The biggest mistake most people make when trying to win a pissing match is believing a pissing match can be won. That’s because even if you’ve humiliated your opponent and forced them into submission, you still leave the fight soaking wet and smelling terrible.

I apologize for the crude euphemism, but there are few more accurate ways to describe AEG owner Phil Anschutz’s fight with Irving Azoff and James Dolan, and by proxy Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino (except maybe an expression that involves a ruler and a certain male appendage).

Both sides have competing real estate interests in Los Angeles — AEG owns Staples Center while Dolan owns the Forum, which is managed by Azoff MSG Entertainment. Both sides are in a fierce battle to convince artists to play their venue when routing through Los Angeles. Seeking a competitive edge, Azoff has told some agents and managers that if their act wants to play Dolan’s flagship Madison Square Garden, they need to play the Forum in Los Angeles (and skip Staples Center). It’s unclear how ironclad the Forum/Madison Square Garden arrangement is and there have been plenty of exceptions granted — Katy Perry is playing Staples Center and Madison Square Garden as will Gloria Trevi & Alejandra Guzman.

Regardless of this somewhat fluid situation, Anschutz has decided he won’t stand for this tying arrangement between the Forum and MSG and issued a decree late last week that he was going to institute a similar arrangement whereby acts that skip Staples Center (presumably for the Forum) cannot play his O2 Arena in London, sending out a lengthy statement in which the company announced “after exhausting all avenues, our hand has been forced by MSG’s actions and AEG will now coordinate bookings between The O2 arena and Staples Center to level the playing field for all.

The statement then tells Live Nation they are still welcome to play either Staples or O2  — “we will continue to actively seek concert bookings at The O2 from all promoters including Live Nation” — before going on to impugn Live Nation in the harshest terms, accusing the company of actively plotting against AEG in various nefarious schemes.

It’s a breathless document, likely scrutinized by lawyers and pushed through at the top by a combination of anger and sheer tenacity. It’s a fight that has global implications for the artist community and music fans, but at its core it’s a battle of egos, fought through proxies and carefully worded public statements.

So how should we, the viewer at home, score this very public fight? Below are a few things to think about.

Drawing Your Opponent Out

Team Azoff has always insisted that by going public with AEG’s tying arrangement, Anschutz was ceding the moral high ground. They have a valid point. Azoff was content to operate discretely and enforce his “friends of the Forum are friends of Madison Square Garden” arrangement on the hush hush.

It’s one thing for AEG to call this practice out — it’s another thing to announce to the world that they will do it too. Azoff and Live Nation were very quiet after this edict came down from AEG — after continually irritating Anschutz into a state where he was ready to go public, the two simply sat quietly with no response as Anschutz sucked up all the oxygen.

Pushing out the statement was always a risky strategy for AEG. For one thing, it’s hard to take the moral high ground when you’re also unveiling your plans for eye-for-an-eye retaliation. AEG gave up trying to win the argument when they announced they were fighting back. In their lengthy statement, AEG wrote:

AEG always places artists and fans first and believes that artists should be free to play whatever venue they choose. However, MSG Entertainment’s aggressive practice of requiring artists to perform at the LA Forum in order to secure dates at Madison Square Garden is eliminating that choice, which serves neither the interests of artists nor fans.

By creating its own pairing agreement with Staples Center and the O2, AEG is contributing to the very problem of which they complain. If they think the artist community is going to view their “coordinated booking strategy” as nuanced while viewing Azoff’s as heavy handed, they’re misreading the tea leaves. Artists and agents are going to look at this as one more restriction on their ability to play the right venue and they’re going to feel caught in the middle of a fight between two billionaires — AEG’s Phil Anschutz and MSG’s James Dolan.

Inevitably a Superstar Will Force AEG’s hand

I have a hard time believing that this policy is going to be enforced when someone like Drake, or Taylor Swift, or Beyonce demands to play both the Forum and O2. Besides, MSG and the Forum have never stated publicly that they have a tying arrangement  — Azoff told Billboard in April “premium MSG nights are going to loyal friends of the company” and “playing the Forum…makes you a friend of the company.”

That wiggle room gives Azoff a chance to back away from tying the Garden and the Forum together if the situation calls for it. AEG on the other hand isn’t giving itself much flexibility, and there’s some agents out there who are gunning to break this arrangement up.

AEG Stands to Gain Very Little 

At best, AEG might be able to force a few more shows a year to play Staples Center instead of the Forum. Sure the O2 is one of the world’s top venues, but it’s not like Live Nation doesn’t have other options for artists — they own 23 festivals in the U.K. Instead of playing the O2, an artist can play The Great Escape in Brighton, or Isle of Wight, or Leeds or V Festival.

It’s very difficult to see what AEG gains from this announcement besides an antitrust challenge. Live Nation has already threatened to take legal action, a move AEG saidrepresents the height of hypocrisy coming from a company that publicly boasts about its control of content and distribution as the world’s largest concert promoter and ticketing company and one of the world’s leading artist management companies.”

AEG makes a good point about the size and market power of Live Nation, but AEG fails to explain what that has to do with tying shows in Los Angeles to London. They’re separate issues and if a judge were to scrutinize this arrangement, they might rule that Live Nation’s marketshare is largely irrelevant.

The rest of AEG’s statement goes on to talk about Live Nation’s merger with Ticketmaster in 2010, which AEG describes as an “antitrust consent decree that (has) followed the company over the years.” It should be noted that AEG signed off on the consent decree and were given highly favorable terms that allowed them to continue licensing Ticketmaster while it built AXS, the ticketing system it uses today and had years of nearly unlimited resources to build and develop as a competitor to Ticketmaster.

Bottom line, AEG has the right to set its booking policies how it sees fit and probably has the legal cover it needs to push forward with its O2/Staples Center booking strategy. That being said, it’s hard to see what AEG gains from this decision in terms of PR, artist relations and pure economics. If anything, it’s just a pissing match between billionaires that will cause headaches for plenty of smaller acts. It’s not a decision that will be heralded and celebrated.

Are we missing something? Let us know in the comment section below. Tell us if this decision is good or bad for business.

Dave Brooks
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Dave Brooks

Founder & Executive Editor at Amplify Media
Dave Brooks has over 15 years experience as a writer, including eight years as the Managing Editor of Venues Today. He started Amplify in 2014 to give the industry its own voice and turn up the volume on live entertainment.
Dave Brooks
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