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HITS Daily Double

RAINMAKERS:
MELISSA ORMOND


Prior to taking her job as COO Festivals at AEG Presents in 2017, Melissa Ormond had been out of the live music business for three years. She’d earned an executive MBA at NYU, run her own consulting business and raised two toddlers to grade-school age. Then Jay Marciano called.

“When it’s something I’m so passionate about that combines with Jay Marciano, it was kind of a no-brainer,” she says.

Marciano and Ormond’s working relationship dates back to 1994, when she went to work for him at MCA Concerts at Los Angeles’ Universal Amphitheatre following earlier jobs with the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., and Delsener/Slater Enterprises in New York. Their collaboration continued at Madison Square Garden Entertainment, where Ormond rose to president, ultimately overseeing the core functions of the business and bookings at the company’s seven venues.

“I learn a ton from Jay at every level,” she says. “And if you asked him, he’d say he learns every day, and we all benefit from that.”

A native of Topeka, Kansas, Ormond headed for D.C. in 1986 with her University of Kansas political science degree, determined to get a job on Capitol Hill (she’d already interned for Sen. Bob Dole).

No job materialized, how-ever, which made her regular attendance at Seth Hurwitz’s 9:30 a financial strain. “I started begging
Seth for a job and he finally agreed to meet me,” Ormond remembers. “He said he’d never had anybody want to work for him who had a college degree, so he was going to hire me.”

She soon took over booking—“three bands, three bucks” was one of her early assignments—and was part of Hurwitz’s expansion into larger venues like the Capital Centre in nearby Landover, Maryland. They brought in R.E.M. on its first arena tour and George Michael for his first U.S. solo show. Ormond says of the latter, “Mind-blowing. I’d never seen anything like that.”

She worked with countless bands on their way up, Nirvana and Pearl Jam among them, and learned the business the old-fashioned way, before jobs were so siloed.

For Delsener/Slater, among other responsibilities, she handled a lot of money at the Roseland Ballroom and Academy of Music. “I’d walk with a security guard from one place to the other with the cash in my backpack and, of course, no one paid any attention to us, but I was terrified,” she recalls. “I used to take money home and put it in the freezer. Nobody questioned it. It was a different time.”

Nowadays, Ormond can be found at AEG Presents’ downtown L.A. office, un-less AEG has a festival going on somewhere in the U.S. and she’s there roaming the grounds. “If everything’s going smoothly, there’s not much for me to do, which is great. That’s what I work toward,” she says. “If there’s a challenge, that’s when I’m involved. We have very capable teams so I’m generally there more for support, seeing the shows and helping plan the future.”

She assumed the role of Goldenvoice COO in April 2022 and is thus involved in the day-to-day operations of
the Paul Tollett-led promo-ter in addition to AEG Pre-sents’ 25+ festivals, including the Southern California outings Coachella (Indio), Cruel
World and Just Like Heaven (both in Pasadena), Hangout in Gulf Shores, Alabama, and Electric Forest in Rothbury, Michigan.

Seated in a sparsely ap-pointed office dominated by a photograph of The Beatles showing a guitar to Ed Sullivan, Ormond patiently answered our questions about festival season and more.


How do you define the role of COO?

I’m onsite in a more operational capacity, which I guess isn’t surprising given my title. We have really exceptional festival teams that work on all our events. When I’m onsite, I’m looking at how the pieces come together—checking everything out, looking for ideas to share between festivals. And I get to enjoy some great music while I’m doing it.

As far as Goldenvoice, the evolution into my role was a direct result of being so involved in so many of their festivals, getting comfortable with them and them getting comfortable with me. When I was starting out, promoters were much smaller, so a promoter did ticketing, a promoter did more marketing… I know the different roles, so it made sense for me to grow into this one.

Large festivals have generally had an extremely strong 2023. Are there issues lingering from COVID?

Any hope of returning to pre-COVID cost structures or vendor/resource availability has long disappeared. So we have to get used to living in a new world when it comes to festival budgeting, overhead, and logistics. But one positive that came out of it was the time without events allowed us to further develop products that deliver on customer service and drive revenue.

There are still larger questions about the economy and what impact it will or won’t have on the industry. Rising costs unfortunately mean rising ticket prices, especially at festivals. We have to find the right balance there, absorbing more costs because we want the festival to be accessible. We always have the consumer in mind; how can we make it better than last year and not price them out of the experience?

The full re-emergence of festivals has meant a lot of them have the same acts. How does AEG Presents differentiate itself?

It happens often enough where an artist plays multiple festivals for a promoter, and I can only assume it must be successful for them because it keeps happening. It’s just not the direction we want to go. Even though our festivals are far apart geographically, you won’t see JazzFest and Hangout sharing talent. There may be something low on the undercard, but we want them to be distinct.

As Coachella shifts in terms of the types of acts it books—more pop artists and fewer four-guys-in-a-van acts—how is the festival affected from an operations perspective?

In terms of what it delivers to fans, as well as production and operations, Coachella is in a class by itself. Look at what Beyoncé delivered. That raised the game. Kanye’s Sunday Service was literally and figuratively groundbreaking—we had to build a mound in an area that had been used for camping. I see that kind of thing continuing because artists take their Coachella performances so seriously. Everybody is trying to do something bigger and better.

Does the VIP experience keep growing or does it hit a ceiling?

Fortunately, no. We have access points for people of various means, and in Southern California, people are interested in all different levels. Coachella doesn’t rest on its laurels in this area either.

Does that extend to a fest like Firefly?

It does. Firefly is a great example of, in a market with more price sensitivity, making it different year after year. Again, you want to deliver for the audience, but you have to make it affordable.

Stagecoach, from the first edition, felt very different from Coachella in every aspect. How does each fest shape its organization for the fan?

From a public-safety standpoint, we have consistently high standards. That doesn’t change. But certainly the aesthetic and voice of each festival is different; Paul [Tollett] has a very specific vision for Coachella and Stacy Vee has a very specific vision for Stagecoach. Other than infrastructure being similar, but by no means identical, everything is designed to speak to the specific fan.

It’s interesting that you started in the indie world with the 9:30 Club much the same way Goldenvoice started—DIY-type bands looking for exposure. How different is dealing with people who have that sort of experience vs. the folks whose expertise is in large theaters and arenas?

Even though it’s part of an international organization, Goldenvoice is still scrappy—we’re still booking 200-capacity, 500-capacity rooms. The relationships you have at that level make you feel like you’re in the development business. To feel authentic to the artist and fans, it can’t be a corporate environment. At the Garden, there are still important artist relationships and customer mandates, but it’s coming from a different point of view.

What was the impetus for you to join AEG Presents?

I’d left the Garden after my second son was born and went back to school. I looked at a lot of different things… nonprofit work… but ultimately I was pulled back into it. I had a couple of other opportunities in the music space, but when Jay called, how could I not?

The two of you started at MCA Concerts.

Ten years there, then six years at Madison Square Garden.

What was the job then?

It was the mid-’90s, when alternative rock had just become mainstream. Universal Amphitheatre [booker] Missy Worth had left after doing an extraordinary job, and there wasn’t anyone focusing on alternative artists, so Jay brought me in to bring them in. That expanded to the amphitheater network across America—Cleveland, Dallas, Atlanta, San Diego…

Universal was such a great room, and it did seem to book every major alt-rock band—Oasis, Jane’s Addiction, Pearl Jam, Midnight Oil…

The first act I booked was Dave Matthews Band. They were massive on the East Coast and getting [Red Light topper] Coran Capshaw to put them in the amp in ’94 took some convincing—I still cringe thinking about the letter I wrote to him saying it would be a great play and what we’d do to make it special. It’s a miracle he didn’t just say, “She’s crazy.” But the show sold out and everyone was stoked.

Then came the acquisition by House of Blues.

It seemed like a great idea at that point to merge assets. They were ahead of their time in the viability of streaming, but it didn’t work out as planned. Jay and I left around the same time.

You move to Madison Square Garden, which poses a different set of issues because you have two sports teams and an assortment of family shows. Did that require the same kind of outreach you did at Universal Amphitheatre?

There was definitely an effort to re-establish the venue for a new generation of talent. It didn’t take long because it was such a great asset and we had a great team. That’s another thing about Jay—he surrounds himself with great people, and that’s reflected in the business.

He’d been at the Garden for a few months and at the time, the entertainment business was an afterthought—concerts were used as filler dates around the sports teams. Jay was charged with growing the business, and he brought me in to run the booking group and help determine what our strategy would be. Would we be another promoter? Would we compete against the other promoters? Or would we just actively seek business regardless of who the promoter was? It wound up being a mix. We made a lot of offers to talent, got a lot of bookings and used promoters to build the value of our buildings.

Within the first few years, Jay had negotiated a lease for the Beacon [Theatre in New York], which was game-changing for the organization. We bought the Chicago Theater, did the deal for the Wang [Theatre in Boston] and then, after six years, [MSG Entertainment Executive Chairman/CEO] Jim Dolan decided he wanted to add the Forum, and we did a $100m renovation to that.

The renovation of the Beacon made an excellent hall spectacular.

It was always good, but now it’s one of a kind; it’s such an interesting mix of aesthetics. We had to figure out what made sense and what wouldn’t change the history of the interior, what to feature and what to hold back. Jim was very focused on doing the renovation the right way, which is evident in the outcome. It was such a great celebration when it reopened [in 2009] with Paul Simon.

Did owning it affect what you could do at the Garden?

When you create a relationship with an artist/agent/manager in an earlier stage of their career and they feel you delivered on the show/experience, they feel more comfortable taking the next step with you if the venues are the right size. The Beacon probably helped Radio City more than anything. RC was viewed as a very formal venue. The funny thing is that The Theater at Madison Square Garden was around the same size as Radio City. But you could put an artist in The Theater at MSG and the audience would behave one way, and you could put the same artist in Radio City and the same audience would behave differently.

Who did you see more often at the Garden, Phish or Billy Joel?

Phish. The Billy residency started just as I was leaving. That was a long time in the making.

In an interview with Pollstar, you noted that the industry would benefit from more women in leadership roles. Could you elaborate?

An organization benefits from equal representation of men and women. It creates an opportunity for dialogue that doesn’t happen when it’s all men in an organization, which we don’t have any longer in the music industry, fortunately. There need to be female role models who demonstrate that it’s possible to have a successful career in this crazy business, which can demand attention at all hours, yet have a work/life balance. That’s a really important message to deliver to anyone choosing this career path, regardless of gender.

I’m especially excited to see that at Goldenvoice we retain employees for a long time. We’re seeing women decide to take life partners and, in some cases, have kids while continuing their work very effectively—which of course is no surprise to women. It’s great to see that we can foster that.

And it’s equally important to have people with varied backgrounds—as many points of view as possible. The more diverse an organization is, the more successful it will be in an artist-facing, consumer-facing way. Welcoming the greatest number of viewpoints possible is a big factor in creating success today, especially in our industry. AEG Presents is really good at identifying the potential of all kinds of people and helping them grow.