From counter- to corporate culture

Local music professionals help get the gigs and face down Clear Channel

When Bill Arnovich was 12, his parents bought him two Kenner's Close'n Play phonographs at his request so he could play his 45s like a disc jockey in his bedroom. He would pretend he was Casey Kasum, "America's Top 40" radio host, Arnovich confessed.

That was 36 years ago.

Like a lot of Baby Boomers, the CARAG resident fell in love with rock 'n' roll at an early age and never lost his passion for it. When he learned that one could actually make a living in the rock music business without being a musician (Arnovich does not consider himself musically gifted), he told his mother to forget about medical school.

Bryn Mawr's Sue McLean and Kingfield's Steve McClellan have also found performance-free niches in the local music biz. Sue McLean and Associates books national acts in town, and McClellan is general manager of First Avenue and 7th Street Entry downtown.

Together, the Baby Boomer trio has over 90 years' behind-the-scenes experience and have seen firsthand how the musical genre that defined their generation has taken some interesting twists and turns over the decades.

Talking to the top

Even megastars like Prince first started out as no-names. Garage bands rely on promoters like Arnovich to cultivate their music, get them signed to a label and (they hope) get the public's attention. The bulk of Arnovich's job is to get his clients' faces on TV, their songs on the radio and their names in the paper.

"A lot of record companies don't want to work with up-and-coming bands," said Arnovich. "Everyone wants to eat the cake, but nobody wants to help bake it."

Though he refers to himself as "a cog in a big wheel," he also said he'll go through every firewall necessary to promote his clients' music. And that goes for the newcomers he represents, such as 57 Stitch and the Rebecca Ford Band, as well as his mainstay old timers like Joey Molland of Badfinger and Carmine Appice of the legendary '60s band Vanilla Fudge.

Instead of relying on impersonal blanket e-mails to reach reviewers, play list pickers and other decision-makers, as many beginning performers are inclined to do, Arnovich prefers to establish direct contacts and cultivate relationships the old-fashioned way -- by phone and in-person meetings.

Arnovich said he finds greater success with such seemingly old-school tactics in an increasingly narrow port of opportunity. According to Arnovich, radio play lists have shrunk from 2,500 songs to just 250 top hits.

Consolidation

The most significant change in the music business in the past couple of years is how much it has consolidated, according to McLean.

"Clear Channel Communications dominates the radio stations and the concert industry as a whole nationally," she said.

Clear Channel is a collection of media and entertainment companies, including over 2500 radio stations nationwide, with seven in the Twin Cities, along with a seemingly infinite number of billboards and some music clubs.

Ask McClellan, who books bands for First Avenue, which offers a mixture of big-name and startup acts, and he'll tell you the music industry has become a lot more complicated since the corporate giants muscled their way in.

In fact, McClellan no longer sees rock 'n' roll as a counterculture art form, but a "straight-up business -- homogenized and bought-and-paid-for."

The presence of conglomerates has fomented a bidding war for national acts, said McClellan, especially with Clear Channel, who sponsors tours for such superstars as Sting and Britney Spears at the Target Center and books their smaller shows at The Quest Club in downtown.

"Sometimes, if you are the high bidder to bring a big act to Minneapolis, you can win the bid and lose your shirt," said McClellan.

Though they do not get as many big-name shows as they used to, First Avenue still books over a thousand bands a year. McClellan said the club is experiencing the same problems as all the independent businesses; nonchain grocery stores, coffee shops, record and book stores all must compete with the likes of Cub Foods, Starbucks, Best Buy and Borders.

The trend is responsible for what McClellan calls the "malling" of downtown. He decried the fact that independents are being pushed out as corporations with deeper pockets move in.

"You have tourists coming into downtown who are not alternative, they are not street-level and they are scared of First Avenue," he said. "But they love the Hard Rock Caf, it makes them feel good to go in and buy a t-shirt."

All grown up?

While McLean sympathizes with McClellan's sentiments, she also said that stiffer competition with bigger companies has also brought a degree of professionalism to a business filled with individuals famous for their debauchery.

"Rock stars acting irresponsible? It doesn't happen these days," said McLean, who recently brought native Minnesotan Jonny Lang back home from California to the State Theater downtown. "It's a business, and everybody is pretty professional."

While McLean noted that performers are human beings, with "human being types of problems," unreliable performers just don't make it to the national touring level. "For the most part, the music industry is a finely tuned machine."

As for competition on the club level, Tony Harris, chief operating officer of The Quest Club, located at 110 N. 5th St., said that Clear Channel does over one hundred shows a year at the Quest including Blink 182, Simple Plan, Method Man and Obie Trice.

"Clear Channel is a good business partner of ours," said Harris. "We have a good concert and business relationship with them just like we do with all the promoters who book shows at the Quest."

McClellan admits he has become jaded and worries that he is beginning to sound like his father. Yet when talking about what he considers the terrible commercial radio in town he is reminded of a Pogo cartoon in which a character declares: "We have seen the enemy and it is us."

"Radio is not even Top 40 [based on what songs consumers are purchasing] anymore and it's ridiculous," said McClellan. "But when you allow money to dictate, you get watered down musicians who jump from small rooms where they can do anything they like and be loved by the audience to concerts like the Pink Floyd Metrodome concert where you could barely see the artists on stage but you could see the flying pig balloons around the stadium. At those concerts, you are not paying for the music, you are paying for a spectacle."

McClellan does not expect the rock 'n' roll scene to return its more independent roots any time soon -- "Most of this stuff is as permanent as electricity."