Apr 1, 2024 - News

Scoop: Live Nation is now a major player in the Des Moines concert scene

Illustration of a piano keyboard made of a hundred dollar bill.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Live Nation has quietly entered Des Moines' concert industry in a big way through a majority stake in its leading local promotional company, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: Live Nation now owns a controlling interest in First Fleet Concerts, financial documents show. The local company has an influence at most of Des Moines' major venues.

The big picture: Some local music advocates say the international entertainment company, which has been accused of monopolizing the concert industry nationwide, will lock down the market and make it harder for local bookers and venues to compete.

Catch up fast: Sam Summers, the founder of First Fleet Concerts, has been called the "driver" behind Des Moines' music scene.

  • He also co-owns venues Wooly's and Up-Down, founded Hinterland, and recently renovated the Val Air Ballroom. Plus, First Fleet helps book shows for venues including Hoyt Sherman, Horizon Events Center and Lauridsen Amphitheater, according to its site.
  • Summers is known for putting Iowa's music scene on the map, bringing huge artists like Vampire Weekend and Noah Kahan to St. Charles, Iowa — population 640.

What they're saying: "Our joint venture with Live Nation helps us bring more shows to the Des Moines metro area for fans to enjoy," Summers told Axios in a statement. "Our partnership combines local knowledge with industry expertise that benefits our local music scene."

  • In a separate statement to Axios, Live Nation's chief strategy officer Jordan Zachary said the "partnership … allows us to better serve local music fans and artists who are looking to play in [the] metro area."

Flashback: In 2023, Live Nation shared that it signed a deal for Summers to book shows at Vibrant Music Hall — its new Waukee venue.

However, it did not disclose the extent of the companies' financial involvement. Live Nation's annual 2023 SEC report lists First Fleet Concerts as a subsidiary, meaning it owns a controlling stake in the company. First Fleet was not listed in Live Nation's 2022 report.

  • A document from the Iowa secretary of state, filed in September 2023, also establishes First Fleet Concerts' headquarters as Live Nation's headquarters in Beverly Hills, California.
  • Summers' other ventures, including Val Air Ballroom, Wooly's and Hinterland, remain separate from Live Nation's ownership, according to other state documents.
  • Live Nation owns an interest in First Fleet, but not the whole company, Zachary said in a statement. "First Fleet runs the business and leads the local strategy," he said.

How it works: Local booking companies like First Fleet are intermediaries that help connect artists to venues.

  • But big companies like Live Nation can cut out the middleman and offer artists everything in-house instead, like tour production, venue bookings and ticketing management through Ticketmaster.

Zoom out: This is business as usual for Live Nation, which has also bought out the largest promoters in other cities like Birmingham, Alabama; Madison, Wisconsin; and Austin, Texas.

Reality check: It's surprising for First Fleet Concerts.

  • In 2018, Summers' venue Wooly's signed a petition that opposed Live Nation building a venue in Des Moines, noting its "monolithic approach to business," according to the Register at that time.

Zoom in: In Madison, when Live Nation purchased Frank Productions, a major local independent promoter in 2018, changes to daily operations, staff and programming weren't noticeable, reported Tone Madison, a local music publication.

Yes, but: "People don't undertake major business transactions to change nothing," Tone Madison publisher Scott Gordon, tells Axios.

  • For example, Frank Productions books concerts at a city-owned venue featuring artists like Willie Nelson. Since the acquisition, people must pay extra for VIP spots near the front, rather than the spots going to the most "eager fans."
  • "It just sucked out a lot of the energy," Gordon says.

While some music advocates in Madison said Live Nation's touring pull could bring more interesting acts to the area, Gordon says he hasn't noticed a difference.

  • And as an international public company, its allegiances are ultimately toward shareholders, he argues.
  • "Why would a large, multinational company ... be accountable to a local community or to artists?" Gordon says.

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