The parties involved in the extraordinary consolidation of summer shed services in Chicago are keeping the details close to the chest. A bombshell agreement has just eliminated the debilitating competition between Jam Productions and the Nederlander Organization and put them in bed together for the summer concert season. But Nederlander's position is a firm no comment; Jam's not talking; and none of the World Music Theatre's other owners are responding to press inquiries.
As a consequence the details are vague. If you haven't heard the news, Jam has been forced to sell part of its suffering World to archrival Nederlander after four years of booking battles with the Nederlander-controlled Poplar Creek. Despite a record-breaking season receiptswise and what seemed like a genre-based detente between the two operations (Jam bringing harder-edged and alternative acts to the World, Nederlander handling the Barry Manilows and Jimmy Buffetts at Poplar), neither company was happy with the situation.
The story broken last month by the south-suburban Star (and quickly picked up by the Daily Southtown and the Trib) was that Jam and its three suburban developer partners were behind on property-tax payments to Tinley Park, where the World is located. Then last week Jam announced that it's effectively out of the shed-management business, as it cedes "operations and management duties" for the World to Nederlander, though the two companies will book the joint jointly. Nederlander also gets equity in the World. In return they'll shut down Poplar Creek, which booked about two dozen major shows this summer, and give Jam a piece of the action at Alpine Valley, in Wisconsin.
For some perspective Hitsville turned to Gary Bongiovanni, founder and editor of the weekly trade publication Pollstar. Hitsville said it seemed odd, given the millions of dollars in tickets, T-shirt sales, and concessions that pass through the World on an average weekend, that it wasn't making enough money. "You have to remember that almost all the money you have in any situation ends up in the artists' hands," said Bongiovanni. "The promoter's profit margin is pretty small. Jam had a significant debt service on the World; they spent a lot of money on a building that's only generating money three or four months a year.
"There aren't very many markets where there are competing amphitheaters," he continued. "I've never seen a situation where both are prospering. It often happens that it gets to the point where whoever wins [a bidding war for a particular act] has the honor of losing money."
Additionally, he said, there is the factor of increasing ticket prices. "Even when you don't have another competing venue you're competing with your own bills." After the big-name acts come through with their $50 and $100 tickets, fans don't have much left. As Bongiovanni points out, "The Stones and Pink Floyd take an awful lot of money out of Chicago." This is one of the ironies of the concert business, it has always seemed to Hitsville: competition is good from the artists' point of view--they have two people bidding for their services--but bad from the fans'; they have to come up with the big money the promoter has laid down for the act.
A footnote here is news of the revivification of the dreaded Alpine Valley, which was nearly moribund last year despite being newly under Nederlander management. It's out of the way, it has lousy parking facilities, and it has such a poor history of crowd control that it operates only under strict safety guidelines from the county. (In fairness, these problems preceded Nederlander's involvement.) Walworth County planning director Frank Dobbs says government supervision will continue, but that as long as Nederlander comes up with crowd-control plans they'll be allowed to sell out the facility if they can. From personal experience Hitsville can testify that 40,000 fans at Alpine is not a recipe for fun--and even if the county is watching out for your safety, parking and access will remain a nightmare. "You're talking about a township road," Dobbs notes, referring to the infamous single-lane County D, "and there will be a delay getting out. It's all part of the Alpine Valley experience."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.