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Gordon Masson speaks to the AEG Presents France chief as he celebrates his two decades in the business and looks back on the life-changing events of Bataclan in 2015
By Gordon Masson on 22 Nov 2022
Born in the southern French city of Montpellier, Arnaud Meersseman had something of a nomadic upbringing. “My father worked in computers and changed companies all the time, so at first we lived in Montpellier before moving to Geneva for two years, then two years in San Francisco,” he recalls.
“Then it was one year in Amsterdam, two in Lyon, and then two years in Boston. And then I moved back to France because I didn’t want to live in the States anymore.”
With such an international background, Arnaud’s decision to pursue a career as a diplomat seemed natural and that career path seemed assured when he was accepted into the prestigious Sciences Po university in Lyon. “Sciences Po schools get you into high-level public office, and the one in Lyon specialises in foreign affairs, which is what I wanted to do,” he explains. However, his love for music found him running a student radio show, and the lure of the ministry of foreign affairs was swiftly replaced by a desire to find a career in music.
“Arnaud was studying political science, so from our first meeting we talked about Daft Punk and The Cramps”
“With hindsight, it seems like the same thing, now,” he laughs. “At the end of my second year, we had to find a three-month internship. My girlfriend at the time’s mother was a physiotherapist and looked after a French rapper who was signed to Pi-Pole in Montpellier, and that’s how I got my foot in the door. I engineered a meeting with Pi-Pole’s founder, Pascal Sanchez, and I interned over summer 2002. The following year I needed a six-month internship and Pascal took me back. After that, he hired me.”
P-Pole chief Sanchez recalls, “Arnaud was studying political science, so from our first meeting we talked about Daft Punk and The Cramps, but also about Chirac who was our lazy french president then. In fact, I found it fascinating.”
Determined to finish his degree, Arnaud used his diplomatic skills to persuade both Sciences Po and his new employer to bend the rules. “It was a bit complicated, but the university was pretty accommodating – they put all my classes on the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. Midday Wednesday, I’d go to work at Pi-Pole. But I’d also worked during classes and did classes during work. It was hectic, but I finished school and kept my job.”
“[Arnaud] has proved that one can be at the head of AEG while being a fan of music and without having studied economics”
Working at Pi-Pole with Sanchez changed Arnaud’s life. “Pascal has a great ear and he’s an amazing A&R guy, so he taught me how to listen to stuff,” he says of his former boss for whom he promoted numerous electronic artists before gradually introducing acts like The Rapture, MGMT, LCD Soundsystem, and TV On The Radio to the Pi-Pole roster.
Sanchez believes Meersseman’s curiosity was a major factor in his evolution as a promoter. “As I don’t really have the sense or the patience for management, Arnaud was responsible for his own development,” notes Sanchez. “I helped him a little by giving him work with international bands. That allowed him to work with UK agents, but as he was the only French promoter to speak English, things came easily.”
Still a firm friend of his former employee, Sanchez adds, “I’m proud to see how far he’s come. He has proved that one can be at the head of AEG while being a fan of music and without having studied economics.”
City of Lights
After six years at Pi-Pole, Arnaud got itchy feet, and the bright lights of the French capital caught his imagination. “I just got really bored, and I wanted to go to Paris.” Having discussed options with the likes of the late Gérard Drouot and Sarah Jane Richardson, Arnaud eventually met Nous Productions chief Salomon Hazot. “In terms of his roster, I felt more in place with Salomon, who also had Rock en Seine, and that made up my mind: I quit Pi-Pole and moved to Paris in March 2010.”
It wasn’t all plain sailing, however. Loyalty is a key element of Meersseman’s persona, and his relocation to Paris involved a significant step back. “Salomon wanted me to bring my Pi-Pole bands with me, but I did not want to do that to Pascal, so I started again from scratch.”
Some of the early additions to Arnaud’s Nous Productions roster were Lana Del Rey, The Weeknd, and Major Lazer
That fractious start set the tone for the relationship between Meersseman and Hazot. “Salomon is an amazing businessman, and he taught me how to do business. But at Nous, I basically
started without a roster, so I don’t think he was very happy with me at first.”
That situation quickly changed. Among some of the early additions to Arnaud’s Nous Productions roster were Lana Del Rey, The Weeknd, and Major Lazer. “I was doing all of James Rubin’s stuff like A$AP Rocky, Joey Bada$$, Run The Jewels, and Wiz Khalifa. So I really started expanding out of indie rock and electronic music into more generalist stuff.”
Arnaud’s knowledge also grew in other areas. “The last one in at Nous Production got to do all the metal shows, so I was very proficient in doom metal, thrash metal, stoner metal – I knew all the genres,” he laughs. However, he pays tribute to Hazot, who quickly involved him in the decision-making side of the business. “Salomon put me forward very much more than most of his other employees,” he tells IQ. “He really pushed me, which definitely helped me to grow.”
For his part, Hazot recalls, “What surprised me most about Arnaud was that he was always listening to music. If I saw him in the street, he would be listening to something; when he was going home at night after a show, he would be listening to music. He wasn’t thinking about the money – music always came first.”
Among Arnaud’s greatest allies in those early days at Nous, were Rubin, Cris Hearn, and CAA chiefs Emma Banks and Mike Greek. “Through them I learned about the proper agency world, not just the electronic music stuff,” says Arnaud.
“[Arnuad] wasn’t thinking about the money – music always came first”
Meersseman’s remit at Nous also introduced him to Rock en Seine – the festival he now programmes. “In the first year, Salomon had me just keep the grid and look out for the Rock en Seine offers. But pretty quickly I was included on the booking calls. Salomon and Doudou [Christophe Davy] were essentially booking the festival but allowed me to share my opinions. They gave me a seat at the table, which I’m very thankful for.”
By mid-2015, the writing was on the wall for Arnaud’s time at Nous, when talks of a corporate takeover began to leak. That prompted Meersseman to start pondering other options, but before he was able to put any plans into action, the unthinkable happened. “It was more than rumours that Solomon was speaking to Live Nation, and at no point did I feel I wanted to go work with them, so that was worrisome. But then, obviously, Bataclan happened,” he says.
Meersseman was promoting the Eagles of Death Metal show at the venue on 13 November 2015, when the terrorists struck. He was sitting on the terrace in front of the venue with friends when the gunfire started, and within seconds he had been hit by a bullet and gravely injured. In coordinated attacks across Paris, terrorists murdered 130 people – 90 of whom were in and around Bataclan – and injured more than 400.
“It’s a massive trauma to me: really massive,” he tells IQ. “First off, I’m very lucky in what happened to me: getting shot in front of the venue and not inside, so not being in the middle of bodies and things like that – it was lucky. But it’s very violent, and while physically I got much better – I remember being surprised at how quickly the body can heal – rebuilding myself psychologically was a long, long process in terms of just getting over being dissociated, because I was essentially in this fog the whole time.
“Just getting rid of the insomnia and getting confidence back in life and stopping thinking about what happened, replaying it over and over… that took a lot of work in terms of psychotherapy, hypnosis, and things like that.”
“[The Bataclan attack] is a massive trauma to me: really massive”
He adds, “It’s strange how the brain works. My real breakthrough came when a memory that I had completely suppressed materialised through a combination of hypnosis and rapid eye movement therapy. It was seeing one of my friends getting shot in the head right next to me. Once that came out, suddenly I felt I could start to move forward.”
Arnaud’s determination to get back to work also brought its own traumas. “I felt I needed to be back in the office, symbolically, to coincide with the first date back of Eagles of Death Metal, which was mid-February when they played L’Olympia. But that was way too quick. I remember taking the metro to the office, and there was a loud bang on the train. I had to run back home because I was just scared shitless.” The work environment was also surreal. “It took me time to realise that I was not ready to be back in the office. And then on top of that, the Live Nation move was happening. So, I decided I needed to get out of there.”
Finding a New Home
Looking to start the next chapter, Meersseman had discussions with Emmanuel de Buretel about joining his Corida division, which was in the process of acquiring Pi-Pole. But the chance to establish his own operation was more enticing, both professionally and personally. He found that opportunity at FIMALAC group, whose promoting division, MIALA, specialised for the most part in domestic French talent. “I’d never really worked with domestic acts, but FIMALAC backed me to do international stuff, so I moved to MIALA with a remit to grow the international roster.” But the move soon unravelled. “I felt like they had no idea of what our job was. And worse, agents did not understand what we were doing or how it was structured.”
Determined to find a solution that would allow him to take on the growing might of Live Nation when it came to attracting international acts to France, Arnaud took matters in hand. Having
discovered that AEG was looking to acquire Rock en Seine, he relentlessly pursued senior management about the idea of creating a Paris office.
But it was Arnaud’s longstanding friendship with then WME boss Marc Geiger that proved to be the catalyst. “Geiger was in Paris for Lollapalooza, so we met, and I outlined my idea of a French AEG office. He took it up and the next morning I got an email from him saying that he had spoken to [AEG chairman and CEO] Jay Marciano, who wanted to talk to me.”
In January 2018, Arnaud’s living room became AEG’s inaugural French headquarters, with a staff of four
As a result, in January 2018, Arnaud’s living room became AEG’s inaugural French headquarters, with a staff of four. With others gradually joining the operation, that arrangement lasted for around six months before the AEG France team could find a proper office. “I never invoiced AEG for the rent of my living room,” laughs Arnaud.
With French law decreeing that a promoter’s licence is essential before being allowed to sell tickets, Arnaud tells IQ, “It took a full year to be fully operational, and by the time December 2019 came around, we were poised for a very big year in 2020. And then, we all know what happened.”
As the Paris operation had grown to ten people, the need for bigger premises was also necessary. “I signed the lease for a 400-square-metre office, moving in early April 2020… Great timing.”
However, AEG’s attitude toward the Covid situation was exemplary. “We were worried that they might just shut us down, but the company was amazing – we even got bonuses at the end of 2020,” reports Arnaud. Generous government subsidies also helped. “The government essentially picked up the tab for all the employee salaries for a year,” he adds.
Slowly emerging from Covid restrictions, the stop-go activities of 2021 complicated matters, but this year has seen AEG France get back on track, albeit with familiar challenges. “We were faced with the same thing as everybody else: we were doing the same number of shows that we did in 2019, plus 40%, often with less staff. On top of that, we had our very first big shows – the Rolling Stones and the Hella Mega Tour – so there was definitely added pressure.”
Looking forward, Meersseman is determined to exploit some of the untapped potential of the French market, as the majority of international acts tend to only visit Paris on their European tours. “With domestic stuff you can probably play 200 shows in France because every single mid-level city has its own venue, often run by the city or the state.”
“The government essentially picked up the tab for all the employee salaries for a year”
Citing The Cure’s current tour as an example of how A-list international acts can properly tour France, Arnaud says, “The Cure really put in the time and everything’s sold out. There’s great business to be done in the regions.”
As the busiest year in history for live music speeds toward its conclusion, AEG Presents’ French office currently numbers 22 employees, while 2022 has also seen the company ink a new agreement that reunites Arnaud with his mentor Hazot’s new company, Solani Productions.
Hazot comments, “When I was looking to set up Solani, I called Arnaud and it was very emotional because he told me that he owed a lot to me. We share the same birthday – September 15 – and we’ve always been in touch on that day, so I’m very glad we are working together again.”
Meersseman agrees. “Striking that deal with Salomon will increase our show count and bring some amazing artists to the roster,” says Arnaud, citing the likes of Ed Sheeran, Metallica, Rammstein, Iron Maiden, Katy Perry, and Red Hot Chili Peppers. “It feels good to be working with him again.”
Asked about his 2022 highlights, he responds, “I was very proud to be able to work with the Rolling Stones. It’s always a great one to put on the CV. Also, Rock en Seine was a kickass bill this year.” He continues, “The festival is getting amazing support from agents now – we’re almost done with 50% of the bill for 2023 already because people really want to play Rock en Seine.”
And while confessing that he’s “terrible” at HR – “I really suck” – Arnaud’s track record to date isn’t too shabby. “I’m a bit overwhelmed, but I do have a great promoter team in place now – people like Emma Greco who is a really good young promoter. And I also brought in Laurent Castanié who has a very solid roster, from the Dropkick Murphys to Chemical Brothers to Flaming Lips.”
He concludes, “We’re in a good place right now. I’ll probably hire another one or two promoters next year and keep on building. We want to also grow the festival footprint at some point, but we’ll see – we’re talking to a couple of people who are thinking about creating new events with [AEG European Festivals CEO] Jim King. There’s still a lot of room for AEG Presents to grow.”
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