Mega-promoter rivalry between Live Nation and AEG worries smaller music venues

Courtesy of Crain’s Cleveland Business:

Competition for Cleveland’s concert dollars intensified this summer when AEG Presents spent more than $3 million to renovate the historic Agora Theatre & Ballroom. Live Nation, long the dominant music promoter in Northeast Ohio, harkening back to its roots as the iconic Belkin Productions, added its own major venue in July, taking over booking rights at the 2,200-capacity Masonic Temple.

Shawn Trell, the Los-Angeles-based chief operating officer of AEG, views the Agora renovation — and the promoter’s increased presence in Cleveland overall — as more business as usual than any direct challenge to Live Nation’s longtime grip on the regional music scene.

“I’m not focused on what Live Nation is doing at all,” Trell said. “I’m looking at what we’re doing and where we think we can do great things. What we did with the Agora is a perfect example of that. It’s one of the best venues in the market, not only in Cleveland and Ohio, but anywhere.”

While having two promotional giants in town ostensibly gives fans options, the local scene’s smaller players question whether there are enough ticket-buying dollars to go around, particularly in a market already oversaturated with clubs.

“There’s lots of music venues of all sizes throughout Northeast Ohio, including Akron,” said Cindy Barber, co-owner with Mark Leddy of the Beachland Ballroom & Tavern. “The problem is we have as many shows every day as Chicago with a (much smaller) population.”

Barber and Leddy can’t predict with confidence how a face-off between the world’s two biggest concert promoters might ultimately shake out. However, they are putting more dollars toward marketing their North Collinwood club as a hipper alternative to corporate rock.

“We’re anxious, but we’ll continue to do what we do and present acts in a more intimate environment,” Leddy said. “We’re trying to make ourselves stand out as being independent. You can come out for three shows at Beachland for the price of one show at a bigger venue.”

Playing with the big boys

Beachland books 50 shows monthly, either in its 148-capacity tavern or 500-person ballroom space. Its owners mostly bring in local and touring bands, also acting as a launching pad for national acts needing a place to start. Beachland “graduated” The White Stripes from its ballroom to a larger venue at The Odeon, enjoying a similar relationship with The Black Keys when steering the Akron rock duo to the Agora.

Although splitting promoter profits comprises just 5% of revenue, Leddy said it’s at least a means for Beachland — and other independent spaces in similar circumstances — to make a bit of money once an act grows to a bigger room. AEG and Live Nation have the finances to book a band for an entire tour, locking out Beachland and its peers from any piece of the action.

“It’s too early to know what’s going to happen, but I don’t know if there’s enough ticket buyers to support that fight in the long run,” Barber said.

Kathy Blackman, owner of The Grog Shop in Cleveland Heights, said mega-promoter buyout power erodes a host venue’s relationship with the band it had previously been nurturing. And while Live Nation — which books Blossom, the House of Blues and Jacobs Pavilion, along with the Masonic Temple — and AEG allow partner shows, independent owners will be hard-pressed to maintain any real foothold at those spaces.

“At the 1,000-capacity level, those venues are going to be controlled by the big promoters,” said Blackman. “Top dollars go to top shows, so it’s more competitive for the sheer entertainment dollar.”

Return of ‘a center for music’

Denny Young of Elevation Group has partnered with both Live Nation and AEG for shows, with an Elevation Group-managed band called The Blue Stones playing AEG’s inaugural InCuya Music Festival in downtown Cleveland last summer.

Young, whose business includes several additional clients and management of the LaureLive music fest, said competition between industry behemoths could lift Cleveland in the eyes of artists only able to schedule limited dates within particular markets.

“As a center for music, Cleveland is much better off having a number of great promoters on all levels,” said Young. “(Live Nation and AEG) don’t change how we do business. I view it as a positive. If there’s more good promoters and top-notch venues, all of us together make Cleveland a robust concert town. That’s good for everybody.”

Competition is certainly a boost for agents and bands, but any rivalry pitting deep-pocketed promoters against one another won’t negatively impact Young’s day-to-day for the simple fact that Elevation Group and other independents are not operating on the same level.

“Any day of the week those guys are going to have more money to pay for artists,” Young said. “It’s not sexy or glamorous, but an artist’s manager is going to meet us at the intersection of what’s best for their artist.”

With Columbus and other burgeoning metros sharing the market, Cleveland’s self-professed standing as the nation’s rock ‘n’ roll capital has deteriorated in the last decade, and Grog Shop owner Blackman doesn’t know what difference another major promoter will make in attracting additional shows.

“You need to have people living here who are going to see music,” she said. “With both of these promotions in town, it could bring in big arena tours. I just don’t know if it’s going to do much for us at this level. It just makes things a little more difficult.”

Beachland is doing its utmost to bring Cleveland back as the top music market in the country, said co-owner Leddy. No matter the shakeout of the city’s big-ticket promotional clash, staging shows outside mainstream artists will remain the club’s approach.

“I hope these agents remember that they need to keep places like us going to get their acts to the next level,” Leddy said.