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Live Nation Labs: One Year Later [Interview with Co-Founder Eric Garland]

Eric-GarlandIn the wake of LiveNation.com’s recent relaunch and the coming of a new year, Hypebot felt it was important to check up with one of the most innovative and potentially disruptive forces brewing within the music and tech sector: Live Nation Labs. Lead by the entrepreneurial minds of Eric Garland and Ethan Kaplan, Labs aims to foster innovation within the ticketing and promotions superpower. The pair has been chosen to steer the ship of Live Nation’s web and mobile product development efforts and establish its own investment arm. Hypebot’s Hisham Dahud caught up with general manager and co-founder Eric Garland for a look at the present state of Live Nation Labs.

Hisham Dahud: What is the mission at Labs, and how does it aim to help evolve the music space?

Eric Garland: It's simple: we have an ambition as a business to build great fan experiences. And I have a personal ambition to nurture and grow a group of remarkable people with a shared purpose and goal. It's selfish, in a lot of ways. I want to be better, personally, to become more effective and do more and better, and I've learned that the people you're surrounded with, they determine that trajectory.

It starts when you're a little kid, with your parents, and then classmates and teachers. I had these moments early in life where I was inspired to try to be more than I was, more than I'd previously believed I could be. Because I was given access to talented and caring people. Teachers change lives, we all have a version of this story. This has continued in my life building in media and technology. I have had so many great mentors and partners. And I've become addicted to that feeling of surprise when you do something you didn't think was possible. When you break your own record.

And so I am trying to get that and give that. I love reaching, even over-reaching. It means you fall down a lot. We're falling down a lot here in the Labs. Ethan says, “you find your holes by stepping in them.” We're falling in them. But it's only a flesh wound.

I keep pushing a months old blog post because it is the most sincere thing I've ever written. That's me being very raw and honest with myself, and with the Labs. And it's important — to me — every day. The part of this post that begins "I believe" is the best I can do. If anyone is reading an interview with me, they should probably read that part of that one blog instead.

HD: Why at a big company?

EG: It's a first in a lifetime challenge and opportunity for me, and a chance to be a pioneer (I know, the pioneers mostly die). It's becoming clear to me that more and more young people will dedicate some of their next few working years trying to successfully merge characteristics of big and small companies. There are a bunch of versions of this: you start at a small company and it gets bigger, you start at a big company and it gets smaller, you start a company yourself and a bigger company acquires you. That's what happened to us (Big Champagne).

In any case, it's becoming clear that there are winning aspects of small companies, coveted by bigger companies. And of course a small company so often wants big company scale. But how do you grow without losing your identity – what made you a special place to learn and build? A place anyone would want to be?

The Twitters and Facebooks, they're having to learn. Conversely, how do you work globally and think locally? All of the world's biggest companies are trying to figure it out. I'm just so excited by this time. There's a wonderful emerging meritocracy in this. It's become such a powerful image, and one you've seen for some time now: some white haired titan of business leaning in close to learn something from the scruffy looking teenager. And it's anyone's guess which one is the billionaire! But now I'm seeing the kid with the weak chin leaning in the other way — there's a mutual recognition of the other's accumulated wisdom, strategic insights, complementary strengths.

So that's just a long-winded way of saying, I wanted to be early in this. I want to be able to help my kids when they are trying to navigate their way in the new world. You know, like anything you do to try to future-proof yourself and keep picking up new things. I'm at the age where you can start to stagnate. You can end up bored, punching some clock. I felt unqualified to come in and do this and that's exactly why I wanted to do it.

Michael [Rapino] and Nathan [Hubbard] asked me start something internally disruptive at Live Nation. We're throwing out a lot of assumptions about what constitutes a good product for live music fans and trying to approach problems from a fresh perspective. We try to be free of too many constraints in this process, but we did give ourselves a few rules. The main ones were: 1) Ship products, don't just ship a database, 2) Don't ship the company org chart, and 3) Big companies learn from ankle-biters, so…bite your own ankles. We're building everything from the ground up — from our team to our platform — keeping these core ideas in mind along the way.

In the world of live concerts, Live Nation will always be an e-commerce giant -- we're really trying to amplify that position as we evolve our web and mobile products into fan-centered, community-driven experiences. We value the entire emotional arc of going to concerts rather than just the ticket transaction. We want to represent all the moments, from getting excited about the show, planning to go, and experiencing the magic of the show itself, through the great feelings and memories that the best live concerts leave us with. Meanwhile, we're also trying to be as forward-looking as we can as we work on this, paying special attention to advances in mobile and the evolving ways people use an increasing number of social platforms.

HD: How would you say this concept / vision has grown and evolved over the past year? 

EG: It's all moving so fast. The short answer is that we have a really good lens on the same big shift that everyone is seeing. Everyone who's paying attention: the audience is getting more mobile and social. And so we came into the Labs in January talking a lot about a website, by March we were testing iOS products at SXSW — and now we are organized around solving problems for fans on all of their screens. And the role of social internet gets more important every day: my social identities, these extensions of myself online, they are instrumental in personalizing experiences for me as a fan, filtering messages (what information about what artists and shows do I really want and need?) and then there's the enthusiasm and passion that people share.

Here's something that's broken: 

Every year I go to music festivals, and all my friends and family scream "Unfollow! Unsubscribe! Unfriend!" Not permanently, just for that week. Why? Because they are my friends and family but NOT always my fellow live music fans. My college roommate doesn't want to get inundated with my amazing concert photography. Other parents in the Kindergarten, they don't care about how much I love the Belle Brigade. Even if they did make the best Fleetwood Mac record in thirty years and their live show is amazing.  So, I'm over-sharing, or sharing with the wrong people in the wrong way. There are people out there who love the Belle Brigade, and might like my pictures, words, and videos. But we might not know each other personally. So, there might be opportunity there, to help curate, help introduce fellow members of the same tribe. Connect people around a shared passion.

The vision is focusing and is getting sharper. We want to fix some things.

HD: What significant advancements to music tech have you guys seen come through your doors this year? Any particularly interesting products / features stand out?

EG: We're fortunate. I feel like everything came through our doors this year. We bought an amazing company called setlist.fm — they're the wiki for concert set lists. We acquired Rexly, and Joel and his team are heading our mobile efforts. They opened our San Francisco office. We're not venture capitalists --- we have a strategic interest in every relationship we build. We have to believe that something you're working on will benefit from our involvement, and that what the future as you see it fits with where we think it's going.

It's not all about music, either. I'm most excited about applications of geo-location tech, the "real-time" web, customer loyalty and refining our understanding of the concept of "value."  How do you create it, fan the flame and grow it?

HD: Tell me about your team - how has it grown, who is involved, and what did they do to get in?

EG: The team really is my dream team. I mean, I had a lot of these folks on a list. How have we grown? Um, quickly! We've gone over the past year from just a few of us in a mostly empty room to needing to find places to cram in more desks. We're fairly evenly split between engineering and product/creative, and we're a flat organization led by both creative and engineering. The talent in the room is pretty amazing, and very diverse.

What did people do to get here? Something interesting, that we noticed. Some of us built killer products, some of us marketed those products, some of us created content, some of us created communities. We like makers. If you're not making something here in the Labs, you're supporting and enabling someone who is. On my very best days, that's my job: help them make something. On my worst days, I'm reminding myself to stay out of their way.

There's no formula. We have people who came here from large companies and small, startups and self-employed entrepreneurs. Some have music industry experience, most do not. We found a 20-year-old iOS genius who was moonlighting, and we've been to the usual places – all the hot startups in the valley. That adage is true: the people are much more important than the ideas. Bet on people.

HD: What exactly goes on day-to-day at your offices?

EG: Well, we're all in one big room; you can't even take a personal call without walking outside the building. So, Hisham, if you turn off the recorder I'll tell you everybody's secrets!  

Labs' office in Hollywood, CA:

Tumblr_m0hutnrgHj1r8fpwbo1_500

The team typically starts each day by coordinating what everyone is working on. Small releases happen continuously, as things are done. The content and creative side of things may have a band coming in to play, or a video crew going out to capture fans or artists or both. At any given moment in the office, people are meeting, coding, or planning their next Nerf dart offensive.

HD: How has your background prepared you for your position in a division such as this?

EG: It hasn't! No, I guess I was made for the role or the role was made for me, because we made it up. Or we are making it up. We're trying things and sticking with those things that seem to be working. We try to stay restless.

HD: What does 2013 and beyond hold for LNL?

EG: Products. Investments. Incubating cool ideas. We think in sprints, so immediately before us is a continual reinvention of the Live Nation site we're starting to push out, a lot of mobile product development (and growing that team), and a great content team and creative agency working on getting fans and artists closer.

A few surprises along the way…

Stay up to date by following Live Nation Labs on Twitter @LiveNationLabs and Tumblr.

Hisham Dahud is a Senior Writer for Hypebot.com. Additionally, he is a digital strategist for Fame House and an independent musician. Follow him on Twitter: @HishamDahud

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