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Live Nation buys itself a big chunk of Madison's concert scene

Live Nation buys itself a big chunk of Madison's concert scene

The multinational has acquired a controlling stake in independent locally based promoter Frank Productions.

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This story will be updated.

Live Nation, the world's largest concert-promotions company, has purchased a controlling stake in Madison-based promoter Frank Productions, effectively consolidating two companies who've operated for years as both rivals and partners in Madison and other markets. The sale was first reported Thursday in Billboard, but has been spreading through the music community as something of an open secret for several weeks. Frank Productions merged last year with another big force in the local concert landscape, Majestic Live.

Live Nation's acquisition, set to become effective in February, gives the publicly traded Beverly Hills-based company influence over the majority of Madison's key concert venues: the High Noon Saloon, which Frank Productions purchased last year from founder Cathy Dethmers; the Majestic Theatre, which the founders of Majestic Live bought and revamped in 2007; the Orpheum Theatre, which is locally owned but managed by Live Nation; the Sylvee, a 2,500-capacity venue Frank Productions is building on East Washington Avenue and plans to open later this year; the City of Madison-owned Breese Stevens Field, where Frank and Majestic Live were already collaborating on outdoor concerts before the two companies merged. Live Nation has also presented many events over the years at other local venues, including the Overture Center, the Barrymore Theatre, and the Alliant Energy Center. The Frank-Majestic company also regularly books shows at smaller venues including The Frequency, and plays a big role in seasonal outdoor music events, including the city-sanctioned Freakfest Halloween concert and the Majestic's popular Live On King Street summer series.

The Billboard story reports that Frank Productions and Live Nation first began talking about a sale in spring of 2017, and that Frank plans to continue "operating as a stand-alone brand." Live Nation did not respond to a request for comment this week from Tone Madison. Frank Productions representatives were not immediately available for comment Thursday afternoon, but a press release from the two companies spun the acquisition as a partnership.

While it might feel like business as usual for Live Nation, which frequently acquires independent promoters and festivals around the world, it’s a comparably surprising move for Frank Productions. The latter company often presents itself as a proudly independent holdout amid Live Nation's monopolization of concert markets. Frank executive Charlie Goldstone has gone so far as to publicly call Live Nation "the Walmart of promoters" and argued that its involvement in the Orpheum drives a "corporatization" of State Street. Despite those occasional shots across the bow, Frank Productions frequently employed Live Nation's notorious Ticketmaster ticketing service, and even co-presented some events with Live Nation. For a time, Majestic Live also co-presented shows at the Orpheum. Those companies, now merged, will get their influence over the Orpheum back—as a Live Nation-controlled entity.

The Orpheum's owners, the Paras family (who additionally own and operate the Comedy Club on State), also publicly opposed the building of the Sylvee, going so far as to hire a lobbyist to push against it in city government. Frank Productions has long vied for control of the Orpheum, but the talk has been less acrimonious over the past couple of years, with players in the local concert-promotions landscape increasingly insisting that they aren't really competing with each other. Perhaps this talk indicated that the different parties were settling in to coexistence and respecting each other's distinct territory, or else it indicates that people knew something bigger was coming.

In December, the trade publication Amplify hinted that "Live Nation is working on the acquisition of one of the largest independent promoters left in North America in a deal that will surprise many in the music business because of the promoters [sic] past critiques of Live Nation and long-standing independence."

Since Frank Productions and Majestic Live announced their plans to merge, one common refrain has been that the merger won't change much beyond some paperwork and organizational shifts. The two Madison companies, after all, already frequently worked together to co-present concerts at various venues. And since Frank Productions took over the High Noon, the company has, to its credit, largely kept its promise not to change the beloved local club very much. The High Noon still has a reasonable balance of touring shows, local-band-headlined shows, and community events, though if we’re being honest we’re bummed they don’t sell slices of pizza anymore.

That said, people who dismissed the larger significance of last year's changes in the local concert market perhaps did not foresee that it would create a tidy package for Live Nation to snap up. And that change is more than just a formality, because it introduces the influence of a massive international company's shareholders and executives.

High Noon Saloon founder Cathy Dethmers said this week that "Live Nation wasn’t really discussed in any depth during our months of planning for the sale of High Noon." When Dethmers and Frank Productions announced the High Noon sale in February 2017, Dethmers publicly gave Frank Productions a vote of confidence, saying she trusted the new owners to keep balancing the venue's touring acts with its community spirit. After processing the news about Live Nation acquiring Frank Productions, she's not quite ready to change her tune.

"To be honest, hearing the news felt like a punch in the gut," Dethmers says. "There is a soul-crushing aspect to knowing that the venue I poured my heart into and literally built with my own hands is now owned by a huge multinational corporation that is publicly traded on the NYSE. But after a few weeks of reflection, I can understand how the deal makes a lot of sense for both the Franks and Live Nation, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been so shocked. Also, my understanding is that nothing noticeable will change in the day-to-day operations at High Noon.  The Franks and High Noon general manager Steve Renfro will still oversee venue operations and staffing—I’m told the current staff will remain, and the music programming will continue as it has been. This part of the news is a huge relief to me."

Given Live Nation's ability to pull in touring acts, Dethmers says she could even see the move being a positive, as long as local venues like the High Noon remain under local management and support local musicians.

It is of course too early to say exactly how this will impact Madison concertgoers. Live Nation may well give Frank Productions a lot of autonomy because the company knows the local market, and the acquisition likely has just as much to do with Frank's business in arena shows outside of Madison. In most major concert markets around the country, the presence of Live Nation and other large promoters like AEG is just a fact of life. But there's no dismissing Live Nation's notorious contempt for consumers. The company (and Ticketmaster, both before and after it merged with Live Nation) has a reputation for charging exorbitant service fees. In one landmark settlement over those fees, Live Nation released free ticket vouchers to customers who'd been over-charged, but they could only be used for a laughably bad selection of events.

At the same time, smaller venues catering to local artists and touring artists with smaller following have continued to operate and open. It's an uphill battle, but it means the Madison music community still has infrastructure outside of the rising monopoly.

The new local arm of Live Nation still won't be the only major force in town that books touring acts with significant followings. The Wisconsin Union, which books ticketed shows at the Union Theater and mostly free shows at venues including the Memorial Union Terrace, The Sett and, the Rathskeller, still has a great deal of pull. Heather Good, an assistant director at the Union Theater, believes her venue is insulated against shifts in the larger Madison concert scene.

"I can say that I'm not worried for the operation the Wisconsin Union Theater or for music on the Terrace, because I think that we already have a well-established niche in this market, and a very long track record of producing certain kinds of shows here" Good says. "We've always had a good relationship, I think, with the local promoters, but we really kind of operate in our own unique way."

One locally based Live Nation employee, Toffer Christensen, told Isthmus last April that he wanted to book shows at the Union Theater. However, Good says the way the Union Theater works "does not mesh very well with the kind of timeline and operating procedures that other promoters have," because the Union Theater tends to book events far more in advance, usually announcing a year's worth of programming at a time. While she wasn't shocked to hear of Live Nation acquiring Frank Productions, Good points out that Madison has in the past benefitted from a diverse landscape of venues and promoters.

"We've been moving in a direction for a while that things are more and more under one umbrella," Good says. "I'm curious to see what that's going to mean for the community at large."

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