[Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.]
Clear Channel Worldwide is the Matrix of the local music scene: It's everywhere once you notice it. The San Antonio-based concert and radio conglomerate manages the Target Center and owns seven local radio stations (including KDWB-FM 101.3 and Cities 97) and a billboard company. All of the above promote all of the above, much as you'd expect.
Yet until recently most local music-heads probably knew Clear Channel for a much-circulated post-9/11 internal memo suggesting that DJs refrain from playing "Imagine" and 149 other songs. Born to be leaked and spammed to a nation in need of comic relief, the list of "questionable" tunes turned out to be a voluntary rather than dictatorial exercise in stupidity--it was compiled by managers across the company's 1,100-plus stations, yet never enforced as a ban. Still, some were left wondering why groupthink of any kind was a good idea for 1,100-plus radio stations. Others responded, simply, "Did you say 1,100-plus stations?"
More recently, Clear Channel has become a hot topic in the Twin Cities dance-music community, where hostility to corporate control of the airwaves has simmered since the FCC shut down Beat Radio in 1996. Last month Clear Channel Entertainment, the Texas corporation's live-music arm, extended its hand in Twin Cities concert booking by snatching up Rich Best, a former competitor. Best also happens to be the most powerful local patron of DJ culture,and he currently books Plush, the Quest's phenomenally successful Saturday-night dance events.
For four years, from his post as talent buyer for Minneapolis independent Compass Entertainment, Best had brought popular electronica and alternative acts to venues such as the Quest and the 400 Bar--bidding on the artists, negotiating contracts, and helping publicize shows himself. But after watching Clear Channel grow stronger for two years, he finally switched rather than fight, taking with him his long list of clients and contacts--much as he did when he left his booking chair at First Avenue for Compass in 1998. Now Compass has all but closed its concert division, leaving Twin Cities arenas to Minneapolis's Rose Presents, Los Angeles's Concerts West, and Chicago's Jam Productions. Clear Channel handles more shows here than all of them combined. (On Sunday, dance-music fans will descend upon the Quest to watch trance giants Sasha and Digweed, the first DJ tour purchased in its entirety by Clear Channel.)
Such developments are a source of alarm even for Best's admirers in the post-rave scene. Electronic-music enthusiast Graham Bozeman was so upset by Best's move that he tore down a Compass poster at the record store where he works. "I don't want to attack Rich Best personally, but it worries me," he says. "Clear Channel doesn't stop with one promotion company or one venue. They'll just keep picking away at the music scene. They own a huge part of the radio market. They own billboards and TV. It's scary. It's like a whole circle that they control every part of."
Meanwhile, Best has been rebuffed by First Avenue, which previously collaborated with him on such Compass events as last year's live Basement Jaxx concert at the club. But they won't work with Clear Channel. Club manager Steve McClellan says he's loyal to Jam, one of the few independents left in the country. "We're not going to sacrifice a solid long-term working relationship for short-term gain," says McClellan.
Best is well liked by all concerned: His charm and business honesty have made him an influential silent partner in legal raves sponsored by Mile High Productions, a now inert collaboration with DJs Woody McBride and Jack Trash. (JT has stuck with Best in the duo's label-cum-promotions outfit Sound in Motion, which puts on Plush with the Quest; McBride continues at First Avenue.) As the war on Ecstasy makes illicit raves a thing of the past, Best has been credited with sheltering the culture in local clubs. Yet he's considered something of a mystery in the scene--a handsome, politic 33-year-old who weaves anonymously through the crowds at the Quest and keeps his private life private (he is a husband and dad).
Some say he's too powerful with or without Clear Channel. "Rich is almost running a monopoly as far as bringing in big-name talent," says a former dance-night promoter at the Quest, Jon Elhardt. (Elhardt reports that one influential artist agency said it would only work locally with Best.) But even competitors will tell you that Best earns the loyalty of touring acts. One highlight of his ten years at First Avenue is telling: Best persuaded an exhausted Pearl Jam not to cancel their opening set for Trip Shakespeare. (He offered to let them stay at his house in gratitude.)
Best says he understands the fears of those who say he has sold out. "It may be at one time I looked at Clear Channel as the big monster," he says. "But my experience of it thus far is that that's not the case. In addition to that, this makes sense for my family. When I first signed up for First Avenue, I was 19. This is all I know how to do, and that's pretty scary. I don't have anything to fall back on."