President of MSG Media Mike Bair on Fuse and the pace of the music business today
Mike Bair lives in quiet Darien yet is a natural at keeping his finger on the pulse of today’s demanding and ever- evolving music and entertainment industry.
Befitting his rank as president of MSG Media, the cable television arm of Madison Square Garden Inc., Mike Bair is amiable, urbane and well spoken. Yet there’s a little piece of the Darien resident that seems to relish life’s awkward moments, especially if he’s the one who’s slightly out of sync, diligently forging on in a world that’s more strange than unkind. And if those uncomfortable moments give him a tale to tell at his own expense, all the better.
Right now Bair is discussing the perks of his job. He loves sports and music, he says, and as luck would have it, that’s his purview. He oversees the television presentation of some of the biggest sporting and music even ts going on in New York City at any given time. And though the Knicks and Rangers programming is certainly fine, it’s his involvement with Fuse Network, MSG’s music channel, that stands to boost his image with his teenage daughter and son. Ancient he may be, but Bair has rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest names in music today. Every now and then, he’ll recommend a new artist that his kids will actually like. And if they ask, he can score them good seats to concerts that have been sold out for months.
All that should rate him among the coolest of fathers, but reality tends to play out differently. Now and then Alex and Jack do attend shows. “I try not to sit with them so they won’t be embarrassed by their dear old dad,” Bair says. “But there was a moment at the Jay-Z concert in which they were there with some of their friends and Jay-Z was doing shout-outs around the audience. I had stepped down to see how my kids were doing and he looked at me for a moment and was like, ‘What is that guy in a suit doing here?’ I think it was even on television.”
Left: Fuse Presents: Drake Live from Radio City Music Hall aired on Thanksgiving eve.
Right: Singer Kate Perry takes the stage at Z100’s Jingle Ball Live from Madison Square Garden, which Fuse aired December 16. See clips and shots at fusemusic.com.
Don’t let the self-deprecation fool you. At age fifty-four, Bair might not always be the hippest guy in the room. Youth, as he’d be the first to tell you, is the name of the game, both in the talent that drives the music business and in the audience (ages eighteen to thirty-four) that Fuse covets. But in his campaign to transform the network from also-ran to the premier destination for experiencing music on TV, Bair seems less like a lost suit in search of Penn Station and more like a man on a mission.
“We have mighty ambitions,” he says. “When you look at the overall assets of the Madison Square Garden company, Fuse has some of the most significant upside of any of our brands. I say that because it’s in a marketplace, music, which is exploding. There’s a clear open field here that no one has figured out exactly what the winning formula for it is. And we’re virtually one of the only companies that can combine venues, content, and distribution. Frankly, what ESPN is to sports, we think Fuse can be to music.”
It’s been a few years since our last conversation with Mike Bair. Back then, in 2008, we spoke with him about the direction of media content. These days he’s particularly enthusiastic about Fuse and its part in the evolution in music. “There’s this thing about music right now—it’s incredibly vibrant,” he says. “More consumption and usage are going on than ever before; it’s become amazingly social; and I think it connects generations. And yet the business of music itself is fairly fractured.”
Bair can sympathize because in its own way, Fuse, too, has struggled to find its footing. For most of the seventeen years since it started, under Cablevision and now its spinoff Madison Square Garden Inc., the only thing that’s been consistent about the network has been its
underachievement. Every year, it seemed, Fuse had a new strategy but it never enjoyed great success.
Then, toward the end of 2008, the enterprise was shifted to MSG Media, and the approach changed yet again. Under Bair the plan was to home in specifically on music and artists, providing a point of connection with the fans, and to jettison everything else. What’s more, Fuse would stay “maniacally” true to its vision, Bair explains, even if it meant passing on surefire hits that veered too far afield.
The decision meant saying good-bye to reality shows like Redemption Song, in which previously unknown competitors vied for a chance at a record deal, and ushering in original programs like Mad Genius, a documentary series that explores the personalities of eccentric but brilliant artists; Lay It Down, in which singer-songwriter Cee Lo Green converses with performers about their work; and Hoppus on Music,
a music and celebrity-interview show hosted by Mark Hoppus of the punk band blink-182.
Live concerts from the company’s famous venues, meanwhile, would allow for partnerships with artists and extensive programming tied to those performances. So it is that shows like Jay-Z (or Linkin Park) from Madison Square Garden; the Dave Matthews Band (or John Mayer, or Maroon 5) from the Beacon Theatre; Drake from Radio City Music Hall; and Kanye West (or Fall Out Boy) from the Chicago Theatre would morph into marketing events that could go on for weeks. Festivals, from Bonnaroo to Lollapalooza, and the induction ceremony for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would receive blanket coverage as well.
Not everyone thinks such narrow focus will win the day. “That’s a perfect website,” says one former Fuse executive. “That’s not a television network.”
But Bair begs to differ. Ratings are up, he says. Advertising sales are growing. “What’s happened over the last two years is that the industry now trusts us as that authentic voice about music,” he says. “Now we have artists, as well as their management and labels, actually calling us and saying, ‘What can we do together, because we know that you guys will tell the story in the right way.’”
Which is not to say it has been an easy ride. Last year the satellite Dish Network dropped Fuse and replaced it with MTV’s Palladia music channel. Madison Square Garden’s annual report to the Securities and Exchange Commission, meanwhile, shows that Fuse had 49 million viewers in 2010, down 6 million from the year before. Nor has the network been the most stable place for high-level personnel. “Madison Square Garden’s music channel, Fuse, has blown more top executives than amps,” chided the New York Post last year.
Left: Fuse Presents: Linkin Park Live from Madison Square Garden aired February 18.
RIght: Host of Fuse’s Lay It Down, Cee Lo Green (r.) on set with Ludacris below Fuse Presents: Linkin Park Live from Madison Square Garden aired February 18.
For all the pressures Bair may or may not be feeling from his boss, James L. Dolan, he says that shepherding Fuse has been among the more rewarding parts of his work. He’s been able to meet and do business with artists he’s admired all his life. He speaks in awe, for example, of sitting with Butch Trucks of the Allman Brothers Band in the drummer’s home and forming a partnership deal and a concert one month later.
It’s also energizing to be at the forefront of what’s new, and to be in the thick of things as the music business looks to reinvent itself. “I like things that are a little bit broken,” Bair says. “And because the music industry is a little bit broken, it allows us to step in and be one of the people who solve the puzzle.”
In his pursuit of answers, Bair is the kind of boss who’s relentlessly firing off e-mails in the wee hours or passing along articles he’s read, always looking for the next good idea. As hard as he pushes, however, he still feels a step behind those younger than himself. “Frankly, my generation is not as facile with all the changes as my children are and that next generation,” he says. “For them, it’s simply instinctual to access all this media and to share things. I think for people my age, while we love it and we work at it, the fact is that we have to work at it.”
Rocker-turned-interviewer Mark Hoppus describes Bair as a positive force in an environment thick with creativity. “From Day One, he’s been a huge proponent of the show,” Hoppus says. “He is a huge proponent for the channel as a whole. I’ll run into him in the halls or outside the building, and he’s always got this really positive attitude. It’s good to have that kind of energy come from the top because it inspires everybody all the way down the chain.”
Bair expects 2011 to be a transformative year for Fuse. With a game plan in place and the business stabilized, he says doors should begin to open to greater partnerships with artists and sponsors. He is also looking toward further expansion into the digital world and to bringing other important venues from around the country into Fuse’s fold.
Beyond that, who can say? “I can’t tell you exactly what is going to happen in the next five years,” he says. “But if we’re clear about what our brand stands for, if we continue to deliver results for our partners, if artists embrace us because we are that connection for them to their fans and viewers are continually satisfied with their experience with Fuse, we are going to be in the mix for any opportunity out there. We’re always going to be one of the phone calls, one of the people invited to sit down at the table when the next big idea comes along.”