When the first shots in the Denver promoter wars were fired earlier this year, most observers figured that the primary combatants would be Universal Concerts, the company that took over what was left of the empire created by Barry Fey, and BGP/CMP, a firm that mates a powerhouse West Coast operation founded by the late Bill Graham with the regional know-how and canny business sense of Chuck Morris, the head of Colorado's largest band management company (Big Head Todd and the Monsters are among Morris's clients). But things aren't always as simple as they seem. Universal and BGP/CMP have indeed been trading volleys: The former's summer lineup is loaded with heavy hitters like Van Halen, while the latter's roster includes Bonnie Raitt and other sizable names. But Jacor Concerts, a wing of the Cincinnati-based radio conglomerate that controls eight major stations locally and around 200 outlets nationwide, has also gotten into the mix, and it's stirred up plenty of controversy in the process.
The local music community is abuzz with rumors that Jacor has been attempting to muscle in on other promoters' business using questionable or possibly illegal practices--such as threatening to withhold an artist's airplay unless Jacor gets a piece of the action, for example. None of the many concert insiders contacted by Westword would go on the record about specific allegations against the conglomerate, and Jacor representatives passionately deny all claims of wrongdoing, including using airplay as a bargaining chip. What Jacor spokespersons do acknowledge, though, is that they play hardball--and Jacor Concerts' approach to marketing a reggae festival coming to Red Rocks on August 4 proves it. The show is titled "Teva's 'Spirit of Unity' World Tour," but the spirit Jacor has exhibited while hyping it is one not of unity, but of confrontation.
A little history is in order. Promoter Bill Bass has brought more reggae acts to Colorado than any other person, and he's credited with creating Reggae on the Rocks, an annual summer festival that's become both a Denver-area tradition and an internationally respected event. (Boulder's W.A.R.? imprint just issued its second CD keyed to Reggae on the Rocks. The disc that preceded it was played on more than 150 stations across the country last year, including Jacor-owned KBCO-FM/97.3.) Bass's reputation when it comes to reggae is such that other area promoters seldom book national reggae acts at all--and when they do, they almost always involve Bass on some level.
This year's Reggae on the Rocks, a two-day affair for the second consecutive year, is supposedly the twelfth edition of the series, but it's actually the eleventh; Bass skipped the number seven because, he says, "I didn't like the way it looked in Roman numerals." (He explains this quirk by noting, "I was high a lot back then.") The acts Bass booked for the dates in question (August 22 and 23) are impressive: Burning Spear, the Long Beach Dub All-Stars, Toots and the Maytals, Eek-a-Mouse, Heavyweight Dub Champion, Alpha Blondy and the Solar System Band, Lee "Scratch" Perry, Majek Fashek, Justin Hinds and the Dominoes, Boukman Eksperyans and Mad Professor. Bass is understandably proud of the schedule, and he paid a lot of coin for it--$190,000, he claims. But when he went to the folks at Jacor to ask if the show could be presented by KBCO, which had been associated with ten of the previous eleven Reggae on the Rocks concerts, he was told that they had no interest in participating.
Bass got the same story from KTCL-FM/93.3, another Jacor station, until he added Reel Big Fish, a young ska combo, to the lineup. But by the time KTCL came back to the table, Universal, with whom Bass is working on Reggae on the Rocks, had already agreed to let KXPK-FM/96.5 (the Peak) present the shows, along with the American Music Festival on July 11 and 12. According to Bass, this decision ratcheted up the tension in his already awkward relationship with Jacor. (He makes reference to another dust-up between the two entities, but he declines to speak about it.) Even so, he claims to have been shocked when he learned that KTCL, a station that seldom plays reggae anymore, was behind a rival reggae festival. "After that, it was pretty obvious why they didn't want anything to do with mine," he says.
The "Spirit of Unity" World Tour, made up of Steel Pulse, Buju Banton, Shaggy, Beres Hammond, Lucky Dube and Let's Go Bowling, is slated to hopscotch across the continent this summer, and the price tag on its talent (approximately $60,000) was reasonable compared with Reggae on the Rocks. Still, Bass is certain that other local promoters wouldn't have touched it--and given that no reggae fest aside from those overseen by Bass has visited Denver in the past decade, he may be right. However, Rob Buswell, head of Jacor Concerts, disputes his claim. "It was a good package of artists," he says, "and after they involved the Peak, we decided to do our own reggae festival this year. And if we hadn't, either the people who put together the tour would have self-promoted, or someone else around here would have taken it. So we didn't feel there was any reason why we shouldn't do it."
Shortly thereafter, KTCL jocks began referring to "reggae at Red Rocks" when ballyhooing "Spirit of Unity," and the words also turned up in a Westword ad. Bass, who has copyrighted the "Reggae on the Rocks" phrase, fired off a letter to Jacor demanding that the company make changes immediately. Mike O'Connor, program director for KTCL, says he was more than happy to comply. "He is absolutely right that at first a couple of DJs said 'reggae at Red Rocks,' and the print ad in Westword said it, too, to define what the 'Spirit of Unity' tour was about," he says. "But the last thing we wanted to do was cause confusion. We felt like calling it 'reggae at Red Rocks' was giving him free advertising. And we don't want to sell tickets to Reggae on the Rocks; we want to sell them for 'Spirit of Unity.' So we corrected that."
What wasn't changed was ad copy in which KTCL jocks promoted "Spirit of Unity" by describing Reggae on the Rocks as inordinately expensive (tickets are $30 for one day and $55 for both versus $20-$22.50 for "Spirit of Unity") and musically weak by comparison with the Jacor-sponsored event. This struck Bass as a personal attack. "The whole thing is rude--really fucking rude," he says. "It's rude to people who've gotten married at Reggae on the Rocks, and it's rude to everyone who's gone to it for eleven years in a row. And anyone who knows anything about reggae knows that mine is a better show--a much better show. But they're spreading misinformation about it, thinking that they can turn a pig's ear into a silk purse.
"I've dealt with these stations for fifteen to eighteen years, and everything's always been great. So I'm incredibly fucking mystified by this."
When told about Bass's response, KTCL's O'Connor shrugs it off. "We're not using disparaging tactics," he insists. "We're selling against price. Our show is cheaper--and in our opinion, our lineup is stronger. And we're competitive. We want our show to do better than his, and we hope concertgoers will choose ours over it. If it's at his expense, that's just the way it is. There are only a certain amount of concert-going dollars out there, and we'd like to attract as many of those as possible."
Jacor Concerts' Buswell elaborates on O'Connor's sentiments. At first he argues that by complaining about Jacor promoting "Spirit of Unity" in Denver, Bass is attempting to restrict the amount of reggae Coloradans can hear--but when it's noted that KTCL's advertising implies that consumers should skip Reggae on the Rocks rather than attend both shows, he backs off and says, "I can't disagree with you on that." He subsequently paints Bass, a legendarily cantankerous person, as responsible for most of his own problems. "He called me last year two days before Reggae on the Rocks and started ripping KBCO apart to me," he says. "He was insulting to me, insulting to our program directors, insulting to our station, and really left everyone at KBCO with a bad taste in their mouth about working with Bill anymore. And this year he booked his show on the same day as Lilith Fair, which for KBCO is a much more core event than Reggae on the Rocks. So KBCO had to make a choice, and they chose Lilith.
"Bill thinks we're trying to put him out of business--he's a fairly paranoid person--but we've got more important things to do than that. I don't know how to impress this on him, and I don't really care. But every step of the way, he finds something that we're trying to do to him, and it's such a crock of shit. On a personal and professional level, I've really been getting harassed by him. We've been friends since 1989, and over the years, I'd seen him treat a lot of people like shit, but he'd never addressed me that way until I came over here--and then he started treating me like he treats everyone else. We've been battling since last August, and there was a three-month period where I was losing sleep over it. But I finally got to the point where I realized I'm just going to have to live without Bill Bass being my friend. He's like a cartoon character, and there was a point in my life where I really liked that about him. But it's gotten old. Really old."
With Buswell obviously uninterested in kissing and making up, Bass is left to hope that Reggae on the Rocks can survive the "Spirit of Unity" onslaught. Thus far, luck seems to be with him: He's sold over 500 tickets more at this point in his campaign than at the same time last year--and 1997's event was Bass's most profitable ever. (In the meantime, "Spirit of Unity" tickets are hardly moving at all, prompting gossip about cancellation that O'Connor and Buswell deny.) But Bass is still worried that Jacor has permanently damaged his reputation as Denver's reggae promoter. "I've thought about running ads on KTCL saying, 'Remember, there's another reggae show at Red Rocks--and you get what you pay for,'" he says. "But it would be counterproductive to do that when they're attacking me every hour. And how could I trust them to run the ads when they're supposed to? How could I trust people like that?"
At the same time that Bill Bass is fighting a one-man battle against the Jacor empire, three other independent promoters in the city--Doug Kauffman, Jesse Morreale and Swank Management's Chris Swank--are banding together under the umbrella of Kauffman's company, nobody in particular presents. The coalition brings together the Ogden Theatre (which Kauffman owns), the Bluebird Theater (Swank's property) and Morreale's Gess Presents, which has operated on its own and as part of Fey Concerts. And although the trio initially claims that the promotional slugfest taking place right now was not a factor in their decision, they waffle a bit when pressed.
"It's been a promoter war for ten years for me, and it's never stopped," Kauffman says. "I've grown sick of that. I'm tired of fighting everybody and doing everything by myself. So maybe in the context of that, it did have something to do with it. And it's good to have allies who I actually get along with and like. That's rare in this business."
In concurring, Morreale says, "I don't deny that all of the other promoters who are here now have an effect on your psyche. But this happened because of the timing. This is just a natural evolution of trying to grow my assets. And now turned out to be the perfect time to do it."
Adds Swank, "We haven't really seen the effects of all of the changes with Universal and BGP yet, so we don't know what the fallout from all of that will be. But this allows us to get a leg up without having to do it when we're in a position where we don't want to be. Nobody's strong-arming us."
A few months ago, grapeviners were claiming that Kauffman, who recently founded his own ticketing service, TICKETCHOICE (see Feedback, April 30), was stretched too thin financially and was in danger of losing the Ogden. Kauffman scoffs at such reports: "That's the kind of thing people do to destabilize your company and create the perception that you're struggling," he says. "But the last three years have been the best I've ever had." He's done so well, in fact, that in February he went to Swank and offered to buy the Bluebird. "I've had my eye on it for a while," Kauffman confirms. "It's been successful, and I've always coveted it as a way to promote up-and-coming bands. With the Mercury Cafe concentrating on other things now, it's become the place where developing bands play first in this market, and agents call for it all the time."
At the time, Swank wasn't interested in selling out, but the more he, Kauffman and Morreale talked, the more they realized that teaming up could be mutually beneficial. "It just made sense to pool everybody's resources," Swank says. "Doug's really shrewd, but he's outgrown things. And now we'll be able to combine staffs. We'll have the same people managing both places and settling shows in both places." If that sounds like a prelude to layoffs, Swank says it shouldn't: "Jesse lost a couple of people that he won't rehire, but the way things look now, we won't have to let anybody at either the Ogden or the Bluebird go."
All three principals have grown accustomed to making their own decisions without anyone looking over their shoulders, and they say that should continue. "As far as major company decisions go, we'll all have an equal vote," Morreale reveals. "And it'll be great to have other people, other partners, to bounce things off of. But I think all of us will still be able to operate pretty independently."
Whether other promotion companies will keep bringing concerts to the Ogden and the Bluebird under the new arrangement is another question; now that nobody in particular presents is a larger, more formidable outfit, it's entirely conceivable that its competitors will grow to regard using the venues as giving aid and comfort to the enemy. But Swank doesn't sound too worried. "Bands really love to play the Ogden and the Bluebird," Swank says. "And since most concerts fall into the 400-1,400-seat range, people will still want to come here. Plus, you need to match the band with the house. Bands like to play to full houses, so you can't put a band that would do 300 people into the Paramount. They'd hate that. And you don't want to play at places that aren't rock-and-roll venues, like at a baseball bar."
"There are alternatives," Kauffman concedes, "like the Boulder Theater and the Fox [which recently inked a deal with BGP/CMP]. But a lot of agents want to bring bands to Denver because of the larger population base--or they want to play in both Denver and Boulder so that they can get two dates without really having to travel. Besides, the big guys in town haven't been knocking down my door to rent my facility, and we've been able to make it just fine. You just have to go on and try to survive and make a living--and that's gotten very tough in this business."
Should Universal, BGP/CMP, Jacor Concerts and the rest be looking over their shoulders at nobody in particular presents? Maybe so--because Kauffman has big plans. "We want to pursue any entertainment-related business opportunities," he says. "We want to be a well-rounded company--a larger entity that's more diverse than solely relying on concerts. We want to get bigger faster. And this should help us do it."
Bluesy singer-songwriter Mary Flower has landed a choice gig: She's appearing on National Public Radio's Prairie Home Companion during a broadcast based in Durango. Hear her live at 6 p.m. on Saturday, June 13, by tuning to KCFR-FM/90.1.
Every time I print information about bands looking for new members in this column, I get inundated afterward by other musicians wanting me to do the same thing for them. But the only reason I'm mentioning that the Emirs are looking for a new singer/guitarist or lead vocalist (call Steve at 756-5777 if you'd like to audition) is that the bandmembers saw me coming out of a Motel 6 late one night last week with a herd of sheep. Don't tell anyone, okay?
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Baaaa. On Thursday, June 11, Jump Street hosts a fundraiser for homeless causes at Ninth Avenue West, and cHUck dA fONK and the Mile High Funkers explain that uppercase/lowercase thing at Herman's Hideaway. On Friday, June 12, Skull Flux drinks Concentrated Evil at Cricket on the Hill. On Saturday, June 13, the Connells croon at the Bluebird; Vance Gilbert vocalizes at Swallow Hill Music Hall; and Home Grown fires up at the Aztlan Theater. On Tuesday, June 16, Kate Schrock visits the Soiled Dove, and Joan of Arc attains sainthood at the 15th Street Tavern, with Acrobat Down. And on Wednesday, June 17, Smokin' Joe Kubek sets off alarms at Brendan's; Emmylou Harris and onetime Denver boy Bill Frisell headline a special taping of E-Town at Chautauqua; and Link 80 straps on a Brand New Unit at the Snake Pit. Batteries not included.
Backbeat's e-mail address is: Michael_Roberts@westword.com. While you're online, visit Michael Roberts's Jukebox at www.westword.com.