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Why Is AEG Presents Opening Up So Many Smaller Clubs?

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Whether he’s building live-­music clubs and theaters or renovating them, Rick Mueller abides by a simple rule for his complex job: “The best venues bring out the best in the fans and the best in the band.”

As AEG Presents president of North America, Mueller, 50, oversees all of the rooms in the territory for which the company is the primary talent buyer.

His purview includes more than 100 U.S. properties — mostly theaters and clubs managed by one of 13 regional offices that report to him. Among them are those owned and operated by The Bowery Presents, a collection of destination plays such as Brooklyn Steel and Forest Hills Stadium in New York and a series of newly opened clubs in Boston, Denver, Atlanta and Cincinnati. He’s also heavily involved in business development, overseeing construction of new projects that AEG Presents will exclusively book, like Nashville Yards, as well as bringing existing venues like the Santa Barbara (Calif.) Bowl under AEG Presents management.

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“We’re building AEG as [a collection] of more regionally run businesses,” he explains. “That allows us to be more responsive to those markets — what’s happening musically there and what the customer wants.”

Mueller, who is originally from the San Francisco Bay area and now lives in Los Angeles, contends that strategy gives AEG Presents a “distinct advantage” over its main competition, Live Nation, where he briefly worked. “Live Nation is a very centralized company,” he says. “They buy their talent centrally. They make their concession deals centrally. They probably have their alcohol sponsored, and it’s driving whatever they serve in their venues. I don’t know that they give a lot of specialized thought in any given city to what is a great experience.”

You have opened a lot of smaller clubs. How do you identify markets that need another venue?

Since the pandemic, we’ve opened The Eastern in Atlanta, Roadrunner in Boston and the MegaCorp Pavilion in Cincinnati. They’re all doing really well, and we want to continue to add a lot more venues to that list. We’ve got Nashville Yards, which will open up at the end of 2024 or early 2025. We’ve got a venue in Raleigh [N.C.] that will open up in the first half of 2025. These are brand-new builds. As for what markets we look at — any place there’s opportunity. Sometimes that’s a function of a certain capacity room that doesn’t exist in a marketplace.

What size venues are your sweet spot?

We’re focusing on locations with capacities of 1,500 to 5,000. There’s more and more bands that are coming out of this frictionless distribution of music. They are able to sell tickets, so there’s a huge demand for these size venues. The bands can’t find enough dates, and we want to make sure that we service that opportunity.

You’ve opened a club called Racket in Manhattan, a market where you already have a number of small clubs. Why open another?

New York is a market where we’ve invested in very small spaces because it’s a very important developmental market for our relationships and conversations with bands. We feel that finding any venue in Manhattan — in this case, we renovated the old Highline Ballroom —is an opportunity we’re going to look at every single time.

What niche will Racket fill?

Look, in New York there’s a variety of bands that could sell more tickets than probably any other market in the United States. It’s also a first statement-type play. These smaller rooms are where we do a lot of, call it R&D. We build relationships with young bands, and then we want them on a path to play our whole venue portfolio. We hope that carries all the way through to our bigger venues like Forest Hills. It’s a true vertical pipeline where we can service an artist’s needs at any level.

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Are small music clubs the new A&R for artists?

I think the internet is A&R for artists. In this day of social media and frictionless distribution, artists can be their own advocates. As far as building a live base, New York is a very important market to start relationships with artists early. In key markets that can handle a lot of shows, we’re going to continue to invest in that.

A lot of live-industry innovations start at the club level. What are your priorities?

What you’re seeing across the board in the industry is the desire for more premium offerings. There’s a huge group of people out there who are willing to pay a little bit more whether it’s for a better seat, a better experience, a better drink, better dining. We’re looking at that, but we’re also tailoring our offerings so that there’s an experience for everybody. We want to make sure that we offer a range of experiences — from cheaper to high-end.

Billboard recently reported that Gen Z concertgoers aren’t big consumers of alcohol. How do you adapt?

We’re keeping a very close eye on that. It’s a big part of the business, and it certainly hasn’t dropped off a cliff. People are still drinking, and we’re doing more offerings, whether it’s nonalcoholic or specialty cocktails. Almost on a daily basis, we look at where our numbers are and try to understand why, but it’s something that’s really hard to see in the moment. You have to collect data, and by the time you see where the trends are going, you hope you’re in a position to adjust to it.

How does your division run differently than, say, Live Nation’s House of Blues chain and its smaller venues?

Live Nation takes more of, I’ll say, a cookie-cutter approach to music. House of Blues is a chain, and it’s the same somewhat uninspired experience anytime you go to one of them. We’re opening brands that we hope speak to their markets and stand with their own identity.

Have you noticed any changes in the way fans buy tickets since the pandemic?

When we first came back, the number of no-shows was much higher than we’re accustomed to. That pretty much leveled off and came back into what you’d call traditional ranges. There are trends where a fan might wait a little longer to buy tickets. That’s more market-specific, and that dynamic has always existed. When I first started in this business at Bill Graham Presents, Detroit was this crazy, huge, late-selling market and would do thousands of tickets week of show at some of the amphitheater properties. It doesn’t sell the same way now. San Francisco has had a lot of changeover in terms of its population. Sales are up, but we see [ticket purchases] shifting a little bit later in the overall cycle. We are seeing more of a strong close to a lot of shows there, and why that is I’m not sure. But as an industry, we’re still selling a lot of tickets early in the game, especially in big arenas and the stadium star category. Business has been incredibly good. You haven’t really heard about a lot of large-scale underperforming tours.

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What are the hot genres for ticket sales?

Generally stated, country continues to explode, as well as the land that Zach Bryan and Tyler Childers and even Jason Isbell inhabit — they aren’t traditional-style country. Kelsea Ballerini’s most recent tour is exploding. We’ve also seen incredible results with dance music. If you look at what has gone on at Brooklyn Mirage, which is not in our company, they’ve had what appears to be a record season.

What headwinds do you see?

If there’s a negative trend in the business, it’s that more multigenre festivals have struggled to maintain success. The big experiences like Coachella, Lollapalooza, Outside Lands are stronger than ever. They’re brands that people trust, and the festival experience is great. Below that, some festivals have struggled, while you’re seeing more single-genre festivals — dance, for instance — succeed. Look at Electric Forest. It speaks to a very specific audience, and it’s stronger than ever.

A year ago, indie and smaller acts were canceling tours because they were losing money. Is that still happening?

It has leveled off. A lot of people had sold tickets at a different kind of ticket price before the pandemic and made their budgets on one set of dynamics. Then when it was time to go out and tour post-pandemic, it cost a lot more to be out on the road. If your sales weren’t that good or you weren’t expecting to earn any back-end, you could end up losing money, which is why I think some people pulled down their tour plans. Costs have gotten under control, but it’s still expensive to tour. The challenge for midlevel tours is finding a balance between prices that are welcome among the fan base and the costs of being out on the road. Sometimes you have to find a mix of festivals and soft-ticket money out there to help pay for the markets that don’t cover the nightly bill that you need to earn.

How does the currently high level of inflation affect AEG’s business?

It costs a lot more for security and the labor to run our shows. And again, in some of these big markets where there’s a lot of events going on on a given weekend, it can be hard just to find staff. So managing our labor costs has been a real challenge. We have to look carefully when we do an event and what that costs and if we can make enough money for it to be worthwhile. Sometimes you go into these unique situations where the artist doesn’t seem to make any money because it costs more to do the show, and we’re struggling to make money, but it’s an important look for the artist. So we are all going in with the right goals and intentions to grow that artist’s career so that they make money on their live shows when they come back to that market.

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