Illustration by J.P. Trostle
How are we doing?
Live Nation, the world’s biggest live-events promoter, does not want to tell the city of Raleigh how many people—or, more specifically, what kind of people—are using the property it owns.
On October 17, I sent one city official and two Live Nation employees a customary request for end-of-season attendance data for Walnut Creek Amphitheatre and Red Hat Amphitheater, venues owned by the city and managed by the Raleigh Convention Center. Each year, local news sources—including The News & Observer
and the INDY
—publish those records between season’s end in September or October and December, as well as analyze the numbers
for a sense of how the regional concert market is changing compared to national trends. Not so fast for 2015.
This year no one responded to a series of seven emails and a dozen phone calls and messages sent every one-to-three days through the end of October. Then, on Nov. 4, Carrie Davis, the California-based chief communications officer for Live Nation, emailed me to offer assistance, though I had not copied her on any earlier inquiries to regional Live Nation staff. When I asked for the annual attendance records, she replied, “We don’t provide attendance figures as a matter of policy.” And during a subsequent phone call, Davis said that Live Nation could not supply those numbers directly, so they would need to be supplied through the city of Raleigh itself.
Simple enough, I reckoned, as the City of Raleigh had already delivered attendance numbers for Red Hat days before Davis emailed me. I sensed that my string of unanswered emails was going nowhere, so I had filed a preemptive request. And Red Hat, a boon to downtown Raleigh, actually did very well in 2015. The venue crept beyond its previous attendance totals to set a new record of 115,212, which includes the Wide Open Bluegrass concerts moved inside the Raleigh Convention Center due to inclement weather. (See those numbers here.)
In the same email, however, John Boyette, who works in the city’s public affairs department, said that was the best he could do. “I have been advised that the [City of Raleigh] does not receive attendance numbers for Walnut Creek as the rent is calculated on revenue and not on attendance,” Boyette said in an email. This changed in 2010, Boyette said, despite lack of a contract amendment between the city and Walnut Creek.
But I reminded the public affairs department that, only last year, the city indeed provided those attendance numbers despite the recent distinction. In light of that, the public affairs department began looking for the data, only to find that they didn’t have it. And when they prompted the Raleigh Convention Center to provide those records, they were told it wouldn’t be possible. Live Nation wasn’t giving them to anyone.
“LN has decided to not release attendance data,” Hazel Cockram of the Raleigh Convention Center wrote Thursday afternoon to two other city employees. When I asked if that meant if Live Nation was refusing to provide the city
with feedback and data on a property it owns and maintains, the line went cold—a tacit acknowledgement, it seemed.
At least, that is, until late yesterday evening, when city communications director Damien Graham intervened and said he was making the matter his “top priority” for Friday. Late in the afternoon, Live Nation relented, kind of, issuing only cumulative attendance numbers for the season: 353,062. Though Walnut Creek’s season ended a month ago, and though the requests for the sums have been outstanding for three weeks, Graham says by-show numbers are not yet available through Live Nation and he could only “try to get” them. That is to say, the city of Raleigh may never know who used the property it owns during the spring, summer and fall.
It’s strange that Live Nation wouldn’t want to flaunt that number. Despite flagging attendance for such large venues nationwide, it’s the best season they’ve had since 1997’s roster attracted 413,212 attendees. It surpasses last year’s abysmal season by more than 70,000 people. The arrival of a long-desired, much-needed music festival certainly
helped, as did a hot string of summer country concerts. What’s more, the city is paid based upon a percentage of the venue’s gross revenues. Through September, before the American Roots Festival even arrived, Live Nation already owed the city more than $1.5 million, a fee greater than almost every year during the last decade.
Why, then, would Live Nation want to hide the data? According to another source who asked to remain anonymous, Davis said the decision had nothing to do with Raleigh and that it had, in fact, been passed down as an edict to all Live Nation venues. And that’s fine, I suppose, as Live Nation is only contractually obligated to provide “monthly reports of Gross Revenues,” which they have done.
But remember, in many instances, Live Nation is the only leaseholder on properties whose construction and maintenance is paid, at least in part, through public funds. Walnut Creek is one such property, as is Red Hat. After nearly 30 years of paying off a massive debt, the city finally made its last payment on the property June 1, according to Perry James, the city’s CFO. That is, it’s ours
now, even if Live Nation holds the lease until 2031.
According to the data Live Nation eventually agreed to give the city, there’s nothing to worry about financially. Live Nation took an active approach to revitalizing the space this year. But that’s not the point, and there's plenty to worry about on principle: The city—in this case, the landlord—deserves the chance to evaluate the performance of all its properties, from a city arts space to a city park, which is how the greenway-adjacent Walnut Creek and its neighboring softball complex should be regarded. Live Nation's role as the biggest, most-hungry player in the booking game doesn't mean it sets all the rules. We deserve to know how the public spaces for which we paid are paying off. The city should demand it every year, whether or not I stop calling.