If you listen closely, you can probably still hear the distant sound of champagne corks popping over in the Denver offices of Universal Concerts. After six months on the auction block, employees are breathing a bit more easily following an announcement that the company has been sold to House of Blues Entertainment, which stopped the bidding at a cool $190 million in late July.
Prior to the sale, Universal Concerts was but a limb of the infinite Seagram's company, which last year created the largest record-company monolith in the history of sound recording with its purchase of Polygram music. Seems Seagram's was eager to unload Universal so that it might pursue more lucrative business endeavors like distributing wine coolers, consolidating record labels and releasing slow-selling artists from their contracts. And while the sale of the company has been imminent for some time, that House of Blues was named as the beneficiary came as some surprise to those who expected the company to fall under the ever-expanding umbrella of the SFX company, which also owns Bill Graham Presents/Chuck Morris Presents, another major local player and Universal's most fearsome competitor.
Had SFX actually acquired Universal, it would have attained nearly 90 percent of the national concert-promotion market. And though House of Blues reportedly won a fair fight the old-fashioned way--by coughing up the most cash--the deal allows Universal Concerts to neatly avoid charges of monopoly and the delay of a Justice Department inquiry, which likely would have followed had SFX acquired Universal. House of Blues is a whopper of a company, with its own artist roster that includes blues legend Otis Rush and JGB, the reunited members of the Jerry Garcia Band, in addition to its seven locations scattered around the country. But it's still small potatoes in the world of concert promotion. Or it was. When Blues suits signed on the dotted line, they swooped up Universal's interests in nineteen of the twenty concert venues the company either owns, operates or has exclusivity deals with, including Fiddler's Green Amphitheatre, the Paramount Theatre and the Hamilton and Magness arenas at DU's Ritchie Center.
As a result of all of this financial wrangling, two things are certain to happen: First, the already ugly business of concert promotion is about to get a hell of a lot uglier, and second, Denver folks can expect to see a bona fide House of Blues venue open here relatively soon.
Even before Universal became the property of House of Blues, it was the largest promoter in the state. And with the new cash flow, the company has bulked up like a high school wrestler on a red-meat diet. Mark Norman, senior vice president of Universal's Colorado outpost, says the company is already planning to expand in ways that will allow it to be a stronger competitor locally and on a national scale, with industry heavy-hitters like SFX.
"There's a huge level of excitement here--it's a definite spirit of renewal. None of us are sure exactly what's going to happen. We've been shooting e-mails back and forth between offices ever since [the announcement]. Everyone's just starting to get a sense of the possibilities," he says. "One of the first things we're going to do is open a touring division. These days a significant amount of business is done by one promoter buying the entire country or world. With House of Blues backing, we've got a war chest to do that now. We're just waiting for the go button." Should that button be pushed, Universal would like to find itself backing the kind of high-profile--and high-grossing--national acts launched by SFX, such as Cher, 'N Sync and the recent pairing of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, which killed nationwide.
Locally, the company formerly known as Universal now has the muscle to compete more aggressively for those blockbuster artists and concerts, which should lead to an all-out horn-locking with BGP/CMP. Eager to expand out of the confines of its 1,000- to 2,000-seat-capacity venues and into Universal spaces, House of Blues is already slobbering at the prospect of bringing artists into larger houses, like Fiddler's and the Ritchie Center. Even the Paramount, which before the sale was reportedly clinging to uncertain life as a mid-sized venue, could now be poised to engage in a pissing match with the newly reopened, and BGP/CMP-controlled, Fillmore Auditorium.
"By acquiring the Universal venues, we can carry artists from the cradle to the grave, starting out in a small room, then moving on to larger ones like Hamilton and eventually Fiddler's Green-sized venues," says Chris Stephenson from the House of Blues headquarters in L.A. And while this rosy spin implies the company is motivated by an altruistic desire to help artists, there's little question who will ultimately benefit from attaining a veritable stranglehold on the major venues in Denver and other markets.
Presently, Universal, hence HOB, doesn't operate the kind of "small room"-type venue to which Stephenson refers. But all indications are that it's only a matter of time before that changes. If a city's prominence can be measured by the number of corporatized, themed restaurant/venues it contains per square mile, Denver's stature may soon be elevated, as HOB has for some time been seeking a local spot for one of its trademark venues, and the hunt will now intensify. Though unwilling to offer details on dates or locations, Stephenson hints that the opening of a Denver House of Blues is only a few rolls of red tape away.
"Denver is very, very high on our priority list," Stephenson says. "It's a great music market. Our strategy has been to really look at markets and decide where we need to be to have as broad a presence as we can. I can tell you we're very excited about Denver."
All we need is a Fashion Cafe tacked on to the 16th Street Mall and we're certifiably civilized.
Though these developments could be viewed as a poisoned dart aimed directly at his aorta, Chuck Morris claims to be undaunted by the prospect of Universal's expansion and the House of Blues infiltration. His Chuck Morris Enterprises paired with California-based Bill Graham Presents a year and a half ago and is currently navigating an adolescent status. Citing a "dream month" in July, which included mammoth returns for the separate Red Rocks bookings of artists Tom Petty and Willie Nelson, Morris seems prepared to face the challenge of a stepped-up Universal presence.
"It's gonna be business as usual. We [BGP/CMP] are still the new kids in town, but we just had a storybook month, and I feel great about where we're going," he says. As far as House of Blues' plans to enter an already crowded concert venue market, Morris has this to say: "I'll put our Fillmore up against the House of Blues anyday. I think the prime rib is pretty good there. That's about all I can say." Me-ow!
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For the time being, the quality of the prime rib at the House of Blues remains to be seen for the majority of Denverites. But regarding the establishment's effect on the local concert market, well-known steak eater Barry Fey, owner of the infamous Feyline Presents and former and current consultant for both Chuck Morris Enterprises and Universal, respectively, paints a bleak picture wherein the ticket buyer ultimately suffers from the infrastructural stress.
"The only thing they [the promoters] have an interest in is the product," Fey says. "People will be more aware of the competition for the product, but I think ultimately the warfare will get bloodier, and ticket-buyers will pay the price."
Simply put, whether it's an HOB-backed Universal, or BGP/CMP, or an independent outfit like Nobody in Particular Presents, promotional companies will continue to acquire act after act after act in the same way House of Blues acquired Universal: by offering the highest bid. And you've got three guesses who gets shafted when that happens. If you said anything other than "the fans," you've got two chances left.