Taking on the Empire

Page 7 of 10

Disasters like these ultimately persuaded Jacor to cut back on its most ambitious plans. Yet the concept survives as Denver's Clear Channel Productions, overseen today by promoter Mike DuCharme, who used to work for NIPP.

Nationally, SFX/Clear Channel Concerts has had several catastrophes as well, most notably the ill-fated "reunion" tour of Diana Ross and the Supremes. But by snapping up concert-promotion companies around the country, it's managed to severely reduce competition and has likewise shut out bidders by purchasing entire tours by acts such as 'N Sync, U2 and the Dave Matthews Band. In almost all of these cases, the fees paid to artists have driven ticket prices up to Pikes Peak heights.

But Boots Hughston, an executive at 2B1 Productions, a San Francisco company that owns Maritime Hall in the Bay Area, asserts that the company saves money on smaller-scale shows simply by throwing its weight around. "Clear Channel will threaten agents when we make offers on shows to the point where sometimes they'll withdraw even after they've signed contracts with us," he says. "I could probably give you eighty or ninety times where this has occurred -- where they'll threaten the band, tell them, 'If you play Maritime, you will not play for any of our venues anywhere else, and you'll lose your airplay.' And they'll end up accepting offers that are a lot less than mine. They'll pass on $30,000 or $50,000 from us and play for them for $10,000 or $15,000. The agents will be apologetic -- like, 'I'm sorry, they blew a shit fit, this isn't going to work.' And we end up losing the show."

Sources disagree about how openly Clear Channel talks about withholding airplay from acts that dare to work with outside promoters or radio stations. Some maintain that warnings are plainly stated and out in the open, with potential clients being told that any misstep will lead to airplay boycotts not just in one city, but everywhere Clear Channel rules. "They're like, 'Catch a cold in Denver and you get the flu everywhere else,'" one says. Adds another, whose groups have suffered a radio ban in Denver for two years following a dispute: "I wound up with the whole fucking system on my ass. Denver is a prime example of what's wrong with deregulation. Everything that could go wrong with it has gone wrong with it in Denver."

An equal number of commentators say that Clear Channel reps haven't been that obvious, because they haven't needed to be. As one source puts it, "They do things under the table, with no specifics, since everybody knows they use their leverage to their benefit. We're talking about 1,200 stations here. Everybody knows if you cross them, you'll get crucified -- so why would they have to tell you that?"

Indeed, whispers and hearsay are often just as effective as the more aggressive approach. Andy Somers, an agent for the Agency Group in Los Angeles, handles the Toadies, a Texas band that made a popular debut LP but then waited over five years to put out a followup. When it came time to book the Toadies tour through Denver, Somers would have normally worked with NIPP, which had promoted all of the Toadies' previous appearances in the city, and did the same for many of his other clients. But Somers had heard about how the game is played in Denver and had people he knew warn that if he gave the gig to NIPP, he could kiss airplay for the Toadies goodbye -- and that he couldn't do. "When you've been gone as long as they had, radio is the key to the record flying," he says. "We had to have it." So Somers called NIPP, apologized, and then gave the show to Clear Channel Productions.

Somers emphasizes that Clear Channel's DuCharme never used airplay as a bargaining chip and has no idea if Clear Channel would have nixed Toadies airplay had he stuck with NIPP. "I just played the odds," he says, "and the odds are on their side. Do I feel Clear Channel has an unfair competitive edge? Absolutely. But I understand what they're doing. If you own the car dealership and you own the car wash, it's good business to sell dirty cars."

Because Clear Channel is so vast, the experiences of those who have dealt with the company differ widely from place to place, market to market. Many insiders have no shortage of horrific tales about Clear Channel promoters in other cities, for instance, but not a single individual contacted for this story leveled analogous accusations at the people at Denver's Clear Channel Concerts division. Typical is a source who says, "Generally speaking, the conduct of Chuck Morris and the people he's got there is fine and ethical, and I've never had any problems dealing with them."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts