Six months ago, nothing about John Oakes’ career plan included working in Dubai. For 16 years, the St. Louis native-turned-OC transplant was knee deep in his successful entertainment company, Freeze Management, which he started in 2002 and built from the ground up. He was the guy responsible for managing and launching the career of early aughts emo-hardcore act Story of the Year which he later parlayed into a career developing festivals like Taste of Chaos, Rockstar Energy Drink UPROAR Festival and Mayhem Fest.
When Dubai-based entertainment company 117 Live approached him through a mutual friend in the music industry with an offer to come work for them in an office over 15,000 miles away, Oakes politely said thanks-but-no-thanks. He’d already achieved everything he’d ever wanted in the entertainment industry at the ripe old age of 37. However, one thing about the Dubai offer that appealed to Oakes’ hard working, midwestern roots was the need to challenge himself.
“To really grow and have the business development plan we’re setting ourselves up for [with Freeze Management] it seemed like a once in a lifetime type of opportunity to grow a global business and go from there,” Oakes says during a recent phone call from his new digs in Dubai.
After lots of consideration, the CEO reconsidered and boarded a 16 hour flight, stepped off the plane and went straight into the office at 117 Live. Today, he’s helped this massive event company in the one of the wealthiest cities in the world to host massive concerts and festivals featuring A-listers like J-Lo, Ed Sheeran and Elton John. They’re also we’re finishing construction on a 35,000 capacity open air outdoor music venue Autism Rocks Amphitheater which is similar to Irvine’s now-extinct Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, with includes a massive VIP structure for the venue.
117 Live, owned by the Al Ahi Holding Group, is a conglomerate based in the United Arab Emerites (UAE). Their portfolio includes Dubai Outlet Mart, a number of Middle East Golds Gym locations, a large plastics manufacturer and a license-holder that publishes Marvel, Warner Bros., DC Comics and Sanrio comics in the Middle East. Al Ahi operates Universal Events, which produces comic and pop-culture events and conventions. The company is even planning a Fox-branded theme park and resort in Dubai and has 9,000 employees across 20 countries globally.
Part of Oakes’ global business development plan for the two year-old company is to continue to do what he’s done throughout most of his career, not only in Dubai but also around the world. Currently he manages three different offices for 117 Live in LA, Hong Kong and Dubai. The idea of staying on three different time zones is probably enough to make the average person’s head explode but Oakes thrives on it and its ability to allow him to literally work around the clock.
“In Dubai we’re exactly 12 hours ahead of Southern California which makes it easier then I’d ever imagined to work 24 hours out of the day when one office is 12 hours behind the other,” Oakes says. “It’s exciting, I like the challenge I think that’s my motivating factor, it push myself personally and professionally and do more.” Despite living in another country, Oakes still kept his place in South OC, continued on as CEO of Freeze Management and still sports a 714 number on his cell phone.
Though his business career may have gotten its legs in Southern California, his entrepreneurial skills took root as a child growing up on a naval base in Charleston South Carolina. At age 4, Oakes started his own enterprise, gathering seashells on the beach, bagging them up to sell. “I knocked on my neighbors doors and sold them rocks and seashells that they could’ve walked down the street and found themselves for a $1 a bag,” Oakes remembers. “I did it because I wanted to purchase something I didn’t have money for and that my parents wouldn’t willingly give me.”
In high school, while most kids cut class to smoke pot, play video games and make out, Oakes would skip school a couple days a week to sell sponsorships for concerts he was promoting. He would turn around and use that sponsorship money to go down to his local radio station and buy ads for his shows. “I was selling sponsorships and buying ads, it’s the same thing I do today,” he says. “Just more rows, more columns, more zeroes.”
He spent the majority of his youth growing up in St. Louis where he would meet his childhood friend, lead singer Dan Marsala from Story of the Year. Though they’d started a short-lived band together with Oakes on drums, the future CEO realized early on that he had neither the desire nor the talent to be a musician. Instead he chose to manage the business side of things and once SOTY was established, he took them on as their manager in May of 2002.
“We left the midwest and packed everything up with an idea and a dream of making it in the music industry,” Oakes says.
The band ended up showcasing for the now-defunct Maverick Records (Madonna’s record label that was an imprint of Warner Bros.). They signed a record deal and went on tour for a year around the world and sold a million copies world wide while it was still possible to sell CDs.
Though he’d achieved an unattainable goal with his friends, Oakes was smart enough to know at that point that as a manager, he was out of his league. He and SOTY both made a decision to bring on a more experienced to manage the band. He started co-managing them with John Reese, owner of Synergy Global Entertainment (SGE) who brought him in with Vans Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman and Creative Artists Agency agent Darryl Eaton to sell the title sponsorship for the Taste of Chaos Festival, sponsored by Rockstar Energy Drink. The fest was held annually from 2005 through 2010, touring both in the United States and more than 20 countries around the world.
Oakes and company struck gold again in 2007, partnering to create the Mayhem Festival, an annual touring heavy metal music festival in America that toured through 2015 featuring massive acts like Slayer, Slipknot and Motorhead. Oakes went on to developed a number of motorcycle and auto lifestyle events including Southern California’s Lost Highway Festival in San Bernardino.
Over the years, Oakes and Freeze Management has also developed effective strategies and implemented successful marketing programs for an assorted group of well-known companies, including Rockstar Energy Drink, Ram Trucks, AT&T Wireless, Samsung Mobile, Ford, Jagermeister, Lucas Oil, Coors Light, Harley-Davidson and many more. In recent years, Oakes has worked with artists from diverse genres of music from Country superstar Toby Keith and Pop/R&B singer Jason Derulo to The Beach Boys and heavy metal band Avenged Sevenfold.
Oakes says even when it comes to his biggest entertainment projects, whether it’s a local metal concert or a K-Pop Festival like the one he’s currently producing for 117 Live half a world away, the success always stems from the artists he chooses to represent.
“It’s all about the music,” Oakes says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re the hardest working, best working manager if you’re representing a band with shit music you’re probably not getting very far.” Realizing his strength came from helping talent and promoting shows at an early age has allowed on of OC’s most respected promoters to find his way into world-wide success and help keep live music thriving on multiple continents.
“I love music and live events and marketing, my number one competition of a live event whether it’s a small concert or a big music festival is to get someone off their couch and give people good experiences and motivate them enough with their hard earned discretionary income to come to an event, come to a show.”
Nate Jackson is the gatekeeper to your dreams of local dive bar stardom. If he writes about you, expect your band to be offered at least one more drink ticket than the rest of the bands on the bill. Get his attention with some groovy tunes and he might just do it. Then, boy will you feel special.