Sixteen months ago, music mogul Irving Azoff sat on a stage in The Beverly Hilton with three of his closest friends and calmly explained, to frequent laughter and applause, how everyone in Washington was comprehensively wrong about his industry.

A cluster of technology meltdowns surrounding the sale of tickets to Taylor Swift’s concert tour a few months earlier had provoked the rage of the singer’s feral fan base, which happened to include the immediate family members of most members of Congress. Within weeks, the business press was reporting that Ticketmaster and its parent company Live Nation were—not for the first time—the subject of a federal antitrust investigation. In January 2023, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) had convened a hearing in which some 20-odd senators quoted Swift lyrics in the service of demonizing Ticketmaster.

The real villain of the Swift snafu, Azoff insisted at the panel, put on by the concert industry trade mag Pollstar, was Big Tech–enabled scalpers, with their armies of “bots that pretend like they are fans and steal massive amounts of tickets,” and battalions of lobbyists turning “the attention of Congress away from their greedy, predatory business models, to demonize Ticketmaster.”

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It’s hard to imagine that anyone in the audience viewed Azoff, the 5’3″ former Ticketmaster CEO who had masterminded the company’s 2010 merger with the then-ailing Live Nation and is so infamously cutthroat he is widely known in the business by the nickname “Poison Dwarf,” as a neutral party in the music monopoly discourse. And yet many portrayed him that way. A Fortune recap of the event identified Azoff merely as “the most powerful artist manager in the music business”; the Los Angeles Daily News called him the “CEO of Azoff MSG Entertainment,” though that’s just one of dozens of businesses he’s helmed over the years.

Indeed, it’s sometimes hard to keep track of all Azoff owns; one of his oldest friends, Steely Dan front man Donald Fagen, wrote in his 2013 memoir, “My manager, Irving Azoff … over the years, has acquired a piece of just about every valuable asset in the music business (or what’s left of it), including the acts, the venues, the company you have to buy the tickets from and various other entities that just seem to spit back money at him.”

Nevertheless, Azoff, who still manages hundreds of musicians and owns a music licensing agency, has long managed to cast himself as someone who is, at heart, merely a champion of the struggling rock stars he made his reputation representing in the 1970s. And at the Pollstar panel, and on into 2024, Azoff orchestrated what seemed like a masterful shadow lobbying campaign geared at controlling the narrative about Live Nation, Ticketmaster, and who were the real villains of the music business.

“Our government has a long history of screwing artists,” he noted, railing (rather correctly) against legislators for enabling Google and Facebook to “build massive businesses on artists’ backs without properly paying them.” Next to him sat Makan Delrahim, the former assistant attorney general at the Justice Department Antitrust Division. Delrahim agreed with Azoff, saying “many of the problems would go away” if artists only controlled how tickets were distributed.

In the end, though, it didn’t work. While he is not referenced by name in the DOJ complaint against Live Nation, Azoff is at the center of some of the most damning allegations the government made against his old employer, Live Nation, thanks to a little-known company called Oak View Group he co-founded in 2015. Oak View just happened to be the parent company of Pollstar, the publication behind the panel at which Azoff had attempted to take back the narrative.

Azoff has long managed to cast himself as merely a champion of the struggling rock stars he made his reputation representing in the 1970s.

Oak View, which Azoff established with longtime business partner Tim Leiweke, bills itself as a “venue development and management company,” but in its earliest days the company dabbled in concert promotion, and Live Nation identified it internally as one of its “biggest competitor threats,” according to the DOJ complaint. Indeed, Azoff only founded the firm upon the expiration of a two-year noncompete agreement with Live Nation. Within a year or two of its founding, however, the company evolved into a self-described “pimp” for Azoff’s old employers at Live Nation.

As Luke Goldstein explains, Azoff and Leiweke had an understanding with Live Nation not to promote artists and “only do tours with Live Nation.” When Oak View put together an “alliance” of sports venues to “provide insights and access to premier sports and entertainment content,” it invited a Live Nation executive to join the board of advisers. And when an Australian events promoter named TEG threatened to compete with Live Nation for artist promotions, it was Azoff himself who stepped in, approaching the private equity firm Silver Lake Partners, which owned both TEG and Oak View, and demanding they sell TEG.

The symbiosis between Oak View and Live Nation worked in part because each chose to focus on its own cash cow: Live Nation on the lucrative ticketing business, Oak View on sponsorships, parking, and, increasingly, concessions. (Oak View’s head count ballooned to 60,000 as it has amassed concessions contracts since it acquired a hospitality unit owned by Comcast Spectacor in 2021.) But it also arguably worked because of the consent decree to which Live Nation agreed as a condition of its merger with Ticketmaster, which prohibited Live Nation from retaliating against venues that chose to use ticketing services other than Ticketmaster by cutting off their flow of pop stars and music festivals. Although Live Nation repeatedly retaliated against venues anyway—so flagrantly that Azoff’s buddy Delrahim was forced to sue the company for violating the consent decree in 2019—Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino increasingly outsourced the act of retaliation to Oak View, which the complaint states repeatedly described itself as Live Nation’s “hammer.”

While the vast majority of American concert venues already use Ticketmaster as their exclusive or near-exclusive ticketing service, Oak View has been able to reel in the holdouts, “flipping” six venues to Ticketmaster in 2023 and projecting it would flip an additional 16 at minimum by 2026, according to the complaint. Oak View now owns or controls 200 venues in North America, almost as many as the 265 owned or controlled by Live Nation, enabling Ticketmaster’s sphere of domination to nearly double in the shadows.

OAK VIEW WAS IDEALLY SUITED TO SERVE as Live Nation’s “hammer” because Azoff has been the music industry’s chief enforcer dating back to the 1970s, when he made his name as one of the most powerful men in rock music by displaying quick wits and a knack for the sort of details that might escape David Geffen. As the manager of Steely Dan, Boz Scaggs, Jimmy Buffett, and the Eagles, Azoff deftly wielded access to the era’s hottest musical acts to help political candidates get around post-Watergate campaign finance laws that capped the amount of cash they could accept from a single donor by hosting massive concert fundraisers. He was legendarily good at both supplying rock stars with drugs and hiding them from the authorities. (“Irving’s role was to keep us out of prison, basically,” recalled Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh in 2020.) And in 1970, he saved a Memorial Day concert festival from being shut down by a circuit court judge who deemed it an improper use of land zoned for agricultural use by rebranding the event as a cattle auction that would happen to feature live music from 30 bands.

Azoff spent the 1980s helming MCA Records, which spent much of that decade under an FBI investigation into organized-crime ties that was ultimately shelved at the personal direction of then-Attorney General Ed Meese. (One of several books on the investigation suggests that various MCA executives were somehow connected to Iran-Contra.)

During those same years, however, Azoff kept a wide array of side hustles in the concert and marketing businesses. He helped promote a Jackson family reunion tour alongside boxing promoter Don King that ended up getting him sued by the operators of the Fabulous Forum in Los Angeles—a venue he would come to control when his buddy and longtime business partner Jim Dolan, scion of a New York cable industry fortune, acquired it in 2012; he launched a marketing firm with then-Ticketmaster CEO Fred Rosen in 1990 to capitalize on the company’s surfeit of valuable consumer data; and he worked on a radio syndication venture with Robert Kardashian, the famous O.J. Simpson attorney whose wife is still close friends with Azoff’s wife Shelli.

Around the turn of the millennium, the company now known as Live Nation was a voracious debt-financed rollup of a couple dozen regional concert promoters and 120 venues called SFX that was—perhaps simply as a ploy in its negotiations with Ticketmaster—threatening to launch its own ticketing service, and Azoff and Leiweke were tapped by oil billionaire Phil Anschutz to helm a potential SFX competitor that could lure away talent and venues from the emerging juggernaut; Azoff’s team wooed Britney Spears’s concert tour the following year, but it would never come close to rivaling the SFX footprint. In 2007, Live Nation announced it was going to allow its Ticketmaster contract to expire and was launching a competing ticketing service, leading Ticketmaster to begin talks to merge with Azoff’s upstart competitor AEG Live; the following year, Ticketmaster instead bought Azoff’s talent management company Front Line and appointed him as its new CEO. Azoff in turn immediately began talks to merge with Live Nation.

At a congressional hearing to discuss the anti-competitive implications of the deal, Azoff promised the public that partners “would most certainly leave” Ticketmaster if the merger went through. “AEG has notified us by letter that they believe they have the right to terminate our agreement in connection with this merger. If that’s not competition, I don’t know what is.” But AEG had not at that point invested any funds in developing their own ticketing software, and its CEO Randy Phillips said he’d been completely blindsided by the merger. Azoff’s “testimony is completely disingenuous,” he told the Associated Press.

AEG would ultimately launch its own ticketing service, AXS, in mid-2011. It was the service the alt-country singer Zach Bryan used when he decided to boycott Ticketmaster for his 2023 concert tour. But AXS never really took off; according to the DOJ complaint, AEG’s minority-owned concert venues—which it co-owned with the private equity firm Onex until late last year—have been reluctant to use the service for fear of being shut out of Live Nation’s flow of events. Bryan abandoned his Ticketmaster boycott for his 2024 tour.

But the DOJ approved the merger after Live Nation agreed to abide by a consent decree promising not to use its roster of concert tours to retaliate against venues that chose to use another ticketing software, and Azoff left a couple of years later, with a series of tweets playing up his hotel-trashing persona as someone who was just a bit too much of a loose cannon to be leading a publicly traded behemoth operating under a DOJ consent decree. “Hey lawyers, try to shut me up now,” he posted on New Year’s Eve 2012.

The following year, he mounted a comeback tour with two ventures that signaled he was returning to his “roots” as a champion of working artists: Global Music Rights, a performance rights organization formed to negotiate royalties with radio stations and streaming platforms on behalf of musicians and songwriters, and a $300 million joint venture with his old friend Dolan called Azoff Madison Square Garden Entertainment, pitched as an artist-friendly check on the increasingly cartelized music industry. Upon Leiweke’s firing from AEG the following year, Azoff founded Oak View, which immediately got to work on multiple projects with AMSGE. “Everybody in the business whines, ‘There’s no place to go. There’s only three record companies and Live Nation and AEG,’” he told Billboard upon the launch of AMSGE. “Hopefully, people will think of us as a place equal to one of those [companies] to come [to us] with a great idea or a great project.” Such remarks are likely a big part of the reason why artists and their agents felt so comfortable trying to get better deals from Azoff’s various entities than they could from the gorilla that is Live Nation—and why Azoff felt so comfortable casting himself as the gorilla’s “neutral” attack dog when it came under long-overdue attack from Congress in late 2022.

Because the truth was, Live Nation achieved theretofore unimaginable dominance after Azoff left, its stock doubling in the year after his departure and its revenue quadrupling in the decade after that. At one point, Billboard even published an analysis theorizing that Live Nation’s stock was better off without Azoff, though a veteran music executive assured the magazine that there was no separating the man from his masterwork: “The truth is, Irving is the reason Live Nation is healthy today and why they’re impossible to compete with.”

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