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Clash of the promoter titans: Is an AEG vs. Live Nation battle better for bands – or fans?

August 5, 2018

Clash of the promoter titans: Is an AEG vs. Live Nation battle better for bands – or fans?

CLEVELAND, Ohio – AEG Presents, the owners of the remodeled Agora, and Live Nation are going head-to-head in Cleveland.

Ah, capitalism at its finest, right? Two of the concert promotion industry’s giants – Live Nation is No. 1 in the world, and AEG Presents is No. 2 – squaring off like Goliath vs. Goliath. Or, to bolster a “Clash of the Titans″ metaphor, Medusa and the Kraken, with no Perseus around to save us.

That’s right, save us. Or at least our dollars.

“Maybe there will be more shows because there’s a show that Live Nation for whatever reason wasn’t going to book – a building was booked, they don’t like Live Nation or it’s a proprietary show,″ said Michael Belkin, the son of Cleveland concert promotion legend Mike Belkin and the man who currently runs Live Nation.

But?

“However, having said that, it’s not like millions of people are flocking to the market,″ he said in a telephone interview. “You’re still drawing from the same pool, vying for the same market and the same economic market.″

Shawn Trell, the Los Angeles-based head of AEG Presents, sort of agreed.

“As a company, we will continue to bring shows to the market,″ Trell said in a telephone interview. “Whether it is more or less shows is a function of the tours we have in a given year.″

Trell, for obvious reasons, has chosen to key on his company’s $3 million renovation of the historic Agora and the potential that creates, and ignore – at least on the surface – his competition.

“Honestly, I don’t focus on the [Live Nation] or what they’re doing,″ Trell said. “We are extremely pleased to have the Agora and are thrilled with the top to bottom renovations we just unveiled.″

Live Nation is just as blasé – on the surface – about any competition from AEG Presents. Belkin said the recent acquisition of booking rights to the Masonic Temple, which seats 2,200 vs. the Agora’s 2,000 capacity, had “been in the works for a long time.″

Nor is there a concern over the AEG Presents-led InCuya Festival, which stages its inaugural show on Aug. 25 and 26 this year on Malls B and C in downtown Cleveland.

“We’re always looking for new opportunities,″ said Belkin. “We don’t shy away from competition, even the festival.”

So what will be the impact of having the two biggest companies when it comes to promoting concerts, scheduling tour itineraries and booking venues?

John Gorman, founder of the internet radio station oWow and the head of WMMS/FM 100.7 during its Buzzard heyday, sees a plus in the in-force arrival of AEG.

“If anything, I believe AEG entering the market will be a positive,″ Gorman said in an extensive email that covered the history of concerts in Cleveland, including his relationship with Belkin Productions co-founder Jules Belkin, whom Gorman called “one of the most savvy concert promoters in the country.″

“AEG came into the market with an immediate investment in the Agora – and fulfilled their promise,″ said Gorman. “Live Nation will have to try harder and spend more money and improve their PR (public relations).″

Honest about the situation, Gorman said he also sees a personal benefit for his online radio station and possibly other media outlets in this advertising-starved era.

“From my end, I feel advertising will improve,″ he said. “The more shows, the more advertising, and unlike Live Nation, which has spent very little on advertising compared to what Belkin and Blossom used to spend in the ’70s through ’90s, AEG’s entrance should increase ad revenue I this market.″

Gorman said that could signal something the city has not seen since the glory days of the World Series of Rock.

“This could help us regain the reputation of a break-out market – something this city hasn’t had a reputation of being since 1996,″ he said. “But in the ’70s through the ‘90s, Cleveland was viewed as a ‘well-oiled machine’ and one of the best markets in the country.

“We had the venues, we had the promoters, we had the radio and we had the press,″ Gorman said. “Managers, record labels and acts loved playing Cleveland in those days.″

He noted that radio and the press are shifting more to a digital focus, but “the infrastructure remains the same.″

David Spero, whose dad, Herman, was the force behind Cleveland’s legendary “Upbeat” television show, is equally optimistic, albeit from a bit different perspective.

The former WMMS jock now earns his money as a manager for several acts, including Dickey Betts, Petula Clark, Patty Smyth, Jesse Colin Young and more.

“It’s a healthy competition,″ Spero said. “It’s great for the artists because obviously they’re going to pay a little more to get the artist they want.

“That’s not so good for fans,″ he acknowledged. “Obviously, they’re going to get hit with bigger ticket prices.″

That’s the usual case, Spero said. But often tours are what Michael Belkin referred to as “proprietary,″ meaning that the promoter bought the entire tour. When that happens, the ticket prices in any given city aren’t affected by any kind of promoter rivalry, since there IS no promoter rivalry.

And Live Nation is likely to remain in front unless AEG builds venues to rival the Live Nation-booked Blossom Music Center or Hard Rock Rocksino, Spero said.

“It’s up for grabs at The Q because anybody can book that,″ he said. “The only AEG building in town is the Agora, and that could hurt the Rocksino at some point.″

Experts in St. Louis and Pittsburgh said they’ve not seen evidence of more vigorous competition in those cities, which are fairly comparable markets to Cleveand.

But Gary Graff, a freelance music writer based in Detroit, another market in which AEG owns venues, said there has an uptick in AEG activity.

“We’ve seen AEG become more aggressive here, moving into other venues -- notably the Majestic Theatre, the Magic Stick, the Masonic Temple and El Club -- with shows,″ Graff said. “They also produce a two-day summer festival called Mo Pop that this year did 30,000 over two days on the Detroit Riverfront.″

The good news is something that has concerned smaller venues here in Cleveland, if what has happened in the Motor City area is any clue.

“I can’t say we’ve seen the competition result in unusually higher costs, especially at the small venues,″ Graff said. “I think the two companies are parsing up acts that they have long-term relationships with , and also having the right venue for the right show.

“AEG national brings in some larger venue tours, but for the most part the competition is on the 5,000 and below venues″ he said.

Yet concerns remain with the smaller venues.

“They’re mostly going to be battling it out with each other,″ said Mark Leddy, co-owner with Cindy Barber of the Beachland Ballroom. “Their shows are a little bigger than the Beachland would be able to host.

“But it does feel like it’s going to suck up dollars and tickets and have some to-be-determined effect,″ said Leddy. “It’s more competition for ticket dollars in a market oversaturated with venues – too many small venues, medium venues and large venues.″

The issue is that this kind of competition “only benefits agents and bands,″ Leddy said.

“It drives the cost up for everybody,″ he said. “The margin clubs operate on is so tiny – 1 or 2 percent, if everything is going well.″

“We just have to do what we do and present ourselves as an independent alternative to the corporatized venues,″ he said, asked how Beachland would try to maneuver this latest addition to the rocks and shoals smaller places have to navigate.

“I think we can make it,′ he said. “We try to do other things other than just present shows. We’ve developed a successful brunch on Saturdays and Sundays and doing flea markets and other not purely musical events.

“We scramble in every way to keep the doors open,″ he said.

“It is possible it [the AEG vs. Live Nation rivalry] will affect smaller clubs,″ said local blues singer-songwriter Colin Dussault, who noted that the two big promoters are handling “larger” acts.

“In contrast, Music Box Supper Club, Beachland, etc., are running with roots, local, tribute and touring bands with less of a draw, but still a respectable reputation,″ he said. Those indie outlets are staging “shows that true music fans want to see″ outside of the mainstream big-draw artists.

Bob Burford, the media relations manager for the 640-seat Kent Stage, concurs.

“The Kent Stage has carved out a nice niche in the regional marketplace, and we’re having our best year ever,″ Burford said. “With Live Nation and AEG now booking their own 2,000-seat theaters, there probably will be some shakeout, but we don’t think the biggest impact will be on places like the Kent Stage.″

“I honestly don’t know how it will affect us,″ said Music Box co-owner Colleen Miller. “We’re just going to continue working on growing our own business and not worry too much.″

After all, there’s only so much the little guy can do when one of the titans decides to “release the Kraken!”

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