Trailblazer: Denis Sullivan, Herschend Live
Welcome to the latest edition of Trailblazers – IQ’s regular series of Q&As with the inspirational figures forging their own paths in the global concert business.
From people working in challenging conditions or markets to those simply bringing a fresh perspective to the music world, Trailblazers aims to spotlight unique individuals from all walks of life who are making a mark in one of the world’s most competitive industries. (Read the previous Trailblazers interview, with Annika Monari and Alan Vey, here.)
Denis Sullivan, VP of international development at Herschend Live (formerly Harlem Globetrotters International), has charted a career path perhaps unlike any other. His four-decade career in live entertainment has taken him from humble beginnings in production to working with Louis Walsh and Boyzone, repping artists at the Kurland Agency, heading up global touring at World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and, finally, leading business development internationally for the world’s most famous exhibition basketball team.
When he says it’s the road less travelled, he’s not joking…
How did you get your start in the industry?
Louis Walsh gave me my start, as such. I was doing production and sound tech work when we met. At that point he had just launched Boyzone, and I became his rep on the road, looking after the band and dealing with all the venues he would book. Louis booked us in every truck stop, barn and theatre he could find, four or five nights a week for two years straight. Louis also instilled the notion in me that we were in the T-shirt- and poster-selling business as much, if not more, than the ticket- and CD-selling business. He was very smart in that respect, and very good to me.
Shortly after that finished in early 1997, five friends of mine were in a band, Rubyhorse. They called me up, told me they were going to America in two weeks and asked if I wanted to go. So, off we set, looking for adventure. They actually ended up doing really well for a time: they played all the major late-night talk shows, put out a couple of albums and had a hit [‘Sparkle’], before being swallowed up in the all the record company mergers that were happening around that time.
At the same time, an agent by the name of Elizabeth Rush – ex-William Morris, Tour Consultants Inc., Concerted Efforts – was setting up her own shop, and for some reason I have not figured out to this day, she offered me a job and taught me the agency business from the ground up.
Tell us about your current role.
I run the international business for Herschend Live, of which the Harlem Globetrotters is part. We also have a couple of other projects in development that will come under that umbrella, so stay tuned for news on that.
Herschend Enterprises is an amazing company which focuses on family entertainment, so whether you are visiting one of our many theme parks, aquaria and adventure tours, or watching one of our TV programmes, the business model is the same: to create memories worth repeating. If you do that, the financial part of the business takes care of itself.
The company is led by some of the most brilliant people I have come across – from Andrew Wexler, our CEO of Herschend Enterprises, to Howard Smith, president of Herschend Live, and the entire executive team, our chart is coursed by a long-term vision, rather than short-term gain, and an eye on creating a tremendous culture in which people are inspired to bring their best every day. It’s a privilege to be part of it.
“We are a feeder system for the entire live events industry”
Who have been the biggest influences on your career to date?
I’ve been very fortunate – I haven’t had many employers, but I like to think I took the best lessons from all of them. Louis Walsh certainly had a huge impact on me. Elizabeth Rush has been a great friend and mentor to me down through the years; I still call her today when I want to bounce an idea off someone. Ted Kurland, who really honed my skills as an agent.
I ran global touring at WWE for eight years, and Vince McMahon taught me so much… his influence on me professionally can’t be overstated.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
In the family entertainment world, we are often people’s very first experience of a live event. One can never recapture that feeling. What we are doing is giving people their first taste of an experience that cannot be replicated online, on TV or on any other platform. We are showing these kids who come to see our shows that going to see something live, at a venue, is cool.
We are a feeder system for the entire live events industry, be it concerts, exhibitions, Broadway or sporting events. That is the most rewarding part of the job.
And the most challenging?
Controlling the uncontrollable. Weather, exchange rates, political events, terrorism… I once got a call from the ops team telling me the ship our show containers were on had been taken hostage by pirates and it was unlikely to be released in time to reach port for show day – there isn’t a lot that can prepare you for that phone call!
Also, with the sheer number of shows coming out now it takes more work to stay relevant and sustainable. We don’t take a year off to make a record – we tour every month of the year – so doing that in a sustainable manner to still sell millions of tickets each year takes quite a bit of work.
“The ship our show containers were on had been taken hostage by pirates … there isn’t a lot that can prepare you for that phone call!”
How has the business changed since you started out?
We, as an industry, are so much smarter. When I started it was ‘book the venue, throw some advertising up and hope it all works out’. Now, with the analytics we have access to, we can really get granular in our decision-making process. We can compare venue performance more accurately; measure the impact of our marketing spend in a much more targeted way; predict how a price increase will impact selling patterns; and know how a show will sell before we ever go up on sale.
What, if anything, could the industry do better?
We could give back more to the communities we visit. How much catering gets thrown out at the end of a night that could be donated to a local homeless shelter? To me, there is no reason in the world that every major show should not have a local charitable or social tie-in.
Michael Martin at Effect Partners and Maria Brunner from Insight Management both do tremendous work in this area, but we all have an unparallelled opportunity to improve the world we live in through this industry. We should embrace and make the most of that.
What advice would you give to someone hoping to make it in live entertainment?
Seek people out. Ask questions. Work like you mean it. Don’t be afraid to ask someone to mentor you.
As a whole, we have very generous people in the industry who all pretty much came up the same way. I do believe we have a responsibility to pay it forward to the next generation in that regard.
If you’d like to take part in a future Trailblazers interview, or nominate someone else for inclusion, email IQ’s news editor, Jon Chapple, on email@example.com.
Saudi entertainment plan falters after Khashoggi murder
Saudi Arabia’s ambitious 20-plus-year plan to develop a domestic live entertainment market is on the rocks following the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, with a high-profile WWE event on the brink on pulling out and several other Western companies moving to sever their ties with the controversial Arab kingdom.
According to wrestling journalist Robbie Fox, the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Crown Jewel event, scheduled for 2 November at Riyadh’s King Saud University Stadium (25,000-cap.), is in jeopardy, with two major WWE stars, John Cena and Daniel Bryan, refusing to travel to Saudi Arabia following the death of Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident allegedly hacked to death in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October.
Four US senators told IJR earlier this month that WWE should rethink its relationship with the kingdom as a result of the murder of Khashoggi, which Saudi Arabia denies. “This is a brazen assault on the freedom of the press and a slap in the face to the United States, if this murder occurred as it seems it did,” said Connecticut senator Chris Murphy.
Tickets for the event are not yet on sale, despite a scheduled onsale of 19 October. New Age Insiders reports Crown Jewel will likely be held in the US instead, probably in Albany, New York.
According to the Post, Khashoggi’s former employer, WWE was expected to make up to US$40 million from two Saudi shows this year, as part of a ten-year deal.
Also extricating itself from a potentially lucrative investment deal with Saudi Arabia is William Morris Agency parent Endeavor (formerly WME-IMG), which stood to make $400m by selling a 5–10% stake in the company to a Saudi investment fund, according to THR.
WWE was expected to make up to US$40 million from two Saudi shows this year
Last Monday Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel said he was “really concerned”, and “monitoring” the situation, but the agency has not yet committed to ending the relationship.
Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, who last week announced a new US music festival, Virgin Fest, has also announced he is cutting ties with the kingdom, declaring on 11 October he is ending his advisory role to two projects connected with Saudi Vision 2030, the project to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil by developing its service sector, including tourism and entertainment.
Major players in business and finance, including Google, Uber, Ford, Viacom, JPMorgan Chase and new NEC group owner Blackstone Group, have also moved to distance themselves from Saudi Arabia by boycotting the Vision 2030-linked Future Investment Initiative (FII), an investment forum (dubbed ‘Davos in the Desert’) that began in Riyadh yesterday.
Vision 2030 – spearheaded by Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman – hopes to develop a media and entertainment industry in the conservative Islamic kingdom. Last September, the General Authority for Entertainment – the body tasked with driving growth in the entertainment sector – announced a US$2.7 billion fund with which it hopes to attract international partners, and said in February Saudi Arabia will host 5,000 shows in 2018, including “some of the biggest names in global music”.
With the exception of Jean-Michel Jarre, who played Riyadh for Saudi National Day on 23 September, said global names have yet to materialise, although a healthy contingent of local Arab acts have performed, mostly in Jeddah, this year. (Concerts were formerly banned as haram, or sinful, from 1988 to 2017.) A roll-out of specialist tourist visas for foreigners wishing to attend concerts and sporting events is scheduled for December.
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