10 Questions with ... Jason Kane
February 28, 2016
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Jason Kane, has an extensive background as a radio programmer, researcher, strategist and now in live event production and promotion as Managing Dir./Entertainment & Market Research at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the world's largest event of its kind. Prior to joining the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in 2006, Kane was involved in various music and media consulting projects. He served as Regional Vice President/Dir.Operations at Clear Channel Radio (now iHeartMedia), served as President of Star System in Austin, TX and worked with The Research Group in Seattle, WA as Senior Vice President and Partner. During Kane's tenure, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo has accomplished record setting years including the show's all-time record attendance in 2014 and 2015. Over three weeks the general attendance topped 2.5 million, while ticket sales reached $1.4 million. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is a Section 501(c)(3) charity that benefits youth, supports education, and facilitates better agricultural practices through exhibitions and presentation.
1. Jason, thanks for taking the time for "10 Questions." Let me start by backing up for a second - a lot of us out there know you as Jason Kane - programmer extraordinaire and master research strategist -connect the dots for me and tell us how you end up booking perhaps the biggest concert event in North America?
Well, the short answer is: I ran off and joined the circus. Actually, it was an interesting turn of events. I left Clear Channel in Austin and was back doing some consulting work, actually working on an internet project. An old friend of mine called me from Houston and said, 'look, you know the folks at the rodeo are looking for someone to direct their entertainment operation and I put your name in.' I said, 'Well, that'd be great, but I'm not really interested in moving to Houston and I'm not sure. I went in kind of ambivalent and came out wanting the job because it fit so many of my skillsets. We do a significant amount of audience research here and they had never really had anybody to direct that operation, so we're out asking questions about what people really want to hear or see musically, and how they consume our event. Then of course, getting into the business side of producing the concerts had always interested me. I had always been on the periphery of the music business, and I got into that deeper. But really, putting together a 20-date lineup that really maximizes our budget as well as our venue really became kind of a programming job. It's almost like station. It all kind of fit together and here I am.
2. Great analogy. This is an historic event, and it has a rich legacy of A+ artists performing. 2016 is obviously no exception. I'm just wondering, can you give us a sense of how incredibly high the bar is set when you start putting this lineup together?
We're judged by attendance. The other thing to understand is, at the end of the end of the day, this is a 501C3 charitable corporation. Many people don't know that. We fund about 25 million dollars in scholarships as well as other educational funding throughout the year, so that's really the end goal of what we're trying to do here - to produce enough revenue that we get to give away more scholarships and fund more educational programs in the state of Texas; that's the highest calling. But really when it comes down to it, we're lucky to have a legacy that extends over 83 years. I mean, they first started putting this together in 1932. It's kind of a cool story: a bunch of ranchers got together in the middle of the Great Depression and said, 'Hey, how are we going to sell more cattle?' So they said, 'well let's put together a stock show,' and that's where it all came from. It's amazing to work anywhere that's been around this long. But back to the central question, we're on track to sell almost 1.4 million concert and rodeo tickets this year. We'll have a general attendance of 2.5 million. We work in boxcar numbers.
3. Can you elaborate a bit on where that money is funneled that helps the community and what charities you're assisting?
The primary charity is our scholarship fund, so that a scholarship recipient literally gets a four year scholarship that is essentially paid for. In other words, if the rodeo wouldn't happen next year, their scholarship is still intact. This is of course, providing that they maintain their grades and all of that. Then we have another set of funds which will go to other educational programs - for example, programs that help teachers become better teachers. We're putting funds there. We'll also contribute funds to the city of Houston. In the last number of years, South Texas particularly was plagued by some really terrible drought conditions and the city and its parks lost an inordinate amount of trees, so we contributed a half million dollars to plant more trees. That's just some of the variety of some of the charities ... our main mission is our scholarship mission.
4. How does the artists play at the rodeo affect their ability to appear in the market in the same year? Let's say when you book a Luke Bryan, is that viewed as a special kind of a thing and he can come back later in the year and play an arena?
I hope so. Some artists will judge it as a tour date. Some people will say hey, we love doing this show because it gives us a nice clean kind of low expense way to play Houston. An artist of Luke Bryan's stature can come back to Houston again later in the year and play the Woodlands or Toyota Center and do just fine. As a matter of fact, we had Bruno mars a couple of years ago, and he played our show ahead of his regular tour schedule, which was going to take him to Toyota Center. I believe it helped him sell that venue out in a matter of two minutes. Because our show is not a full-on concert - in other words, our concert segment isn't long - if you've got a big artist who's got a big tour date later in the year, ours almost becomes a well-paid promo event for them, where they're able to appear in front of 70,000 fans, and all is well.
5. If I could ask you a question about multi-artist festivals and events in general, because, the last three to five years there has been an incredible proliferation of musical festivals, particularly with Country. In your mind, what makes them so appealing for both the fans and the artists, because both those factions seem to really, really love this structure for music
You're right. There has been an explosion. In 2015 I counted 46 Country only festivals occurring in North America between May and November. That's a lot. And I'm kind of calling it the festival bubble, because yeah, the fans love it. It's a great value; you have two or three day festivals that bring a wide variety of artists-in the case of Country, you know they'll be two or three headliners of course, then there will be other great artists to back up that lineup. Usually the ticket looks to be a great value, the environment is fun if you like to camp or that sort of thing. From an artist perspective, frankly I just think it creates an opportunity to get in front of a lot of people, and earn good money doing it.
6. Back to the rodeo to that for a second - have you noticed a shift toward younger aged attendees when it comes to the Country shows that would coincide with Country's recent surge in 18-34s, or has the rodeo audience always been a bit younger?
I don't think you can be in any sector of the entertainment business and not be affected by the rise of the millennials. This is well beyond musical taste. This is about generational waves. The millennials now make up the largest percentage of the US population. So, it's no different for the radio. And yes, there is a good interest on the younger end when the music business is turning out good solid exciting artists that are focused on that 18-34 segment. We're going to generate great artists and play them, for our audience interest.
7. Are we in any danger of reaching a saturation point? I ask because there have been several cancellations of large, outdoor events in the last couple of months, due to some ticket sale issues. Is that becoming a problem? For 30 years Country festivals have existed, but never in the magnitude and size and there are so many components that have been brought into these things in the past few years, but are we reaching an area where there is a glass ceiling?
Sure, I think there is always going to be a ceiling, and as I said, I refer to it as the 'Festival Bubble.' At some point the bubble begins to burst. Most festivals, at least in my experience, like when I've watched -because of my proximity to it- watched how they build probably one of the best festival examples in any genre, is Austin City Limits. That took three years to build. I believe they had a three to five year plan and I mean, they really kind of did it in a systematic way. They knew they were going to be building toward the next year. I think in many cases with the proliferation of more and more of these, number one, is you have radius conflicts: Where are you going to sell your tickets? Then second is the process of securing a headliner can be very expensive because many of these festivals are holding people to pretty tough radius clauses, and then what happens is everybody begins to kid themselves in saying 'you know, we'll make it up in ancillary revenue, i.e. sponsorships, beer sales, parking, camping,' whatever else. By the time reality begins to set in, you realize you're not going to be able to make it up. The other problem is, to keep it a really great value for your fans, you've got to keep the ticket prices within the realm of possibility. As a whole, as I've been studying this, prices go up and down based on the economics of the country and ticket prices in general for any show. I think right now the average ticket in America to see a standard tour show is over $78.
8. You mentioned the Austin City Limits and the three-year plan there. I did a Q&A with Gil Cunningham of Neste Event Marketing late last year. He told me that people just have to understand that they're going to lose money in the first year. To your point about not being able to make it up in the ancillary vendors and so forth - It can't really be done. So I just wonder, people in the concert business understand that, but maybe people who aren't and want to get involved in that business, don't get that, and maybe they're going to run.
That's why guys like the Live Nations and the AEGs of the world who have the financial wherewithal and the financial backing can stand in for that three years. Here's what it really gets down to: if you're going to do a festival or an event like ours, you've got to have some limits as to what you'll spend on talent. It's that simple. And sometimes it's unfortunate, but when you can't afford it, you have to wait. You hate to, but you have to walk away, because at some point, the price goes beyond your capability. In our case, our average ticket price including our high dollar seat is $28.50, and yes, that's because we're providing a family environment where a family of four can come and enjoy a full rodeo and see a first class concert for a reasonable price. But that low ticket price does not afford us to absolutely pay mega-dollars for talent acquisition. I mean, I have enough budget to be effective, but there are certain limits that we can't go over, and it's when you either don't set those limits, or you cross those limits too frequently that your festival or event gets into trouble.
9. The rodeo is a huge brand. It's such a gigantic event and it is 83 years strong, so it's not going anywhere. But I wonder, in the last 10 years or so, how has the ubiquitous presence of social media impacted this event?
Oh yes, social media is extraordinary. For an event like ours, we have an entire production operation where we can do video - we've got that capability internally - and it's an explosion. It's a direct pipeline to our fans, For example, when we announced our lineup we were able to get NASA to play along and help us do the announcement from the space station. I mean, you put that out on social media and you just have fun with it. And in the past we've had some of the artists like The Band Perry help us with our announcement and we put that on social media. so yes, we're able to produce all kinds of little packages, entertainment features and informational features, and send it directly across those social networks, and it's been fabulous. Of course, as in any situation, get ready for the feedback, because the folks are going to be there. They're going to tell you good, bad, or indifferent, how you're doing.
10. So being a longtime radio guy, I have to ask a couple radio questions. The DNA just never leaves you, right? I'm wondering, from the outside, your observations about radio and how you think it's doing?
My view is from the top, so I get concerned that we have made radio more and more of a global medium, when really, our key strength is local. In other words, there are too many instances of top down programming that is not focused on what is happening in the local market and giving it a local flavor. That concerns me when I look at it from the outside. The other concern I have is the proliferation of advertising units. Because of the internet, the world is awash in inventory. It's everywhere for advertisers, and because there is so much budget pressure because of the debt that was taken on in the late 90s and into the 2000s, radio has tried to solve some of those revenue and debt problems by adding inventory. I think that constant inventory creep is not good for the health of the business.
1. Now specifically Country radio. You have a very strong presence with Country artists on the rodeo lineup. Keep that programmer and research hat on. The last few years, the growth that we talked about, the millennials, that 18-34 surge, do you feel like Country can sustain that? Can that be where we live? I see sort of a shift happening in that a lot of stations are designed to be 18-34 products versus the traditional 25-54 wheelhouse for Country has been... Top 40 still owns 18-34, but Country is no longer the dominant 25-54 machine that it used to be Or do you think this is all cyclical?
As I said earlier, that there is a demographic shift here; that the millennials now make up the largest segment of the US population since the Baby Boomers held that mantel. As we know, in music or anything else in marketing, it's generational. Having said that, I would harken back to quoting the late Rusty Walker by saying 'Country radio only rents 18-34 year olds.'" I think we're kind of in one of those periods right now. I was thinking about that the other day. A friend of mine was talking about his listening habits versus his wife's listening habits, and I kind of struck on it by saying, 'look, I think it gets down to being familiar.' When it comes to looking at these radio stations, There's a delicate balance between how much new music we're introducing to the audience. And that's a good thing in a way. In other words, being able to -excuse the overuse of the word of curating - introducing the audience to some new music, even the adult audience, but making sure that the rest of the environment is comfortable, familiar, but yet still shall we say 'of today.' Focused-If you will-on 2000-forward, or 2005-forward. But again, that there is a baseline of familiarity and if you don't lose that, I think you'll do very well. I want to give a shout out to the two stations we have here in Houston [CBS Radio Country (100.3 The Bull)] KILT and [Cox Media Country (The New 93Q)] KKBQ, both great country stations battling it out, and from the perspective of producing the shows here at the Rodeo, it's great to have those two guys in town.
2. Bonus question. Hypothetically, let's say you have an unlimited budget and everybody is available. What is the dream lineup for you at your rodeo?
Oh, don't let me go there. I want many of the people I have this year. I want Luke Bryan! I want Jason Aldean! I want Zac Brown! I want Keith Urban! Kenny Chesney! All of those major stars. The goal on the Country side is to always make our lineup look like the red carpet of the CMAs. And then on top of that, I would go out and -I would love to play the Foo Fighters, for example! I think that would be a great show because we always play a couple of Rock or a couple of Pop entertainers. I would love to play Katy Perry at our event, for example! I think she'd be a fun addition to our lineup. But those kinds of Pop stars -unlimited funds would give me access to many of those pop stars that have eluded me. George Strait, Garth Brooks - they have open invitations, anytime they want to come back and play our show. We will figure it out. I gotta tell you, during George's last tour, he played a great show for us. I mean, we've been talking to Garth, and he's promised us that he'll be back to play our show, and so anytime those guys want to play, is fine with me.