So much has changed for Ali Harnell since her introduction to music as a young girl sitting with a cassette deck to record songs on Casey Kasem’s radio show. Harnell, now an SVP of AEG Presents and a co-manager for the Shadow Boxers, had no idea music could be a business.
“I thought music was free and it came out of the radio or you went and spent 99¢ on a little 45,” Harnell told Amplify.
Her mother worked for a television station and often had promoters as clients, but Harnell didn’t really know what promoters did until her freshman year of college at American University in Washington, D.C.
“My best friend from my freshman year in college, her uncle was Bob Krasnow who was the head of Elektra Records,” Harnell said. “We went to his house and I saw the gold records on his walls and his music library and my head exploded. I started literally learning that it was a business and you could do it as a job and you didn’t have to be a singer.”
Since then, Harnell has worked for Feld Entertainment, in record stores, in mailrooms, for festivals, and in just about every nook and cranny in the music industry. We caught up with Harnell to learn about her career path and what lies ahead for the music industry.
How did you get started in the music business?
I called my mom and I was like ‘Mom, when you help me get concert tickets how does that work?’ And she’s like ‘From the promoter.’ And so I asked ‘Who can you call? That’s what I want to do.’ Literally, I just kind of started. I had really good luck and good nepotism, good old fashioned nepotism. My mom hooked me up with Feld Entertainment that summer. They had been one of her clients and they put me in as an intern as a production secretary at a two-week music festival called Riverfest I met everybody. I met Bill Morton and Kate Wilson and these guys who were stage managers and production managers. I just got the bug.
Where did you go from there?
I went back to college in the fall and I went to work for Cellar Door in D.C. I was working at the Bayou nightclub selling tickets in the box office at night. I got promoted up to hospitality coordinator where I get to cut carrots up and put ranch dressing in dressing rooms and ice down coolers. Then I got to step it up even more and deal with catering buyouts.
I continued to do production work for some of the people from Riverfest. That led to my big break my senior year of college where I went as a production assistant in Japan with the Rolling Stones. I was the P.A. Then I graduated from college and I moved to New York City thinking I was the hottest shit in the world and I was going to roll in and be the president of a record company by the time I was 25. It was 1990 and there was a recession and every record company was firing everybody and laying off 300 people a day.
So you weren’t the president of a record company by 25?
So I’m pounding the pavement in New York. I worked at HMV Records. I was a floater at William Morris. I was doing everything I could and then one day in 1991 that same best friend whose uncle was Bob Krasnow, she was working at Rob Light’s desk in CAA in Los Angeles. She called me one day and she said ‘listen there’s a promoter in New York his name is Ron Delsener and he’s looking for an assistant in his office. I’ve already told him about you. Get your resume over there immediately.’
So I used the William Morris messenger service because this was before fax machines. I messengered my resume over to Delsener and I got an interview and I got the job. For 26 years now, I’ve been doing the exact same thing as a promoter.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia.
What were you listening to growing up?
If I went through my little 45 collection that I still have, it’s probably Gino Vannelli, Earth, Wind and Fire, Bob Seger, Simon and Garfunkel, Kenny Rogers and Glen Campbell. It was whatever was pop music back then.
Were you going to shows when you were younger?
By high school, I remember The Police and Flock of Seagulls. Those are some early teenage concerts.
Were there venues you frequented?
The Omni Coliseum was the arena back then. The Fox Theatre, which is still there rocking. By the time I was in late high school and college there was the Cotton Club where Widespread Panic was born out of. I went to a bunch of shows there. My big thrill was when I became a promoter in New York and I presented Widespread Panic at Irving Plaza. It was this major thing for me because I had grown up going to those Panic shows in Atlanta.
And now you are in charge of the entire Southeast for AEG?
I’m a bit of an anomaly within AEG because we’ve got touring departments and we’ve got regional heads and then we’ve got festival people and I kind of do all three out of my Nashville headquarters. My regional business that I operate is Nashville and all of Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky and we kind of step beyond that. It’s gotten smaller and smaller over the years as we’ve added more and more buyers. Allen Corbett has the Carolinas now and John Valentino is Florida. We’re all are operating in our own little units. That’s my regional piece.
Then I have my touring operation which just announced Little Big Town last week. We did the Lumineers tour last year. We’ve done Sugarland, Keith Urban, and Chris Stapleton. We’ve got Maren Morris out of our office in October. We do a lot of touring stuff and the other thing I work on pretty diligently is Country to Country, which is a country music festival in the U.K. that’s going into its sixth year and I curate the talent for that.
As someone who works in country music, are you a big country music fan?
Loaded question and I don’t want to get into trouble. There are artists that I am so passionate about in the country music genre and I have a lot of frustration with the format. I will say it loud and proud. It’s very male-dominated. It’s very hard for female artists to break through and that’s a very frustrating and challenging thing for me. I did a lot for Chris Stapleton’s touring in 2016 and then he did an overall deal with Live Nation in 2017, but I live and die for Chris Stapleton. Still, there’s a lot of it that’s just not my thing.
Are there any acts in general you are into right now?
I co-manage a developing pop act called the Shadowboxers and I’m obsessed with them. We dropped our first single. They are signed to Justin Timberlake’s artist development company, Villa 40. They spent the summer recording with Justin and we have a bunch of songs that we’re starting to release one at a time. It is not really. EP or album driven right now, kind of single driven.
Is there an artist you haven’t worked with that you would like to work with?
Sam Smith. I just love and adore Sam Smith. After 26 or 27 years into this, I’ve gotten to where I really want to work with artists I’m passionate about and not just to make money. I would like Led Zeppelin to reunite and I would love to present them globally. How’s that?
Do you think the industry is getting harder or easier for independent promoters in 2017?
I think in some ways it’s easier for independent promoters because the world has changed and streaming has turned everything upside down. There are so many artists out there who are building independent careers without labels and without radio. If the independent promoters who are not the AEGs or the Live Nations, who are never going to be able to compete with the huge checks that are being written, can make their business model based on independent artists I think they can still be successful. In that way, I do think that that’s great.
Let me tell you something, who has time to think about if it’s easier or harder for them because it’s so frickin hard for all of us. It’s a brutally competitive business. We’re all trying so hard to stay in the game, to make the right deal. I mean it’s a tough business and it ain’t getting any easier.
If there was one thing you could change about the music business right now, what would you change?
I would put more women in leadership positions.
Do you see that as something feasible in the near future or that is currently happening?
I think it’s a question I’m really interested in and I think it’s an answer I would love to help with. It’s happening in pockets, but I think that the situation is still a bit prevalent. There are a lot of really supportive men out there. At the risk of sounding overly PC about it, there are. I’m just super aware at my age and my rank and my experience that it is still a pretty male-dominated environment.
Do you foresee any issues facing the music industry in the coming years?
It feels like it’s a constant shift already, from record company to streaming, to what radio means for an artist. How important touring has become. How hard it is for songwriters to get paid. Those are all things I think will continue to unfold over the next few years and that as each one does and solidifies, it’s going to shift the industry again. Each thing begets the other and keeps moving.
Who are your mentors?
Melissa Miller Ormond was one of my first mentors and teachers. She went on to be president of (Madison Square) Garden. She was my first boss at Delsener’s and she was amazing. Such a badass, such a keen mind and so passionate about the music and so clear about what she was doing. I still find myself sometimes saying ‘What would Melissa do?’
Karen Fairchild, who is in the band Little Big Town, doesn’t even know it but by example of her work ethic and her heart, her humility her drive, I learn from her all the time.
Are there any leaders outside of the music business you look up to?
I have entrepreneur crush on Sara Blakely from Spanx. She’s such a delightful motivator and her whole story is super inspirational about never giving up and having a simple idea that turned her into literally the first female billionaire entrepreneur.
Do you have any piece of memorabilia that you’re proud of?
My son is a drummer and in his music room I’ve got this huge thing framed with the backstage pass, the ticket, the setlist, and a photograph of me holding my son with Robert Plant kissing my son. Presenting Robert at the Ryman was a major dream come true and I got to take my then fiv- year-old son. Robert kissed him and it was the greatest thing ever.
If you weren’t in the music industry, what would you be doing?
When I was little I dreamed of being a judge. Or being a pilot, but I was legally blind from birth so I could never be a pilot. I wasn’t a good academic, so I was never going to get through law school. Thank god I showed up at Bob Krasnow’s house and figured it out.