The New Payola
When Radio Stations Become Concert Promoters
Getting the details to fill out the above outline is like trying to find the historically verifiable elements in an Oliver Stone flick. The independent facts of the matter have been filtered through too much ego. Nobody wants to be the bad guy, but something happened that kept the band from making it to Austin. In its most harmless form, the story is simply a matter of metaphysical impossibility. Everclear's frontman Art Alexakis couldn't be in two places at once. In its more probable form, however, the story is about the ongoing battle between local radio stations, with the worst-case scenario resulting in at least one station threatening to pull the Everclear's record from their playlist.
KROX, better known as 101X, tried to get Everclear into Austin as part of the "Summerland Tour" package, which also included Paul Westerberg, 7 Year Bitch, Spacehog, and Tracy Bonham. 101X program director Sara Trexler recalled, "Both KNACK and 101X have been very supportive of Everclear. We have a very good relation with Art. In fact, I talked to him at the Q101 festival. He said he would only play a show for KNACK if he could also play a show for us, within a short period of time -- like in two months. He wasn't going to do it if it meant one this year and one next year.
"Basically, what ended up happening was we were gonna do a show and there were a lot of other conflicts. He couldn't do the show on the day we had available. Art said, `Look, I'm not gonna be unfair to you. I've made this agreement that we were gonna do both or neither one.' So, what happened was they did neither one."
It's all very benign, until Trexler is asked if KLBJ was somehow involved in the deal falling apart. "I'd forgotten about that," she answers. "[KLBJ station manager] Jeff Carrol did kind of come in and freak out, which is really bizarre because I wouldn't consider Everclear a core artist for them."
Everclear manager Darren Lewis' story is a bit more sterile. The band never invoked an everybody-or-nobody clause. Things were very black and white: both stations wanted to bring in the band, but both shows were, for different reasons, logistical impossibilities. "As I recall, KNACK wanted us to do a show at the beginning of June," says Lewis. "They asked if we would be available; but we were never able to do anything with them because Art had a prior commitment producing a band called Frogpond for Sony. He only has a certain number of days off and... they had tried a bunch of different dates. I think the KNACK show was happening on more than one day and I think they were trying to get us on one of those days. We kept going back because they had more than one day, but we were not available on any of those days.
And the 101X show suffered a similar fate? Again, by Lewis' account, the Summerland Tour "never got close to being done. With [101X] we ended up not routing it to our tour. We just could not get into Austin. We only had a certain amount of days that all of the artists were available, but we were unable to make it."
Logistics schmogistics. KNACK general manager Richard Rees figures the stations have nobody but themselves to blame. "Oh, yeah. We were early on in the record," says Rees. "Went to the label. Went to the management. They said great, we'll come back and do a 101X thing six or eight weeks later. Everything seemed cool by them. And then my understanding is -- and I haven't talked to Jeff Carrol, so I don't know this for a fact. Then Jeff jumped in and they were like `You know what? Fuck it.' And I appreciate the band's position from that standpoint. The band pulled out because it gets to be a headache for them too, watching us idiots fight over a band. I don't want to speak out of school. I don't know exactly what was said. All I know is the last word was `Jeff's pissed. Screw all of you.'"
Rees candidly refutes Lewis' claim that due to prior obligations Everclear never even began making tentative plans to do a show for KNACK. "That's complete bullshit on his part," charges Rees. According to the station, Everclear was all set to play as part of a series of shows on consecutive nights at Liberty Lunch at the beginning of June. "There are too many things that completely contradict that. The labels are smart enough, especially Capitol, to where they're not even going to start committing even tentatively with the band until they've talked to management. It would have carried on too far.
"They would have come to us from the first get- go and said, `We just can't do it. End of discussion.' But, I know for a fact that [KNACK deejay] Andy's [ Meadors] girlfriend is a good friend with one of the guys in the band who flat-out said, `I'll see you in Austin in a couple of weeks.' So the band knew about our date. There was never any doubt. If he's mentioning it to her, cool. That means it's all panned out. I mean, the agent wouldn't have confirmed the date without the manager. And even the band said, through the grapevine, the show was in a couple of weeks. They pulled out on us literally, say ten days before the series."
Hate to make a profit out of Meatloaf, but two out of three participants acknowledge that KLBJ's Jeff Carrol was involved in a negative capacity. If plurality indicates any type of truth, then Carrol obviously played some role in annulling the show or shows that may have been in the works with other stations.
Like KNACK and 101X, KLBJ wanted to bring in Everclear for an exclusive show, the "Cash Bash." And like the other stations, Carrol has his own take on what happened. "My understanding is that one station was talking to management and one to the label, and it was causing a lot of confusion. So instead of doing something politically bad, the band decided to come back and do a non-exclusive show later on."
As for the notion that Everclear nixed any Austin appearances because he threatened to pull their record from KLBJ's playlist, Carrol just chuckles. "That's ridiculous," he says. "If you stop playing the record it only hurts your radio station. If anybody made that threat it would only be an idle threat." (Some people, namely Trexler, think Carroll might have that kind of pull. Of him she noted, "Jeff is certainly powerful enough and record companies want their records played on his radio station, just as they want on any station, that Jeff could create some uncomfortable situations for people. He's been around, he's got a lot of contacts and a lot of people like him.")
Did other stations make KLBJ the scapegoat for their own problems or inaccurately blame Carrol for something that was the collective fault of everyone? He says yes. Still, he writes off his being the sole cause of anything bad with one tactful shot: "It's quite obvious one of those stations is fighting for its life."
Because everyone had to have the band, nobody got them. In theory it's supposed to be a win-win-win-win situation: Listeners get the chance to see an up-and-coming band for cheap, the band gets to play in front of a potentially large audience, record companies get to put their acts in front of music-loving consumers, many of whom are anxious to spend their disposable income on CDs, and in the name of listener appreciation and positive PR, radio stations get to plaster their logo all over the event. Everyone goes home happy.
That's the idea, anyway; but as evidenced by the aborted Everclear shows, theory and practice don't always coincide. When radio stations start becoming concert promoters... well, it's that whole "best laid plans of mice and men" thing.
First, recognize that there's no such thing as a standard deal in promoting concerts. Promoters, venues, record labels, and stations can work together in a variety of ways when booking and publicizing a show. That said, generally what happens is that a promoter, like Direct Events or Lunch Money Productions, agrees to pay a band "x" amount of dollars -- their guarantee -- to bring them to town. That promoter then might approach a radio station and hammer out an arrangement offering free tickets to the station for giveaways or even let the station attach their name to the show in exchange for lower advertising prices or some variant of that.
But it's becoming increasingly popular for radio stations to approach labels in order to get bands they like (and have in heavy rotation) to come and play; or often a record company will approach the station and offer them a "better rate" on a live show with a band the label is trying to break in a certain market. The difference between these and the garden-variety shows is that these shows become radio promotions. The station still has to work with venues and promoters, but now it's they who put up the money (if any -- oftentimes a band will plays this type of show for little or nothing), and it's the station who now has not only its image on the line, but also a financial stake in the show as well.
What's the advantage of getting stations to take the concert reigns? It doesn't take a genius to figure it out: Get the band to give up its guarantee, then go to the radio station and offer them a show with the band. The station wants to promote itself vis-a-vis a band they like, and the band does it in order to play in front of a potentially large crowd and get airplay. "It turns into blackmail," says Rees, describing the implied arrangement. "I mean, let's be blunt about it. It's not a better rate, let's not kid around here. The record label supports the cost of getting the bands to shows, while the radio station in turn helps those bands sell albums by spinning the latest singles. Do labels expect airplay for the `favor'? Oh, yeah. It'd be kidding ourselves to say there isn't a give and take. It's all part of promotion. It all comes down to labels really wanting to promote their bands to the maximum exposure that they can."
Not all of Rees peers' are willing to put things so bluntly. To Sara Trexler, it's not a question of shady ethics so much as simply serving her station's business interests to push a show that they're promoting. "I've never had a record company ask me to play a record more," says Trexler. "But let me put it to you this way: If I have a show coming up and Lush is one of my bands on it and I'm playing "Lady Killer" ten times a week, my listeners are not going to hear it enough to know who Lush is. So, when they hear the promo `...and Lush is coming,' they're gonna go, `I don't know this band.' So it's in the interest of the radio station to support the acts they are bringing into town if your trying to sell concert tickets."
Jody Denberg, Trexler's counterpart at KGSR, 101X's sister station, reiterated the same idea. In fact, substitute "The Philosopher Kings" for "Lush" and Denberg's words are almost identical to Trexler's: "Let's say I'm playing the Philosopher Kings and I'm giving it nine or ten spins a week. Then I found I'm getting a `low dough' show with them. Well, then it would only be to my benefit to start playing that band 20 times a week to try to get the listeners more excited about the show. If I'm gonna go to the trouble of promoting a show or making a show my own, then why wouldn't I wanna spin the record more?"
Let's not be naïve about the fact that radio needs to make money. If the stations don't stay liquid, they don't stay on the air, at least not in their current format. But in a market the size of Austin, where four or five stations now compete for the same audience, staying solvent requires staying in the front of the listeners' minds. Stations have to promote themselves, but these types of promotions do determine, at least to some small extent, what gets played on the radio. Whether it's driven from the top by a record company pushing a band, or from the station merely trying to protect its investment -- that is, taking steps to assure that a promotion with the station's name all over it is a success -- the end result is that the listener is being force-fed certain music.
If anyone is "winning," it seems like it should be the band. Hypothetically speaking, the Philosopher Kings' airplay increases in the market. Listeners start recognizing the band. Then the band comes in and plays for $1.07 in front of scads of listeners who like the show so much they go out the next day to buy the Philosopher Kings' CD. Hurrah for the band, right?
Consider the Southern Culture on the Skids show that was part of the series of concerts that KNACK brought to Liberty Lunch during the first week of June (the series of shows of which KNACK wanted Everclear to be a part). All parties involved judged the show to be good for them, and it played out according to form. It was a cheap show, SCOTS got in front of a large crowd, and the audience dug it. KNACK got to put their name on a quality production and the Lunch was able to turn a reasonable profit for a Wednesday night show.
SCOTS frontman Rick Miller concurred explicitly that the Austin show was good for them. SCOTS was happy to come perform live where their record was picked up early on and had already received good airplay. But Miller concedes, "We didn't get paid for it. We didn't see a penny. If there was money, it was for like air fare. We flew in from Minneapolis, then turned around and flew right back out to Seattle to meet up with our driver and continue our tour." The band takes a break from their normal touring schedule, doesn't pocket any money for the effort, and has possibly worn out their market. Who's gonna pay upwards of $10 or $12 to see SCOTS anytime soon when they just saw them for $5? And this was a good show.
"It sucks because we still make our living from the road," added Miller. So why do it? "It's part of the new payola... It's hard to justify, but we will do it for a station because they really have played our records."
So, again, who are the winners? Everclear hasn't played in Austin this summer. n