AEG’s Gary Gersh On Global Ambitions, Demand and Billie Eilish: ‘She’s Having a Cultural Impact Just Like Nirvana Did’

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Talking shop with AEG Presents' president of global touring and talent.

Gary Gersh isn't the type to tell war stories about his three-decade music career. But on the fourth floor of AEG Presents' headquarters at Olive and 11th in downtown Los Angeles, the walls of his modest office reveal what keeps him inspired — lithographs advertising a Woody Guthrie festival, black-and-white photographs of his four kids and a sketch of a baseball player with the inscription: "None of the immortals are now left, dead of the diseases named after them."

It's a slightly macabre reminder of one of Gersh's more life-altering decisions: signing Nirvana to Geffen in 1990.

In those days, Gersh was known as the industry champion for the nascent grunge sound. While working as a record executive, he also managed Soundgarden. Later on, Gersh signed Foo Fighters to Capitol Records. But that was 29 years ago — ancient history in his mind — and no longer worth the wide-eyed look he gets when a young gun at Goldenvoice reminds him that he signed Kurt Cobain.

Today, Gersh leads AEG's global touring division, where he develops the company's international strategy and long-term partnerships for acts like Luke Combs and Panic! at the Disco. With Combs, Gersh arranged an arena tour deal, and with Panic, he helped build a two-year, 55-show arena tour that became one of his division's most successful outings to date.

Gersh splits his time working with AEG's veteran clients — like rapper Tyler, The Creator, who is now touring arenas — with such newcomers as rising R&B star Summer Walker, who recently signed on as a global touring artist.

Hearing Gersh speak about his love of new music, it's clear he has an almost sixth sense for tapping into new talent. That passion extends to his business team within AEG's global touring division. He sees his colleagues as the next generation of music executives and hopes to lead by example: valuing soft power over force and challenging them to focus on doing a few things really well. Because, as Gersh tells Billboard, even in the global touring business, quality over quantity is still the name of the game.

AEG has been doing business abroad for more than a decade. What does the establishment of this touring division, which you inaugurated last September, signify for the company?

The idea was to create a central, internal operation that would sign and execute tours globally, in addition [to our] great partner companies such as Messina Touring Group, Paul Gongaware and John Meglen's ConcertsWest, and Barrie Marshall at Marshall Arts.

How does the global touring group decide what acts to work with?

Some acts are developed through our great clubs and theaters until they can play larger venues. Other times, we go after big groups like Panic! at the Disco, where there's usually a champion or two behind them. Each band has to fit the criteria of what we want to put our time into — it's never an easy decision. Then, as a company, we will move toward investing in an artist's manager to help them see the group's vision through. Most artists want to play bigger venues, but that doesn't mean AEG is a perfect fit for every band. We're just one more place people can move up.

Earlier this year, AEG merged with SMG to create the world's largest venue management company, ASM Global. Is your division responsible for bringing a certain number of shows to ASM each year?

No — and we never talk about it like that. The amount of shows we have done in the last year has gone up significantly because of the good work we have done. If we're smart about what we're doing, we will do more shows — but not necessarily many more tours. The idea isn't to rack up tons of artists, but to execute deeper and wider on the ones we have.

How many tours do you want to produce in 2020?

We want to raise our business at least as much as what we did in 2019 [AEG grossed $550.4 million in the first half of 2019, according to Billboard Boxscore] so that artists and their managers choose to work with us because they see we're doing something different. I always say the same thing — that our competitor is incredible at what they do, but we're going to keep trying to do something different.

How is AEG different from Live Nation?

They're a public company; we're a private company. We don't spend a lot of time thinking about what they're doing.

For the last two years in North America, attendance and show count have been relatively flat, with much of the growth driven by increases in ticket prices. Is demand leveling off?

We have no idea if the leveling-off is permanent. If the 10 biggest artists in the world go out next year, the numbers will probably go up. Yes, prices are going up, but there's also an opportunity in markets around the world that are untapped or — probably more accurately — not tapped out. And we are going to capture more of that as we go forward.

You're an ambitious and sometimes intense person, but you have a relaxed and easygoing demeanor. Have you always been like that?

Well, my wife often says that sometimes you have to think like a Buddhist. Before you reach enlightenment, you have to chop wood and carry water. Sometimes you just need to roll up your sleeves and do the work. So we have to find a good balance of making the right choices and executing the task at hand.

Are your kids impressed that you signed Nirvana and managed Soundgarden?

You know, I don't really know what they think, [even though] we talk about music all the time. My son, Noah, and I talk about music all the time and always have. He used to come to the studio with me when he was 5 years old, and we would be mixing records or he would go see Radiohead or go to New Orleans Jazz Fest. My daughter Emma Louise has really exquisite tastes, while my two younger daughters, Greta and James, are more about contemporary music. I respect their musical tastes tremendously, and when they talk to me about something, I'll check it out. I turned James on to Billie Eilish after her first single, "Ocean Eyes," came out.

What are you listening to right now?

I'm loving Sturgill Simpson's album [Sound & Fury]. It's definitely one for the ages, and Sturgill produced Tyler Childers' new record, which is fantastic. I love the new single from Rex Orange County, the artist Snoh Aalegra — and Lana Del Rey, who just made her best record ever. I love Summer Walker and the new Avett Brothers record. I don't have one genre.

Do you think it's possible for an artist in the streaming era to change the trajectory of music?

Well, why isn't Billie Eilish as important today as Nirvana was? It's no different to me. And I think her effect as an artist, as a songwriter, as a leader of culture and a beacon of style — [her work] with her brother, Finneas [O'Connell], is exceptional — I don't think there's any difference. She's having a cultural impact just like Nirvana did. Now, nobody can know if she will have the same legacy or impact, but I think what she's doing is every bit as important. And I don't see any sign that that's about to stop. 

A version of this article originally appeared in the Nov. 2 issue of Billboard.