Providence buys into music retailer Sweetwater
Providence Equity Partners, the private-equity owner of live entertainment firms including Superstruct Entertainment, Ambassador Theatre Group and Tait (Towers), has bought into Sweetwater, the leading US retailer of musical instruments and audio equipment.
Terms of the transaction, which sees funds advised by Provide make a “strategic investment” in Sweetwater, were not disclosed.
Founded in 1979 by Chuck Surack, Sweetwater now turns over more than US$1 billion annually and has served over 1.5 million unique customers. “I am incredibly proud of the growth our company achieved over the last year, which would not have been possible without the dedication of our employees and world-class team of music gear experts,” comments Surack (pictured). “I am confident this growth equity investment will allow us to reach new heights and further our mission of enabling customers to make music and pursue their dreams.”
Other music-industry investments by Providence include software firm Impact, the UK’s Brilliant Stages (via Tait) and, formerly, Greencopper parent company Patron Technology, which it sold last year. Its festival division, Superstruct, recently acquired Dutch event Zwarte Cross, in its first acquisition since before the pandemic.
“We believe the company is well-positioned for sustainable growth as live events return”
“Providence is a great partner to continue our momentum and take Sweetwater to the next level,” says John Hopkins, Sweetwater’s COO. “As the world emerges from the pandemic, we believe the firm’s strong track record of helping music-related businesses accelerate their growth will be invaluable.
“The Providence team appreciates what makes Sweetwater different and we are aligned on how we can further leverage our unique culture to capitalise on new opportunities that create even better customer experiences.”
Scott Marimow, managing director of Providence, comments: “Sweetwater’s status as an online industry leader is a direct result of its unique culture and dedication to customer service. We believe the company is well-positioned for sustainable growth as live events return and artists and entertainment companies look to provide the memorable experiences that have been absent over the past year and a half.
“We are excited to partner with such a culture-driven company and look forward to working with Chuck and team to grow the business together.”
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Buying and selling for beginners: Mayland CEO talks industry M&A
Investments and takeovers are the core business of Matthias Just, CEO of Mayland AG. Before becoming a lawyer Just completed an apprenticeship as a banker, and his CV includes positions in the UK and US at companies including Deloitte and Touche Corporate Finance.
Since the end of 2005, he has been a member of the board of Mayland AG, a Dusseldorf-based company specialising in mergers and acquisitions – including the likes of the takeover of Parookaville by Superstruct, whose portfolio also includes Flow Festival, Sonar, Sziget and Wacken Open Air, and is backed by Providence Equity Partners, which manages more than $45 billion worth of investments.
IQ spoke to Just (pictured) about why the live music industry is increasingly attractive to institutional investors – as well as how external investment companies can offer a compelling alternative to the major multinational concert businesses…
IQ: What is the external perception of the live music industry in the financial sector?
Matthias Just: The live music industry is growing and a stabilisation of turnover and profitability figures can be seen across most companies. Besides this, there are always new festivals that draw attention to themselves through innovative concepts and designs and are able to assert themselves in the market. In general, demand is still very high, despite increasingly high ticket prices.
In recent years, we have noticed that consumers in the leisure and entertainment sector have seldom been price-sensitive and are prepared to pay higher ticket prices in order to spend a weekend at their favourite festival. This willingness to pay is what distinguishes this industry and makes it interesting for strategic investors, as well as financial investors and corporate holdings.
On the other hand, what is the current situation of the financial market in terms of potential investors and investments?
It was inevitable that Brexit, the [US-China] trade dispute and the signs of an imminent recession would not leave investors unscathed. Therefore, we can perceive a slight increase in uncertainty across the market as a whole, which will – should the signs of an economic downturn become clearer in the coming months – lead to a reallocation of investors’ investment focus.
In this sense, this means that companies in a sector that is independent of economic cycles – such as the events market – will be given preference over cyclical investments, which generally tend to be negatively affected in times of recession.
“This willingness to pay is what distinguishes this industry and makes it interesting for strategic investors”
What role does Mayland play in the M&A process?
We see ourselves both as consultants and coordinators. Within an M&A transaction, on which we act both on the buyer and seller side, we coordinate all necessary services in order to achieve a successful conclusion of the transaction. In addition to classic sell- or buy-side M&A advice, our range of services also include succession planning, financial advice, company valuation and strategic business development.
There are many in the concert industry who worry about the involvement of external investment companies. Are they right to be concerned?
These reservations about external investment stem from the public debates about the financial sector due to the financial crisis in 2008. Also, various companies have been forced to cut jobs after an investment company had joined them – and even today, some entrepreneurs still face a loss of control when taking an investment on – but this process is anything but inevitable.
While anyone who sells shares in a company loses some control, the manner in which this transfer of control takes place is an important factor that a seller can influence significantly before the transaction is completed – a crucial point at which we come into game and, together with the current owner and management of a company, determine how this transfer should be structured from the seller’s point of view.
There are many understandable motives for dealing with the topic of participation [from the investment sector] from the entrepreneur’s point of view. However, those who are not familiar with participation systems and legal framework conditions should take on professional support, even in the case of a first initial meeting with a potential buyer.
“Companies in a sector that is independent of economic cycles – such as the events market – will be given preference over cyclical investments”
In one sense, AEG, CTS Eventim and Live Nation are investors, too. Aren’t these companies the better investors than those who have little or no industry knowledge?
In terms of strategic fit, these players in the industry are certainly good candidates – concert companies or festivals can benefit from the networks of these companies and partially improve their operative business. On the other hand, these investors usually require a majority stake (usually more than 50% – ie a qualified majority with which they can enforce all strategic decisions), which means that the seller can lose control of his or her festival, at least in the legal sense.
For smaller companies that are looking for a strategic partner, but do not want to give up control over their business, other strategic investors or financial investors may be the better alternative.
Providence Equity, as a financier of Superstruct, is a prominent player in concert takeovers. Do you expect other big players from the private-equity sector to increasingly be interested in the live music industry in the future?
That’s quite possible. However, Providence Equity’s Superstruct vehicle and its managers [including CEO James Barton, ex-Creamfields/Live Nation] are industry experts who know the festival business very well and usually have experience as festival organisers themselves.
This expertise is particularly important in an industry such as live entertainment, because the structures are special and personal aspects play a meaningful role.
However, in addition to Providence, there are many other investment companies with a strong interest in the festival industry.
Sónar “stronger” after most difficult edition yet
Barcelona’s Sónar festival overcame multiple difficulties to bring its 26th edition to fruition this year, following a date change and a workers’ strike towards venue owner Fira Barcelona.
Sónar 2019, the second edition under Superstruct ownership, saw a 17% drop in attendance, with 105,000 festivalgoers attending the three-day festival compared to the previous year’s 126,000.
“The change in dates did not favour us,” said festival director Ricard Robles. Advanced Music-promoted Sónar, which usually takes place at the end of June, was scheduled this year for the 18 to 20 July by venue operator Fira Barcelona “unilaterally and non-negotiably”.
Speaking after the close of the event, Robles stated that “it has been an unusual edition but we have come out of it stronger,” adding that the team could be “mildly satisfied” with the final result given the problems they had faced just weeks earlier.
The biggest threat was posed by a workers’ strike at the festival venues, the Montjuïc and Gran Via, both owned and operated by fair trade organisation Fira.
Riggers for Fira, which is overseen by local and state governments, went on strike a week before the festival was scheduled to take place, protesting new service contracts.
“It has been an unusual edition but we have come out of it stronger”
Fira, the service provider, stated it would fulfil its duty to Sónar by hiring another provider. Festival organisers, who were not responsible for contracting the service, had no say in which company was to do the job. Sónar agreed the riggers’ claims were legitimate and urged parties to reach the best possible solution for all involved, that would result in the festival going ahead as usual.
However, representatives for the riggers filed a court motion, claiming that if new workers were contracted to complete the set-up, it would constitute a violation of their rights to strike.
On 16 July, two days before the start of the festival, a Barcelona judge ruled that another company could be hired to continue with the set-up. Although recognising the riggers’ rights, the judge stated that “exercising the right to strike for some cannot put the jobs of many others in danger and cause irreparable damage to a third party, in this case the festival.”
Yesterday (24 July), the Catalan Academy of Music issued a statement in which it showed its support for Sonar in one of its “most unfortunate” years yet, and criticised the “institutional silence” of Fira and local government institutions.
“The lack of a clear position on this conflict (the riggers’ strike) on the part of the Barcelona district council, as well as members of the general council of the Barcelona Fira, put the celebration of the festival in danger,” reads the statement.
“The lack of a clear position on this conflict [the riggers’ strike] put the celebration of the festival in danger”
“This significantly affected ticket sales and threatened the viability of a project that generates a huge number of jobs.”
The Academy also criticised Fira for its decision to change the dates of the festival for “strictly commercial and economic” reasons.
IQ has contacted Fira for comment.
“We stand by the Academy’s statement and are completely aligned with its position,” a Sónar representative tells IQ, stressing that Sónar was “caught in the middle” this year, with all problems stemming from “external factors”.
Despite difficulties, the Sónar team are “very much looking forward to the 2020 edition and hope all will be running as usual.”
The representative confirms that the festival will take place in the same venue for the next three years, moving back to its traditional dates from 18 to 20 June. The first early bird tickets for the 2020 edition sold out in just two minutes.
Patron Technology acquires Australia’s Ticketbooth
Patron Technology has added Australian DIY ticketing platform Ticketbooth to its burgeoning event tech portfolio.
Ticketbooth, along with sister companies Token Systems (RFID/cashless payments) and Audiencetools (social marketing), is Pennsylvania-based Patron’s first acquisition outside North America. The company also owns ticketing services ShowClix and Ticketleap, festival app developer Greencopper and event management platform Marcato, which it acquired last October.
“Over the past few years, Patron Technology has grown into a global presence in the event industry, offering event organisers a better, more flexible way to manage their events and deepen their relationship with attendees and sponsors,” says Marc Jenkins, Patron Technology’s CEO. “Our top priority, always, is providing our partners with the tools they need to take their event to the next level.
“With this latest acquisition of Ticketbooth, we will be able to do even more to give attendees an amazing event experience.”
“With this latest acquisition of Ticketbooth, we will be able to do even more to give attendees an amazing event experience”
Simon Guerrero, CEO of Ticketbooth, adds: “We already work well with ShowClix and align with the mission of Patron Technology to supply organisers with the tools they need to create awesome experiences every step of the way, so I am pleased to be integrating with the Patron Technology team fully.
“Both Token and Audiencetools are positioned to help with strong cashless and social marketing platform offerings for the US.”
According to the International Ticketing Yearbook 2018, Ticketbooth is one of “scores of small-scale and DIY outfits competing for a slice of Australia’s billion dollar-plus live entertainment space”, in a market dominated by TEG’s Ticketek and Live Nation’s Ticketmaster.
Patron is majority owned by Providence Strategic Growth, a unit of Providence Equity Partners, the private-equity firm behind fast-growing European festival promoter Superstruct Entertainment.
Providence-backed Tait acquires UK’s Kinesys
Tait, the US-based production/staging equipment powerhouse, has acquired Kinesys, a London-based company which designs, manufactures and sells motion-control systems used on shows by the likes of Ed Sheeran, U2 and Garth Brooks.
The deal, terms of which were not disclosed, unites the “global leaders in entertainment automation”, reads a statement from Tait, which received “major” investment from Providence Equity Partners, the parent company of festival operator Superstruct Entertainment and technology firm Patron (Greencopper, Marcato), in February.
Tait core offering centres on Tait Navigator, an automation/show-control platform used to control machinery, lighting, audio, pyro, fountains and other special effects for live shows, while Kinesys’s Elevation, Libra and Apex product lines – used by venues such as the Royal Albert Hall and Sydney Opera House – are among the most-used solutions for modular automation (ie controlling hoists, winches and scenery and lighting rigs).
Post-merger, the companies will link together their automation technologies and Kinesys will offer Tait products via its global distribution network.
“offering the power of both Kinesys and Tait to our customers creates a market-leading platform”
“I have long admired the amazing work that the team at Tait have delivered over the years,” comments Dave Weatherhead, CEO of Kinesys. “From groundbreaking touring shows to epic installations, they really have earned their reputation for quality and innovation. Being able to bring that magic to our Kinesys family of customers and rental partners is exciting.
“This will take the choice of automation available to every tour, production and venue to a whole new level. By sharing our respective experiences and expertise we can bring extraordinary solutions to an expanded customer base in integrated and affordable packages.”
Adam Davis, chief creative officer of Tait, adds: “Kinesys’s success in show control and automation products is unparallelled. We believe that offering the power of both Kinesys and Tait to our customers creates a market-leading platform. Together, Tait and Kinesys will continue to develop cutting-edge automation technology, to focus on our core client bases and to provide the highest level of excellence and service to our customers.”