How did Matt Gibbons get his start in the live entertainment industry?
“I came by it honestly,” he joked, explaining that he grew up in the business with his father Dick Gibbons who had a long history in hospitality. Matt Gibbons is the founder of MRG Group in Canada, a holding company with 12 venues and entertainment properties in three cities — Toronto, Vancouver and Los Angeles. He’s able to operate in the hyper-competitive Toronto market, going rogue against an ascending Live Nation with his own chain of MRG venues he owns and operates. We recently sat down with Matt to see what the entrepreneur is up to in 2016.
What the first venue that MRG managed?
My first project was the Vogue Theater in Vancouver, which is sort of a legendary, 1941 built theater in Vancouver. The City of Vancouver decided that they wanted it to be a theater. So I gave my word that I would run it as a theater the best I could. Prior to that, the Vogue had been dark for many years, and there was only the Commodore, which is half a block away [and owned by Live Nation].
How did you decide to expand your market?
The predecessor to MRG Concerts was just Vogue Presents because essentially all we were trying to do was get shows into the Vogue. We learned pretty quick that if we’re only doing shows at a 1,300-cap, you don’t really have much to go with from the agents, cause other people have already done it in the market, and, chances are, it was a company with Live Nation. We had to start doing shows outside the room, everywhere from 100-cap media club shows right on up. From there we found out that if we wanted to do the small shows, the agents and management would like us to do more than one market. We started branching out and doing some stuff in Alberta and right across the prairies all the way to Ontario where, when that started to grow a little bit we decided that we’d do a concert venue in Toronto, which was Adelaide Hall, which is a 500-cap room. (Here’s a link to all of MRG Groups’ venues and brands).
Do you rent the building to outside promoters?
We have other bookers use our venue, for sure. We have people that we talk routing with. We’re going to go from doing somewhere in the 300-show mark last year and forecasting well over 600 this year. It’ll be quite a big jump. We’ve always had great relationships with the AEG guys in Seattle and just people across because we’ve been that person with the venue that sort of waited for this opportunity.
Early on you guys got into the streaming business with Hillydilly. How did you first learn about their service?
Hillydilly was founded by a guy named Chad Hillard. There’s no one that researches music more than Chad. He spends about 16 hours a day in his office there working from home. He came to me about three or four years ago, while he was working at a lumber yard in Vancouver, and said, “Hey Matt, I think if you’d like to become partners on this, I think there’s something here that we could do together.”
Any new upgrades to Hillydilly?
We’ve recently launched a new back-end database for artists, so that they can go in to submit music. It’ll sort of put you into your genre so that we can put your music up there better. We’re getting quite a few submissions through it. We can help people and say, “This person’s got great music and they don’t have a manager, so here’s similar acts that are managed by this guy that seems to do well, would you like to talk to them?” We can put them in contact with each other, just saves the time, on genres and stuff like that.
You also created your own ticketing site, Northern Tickets. What was your vision?
We started Northern Tickets from scratch, and it was definitely a team effort on that one. Our guests are what we really service at the end of the day, and without having a Ticketmaster outlet near our venue, it was hard for us to have any communication with our guests. We started Northern Tickets to help the Vogue win on customer service, so that people would come back and say, “Oh, let’s go see what’s playing at the Vogue,” not necessarily, “Hey, where is Macklemore playing?”
How’d you make the decision to sell it to Ticketfly in 2015?
It wasn’t something we were really looking at doing. I had a great meeting with Andrew [Dreskin] down in San Francisco. We really both shared the same view that ticketing isn’t just a transaction, ticketing is your passport to fun. It’s part of that whole experience of going to the show. I said to myself, “Well, this guy gets ticketing better than I do, he understands our concerns about dealing with our guests. He is going to allow us to jump onto this amazing opportunity, which is Ticketfly.” We are the very small partner, but we didn’t just sell to Ticketfly. We exchanged Northern Tickets for a small equity position in Ticketfly.
Do you have any thoughts on the Pandora/Ticketfly integration?
I think there’s something there. The way I see it is, people are listening to more music than ever today. There’s more money in music than ever. For the people that create value, they’ll do fine. It’s just, what creates value and how do you do that? If Pandora and Ticketfly can figure out a way that people aren’t missing shows that are in town that they would love to see, that’s really creating value. They’re in the best position, out of anyone, to do it at this point. I think that’s our industry. I think we’re going to have to continue to think of creative ways to say, how do we create value? We can’t just all fight over the same piece of pie. We’ve got to grow that pie in order to create opportunity for everybody.
Why are so many heavyweights in the American music industry are from Canada?
It’s amazing what these guys have done, they’ve added value all the way along. I think a guy like Mike Rapino has never sat there and said, “Okay, we sell X amount of tickets to a gate, we get this portion, you get that portion.” You do all these different things with everything to say, “Okay, how do we add value to everybody involved?” I think because of the geography of Canada and how spread out we are, it’s not like we have touring venues every 150 miles. You’ve got to get creative when they’re trying to take a tour from Vancouver to even Toronto, which is 2,200 miles and maybe five markets. There’s no down, ups and arounds. It’s a straight line.
Ron Sakamoto is doing 50 individual dates in Canada with Johnny Reid. Has he cracked the nut?
Yeah, and I think for sure there are certain acts that can do it. Bryan Adams could do a lot of markets. The Tragically Hip can do a lot of markets. There’s only so many things that are going to sell in Quesnel, B.C.
Rapino has been talking a lot about the need to price some premium seats higher, taking the pressure off cheaper seats. What do you think of this strategy.
I will say that there’s opportunity to look at that, for people that are willing to pay for a premium product. You have to sit there and say, “Okay, where does that strategically sit?” If you’re doing a Justin Bieber concert and your first three rows are $5,000 a ticket, and now all of a sudden all you have in it is a bunch of 60-year-old bankers, well does that take away from the show itself? I don’t know the answer to that. On the other hand, if there’s somebody that’s willing to pay $5,000 because they have a whole bunch of disposable income, and that allows some kid to get a ticket for $12 where it used to be $45, I think that’s a huge win. I think that helps our industry. I think it just helps people having a great time, which I like.
Many forget what the young fan can afford.
I remember this talk we had at the Vogue when we first started. It was a pretty simple thing — we don’t know who’s coming through our door. We sell them a ticket, we can get to know them best we can. It might be their first show, it might be their 100th show, it might be the first thing they’ve done since their mother or father passed. It might be their first date. It could be any one of a million different scenarios — who are we to rob people of that experience? Who are we to steal someone’s first show experience from them because we do this all the time and we don’t really give a damn?
How are you handling drop in the Loonie (Canadian dollar)?
It’s just transparency. It’s sitting there and saying, “This is what we can afford, because at the end of the day, this is our revenue versus our expenses.” Are some bands deciding not to come to Canada? I haven’t seen it in large scale. You hear some saying, “Oh well, we’ll wait for the (Canadian) dollar to come back.” If any of us can tell where the (Canadian) dollar’s going to be in a year, we’re in the wrong business anyway.
But it does it affect your bottom line?
Oh yeah. In the sense that we have to raise ticket prices. It’s just that act goes up, and can that act sell that many tickets based on the price required for that deposit?
I want to ask you one more thing: What do you think of Justin Trudeau and his ascendency to Prime Minister-ship?
I think it’s exciting. Maybe I don’t know the real younger generation well enough, but I think people are just sort of welcoming of different views and different tastes and I think that’s something that Justin is really good at bringing in.