Best Buy

The most powerful radio and concert chain hires the most powerful man in local dance music. For Clear Channel and Rich Best, it's business as usual.

Best's competitors are also quick to point out that he's not the problem. "Rich being over at Clear Channel means that he's going to have the same relationships that he's always had," says independent booker Sue McLean, who was once Best's colleague at Compass Entertainment. "But I'm not sure that all the bands will want to be represented by Clear Channel. It's an evil empire."

 

So why exactly does Clear Channel inspire so much animosity and fear? One answer is sheer momentum. The company has been expanding like mutant yeast ever since it began buying up radio stations in the wake of the roundly appalling 1996 Telecommunications Act, which eased restrictions on how many stations (and different media platforms) a company could own in one market. In that year alone, the chain ballooned from fewer than 40 radio signals to more than 100. By 2000, the 850-station gorilla was rich enough to purchase SFX, the world's largest concert promoter--now Clear Channel Entertainment. This happened just months after SFX took over management of the Target Center.

But what raises the eyebrows of staunch independents such as McClellan is that Clear Channel has been rapidly absorbing competing promoters in a period when ticket sales have gone down--in fact, the company took losses totaling $1 billion in 2001. "How can a company lose that much money and not be like Enron?" asks McClellan.

Clear Channel's balance sheet has led McClellan and others to publicly speculate that the corporation is running its concerts appendage at a loss to drive out competitors and gain control of ticket prices--a charge Clear Channel categorically denies. (Ticket prices continue to climb in any case.)

Meanwhile, more serious allegations have been raised in a Denver lawsuit filed last August by a promoter called Nobody in Particular Presents. The suit, which has a preliminary pre-trial date set for May 17, alleges that Clear Channel violates antitrust laws by using radio playlists (and promotional airtime) as leverage in signing artists to its booking division. The alleged scenario plays out something like this: KDWB and its radio brethren in Clear Channel Worldwide threaten to withhold airplay and ticket giveaways from, say, Britney Spears unless she sells her tour to Clear Channel Entertainment.

No musician (Spears included) has yet stepped forward to substantiate the charge, which Clear Channel flatly denies. But as a result of the publicity, Clear Channel is about as popular right now as Standard Oil was a century ago, with Eric Boehlert of Salon playing today's Ida Tarbell. Earlier this year, Congressman Howard Berman (D-California) even called for an investigation into charges that the company had indeed limited airplay of Spears after she spurned the giant for Concerts West (who presented her tour last year at the Target Center; Clear Channel's competitors are free to rent the arena).

While Best says he's witnessed nothing that would support such claims (most of his acts don't get played by Clear Channel stations, anyway) local-radio employees balk at the notion that their corporate daddy could blackball Britney off the air. "There's nothing that's been directed to me as far as anyone asking me not to play any songs," says KDWB program director Rob Morris, who explains that the station's decision not to air Spears's latest single was based on poor response to the track after a couple of hundred spins. "We play all her other ones," he adds, explaining that airplay is determined by local research via the Internet, SoundScan reports, and phone polling in the area.

"We are a totally separate entity from radio," agrees Best's boss Scott Gelman, Clear Channel's vice president of booking for Chicago and Minneapolis, who was himself hired away from Jam Productions. "It's kind of like Phillip Morris: They own cigarettes, beer, and Kraft foods. Clear Channel owns separate businesses."

Still, one wonders why a company would enter all these markets if it didn't intend to pursue a confluence of interests. The vertical integration of nearly everything is a business commonplace these days, and even Best's competitors say that the problem with corporate promotions is broader than Clear Channel.

"I think all radio is payola," says Randy Levy, a spokesperson for Rose Presents. "In the old days it was making sure you got the DJ cocaine and a new TV set. Now it's making sure you play a radio station's festival." What he means by this is that big artists with new albums are all but obligated to sign up for events such as KDWB's multiple-headliner "Last Chance Summer Dance" in order to ensure airplay.

"MTV is the same way," Levy continues. "If you want to get on the air, you play one of their spring-break specials. So if a radio station said, 'Can you do this arena?' most bands would. It's no secret. Synergy is what corporate business is all about."

Levy has been putting on concerts for three decades and has faced his steepest competition yet from the fat new kid on the block. (Rose even attempted to woo Best but was outbid by the larger entity.) Levy plans to work with Clear Channel, however. "When you got a gorilla around, you try to get on the other side of the cage," he says.

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