One of my favorite movies growing up was SLC Punk, an under-appreciated indie flick about a group of punk rockers trying to keep it real in the most unlikely of places, Salt Lake City.
One of the best scenes has the main character Steve, played by Matthew Lillard, chewing out his Dad played by Christopher McDonald, for taking the corporate lawyer job, chasing the money, and doing the unthinkable — selling out to the man.
“Steven, I didn’t sell out son, I bought in,” the unnamed father character replies. “Keep that in mind.”
Selling out, buying in. What’s the difference, and why the hell does it matter? It’s an interesting question that comes on the heels of a number of big name indie promoter acquisitions by Live Nation including yesterday’s purchase of Frank Productions in Wisconsin and the takeover of Summit Music Hall and the Marquis Theater in Denver, venues that had been run by Mike Barsch at Soda Jerk Presents. Those two buyouts follow a year that began with AEG’s acquisition of Bowery Presents and included Live Nation buying United Concerts in Utah and Canada’s Union Events in 2016.
Is consolidation good for the concert industry? It’s hard to say, but it does seem like acquisitions have become an inevitability in the live space. As Live Nation and AEG get bigger, they become more difficult to compete against because of their scale, resources and access to talent. Because both companies — especially Live Nation — are actively seeking companies to acquire smaller firms, the incentive to take the big check is that much more palpable, and for many in the business, selling one’s company is often a cathartic experience that validates one’s own value while also relieving feelings of uncertainty over the future.
Bottom line — it’s really easy to take the check.
From what I can tell, the main reason to remain independent in 2018 is that you don’t want to work for someone else. You don’t want to have a boss — you want to be your own boss. But as the days and years grind on, cashing out and securing one’s future doesn’t seem that bad. Once a person accepts the fact they’ll have to surrender control and they’re ok with letting someone else call the shots, it becomes that much easier to take the money.
And don’t get me wrong — there are still plenty of independent promoters in the game. Gregg Perloff at Another Planet Entertainment, Dan Steinberg and Jason Zink at Emporium Presents and Stephen Chilton with Pysko Steve Presents in Phoenix, just to name a few. There will always be independents in the music space and guys like Seth Hurwitz in D.C. that prove that one can do business without hitting a ceiling and “knowing one’s place.”
Independence is an important part of many entrepreneur’s identity and Rapino is cognizant of this and increasingly frames his deals as partnerships instead of buyouts. In the Frank’s case, they’re going to keep the brands they built, keep their email addresses and keep their name on the door. Their Madison, Wisconsin headquarters isn’t going to become a Live Nation office — they’ll continue to run their business and help with Live Nation projects as needed.
Of course not everyone in Madison is happy. I was a guest on WORT FM this morning, a listener-supported community radio station in Wisconsin, and the host of the show did everything he could to try and push me into a corner and say that a Live Nation “takeover” of the Madison music scene was not a good thing.
I understand where he was coming from. It’s unsettling to have your local music scene purchased by big multinational company, especially one that co-owns Ticketmaster and brings some serious baggage with them to the deal. What if this means an increase in ticket prices, or a lack of diversity in programming, or fans are forced to endure consumer activations and naming rights deals that feel unnatural and self-serving?
There’s an argument to be made on the flipside, that two promoters working together can drive prices down and lead to more diversity, not less. Here’s the thing — it’s not my argument to make, it’s Fred and Larry Frank’s argument and so far they’ve been doing a pretty good job of getting out there and explaining why they did the deal and what it means for both Madison and music fans.
At the end of the day, perhaps that’s what matters — perception. There will always be people disappointed by the big Live Nation buyouts and corporate takeovers. Whether or not one is “selling out” is beside the point — if the Franks can get in front of it and explain to supporters why they did the deal and how it could potentially improve Madison, then they have an opportunity to win people over.