Where Do We Go From Here?
An Interview With Mike Mauer
Tell us about yourself? How'd you get your start in the event industry?
So I've been in the industry for about 12 years now. My first gig at The Webster in Hartford, CT came from stumbling upon a random kegger in the woods. I drunkenly pestered the venue manager for an internship, eventually leading to a full-time box office & marketing job, which got the entire ball rolling. Funny how that works.
A few years later, I moved down to New Orleans and worked in artist management for almost 4 years, booking tours and marketing some incredibly talented local, regional, and national-level artists.
After a short stint at an ad agency, I joined a festival production company. There I helped run the marketing (and eventually ticketing) department for a handful of large-scale festivals across North America. By the end of my 4 years there, we grew to be one of the world's top 50 largest promoters by ticket sales (or at least according to Pollstar).
Right now, I've got a few fun things going on:
I head the marketing department at White Oak Music Hall, an incredible 3-stage club/theater/amphitheater in Houston that typically hosts 400+ shows in a non-COVID year.
I still consult and work with large-scale events through my company Valmont, which handled events totaling north of $40,000,000 worth of ticket sales in 2019.
I stay busy!
How has your 2020 been?
Like a lot of folks, I was incredibly excited going into 2020. My venue had its most profitable year yet, my company was working on some super interesting projects, my wife had just given birth to our first kid...everything was clicking and really promising.
That obviously changed fast in March. White Oak Music Hall's concert calendar got demolished, and most of its staff furloughed (thankfully, I was spared). The new projects that Valmont was working on didn't materialize. I lost a large client and had others pivot away from events.
I've personally been getting by and am forever grateful to everyone who's kept me around. I was even able to take the time to launch a new software business, Sparrow, which is something I've wanted to do for a long time.
But it's tough for a lot of people right now. I know many others that have had it way worse than me, and I feel for them every day. The live event space has changed permanently, and it's hard to stay if it'll ever be what it once was.
What do you mean? How has the industry changed?
COVID-19 created a crisis the live music industry has never dealt with before: a major supply-side problem.
As an industry, we're used to dealing with demand-side issues. If an artist is playing, we can figure out how to fill the room and keep the lights on.
But we've never dealt with problems down the supply-chain before, starting at the very top: What happens if artists can't tour? Our whole industry falls apart: engineers, designers, marketers, production staff, security, box office, bus drivers, travel agents, journalists, etc...they are all out of work.
We have no real solution for that. While artists will obviously start touring again, the damage runs deep -- How many incredibly talented people have been forced to leave the industry? What is going to happen with all that institutional knowledge that doesn't return? The dynamics have completely changed.
What is your 2021 outlook?
The feeling I have right now is the same one I get on opening day at a music festival. Everything that could go wrong did, and you spend the entire day just trying to duct tape it all together and keep yourself sane. That was 2020.
Now it's the end of the day, and we're figuring out how to rebuild and improve things for Day 2. That's where we're at.
Moving forward, we're going to have to work really hard to get it right. Going back to the festival metaphor, we need to hustle through the entire night to rebuild and hope we get it all done by the time Day 2 gates open. There are no shortcuts here, just tireless effort.
Long-term, I'm very optimistic. I think most would agree 2019 was a promising year, and we'll eventually get back to that point. I'm also really hopeful that any permanent changes will net out to be positive.
What are the biggest aspects of events that will change?
There's a lot of interesting dynamics happening right now that I think will have a profound impact on the industry:
First, liquidity is drying up. This is particularly important for large festivals, which have historically been launched through private equity. It turns out that festivals can be incredibly risky...who would've thought? Coming out of COVID, the risk/reward profile won't be there for investors and will lead to the death of the mega-festival model.
To that point, we'll see a lot more niched, smaller events pop up. They will either serve a specific geography (e.g., less national festivals, more regional ones) or a particular community of people (e.g., less multi-genre fests, more specific genres ones). We'll also see more hybrid events pop up that blend music with other aspects like food, gaming, etc. Festivals will enter an exciting creative period moving forward as producers and promoters experiment.
Independent venues and promoters have a fighting chance, thanks in large part to NIVA and Senators Klobuchar and Cornyn for their work on the $15B Save Our Stages Act (side note: indie festivals do qualify as well). It was honestly utterly hopeless to expect them to survive without federal assistance. Even with the grant money in place and concerts back on track, it's going to take a long time for them to reach their 2019 staffing levels again (shameless plug: this is a large part of why I launched Sparrow). I suspect we'll, unfortunately, see venues continue to fold well into 2021.
Then there are the things that I hope will happen, but who knows -- First, I hope ticket prices rise. Our industry has historically been one of the worst at getting its pricing right, especially venues. That's a whole other can of worms on why that is.
Second, I really hope artist fees fall across the board, but particularly for festivals. High fees create an unsustainable situation for independent producers, contribute to a toxic promoter/agent relationship, and create an uncompetitive business environment that favors corporations like Live Nation and AEG.
What are some larger event protocols and changes we should expect to see because of COVID?
There's definitely going to be a much larger focus given to site ops. Waste management, restrooms, and general site sanitation will, of course, see a larger investment...hellllooo flushable toilets.
But I also think producers will be much more disciplined in considering crowd dynamics. Things like music schedule, ingress/egress points, sponsor activations, signage, and much more all affect crowd flow. I did a festival once that had a 60-minute break between the headliners and the late-night shows. You had 50,000 people all at once trying to rush to their campsites to get drunk before the nighttime. It was rough. Not taking time to plan for this is a poor fan experience at best and very dangerous at worst. I'm hoping this pandemic will force people to take the time and resources to keep packed crowds to a minimum, and this will be a permanent change going forward.
The good news is that if you've got experience in site design and/or operations, I think there will be more opportunity for you to be intimately involved with planning than ever before.
What's your perspective on the workforce that will be available to work events? Do you think they'll run as smoothly given a) we've been out of touch for a while and aren't getting our "practice" in and what about b) much of the talent that has pivoted and won't come back?
It's a good question. I don't think "rustiness" is necessarily going to be an issue. Even if people are a little "out of practice," give it one or two events and the skills will come back.
I do think the second issue is important, and one we won't fully understand until later. Events have some of the most talented, creative, and hard-working people I've ever met in any industry. Many of these people have been forced to get other jobs and aren't going to come back. I hope they do, though.
This is part of the long-term implications of the supply-side issues I mentioned earlier. Once artists can tour and events can happen, we simply won't have as many experienced people to fill all those roles.
Honestly, it's a relatively small industry, and the loss of experience has the potential to be devastating. This is especially the case with festivals, where there's such a slim margin of error. You only have a few days to get it right, so an experienced team really matters. I actually think this could be a good thing for those who have been able to stick around: The stakes are so high for festivals to make money and deliver a great experience post-COVID that those of us with deep industry knowledge will be in high demand.
What is the consumer demand?
Over the last few months at White Oak Music Hall, we held a 13 show socially-distanced outdoor concert series with Major Lazer, Bill Burr, and others. Nearly every show sold out, even with pricey tickets, so the demand really is there. People want to go out if given a safe way to do it.
There's a limit to this, however. It'll be naive for us to think that a year of constantly being told to avoid crowds won't change consumer behavior. Some people are still going to feel weird about being at a large event. Also, some are simply more comfortable at home now and feel less pressure to go out. This all amounts to a different landscape than we left in 2019.
It's hard to say what exactly will be different, but I suspect the trend away from mega-festivals and towards smaller events will be accelerated. I know we'll eventually get back to 2019 levels, but it'll be hard work getting there.
When will events be back?
I think we'll continue to see smaller live events testing the waters through the first half of this year. Things like hybrid virtual/live events, socially-distanced events, drive-ins, and reduced capacity shows will continue to varying degrees of success.
We'll eventually hit a point where enough venues are operational that an artist can string together a reasonable tour. That will be the point that things really start coming together: Calendar holds will start confirming and rescheduled dates will be finalized. It's a crapshoot when that will be, but I'm hopeful that it'll be a steady stream of good news throughout the second half of 2021.