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Live Nation’s EDM chief James Barton on music’s U.S. future

By Randall Roberts

On Wednesday, the Los Angeles-based electronic dance music promoter Hard Events was bought by Live Nation Entertainment, one of the world’s largest concert and ticketing companies. Hard, which was founded by Gary Richards in 2007, was bought a few months after Live Nation acquired another big electronic music promoter, U.K.-based Cream Holdings, promoter of the popular Creamfields festivals.

When Cream was bought in May, Live Nation Chief Executive Michael Rapino brought on Cream’s founder, James Barton, and named him the new president of the company’s Live Nation Electronic Music division. In that capacity, Barton will oversee Live Nation’s worldwide EDM initiatives. Below is an edited transcript of a conversation Pop & Hiss held with Barton after the news of Hard’s purchase was announced.

Was it a hard decision for you to sell Cream to Live Nation?

No, it actually wasn’t. It was always part of our strategy, always part of our long-term plan. And the reasoning behind that is we wanted to move the business on to the next stage, and in order to do that, in order to grow the business the way that we wanted it to grow, we really felt that it needed the support and the resources of a bigger company. So doing this deal with Live Nation was always part of our strategy at some point, and obviously we decided to do it now.

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Was the acquisition of Hard Events one of your priorities when you joined Live Nation, or had this deal already been in the works?

A bit of both. Again, the reason why I came on with Live Nation was because of the vision that [Live Nation Chief Executive] Michael Rapino explained to me what he wanted to achieve with electronic music inside of Live Nation. Obviously, part of that discussion was to offer me this new role as president of electronic music for Live Nation, and obviously there were some early discussions about what other steps, and what other people we would like to involve in this plan moving forward, and Gary Richards and Hard was always at the top of both of our lists. So strategically, and personality wise, it just made a really, really good -- it actually made it a bit of a no-brainer that we should pursue some sort of partnership or deal with Gary Richards and Hard.

The words “electronic dance music” and “Live Nation” aren’t words that five years ago people would have expected to be used in the same sentence. Do you worry about a culture that has thrived on independence moving into a different atmosphere?I don’t worry at all. I think that, first and foremost, I strongly believe in the principals with which I’ve grown my business over the last 20 years, and I’m sure that Gary Richards believes in exactly the same principals. I think that I have the flexibility and authority and the support to be able to build a credible electronic division inside of Live Nation.

And look, the truth is that maybe the U.S. doesn’t know this, but outside of the U.S., Live Nation has been involved in some capacity with electronic dance shows for quite some time -- and also have done that really, really well. I’ve known Michael for 10 years. I have total respect for him and I totally buy into his vision. I’ve been staunchly independent for 20 years, and I’ve run my businesses throughout all of that entire time. It’s a combination of the timing for electronic music globally right now and a very strong belief in what Michael Rapino is trying to achieve here. I wanted to be a part of that, and obviously when we got round the table with Gary and explained exactly what we were trying to do here, Gary also felt as though it was something that he wanted to be a part of.

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I think if you look at Live Nation’s move into electronic music up to this point, I think everybody could sort of feel comfortable saying that purchasing Cream, hiring James Barton, was a smart move, and purchasing Hard and hiring Gary Richards and his team was also a smart move. So I think we should be judged on what we’ve done instead of what the perception of Live Nation is. And I’m more than comfortable. I’m actually delighted to be building out this overall strategy with Michael and the team at Live Nation.

Where do you think your new electronic division will be two or three years from now? Some people say we’re in a bubble right now with dance music.

We don’t feel that way. I’ve got over 20 years of experience booking DJs and running large-scale events in this music. That’s not a bubble. We’re serious people. Live Nation is a serious operation. Live Nation is in the business of delivering exciting music events for America, whether they’re EDM, country or rock ‘n’ roll. We’re in the business of creating shows, and I think that because of the sort of new interest of electronic music in North America, it was always -- always -- going to be part of its strategy.

And don’t forget, Michael Rapino has been putting this together for two years -- maybe three years. It’s not something that he suddenly jumped on in the last few months. The Cream conversations stretched for months and months and months, and the deal took a similar amount of time. So I think it’s harsh for people to insinuate that Live Nation is operating inside of a bubble.

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Again, let’s go back to the deals and announcements that were made last month and this month. Live Nation has secured the services of Cream, and secured the services of myself moving forward. We’ve now secured Hard, and also the services of Gary Richards moving forward, and there will be further, similar announcements coming up in the next few months. This is a strategy that me and Michael want to put together. We don’t want to be anything else but credible and relevant in this space. And I think that anybody that’s involved in this music would agree that Creamfields, Cream and Hard are credible and relevant.

Will there be a recorded music component of Live Nation Electronic Music going forward -- a record label or an acquisition of a label?

We don’t have a strategy which stretches that far. What we want, again, is to grow our business organically. We’re not going to go for this huge, aggressive campaign of creating shows on every corner of America. We haven’t got a plan to stretch out. We’re just going to wait and see. We’re going to keep our options open, and we’re going to make really, really sure that the businesses that we have in this division are doing the best shows we can, which obviously creates tremendous goodwill with the audience, which keeps them coming back year after year.

That’s what festivals are about. It’s about creating a bond. It’s about creating a relationship with the audience with stretches ahead 20, 30 years -- who knows? Creamfields is 15 years old this year. Which demonstrates, again, the longevity, and also the passion and the relationship, that the EDM crowd has for their music and events. It stretches a long time, and goes a lot deeper than what people assume. It is a very, very meaningful, long-term relationship as long as we as promoters continue to do the right thing.

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