Live Nation Urban VP Talent & Touring Heather Lowery on Booking Prince, Progress in Music, Trusting Her Gut
"I’m the most passionate when I get to be creative and innovative with the lineups."
Heather Lowery lives by a simple mantra: Always trust your instincts. “It has guided me both professionally and personally,” says Lowery, 40. “I don’t do anything that doesn’t feel right.”
That’s how the New Castle, Delaware, native has crafted a career path that has taken her from recording studio receptionist in Philadelphia to vp talent and touring at Live Nation Urban (LNU) in Los Angeles. It was in Philly, where she rose to become GM of producer-arranger Larry Gold’s studio -- a hub for the neo-soul movement -- that she realized she wanted to be involved in live music.
“After reading some self-help books, I began to figure out my God-given talents, including a gift for making and closing deals, and I remembered how I felt seeing The Roots perform,” she says. “It was, ‘Wow, I can connect to music on a deeper level through live performances.’”
Lowery moved to New York, where she worked as an assistant at WME before hitting a plateau “because there was no opportunity for promotion,” she recalls. “I left with no plan.” So she decided to flex her entrepreneurial savvy by launching the boutique concert booker Agency for Artists. Now in its 14th year, AFA primarily represents Historically Black Colleges (HBCUs). “It’s hard to compete with the majors on the artist level,” says Lowery. “So I found my niche with HBCUs and other private clients.”
Since LNU’s May 2017 inception, Lowery has worked alongside president Shawn Gee and vp business development and operations Brandon Pankey, curating talent and overseeing booking for events, festivals, platforms and strategic partnerships and focusing on hip-hop, R&B and gospel. Among these: the RapCaviar Live series in partnership with Spotify that debuted in August 2017; the upstart Washington, D.C.-based Broccoli City Music Festival that is entering its third year; the second edition of Kirk Franklin’s Exodus Music & Arts Festival in Dallas; and various college partnerships. In January, both Broccoli City (April 25-27) and Exodus (May 26) announced their 2019 lineups, with Childish Gambino and Lil Wayne headlining the former and Fred Hammond and The Clark Sisters joining Franklin atop the bill for the latter.
Lowery, who’s a single mother of a 7-year-old, brought her New York hustle with her to Los Angeles: She’s close to a deal with a TV show she has in the works, plus a new LNU platform to be announced this year. “I was a small-town girl and hated it,” she says with a laugh. “I knew I wanted more out of life.”
Why is Live Nation Urban needed?
Because there are still not as many live opportunities for hip-hop, R&B and gospel artists as there are for pop, country and rock. We want to provide more festivals, events and platforms in that space. We’re building a lot of partnerships as well with HBCUs, giving urban artists as many touring opportunities as possible. We’re also focused on cultivating our generation of executives of color and the next one. There may be a few of us sprinkled here and there, but there aren’t a lot of people in the building that look like us. That’s one of our biggest initiatives: giving people of color the opportunities that we didn’t have or weren’t given. I have an intern now that attends Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. She started with us two years ago in our Philadelphia office and then worked last summer with me in our L.A. office. She’s a senior, and I can’t wait for her to graduate because I’m hiring her.
What pushback have you encountered as a woman working in live music?
I’ve been mistaken for a groupie or assistant at shows because it’s not possible for me to be there in a position of power. I’ve experienced those moments quite frequently. It’s frustrating. I also remember sending an email recently to an agent because I’d booked one of his clients, but the agent’s response was completely unprofessional and disrespectful, and I knew it was because I was a woman. I professionally checked him on it. He copied some members of the touring team at Live Nation on the email; I copied Brandon and Shawn at LNU. Every one of my team members here checked the agent, saying you can’t speak to her or anyone like that. They all had my back.
What did the agent say in his initial response to you?
He said that I was ignorant or plain stupid, something along those lines, regarding the offer that I had sent him. This guy is pretty high up in his agency, and he probably does still have his job. But the situation got serious to where the head of the company called Shawn to apologize. And Shawn’s like, “Why are you calling me? Call Heather.”
Have you seen any major changes in the live sector as a result of the #MeToo movement and calls for more diversity across the industry?
There’s still a lack of women and black executives getting equal opportunities. Maybe it’s progressing but not enough for anyone to notice. I do see a possible foundation for change. But until people in power start being proactive, #MeToo and #TimesUp will remain hashtags.
Did you have a mentor whose advice you still think about?
My mom, who struggled hard to raise five kids, taught me a lot of invaluable lessons. In addition to the value of hard work and independence, she taught me that I had to create the life that I wanted and that where there’s a will, there’s a way. She couldn’t afford to send me to college. But I knew I was going, and I ended up taking out loans. I was the first in my family to graduate from college. Then from there, I knew I wanted to be a successful businesswoman. There also have been a lot of implicit lessons in terms of learning how to use my problems as opportunities for growth. And down the line, I’ve worked with people from whom I’ve learned lessons about good and bad things to do.
Given the current dominance of R&B and hip-hop, are there misperceptions about the genres’ artists that persist among concert organizers?
The practices regarding security for urban music are unfair. There’s a lot of racial profiling in terms of tighter security standards, no matter their [artists’] history. Unfortunately, when it comes to black artists, that’s the rule. It’s really racist.
Why is it so difficult for R&B to get the same shine as hip-hop in terms of touring and other platforms?
One question that I often explore with my industry colleagues is, “What is R&B?” It’s about soul and love. But is that term dated? Who determines what music falls under R&B? It’s a really subjective genre. Plus, I don’t think enough people making decisions at the top of labels and other music companies are talking about R&B and pushing it the same way as hip-hop.
What’s the biggest show you booked prior to joining LNU?
It was Prince, whom I booked through my Agency for Artists. And I still ask myself, “How did I do that?” (Laughs.) Prince wasn’t confirming any shows at that time. The promoter called me from the Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut with the offer, asking if I could get it done. And I said, “Absolutely.” I remember sending the offer to Prince and his manager calling to confirm. I’m like, “No fucking way.” I had to keep my cool, but it was so unreal; I thought something would happen to make it fall apart. But we booked three sold-out shows that actually happened in December 2013. I remember thinking, “I can’t wait to do another deal.”
Have you worked out a formula for booking a lineup, or is it a gut thing?
For me, it’s a gut thing. I’m the most passionate when I get to be creative and innovative with the lineups. I’m always asking myself, “How can I merge generations of music and different genres and make it make sense? What’s the narrative I want to tell?” Those are the shows that excite me the most. Being able to not just sell tickets but deliver an amazing experience for fans gives me an immediate sense of gratitude. It’s confirmation that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.