Taking on the Empire

A local lawsuit against the world's largest radio/concert firm threatens to expose the dark side of the entertainment business.

House of Blues excludes competitors from Fiddler's Green, the Paramount Theatre and the Ritchie Center at the University of Denver. In addition, Clear Channel keeps the Fillmore Auditorium to itself and reached an agreement with Stan Kroenke, millionaire owner of the Colorado Avalanche and the Denver Nuggets, to give the company special access to the Pepsi Center.

With Red Rocks, the Denver Coliseum, the Gothic Theatre and innumerable Boulder performance spaces also in the mix, the area presently has an enormous glut of venues -- and more are on the way. Clear Channel has agreed to book shows into Coopers'town, a LoDo rock-and-jock joint named for rocker Alice Cooper, and the company, in conjunction with Kroenke Sports, is also behind City Lights Pavilion, a tented structure slated for construction outside the Pepsi Center, where it's to remain throughout the summer concert season.

"We're starting the approval process with the city and preparing to go to the city council," says Clear Channel's Morris. "If all goes well, we'll be moving ahead shortly -- and I think people are really going to love it."

Chris Swank, Doug Kauffman and Jesse Morreale of Nobody in Particular Presents are standing up to Clear Channel.
John Johnston
Chris Swank, Doug Kauffman and Jesse Morreale of Nobody in Particular Presents are standing up to Clear Channel.
Clear Channel's FleetBoston Pavilion is the model for a planned Denver venue whose tent was previously used at Boston's Harborlights Pavilion.
Clear Channel's FleetBoston Pavilion is the model for a planned Denver venue whose tent was previously used at Boston's Harborlights Pavilion.

That turned out to be the case in Boston, where legendary promoter Don Law (now also in the Clear Channel family) built Harborlights Pavilion in 1994. Like the proposed City Lights, Harborlights was placed on a parking lot, albeit one with a considerably better view than its Denver cousin; it sat on land just steps from the Atlantic Ocean on the city's booming waterfront. Jim Jensen, who was general manager of Harborlights, says there initially was skepticism from locals about seeing a concert under a tent, even if that tent cost $2.5 million, and notes that during the first year, when the lineup consisted mainly of old-timers such as Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, "we bled red ink like you wouldn't believe." But after broadening the talent array to include the likes of Shawn Colvin, Harborlights took off -- so much so that Law decided to buy land and construct a more permanent venue (the tent was taken down each fall and put up again the following spring, as it will be with City Lights). Today, FleetBoston Pavilion, a few blocks from Harborlights' previous perch in an equally picturesque spot, hosts shows ranging from Bad Company to Jo Dee Messina, and, says Jensen, "it's really become a Boston landmark."

Regardless of the apparent proliferation of local venues in Denver, however, Morris is sure the pavilion will fill a need on the local scene. "To do a traditional show with somebody like Tony Bennett at Fiddler's Green, with 18,000 seats, is ridiculous, but so is doing two shows in a smaller room, like the Paramount -- and if you do a half house at Red Rocks, you lose a fortune and the acts aren't happy, because it seems like no one's there. So I think this will be perfect for a lot of acts, from soft rock to MOR to jazz to R&B to classical. We're in serious negotiations with the Colorado Symphony to do a pop series there."

The company most directly affected by City Lights and Coopers'town may be NIPP, which does almost all of its business downtown and already must contend with the nearby Fillmore Auditorium. Jerry Bakal of Concerts East, an independent promotion company in New Jersey, faces a similar dilemma. Like NIPP, Bakal says he regularly loses bookings because "the bands are afraid to piss off the radio stations" and because his performance space is surrounded by Clear Channel-owned venues. But he's survived, and he sees a few cracks in Clear Channel's armor that make him at least moderately optimistic about the future.

"They've become a concession company," he says. "They're paying so much for bands that they're making all their money on $10 burritos and $6 glasses of beer, and they're losing focus on concert promotion. And since business this season is already off 30 or 40 percent, that's only making it worse. That's why I think that if they keep losing money, they'll sell the promotions part. It's a publicly traded company, and the bottom line is what counts, so they'll downsize, or slice and dice, or put everyone into one office, or do whatever the accountants want them to do.

"So I think it's a good idea for us independents to stick around."


Doug Kauffman and Jesse Morreale are convinced their lawsuit gives them the best opportunity to survive for the long haul. But both recognize that the new millennium doesn't have much in common with its predecessor.

"When this company started in 1987, things were radically different than they are today," Kauffman says. "The first show I ever did was John Cale, and even though no one knew who I was, I got KTCL to present the show, and they added him to the playlist. Can you believe that? They added John Cale! That was free-form radio."

At Clear Channel these days, nothing's free. Given the huge fees bands command, the concert tickets the company sells are more expensive than ever, and its radio stations command premium advertising rates. Too bad the outlets consistently sound lousy. A huge amount of programming is either syndicated or voicetracked, and other sharing of resources between signals undercuts variety, originality and, oftentimes, station personality. Reggie McDaniel has turned up doing movie reviews on KOA, which has Clear Channel Denver's oldest listeners, and KTCL, which boasts its youngest. Likewise, a visiting stand-up comic will sometimes appear on four different Clear Channel stations over the span of an hour or two, as might the same staff of reporters. And that's not to mention increasingly narrow playlists larded with ever more predictable material. No wonder so many people grouse about the quality of what's on the dial.

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