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Backwash

Steve Smith, chief operations officer for Clear Channel's entertainment division, does not have talons, or horns. Backwash discovered this last week, when Smith came to town and met with reporters in an attempt to stem the tide of negative press that his company has received in the past year, including in this column. In recent months, Clear Channel, whose assets in radio trump its role as the nation largest promoter of live-entertainment events, has become synonymous with all kinds of disparaging verbiage: It's been described as a big bully, abusive, frugal to a fault, law-bending and soulless. Clear Channel's own employees are prone to refer to their parent company -- sometimes in jest, sometimes not -- as wicked. Critics blame the multimedia ├╝bercorp for everything from the high cost of concert tickets to the sorry state of commercial radio to the increased difficulty of making it as an independent promoter.

But sitting in a room at the Hotel Teatro, Smith was amiable and casual, lighting quick and clever, with the slightest tinge of a Texas drawl that he no doubt picked up in San Antonio, where Clear Channel's corporate headquarters are located.

"I think it's important for our company to have a face and a name, and particularly the 'corporate' Clear Channel," he said. "You're looking at the manifestation of the evil empire right here."

Smith doesn't look like a guy authorized to cut $100 million checks to 'N Sync. He doesn't carry himself like a man who has his hand in everything from the billboards you see on your way to work (Clear Channel's outdoor-advertising division is a major part of its business) to the advertising-laden kiosks that dot the avenues of your local shopping mall (when Smith recently realized Clear Channel controlled many of these, he says, his reaction was: "Oh, we own those, too?") to the productions that dominate Broadway marquees (Clear Channel owns The Producers, among others). But he is, and he does.

Much of the discussion focused on the company's defense against the anti-trust suit filed by Denver indie promoters Nobody in Particular Presents in August: That is, the plaintiffs cannot prove that their business has been restrained or restricted from growth as a result of Clear Channel's dominance of the Denver concert market (see "The Clear Channel Empire Strikes Back"). In fact, Clear Channel argues, NIPP's business has grown since Clear Channel bought SFX and entered the local ring. And what of the suit's more damning accusations -- among them, the charge that Clear Channel Entertainment uses the company's size and power to persuade artists, sometimes illegally, to come on board or suffer the consequences?

"Untrue, unproven and ridiculous," Smith said.

Time will tell if NIPP's claims can be proven. Much of the extant literature to support its allegations is culled from sources who say they are too scared of incurring Clear Channel's wrath to go on the record. Sworn testimonies, subpoenas and legal depositions would change that. A lot of what NIPP has said makes sense, although I don't envy its legal team, led by Walter Gerash, whose job it will be to come up against what will surely be a formidable foe in the courtroom. (Part of the "beauty" of Clear Channel, as Smith pointed out repeatedly, is its access to tons of capital: cash to build theaters, buy artists, fund tours -- and hire kick-ass lawyers.)

A lot of what Smith said made sense, too: Clear Channel is a business, pure and simple. Businesses make money. Why should anyone have a problem with that?

"I don't feel the need to be embarrassed or bashful about the progress we've made in this market," he said. "You can't confuse being more effective, better, more profitable with restricting trade. And we are absolutely trying to use these assembled resources to become better at what we do...It's fascinating, because there's no cookbook for this kind of consolidated business in entertainment and media."

A little later, I figured out why I, and a lot of others, have a problem with that.

Smith's litany, as well-crafted and logical as it was, was peppered with these words and phrases: maximum financial opportunity, assets, vertical integration, marketability, property, stakeholders, shareholders, consumers, audience share, percentages, merger, opportunity, operation, efficiency, common denominator, and -- my least favorite -- content. This is business-speak, I realize -- the lingo of the world's "multi-taskers" who get "on the same page" in order to "solidify the operational infrastructure" of the planet Earth. It's the vocabulary that makes the business world go round. But it has absolutely nothing to do with music.

During our interview, Smith strongly rebuked NIPP's claim that artists are persuaded to go with Clear Channel promoters or risk having their songs pulled from the playlists of Clear Channel stations around the country. His argument was convincing, not because he pointed out that such a practice would be unethical and possibly illegal, but because the economics of such a thing are all wrong: In other words, a radio programmer in Detroit is not going to pull a song by an artist who commands "audience" just because he's pissed off a promoter in Dallas. Commercial radio follows a precise arithmetic with very little wiggling room. Every song on the radio brings with it a certain fiscal expectation: It has been audience-tested, its numbers run through industry-tracking devices like BDS, Arbitron, Soundscan, Mediabase. It has been paid for by a record company, which has hired a third-party "independent promoter" to pitch it to stations (which receive "licensing" fees for allowing him to do so). Once a song is added to a station's playlist, its success with listeners is monitored as closely as an unfamiliar blip on a military radar screen. The only thing that really matters at that point is whether or not the song makes people flip the dial -- a radioland disaster.

 

Smith referred nostalgically to the era "back in the day," when the directors of underground radio had a more freewheeling approach to programming -- in stark contrast to "the way most major music radio stations, Clear Channel or otherwise, work in 2001." He talked about the old practice of altering playlists to reflect whatever concert was coming up, using Jefferson Starship as an example.

"We'd be nonstop, round-the-clock playing some song that Grace Slick was singing lead on for the three weeks before the concert, and the day of the concert, we'd be playing it almost all day long," he said. "So we were hyper-focused on having the radio station reflect whatever the live-entertainment market was at the time." Today, of course, "there's so much money at stake in slight variations in listenership," he adds. "The people who listen to my radio station -- and it's even more critical than that, if [they are] the people who happen to fill out the Arbitron books -- those people might be turned off by that Jefferson Starship record, and I might lose a significant amount of audience, which would have an enormous amount of effect on the profitability of my station."

We've all known for a while that DJs have little say in what gets played during their shifts. The image of WKRP in Cincinnati's Johnny Fever flipping through stacks of records and selecting tracks on whim is about as outdated and naive as the idea that the bands with the most talent are the ones that wind up landing lucrative recording contracts. Still, there are those who would like to believe that there is some room for an element of risk in the entertainment world -- especially in radio, which is still the leading factor in an artist's career. Risk defines the spirit of rock and roll, radio's bastard child. Back in the day, risks taken at the radio level made legends out of the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and Elvis. A lot of people hated these artists when they first heard them. Later, the Beatles were knighted. Elvis now has a couple of postage stamps that bear his likeness. There's not more than a handful of artists on the radio these days that I'd like to share a drink with, much less expect to remember in ten years.

Clear Channel is effective at what it does, and that will become more evident as the company grows. Smith emphasized the efficiency of its operations -- how a "consumer" can go to a Clear Channel show and know that she will be safe, that things will run smoothly, that company execs like him have thought of "new things that we can do to make the machine run better." He also noted that all divisions of Clear Channel benefit from a shared bank of experience and a similar strategic mindset that leaves no stone unturned in the pursuit of "profitability." We can only imagine what that will mean in coming years. As Smith says, there is no cookbook for this kind of consolidation. There are also no guidelines on what effect the conglomeratization of the world has on the mental environment, not to mention the soul of an artist. While it may be a difficult point to argue in front of a judge, there's validity in wanting to protect the imperfection of spontaneous experience from the cold, calculated efficiency of a well-oiled machine.

Let the music play.


And now let us give audience to some fine acts soon to grace local stages: The Czars celebrate the release of their brill new album, The Ugly People vs. The Beautiful People, with a CD-release party on Saturday, October 13, at the Gothic Theatre; David Eugene Edwards of 16 Horsepower will open the show with a special preview of his new solo project, Woven Hand...On Sunday, October 14, Denver's Latino community offers a marathon of spicy sounds to raise funds for disaster relief efforts in New York City; Conjunto Colores, the Mood Express, Mariachi Vasquez, Alma Latino and Jon Romero y Amancer are among the performers who will converge on the Lakeside Mall during the festivities...Sure, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion hasn't issued a proper full-length release since 1999, but that's largely because frontman and guitar savant Spencer has been busy palling around in the studio with Boss Hog and Princess Superstar, among others, in addition to working on a new BluesEx album set for release on Matador early next year. Even if the band has nothing new to show us, the chance to welcome it back to local stages is not to be missed: Catastrophic blues deconstruction makes for a volatile live show, indeed. See for yourself when the Blues Explosion offers extra width at the Fox Theatre on Sunday, October 14. Now you won't have no worry.


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