Boycotting Coachella's Problematic Owner Is More Complicated Than It Seems

Philip Anschutz

When the music lineup for 2019’s Coachella was announced on Wednesday, it reawakened calls for fans to boycott the festival over donations to anti-LGBTQ+ organizations made by Philip Anschutz, the Republican mega donor who owns the event’s parent company, AEG. While ignoring Coachella — a very straight function, anyways — isn’t too hard for a casual music fan, an all-out boycott of AEG is near impossible for someone who enjoys live music or events. What’s more? For an artist, boycotting AEG would be a herculean task.

To understand why it’s so hard to take a stand against AEG, you have to understand just how powerful of a force in entertainment it is. A rep for AEG and Anschutz did not return a request for comment.

If you live in a metropolitan area and you look up the major venues around you, there’s a good chance they are owned by two companies: AEG or Live Nation. As a music industry source, who preferred to remain anonymous because of the power AEG exerts over the industry, explained to OUT on Thursday night, “If you're good [for selling] about 1,000 tickets in a city, you're either going to play an AEG room or a Live Nation room. Essentially we're talking about the difference between Coke and Pepsi.”

The reality is that AEG controls all of the larger and high quality venues in major markets in the U.S. and a bunch of important venues worldwide — the Staples Center in L.A., the Barclays Center in New York, and The O2, in London, for example. In 2016, it absorbed Bowery Presents, which also gave the company control of most of the popular small club venues along the East Coast. They’ve since expanded considerably in the South. In fact, because of the size and the scale of AEG’s assets, if you go see a touring act of almost any popularity in the United States, you’re probably giving AEG your money.

Through its promotions business, AEG Live, the company is also pretty much in a league of its own. According to the tracking service Pollstar, AEG was the second biggest concert promoter in the world in 2018. The company sold a staggering 11 million tickets, ranking only behind Live Nation, which owns Ticketmaster and does five times the amount of ticket sales as AEG does.

And then there’s the festivals. Coachella is just one of the company’s hit properties, which also include the southern mammoth Firefly, Tyler The Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival, and the legendary New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. As an artist, speaking out against just one festival could ensure that you couldn’t get booked at any of the others, or worse, at any of the company’s venues across the world.

But AEG’s dominance stretches much further than music. The company owns (or has a significant ownership) in sports teams like the L.A. Lakers and the L.A. Kings. They also also own a couple of media subsidiaries, including Ken Ehrlich Productions, which has produced The Grammys for the last 39 years. As these are all owned by the same company, criticizing one (coming out against Coachella) could have damning repercussions for a relationship with another arm (being blacklisted from an event like The Grammys.)

AEG and AEG Live are only small parts of Anschutz’s empire: Forbes estimates Anschutz, who got his start from oil and telecom fortunes, has a net worth of $11.2 billion; Bloomberg pegs him as the 100th richest person in America; and he is one of the largest landowners in the United States. In March, he gave a $1 million donation to Elton John’s AIDS Foundation. (As Billboard noted at the time, AEG is involved in promoting John’s three year-long farewell tour and the musician has a long history with AEG.)

"My gift to the Elton John Foundation is intended to emphasize that we support freedom of all people to live their lives peacefully, without interference from others," Anschutz said in a statement to Billboard. "Sexuality is among the most personal of issues, and it has never been my intent to weigh in on people’s private lives. I support the rights of all people and oppose discrimination and intolerance against the LGBTQ community. I see this as a matter of basic human rights."

That statement is hard to take seriously when one considers his contributions to the Republican party. Through the 2018 election cycle, he gave $325,000 in donations to his party of choice and its various candidates. That includes $5,400 to Paul Ryan who has a long history of anti-LGBT politics and a $138,000 gift to the National Republican Congressional and Senate committees in February 2017 — the latter done the same week Trump’s first cabinet members were being confirmed.

Looking at the company’s holdings and Anschutz’s power, it’s not hard to see why artists haven’t taken the chance to speak out against the festival or AEG in general. When Anschutz’s anti-LGBTQ donations came to light in 2017, there wasn’t a single artist on the announced bill who dropped out. No major or headlining artist spoke out in 2018 when Anschutz’s support of anti-LGBT and anti-abortion candidates was reported as well. Rock band Downtown Boys did release an open letter denouncing the festival after their two performances in 2017. Actress Cara Delevingne also publicly pledged her support to the #Nochella movement in 2018, but later received some criticism posted an Instagram, fawning over Beyoncé’s headlining set.

One major music industry publicist who also wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution told OUT that rather than a public boycott, there might be artists that have rejected Coachella's offers to appear and we just don't know about them yet. Although he hasn't heard of any artist doing this in this exact situation, he said he's seen acts quietly reject offers for other social issues and aversions to specific companies in the past. He also added that a boycott for an artist might not be the most effective route in this particular case.

"If I were working with an artist on the bill that wanted to make a statement about it, I would advise them to do the festival and then make the statement at the festival, and then donate the money they made from it to a charitable organization,” the publicist said. Halsey did something similar last year with the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.” That could burn some bridges with AEG but if you feel that you're passionate about it, that's going to be the most effective route for making a statement. "

For LGBTQ+ people who want to take a stand against Anschutz, it’s a complicated question: are we supposed to bar ourselves from some of the events we love because they enrich someone who spends his money waging war against us? Perhaps the best solution was floated by singer-songwriter Mitski when she found out about Anschutz’s donations in 2017 after she had already agreed to play Coachella. She told her fans on Twitter they had the option not to attend, but if they wanted to, she said, “Let's make sure the spaces we inhabit are made safe.” In this capitalist hellscape, it’s the work of fans and artists working together to just make the best of things.

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