He helped create Lollapalooza. Now he wants to save live music.
By Ben Sisario
For small music venues, the situation is dire. Starved for revenue since March, and with no lifeline from Congress, independent clubs across the country are shuttering by the dozen — devastating fans and artists alike and delivering a brutal blow to the ecosystem that develops tomorrow’s Grammy winners and underground heroes.
One music executive, however, thinks he can save them, through a plan to invest in small clubs and build an indie touring network.
Marc Geiger, the former global music chief of the giant talent agency WME, has quietly amassed a war chest to fortify empty clubs during the pandemic and help them grow once they reopen. One of the most charismatic figures behind the scenes of the music industry — a motormouth futurist who helped create Lollapalooza and was an early proponent of how the internet could help musicians — Geiger portrays his latest venture as a kind of personal crusade.
“One of my favorite things in the world is to go to a club, be treated well and see an incredible band,” Geiger, 58, said in an interview. “So I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to raise a bunch of money and I’m going to backstop all these clubs. I’m going to be a bailout solution for them, and I’m going to call the company SaveLive.’”
His plan for SaveLive is to invest in dozens of clubs around the country — buying at least 51% of the equity in those businesses — and help them expand into regional forces once concerts return at full steam, which he does not expect until 2022 or later. SaveLive has secured $75 million in available capital from an initial investment round, Geiger said, and is already negotiating with a number of venues around the country.
“The hope here is to create a network effect,” Geiger said, “to be a long-term backer, helper, grower of these businesses, and enjoy the wins.”
The night-after-night churn of club gigs is less lucrative and glamorous than the world of superstar arena tours. But it is a vital feeder for the entire industry, and clubs often inspire a passionate devotion that can be measured by the names and band logos scrawled on backstage walls.
The prospect of losing a large swath of the nation’s small venues — to bankruptcy or forced sales — has drawn wide alarm. This month the National Independent Venue Association, a new advocacy group, raised nearly $2 million from an online festival, hosted by YouTube, that featured artists like Dave Matthews, the Foo Fighters and Brittany Howard performing in their favorite spots and pleading for relief. On Wednesday, a new nonprofit, the Live Music Society, said it would give $2 million in grants over the next two years to venues that can hold 250 people or less.
Since June, when Geiger left WME after 17 years, his next move has been one of the most buzzed-about questions in the industry. For three decades, he has been a power broker and an aggressive visionary, often among the first in the business to glimpse — and proselytize over — the potential of new trends in music and technology.
“I think Marc has consistently been ahead of the game,” said Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, which Geiger booked for the first Lollapalooza tour, in 1991. “He knows that music should be revered. It isn’t just an asset — it is a special thing that deserves to be presented to people in a way that helps them discover the magic.”
For SaveLive to be successful, Geiger needs a critical mass of venue proprietors to sign on his dotted line. Under normal circumstances, that would be a tough sell for lone-wolf club owners who have spent decades resisting corporate consolidation. But even Geiger’s skeptics admit there may be few other options.
“Geiger’s solution on some level scares me,” said Frank Riley of High Road Touring, an indie stalwart who books artists like Wilco, My Bloody Valentine and Robert Plant. “He is going to buy distressed properties for money on the dollar and end up owning 51% of their business. Is that independent? I don’t know. But it does save the platforms on which things grow and where artists are sustained.”
Geiger, who founded SaveLive with John Fogelman, a fellow WME alumnus, insisted that his venue deals would be partnerships and that despite controlling a majority share he would not seek to flip assets. That was seconded by Geiger’s primary backer, Jordan Moelis of Deep Field Asset Management, who said he is committing his company’s money as well as his family’s. (He is a son of Ken Moelis, a prominent Wall Street investment banker.)
“We don’t see this as a distressed-asset play,” Moelis said in an interview. “We see this as a business-building play, a play to be a long-term partner and to be around for a long time.”
Even with clubs now dark, SaveLive projects that it will be profitable within four years.
To a degree, indie venues’ vulnerability is rooted in their very independence: Most operate on thin margins and have limited financial resources. As SaveLive partners, Geiger said, they would gain economies of scale as well as access to favorable deals for ticketing or sponsorship — suggesting that SaveLive would, to some degree, resemble a mom-and-pop version of Live Nation or AEG, the giant companies that dominate the touring business.