What happens at home is happening in Vegas. As an entertainment entrepreneur, I’ve seen firsthand from operating in the Las Vegas entertainment industry that the increasingly corporate approach to live entertainment seems to mitigate risk by putting out only “proven products.” My beloved Las Vegas is one of the greatest victims of corporatization, which has a profound effect on the quality, quantity and diversity of entertainment that is offered to visitors.
In fact, this homogenization has affected the entire city with restaurants and stores that are common in many other cities, as well as residencies that still tour through other markets for a fraction of the price. But proven entertainment is generally not unique and has certainly been seen before in live entertainment, an industry increasingly controlled by a handful of gatekeepers whose decisions tend to dictate the content available. But this problem is not unique to Las Vegas.
It took a binge-watching of season four of Stranger Things to remind me of Metallica’s journey from having a handful of rebellious fans at my high school to being a stadium-selling act that is known throughout my son’s school 35 years later. Today, the journey from garage band to musical institution is very different, with the ability to self-produce music and to get noticed on social media without ever leaving the garage.
Through TikTok, Netflix, YouTube and Spotify, we are encouraged and even seduced on a daily basis to find new entertainment based on our interests, friends, behaviors and habits. The options we see are controlled by the all-knowing, all-seeing, ever-present “algorithm.” But searching for and finding content based on your personal preferences is very different than being served content that the powers-that-be tell you is worthwhile. It is the difference between being the puppeteer and being the puppet. To quote Morpheus, “You think that’s air you’re breathing now?”
Sure, we are all affected by advertising, but the latest versions of the algorithm “matrix” limit our choices in the content we see online and, in many cases, the content we see in the real world. When corporations focus more on profit and minimizing risk, options become limited.
Finding content at home is such a personal discovery process, but when you go to a destination, your options are limited to what the corporate operators have decided you will see. It’s not that the existing entertainment is necessarily bad, but I believe it’s painfully mainstream. Do you know who the biggest artist on the planet is right now? I bet you didn’t think it was Bad Bunny, whose songs, according to Bloomberg, have “appeared in the Spotify top 100 more times over the last few months than those of Harry Styles, Olivia Rodrigo, Drake, and Kendrick Lamar combined.”
At its core, entertainment is experimental. Innovation comes from pushing the envelope, and the road to entertainment success has always been paved with failure. There are exponentially more failed songs, movies and books than there are those that succeed. But most corporate models don’t allow for these necessary failures. They focus instead on pleasing the shareholders and venture capital firms, which often causes them to follow a formulaic approach that cuts the soul out of entertainment.
Entertainment is not a widget to be repeatedly reengineered and whittled down to its cheapest version; it is quite literally art that needs to be nurtured to grow and develop in new directions. The audience’s enjoyment should be prioritized over maximizing profit. Then the profits will come.
The biggest problem with the corporatization of live entertainment is that companies view entertainment as an asset in their portfolio. Then, it no longer has to entertain; it has to generate a specific return, or it gets excluded from the portfolio. So, entertainment corporations shy away from edgy, niche and risk-taking entertainment in favor of appealing to the masses.
When entertainment is homogenized, it ceases to be special and is not worth the trip. Fans need more. Today’s industry is full of underserved audiences and underrepresented musical genres. Not every live show should be or can be a blockbuster mainstream hit. Yet shows catering to those underserved audiences and underrepresented genres can be successful. In a world dominated by Coke and Pepsi, there is still a strong market for Barq’s root beer.
Fans would benefit from more affordable, niche shows available alongside the superstar-driven, stratospherically priced experiences. A modern fan is pining for entertainment that is more experiential and personal, which does not typically fall in line with the “bigger is better” style. But if it is going to be bigger and mainstream, it should still be an impactful, destination-worthy event. For instance, an acquaintance of mine from when we owned nightclubs has approached the live performance from the immersive perspective of creating an experiential venue experience for the new Usher residency.
It is my belief that a more nurturing, less corporate approach to live entertainment would have a positive, lasting effect on the industry. The future of live entertainment may not involve a proscenium stage, and it may blur the lines between audience and performer. Innovators like Meow Wolf are already putting the audience inside the “show,” with the entertainment experience beginning with the marketing and even with the way you enter the attraction.
We have to find new ways to be different. Catering to those niches, without abandoning the big-ticket stars who generate the requisite rate of return on capital, could give the industry the chance to reinvent itself again — to be special again.