Leader and Hero

Messina Touring Group’s Kate McMahon guides her company’s inclusive, unstoppable team

Kate McMahon, executive vice president, Messina Touring Group (Courtesy Messina Touring Group)

Kate McMahon, executive vice president at Messina Touring Group, sometimes plays down her achievements.

“I try not to travel too much anymore,” the industry lifer said. “I kind of see myself as the constant in the office, the person who is going to be here. There’s a little bit of HR, a little bit of approval of timesheets and expense reports and all that kind of boring stuff.”

But McMahon, who has helped lead Messina Touring Group since its inception in 2001, and has worked with founder Louis Messina since the mid-’90s, is as eminent a figure in the music biz as any, overseeing the marketing and promotion of major MTG clients — starting with country heavyweights such as George Strait and Kenny Chesney, and then widening to include pop powerhouses like Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift — while elevating other women to traditionally male-dominated spaces.

“I am so happy to see how things have really changed for women, especially as promoters,” she said. “I kind of made a point to myself to hire more women, interview more women, make sure that we’ve got women in every position here. I’m really proud of that.”

McMahon got her first taste of the music biz working for Star Course, the student-run concert promotion and production organization at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, as an undergraduate in the late ‘80s. A “super nerdy Midwest kid” who had grown up in Urbana, Ill., McMahon got involved with concerts after an injury after her sophomore year forced her to give up student athletics.

“I was looking around for something to do,” she recalled. “I had always loved going to concerts with my friends, because it was fun, and I just thought [Star Course] would be a fun thing I could try out for. I got on and then it was my whole life.”

McMahon booked acts such as the Smithereens at campus venues including Foellinger Auditorium. She also received some exposure to the industry’s glamorous side, although she now acknowledges she might’ve been caught up in the moment.

“The bands were still willing to hang out with us, so I remember we always had afterparties,” she said. “We really thought we were the coolest kids in the world. I’m sure that bands were like, ‘Oh my god, these kids are idiots.’”

McMahon parlayed her enthusiasm into a job at Jam Productions, the vaunted, Chicago-based independent promoter. But the job, a seemingly plum one for a young graduate with aspirations in the field, nearly soured McMahon on the business for good.

“It wasn’t a place that I fit in very well,” she said when summing up her tenure at the company from 1990 to 1995. A previous generation’s gender disparities played a role. “When I was at Jam, there were no women booking,” McMahon elaborated. “There was only one woman in marketing, which was me. The only other women there were like party planners or receptionists … There weren’t any women who had a seat at the table. That might’ve been a part of the reason I felt like I just didn’t fit there – I never found my groove.”

After leaving Jam, McMahon did some “half-assed jobs for friends” until Q Prime’s Tony DiCioccio tracked her down with a life-changing offer: Did McMahon want him to set up an interview with Louis Messina for a job at Pace Concerts?

“In my head I was like, ‘I’m going to go down to Texas and work for Louis Messina for like two years and I’m going to get really good and I’m going to come back to Chicago like a star,’” McMahon said. “That was, like, 26 years ago. Yeah, that part didn’t really happen, because I loved Louis and we totally clicked.”

As one of Messina’s chief collaborators, McMahon immediately began working with clients including George Strait – a relationship that became her “calling card” of sorts when seeking business with other artists in the country sphere.

“Kate’s just like me, she only knows winning,” Messina told VenuesNow. “She never accepts ‘no’ for an answer. … She’ll win you with a smile or hammer you down.”

As McMahon became an integral part of Messina’s team, she weathered his tumultuous late ‘90s alongside him, watching the promoter’s happiness plummet as Pace was bought by SFX, and then SFX by Clear Channel.

The turbulent period culminated with Messina’s decision to leave the company and launch Messina Touring Group. That was three weeks before McMahon was to be wed to fellow Pace employee Rome McMahon. She remembers Messina telling her, “You and your now-husband, let’s do our thing.” Messina added that they were the only two he took to his new company because “I believed in them and they believed in me.”

Working out of Messina’s house at first, the three Pace expats built a reputation quickly, kicking off their new enterprise by promoting Kenny Chesney’s first headline tour. “Kenny and I are only maybe six months apart in age, so there was a real click there immediately,” McMahon said. “I feel like we’ve grown up together on the road, too.” She points to her two decades of work with Chesney, now an unstoppable stadium force, as her proudest professional accomplishment.

“Kenny Chesney calls her direct,” Messina said. “Probably Kenny talks to her more than he talks to me, about ideas and creativity.”

Of course, McMahon has come a long way from her days throwing afterparties in college. “I think about those first (Chesney) shows and we would always have big afterparties, we were all young 30s,” she said. “Now I’m like, ‘Ew, do they have any coffee backstage? That would be awesome.’”

In a sense, that symbolizes why McMahon, now a seasoned vet, has turned her eye to the next generation. “All the young people in my office, she takes then under her wing,” Messina said.

McMahon still has a hand in major Messina clients, but she increasingly lets promising young talent lead the way. And, whether it’s Rachel Powers working Eric Church’s ambitious “Double Down” tour or Jaime Roberts orchestrating Shawn Mendes’ ascent to the stadium level, McMahon’s deputies are overwhelmingly women.

“One of the women in my office, Bridget Bauer, she has been on the road with George, with Eric Church, she’s in a position of basically our promoter rep,” McMahon said. “That’s an area where you typically don’t see a lot of women. You see women as production assistants or something like that, but she’s in charge and I love seeing that. Our executive committee is three women and two men, and our office is probably 65% women.”

McMahon’s “biggest value is leadership,” Messina said. “Her doing her job is a given, her being good and excelling at what she does is a given. But her being a leader – leaders and heroes are hard to find, and she is one of those people. She’s a leader and she is a hero to a lot of people, including myself.”

But it’s telling that, although McMahon has played a key role in making Messina Touring Group a leader in a changing industry, she still sees room for improvement.

“Hiring people that aren’t just like us brings a whole new mind-set to the table,” McMahon said when reflecting on MTG’s continued push for diversity. “We’re never too old to learn something new or look at something in a new way.”
 

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