legal case against any claims of anti-competitive behaviour.

AEG sources confirmed all O2 dates already held by acts playing The Forum will be honoured, but the new policy will apply to all shows booked after July 1. Acts that play both Staples and The Forum will be eligible to play the O2. The O2 is regularly booked up nine months to a year in advance, with a number of 2018 shows already confirmed, so it will take some time for any effects to bite if the dispute can’t be resolved. Wembley Arena bookings will not be affected by the row, with the source pledging “not to hold Wembley hostage”.

AEG insiders suggest the move would affect around 15 global touring artists and up to 50 nights at The O2 in a typical year. The venue regularly hosts 200-odd shows a year.

Madison Square Garden holds a similarly prestigious position in New York’s concert scene, with a storied history of legendary concerts and sports events. The Forum is similarly renowned, but has a smaller capacity than the SC, which has been hugely successful since its opening in 1999. MSG bought the Forum in 2012 and undertook an extensive refurb, which boosted its bookings, although AEG sources claim that much of that business has since drifted back to Staples.

“That honeymoon period is over,” said the source. “Artists want to go back to Staples, where they make more money.”

AEG issued the following official statement: “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 Centre 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. As evidenced by a parade of antitrust lawsuits, regulatory investigations and an antitrust consent decree that have followed the company over the years, Live Nation has a well-earned and widespread reputation for resorting to aggressive tactics, including threatening to withhold its content, as it continually seeks to enhance its dominant market position in these various sectors. 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. Not only did Live Nation not complain about MSG’s tying of the Garden and the Forum, but it actively encouraged and supported that policy because it suited Live Nation’s interests in driving content away from a competitively ticketed building to a Ticketmaster building, which, in the process, succeeded in sending a very loud message to the live entertainment industry - how well equipped Live Nation is to punish any buildings that dare go with a competing ticketing provider. 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 misguided attempts by Live Nation to use the courts or the regulatory system to combat a practice they have aggressively pursued and benefitted from elsewhere.”

Azoff-MSG and Live Nation have yet to comment on the latest developments, although Azoff-MSG chairman/CEO and legendary artist manager Irving Azoff previously dismissed the dispute as “good, tough business”.

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