Mentorship In Music
Guest Feature: Matt LaRose & Sally Lidinsky
Back of House's own Sally Lidinsky is an Event Executive who has been producing music and sporting events for over 15 years, including recent roles as VP of Events at Townsquare Media and the Professional Fighters League. Her favorite parts of the live event world are making things happen, organizing chaos, and most of all, helping those around her learn and grow in the industry. Matt LaRose has over 25 years of sports & entertainment expertise.
Many of us enter this industry because we love music and events, and very few of us have formal live event training (is that even a thing?), including me. We learn through our own experiences and the experiences of those who’ve come before us, which makes finding a mentor really helpful. I had the opportunity to chat with my mentor, Matt LaRose, President of All Axis Entertainment, about the importance of mentorship in general, and specifically, in the live events industry.
Matt and I worked together for 6 years at Townsquare Media (TSQ). When I started as a Producer of Live Events in 2013, Townsquare was beginning to acquire music festivals and Matt was single-handedly running them. During our tenure together, the department grew to include expos, fairs, experiential events, and even more festivals. Our team expanded to nearly 40; and both of our roles evolved. At our peak, we produced 7 music festivals, 3 expos, and 2 town fairs in a single summer, with 7 of those events occurring in June alone. I left TSQ as VP of Live Events, responsible for running our festivals and expos division. At that time Matt was SVP of Live Events, overseeing all of Townsquare’s events, including other touring properties and 300+ events in TSQ’s 67 local markets. I strongly believe that without his mentorship, I wouldn’t be where I am in my career and as a leader today. Matt taught me, challenged me, pushed me, and ultimately gave me opportunities to do better and be better.
Here are some highlights from our conversation:
SALLY: Let’s start out with a bit about your background. Who are you, how did you get to when we worked together?
MATT: I wanted to be an FBI Agent or in the Secret Service so I enrolled in Arizona State University’s Justice Studies program. While there, I needed to get a part-time job, so I started working at Sun Devil Stadium as a groundskeeper. At the time it was home to the Arizona Cardinals and my first day on the job was an NFL Sunday Game. By the end of the year, I realized I had fallen in love with the job, so I switched my major to botany (later I switched to business), and I learned on the job. Two years later, I became the youngest full-time employee of ASU athletics, responsible for managing the baseball, track, and tennis facilities. My mentors at ASU, including Brian Johnson, who is still the Head Groundskeeper there, taught me so much, but after a few years, I was ready for something new.
I then went to the Sacramento River Cats [Minor League affiliate of the Oakland Athletics] who had just broken ground on a new stadium and I was fortunate to be involved in many build and design meetings. Alan Ledford was the COO and he quickly became my mentor. When the Director of Operations left, Alan asked me to come upstairs to work with him. I was unsure, but I did it. Shortly after, the VP of Operations left and I stepped into that role.
My wife Karolen, who I met while working at the River Cats, ran events for the stadium. When we had our son, she left and I took over for her. I had no idea what I was doing and made every wrong decision. Everyone took advantage of the new guy. But that’s how I learned how to run the entertainment side of things.
10 years later, we moved to Idaho and I met Dhruv Prasad, one of the co-founders of Townsquare Media. Dhruv originally brought me on to run Townsquare’s west coast events, but within one month, I was managing events across the entire country and my role grew from there.
My story is a little unique in that my path was building blocks. I had mentors at Arizona State University, including Head Groundskeeper, Brian Johnson, who taught me how to run athletic facilities; a profession that I loved. Then I went to the Sacramento River Cats and Alan Ledford took me under his wing and taught me the business side of baseball. I learned the events and entertainment side on my own, by fire, really. And then I got to go work with Dhruv Prasad at Townsquare Media and create something from scratch, which was fantastic.
SL: Do you remember when we first met? (My interview with TSQ) What do you remember about it? Any initial thoughts?
ML: I remember your demeanor: you were professionally dressed, professionally prepared, and you were eager. What I remember the most is you had this thing about you. You wanted to learn and to be better. I don't know if you specifically said that, but I sensed that.
SL: I remember that after I talked to you, I talked to Dhruv and he said, we really need to hire someone as soon as possible so you didn’t have a heart attack because you couldn’t do it all alone.
ML: [Laughs] I didn’t know that, but it was true, I was working really hard, all by myself.
SL: The beginning was crazy. I started out on-site at Mountain Jam, then we spent the first month on the road together. Then you went to [your home office in] Idaho, I went to the TSQ office in CT. Building a relationship was challenging, but from the start, I felt that you trusted me. What do you remember about that time? Was there something in particular that led you to trust me or helped to build that trust?
ML: I learned early on, when we were at Hunter Mountain, that if I asked you to do something, I didn’t have to go back and check it or worry about it because you had displayed from the beginning that you just get shit done and that really resonated with me. That was a good feeling for me because before that I didn’t have anyone. Not only did I have someone after that, but I had someone that was really good. I knew you were really good, but I just needed to get you the experience to get better. I knew at Hunter Mountain that this was going to be great.
SL: Our industry is one you live in vs work in (not a typical 9-5, spend all hours of the day together, travel together for long stretches, "go to war" together, etc.) do you think that makes it easier or harder to find a mentor?
ML: I always looked at it as easier. From a work standpoint, it made us stronger because we got to know each other so well. You knew I would get hot-headed and you would be the calm one on most occasions and we played the good-cop, bad-cop thing really well. On a personal side, I enjoyed getting to know you and our conversations. We talked a lot about work and that was helpful because I would always bounce things off you and strategize. In the beginning, we were not together in the office until I moved there, but I always thought it made us stronger. It brought us closer.
SL: I agree that it helped. We were together a lot and did a lot of traveling just the 2 of us, which enabled our relationship to grow faster than it would have if we were only spending time in the office. To me, our time together never felt forced. For example, when we were on the road we didn’t always do dinner together each night and that was OK. I didn’t feel that I had to entertain you as I sometimes did when traveling with others. Our personalities quickly meshed well together and that helped to build a relationship.
SL: On that note, our personalities are pretty different, how do you think that has helped our relationship?
ML: It’s like any good marriage; you have to have a yin and a yang. We are similar in a lot of ways, we both have a lot of drive, we both want to do well, we both want to move up, both want to continue to grow our profession and as professionals. You often handled things completely differently than I did and I think that worked to our advantage. I was always the hot one and you were the cold - but by the way, there were times when you’d get pissed and I wouldn’t be as pissed - but that’s what made it so great. If we were both like you or both like me, we wouldn’t have different perspectives on things and wouldn’t have different things to talk about. It’s just good.
SL: I agree. There were definitely times when I was more fired up about something than you were and you had to talk me off the ledge. But more often I was dead-set on doing something one way and you would say, “Hey wait, let’s think about it this other way.” Maybe we would go in my direction or yours or somewhere in the middle, but you always provided that different perspective. You were always thinking about when something was going to happen (not if it was going to happen) and you forced me to plan for it. Sometimes I would be too positive or optimistic about things and you had this gift for seeing the future and knew something bad would happen. That was really helpful for me. I try to take that now and think, OK, things are going well, but what happens when they don’t, and how can I be prepared for it. That’s something I’ve really taken away from that difference in our relationship.
SL: I learned so many great things about how to be a leader from you - so many tangible and intangible things - how did you learn this stuff?
ML: When things go right, you don’t learn anything, you only learn by doing the wrong things, by making mistakes. It’s how you respond to those mistakes, how you rise to the challenge, how you deal with those things.
As an example, at ASU, I had employees that were my age or older than me. I would go out drinking with them. And then the next day, when they didn’t show up on time, they said it was because we were out together the night before. They were taking advantage of me.
I would tell you early on when you asked me to go out with our team that I can’t go out every night with them. The team can’t let loose with me around and I needed to be the boss. If I had to lay the hammer down, I didn’t want to be out with the team each night, that doesn’t work. Going out once in a while is good, but I always left early.
I made a lot of mistakes and as long as you can learn from them and correct them, it makes you better.
SL: This is something I learned from you early and has really stuck with me. So thank you for making that mistake.
SL: Another valuable thing you taught me was how to make tough decisions and deliver bad news. Prior to TSQ, I had never let someone go. Things like that aren’t easy and I never wanted to do them, but there were times you not only made me do them but do them on my own. I was always nervous, but with your help, I was prepared, and it did get easier (but never more fun). Looking back, I am better because of it.
ML: Alan made me fire my first person and I was petrified. I was shaken most of the day. He pulled me aside and told me it would make me a better manager, that if I wanted to get somewhere in my career, I was going to have to learn how to do this and that was pretty powerful to me.
As you continued to grow in your role, I always tried to give you more responsibility and to help you grow professionally. That’s why I made you do some things that you did not want to do. I remember the way I felt to fire that first person and that afterward, it got easier. At the end of the day, you really do have to go through that to get to the next level.
These are just two of the many, many things I learned from Matt. Another thing that has really stuck with me is the importance of how you treat the people around you: your team, your superiors, the volunteers and hourly staff at events, artists, vendors, etc. We’re all in this together and without a solid team who trusts, respects, and most importantly, takes care of each other, we can’t be successful. Little things can make a big difference. I am committed to not just doing these things, but also to pass them along.
SL: How important is it to have a mentor? To mentor others? How do you find the right mentor (or a mentor in general)?
ML: Very important. A mentor that you care about, that you respect, and that you can learn from is really important. We don’t learn by doing the right things, we learn from our mistakes. You can also learn from your mentor’s mistakes (like my drinking with employees example). I had some great mentors who taught me a lot of things and showed me the way and more importantly, gave me opportunities to succeed.
If I can repay what someone did for me to someone else, I want to do that. And that someone has been you - whether it’s been good or bad - it’s been you.
Not everybody gets the opportunity to find a mentor, and that’s OK too. It’s not a have to have, but it’s nice to have.
SL: In this industry, it’s particularly important because there are so many things to navigate. To your point, you can either learn from your own mistakes or from someone else’s mistakes. But you also need someone who’s there to tell you about the mistakes he or she already made so you don’t make them yourself. Having a mentor that aligns with the same values as you is also important.
SL: How has being my mentor helped you? What lessons have you learned from it?
ML: I actually had no idea I was even a mentor. I was trying to be the best boss I could while giving you opportunities along the way. With some Matt LaRose advice along the way. When you asked me to do this interview I was honored in many ways. Honored in that you thought of me that way and honored that I was able to touch your life and teach you and give you opportunities to grow.
I’ve learned no matter what, what you say and do matters, ALWAYS! Yes, you can take a few minutes off and be silly or something, but when you are the boss, people look to you for guidance and direction. You need to be the voice of reason and be very reassuring. Now, as a boss, I have always wanted everyone to respect me. We all know that not everyone will like you, some will flat out not like you at all. That said, I have always wanted to be respected for the way I carry myself, the decisions I make, the way I treat people, and hopefully the leadership I bring to the organization. Most importantly, I’m honored to be a mentor to you along your journey. You have been a true professional, someone that I have always been able to count on no matter what and I’m the lucky one in this relationship. My hope for you is that you can find someone like yourself to pass along what you have learned and will learn going forward one day.
I left Townsquare for the Professional Fighters League in April, just prior to the start of the 2019 festival season and Townsquare’s subsequent sale of its festivals to Live Nation. My relationship with Matt could have been tested or even severed as I navigated my decision to leave. Instead, because of the strength of our relationship and our friendship, we were completely transparent with each other throughout the whole process; and he made the transition so much easier for me.
SL: Talk a bit about when I left TSQ and our relationship since then.
ML: It was a great example of our relationship - our friendship on top of our working relationship - and what it meant to me by you leaving. Above all, I wanted to see you succeed.
In a different scenario, I could have tried to keep you, but that would have been selfish. I needed you to run our events that summer. You staying would have made my life so much simpler. But at the same time I thought, how selfish am I for doing that? I wanted you to be happy and successful and that’s a testament to our relationship.
Since then, we check in on each other every few weeks. We definitely can do it more. And I’ve always believed that when I am in a position to hire someone, you’re the first person I’ll call.
SL: You’re still that person I want to call when I need advice. These past 7+ months have been a struggle. You’re that guy that is always there. Thank you. I hope that our relationship continues and you’ll always be that guy.
ML: I will and visa-versa. Absolutely.
SL: Just a few more. What advice would you give to your younger self?
ML: I would go back and network more. I didn’t really know what that meant when I was younger. It is what you know, but also who you know, that is important. Experience is very important, but who you know is even more important. If there is a line [for an opportunity], it can put you ahead of the pack.
SL: What’s your dream event to work on?
ML: I don’t know if I have a dream event. I’ve gotten to work on some pretty cool shows and events. I think for me, a quiet event is the best event. There are a lot of people that are passionate about the music side of it, and I am passionate about music too, but more than that I am passionate about the business side of live events. I want a successful event.
A lot of people get into the industry because they love it. I did it because I saw a way to make people happy (the fans, ticket buyers). My dream is to continue to build successful events and get back at it.
SL: Me too, and I think that’s just another reason why you have been such a great mentor to me.