Riley O'Connor Makes Ready For A Live Nation Comeback In Canada
It's been a tough past year for Canada's premier concert firm, but Live Nation chairman Riley O'Connor is bullish on the return of big shows in major markets. A lot of people are banking on him being right, and his team have all been called back to work. Virtually, of course.
By David Farrell
As chairman of Live Nation Canada, Riley O'Connor has steered the company to market leadership in Canada's live entertainment industry, generating about $200 million in annual sales for the company and producing more than 1100 concerts annually for Canadian and international artists.
That was when times were good, a lifetime back, in 2019.
Since the spring of 2020, he has had to deal with all the consequences arising from the pandemic and the shifting sands of regulatory requirements mandated by federal and provincial governments. It’s pretty obvious that life in the fast lane has crawled to a near stop and instead of building careers, staging shows and making money, he’s been forced to protect the livelihoods of his staff over the past 12 months–many of them specialized in event production and not easy to replace.
He won’t say as much, but forecasting a full return to live shows is a bit like pinning the tail on the donkey blindfolded. Then again, he’s a cup half full kind of guy.
What follows is a conversation with the man who employs more riggers, stagehands, technicians, electricians and musicians in Canada than anyone else. He’s also the guy who puts more money in musicians’ pockets than anyone else in Canada.
“About four weeks in we realized that were going to be locked down for a long time and I told the team, ‘Okay, our mantra going forward is to get Canadian musicians and artists engaged as much as possible, to get some dough in their pockets because they are going to be brutally impacted by this’.
“The obvious way to start was to reach out to our sponsors and engage them with new initiatives so they don’t walk away from the music industry. We put forward a lot of different ideas and found them to be very supportive. It was from these discussions that we came up with the idea of the Saturday Night Budweiser Stage concert series with Citytv as our broadcast partner that was also streamed on Citytv.com.”
It's an ambitious series that has featured the Black Crowes, Blue Rodeo with The Trews, then Blue Rodeo and Alan Doyle with Great Big Sea.
Through Live Nations’ affiliated Embrace Entertainment, there’s been a number of streamed concerts from Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom and The Danforth Music Hall in Toronto with Jim Beam again the lead sponsor for the shows. Commodore virtual concerts have featured Colin James, Marianas Trench, Dean Brody, Peach Pit, JoJo Mason w/Shawn Austin and Kristen Carter, Frazey Ford, and Five Alarm Funk.
Danforth Music Hall shows have included the Trews, Cybertronic Spree, and upcoming virtual concerts feature Blue Rodeo, Walk off the Earth, and one more TBA.
Danforth has also done external rentals for livestreams with Johnny Orlando and Barenaked Ladies.
As for government support after being forced to cancel all club, theatre and arena shows, O’Connor shares that the company has been able to access the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) subsidy program, but he also realized that “our burn rate (on cash) was going to be crazy and we needed to mitigate, so across the board we all took a hit as a percentage of salary, and then we applied for the CEWS program (Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy that’s made available to employers). We then had to furlough about 55% if the company as it became clearer that there just wasn’t any work for them. The only business we had was the drive-in movie theatres for concert streaming, and then we had another lockdown. At the beginning of this year, we had to cut 20 percent of the staff but in early spring everyone furloughed was brought back full time.”
While the daily news offers little light, he’s remaining bullishly optimistic.
“I am extremely hopeful now that we’ve been through the worst of this pandemic, but I’ll also admit that all my predictions have been wrong so far. Having said that, I am hopeful that we will have some form of business for outdoor events at the end of the summer, probably with limited capacity and using the guidance of the various Health District jurisdictions. And I think that's probable as we get vaccinated up in Canada. People are going to want to be doing something We can't spend two years of doing nothing and twiddling our thumbs. So, I'm hopeful that by the late fall, we will have Canadian artists engaged doing live performances again. I think there's a better prospect for the Canadian artists being active because we're not having to worry about border crossings and things like that. So, let’s say that I’m hopeful by late fall, we'll have indoor events with Canadian artists.”
Asked about resumption of foreign artist tours, he acknowledges that tentative bookings have been made for late October, but he’s not ruling out shows and concerts resuming earlier, pending government approvals. His team in Quebec is even more bullish that the province will green-light shows before then.
On a cautious note, he adds: “It’s really hard to predict when the federal government will lower the restrictions on the border crossings. That's an unknown and nobody's talking about it. But for now, no government official will speculate on when that will be.”