In Denver, the concert-promotions war continues to play out like a Shakespearean epic. From dead fish dumped at box offices to royal blow-offs for important jobs, the rivalry between Clear Channel Entertainment and its biggest local competitor, House of Blues Concerts, has included bloody intrigue and betrayals aplenty. For spectators, it's been great to watch -- although not the sort of scene you want to get caught in the middle of.
But a deal announced last week opens a new act in the concert business. This time, the plot twist involves a supporting actor joining forces with a competitor -- and playing fair.
After three years of fighting, that's what Steve Schalk has decided to do with the Gothic Theatre on South Broadway, the old movie palace that he and a partner bought in 1999, renovated, and turned into one of the most viable mid-sized venues on the Front Range. Last week, Schalk announced that rather than continue to compete vigorously with Nobody in Particular Presents -- the local promotions company that owns the comparably sized Bluebird and Ogden theaters, as well as the Lion's Lair -- he plans to merge with NIPP and participate in its Denver operations. By Monday of this week, Schalk's staff had already begun moving into the already cramped NIPP offices on York Street.
"The way things have been, we've been working together and against each other in some ways," Schalk says. "We've had a lot of the same staff, but we've competed for the same shows. And we did stuff to each other that really emulated the whole House of Blues/Clear Channel thing. I'd pluck shows from them, and they'd pluck things from me. I'm hoping that this is going to at least put the temporary Band-Aid on some of the silliness that we do on our level, because ultimately it would only end up hurting the fans."
And what does this mean to the average fan? Probably not much more than the eventual whittling of a few dollars off the ticket prices at NIPP/Gothic-controlled venues; in theory, when promoters stop outbidding each other for shows, prices return to some modicum of normalcy. According to Schalk, it also means plenty of good music for fans: He and NIPP's Peter Ore will work together to keep all three rooms full. In fact, Schalk intends to hire an additional agent to work specifically with local bands, he adds, suggesting that he's interested in maintaining positive relations with local artists, many of whom regard the Gothic as a uniquely friendly place to play -- and get paid. (Schalk also hints that he and his staff might eventually take a whack at fancying up some of NIPP's venues to a near Gothic-like grandeur. Who knows? With a couple hundred coats of paint, some deco lighting and a total architectural overhaul, the Ogden might actually be a pleasant place for a show.)
But most of all, the deal means that Denver's concert promotions world just got even smaller, with three entities controlling all of the major rooms in town. (NIPP's founder, Doug Kauffman owned and operated the room in the early '80s before it had a liquor license.) While tame compared with the merger-mania going on elsewhere in the music industry, the joining of Gothic/NIPP forces still results in a conglomerate with the potential to put the squeeze on the little guys at smaller rooms, such as the 15th Street Tavern, which has always competed hotly with NIPP's Lion's Lair. And although Schalk has been open about his support of NIPP's anti-trust lawsuit against Clear Channel, he stresses that the terms of the merger are non-exclusive and that the Gothic's doors are still open to anyone who comes rapping with an offer and a good show.
Not that we should expect Clear Channel to come rapping all that often. Led by regional vice president Chuck Morris, the company has just entered into a development deal with Kroenke Sports that will lead to even more live-music venues in Denver. (Kroenke's recent acquisition of the Paramount Theatre's lease is apparently just the start of something big, big, big.) Although at the moment he's tight-lipped on the details, Morris says he's been brainstorming the potential of such a partnership for years and that he's got "big plans on the level of the magnitude of the opening of the Fillmore." Besides, for the past three years, Clear Channel's use of the Gothic has been intermittent at best, with just a couple of shows placed in the Englewood venue each year (such as 2001's sellout performance by PJ Harvey).
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"Nobody in Particular has always made it clear that their rooms are open to everyone, but you don't exactly see Clear Channel taking them up on the offer," Schalk says, laughing. "The bottom line is that I don't think Clear Channel is that interested in club-level shows. That's not their model. They're interested in CityLights, in filling the Fillmore, not in placing some regional indie act or Hispanic hip-hop show."
Although Morris isn't talking about Clear Channel's plans, he will talk about the Gothic deal. "It once again proves that nothing is written in stone in this town," he says of the merger with NIPP, a company he could be facing in court before the year's end. "It's just amazing to see this wonderful success of NIPP. Reading about their expansion of the Denver Botanic Gardens series across the country and now their merger with the beautiful Gothic Theatre only reinforces that they're on a roll. What I don't understand is how a company that has such a growth pattern can at the same time foster litigation that Clear Channel is somehow impeding them. It just makes no sense."
Schalk feels like he's on a bit of a roll, as well. Despite a generally dismal season for ticket sales and an overinflated schedule at many larger venues, the Gothic is enjoying its best summer yet, he says, thanks in part to its increase in capacity and willingness to take chances on some unconventional fare, such as after-hours shows and monthly sets by high-drawing Latin-house artist DJ Kahlil. A former Hollywood set designer who's learned the concert business through three years of trial by fire, Schalk says he's ready to run with his new business plan, and he's already feeling at home in NIPP headquarters.
"I think before the whole lawsuit, a lot of people didn't know who they were," Schalk says. "But in the last year, their profile has really gone up. They're smart guys, they're invested: They've got operations going in different states, they're well staffed and connected. Ultimately, the ticket buyers do not give a shit whose name is on what. They care about the name on the ticket stub, how much it costs and how easy it is to get it. My hope is that all that stuff is going to get easier, and better, for everyone."