WALL STREET JOURNAL – How a Longtime Music Executive Is Trying to Protect Artists’ Legacies

Irving Azoff, manager to the Eagles and Nicki Minaj, discusses music investment, reviving the Beach Boys and why music on TV is fading

Irving Azoff has raised nearly half a billion dollars from Guggenheim Securities for his latest venture, Iconic Artists Group.

By Anne Steele
July 17, 2021 8:00 am ET

Irving Azoff wants to preserve artists’ legacy in the age of music streaming—and his own.

The music industry completist has run several companies, including a concert promoter and a record label, and has managed some of the biggest artists of many generations, such as the Eagles, Bon Jovi, Steely Dan and Nicki Minaj.

His latest venture, Iconic Artists Group, joins a crowded market for music investment, and has signed deals for the songwriting and recording catalogs of the Beach Boys, David Crosby and Linda Ronstadt.

Over the past five years, the rights to music have become more valuable as revenue from streaming on services such as Spotify Technology SA and Apple Inc.’s Apple Music has grown and music is used more in other realms, such as digital fitness, videogaming and social media. Songwriter catalogs have been commanding sale prices that amount to 10 to 20 times the amount of their annual royalties, compared with eight to 13 times in earlier years.

Mr. Azoff, a recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, has raised nearly half a billion dollars from Guggenheim Securities for Iconic, and is being selective about which artists he’ll take on as the guardian of their life’s work. He is also thinking about his own legacy and what he will entrust to his children.

“It’s a great thing for the family,” he said.

Irving Azoff, in beige shirt, with the Eagles in 1977.

Mr. Azoff spoke with The Wall Street Journal about the copyright craze, legacy and how the pandemic has changed the music business. Edited excerpts follow.

WSJ: What made you start Iconic?

Mr. Azoff: If you do the right thing for artists, it’ll be right for your own business as well. I saw a void in that everybody that was acquiring these rights, it didn’t appear that anybody was uniquely focused on adding to the worth of what the IP is in a way that would preserve and enhance the legacy of the artist. People reach a point in their life where some of them don’t have heirs at all. Others have kids that they think might not be able to manage the legacy the way it should be managed.

WSJ: And what about the business opportunity?

Mr. Azoff: When I manage our family funds, especially with the yields now, and the bonds, if you’re trying to preserve and not take big risk, and having been in this business for 52 years, I kind of realized that I feel much better about my family having a flow. This feels like a safer, more growing flow than if I were just putting money in bonds.

WSJ: Why is music a good investment?

Mr. Azoff: Music stands the test of time. It’s essential. I’ve bet my career on great music. To date, it has never failed me. There’s always new technologies. I can only think of two technologies in 50 years in the business that didn’t result in increasing the value of music assets and copyright. One was the 8-track, and the other was Napster and file-sharing. Other than that, whether it was when it went from glass records to vinyl records, vinyl records to cassettes, cassettes to CDs, and now CDs to streaming, there’s been a huge boom in valuation.

WSJ: How is Iconic’s strategy and structure different from others out there also investing in music?

Mr. Azoff: We’re not a fund. We’re an operating company that intends to be in this long-term and build long-term value. Everything I’ve ever done comes through the eyes of being a manager, so we don’t really look at ourselves as owners. We look at ourselves as managers.

WSJ: Why does legacy management matter, and who should be thinking about it?

Mr. Azoff: I can’t imagine that an artist who spends their life creating and marketing their music and their imaging wouldn’t be concerned about ’what happens when I’m gone.’ This isn’t a business that you learn overnight, and it’s a business that requires expertise, resources and clout. I think every artist has to think about that.

WSJ: What does legacy management look like at Iconic?

Mr. Azoff: On the Beach Boys, they haven’t gotten along well. It’s been famously chronicled, but we think we’re the glue that’s now getting them to get along well, and we think over the past decade of fighting that there were a lot of missed opportunities. They are the American Beatles, and they don’t get recognized as that. We’re going to start with this documentary, and then their 60th anniversary is next year. We have planned a tribute concert that we film and we’ve sold to a major network. There’ll be everything from a Sirius XM channel, to traveling exhibits of all their memorabilia. There have been multiple offers for a feature movie, a biopic. Those are some examples of the things that on their own they wouldn’t have accomplished, because they weren’t able to manage their business.

WSJ: Looking at this market for music IP, what are your thoughts on the frenzy and the valuations?

Mr. Azoff: I’m thrilled that all these great artists’ work is finally being recognized to what it’s truly worth, and I think the valuations are going to go higher. We’re far from done in streaming, and there’ll be new technologies that come along. No one knew TikTok could exist. No one knew things like Peloton were going to take hold, or that Apple was going to go big into the health-plus-fitness business. Our returns on investment are, even at current levels, very acceptable.

WSJ: How are you thinking about your own legacy?

Mr. Azoff: At this point I can’t control it because so many of the years are gone, so it is what it is. But I believe the company’s going to go on. I hope they’re going to say not only did he build big businesses for himself and his family, but that his artists became major stars, and kept their wealth under his direction. Say whatever you want about me, I did recognize that there is no business without artists, and that we treated them with respect.

WSJ: What about ticket prices? They going up or going down?

Mr. Azoff: I think they’re going to go higher. I think acts want to make up for lost time.

WSJ: What other lasting changes are we going to see coming out of the pandemic?

Mr. Azoff: I think the day of the award show may be in serious danger. Grammys, American Music Awards, Academy Awards. Filmed entertainment, the late-night TV shows and morning show appearances became far less important. That whole kind of genre of music on TV feels like it may not come back.

WSJ: What’ll be your first show back?

Mr. Azoff: I already went to my first show. I went down to San Diego, Jimmy Buffett played two shows, and he taped it. It’s going to be a live stream he’s going to release, but it was a show. There were 40 fans in an 800-capacity club. That was my first gig.