Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino got a hero’s home welcome in Toronto during Canadian Music Week. The Thunder Bay, Ontario, native gave plenty of Canadian shoutouts (including legendary promoter Donald Tarlton who was in attendance) during his hour-long Q&A with journalist George Stroumboulopoulos to a packed room of Live Nation top brass, music fans and attendees on Thursday.
“I learned early in life that if you really want something and have a set plan, people will help you,” Rapino explained, saying he still works with one of his early mentors Rob Peters, who now serves as Live Nation’s Chief Strategic Officer.
“We sat in a pub at Lakehead University and I told him I wanted to run a live concert company by the time I was 40,” he said, explaining that the two plotted out Rapino’s life plan on a napkin, walking through his early career, first with Labatt Brew Co. in Sault Ste. Marie and then on to Toronto, New York, London and eventually LA.
“How many people got in your way?” Stroumboulopoulos asked.
“No one, I had a completely clean run,” Rapino joked, drawing a laugh from a crowd. “Look, the truth is that more people helped me than got in my way. Guys like Michael Cohl, Arthur Fogel and Donald Tarlton — it was clear I wanted to do this. When you’re a kid from Thunder Bay that went to Lakehead University with a mullet and an earring, and you’re dealing with the big boys in rock and roll, you’re not going to get an easy break.”
He spoke about the complexity of running a big company like Live Nation and its 20,000+ employees, saying his biggest fear was that the next up-and-comer will say “fucking Rapino has lost it. He’s gone Hollywood. He doesn’t get it. He’s not connected anymore.”
“Maybe it’s the Catholic, Italian guilt,” he said, “but I feel a real moral responsibility that the 20,000 employees we have do well on this ride, too. And I want them to understand that I care about them.”
He discussed his attempts to modernize Live Nation’s employee benefits package offering things like additional sick days for employees to take care of family members and paid family leave, protections for LGBT employees and assistance for individuals who got caught in Trump’s Muslim travel ban.
“We’re a publicly traded company, but I don’t run it any different than a private company like AEG which is owned by Phil Anschutz,” he said. “We don’t make short term decisions. We’ve been playing the long game since we started 12 years with a market cap of $500 million that’s grown into a market cap of $7 billion.”
He shared stories of trying to hide his vegan diet from Kid Rock aboard a private plane, only to have his wife Jolene recoil at the offer of a ham sandwich, and detailed the tick tock on how the two came up with Kid Rock’s $20 ticket tour in 2013 and $4 beers.
“We sold every ticket in every amphitheater,” he said. “The part that I love — in the end, he made more money than he did on the last tour, because we were all in. I don’t know another artist alive who would do a no-guarantee, $20 ticket like that and never miss a press interview.”
Does he have that type of relationship with other artists, Stroumboulopoulos asked?
“Whether it’s me or Jay Marciano (chairman of AEG), the reality is that over the last ten years, the promoter role has shifted from ‘used car salesman’ to being front and center,” he said. “Most artists and their managers now want to sit down and discuss how we’re going to help an artist reach their career goals.”
He said he feels more comfortable sitting down for a strategy session with an artist rather than partying back stage and taking shots, and noted that he stays grounded by staying connected with his wife and three sons, eating healthy and practicing daily meditations.
“The Lord gave me a great test by saying ‘let’s throw this guy into the most egocentric, ‘Fuck You’ industry and see if he can come out a Buddha on the other end,'” he said. “I could be an asshole who had lots of fun, but I looked around when I got to Hollywood and noticed there were a lot of lonely, miserable, rich old men.”