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End of the Wang or a Threat to Democracy?

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One of the behind-the-scenes players in the recent Nutcracker turmoil in Boston is a certain media company against which the Wang Center must compete. That company owns 1200 radio stations, or 11% of ALL radio stations in the USA -- and a greater percentage in major markets. It is also doing the best it can to monopolize on live entertainment, which (among other things) is making it hard for the Wang to compete.

According to December 2003 Harper's Magazine, many live shows go from one venue to the next, all owned by this same company. They are told where and how to perform --- lest they risk losing crucial exposure on a major portion of the radio stations in the country. "[As a band] there's only one place to go --- and it doesn't matter whether or not they make you a fair offer. And pretty soon, they don't have to make you a fair offer. And they can decide what band is playing and what band isn't."

One executive in this company, when asked why they are seeking to dominate live music as they do radio, said: "People attending a concert are experiencing something with tremendous emotion. They're... vulnerable."

This level of concentration of power should scare anyone who values American democracy. Freedom of speech was ensured by prohibiting government censorship, so that the government could never control the media. What good will that be if we end up with a few major corporations controlling the media?

Ballet is entertainment, maybe it isn't so critical to democracy. But Rock Music has always been a crucible for political reform. If Rock Music can no longer gain an audience if it displeases those in power, we really have lost something critical to our democracy. And of course if one company owns so many radio stations, what are the political ramifications to someone who holds views contrary to that company --- a political candidate, for example. How will those views ever be aired?

In this light, it seems that the future of the Nutcracker might be the least of our worries. Something to think about...

[There was an indepth article on this issue in December 2003 issue of Harper's Magazine. All quotes are from that article.]

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Sounds like managed care in the medical insurance industry. The insurance companies have merged and been bought out or driven out. Only a few big powerful players left. Take it or leave it offers for reimbursement. Patient care suffers as the insurance company manages their money and denies care. Patient dissatifaction and provider dissatisfaction. There are no more doctors, just providers you know. No more patients, just clients. It is all about the bottom line.

Given the lack of outcry from the insured in this country, and the fact that when doctors scream they are accused of being greedy, I find it hard to believe that those who listen to Rock music and those who attend the ballet etc will have much muscle in this dilemma. Too much shrugging of shoulders. :wink: Too much of a feeling of frustration, Too much of a realization of the power of the almight dollar. Freedom and capitalism... can be good/can be bad.

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Same thing is happening in the technology world. But I read an interesting take on it as compared with Europe. Europe was termed "pro-market", whereas America was "pro-business". That means that Europe tries to set things up to give everyone a fair chance. In contrast, America sets things up to make existing businesses profitable --- "what's good for GM is good for America", etc.

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djb: "It's true that outsourcing wouldn't work -- most dancers make so little money to start with, how could you find people to work for even less?"

Here in central Europe most of the professional dancers do not come from the countries in which they work.

There are especially many dancers from the "former east" of Europe.

They do work for less, much of the time.


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Actually, let me take an uncustomary political stance on this topic.

The effect of a monopoly on anything almost always works against the consumer. Simply because the old phone system hadn't descended into price-gouging, and other anti-consumer activity is no proof that it couldn't have done so if it had changed managements and wanted to. But in this sense Bell Telephone was acting as a utility, and not so much a medium. When you get to expressive communications media, things that transmit their own kind of information, a monopoly is always eventually pernicious, and always subject to mischief. Think of the Hearst empire, after all. Standard Oil and Carnegie Steel were not media, but their monopolistic influence reached down into the deepest parts of society. That's the reason that Theodore Roosevelt entered into his "trust-busting" campaign. We're so accustomed to anti-trust activity in the US, that it seems inconceivable to us that it could have been any other way.

With media, the answer has always been to change the channel, or read a different newspaper. But when all media in a given market are controlled by only a few sources, then the evils can begin. Think of the political boss in the old movie, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. That was only a cartoonish portrait, but it made the point. These things can affect ballet, whether it be in promotion, or criticism, or any other phase of media representation of our art. I apologize for entering into the world of current politics, Alexandra, and you should take this message down if the good of the board requires it.

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There was an article in a recent issue of BusinessWeek which made a similar point about the buying power of a certain large retail chain. The buying power is affecting the nature of goods offered, including what books and magazines are available to customers.

Although this does appear to be a political topic, I think it has relevance to ballet because a ballet needs an audience, and the audience is, in the marketing world, a specific target market.

The general trend in marketing to audiences appears to be for the large, lowest risk venture. This makes it less likely that ballets will be produced, which, in turn, makes it ever more difficult to educate an audience so that they will want to attend ballets.

One thing I find disturbing in the Wang debacle is the reaction of Boston Ballet. They have been very hostile toward the Wang in their PR, suggesting that through letter writing campaigns the audience might be able to change the situation.

The situation (lack of a profitable business model) existed prior to the Wang's decision to oust the Nutcracker; that decision was a symptom, not a cause.

I agree with Citibob's posts elsewhere that what really needs to be done is more thinking outside the box. If the market will not bear a Nutcracker at the Wang, Boston Ballet needs to rethink how best to produce a Nutcracker.

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I read about the Wang situation and shudder, because I see the future of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Until a few years ago, the director there was responsible for all bookings, ballet, symphony, pop, jazz, whatever. Not long after he negotiated himself a substantial salary increase from the very, very uncritical board, he signed over all control of bookings except New York City Ballet and the Philadelphia Orchestra and a few odd Sundays to Clearchannel Entertainment (he retained his raise, however). Not only have locals decried Clearchannel's much less friendly "user experience," but it's become clear that since Clearchannel also books a big theater near Albany, it will not book a group into both SPAC and the other theater, as there's substantial overlap between local audiences for the two. While this may be a good thing for Clearchannel, it's not a good thing for the consumer, who loses flexibility he might otherwise have.

I would say that this is just pop music and has nothing to do with ballet, except for some ominous recent developments from SPAC. Although for years Chesebrough (the director) has emphatically stated that NYCB and the Philadelphia Orchestra will always be coming to SPAC in the summer, he has recently changed his tune. He now complains of the million-dollar losses each season costs SPAC, and tries to paint a picture of a dedicated SPAC organization doing everything in its power to make hopeless moneylosers profitable, or at least sustainable.

These crocodile tears would be less unconvincing had SPAC done even the most rudimentary marketing of these attractions. As has been noted in other discussions here, you won't find much, if any, notice of the SPAC seasons in Northeastern media (not even mentions in listings, which are free!), unlike, say, Tanglewood or Wolf Trap.

Hand in hand with these brave pronouncements, Chesebrough has changed his tune about the ballet and orchestra, saying now only that SPAC will present first-class classical dance and music. Ominously, there's no committment, not even at the handshake level, for either of these companies to continue at SPAC past this summer.

It's hard not to look at recent history at SPAC and conclude that the current administration is working, passively if not actively, to make the ballet and orchestra appear to one and all as hopeless money-losers, so that a decision sometime next year to hand over all performing-arts bookings to Clearchannel (or a similar institution) can be presented as the only solution to keeping SPAC afloat, and, regrettably, NYCB and the Orchestra will have to go. Apparently SPAC has already used this useful "tide of red ink" to negotiate lower fees from both organizations.

There was a lot of attention in the Saratoga press last spring when Marylou Whitney, the most prominent member of SPAC's board, resigned. She made little comment, but given the events that transpired since, it's hard not to wonder if perhaps her resignation was in response to the announcement of a plan to replace the ballet and orchestra in 2005, much as Wang has done to the Boston Ballet.

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So is the Wang saying not so much "we can't afford to give December to Boston Ballet" but rather "we can't afford to give December to Boston Ballet if Clearchannel is presenting The Rockettes" across the way? Any theories yet on how much audience The Rockettes would cost Boston Ballet if Clear Channel were presenting them [the Rockettes]? I've lost track, how much does the Wang get from Boston Ballet for the Nutcracker? Is it a portion of the house or a flat playment?

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"...I've lost track, how much does the Wang get from Boston Ballet for the Nutcracker?  Is it a portion of the house or a flat playment?"

It may be more complex than that. If the Wang presents both local and touring shows during the year, they may need to maintain a good relationship with a company who controls a significant number of available shows. Even though they (the Wang) are a non-profit organization, they still compete with other presenters for audience, and if there are other venues in the area that might have the capacity to present, say, touring Broadway shows, there is a built-in competition for content (the shows) as well as audience. It's certainly possible that the Rockettes dates are just a part of a larger agreement that includes several other bookings.

I don't know enough about Clear Channel's position in theater, but I know they are a tenacious competitor in recorded music -- my music colleagues are extremely passionate about what they see as an ultra-controlling monopolist. If they have entered into theatrical booking as well, I can imagine they would approach it with the same principals.

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If they have entered into theatrical booking as well, I can imagine they would approach it with the same principals.

Clear-Channel bought out Pace Entertainmant (which owned Pace Theatrical and Pace Concerts -- the latter was the largest concert promoter in the world). They're a major player.

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"Major player" and "tenacious competitor" are far too polite terms for Clear Channel and hardly begin to describe the monolithic position that CC holds in radio and is working on in concert promotion. See Harper's magazine -- I think it's the December issue -- (articles not available online) for some of the gruesome details.

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