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Will Corporations Ruin Live Music in the Bay Area?

Promoters say that corporate saturation in San Francisco concerts means costlier tickets, boring music, and shutters for independent venues. What does it mean for the East Bay?

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Holliday has seen the local concert landscape transform: Live Nation took control of the landmark, 1,200-capacity Fillmore in 2007, and reopened the Masonic Auditorium with an increased capacity in 2014. Goldenvoice snared the lease on the 2,300-capacity Warfield in 2004, and in 2008 started managing the 1,400-capacity Regency Ballroom, which now has the smaller Social Hall in its basement. Another Planet (APE), founded by a former Bill Graham Presents executive in 2003, launched the 500-capacity Independent and took over booking The Greek Theatre in 2004. Between 2007 and 2010, APE also assumed control of The Bill Graham Civic Auditorium and reopened the renovated Fox Theater, on top of launching Outside Lands and Treasure Island (with Noise Pop).

Ticket-buyers for Live Nation and Goldenvoice concerts often pay fees through the companies' own ticket outlets, Ticketmaster and AXS, respectively. (A Goldenvoice representative said that Slim's and GAMH won't use AXS.)

Holliday described corporate competition's broader effect on ticket prices with a hypothetical scenario: An artist whose fee has long been set at $10,000, making tickets cost $25, is coming to town. This time Goldenvoice and Live Nation offer $12,000, raising the ticket price to $30. "Then Another Planet figures, 'Huh, if they think $12,000 with a $30 ticket is fine, let's offer $15,000 and we'll do $30 in advance and $35 at the door,'" Holliday said. "Now, forever more the artist costs $15,000, and your market's fucked."

Goldenvoice's booking deal with Slim's and Great American Music Hall, like Live Nation's launch of August Hall, reflects the companies' establishment of what's known as "vertical" club structure. The idea is to maintain relationships with bands as they leap from, say, the Goldenvoice-controlled, 500-capacity Slim's to the Goldenvoice-controlled, 1,400-capacity Regency Center, and then to a Goldenvoice-controlled festival such as Blurry Vision or Coachella.

"Even bands that we've had relationships with, they'll go to the Independent, which is run by Another Planet, instead of Slim's," said Bedard. "And then we see they're playing [Another Planet festival] Treasure Island."

The corporate buyers, as Smith from the UC Theatre pointed out, often overbid for artists because it establishes history with emerging acts in the hopes that, next time, they'll draw larger crowds at a bigger venue controlled by the same company. "They'll outbid someone by $5,000 on the same ticket price and the same room size and just eat it in order to establish their mark," he said, adding that it's also about depriving smaller competitors of high-yielding shows. "So, the big boys have a corporate war chest that locks independents out of the market. We can't spread our expenses across 300 venues and lose money on normally profitable shows just to edge out competitors."

Danny Bell, a Goldenvoice talent-buyer in San Francisco, acknowledged that the company's interest in Slim's and Great American Music Hall is about keeping artists within the company. "You're right that the vertical thing is really important. Now, we can build them up from Slim's to the Regency or the Warfield," he said. Bell also said if bands play Goldenvoice venues, that helps them land Goldenvoice festivals, saying that every act booked for Blurry Vision has recently worked with the company. "But the thing is, man, the owners of Slim's and Great American are big music fans. They want a strong music scene. And that connected with our alignment of loving music — that's what it's about."

No doubt, many artists benefit from remaining loyal to large concert companies. It's worthwhile to play Slim's when you'd rather play The Chapel if it protects your shot at playing Coachella. But independent promoters say that tacit or formal exclusivity agreements backfires locally.

Package tours, wherein an artist plays only venues operated by Goldenvoice or Live Nation, undermine the expertise of local promoters; that's how an artist with little San Francisco draw ends up in a too-big venue, without a well-chosen slate of local support. "So, what happens now is the agencies can push the mid-level acts that suck," said Holliday. "There goes the variety. Here's the same bill in every town."

Why did Holliday first ask Bedard to pitch her bands for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass? "I knew I couldn't book what he could," she said. "And that's the biggest compliment from the one talent-buyer to one another."

In Bedard's brief time at Slim's and Great American Music Hall, he booked several well-attended all-local bills that reflected his deep knowledge of the Bay Area music scene: King Woman with Mane and Plush at the Great American, for instance, or, Cold Beat with Warm Drag, Mall Walk, and Frank Ene at Slim's — all acts, familiar to Bedard from the Hemlock, that wouldn't fill those venues on their own, but cumulatively amounted to must-see events.

Bell, of Goldenvoice, said that company isn't responsible for Bedard losing his job: "It's up to them, the club."

Bedard said that Goldenvoice's agreement with Slim's and GAMH is for more than 200 shows a year at each venue.

Bell declined to comment on the details. But he said little to assuage concerns that the company won't continue Bedard's curatorial vision, or that it'll neglect local music. "SF is a great music town. With any strong local music scene, there's a lot of great local acts," Bell said. "Is it a priority? It's tough to say. I think it just naturally happens. I know that we came on up here with one goal — to do cool shit."

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