Clear Channel dominates the Downtown music scene

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February 23, 2004 // UPDATED 9:16 am - April 25, 2007
By: Bob Gilbert
Bob Gilbert

Will independent rock venues and promoters go the way of mom and pop restaurants?

Some local music professionals say rock 'n' roll has grown so far from its raucous and rebellious roots, it's ossified into nothing more than a corporate commodity. Others say "get over it" -- aligning with big companies with deep pockets is good for business, even if it might hike up ticket prices on occasion.

Ask Steve McClellan, who books a blend of big-name and local startups for the independent Downtown mainstay First Avenue, 701 1st Ave. N., and he'll tell you the corporate giants have permanently muscled their way into and altered the Downtown scene -- with negative consequences for both venues like his and consumers.

That corporate giant McClellan speaks of is Clear Channel Communications, a national conglomerate of media and entertainment companies, including over 2,500 radio stations nationwide, with seven in the Twin Cities, along with a seemingly infinite number of billboards.

Local venues that partner with Clear Channel, including Fine Line Music Caf/, 318 1st Ave. N., and The Quest Club, 110 N. 5th St., say this corporate connection is simply good for business. (The local Target Center/Clear Channel connection could not comment for this article.)

Plus, Fine Line owner Dario Anselmo said Clear Channel can afford to take a loss and thus can bring up-and-coming stars to a scene that might not support them otherwise. However, once those stars "pop," beware of inflating ticket prices, say others.

Buying talent

In today's music industry, larger companies often have the upper hand. McClellan said conglomerates have fomented a bidding war for national acts, causing problems for venues like First Avenue that don't work with but can't compete with Clear Channel.

"Sometimes if you are the high bidder to bring a big act to Minneapolis, you can win the bid and lose your shirt," said McClellan. "Buying talent is easy. The hard part is paying them when you don't make the money at the door to cover your expenses."

In addition to handling big names (such as Sting and Britney Spears) Clear Channel selects dozens of mid-career artists (such as Blink 182) for shows at "incubator" venues like The Quest and Fine Line. Once the emerging stars "pop" into superstars, Clear Channel books them at the Target Center, 600 1st Ave. N.

Tony Harris, chief operating officer of The Quest, said Clear Channel is a "good business partner" that books over 100 shows a year at his venue -- including Simple Plan, Obie Trice, Method Man and Blink 182.

According to Anselmo, the Fine Line books over 50 Clear Channel shows a year, usually their up-and-coming singer/songwriters like John Mayer, Alanis Morissette and Nora Jones, who all played his club before they popped.

Anselmo said Clear Channel has mastered the art and science of promoting new artists. The publicly traded company nurtures selected hopefuls, plays their songs on Clear Channel radio stations -- including KTCZ (Cities 97), KDWB (FM 101.3) and KOOL 108 -- and cashes in later on their success.

"Typically, Clear Channel would lose a little bit the first time they bring an act to town," Anselmo said, but that doesn't mean the Fine Line does. Anselmo likens the Fine Line's role to a theater's concession stand -- Clear Channel pays for the main attraction and takes in the ticket sales while the Fine Line sells the "popcorn," i.e. food and drinks.

Anselmo said club owners take a chance when they bill emerging artists; local music-goers may or may not show up. He said Clear Channel is "willing to take more risks -- it's the advantage of having corporate pocketbooks instead of personal pocketbooks."

Anselmo also said Clear Channel understands the need to get people in the door and build a CD-purchasing following, so while they can occasionally price things too high they mostly keep ticket prices affordable, at least for gigs at his venue.

Pop-up prices?

Bigger name bands might be another story. Randy Levy operates Rose Presents, a music promotion business that has brought such bands as Santana, U2 and the Rolling Stones to town. He said that with companies like Clear Channel and also Ticketmaster in the game "there is statistical evidence that the price of concert tickets has increased substantially -- somebody convinced Simon and Garfunkle that a $250 ticket was acceptable."

National Clear Channel offices did not grant clearance for local representatives to speak with Skyway News.

While he admits that it is increasingly difficult for the independent music ilk to make it, he chalks it up to the market's impartial, invisible hand. "Show me one business that hasn't changed," Levy said. "Has the manufacturing business changed? Yes, everything is being made in China. Everything changes."

Levy also pointed out that people seem willing to pay more for a show in exchange for the conveniences larger companies can offer, such as online or phone-in purchasing.

Local music promoter Sue McLean said Clear Channel dominates the national radio and concert industry but that she still manages to pull in big names on her own, bringing national acts to the Historic Hennepin Theaters (The Orpheum, State and Pantages) as well as The Guthrie Theater, 725 Vineland Place. Recently, she brought in Jonny Lang and has Weird Al Yankovich, Al Green, and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones on her 2004 lineup.

According to McClellan, although First Avenue doesn't get as many big-name nationally touring shows as they used to, the club still books over a thousand bands a year. Nevertheless, without as many top sellers, McClellan said, First Avenue is experiencing the same financial difficulties as other independent businesses; nonchain grocery stores, coffee shops and record- and bookstores all must compete with the likes of Cub Foods, Starbucks, Best Buy and Borders, he said.

The trend is responsible for what McClellan calls the "malling" of Downtown. He decried the fact that independents like First Avenue are being pushed out as corporations with deeper pockets move in, here and across the country. "Clear Channel has deep pockets and can lose money until the competition goes out of business," he said.

Consumers rule

McClellan doesn't speak of Clear Channel as some sort of malevolent empire, "There's nothing evil in [the way the company does business]; it is called capitalism."

Yet, First Avenue remains dedicated to the independent spirit of rock's earlier days and is not about to cash in on a new connection. The club has worked with Jam Productions -- "one of the few indies Clear Channel did not buy out," according to McClellan -- since they did their first show together, The Pretenders, in 1980. "Jam have been honest and good to work with over the years. Why would we give that up just because somebody else comes along with a bigger bank roll?"

McClellan also recognizes that many of the music business changes he despises are consumer-driven; local rockers are patronizing the conglomerate-backed gigs. He said he worries he's beginning to sound like his father, but he can't help but be reminded of a Pogo cartoon in which a character declares: "We have seen the enemy and it is us."