For once, there's an upside to being a secondary concert market. This summer, Buffalo music lovers will benefit from the ever-growing, near-monopolistic power of Clear Channel Entertainment, the corporate giant now overseeing booking for three of the most significant venues on both the concert/festival and club summer circuit.
Clear Channel has taken over booking the Six Flags Darien Lake Performing Arts Center from Metropolitan Entertainment, which it purchased earlier this year. Clear Channel also books exclusively at the Sphere Concert Hall in downtown Buffalo, a lovely room with clear sightlines and impressive acoustics, and Clear Channel is handled the Thursday at the Square lineup.
Though the company doesn't own radio stations in Western New York, as it does in many other markets, the Clear Channel presence in Buffalo will be difficult to miss for cognizant concertgoers.
In most ways, that's a good thing.
One of the many pleasing spinoffs of the Clear Channel arrangement -- the most obvious being the preponderance of major acts now stopping through Buffalo -- is the fact that several smaller, independent promoters and promotion teams have sprung up as mini-Davids fighting for a share of the action against a mighty Goliath.
As a result, we'll see more club action in Buffalo this summer than we've seen in more than a decade -- clearly a good thing.
"Competition is definitely a good thing," says Clear Channel's Artie Kwitchoff. "It ups the ante. This year, everything seems to have come together, so that we're seeing shows here in Buffalo that we wouldn't have in years past. I mean, even the New Melody Fair season is really impressive this year."
Look around. Check the listings. You'll find talent that, in past years, you would have to drive to Toronto to catch.
The Continental, 212 Franklin St., was on the bring of shutting its doors a few years ago. Now, it regularly hosts amazing shows. In the past two weeks, Irish power-pop buzz band Ash, roots up-and-comers Robet Bradley's Blackwater Surprise and former Kinks guitar legend Dave Davies have played the room.
Mohawk Place, 47 E. Mohawk St., continues to offer acts you can't see anywhere else in town. The folks who handle the talent there -- owner Pete Perrone, booker Marty Boratin and, on occasion, Donny Kutzbach of Clear Channel -- do so in the bleakest of winter months, and they'll continue doing so during our all-too-brief summer bacchanal. For underground or bubbling-under rock, roots and alternative acts, Mohawk can't be beat.
Nietzsche's, 248 Allen St., and the Showplace Theatre, 1063 Grant St., are largely booked by Entertainment Services Inc. (ESI), though Clear Channel also books shows at the Showplace. (Nietzsche's owner Joe Rubino books most of his shows when outside promoters, including independent promoter Jimmy T, aren't bringing nationals.)
Tonight, ESI brings Chris Whitley to Nietzsche's for a rare appearance. In the past few months, it has booked underground progressive legends King's X, former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr and Canadian hard rockers Danko Jones.
Runwayz Concerts Presents (RCP), run by David Taylor, has grown significantly since its inception in the late 1990s. Taylor and Runwayz book the Continental and are responsible for several of the most memorable shows of the past year, including Arthur Lee and Love and Super Furry Animals, both of which would have likely skipped Buffalo in past years.
Taylor has also partnered with Canadian promotion giant House of Blues (H.O.B.) to book talent at the 2,500-capacity Dome Theatre in Niagara Falls. The new partnership first teamed on last month's successful Rusted Root appearance at that venue.
Taylor hooked up with H.O.B. through his connections with Molson. The beer company promotes his Canal Concert Series, a free, outdoor string of Saturday concerts held along the canal in the Tonawandas. Molson owns many of the venues that H.O.B. books in Canada, including Toronto's Molson Ampitheatre and Barrie's Molson Park.
"The House of Blues people have the buying power," Taylor says. "They added tremendous backbone to our company."
In fact, it was his relationship with H.O.B. that allowed Taylor to book the sold-out Steve Earle performance last week at the Tralf. Earle hadn't played Buffalo in more than a decade, though he had hit Toronto on virtually every tour during that time.
Shaken and stirred
For this year's Thursday at the Square series, Buffalo Place, the event's producers, gave Kwitchoff "a budget and let us run with it."
As a result, the roster is much hipper than in previous years. Sure, there are the standard "classic rock" -- Kim Mitchell, April Wine with Honeymoon Suite -- but acts including Tragically Hip singer Gord Downie and his solo band, Aimee Mann, North Mississippi Allstars with Flogging Molly, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Living Colour playing for free in downtown Buffalo can only be seen as positive.
Still, there's a slight downside to the ante being upped on Thursday at the Square -- many of these bills are part of package tours, where three or four acts will hit the road en masse. Ostensibly, you either take the whole package, or you pass on it. It's not a bad thing, but it does mean there will be less room for local bands to grab the coveted opening slots for these national touring acts. The Square gigs are among the few "showcase"-sized gigs for Buffalo bands. Local support has been slotted wherever possible; seven of the 15 shows will boast homegrown openers.
Make no mistake -- there are struggles going on behind the scenes for control of the Buffalo concert market. Clear Channel is an extremely powerful entity. It has the money and the muscle.
But with independents such as Runwayz and ESI, among others, working hard to stay in the picture, the greatest beneficiary of all this jockeying for position is the music fan. Taylor is a fly in the ointment; he goes after shows with vigor. As a result, Clear Channel has to stay on its toes as well. That means that no one is being lazy; if Taylor can book a Steve Earle show and sell it out, for example, then Clear Channel is more likely to book a similar show at the Sphere.
The blame game
Perhaps you've noticed the way concert ticket prices have gone through the roof.
Last week, Fleetwood Mac played a show inside HSBC Arena. The ticket price? $125.
In July, the Eagles will play that same venue. That band -- which hasn't released an album's worth of new material in decades -- is asking up to $175 per ticket.
A seat at the Kiss/Aerosmith double bill will put you out $128.50, unless you'd rather drop $48.50 to sit on the lawn.
When shows can put fans out of this kind of money, it becomes difficult to consider rock the "people's music" any longer.
Still, it is unfair to lay all of the blame at the doorsteps of major corporations such as Clear Channel. All concert promoters are in the business of making money. They don't make a dime, however, until the bands take their share. A band demanding a high guarantee means an expensive concert ticket. Period.
Of course, what needs to happen here is an industry-wide scaling back. Pearl Jam is a great example of how a band might effect meaningful change. Its recent appearance at HSBC carried a $35 price tag. This is completely frugal by industry standards, and also proves that, by setting a reasonable goal and avoiding being greedy, everyone can go home with a bit of money at the end of the day without, frankly, plundering the wallets of the music fan.
Sure, the summer concert lineup could have been even better. You'll still have to travel to Toronto if you want to see Wilco, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds or the Iron Maiden/Motorhead/Dio bills, for example. Still, this year will see its first Ozzfest on Buffalo-area soil. The Dead/Dylan tour -- only a month long -- also stops here. And, if you can afford it, the Kiss/Aerosmith show -- again, a pairing that is playing primary markets almost exclusively -- is quite a score.
In the end, we win. And it's been a while since Buffalonians have had that feeling.
One has hope that, in this instance, a rising tide will indeed carry all ships.