‘The pandemic reminded people how much they wanted to be at a show.’
Live music is coming back, and Ben Lovett just raised $50 million to prove it.
Following two years of uncertainty around the live entertainment sector due to the pandemic, Lovett’s music venue venture tvg Hospitality won a gigantic vote of confidence in February with a multi-million dollar funding round to expand its business.
As a member of Grammy Award-winning band Mumford & Sons, with a festival-headlining live music career on his CV, alongside three US No.1 albums, Lovett has seen his fair share of mega-sized audiences in the UK and abroad.
But he’s now turning his attention to the club and theatre market in the US and UK with London-born tvg.
In London, the firm’s portfolio already includes Omeara (320 cap), which launched at Flat Iron Square in 2016, plus Lafayette (600 cap, pictured above) in Kings Cross (opened in 2019), as well as The Social (250 cap).
Having cracked the US market as an artist, Lovett’s now looking to do the same as a business owner and one of live music’s newest independent impresarios.
“I’ve always been a huge fan of America,” Lovett tells MBW. “I’ve lived in America on and off since 2010. I have that wide-eyed, British, land of opportunity approach to the States, still.”
Lovett’s enthusiasm for the US market and for the live music industry as a whole caught the attention of his backers in this $50m round, who include Irving Azoff, Downtown’s Justin Kalifowitz and Andrew Bergman, Red Light Management founder Coran Capshaw, veteran artist manager Ron Laffitte, major-league agent Tom Windish, and star songwriter, Ryan Tedder.
Other investors include LionTree, Goldman Sachs, John Howard, Pete Muller and multiple partners from KKR.
Tvg says that it’s already in development on numerous projects across the US and UK, including in Washington DC, London, Nashville, Austin, Detroit, New York and Los Angeles.
The company has also already partnered with the City of Huntsville, Alabama on the Orion Amphitheater, a brand new 8,000-capacity music venue scheduled to open in May this year.
“We want to keep things as non corporate as possible, and as human as possible, because that’s what the music industry needs.”
Lovett has been firmly embedded in the independent music community for more than 15 years, initially with the Communion club night, followed by Communion Records and Communion Presents. He says that the goal for tvg is to stay “medium-sized”.
He acknowledges, however, that, “this is now bigger than some of the initial ambitions I had and shared” with his brother [Greg] and father [David] when they “started out as a small family business” back in 2015.
“Our dream is to get up to a place where we’re as big as we can be without losing that personal touch,” he explains.
“We want to keep things as non corporate as possible, and as human as possible, because that’s what the music industry needs.”
In spite of the firm’s new war-chest, Lovett says that tvg has no desire to compete with the giants like Live Nation and AEG – nor does it plan to muscle in on grass roots music scenes in the US.
“Companies like Live Nation and AEG, we see as being great partners,” says Lovett, “as we do the thousands of independent promoters [in the US]”.
Lovett adds: “We want to provide a platform in which [promoters] can come in and work with their artists inside [our venues]. And if we go into a city where there’s an existing room that everyone loves, it’s not our intention to take business away from them.”
Here, Ben Lovett details his ambitions for tvg, and his view on the future of live.
Tell us about the significance of tvg securing funds from such a wide range of industry figures.
It started during the pandemic; 2020, for us, was a year of survival, resilience and trying to figure out how we were going to come out the other side. We had hundreds of staff in London. We immediately had zero revenue as soon as everything closed down in March.
When 2021 came around, and with it the [UK] Cultural Recovery Fund, that support [meant] we could take a view about what the future held for the company.
“What we learned through the adversity of the pandemic, was that we really loved this business.”
What we learned through the adversity of the pandemic, was that we really loved this business. We wanted to make it strong and successful.
Something became a universal truth, which was, no matter what people had managed to adjust to in their homes, we were still desperate to go and have a beer with a friend and go and watch a show in real life.
We started having some conversations with investors with a view to growing the company. Initially, we imagined that we were going to go down a more traditional institutional route.
And then, after about three months of talking with some of the larger private equity companies, we thought it would actually be better to work with a much larger group of strategic partners who can both advise us, but also help support the growth of the business.
We started reaching out to people and explaining who we were and what we were trying to do. It was incredibly well met. It’s a collection of believers, that’s the term that we use internally.
Would you say that such a significant round of funding coming so soon after live music’s post-lockdown return is indicative of the industry feeling bullish about live music’s future?
Yeah. As of right now, if you speak to anyone on the live music side, everyone’s feeling very confident that things are going to come back. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t recovery and damage and there’s definitely been casualties through the last couple of years.
But in terms of: Will people go to more shows, or will more people go to see live music in 2022 than ever before? It’s shaping up that way.
“As the technological revolution has been taking hold, people have reacted by going to more live gigs than ever, and it seems [like a good sign] in terms of shows going up and ticket sales.”
And you know, it’s been trending this way for the last 15-20 years. People love live music and spending time with their friends, and doing this stuff in real life.
As the technological revolution has been taking hold, people have reacted by going to more live gigs than ever, and it seems [like a good sign] in terms of shows going up and ticket sales.
Are you looking to raise more funding in future?
This funding will get us to exactly where we want to be in terms of bringing on equity partners.
Hopefully [most of the] shareholders will be the team behind this company for the foreseeable [future]. This isn’t just to get six months or [a few] years down the road. This really sets us up well for the next five years.
Your new Orion amphitheatre in Huntsville looks really impressive. It feels like a serious statement of intent.
When we got asked to go to Huntsville, to meet with the mayor and the team there, I just gave them a very pure and unabashed vision of what bringing culture to Huntsville on a large format might look like. It was quite different to what they had originally envisaged for an amphitheatre.
I guess they liked what we were saying and awarded us the contracts to design and build this amazing facility. Now we’re going to be operating it for the next couple of decades.
The size of the venue is interesting: just before live music paused because of the pandemic, in summer 2019, AEG’s Rick Mueller said more artists in the US were now able to sell 2,000 to 4,000 capacity shows than at any time in history. Does that reflect what you’re seeing in the market now?
Yeah, for lots of reasons. There’s a big diversity in tastes and preferences, and people are discovering more artists than ever before. [Also] there’s tens of thousands of new songs going up every week and new artists being launched. In amongst all of that, there’s a new burgeoning middle class of musicians, and they have their own fan bases.
“There’s such depth in the backlog of artists who want to perform in venues. There’s just not enough venue inventory.”
It’s not just dictated by a few gatekeepers, as it was in the ‘90s, which meant that only a certain number of artists could ever break through to that level. Now, whether it’s on any of the DSPs or however people are discovering their favourite musician, really the challenge is: can we build enough venues fast enough to meet the demand? Because there’s such depth in the backlog of artists who want to perform in venues. There’s just not enough venue inventory.
How much of a priority is that middle class artist demographic for tvg?
Of course, I’ve had the great honor of seeing the level of success that my band has had, but that’s not where the majority of musicians live, in terms of expectation, ambition or reality of where their careers go.
Over the last 16 years with Communion, [we’ve] worked with artists of all sizes, and [tvg is about] wanting to make sure that we’re creating enough of a roadmap and landscape for [that level of artist] to thrive. So yeah, we’ll probably be focusing on small listening rooms, clubs, up to theatres and just taking more of a democratized approach to live music.
In the funding announcement, one of the quotes that stood out was that, “rather than attempting to compete in a mature music industry with entrenched players, TVG, has created a way to partner with the industry and build for the future”. What differentiates TVG from other players in the market?
We’re really trying not to take anything away from anything that already exists. We’re not disrupting [the live business]. We’re whatever the opposite of disrupting is. We’re coming in with open arms to collaborate and support what’s already in place, whether that’s with management companies, promoters or agencies.
All of these people who have come in to lock arms in this industry in the future. It’s reflective of the fact that we’re trying to be solely accretive to the landscape of live music.
If there’s a demand in that city for more venues, we will provide it. If there’s a venue that has a gap, let’s say a 1,500, to 2,000 capacity venue, then we’re going to try and provide the gap, so that artists don’t have to go and play a cut down room the next time they go through that city, or avoid it altogether. [We want to] make sure that there are strong ladders for artists to grow with their teams.
The key bit is that we’re here to help grow everyone’s businesses. I see it as really giving back to this industry that has been such a huge part of my life. I wouldn’t be here without it.
Tvg is also in development on numerous other projects. What are your ambitions in terms of the scale of the company? And you mentioned that Live Nation is a partner, but do you see them as a competitor in any way?
No, we really try and work closely to not clash or get in the way. Live Nation is a hugely successful, multi-billion dollar enterprise. We’re still a small privately held independent family business.
It’s not in our interest to try and compete, we’d much rather work with them as a partner, and as probably one of our biggest clients, especially in what we’ve seen in the programming for the Orion amphitheatre.
It’s going to be slightly driven by our creative capacity, because every single one of these venues is going to be unique.
“Our goal is not to roll anything out and to repeat prior successes, we want to try and come up with a concept that speaks to the city that [the venue] is in, and the size of the room and the architectural parameters of the space.”
Our goal is not to roll anything out and to repeat prior successes, we want to try and come up with a concept that speaks to the city that [the venue] is in, and the size of the room and the architectural parameters of the space.
It takes a lot of firepower and energy to do it that way, rather than just saying, ‘Here’s the McDonald’s model’ and then we drop it into every city in the world.
We are ambitious, and we want it to grow, but we also want to stay medium size. I don’t want us to get to the point where we’re not regularly tweaking the experience that’s being had at the venues.
At the moment, a day doesn’t go past where I’m not in the weeds on what’s going on at Omeara, and Laffayette, and The Social in London, and all of our preplanning that’s going into The Orion.
It’s no secret that independent venues had a very tough time over the past two years. There were reports of venues being concerned about having to sell controlling stakes to survive. How healthy do you think the independent venue landscape is right now, at the beginning of 2022, and particularly in the US as you start making steps into that market?
When it comes to the US, obviously the Save our Stages Bill was a huge victory for everyone in NIVA (National Independent Venue Association). We were really cheering on the efforts in that endeavour. A lot more venues would have shuttered had that bill not been passed.
There have still been a number of casualties, and some great venues have unfortunately gone under. But I want to try and stay optimistic and hopeful for what the future of independent venues looks like.
“There’s such a demand for these spaces and I don’t think that that’s going to drop off.”
There’s such a demand for these spaces and I don’t think that that’s going to drop off. Live music-wise, all the pandemic did was remind people how much they wanted to be at a show. Now that’s starting to happen again.
There’s a chance to do things better. [The pandemic] shook up some of the industry in a good way in terms of some of the politics that sometimes gets in the way of things between agencies and promoters.
I’ve seen a lot more open mindedness to collaboration. This tvg fundraise story really is testament to a willingness to not have to be the sole owner or the sole backer, and there is a world in which people can share the table and do what’s best for artists and fans, which is really what all of us should be thinking about every day.
Sometimes that can get lost. I’m hoping that we’re an example of how you can bring people together, and people can see the bigger picture.
This article originally appeared in the latest (Q1 2022) issue of MBW’s premium quarterly publication, Music Business UK, which is out now.
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https://www.musicbusinessworldwide.com/the-pandemic-reminded-people-how-much-they-wanted-to-be-at-a-show/ ‘The pandemic reminded people how much they wanted to be at a show.’