That Music Festival VIP Upgrade You Got Was No Coincidence

What used to be a checklist for avid music fans is now a multiple choice question: Should you go to Coachella, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Governors Ball, or one of the litany of other massive music shows that all feel more or less the same? Those who made Stagecoach Music Festival, Coachella’s country-music sister event in Indio, California, their pick this year, however, were greeted with something out of the ordinary.

About 20 percent of the thousands of Stagecoach-goers last month received texts on their phones that offered them cheap ticket upgrades, sales on merchandise and other exclusive in-the-moment discounts while artists like Luke Bryan and Lynyrd Skynyrd performed onstage. Some audience members were given as much as $150 to use for a VIP upgrade. The offers weren’t shot out at random; they were the result of months of meticulous data compilation and analysis by a small team at AEG Presents, Stagecoach’s parent company, all geared toward locating the most enthusiastic and loyal of music fans.

AEG Presents, formerly known as AEG Live — the company refreshed its name in 2017 as part of a push to better distinguish itself within global entertainment juggernaut AEG — puts on more than 8,000 shows and 30 festivals each year, and, like Live Nation and other large concert promoters in the oversaturated live events market these days, it has been facing a homogeneity problem. “Everyone can go take the same Instagram picture and get the same merch,” Brooke Michael Kain, AEG Presents’ chief digital officer and the leader of the Stagecoach initiative, tells Rolling Stone. “One of the biggest challenges for us every year is, ‘How do you outdo yourself? How do we create an experience for consumers that makes them feel like we know what they want and are trying to cater to those wants?’”

Kain, who stepped into the newly created role in 2016 after a career leading digital marketing for Apple Music, Beats and Interscope Records, assembled a task force of a half-dozen product managers and data analysts within AEG and the AEG-owned Goldenvoice late last year, with the express purpose of designing something new that would “surprise and delight” concert attendees. The team played around with a number of strategies before coming up with the idea of texting offers to devout fans out of the blue. “That was our big a-ha! moment,” Kain says. “We thought, ‘How can we take a fan’s history and offer them something we know they are going to want?’ The strategy unique to us is that we are rewarding our fans and trying to be loyal to our fans, and not expecting them to be loyal to us.”

The project was painstaking to assemble. While concert and concert-related purchases offer an immense trove of user data, it all tends to be scattered amongst different vendors — an online ticket-seller may have all your event purchase history but it won’t be connected at all to your spending habits at any local venue, for example — meaning that Kain’s team, with the help of a few tech partners, had to spend months trawling through the AEG network and building up a central database of information. “Just the data analysis alone was a huge lift,” she says. (In compliance with privacy rules, the company only collected data from the properties it already owns or operates.)

Consumer behavior product managers and ticketing directors stepped out of their usual daily jobs to help design algorithms that would send fans real-time, personalized push notifications based on their collected cross-company history. If a fan had bought general admission tickets to Stagecoach two years in a row, for instance, they might be served up with $100 off of a “Saloon Pass”; if someone consistently bought T-shirts at every concert, they might receive a buy-one-get-one-free offer.

Personalization is the preeminent buzzword in the live events industry these days, now that the market is heavy with buyers and sellers alike: According to analytics firm Nielsen, 52 percent of Americans attend some sort of live music event each year, with festival attendance growing from 18 percent of the population in 2017 to 23 percent in 2018. Some festivals are shooting for “boutique” status with artist-curated lineups or no pre-announced lineup at all; others are partnering with outside brands to layer on customizable new features to try and stand out.

Goldenvoice president Paul Tollett said in a candid interview with Los Angeles Times earlier this year that the team behind Coachella, which is now offering horse farms and helicopter rides, “built it as it went” without expecting the event to boom into the pricey all-out spectacle that it is today. Fans are clearly willing to spend. The Nielsen report found that live music attendees drop an average of $247 on live music tickets, and that 23 percent of those people buy on-site merchandise.

Kain declined to share specific revenue numbers, but says her team considers the Stagecoach initiative “wildly successful” and hints that AEG will scale the concept for some other festivals and experiences this year; however, a new database of user information will have to be built up every single time, with new information from the specific vendors involved in each event. “We have built out tech that can say, ‘I know where you are and I think I know what you want,’” she says. “It might seem simple, but no one else is doing it. It’s unique and disruptive. It’s a new consumer technology.”

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