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‘We exist to tour’: Team Mumford do Futures Forum

Mumford & Sons’ live strategy formed the core of the Futures Forum keynote interview on Friday (6 March), featuring founding band member Ben Lovett, manager Adam Tudhope and agent Lucy Dickins, in conversation with journalist Paul Stokes.

“We are most passionate about the live side,” said Lovett, in a statement that proved almost superfluous over the course of the interview, given the palpable sense of enthusiasm he emitted while talking about Mumford & Sons’ past tours, their Gentlemen of the Road events and his own venues, Omeara and Lafayette.

Since the very earliest stages of Mumford & Sons – and even before they were known as such – the band members approached performing with a “sleeves rolled-up mentality”, unafraid of getting involved with staging and other aspects of putting on shows.

This resulted in a collaborative approach to touring, which remains to this very day. “I love the fact that it is always a conversation between us and the promoters,” said Lovett. “We respect promoters as a band – it’s in our DNA.”

The band officially formed in 2007, consisting of Marcus Mumford, Winston Marshall, Ted Dwane and Lovett, with Dickins and Tudhope coming on board as firm members of the team from the get go.

“We just toured non-stop,” said Dickins, who joined WME in May last year. “I’ve never seen a work ethic like it and that continues today.”

Lovett agreed that “the main reason Mumford & Sons exist is to tour”. The band’s most recent concert tour, Delta, saw them perform more than 60 dates at arenas across Europe, North America, Asia and Australia.

“I’ve never seen a work ethic like it and that continues today”

The mammoth tour sold 700,000 tickets in just a few days of going on sale, broke multiple attendance records and featured the band playing in the round for the first time. “It was very challenging but incredibly effective staging,” said Lovett, explaining there was a “sense of duty” to allow fans to experience their songs in a different way for their fourth headlining tour.

“We took some risks on Delta,” he said, “and on balance it really paid off. It really felt like there were connection happening between audience members throughout that tour.”

Forming meaningful connections in interesting places is at the heart of much of what the band do. The team revealed that upcoming plans to “go deeper into eastern Europe”, explore new “seemingly random places” and work with new promoters, were “scuppered” by the recent coronavirus outbreak.

“We really do have a really awesome idea up our sleeves,” said Tudhope, with the team hinting that plans would not be put on hold forever.

The band’s Gentlemen of the Road event series has seen them perform in many different places, travelling to small towns in the UK, Australia, the US, South Africa, and more.

“The culture clash is so beautiful”, said Tudhope, speaking of seeing tiny, off-the-beaten track towns inundated with festivalgoers, and local businesses benefitting from the event. “There’s a real community aspect.”

Dickins referenced the practical challenges of finding a suitable site for these unique events and curating the line-up. “It’s double, if not triple the amount of work but it’s worth every bit,” she said. “Enthusiasm drives it.”

“It was very challenging but incredibly effective staging”

From a business point of view, Tudhope said the events were a great way of gaining a true understanding of how promoters work, which has “really informed a lot of our own business decisions.”

“Promoters aren’t a bank for us,” added the Mumford & Sons manager. “They’re the enablers of a dream and you need a good relationship for that.”

If the experience of putting on their own events has enabled the band and team to develop a deeper understanding of how promoters work, then Lovett’s experience as a touring musician has informed him in his capacity as a venue owner.

Lovett, who owns and operates London venues Omeara and the recently opened Lafayette, stated that both fans and artists want something “unique” from venues, asking why the industry is pushing a more standardised “cookie cutter” model.

“Everybody wants to play Omeara because it’s so thought out from the artist’s side,” said Dickins. Artists that have performed at the 320-capacity venue include the Pretenders, Kodaline, the Maccabees, Beck and Circa Waves, with upcoming performances from Jake Bugg, Amy Wadge and Jesse Malin.

Lafayette (600-cap.) opened its doors last week with a performance by Brit Award-winner Dave and already has a full programme of upcoming events by the likes of Jack Peñate, D Double E and Hudson Taylor.

“The support I’ve received for Lafayette has meant the world,” said Lovett, adding that he has the lease on the venue for 25 years – equating to around 5,000 shows. “Just think of all the acts that are going to go through there.”

“For me, the sign of a successful band is longevity”

Lovett’s venue ventures have much to do with sustaining the live industry and providing artists with a place to perform. Lovett referenced the number of venue closures that have been seen in recent years, emphasising the damage that the secondary ticketing market is enacting on the grassroots level of the industry in particular.

Tudhope spoke of how the US leg of Mumfords’ Delta tour ended up generating “many millions” for the secondary market. “We didn’t want our fans to have to pay that money,” he said, explaining that it was the tickets sold at the affordable price band that were most heavily targeted by touts.

This experience “galvanised us really strongly to do something about it”, said Tudhope. Together with other managers and artists, the Mumford team has now created “a really good coalition” around anti-touting group FanFair Alliance.

Environmental sustainability is another area that the team is looking to improve upon. The band partnered with green touring specialist Reverb on its Delta tour to calculate – and later offset – carbon emissions, and create an eco-friendly touring template for future use.

“The key thing you have to commit to is spending money,” said Tudhope. “It costs money to be greener, that’s the reality.”

With sustainability remaining essential to Mumford & Sons’ ethos, it appears this will be a cost the band is willing to take.

“For me, the sign of a successful band is longevity, rather than number ones or show size, or anything else,” said Lovett. “All I want to know is: how can we do this for longer?”

 


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Why hasn’t dynamic pricing taken off in music?

If 2016 will be remembered in the live music business for any one thing, it will be as the 12 months in which the pitchforks well and truly came out against secondary ticketing.

It was the year of the Waterson report and the Bots and Boss Acts, of FanFair and #ResaleNO, and the year in which Italy surprised the world by announcing plans to outlaw ticket touting altogether.

Although most of the industry – with, of course, the exception of the secondary sites themselves – agree on the desirability of minimising touting, it remains divided on the best way to do so. Italian-style legislation is one possibility; as is blocking individual sites, as has happened in Belgium.

Another is the dynamic pricing of tickets, in which prices fluctuate based on market demand – already common for sporting events, as well as in the booking of airline tickets and hotel rooms. Despite market leader Ticketmaster throwing its hat in the dynamically priced ring for select tickets in 2007 – followed by then-CEO Irving Azoff calling for more dynamic pricing in music – the practice has yet to find widespread acceptance in the live music industry, despite its obvious potential for making the for-profit secondary market far riskier for touts, if not redundant altogether.

The reason for that, says Barry Kahn, the CEO of Qcue, a leading developer of dynamic pricing software, is primarily logistical: “From our side, it’s a challenge working with [concert] promoters because ticketing relationships run through venues: for example, Madison Square Garden with Ticketmaster,” he explains. “If you’re an artist coming through MSG you don’t touch the ticketing system.”

Kahn says the majority of his current clients are sports teams, with “not a lot of dynamic pricing on the concert side”. While he is clear he “[doesn’t] want to say it doesn’t justify the fees” – “I’ve never seen a client that didn’t have a large positive on ROI [return on investment],” he says – he admits “it is a more expensive proposition” to dynamically price tickets, and for that reason is more popular for long runs at a single venue.

“I’ve never seen a client that didn’t have a large positive on ROI”

Manager Adam Tudhope – co-founder of Everybody’s (Mumford & Sons, Laura Marling, Keane) and a prominent anti-touting campaigner – says he “doesn’t doubt that it [dynamic pricing] might be one of the tools that people use alongside other ones [to minimise touting] – and I say good luck to them”.

Tudhope says it’s important that artists and promoters are upfront with their audience – that if they do decide to dynamically price, they let fans know the reason ticket prices are fluctuating – and that the ‘demand’ determining prices isn’t fixed by the secondary market.

“The ethical stance when selling tickets to fans is to be as transparent as possible,” he says. “If an artist and their business advisors think the audience can afford to pay more – and they want to make more money out of the show – then as long as they’re straightforward with their audience about what their offering is, I don’t see a problem with dynamic pricing.

“Doing it via secondary is underhand and rips off the fan, because they don’t know what the whole market has to offer.”

Ticketmaster UK, which dynamically prices most of its high-profile shows under the Ticketmaster Platinum banner, tells IQ its Platinum tickets aren’t pegged to how well shows are telling on its secondary platforms (Seatwave, Get Me In!). “Platinum prices are based on the demand,” explains managing director Andrew Parsons. “We place a portion out for sale starting at what we estimate market price to be; this is based on previous experience and our data tools. We also gauge market price on how quickly the initial allocation sells – we change price as we release more seats.”

Parsons says dynamic pricing is suitable for multi-venue tours, as opposed to just residency-style shows, explaining that the company can easily “manage it across multiple promoters and venues”.

“There are often many decision-makers involved … It can sometimes be challenging to get everyone on the same page”

While Parsons says he’d “love to think” there will be a time when Ticketmaster’s general-admission (GA) tickets are also dynamically priced, he explains it’s much easier to implement with premium seats. “With Platinum there’s a clear differentiating element: you’re selling the best seat,” he says. “That’s understood by both consumers and artists. It’s harder to do when it’s GA.”

Greg Loewen, CEO of Qcue rival Digonex, says he believes take-up of dynamic pricing in live music is being affected by a false belief among many promoters that dynamic pricing is an unreliable or unproven technology.

“Pricing is really hard, especially for a tour,” Loewen tells IQ. “Every night is in a different market and a different venue. Optimising pricing under those conditions is extraordinarily time-consuming and challenging, and not many dynamic pricing tools are designed to handle that level of complexity, so promoters may assume there is no reliable way to dynamically price a tour.” He insists that isn’t the case: “We hope to talk to those folks!”

One of Digonex’s live-entertainment partners is a well-known American comedian, who has seen significantly increased ticket revenues as a result of adopting dynamic pricing. “When we started out, his manager was concerned about the price going up too much,” explains Loewen. “But because of his popularity, we’re now seeing significant growth in ticket price – and we haven’t had a single complaint from any consumers.”

Despite the success stories in sports and live comedy, both Loewen and Kahn admit dynamically pricing live music is more difficult.

“There are often many decision-makers involved: promoters, agents, venue management, artists,” says Loewen. “It can sometimes be challenging to get everyone on the same page regarding a significant change like adopting dynamic pricing. It takes time.”

“As promoters we spend far too much time having to discuss ticketing and allocations – time that could be better spent on marketing and selling shows”

Former Metropolis Music director Conal Dodds – now running Crosstown Concerts with Paul Hutton and Fraser Duffin – says he can’t see it becoming commonplace in touring. “I think [it] works on theatre runs, and could work on festivals and residencies, for instance, but it would be incredibly complicated to strike a deal on the basis of one-off shows or tours where more than one promoter is involved,” he explains.

While Crosstown is committed to minimising touting for its shows – and has an exclusive ticketing partnership with Songkick to that end – Dodds says, as a promoter, he just isn’t interested in getting into the nitty-gritty of ticketing, gradually or otherwise: “As promoters we spend far too much time having to discuss ticketing and allocations – time that could be better spent on marketing and selling shows, which is where we all earn our monies.”

Kahn believes in order for dynamic pricing to see wide adoption in live music, “you need a restructuring in contracts”, with promoters “properly incentivised to take more risks” via a more generous share of the show’s revenue. At the moment, he says, there’s “too much risk and not much upside for the promoter”, leading to the temptation to “purposefully” pass tickets to secondary sellers.

There’s also the thorny issue of the potential for dynamic tickets to drop in price if the demand isn’t there. “Bands,” says Kahn, are simply “unwilling to drop prices… How often does that happen?”

Parsons says the eradication of ticket touting is “very much up there” in the considerations of those artists who do opt for at least partial dynamic pricing. “We’ve had discussions with artists who think it’s a problem,” he explains. “There’s a growing appreciation that you do need to take some steps [to minimise resale], and one of them is dynamic pricing.”

He adds there’s still “almost a stigma” about taking more money from fans, even in a “world where there’s no [income from] recorded”: “If you [artists and promoters] don’t take this money, other people will – you’re the ones with the creativity and who are taking the risk.”

“If you don’t take this money, other people will”

Loewen, too, is firmly in the Michael Rapino/Professor Waterson camp when it comes to the pricing of primary tickets, opining that “the level of activity in the secondary market suggests that many tickets are not priced efficiently”.

“Many view dynamic pricing as code for ‘price gouging’,” he says, “and are concerned about alienating their loyal fans with primary ticket prices that are perceived as too high.

“This is an understandable concern, although we all see that in instances of excess demand many fans will still pay the higher price – the only difference being that more of the profit is captured by the secondary market as opposed to the artists.”

He adds that dynamic pricing “isn’t only about increasing prices: sometimes it’s about lowering them too.  It’s about finding the ‘right’ price that more accurately reflects true market demand and is fair to consumers.”

Tudhope, however – who has spoken of his wish to see ticket touting criminalised in the UK – isn’t wholly convinced. “Dynamic pricing, ethically done, might be appropriate for some of my artists’ audiences, and not for others,” he concludes. “This is the main point, and an important argument to make against the secondary sites who say ‘put on more shows!’ and ‘make your ticket prices higher!’.

“If the artist and I decide that there should only be one show, and that it be priced reasonably, that should frankly be our choice – not down to a market that is completely skewed by the often-illegal practices of touts.”

 


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