[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."
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.
Levy doesn't deny that the gorilla's girth has altered the scale, if not the nature, of radio business as usual. As G.R. Anderson Jr. noted in these pages (see "Old-School Sell," www.citypages.com/archive), record companies normally pay independent promoters anything from $500 to $5,000 per station to get a song considered for airplay. Critics charge that this money often passes on to the stations in the form of "promotional support," with promoters pocketing a cut as middlemen. (How these slush funds differ from plain-old payola has become an increasingly pointed question.) Even in this shady area, however, Clear Channel has obliterated all precedents. The company is well on its way toward cutting out the independents and creating its own "promotion" alliance--which will charge record companies to rep songs to its own radio chain. As reported in Salon, the corporation recently took home a cool million from a recent three-day company conference, in which record companies paid $35,000 each to have acts perform for a roomful of programmers.
Cities 97 (KTCZ-FM 97.1) program director Lauren MacLeash says City Pages' phone call is the first she's heard of that conference. And to be fair, such practices have not yet completely squashed the individuality of local stations. Cities 97, for example, probably plays more Twin Cities music than its slightly less gargantuan corporate competitors. "Cities was the first radio station to pick our songs at night on their local hour," says Todd Epley, lead singer of local pop-rockers Leep 27. "Usually you have to pay for that stuff."
Yet size may matter more and more in the coming years. Clear Channel's tactic of "voice-tracking," which has spread to 47 stations nationwide, looms on the horizon as a parallel phenomenon to the wholesale purchase of tours. The cost-cutting practice involves streaming out-of-town personalities into smaller markets, then customizing the programs to make it seem as if the DJs actually live there. (Similar arrangements already mark local radio.)
Size will have other effects as well: Anyone hoping the Justice Department and FCC will take Congressman Berman's advice and rip the roof off Clear Channel should refrain from the holding of breath. The behemoth has extended its synergy into the political realm, funding candidates to the tune of $120,000 in 2000. Company chairman L. Lowry Mays is a personal friend of George Herbert Walker Bush and a generous donor to Poppy's proposed presidential library. Last summer a former Clear Channel lawyer, Charles James, was confirmed as head of the Justice Department's antitrust division. As you might predict, no formal investigations of the company have been launched, though the informal kind are reportedly ongoing.
It remains unclear how all this will change local radio and concerts with Rich Best onboard. "I think that we would not be awake if we didn't pay attention," says Sue McLean. For now, we can look forward to driving down Lyndale Avenue and seeing a Clear Channel billboard advertising a Clear Channel radio station playing an artist on a Clear Channel-promoted tour, perhaps booked into a Clear Channel-managed venue.
Oh, wait, we have that already.
Additional research by City Pages contributor Rod Smith.
Correction published April 24, 2002:
Owing to a reporting error, Clear Channel was misidentified as the current owner of Fox 29 (WFTC-TV) in the original version of this article. In fact, Clear Channel traded the station to Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. in October 2001. The above version of the story reflects the corrected text. City Pages regrets the error.