For U.S. District Court Judge Dale Fischer, the wheels of justice may turn slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine.
Not wanting to delay the case between AEG and rocker Ozzy Osbourne, the Central District of California judge was disinterested in the progress of settlement talks months after the first lawsuit had been filed as a result of the “venue wars” between AEG on the one side, and an unofficial coalition that includes MSG, Irving Azoff, Live Nation and now Ozzy and his wife Sharon Osbourne on the other.
The no-nonsense judge — who also oversaw the Songkick lawsuit against Live Nation that had Osbourne’s attorney Dan Wall of Latham & Watkins defending the concert promoter — ruled on Monday that while she was aware that both sides were close to making a deal, they could not avoid scheduling the next phase of their legal fight, arguing that promises of a possible truce “were not sufficient” and “the pendency of settlement discussions does not constitute good cause” to prevent her from scheduling new deadlines in the case.
Two days later, AEG chief executive Jay Marciano announced that he was ending the block-booking policy that touched off the lawsuit, telling Billboard he would no longer require Osbourne or other artists to play Staples Center if they also wanted to play the popular O2 Arena in London. Declaring victory, Marciano told Billboard that he dropped the policy because he had effectively induced Azoff MSG Entertainment to cease block-booking the Forum in Los Angeles with Madison Square Garden in New York. Azoff has told Billboard on several occasions he never block booked the Forum and MSG and explained in a letter to Billboard that “the premium MSG nights are going to loyal friends of the company. Playing the Forum — the obviously better music venue in Los Angeles — makes you a friend of the company.”
So now that AEG has ended its block-booking policy and the year-long Venue Wars have been ended, can any side declare victory? While most wars rarely end the way those who started the war intended, the Venue Wars wrap with no casualties and all sides returning home in essentially the same condition they started.
If anything, Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne are the most obvious winners — they filed a suit seeking injunctive relief to end AEG’s block-booking policy, and after beating a motion to dismiss the case brought by AEG lawyers, the Osbournes saw AEG end the very policy that they had sued to stop. Pretty clear win for the Osbournes and other artists who might have been dragged into the venue wars, which were unpopular in the touring community with agents and managers.
“It’s a great day for artists when those of us that make a living serving them recognize that artists should have the right to their own decisions, especially regarding choice of venues to play,” Azoff said in a statement to Billboard, congratulating “Ozzy and Sharon for standing up for everyone.”
What about Azoff, can he and his partner James Dolan at MSG declare victory now that AEG has stopped block-booking Staples Center and the Forum? Yes, they can. Even though Azoff might have required acts wanting to play Madison Square Garden to also play the Forum, by most accounts he ended the policy around the time AEG started block-booking Staples Center and the O2. With no block-booking policy to protect, Azoff simply needed to halt AEG’s block-booking policy to win and declare victory on behalf of artists.
And what about AEG, can they declare victory? In some sense, they already have. In the past, Marciano has said that he would end AEG’s block-booking policy when he felt certainty that Azoff stopped block-booking MSG and the Forum. Only Azoff’s acquiescence, Marciano said, would bring an end to the Staples Center Commitment letter, requiring acts wanting to play the O2 Arena to play at least one show at Staples Center if they were touring through LA and playing indoors.
Marciano told Billboard he had seen indications that Azoff had stopped block-booking, so he would end AEG’s policy, but reserved the right to block-book again if he thought Azoff was doing it. In that sense, Marciano secured the status quo he was seeking, which is a win, although he had to drop a policy that was definitely driving business to Staples Center and making money for AEG.
In that sense, this Marciano also suffered a loss because AEG loses an effective tool that led to a big uptick in shows for Staples Center. The arena is having one of its best years of the decade with Staples Center grosses up 75% over 2017, according to Billboard Boxscore, with ticket sales jumping from $24 million to $42 million. Block-booking was much more effective for AEG because unlike Madison Square Garden, which had a comparable rival in New York with Barclays Center that tours could turn to if they felt pressured to book the Forum, MSG had no effective alternative in the U.K. Blocking an act from playing the O2 Arena effectively blocked them from playing London, one of the biggest music markets in the world. MSG, and their promoter partners at Live Nation, never had an adequate alternative to offer artists in the city and instead had to turn to legal remedies, like filing a complaint with the U.K.’s Competition and Market Authority, which ultimately proved unsuccessful.
In that sense, block-booking is the big loser at the conclusion of the Venue Wars, and because Staples Center benefitted from block-booking, they in a sense lost a tool which helped them drive business. That said, AEG has spent the period preparing for this outcome and is in a position to grow their business in new ways — their earlier investment in K-Pop led by Susan Rosenbluth has certainly paid dividends with four successful BTS shows generating millions of dollars in ticket sales earlier this month. Days before ending the policy, AEG announced it was launching a new global touring division led by music veteran Gary Gersh that will likely lead to more opportunities for Staples Center. And of course, it probably doesn’t hurt that LeBron James, one of the most recognized athletes in the world, is suiting up as a Laker next season and leading a basketball revival at the building that hasn’t seen an NBA Championship since 2010. Bottom line, if AEG did suffer a loss, it’s mostly a symbolic one that won’t have any real long-term bearing on the company.
What about the media? The Venue Wars were a great story line that generated dozens of headlines and plenty of reader interest. The official end of the Venue Wars brings that story arch to a close, but don’t think that intense competition between AEG and Azoff MSG Entertainment is over, it’s just less out in the open. Both sides will still fight tooth and nail to bring shows to their LA buildings and other flareups, like around Dolan’s Sphere project in London and the ongoing battle over the Clippers Arena in Inglewood, are sure to stay in the news. There’s still plenty to write about in live entertainment — we’re not going to run out of things to keep us busy.