Nederlander Invades Jam Country: Let the Rock Wars Begin!

It was hard to see how the Nederlander Organization’s scheme to book rock shows at the China Club was supposed to challenge Jam Productions’ hegemony in Chicago rock promotion. While adequate and even appropriate for high-volume dance or rap acts, the cavernous and noisy China Club is hardly competition for the more elegant and live-music-oriented Metro or Park West. But Nederlander’s recent announcement of a relatively major show (Santana) at a venue sometimes used by Jam (the Arie Crown Theater) is strong evidence that the company is in fact serious about taking on Chicago-based Jam, which over its 21 years has grown to dominate midwest concert booking. Nederlander comes right out and says that the show is the start of a concerted effort to muscle in on the Chicago market.

There’s little reason to think that Jam is vulnerable. Owners Arny Granat and Jerry Mickelson are the acknowledged kingpins of a vast territory that extends from hubs in Chicago and Minneapolis to smaller towns in Wisconsin and Iowa, and sometimes farther. In a business that values money, power, and relationships, in that order, they’ve got a lot of each. And they’ve survived plenty of challenges in the past, from out-of-town competitors as well as from homegrown upstarts like Brad Altman, whose recent antics at the Cubby Bear and the Oak Theatre garnered a lot of press but ultimately came to naught.

But Nederlander has more than talk and an empty theater on its side. Currently in the third generation of family ownership, the company is one of the most powerful entities in the entertainment business–one of the largest theater owners in the world, and one of the largest booking agencies. It also owns seven Poplar Creek-style “sheds” from LA to DC, and even part of Yankee Stadium. Aware that the rock ‘n’ roll business works from the bottom up–Jam, for example, first brought U2 to the Park West 12 years ago, and now sells nearly 100,000 tickets for the band at the World Music Theatre–Nederlander has gotten interested in a vertical pipeline to do the same. The company moved into LA some six or seven years ago, and now is looking at Chicago.

The next few years should be interesting. “We plan to work the China Club, the Chicago Theatre, the Arie Crown, the Rosemont, and whatever else becomes available,” says Mark Campana, who oversees midwest concert operations from Nederlander’s Detroit office. “There used to be one indoor promoter and one outdoor promoter in Chicago, we being outdoor and Jam indoor. But that equation has changed. In order to keep our edge we felt it was important to produce both inside and out.”

Both Nederlander and Jam are grappling with sea changes in the rock concert biz. Jam, watching an ever-growing part of the industry move to the summer sheds, built the World Music Theatre to compete; Nederlander, in turn, saw that Jam’s top-to-bottom presence in the Chicago market could eventually cripple Poplar Creek. In just three years the World has thoroughly embarrassed Poplar by wresting away a good chunk of the summer concert scene. While Poplar bounced back a little this year–bagging shows by Eric Clapton and Elton John–these pale next to the World’s hipper and more prestigious bookings of acts like the Cure, Bruce Springsteen, the Lollapalooza festival, and of course U2.

Campana says the move into Chicago has nothing to do with the old rumor that Poplar was closing because the land it sits on was acquired by Sears for its new world HQ in Hoffman Estates. “We have a long-term commitment from Sears,” he says. Rather, he philosophical basis for the move came from industry complaints to the effect that Nederlander promoted only big acts in large arenas–“skimming the cream off the top, so to speak,” says Campana. “They thought we weren’t paying our dues in the farm league, if you will. So we entered into the LA market, and we’re now toe to toe with the number one promoter in town, Avalon.”

Jam professes complacency: “It’s a free country,” says Mickelson. “We welcome competition: that’s what America’s all about,” agrees Granat.

“We’re not going to lose any sleep over it,” says Mickelson. “We’re just going to keep doing what we’ve always done: bringing the best shows we can to Chicago.”

It’s funny though–the concert business is one that consumers have very little say in: we don’t have a choice of going to, say, Jam’s Lollapalooza versus Nederlander’s. Indeed, competition can actually increase ticket prices as the companies are forced to outbid each other for acts. If Nederlander actually has the stomach for a booking war with Jam, the battle will be joined not in public but behind the scenes, over phone lines and faxes, for the hearts and minds not of consumers but of managers, bands, and record companies. Can Nederlander use its massive cross-country might to bring down a venerable midwest fortress? Or will it end up getting caught–excuse the expression–in a Jam? All we can do is watch.

Ministry of Misinformation

Two weeks ago, Hitsville reported on the upcoming Chicago Music Awards, the promoters of which had claimed that local industrial rockers Ministry had originally agreed to appear in the show before having to cancel because of a tour. This was confirmed by Ministry’s management office. One small problem: the management office was off its rocker. At least that’s the word from Patti Jourgensen, wife of Ministry’s Al. She attributes the misinformation to the fact that the company–Crazed Management of New Jersey–was not yet in tune with the Ministry way of doing things. The band itself did not agree to appear on the show, and isn’t planning to.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bob McKeown.