In 2010, Jason Garner left his job as the CEO of Global Music for Live Nation in what he describes as a “conscious uncoupling,” to go on a journey of self-discovery. Four years later, he’s returned to the public eye with a book, …And I Breathed, about how to be happy without quitting your job. Music maven Julia Goodman spoke with him about flea markets, daily routines, and green juice. More information about his journey is available on his website.
Bwog: When you were the CEO of Global Music for Live Nation, you made Fortune 500’s Highest Paid under 40 list. How did you get that job at such a young age?
Garner: It’s a great question that I’ve thought a lot about. A few years ago, I would have told you all of these things about how hard I worked. I think just kind of programmed into me throughout my entire life was this idea that I had to succeed to be good, I had to march up that mountain. From the youngest age I can remember I had this desire in me to be somebody. I was raised by a single mom, and we didn’t have any money, so be somebody meant make money and get a big job.
I started working at a flea market when I was in high school, and I learned to speak Spanish. One day I took a trip to Las Vegas and I met Julio Cesar Chavez, the huge Mexican boxing champion. I was maybe, like, nineteen years old at the time; I couldn’t even gamble in the casinos. And because I spoke Spanish, we hit it off, and I became part of his entourage. And in doing so, as the only light-skinned American person as part of his entourage, I started to get a little bit of notoriety. When my job at the flea market ended, I had met a man named Ruben Alvarez, who was a Spanish-language concert promoter. In me he saw the ability to branch out and to reach new markets, and so we partnered and formed a company called Alvarez and Garner.
At the time, we were promoting Mexican rodeos, dances, doing a lot of stuff that was off the radar of a large percentage of the population in the United States. And then, as luck would have it, Enrique Iglesias burst onto the scene. At the time, he was only singing in Spanish, but he had two huge Spanish albums. We got the right to promote those shows, and that really put us on the map. We started doing more and more Spanish-language pop, which was heating up–bands like Luis Miguel and Mana. Then Mana toured with Santana, and Ricky Martin had that breakout album, and it kind of started that Latin revolution.
So we started getting known as the guys who did all the big Spanish-language shows, and before long Clear Channel Entertainment, which was the largest concert company at the time, called me and said, “Hey, we’d like you to come work for us.” I went to work for them, and I was still working only in Spanish-language music. I happened to have an office next door to the guy who ran Europe, whose name was Michael Rapino. Michael went on to become the CEO of that company, and later spin it out into what is now Live Nation, and I went along with him. He taught me along the way, and I transitioned from Spanish to English. I worked with Coldplay, Shakira, Nickelback, and tons of huge bands, and eventually worked my way up to running the entire Global Music division for Michael.
Bwog: Wow, that’s a really incredible story.
Garner: (Laughs) Yeah, so you see it’s hard to say how that all happened. That’s really what my book is about—the little boy in me who did all that looking to be loved, looking for validation. My book is about that journey.
Bwog: I think the idea of trying to make money, just trying to get a job that will allow you to succeed in that way, is something that a lot of us at Columbia can relate to. What were you were expecting when you started this? Did you think it would be something you would do for the rest of your life?
Garner: If we go back in time, to the point when I was ending at the flea market and starting to promote concerts…how old are you?
Bwog: I’m twenty.
Garner: Okay, so I was your age. I didn’t go to college. My college experience was working at the flea market and learning business, selling roses and dictionaries and all the things that I sold there. I wasn’t thinking about my lifetime; I was just thinking, “What’s the best thing I can do right now?” It was just, “I think I can make some money doing this right now, and it sounds cool. It’s a little bit funner than everyone else’s job that I know.” It wasn’t anything bigger. And then each job I got, it was just, “How do you get to the next level?”
We all go through that, whether it’s in school or whether it’s in work, where we’re in one spot and then we say, “How do I get to the next spot?” All that’s beautiful, but what I discovered along the way was that it wasn’t just about work, it was, “If I get to the next spot, I think I’ll be lovable. I’ll have that quote-unquote American dream.” What we’re seeing now is a lot of that’s fallen apart. We look at the amount of college graduates that are actually getting jobs, or at least getting the kind of job that you thought you’d get when you went through college, and it’s becoming less and less. A lot of us are starting to look in the mirror and go, “If I’m going to do all this and I’m not going to get the job, and I’m not going to be happy, then what’s it all about? What am I really working for?” Everyone has said when you get the money and the title, that goes away, and I found that just wasn’t true. So what I wanted to do was try to figure out, “How do I feel successful?” Not just how does everyone say I’m successful. That’s what my journey was about.
Bwog: When did you know that you wanted to leave Live Nation? Was it one moment, or a series of events leading up to it?
Garner: Well, when I was 36, my mom was diagnosed with stomach cancer, just out of the blue. I was in the middle of my second divorce at the time. In both cases I had custody of my children, so I was about to be a single dad working really hard again. All of a sudden I just started asking those questions, “What is life all about? Am I just going to work hard all my life and never have love, never have health, and then in my late fifties just die?” It was a really unappealing thought. Meantime, I’ve got a broken heart, my marriage has fallen apart, my mom’s dying, and so I took a little bit of time off, just to spend with my mom. That was the first time I had stopped and taken a breath, and started to look at life. The doctors said she would live six months, and that’s about how long she lived. She took her last breath in my arms. And then it was like, “Okay, you’re supposed to go back to work now.” So I went back to work and tried to be the old Jason, and I just couldn’t. Lots of things that mattered to me before didn’t matter anymore.
Luckily, my boss was an amazing mentor to me. We came to this point where I couldn’t be there, and he couldn’t have me there not performing the way I used to—I’ve described it as a “conscious uncoupling,” the way that Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow did. We looked at it and said, “This doesn’t work anymore, and it’s time to move on.” So, if there was one event, it would be sitting in the room with my mom as she took her last breath, looking around the room going, “This what happens when we die.” It doesn’t really matter how much money you had in the bank, it doesn’t really matter what job you had. There’s just a couple people around who love you, and you pass on to whatever you believe that you pass on to. I felt there were some things in my life that I needed to explore beyond work. My mom dying gave me that gift of saying, “It’s time to go explore these new things.” That’s what I set out to do.
Bwog: Did you know when you left Live Nation that you wanted to write a book, or that you wanted to travel? How did you begin the process of self-exploration that you went through?
Garner: No, I just knew I needed a break. Things are rarely that clear. For me, that journey of self-exploration was very similar to how I got to where I got to in work. One experience led to another. At first I just laid on the beach and cried, you know, I missed my mom, and here I was without a job for the first time in my entire life. I got into therapy, I started to think about my mom and her health, and I decided I wanted to take a hard look at my health. I started drinking green juices, and for a period of time I was on a raw foods diet—I gave up caffeine and meat and sugar. I wasn’t sure if I was doing it right, so I looked up who was the expert in that field. I found a man named David Wolfe, who’s an expert in raw foods, and a man named Ron Teeguarden, who’s probably the leader in Chinese herbs in America. At the same time, I met a spiritual leader named Guru Singh, who started working with me on meditation and yoga. Everything started to click for me, and I realized this was that journey I had been looking for. I went to the Shaolin Temple in China to study with the monks there; I studied with Daoist masters, and Buddhist teachers, and Ram Dass; a pretty beautiful list of teachers. I got to this place where I wanted to share it, so I wrote the book.
Bwog: I’ve gotten the sense that a lot of people who become disillusioned with Western society see that appeal in traveling, especially to East Asia. What was the draw of leaving Western society as you knew it?
Garner: For my entire life, I have believed that the key for me was going to be expanding my learning. When I worked at the flea market and I didn’t speak Spanish, I learned to speak Spanish so I could understand more of what was going on. When I promoted Spanish-language music, I learned to promote English music so I could participate in more of what was going on. That was my formula, and I felt like I’d succeeded in Western culture, by all those checkmarks that we’d have on our list. I just said, “Hey, it’s time to learn something new.” And you’re right, all the books say you go to India or you go to Asia to learn more, and so I said, “Great, let’s do it.” Our image of when you’re ready to learn more on the spiritual front is you go to those Eastern countries. And so I did, and I learned a lot. But I also wouldn’t say that Eastern culture is better than Western culture, or Western culture is better than Eastern culture. If everyone quit their jobs tomorrow and went to the mountains of China…I don’t think that’s the answer. But I also don’t think the answer is we have no spirituality, no health, no regard for our bodies, and we just work ourselves to death. The answer lies in the beauty of the middle ground. How do you combine a life of spirituality and health with a life of business?
Bwog: What were some of the problems you saw in the music industry that didn’t fit into that place of balance?
Garner: I don’t think the music industry is different than any other industry. What we have in our society is a whole bunch of people believing they’ll quiet the voices in their head and they’ll be successful and happy when they get to that place over there, which is usually some title, some amount of money…. It wasn’t about the music industry, it was about the story that I had been taught, that I think all of us are taught, that happiness was going to come through working hard, struggling, and at some point I’d reach this magical place where I could relax and enjoy my life. And that’s not true—every time you get to a new place, what your programming and your brain tells you is, “Now we’ll go do this!” What I found by balancing my life with a lot of the Eastern philosophies that I learned was that I could do both. It’s not, “Work all your life so one day you can have joy.” Why can’t we build that from day one? You cram for a final exam because one day you’re going to have a great job, except when you get the job you realize you have to cram for the job, and we just keep going and going. And one day you wake up with cancer or some form of heart disease—and that’s our life. I wanted to take a new approach to life, and I wanted to see if I could put all of these pieces together in a way that formed a happy life.
Bwog: Once you had gotten some of these ideas and started experiencing this new way of living, what was the process of writing …And I Breathed?
Garner: It was interesting, because I had been the guy behind the scenes all my life as a promoter. So the hardest part for me was getting up the courage to say that I had something worthwhile to share. What I found in talking to publishers about the book was that the book they all wanted me to write was a tell-all about the entertainment industry. I had no interest in that. The process for me was saying, “I’m just going to do this myself.” Once I had cleared that way, I sat down and wrote the book in fourteen days. And then I sat with the book, because it’s such an intimate and vulnerable look at my life, and then I was just scared. (Laughs.) “What are people going to say when I write stories about crying and therapy and gurus? They’re going to think I’m nuts.” It took me a little time to get over that fear, and then I put the book out. I did it all myself with the support of my wife and my family. We bypassed the system, and that way we were able to put out a book that truly encompassed the story I wanted to tell.
Bwog: For those who are still in that system, do you see a way of people being able to find balance in the jobs that they have?
Garner: What our life ends up being is a daily practice. If we practice every day nonstop work and nonstop worry, then our life becomes diseased. If we use some of these practices along with work, then we start to create ease within our bodies. It all begins with finding a place to start, and starting. It seems insurmountable, but just simple things—a few minutes of yoga in the morning, a green juice every day—those little things start to change our perspective and our relationship with our bodies. Regardless of where you are in life, you have to develop a practice. A lot of people would say they don’t have a daily practice, but you do, even if it’s eating processed foods and working. If you want to change that, you have to introduce some of these other things. I don’t think it has to be as dramatic as what I did—I tend to do things in an all-or-nothing fashion. But by doing these things on a consistent, daily basis, you introduce a little bit of balance where before it was all go go go. It’s simple, and yet I also know because I lived through it, it’s really difficult, because we’re just not taught that that’s part of our day. When we get busy, the first things we cast away are sleep, good food, and taking time for ourselves. But in order to find balance, those are the things we have to maintain in our life.