MBW’s Inspiring Women series profiles female executives who have risen through the ranks of the business, highlighting their career journey – from their professional breakthrough to the senior responsibilities they now fulfill. Inspiring Women is supported by Ingrooves.
Mari Davies, Live Nation Urban’s VP of Booking and Talent, started her career in the live music business early.
In her teens, she was already making money from ticket sales by using her dad’s credit card to buy gig tickets at the local Ticketmaster kiosk, then selling them to friends with a markup.
Her future career seemed obvious back then, but it wasn’t until after a detour in the sports world that she ended up in music.
After graduating from New York’s St. John’s University in sports and business management, with the intention of becoming a sports agent, the recession hit, and Davies instead took the first job that paid.
That happened to be the not-too-shabby option of assistant to rapper Fabolous, which landed Davies in the middle of an exciting time in the New York music business.
Fabolous was signed to Def Jam, where Jay Z was President and Jay Brown had just signed Rihanna. It was also the most commercially successful time in Fabolous’ career. Davies’ college friend, Jermaine Cole, was starting to bubble as the artist that would turn into J. Cole.
The experience offered Davies a window into all facets of the music business and primed her to be an agent. “It was invaluable being on the road with an artist and understanding what to anticipate,” she remembers. “I would advance shows, I would settle shows and I’d go through the routing. I understood the needs of the crew.”
Fabolous was non-exclusive so Davies would be talking to CAA, WME and ICM (which has since been acquired by CAA), building relationships with agents that landed her the next opportunity.
That was at WME in Los Angeles, where Davies spent a short stint before she was recommended for a job at ICM. There, she spent nearly 10 years, working with acts including T-Pain, Kendrick Lamar (via his agent, Caroline Yim), Jhené Aiko, Cordae, Teyana Taylor and Kehlani.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and Davies found herself facing uncertainty while the live music industry shut down. “I looked at the landscape and how it was changing and decided it was about time that I shift the narrative and join Live Nation to see what I can do on this side,” she says.
“And it’s kind of freeing — as an agent, it’s really scary waking up every morning wondering who’s going to try to fire you today. There’s no security and on this side, I’m able to be more creative. I can work with the artists I want to work with. I can curate festivals for people that enjoy the same kind of music as me.”
At Live Nation, Davies works with acts including Ari Lennox, Jill Scott and Mary J. Blige, whose Strength of a Woman Festival will return to Atlanta for a second year in May. Other festivals she has a hand in include Roots Picnic in Philadelphia, Broccoli City Festival in Washington and H.E.R.’s Lights On Festival.
Here, we chat to Davies about honesty and loyalty in the music business, her proudest achievements, biggest challenges and much more besides.
What are the biggest lessons that you’ve learned across your career?
Maintaining good relationships and operating above board. This is an industry where fast-talk is acceptable and double-talk is expected. But everything comes back around so I always operate as honestly as I can, without burning bridges. A lot of the people we’re coming up with are now VPs, Presidents and Chairman and they’ll remember the things that you did or didn’t do for them.
Also, staying true to what you are passionate about and believe in. There’s a lot of trends in music and a lot of people will chase those trends. I’ve never been one of those. I’ve focused on hip hop, R&B, African music and gospel because that’s what I listened to and it’s what spoke to me. When you operate from a place of genuine passion, instead of chasing trends and trying to get checks, it makes a big difference.
What’s the best advice that you’ve ever been given?
I was in the office of Sylvia Rhone, who is chair and CEO of Epic Records, one day and I was getting fired from a client who I had developed from the ground up. I signed him before he even had a label deal and I took it so personally. I was like, ‘Oh my God, how can you leave me? I made you.’ Sylvia said, ‘Listen, if you can find one loyal client in your career, consider yourself lucky. There’s no loyalty in this.’ Hearing it from a woman of her stature really resonated with me. I was like, I have to take my emotions out of this. That helped me approach the day to day of being an agent a bit differently, where I could protect myself and my book of business.
How does your history in the agency world impact what you do today as a promoter?
It’s great negotiating with agents because I’m like, ‘You can’t agent an agent! I already know what you’re trying to do, let’s cut the bullshit and get the deal done.’ I can also empathise with them. A lot of agents will hit me and they’re like, ‘You already know what we go through, please just make this easier for us.’ They can come to me and be totally transparent.
Also, when I’m putting my deals together, there’s certain things I can add in that I understand the artists or the manager may need and may incentivise them to take the deal. Things that a traditional promoter wouldn’t even think of, whether that’s comps, special billing or guaranteeing X amount of festivals in order for them to confirm a tour.
What are some of the ways that an agent might try and play a game with you?
I’m dealing with a situation now where I saw the writing on the wall. A lot of agents will try to leverage other clients in favour of another client, which is a dangerous and tricky game. Yesterday, a young agent was doing that. I called him and said, ‘Listen, this is a tricky game. If your client finds out you’re leveraging X for Y, and they have literally no relationship, you can get yourself in a lot of shit. As a former agent, let me tell you how this could possibly play out.’ Trying to play clients against each other… I’ve been there, I’ve done it, so I can get ahead of it.
What are your proudest achievements?
I’m proud of the amount of Black millionaires I’ve been able to enable and create, who have then had an economic impact on their communities. A lot of them hire and employ their friends and sometimes it’s the first time the friend has had a real job, whether it’s working on merch, being a tour manager or a stylist.
I’m also a big advocate and volunteer with our unhoused here in Los Angeles. We have a huge housing insecurity and mental health crisis. In 2022, we sold out the Crypto.com Arena with Kirk Franklin and Maverick City and the next day, held a free concert for the community of Skid Row, which is where most of the unhoused in Los Angeles are accounted for. They did the show for free, which was so amazing.
We bussed in people from various shelters across town, including the women’s shelter. We did ID stations, because a lot of them aren’t registered and don’t have proper identification. We did water stations, mental health checks, free food stations, backpacks with clothes, shoes, socks and essentials. I was super proud of that event.
What’s the biggest challenge in the live music market today?
Traffic and saturation. Because [touring was] down all of 2020 and most of 2021, there are a lot of big artists cannibalizing the ticket-buying marketplace. That’s a little challenging but I think we’re starting to come out of that. Also, I noticed that some festivals were getting a little boring and monotonous. It’s the same lineups, the same acts on every single festival. But so far, I’m seeing a shift, which is exciting.
What did you want to see more from festival lineups that you’ve started to see now?
I love that we’re seeing more international and global artists as headliners. Coachella is not our festival, it’s promoted by Goldenvoice, but I think it’s dope that two out of the three headliners are international, non-English speaking acts. And I think we need more female headliners. In all of my festivals, I make sure that we have a presence of female talent at a top level. It’s super important that we’re represented and given opportunities on stages to showcase our talents.
How about the most exciting opportunities or developments in the live music market at the moment?
I’m most excited about the boom of African music consumption here in North America. We’re seeing these huge numbers from Wizkid, Burna Boy and Davido. I’m really excited about Asake, Fireboy and Ayra Starr — there are all these African artists organically blowing up here in the United States. It’s similar to the rise of Latin music in the ‘90s and 2000s, and K-pop most recently.
in Europe, the festival market has huge challenges with supply chain issues and rising costs, which is of course having an impact on ticket prices. Do you see these same issues impacting the live music ecosystem in the US?
Yes, unfortunately. We’re very conscious of ticket prices at Live Nation Urban for our fans. We target the Black and Brown demographic and what I don’t want to do is go into these markets with absurd and obscene ticket prices that prohibit the everyday person from being able to afford it. It is challenging and we’re working around that. We really work our relationships to try to get that bottom number as low as possible and not push that increase onto the price of the ticket for the fan.
we’re also hearing that it’s a particularly tough time for new acts to make money from touring right now. Do you have any concerns about the market for developing artists?
There was some exciting news that came out of the Live Nation retreat most recently that specifically addresses the developing artists who are going on tour. When you’re working in a 500-capacity and under room, with a ticket price that’s $20 or under, you have a very hard cap — you can see what your gross is and what you’re going to walk out with. But one of the big hurdles is ticketing fees.
As an agent, I complained about it, as a ticket consumer, I complained about it. That is something that Live Nation is aware of and there is a plan in place to remedy that to make it easier for artists to go out and tour and for fans to pay that $20 or $15 without it being inflated from ticketing fees. But yeah, it’s hard at that [early] stage if you don’t have fire merch or if you can’t go on and do afterparties. That said, there’s also an emphasis from Live Nation to fill out our clubs, which are 500 and under capacity venues. The exciting part of this job is finding and developing young stars so I think that business is going to continue to thrive.
Do you have any future plans and ambitions long term?
My focus is building out our touring property. Continuing to grow our African artists here in North America and gospel and inspiration music is a huge thing for me. Also, I just spent two weeks in Lagos and Ghana and I really want to figure out how we can be at the forefront of bridging the diaspora between Africa and North America, whether it’s doing shows and helping to produce shows there or bringing African artists to North America and helping them tour and get festival looks. My long term goal is really about giving a light to those artists.
Final question: what would you change about the music industry and why?
I would get rid of some of the antiquated gatekeeping that we’ve been struggling with. It’s important to give opportunities to people who are true music enthusiasts and not just those who interned here, or their uncle is the Chairman at this label. Oftentimes, there are so many great A&R guys that just don’t get an opportunity to get in these buildings.
That comes with gatekeeping as well as economic and geographic barriers. There could be somebody with an amazing ear in Boise, Idaho but because they’re not in Atlanta, LA or New York, they’re not afforded the same opportunities. The internet has helped significantly, but within these buildings, there’s still a high level of gatekeeping that prohibits these naturally gifted A&Rs the opportunity to get in, identify and build talent.
MBW’s Inspiring Women series is supported by Ingrooves Music Group, which powers creativity by providing distribution, marketing and rights management tools and services to content creators and owners.
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