The biggest concert corporation in the world is cranking up its presence in the Twin Cities. Again.
Boasting a wraparound VIP balcony above the chandelier-adorned dance floor with comfy seats, private boxes and a cozy lounge, the 1,850-person venue brings a new level of VIP comfort — and corporate synergy — to the Twin Cities.
Part of a national franchise, the Fillmore Minneapolis marks Live Nation’s most ambitious push yet into the Twin Cities concert market. It even gets a tax break of sorts, because it’s located outside the downtown zone where bars and restaurants are subject to a surcharge on food and liquor.
Live Nation is far from new to Minnesota, though. It dominates the arena and stadium concert slate, including newly announced summer dates with the Rolling Stones and Guns N’ Roses. It previously ran the Quest nightclub in Minneapolis (closed in 2006) and the unsuccessful $5 million River’s Edge fest in St. Paul (2012).
“We have been booking in the market for 15 years including at the Xcel Center, Target Field, Myth, Orpheum and many others, including the Varsity Theater,” Live Nation representatives said in a written response to the Star Tribune after declining interview requests.
“Minneapolis is one of the most vibrant music markets in the country. It also has a tremendous sense of community. That combination made it logical to build the Fillmore here.”
Live Nation has launched an aggressive push into smaller venues in major cities around the country. In Minneapolis, it took over management of the 962-capacity Varsity and forged a partnership with the renovated Armory, which accommodates around 8,000 fans. And besides the nine Fillmores it owns, it also has 11 House of Blues clubs.
“This is where Live Nation sees the future of the concert business: in midsize venues,” said Dean Budnick, co-author of the book “Ticket Masters: The Rise of the Concert Industry and How the Public Got Scalped.”
“As we see less and less acts big enough to fill stadiums and arenas, we’ll see more and more smaller venues like these.”
Taking on local promoters
A company that reported $10.8 billion in revenue in 2018 — much of it as a promoter of concert tours — Live Nation is taking on locally owned powerhouse First Avenue as well as local casinos and theaters.
Its promoters “are always pushing to make as big an impact as they can,” said Historic Theatre Group booking director Rick Hansen, who has co-hosted shows with Live Nation at the State, Orpheum and Pantages theaters. “They have been a very solid client for us and bring some great acts to our theaters.”
But Hansen also noted diplomatically: “It’s also great to work with the independent promoters [like First Avenue] with their emphasis on creative content and nurturing artists.”
When Live Nation opened Fillmores in Philadelphia and the D.C. area, local venues rued the well-funded competition. The famed 9:30 Club in Washington even filed suit to contest a contract given to Live Nation by county officials.
But staffers at the 9:30 Club and Philadelphia’s First Avenue-like Union Transfer say the Fillmores ultimately had little impact on their business.
“We saw a small dip in attendance, but after that initial year or so our sales have continued to climb,” said Union Transfer co-owner Sean Agnew.
A Live Nation executive’s comment last summer that the Fillmore Minneapolis would not be “just a black box with people in it” was not intended as a swipe at First Avenue, the company insists, and says it does not intend to squeeze out any local competitors.
“Artists that skipped the market or could not find the right venue will now have another option in Minneapolis,” Live Nation told the Star Tribune.
“That coupled with the quality of the band and fan experience at the Fillmore will make it a must-visit venue.”
In 2012 another worldwide concert corporation, AEG Live, opened a midsize concert hall — Mill City Nights (aka the Brick) — just a few blocks from First Avenue. The place never really caught on, though, and closed by 2016.
The Fillmore is a much nicer venue, having been built from the ground up. Live Nation would not discuss the cost. The venue is part of a broader development spearheaded by United Properties, which is owned by the Pohlad family (also owners of the Minnesota Twins), that includes a 160-room Element by Westin hotel and Trax Burgers and Bar.
Its location in the newly flourishing North Loop also gives Live Nation a tax advantage. Because it was built just outside the downtown zone — a taxing district that dates to the late 1970s for funding of the Minneapolis Convention Center and the now-demolished Metrodome — the Fillmore will face about 3% less in food and liquor sales taxes compared to First Avenue and other venues in the downtown zone. That could add up to tens of thousands of dollars a year.
“There are many points of unfairness where somebody is right on one side of the taxing district line or the other,” said Minneapolis City Council Member Steve Fletcher, who welcomed the Fillmore to his ward but said its presence underlines the outdatedness of the downtown zone.
“I think there’s enough of an audience to support multiple venues down there, and the added competition could be a positive. But I do think they should be on a level playing field.”
Lowell Pickett, co-owner of the Dakota restaurant and music club — located in the downtown zone — said the tax difference is “simply unfair.”
“First Ave is a homegrown, locally owned operation tied to the community,” he said. “It already works at a disadvantage against Live Nation, which is promoting national tours themselves, bringing them into their own venue now and using their own ticketing platform.”
Ticketmaster is a hot button
Based on early social-media reaction, Live Nation’s ties to Ticketmaster are arguably as much a burden as an asset as it tries to endear itself to Twin Cities concertgoers (popular hashtag: #TicketBastard).
Ticketmaster’s much-maligned fees and Live Nation’s “dynamic pricing” tactics, which raise (or lower) ticket prices based on demand, prompted U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar to request a Department of Justice investigation into the sister companies’ practices last August.
In a letter to the department’s antitrust division, Klobuchar cited “sky-high fees” and accused Live Nation and Ticketmaster of “retaliating against venues that use a competing ticket platform.”
“Live Nation’s dominance ... raises serious antitrust concerns,” the Minnesota Democrat said more recently.
But artists themselves are a factor in rising ticket prices. As they earn less from album sales in the digital-streaming era, they’re relying more on concert revenue and VIP add-ons that can add $100 or more to the ticket price.
“The artists aren’t just innocent bystanders in all this,” said author Budnick. “Ultimately, the vitality of independent venues versus Live Nation might come down to the artists as much as anyone else.”