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ALI HARNELL ON POSITIVE DISRUPTION

Live Nation’s Women Nation founding President Ali Harnell kicked off her gender-equalizing division by promoting Oprah Winfrey’s sold-out arena tour, no less. Starting as a talent buyer for New York’s iconic Ron Delsener Presents, she moved to Nashville as the VP of PACE Concerts Southeast in the late ’90s.

In Music City, she not only re-established the legendary Ryman Auditorium as a must-play venue but also co-created River Stages and booked Starwood Amphitheatre.

During her 15 years with AEG, promoting national tours and running their Southeast division, Harnell co-founded the Country2Country Music Festival. C2C has been exporting country acts large and small since 2013, expanding from the U.K. to Europe and Australia. It was only a matter of time before someone would tap the passionate woman with an eye on the future to dismantle the status quo of sexism in the industry. While tours are on hold, Harnell isn’t idle; she’s digging into and defining the work that legitimately needs to be done.

What you’ve learned since embarking on Women Nation?
We’re taking the moment to reset and reimagine. By March of 2020, after having spent a year putting together what felt like the right strategy for Women Nation, our mission was “Advance, Advocate, Amplify.” To continue to advance women within Live Nation and the industry through a variety of initiatives, micro and macro. A one-on-one mapping project to outline firsthand what their experience has been, identify where they’ve been stuck, what the obstacles are, how to surmount them. Engage the male leadership. A multi-day summit to bring our global female promoters together to inspire and educate.

Creating connective tissue with and investing in other advocacy groups like She Is the Music, Makers, the Hollywood Commission, Safe Tour, VOCL (Voices of Change Leaders). Amplifying the voices of women from Oprah’s 2020 Vision Tour, Maren Morris, Jennifer Nettles & Sugarland. I’m all about supporting and helping make the platform as big as possible for women I admire to speak out.

Then COVID hit. A lot of the initiatives I was focusing on have had to be paused as we regroup during this intermission for the live-music business.

Then, honestly, eight minutes and 46 seconds happened—the length of time it took for George Floyd to lose his life. It took Mr. Floyd’s death for so many of us to wake up in a different way and realize the urgency of what is going on, how long overdue racial justice and the fight for equality still is. Women Nation is focused now in a much deeper way on how to solve for the intersectional gender and racial challenges that pervade our industry and the world.

What were the biggest revelations?
We actually have a lot more work to do than I even realized. There are a lot of difficult conversations that still need to be had about how to create a more equal playing field. But we will continue to do that through Women Nation.

What are the tools to create opportunity?
It has to start with leadership and understanding that a true positive disruption is critical. It’s been great to have support from Live Nation and backing from a remarkable leader like Michael Rapino to really drive change forward. We also need a full-court press, person by person, to build trust and create change. The music business is still largely a white man’s business. Everyone has to accept that there is a disparity and commit to being a part of the solution. Women and BIPOC just pushing against the system are not enough

What are some of the changes you’ve seen since taking this role?
I think the conversation around not only inclusion but also systemic change continues to unfold and evolve. There’s a demand for accountability and change. That’s the good news.

For your first trick: the Oprah arena tour!
The Oprah tour was destiny, and a complete affirmation I was on the right track by starting Women Nation. Oprah and WW, predominantly female demos, wanted to get out in front of live audiences, plus create content to democratize wellness.

The core team, particularly Amy Weinblum, Oprah’s longtime 
chief of staff and business-development person, and Mindy Grossman, 
the badass CEO of WW, led the creation of the tour. We routed nine cities across the U.S. in major-market arenas and put on an all-day, juicy event of positivity and inspiration. Each one totally sold out.

Given I was one of the few fortunate enough to have my tour play off in 2020, someone recently told me I might have produced and promoted the most successful tour of 2020. No big deal! It was the best professional experience of my life.

My cup was and—despite effing COVID—still is running over with good vibes and clear intentions on how to go forward and lead with courage and love.

Is your role about thinking outside the box or eliminating the box?
I joke that I’m here to topple the patriarchy—this so-called “box” you inquire about. But honestly, I’m here for thought leadership around how we create positive disruption. It’s critical in today’s world to get the best out of ourselves, our employees and teams, the industry, humanity. We’ve got to encourage and develop and facilitate things that change mindsets and behaviors.

My toolkit includes identifying quantifiable goals around diverse gender and racial slates and thinking strategically about how we recruit and develop our employee and leadership populations, plus metrics to assess intention and level of effort. It’s scary, but transparency is key. We have to be willing to experiment and hold a space to fail, then get right back up, committed to the end goal: equality.

What do you think is touring’s future?
I think the future’s bright. I was watching a YouTube video of Alicia Keys performing “Empire State of Mind” at Global Citizens last year and found myself weeping at how much I miss live shows. Like a deep ache, it’s part of our DNA to gather and celebrate. We all want to get back to attending live shows. The pent-up demand is off the charts. Artists are going to be so ready to hit the road. We will get through this COVID pandemic in time, and I’m absolutely confident nothing can keep live music artists and fans down.

What are the biggest challenges?
As we start to open back up in the short term, it’ll be the uncertainty of timing; but I believe it will be a short-term problem in the big picture. As long as the industry as a whole acknowledges we must be in the reentry phase together and let things recalibrate, we will be fine.

Livestreaming is becoming a thing. How does it—or social media—impact the live business?
I think livestreaming is a brilliant complement to live shows. Tours, even big ones, can’t possibly hit every market. Music streaming has opened a global audience to music on demand. With the integration of livestreaming, more people can experience their favorite artists; curiosity and discovery mean fans will find new artists and experience what their live show is all about, which is an important element to an artist’s expression. Artists and the industry can monetize it.

It will never replace the live experience, but I think it’s a win for everyone. Our recent survey data shows livestreams actually fuel demand for in-person shows. And the technology is getting better by the minute.

Is the tumult in our world a lubricant for change?
The tumult in the world is equally devastating and absolutely a hope-filled lubricant for change. I truly believe Mother Earth needed a minute. I truly believe we would not be engaged to the extent we are in the fight for racial and social justice had we not been quarantined.

So there’s a light and dark to all of these realities. But what I learned from Oprah about “Sunrise Faith” is this: No matter how dark the night, the sun always rises, and with it, new opportunities.

With the agency upheaval, how does that impact you?
In my new role, I’m so laser-focused on what I’m working on and who I’m working with, a question about agency upheaval doesn’t resonate. I’m a strong believer in getting behind women who are doing good progressive work in the world, whether they’re artists, speakers or executives. I’m pretty surgical about choosing what I’m engaged with. For any agent, manager, executive or creator who shares that vision and wants a passionate partner, I’m your woman.

What are you hoping in terms of touring in 2020/2021?
There’s huge momentum for 2021 already, and so many incredible shows on the books I’m excited to see live. I’m living for being with all the humans again when its safe for us all.

For 2020, I’m still working toward a reimagined version of All Women Vote, which feels more urgent than ever. The original concept was to put on the largest one-day multi-city event commemorating all women winning the right to vote in the past 100 years, between the 19th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

We had the Forum, Barclays, Ryman and venues across the country teed up for a mid-August event. COVID scratched that plan, so we’re working toward a hybrid that includes a handful of live shows plus virtual performances. I’m mindful of doing something fresh while battling the challenges of how things are changing by the day.

I maintain that never in the history of our country has an election year been more important, so playing our part in firing up all women—black, white, Latinx, Native, Asian, LGBTQ, young and old—to register and get out their vote is my mission. We have a unique opportunity to create something from our platform and are working with amazing partners to bring it to life.

 

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