Live Nation’s “On The Road Again” Initiative Deserves Scrutiny

On September 26th, Live Nation announced a new initiative called “On The Road Again” to the applause of many in the press and the music industry. With Willie Nelson as the face of the campaign, the largest live music promoter in the world and the owner of TicketMaster announced that it would no longer be asking for a percentage of merch sales from club-level performers at the company’s venues, and would also be paying them $1,500 on top of their nightly compensation to help with gas and travel expenses.

Live Nation’s “On The Road Again” campaign also announced bonuses to crew members at local venues that have put in over 500 hours of service time, and that Live Nation will be donating $5 million to the Crew Nation relief fund that takes care of behind-the-scenes personnel when they incur unexpected hardships.

Certain local venues owned by Live Nation and other companies take upwards of 15% to 30% of a band’s merch sales on a given night, eating into a major source of revenue for independent and up-and-coming artists. Performers such as Hank Williams III, American Aquarium, and punk rockers Jeff Rosenstock and Laura Jane Grace have been on the warpath in the past and present over this practice, making it public just how much these merch fees eat into their revenue.

But of course there is a catch to all of this. While much of the media reported on Live Nation’s initiative verbatim and without scrutinizing it or digging too deep into the details, others are speaking out, saying its a lot of smoke an mirrors to take heat off the massive company. It also could ultimately hurt many locally-owned music venues by pulling talent away from them as performers rush to play Live Nation venues to cash in on the $1,500 payments.

The biggest and most obvious caveat to the “On The Road Again” program is it’s very temporary. As many media outlets reported the dropping of controversial merch percentages that Live Nation venues and others take, they failed to mention this relief will only last until the end of 2023, or for three months. As the Live Nation announcement says itself, Through the end of the year, the ‘On The Road Again’ program is expected to deliver tens of millions of dollars in extra earnings to club artists and crew…”

The temporary nature of the program and merch fee relief has since been confirmed by numerous sources. This also goes for the $1,500 extra payments. As soon as 2024 rolls around, all of this is scheduled to go away at the moment. Also, certain Live Nation vendors will not be forced to participate in the merch program, so it’s unclear just how much relief artists will ultimately be receiving.

“Live Nation wanted ‘their’ 20% cut of Merch tonight at The Hamilton in DC, even asked for it specifically in cash,” Alabama songwriter Drayton Farley tweeted out on September 27th, the day after the initiative was announced. “Too bad so sad. We made the Merch, we set the Merch up, and we sold the Merch. To hell with this mafia business.”

Of course a major corporation isn’t going to just slash merch fees and give away checks for no reason. Along with being a PR boon and a tax write-off when it comes to the relief fund donation, according to the National Independent Venue Association or NIVA, the “On The Road Again” initiative will actively hurt locally-owned independent venues, if that’s not the entire reason for the program. As the NIVA said in a statement,

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. Independent venues and promoters are investing in and elevating up-and-coming artists every day, and NIVA is supporting those efforts nationally. The initiative announced yesterday may seem like a move to follow the lead of some independent venues. It is not that.

Instead, it appears to be a calculated attempt to use a publicly traded conglomerate’s immeasurable resources to divert artists from independent venues and further consolidate control over the live entertainment sector. Such tactics threaten the vitality of small and medium-sized venues under 3000 capacity, many of which still struggle to keep their doors open.

Independent stages, where the majority of artists, musicians and comedians start their careers, are small businesses and nonprofits. They are continually facing rising costs, increased deceptive ticketing practices in the resale market, and ongoing challenges following the global pandemic. Our stages are critical to the live entertainment ecosystem and local economies, and they must survive.

The economics of touring must drastically improve for artists and independent venues. There has to be a better way. NIVA will continue to support artists and empower independent venues as we collectively find it.

Live Nation received an incredible amount of positive press and praise from the announcement of the “On The Road Again” campaign. It comes at a time when Congress has considered declaring Live Nation a monopoly, and forcing the company to spin off TicketMaster, which is also facing heat and regulation for how it handles fees and surges prices for certain events that face high demand, while the ticketing system also seems to favors scalpers and resellers who bilk the public further with exorbitant prices that the artists themselves do not benefit from.

Live Nation deploying Willie Nelson and his iconic country song “On The Road Again” to be the figure head and slogan of the initiative is especially troubling. Live Nation clearly understood they needed a favorable character to help sell this initiative, and used Willie Nelson as a shield from criticism. Willie Nelson’s camp has close ties with Live Nation, and it’s unlikely the 90-year-old scrutinized the details of the program himself.

It’s not that certain artists and certain performances won’t benefit from this initiative in the next three months, though most artists already have their 2023 calendar booked out, making it difficult to take advantage of the program if they’re not already scheduled at a Live Nation venue. But artist and fans should be clear-eyed about the true aims of the “On The Road Again” program.

This is a savvy PR campaign by the biggest live promoter in the world that very well might be the difference between some independent venues surviving through the end of the year, or being forced to fold as they attempt to compete with Live Nation’s deep pockets. Most independent venues can’t pony up $1,500 additional dollars over the deal they’ve already promised to performers for the next three months.

“The mainstream music press did us all dirty yesterday by not adding ‘for the next 90 days’ to every headline about live nation ending merch cuts,” said independent punk/metal label Tankcrimes on September 27th. “I shared an article with skepticism but still became part of the misinformation. Big PR move, everyone ate it up.”

Meanwhile, the merch fees that have become so controversial with independent artists and their fans, they’re not going anywhere in the long-term, via Live Nation or any other promoter. They still remain a problem, as does the exorbitant amount that it costs for up-and-coming and independent bands to tour in the current environment.

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