Concerts get called off all the time, for a variety of reasons: illness, poor ticket sales, freaks of nature like the blizzard that hit the region this fall. But the circumstances surrounding the postponing of a bash starring Puff Daddy & the Family that was to have taken place on December 22 at McNichols Arena are more complicated than that--and considerably more suspicious. You see, Puff Daddy (given name: Sean Combs) was set to appear at the Edmonton Coliseum in Edmonton, Alberta, on the same evening that Coloradans expected to see him here--a difficult commute, to put it mildly. Moreover, tickets for both dates were on sale simultaneously for at least a week.
The Denver event wasn't setting any popularity records: After more than a month, a little more than half the seats at McNichols remained available. But the total was not so low that cancellation was expected. Hence, music-business insiders were surprised when they heard that the presentation wouldn't go forward, and they were even more startled when Ticketmaster-Colorado kept selling tickets for it and participating media outlet KQKS-FM, aka KS-107.5, continued a Puff Daddy hype barrage. In fact, the ticketing service and the radio station didn't change their tunes until just five days prior to showtime.
How did this happen? Most fingers of blame are being jabbed at Al Haymon, the Baltimore-based promoter supervising the Puff Daddy jaunt. Haymon makes an easy target; he's been involved in other problematic Denver dates, including one earlier this year in which co-headliner Keith Sweat simply failed to appear. But because he has been notably quiet about the most recent debacle (at press time, he hadn't returned Westword's calls), locals are left to speculate about a situation that's more extreme than any in recent memory.
In retrospect, there were plenty of warning signs. The Puff Daddy bill, which includes Busta Rhymes, Lil' Kim, Usher and many other R&B chart-toppers, was originally to have hit McNichols on November 19 before being switched to December 22. But people wired into the hip-hop community began to ascertain that the rescheduled booking was on shaky ground, too. Francois Baptiste, head of Denver's 3 Deep Productions, says, "I started hearing about them not coming here when I was at the Billboard Video Music Conference in Los Angeles on November 20." Baptiste, who's also the overseer of Rhythm Visions, a video program on KBDI-TV/Channel 12 and a principal in the new hip-hop magazine State of the Union (see "United They Stand," November 6), had hoped to put on after-parties following the concert, but he says that when he approached representatives of various record companies in an attempt to line up special guests, "they told me, 'I don't think they're going to be making it through Denver at all.' It wasn't a definite 'no'; it was more like, 'I don't think so.' But then, about a week later, I talked to somebody I know who was doing security for the tour, and he said, 'We're not coming to Denver.'"
As if this wasn't confirmation enough, Baptiste received what would be considered irrefutable proof from one of the stars of the show. The week of December 8, Busta Rhymes was stranded for a time at Denver International Airport; he was trying to fly to Kansas, but bad weather there forced a delay. While he was hanging out, he was spotted by Tina Soledad Taylor, an assistant producer on Rhythm Visions, who asked him if he would do an interview with her when he returned to the state in a couple of weeks. As Baptiste tells it, "Busta said, 'Nah, I can't, because we're not coming back.' He didn't know anything about a show in Denver at all." Neither did practically anyone else outside of Colorado. The Web site for Pollstar, an important concert-industry publication, listed Edmonton as the sole December 22 stop on the Puff Daddy itinerary for most of December.
Rick Stacy, program director and morning-show co-host for KS-107.5, heard plenty of scuttlebutt about a cancellation as well. "There were a lot of rumors," he concedes. "The record company, Arista, told us that it was off two or three weeks before it all came down."
Donna Torrence, assistant director of publicity for Arista, the parent company of Combs's imprint, Bad Boy, disputes Stacy's math; she says she learned of the double booking about a week before Ticketmaster-Colorado pulled the plug. But she understands why confusion reigned: "I think basically what went on was that the show was canceled, but whoever canceled it and booked the other show didn't let everyone know properly."
That jibes with Stacy's experience. After Arista announced that Puff Daddy wasn't coming to town, he reveals, KS-107.5 staffers contacted Haymon's company and Pepsi, the journey's corporate sponsor, and were told categorically that Arista was wrong. "They all said that it was still going to happen. And since Pepsi, through the promoter, was spending literally thousands of dollars on our station running spots for it and they weren't showing any signs of stopping, we didn't question it. We figured, if they're still doing this, then Arista must have its wires crossed."
But Arista wasn't wrong, and neither was Elektra, Rhymes's label, which informed yours truly on December 12 that Puff Daddy would be in Canada, not Colorado, in ten days' time. Knowing that several students at the school where my wife teaches had purchased tickets to the show, I asked her to pass the word along to them. But when the young consumers called Ticketmaster-Colorado, they were told that the show was still on--and that message was repeated to callers even after a small item about the Edmonton/Denver snafu appeared in the December 16 Rocky Mountain News. A reliable source tells me that as late as 6 p.m. on December 17, the computer at one area Ticketmaster walkup continued to list the December 22 date.
The morning of the 17th, KS-107.5 was still operating under the belief that the appearance would take place as planned. But jocks changed their tune later in the day--and that afternoon, during a segment manned by DJ Gerry Dixon, Combs himself called the station to apologize. "He completely denied knowing anything about it and blamed everything on the promoter," Stacy notes. "He said he just goes where they tell him to go when they tell him to go there."
This characterization differs dramatically from the image of Combs proffered by a "rockumentary" about the Puff Daddy & the Family tour currently receiving airplay on MTV; in it, Puffy claims to be deeply involved in every aspect of the production. But Stacy is inclined to believe the statement he made to Dixon. "He sounded pretty upset," he says, "and for such a major star to go to the trouble of calling a radio station in Denver to explain something like this, it makes me think he really cares. And he made a point of saying that the concert wasn't canceled, only postponed. He emphatically said he would take care of Denver."
That's the assumption that Ticketmaster is operating under. According to Cathy Felling, general manager of Ticketmaster-Colorado, no new Puff Daddy tickets are being sold at present, and people calling to inquire about ones they've already bought are being told that they can either take them to the location where they purchased them for a complete refund ("convenience charges" included) or hold on to them until a make-up date is announced.
Right now, no one has any idea when that will be. During his KS-107.5 chat, Combs implied that he wants to come to Denver as soon as possible, but Pollstar indicates that he'll spend all of January and at least a portion of February in Europe. "It could be June when he comes here, for all we know," Stacy says.
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If Combs keeps his promise, he may find some angry fans waiting for him. "I just think this is a load of crap," Baptiste says. "If you put two and two together, it looks pretty fishy--like a recipe for how not to give people's money back to them." Adds Stacy, "I would hold on to my tickets if I could, because this is supposed to be a really great show. But it being postponed again, for a second time, still really sucks. I can only assume that the promoter booked these two shows on the same day to see which one would sell better. And last time I heard, Denver had sold about 7,000 tickets and Edmonton had sold over 10,000. So I guess Denver gets screwed."