This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Evan Harrison, CEO of Huka Entertainment.
Los Angeles-based Evan Harrison is the chief executive officer and co-partner of Huka Entertainment, the creator, and producer of large-scale destination-location music festivals throughout North America.
As Billboard noted, "As corporate promoters including Live Nation and AEG Live build their portfolios in the uber-competitive festival space, Huka has found ‘a nice little niche’ by focusing on destination sites.”
Huka Entertainment was founded in 2005 by A.J. Niland and Bennett Drago after they promoted several local shows around Mobile, Alabama.
In 2010, Huka Entertainment held the first annual Hangout Music Festival followed by the Tortuga Music Festival in Fort Lauderdale with co-founders Rock The Ocean Foundation, and also soon began co-producing the BUKU Music + Art Project alongside Winter Circle Productions in New Orleans.
In 2014, Huka launched the Pemberton Music Festival, just north of Whistler, British Columbia.
Huka now operates a touring division that produces hundreds of shows each year across North America.
After meeting Niland, Harrison joined Huka Entertainment in 2011. After a brief stay, he left, returning as CEO and partner in 2015.
Harrison was 16 when he landed his first job in the music business at a Musicland music store at the Brunswick Square Mall in East Brunswick, New Jersey.
His first full-time record company job was working in the mail room of the San Francisco branch of BMG Distribution. Eventually, he was promoted to be the company’s first head of digital marketing in New York, and he began spearheading marketing campaigns for such acts as Tool, Sarah McLachlan, and the Dave Matthews Band.
Harrison left BMG in 2001 to join AOL, where he was head of music and radio.
In 2004, Harrison joined Clear Channel. He spent 7 years there, becoming executive VP of Clear Channel Radio, and president of its digital division. He played a pivotal role in creating the company's multi-platform strategy, and ultimately, iHeartRadio. In 2012 Harrison created a similar strategy for Univision Radio, the leading radio network serving Hispanic America, where he oversaw the company's approach to music on radio, television, online, and in the live sector.
Who are Huka Entertainment’s principals?
The partners are A.J. (Niland), myself, Bennett (Drago), Brent Silberstein, and we have an investment partner who doesn’t work with us day-to-day.
Huka recently realigned its executive staff in a move that saw Brent Silberstein becoming chief production officer; Dave Fortune becoming VP of touring; and Dan Merker being appointed senior talent buyer. What was behind the change?
To know Brent Silberstein...
I remember Brent at Pace Entertainment in Houston, Texas, working on shows with such artists as ‘Nsync, Backstreet Boys, Aerosmith, Fleetwood Mac, and Kiss.
Brent was a partner with A.J. before I came in. He was the third person who I met. Brent decided a while back that he was going to go full in here, and we recognized him with a title for his vast knowledge, and for his responsibilities overseeing all things production. Going from producing first the Hangout Music Festival (in Gulf Shores, Alabama) and then having a portfolio of festivals has meant juggling. It has also meant more leadership in finding the right support folks, and full-time staff, as well as the departments for each individual festival. Brent oversees all things production. He’s on the ground at the festivals. First one in, last one out, and around the clock with all of the vendors; really making sure that we have the best partners in every aspect of production.
Does Huka Entertainment co-founder Bennett Drago still handle administration for the company?
Yes, Bennett oversees all things in administration. For a company our size, all sleeves are rolled up. That is really across the board, but if you look at a division of labor, Brent oversees all details of administration.
A.J. is now chairman and chief experience officer of Huka. I presume that entails focusing on the overall vision of the company as well as creating new festival experiences for Huka properties?
A.J. is developing new projects, and overseeing the creative aspects across the board. Bennett really is kind of back-of-the-house, off in administration. Then, as you mentioned, we have Dave Fortune (former VP of production at Live Nation Canada) who has a day-to-day responsibility; ensuring that we grow our touring and concert business. Dan Merker has really grown into a leadership position as a talent buyer. He buys the Tortuga Music Festival (in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida), and he’s our top producing buyer for the concerts division as well, helping to coordinate the buying for our other festivals now as well.
That’s an impressive executive team.
It’s a good roster. Most importantly we all care deeply. We are team players. I think that’s what it (our success) comes down to. We have gotten to know each other well. We all bring something to the table, and we work well together.
You have come some distance from selling the company to Robert Sillerman’s SFX Entertainment in 2011 and then buying it back.
Yeah, we have never forgotten that.
What took place?
I have to be careful what I say on the record. I was leaving my role at iHeartRadio after what I guess was 7 years plus as president of digital. Entering a radio company (Clear Channel) and bringing them into the digital space. I had been in a corporate environment for long enough. I met A.J. and I saw all of the energy going to music festivals. I thought it was a great place to go. So we started working together. We got a call that somebody (SFX CEO Robert Sillerman) wanted to meet with us. He was doing a (corporate) roll-up, and he was looking for someone to help buy companies. They mentioned that they were going to be buying digital properties and Bob wanted me to be the chief digital officer.
[During this period SFX Entertainment acquired or agreed to acquire 8 companies at a cost of approximately $350 million. This included the online EDMdownload store Beatport, and Dutch festival promoter ID&T. SFX later acquired more promoters, as well as the ticketing startups Paylogic and Flavorus, and the digital marketing company Fame House. SFX Entertainment recently emerged from bankruptcy protection with a new name and leadership. The new company, LiveStyle, is led by Randy Phillips, the former CEO of AEG Live.]
Your dealings with SFX were in 2011?
Yeah. That sounds right. It was the beginning of the roll-up. It was right before Disco Donnie Presents (then one of the leading dance promoters in the world) was announced as the first acquisition. We met with Bob. He thought he knew me though I had never met him. Just knew of each other from industry trades. We knew all of the same people, of course. They offered to buy our company, and we flew around the country helping them to acquire companies. We dragged along our deal. A few weeks before our first festival, Tortuga, which they were funding, was about to launch. They asked us to cancel it. We weighed our options, and we pulled out of the deal because we saw what was ahead. That’s the story.
Huka’s deal had, in fact, gone through. You had to buy back the company.
While Huka retained its staff, you and A.J. briefly parted ways. Unable to stay on full-time, you took a job at Univision Radio as executive vice president of content and entertainment. When that contract expired, you returned to Huka as CEO.
That’s right. It was a brutal period. We had all of our staff moved over to the payroll on their (SFX Entertainment) side, and here we are a couple of weeks before the festival with no funding.
Was working as chief creative officer at Van Wagner Communications. somewhere in there too?
(Laughing) Yeah, it was somewhere in there too. That was more me serving out my non-compete from my Clear Channel Days. That was more of an on-the-beach type of thing.
Van Wagner Communications then handled all the major billboards in the U.S., including in Times Square.
That’s right. New York City was one of their top markets. They sold it (the billboard unit) for a boatload of money ($690 million in cash) in 2014. I was really happy for them. The founder (Richard Schaps) is just a fantastic man. They sold the unit to CBS Outdoor Americas which is now Outfront Media.
Caught between two bigger live music promoters, Live Nation and AEG Live, Huka and other independent promoters must provide something different to audiences to thrive.
You clearly understand my job.
I was struck by how creatively diverse Huka’s lineups are including having comics at the Pemberton Music Festival this year. You don’t see that at many festivals.
No. Thank you for noticing.
Well, bringing in the pot-smoking comedy duo of Cheech and Chong to Pemberton this year was going to raise eyebrows, especially with Tommy Chong being from Edmonton.
As did Bob Saget introducing Snoop Dogg on the main stage (in 2014). These are some of the moments as a promoter where you know that you have hit the sweet spot.
With different audiences with similar musical tastes and a variety of artists popular on a national scale, there is an overlap of artists among the leading North American festivals.
There is. Just as radio went through a homogenization period I think that with the festival circuit you start to recognize a lot of the same artist names on the top of the three lines of the larger music festivals. That’s why we try to add our special sauce wherever we can. So when we booked Sam Hunt for his first Tortuga Festival, he was on our smaller stage. It was before his first single took off. By the time of the festival it was a massive hit and the response was so large for the Sam Hunt performance. You literally couldn’t move on the beach from the first stage to the second stage because the smaller stage points back toward the water from the beginning of the site, blocking the entrance way. He filled it up completely. That was us taking a bet on a small artist. He returned the next year and performed on one of the larger stages and packed it out.
Elle-King packed that same smaller stage, and her audience was massive, singing along to a couple of hits. Kelsea Ballerini was an up-and-comer last year. She went on to win a lot of country awards. This year we have Maren Morris, she’s on the way up. By the time of the festival, I think that she will be a much larger name. This year we also have Nelly performing at Tortuga; what many people refer to as a country music festival. It’s more than a country music festival. Last year we had St. Paul and the Broken Bones. Not a band that you would expect to see on the same bill as Tim McGraw. We always try to bring a little something eclectic along with some artists to discover.
Huka has partnered with a number of bands, including St. Paul & The Broken Bones, Old Dominion, and Moon Taxi, to help them move from clubs to larger stages. That type of platforming is similar to what happened in vaudeville.
(Chuckling) That is absolutely correct. That goes back to my early days of working in music retail at Musicland and turning people onto new artists. My next career move and my longest run to date was 8 years at a record company (BMG). Developing artists is in my blood. It is the lifeblood of the music industry to bring new artists to the middle and to the top. As a promoter, it’s part of what we need to do to as well.
Huka seems to seek out markets that are arguably underserved. As Billboard noted, “Huka has found a nice little niche” by focusing on destination sites.”
That’s absolutely it. My partner A.J. Niland started as a club promoter in Mobile, Alabama. He was a music fan who saw that bands weren’t coming there, and he had to drive some pretty good distances to see the acts that he wanted to see. So he started bringing bands in. That was the beginning of the bookings. From there the next itch, which was a little larger was, “You know, I have been to Bonnaroo. I’ve been to Coachella. Both are absolutely amazing. Maybe, there is an opportunity for something a little smaller, a little more boutique at a place you would go to vacation in on its own.” From there, it became the search for a beach location.
That would be holding the first Hangout Music Festival in 2010.
Today, Hangout is run by AEG Live. When it launched, A.J.’s strategy of Hangout being a destination festival was innovative to the live event sector.
Yeah, that was the kind of innovation that comes from somebody who looks at the music industry from the perspective of being a music fan. “What is missing that would really excite me?” That is how our company started, and we continue to think that way to today.
Huka seems less concentrated on building mass volume and more about building a relationship with fans.
The availability of such venues as the Brooklyn Arts Centre in Wilmington, North Carolina, and the Joy Theatre in New Orleans, coupled with the Southern Concert Network of 25 markets that Dave Fortune has been working on obviously enables Huka to help develop bands over the long haul. Taking them from the club circuit to arenas and ultimately to festival stages.
That’s 100% it. Festivals, at least as the way that we see it, they are a year-long project. We start working on plans for the next year festival as we are setting up onsite for the current festival. We are always looking ahead. It’s really an around the year type job. However, in routing artists through the south-east starting at the club level, it keeps the eyes and the ears where they need to be in between the buying cycles. It also, as you say, becomes an incubator (for new talent). We have done some runs with artists in some pretty small intimate venues and then placed them on larger stages at our festivals. So it is not only an opportunity for us to stay really engaged in the buying all year around, but we also get to know artists on the way up, and we are able to route them around the festivals. So we will be doing a lot of dates leading up to Tortuga in Fort Lauderdale as well.
[Huka Entertainment recently formed a network of nearly 50 music venues--from clubs to arenas--across the southeastern U.S. The venue network extends from Texas to Florida in nearly 25 markets including New Orleans, Jacksonville, Charleston, and Houston. Huka also secured exclusive booking deals with a number of venues in these markets including: The Texas Club in Baton Rouge; Sanger Theatre, and Merry Widow in Mobile; Avondale Brewery, Workplay, and The Lyric Theatre in Birmingham; Greenfield Lakes Amphitheatre, and Brooklyn Arts Centre in Wilmington; and the Pavilion in Tallahassee.]
In 2014, Huka launched the Pemberton Music Festival in Pemberton, British Columbia. Just north of Whistler. The perfect place to have a rich musical experience for any fan. A breathtaking setting.
That’s right. Somebody from outside of the live entertainment space recently asked me, “What is your protection to stop anybody else from getting in.” My answer was, “We pick locations where it is incredibly hard to produce a music festival. That’s not to say that others can’t come in and do it, but we had learned how to load in, and how to ingress and egress at a beach (at Tortuga). A lot of those learning things were applicable when we went up to British Columbia.
These are just very, very difficult festivals to produce, and we have learned through several hundred question surveys that we have sent out to our fans after the festivals about where the pain points are, and we have worked to overcome those obstacles.
When friends are getting together to go to a destination (festival) like the base of Mount Currie up in Pemberton, they don’t want to sit in four hours of traffic on the way in. You’ve got to have an infrastructure. A lack of an infrastructure makes that a challenge. So we put a lot of time and intention into the operations to make sure that the buses shuttling in from Whistler can turn around without causing a back jam. Really, every little detail has been covered, including constructing the walkway bridge over the highway so you are not slowing down traffic for patrons to get through. All of the little details are considered.
Those are site details that have to be considered in advance. Going into outdoor spaces there are also civic, environmental and safety issues. You might be dealing with skeptical civic officials nervous about having a festival in their backyard.
That’s correct, but they sure like the economic impact.
Now with Pemberton, you are faced with the challenge of a lowered Canadian dollar that is impacting the buying power of most Canadian festivals.
The CAD (Canadian dollar) has absolutely been a new challenge. The challenges up there have been numerous, but the reward has also been massive. We’ve seen upwards of 50% year over year growth in attendance. Really the #1 marketing tool for all of our festivals is the experience, and the challenge is to find the way that we can enable fans to connect and relive that experience year-round so they can bring more friends the next year.
Pemberton is a camping festival. Are you experiencing an upswing in camping revenue?
Year one, 6 out of every 7 fans who stayed camped. That ratio has dropped a little bit as we have grown. This year did we upwards of 40,000 people a day, and still, the vast majority were campers.
Does camping appeal primarily to a younger demographic?
Yes. Every year we have seen two things happen across the board at our festivals. The first thing is that the demo starts younger. It slowly starts to branch out. We program accordingly so that this year Pearl Jam, as one of the headliners, obviously brought in a wider demo. The second thing that we see with all of our festivals is that fans travel from further away. This year (with Pemberton) Seattle was the top (drawing) market. It was the Top 3 market whereas in year one we saw little blips coming from outside of Canada, but this year we saw much more reach all across Canada. We saw more reach across the United States and, specifically, and not surprisingly, the northwest.
One of the biggest beefs about festivals are high food costs. At some festivals, the attitude seems to be, “If you want to eat here, this is the price.” Have you addressed that issue?
We have addressed every problem. We have tackled everything from the price of beer to the price of the tickets. Right across the board. We stay in close communication with our audiences. We respond to every customer service email. And our staff does it. We don’t outsource. We answer every email. We send out a several hundred questionnaires at all of our festivals.
Huka collects Emails?
Yes. We email everybody who bought a ticket and participates in the customer survey. Our response rate is absolutely staggering. We spend much more time talking about the issues than the celebrating the praise (of a festival).
Arguably, with VIP packages, there’s now something for everyone at most major festivals.
Yes, there’s something for everybody now. At our festivals, particularly at Tortuga, what we have found is that we have a huge customer base that is willing to pay top dollar to be in a super VIP cabana backstage eating a very eclectic culinary experience with all of the VIP accruements, air-conditioning, hammocks by the sea, and so on. We actually created a swimming pool up on our viewing deck in the VIP area at Tortuga so our fans can be up there with their feet in the water, looking out at the main stage with their favorite artists performing.
So there is indeed something for everybody.
As you know, being an independent promoter is a tough job. Not only looking after everybody’s safety but because there’s so much choice, and with music being so readily accessible and available now, that we have to have something that really stands out. We have to create an experience.
How did Huka come to form a long-term strategic partnership with Ticketfly in 2015 to handle all aspects of ticketing of its portfolio of music festivals and venues? At the time, you made it clear that you were not just looking for a transactional ticketing partner.
Yeah. We went out shopping and, obviously, the ticket market is red hot and crazily competitive. This is all before the Pandora acquisition (of Ticketfly). We were looking at some pretty attractive offers. Everybody wanted our business. They are all trying to gain market share, and they are aggressive. We didn’t think that Ticketfly necessarily had the tech and the futures that some of their competitors did because we create best-of-all-destination (festival) locations. We have pretty particular needs in the ticketing types that we are setting up, and in the ticketing packages that are available.
Huka’s ticketing is distinct due to its use of a variety of locations and venues?
Yes. So we obviously wanted to find a versatile ticketing partner who could meet our needs. For the most part, we couldn’t find it. No such thing exists to meet all of the things that we were looking to do. So our bet (with Ticketfly) was based on who do we want to grow with? Who do we want to be our ticketing partner? What team has the right culture, and the right spirit and can get up to speed with us and help us create products that meet our needs? We wanted a partner who we just wouldn’t be sending specs to but we would be developing new products with. We just spent three hours in their office recently going through what we are trying to accomplish for Pemberton next time around to meet our unique needs, and they are that partner. Ticketfly CEO Andrew Dreskin is a real music fan. He’s got an amazing team around him.
The Pandora purchase of Ticketfly in 2015 for $450 million has provided a greater overall reach to Pandora. Early next year Pandora is slated to launch its Premium tier, an on-demand music subscription similar to Spotify and Apple Music. Pandora will then be able to build playlists and on-demand searches that will further help market your events.
Yeah, Pandora just went through a whole re-launch. I was doing some digging around just thinking back to the time frame leading up to this conversation, and I saw a chart from (the year) 2000 showing the different music services ranked by audience. AOL Music was #1, Yahoo was #2, Clear Channel was #3, and #4 was Pandora. So a little sense as to what the music landscape, and what the digital world looked liked then. There it is.
Now we come to where it’s at today with our ticketing partner being owned by Pandora. That definitely brings great new opportunities. The first of which is that we got in with Pandora early, and we started using some of the Pandora services. We really looked at it (the partnership) from the point of being a fan as we do with all of the marketing efforts which are more about just congregating the fans. We started with mixtapes, and really giving our listeners the opportunity to engage with Pandora stations that were curated for our festivals from past performances; from some live tracks from past performances; and teasing what was coming up in the new performances. Ultimately, they have opened up massive access to their audience as a marketing tool. That was a very natural first step.
Have increased technological innovations forced you, as a promoter, to educate yourself on the increased dangers involved with productions onsite?
Yeah, safety has always played a very important role in my world whether it’s a small event that’s free to the public--like the ones we produced back in the AOL days--or a massive music festival. We have the most skilled leaders in all of the areas from security to weather to anything that could be a potential issue with a crowd at large. We always have an evacuation plan, and proper communication for whatever could come up. We have a plan in place. Any time there’s a gathering in a public place with a lot of people that has to be top of mind. That remains #1 with our company. You can’t produce a successful event if you haven’t taken care of all of the safety concerns. It’s the promoter job. Everybody wants to come, and everybody wants to be relaxed.
The live music industry has continually faced ongoing paradigm shifts brought about by individual tragedies. With each tragedy there’s concern, and then industry seems to let safety issues slip again. Safety issues only get revved up after a disaster happens. Like the 2011 Indiana State Fair disaster with Sugarland, and likely again now with the Ghost Ship party at a warehouse in Oakland, California in which 36 people died.
I think that discussions get revved after something that could have been avoided occurs. I agree wholeheartedly with that. However, I can only speak from our perspective. We are operating at a larger scale, so safety is a part of every discussion from load-in to load-out, from the thousands of workers that we have on site, to the fans when they are showing up. Really at every touch point . This year at three festivals we had weather that we were monitoring very closely.
By what methodology do you measure weather changes?
We have media rooms set up with experts monitoring a storm. We have access to all of the best services, and we have protocols and plans in place. It has become a massive part of what we do. Up in Pemberton with the camping, we have the Rock Doc who looks out for the fans’ safety. We set up a mini emergency room right there on site.
Several festival franchises, including Electric Daisy Carnival (EDC), Tomorrowland and Creamfields, have expanded internationally. Do you have plans for offshoot festivals outside North America?
I think what you are referring to is primarily the extension of brands that have performed well in one market being licensed to another market. As it pertains to new revenue opportunities, that’s a path that has become more popular lately. As far as our plans because we have a little bit of notoriety in creating festivals in destination locations we are constantly getting calls (to create events in) beautiful locations that are underserved, and we do check them out. As far as taking one of our current brands, and extending it, that remains to be seen.
Access to music today is easier than ever. Does that affect the presentation of music events?
It absolutely does. When I think back to being a music fan growing up in central Jersey, access to music was limited to very few channels. Whereas nowadays it is readily accessible and is even taking for granted for those who didn’t experience it the way that we did back in the ‘70s, ’80, ‘90s and on into the digital era.
You have been quoted as saying, “Music festivals plus digital and social media are the new radio and record store combo as it pertains to artist discovery.” What did you mean by that statement?
Well, when I was growing up, the way that you found out about new releases was first and foremost that you heard them on the radio. If your favorite artist was coming out with something new that’s where you heard about it or through Rolling Stone magazine or a handful of others e-zines that existed. A very important piece of the equation was going to a record store. That was kind of equivalent to social media today. You had to go to a physical location where there was somebody as crazy as you who cared deeply about the liner notes, who knew who the producer was, who heard about what was going on overseas and who collected imports to really get the latest news. The record store was sort of the hub of information.
Decades ago music curation was a music store employee saying, “You absolutely should be listening to this.”
That’s right. I had access to a lot of great independent record stores growing up in central Jersey. I had access to some amazing venues. At Rutgers University (in New Brunswick, New Jersey), and with New York City being a 45-minute train ride. I had massive exposure to music.
Little did I know what was coming.
Fast forward to now and social media is at the tips of our fingers. All day. All of the information is coming to you. You don’t have to reach out and find it. That is the information source. But that feeling of meeting other music fans, and enjoying music together still remains in the live realm. Music festivals have not also become celebratory when your favorite bands are coming through town, but they are also a tremendous artist discovery tool. That is something as an independent promoter we take very seriously. We make sure that we are really giving new artists a chance on the way up. That’s a little bit of us being music fans and trying to make sure that other music fans are leaving every festival discovering something that they didn’t even know was out there.
When you were 16 you worked at Musicland. Were you that person who turned customers onto new music?
I was 100% that dude.
You worked at the Musicland store in the Brunswick Square in East Brunswick.
Yeah. It was a little cheesy because this was a mall in central new Jersey, but I took a lot of pride talking to people who actually cared about music. If they came in for the hits, that was great. I was going to sell them the hits. But I was also going to turn them onto something that they might not have heard of. Often times, I’d get people coming back freaking out on the records that I turned them onto. They would really dive into music discovery with a real zest and appreciated the person that turned them onto it. At the most peer-to-peer level that was the role that I learned from Djing, and the role that I learned from an independent record store owner.
Live music today competes with TV, film, and games. Yes, the music is important, but the experience itself has become paramount. You are a tech guy. You must have looked at the live music event sector when you began working in it and thought, “You guys are truly behind the times.”
(Laughing) Yes, I am a tech guy. I’m a tech guy who doesn’t like code. I found myself in a tech leadership role in ’97 very simply because my job working for BMG Distribution was going to record stores, and helping to promote developing artists, and just make fans of whatever records were coming out.
You were at BMG Distribution when few people in the recording industry knew or cared about online marketing. Eventually, BMG moved you from being a product development coordinator to being its director of online marketing.
That’s correct. The reason that I ended up in digital was because I was doing some creative promotions, and our corporate staff was very forward-thinking. They said, “Well it’s much more efficient if we gather a digital marketing team at a corporate level to service all our labels. So we can simply just get the word out. Forget about where people buy the music, it’s just about marketing. It’s about getting the word about that new releases are coming.” So I stumbled into digital and from there into terrestrial radio and they were way behind the times. Programmers then didn’t really look at digital as a brand extension. They looked at it as somebody else’s problem.
As VP and GM at AOL Music and AOL Radio, you developed destination-based music platforms for artists and for AOL Internet members. There were exclusive AOL performances by such acts as Dave Matthews Band, Alicia Keys, Sting and Mariah Carey, Missy Elliott, Fleetwood Mac, Sting, Christina Aguilera, Sarah McLachlan, and the Roots.
That’s right. The reason that we were able to create that at AOL when Yahoo had a competitive thing going on with us, was because radio and the TV outlets really hadn’t prioritized the digital space. There was experimentation going on. There were a bunch of trials, but nobody had really landed the right model.
[While Harrison was at AOL (2001-2004), AOL became the #1 online music destination. He helped launch the AOL Sessions program, as well as First Listen, which debuted many of the biggest hits exclusively on AOL, 24 hours before they were available on radio or any other media outlet.]
By 2004, when you arrived at Clear Channel Broadcasting, terrestrial radio was still in the dark in developing multi-form platforms.
That’s correct. I spent a lot of years bringing it together as opposed to having separate divisions. Having one division that worried about having one delivery mechanism and the other worrying about the more modern, technology-advanced. Really trying to look at it all from a fan’s perspective in that a fan doesn’t care if they are on their phone or computer or in the car listening. The expectation of delivery is going to be the same across all mediums, and that’s the way that a programmer needs to look at it.
The same thing with the live event space?
The live event space has been okay being behind the curving technology because at the end of the days, especially in a venue with four walls, as long as the band delivers everybody leaves happy. Now that alone doesn’t suffice because technology is everywhere, and we want to have a great experience from learning about the show to getting excited leading up to the show to the experience of arriving at the show to the end of the show and then reliving the moments from the show. Technology now plays a critical role in all of the steps.
You were at Clear Channel and then iHeartRadio for quite a while.
I was there for about 7 ½ years.
You are arguably the “Father Of Clear Channel Digital.” How does it feel now that Clear Channel has changed its name to iHeartRadio, which is its main brand?
It feels amazing seeing everything that we created live on, and continue to grow. When I got there in ’04 we looked at a radio broadcast company with different directions to go in. Whether there should be any direction. What we created in my time at Clear Channel not only has it stood the test of time but it became the name of the company.
In Nov. 2010 Bob Pittman joined Clear Channel as its chairman of media and entertainment platforms. Did his arrival lead to you leaving?
No, I stayed for more than half a year when Bob came in. He and I got along great. I think he has done a tremendous job. Bob really did what he said he was going to do. What we started to do before he arrived was to place a huge emphasis on digital integrated media. I always felt that we had the opportunity to even be more aggressive, and shift some of the traditional spending to enhance the brand. That’s exactly what he has done.
Where are you from originally?
East Brunswick, New Jersey. I was born in Manhattan, and my family moved out to central Jersey when I was really young.
Where did you attend college?
Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona.
What did you major in?
Communications. I took all of the public speaking and communications classes. Just enough to make me dangerous in business.
Sounds like you wanted to work in radio.
I was very, very intrigued by radio. I grew up with great radio and I think that everybody can make the argument that somebody else had it a little bit better. I had WNEW when it was really exciting, and I had WPLJ. The radio bug came to me early on. My brother went to Princeton. I would do shows with him on WPRB, which is an amazing college station that is still around today.
When did you realize you didn’t have the voice to be a successful DJ?
Oh, I knew day one that I didn’t have the voice, but I did know that I had the stories and the passion. So I figured that behind the scenes there was probably room for me somewhere.
Phoenix and adjoining Tempe is a great market for music.
The school was in Tempe. I saw everybody when they came through. From the clubs to the biggest shows out at the shed. Some of the memorable ones were Lenny Kravitz and Neil Young. I saw the Replacements in a club in town. I saw Superchunk. We literally jumped a fence and walked over railroad tracks from our apartment to get to a club which had probably no more people in the club than members of the band. Yeah, so we had a lot of access to a lot of live venues.
Tempe then had a number of great venues.
Yes. We had a couple of great little places right in town. Chuy’s was a little venue. Our breakout band at the time was the Gin Blossoms. They were just a little college band at the time.
Did you learn how to surf at the Big Surf waterpark in Tempe with the oldest wave pool in America?
That’s so funny. My brother made a lot of funny jokes about that with me. That was in “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” (1989). That was the running joke on the way to the surf park. No, I learned how to surf growing up in New Jersey and then Puerto Rico. When I moved to San Francisco, that really cemented my interest.
Surfing would be difficult back east.
Central Jersey, yeah. When I moved to Manhattan, it suffered. Once I moved to San Francisco to work for BMG Distribution, that’s where I really learned.
[As a lifelong surfer and ocean enthusiast, Harrison recently became a national director of the Surfrider Foundation a non-profit grassroots organization dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of our world's oceans. Founded in 1984 in Malibu, California, the Surfrider Foundation has over 250,000 supporters, activists, and members worldwide.]
You certainly moved around a lot.
I did. I grew up with New York as my city. A great upbringing but I could not get to the west coast fast enough. I missed it by one state. At least Arizona State University got me west and then from...
You didn’t get to wear flowers in your hair...
No. I missed that by a couple of years. I interned one summer for Mercury Records in New York for a radio and promo guy. It was a great summer internship. I said, “I want to do what you do. How do I get that job?” He gave me some great advice on how to break into the industry. He said, “Work for free.” So I started looking to work for free.
When I went back to college in Arizona, I knew that I wanted to work in music out of college. I sent letters and called every week to about 10 different cities, all of the radio stations that wanted nothing to do with me because I had no radio experience. And all of the record companies. The guy that ran BMG in San Francisco took my call on about my 10th try. He said, “You’re the surfer that keeps calling me.” He said, “You can call me every week, and we can talk about the waves. The only job that I would hire out for is the mail room. If that ever opens up, we’ll talk.” So I moved there knowing that I didn’t have a job and I called him every week. About a year and a couple of months in, the mailroom job opened up.
Do you still surf?
I do. I’m speaking to you from my office in Malibu. These days I’m prioritizing surfing right up there with music.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”
Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry. He is a board member of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ontario.
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