AEG's Mile High Music and Arts Festival
Chuck Morris is an icon. His legacy in this town has already been firmly established, and he’s really got nothing left to prove to anyone -- except, perhaps, himself. And since he's successfully promoted concerts here for more than thirty years, you gotta trust the guy when he says that Anschutz Entertainment Group’s proposed Mile High Music and Arts Festival will make a stellar addition to the city’s already vibrant cultural landscape.
“I’m as excited about this as anything I've ever done,” Morris elatedly confides over lunch at El Noa Noa.
And he’s done a lot. From opening two storied clubs -- Tulagi in Boulder and Ebbett’s Field in Denver -- to helping launch the Rainbow Music Hall with Barry Fey, to bringing thousands of concerts to Denver with his own company, Morris has had quite an impressive run. But his crowning achievement thus far, he says, was taking over the ramshackle, about-to-be-condemned building on the corner of Clarkson and Colfax known as Mammoth Gardens and turning it into the Fillmore Auditorium, which has been hailed as one of this city’s premier venues.
“And I’d like to go out – not that I’m retiring tomorrow – with this,” he says of the Mile High Music and Arts Festival, “being another crown jewel in this town."
So now, finally freed of his non-compete agreement with Live Nation after jumping over to Anschutz's company, the president and CEO of AEG Live’s Rocky Mountain Division is spending all his time and energy putting together a multi-day concert planned for next July in City Park. Since taking the AEG reins in June, Morris has been working feverishly on a viable plan to present to city officials and everyone else who will need to give their blessing to the fest.
“We’ve been very proactive with all the neighborhood groups, meeting with all of them,” he explains. “And we’re meeting next week with all the churches around the area. I’ve met individually with all thirteen city councilmembers, and I’ve met with the mayor. We’ve met with RTD and with bus companies about renting shuttles. We are being very, very proactive because we want to make sure this has nothing but a positive impact.”
Proactive? I’ll say. Tuesday night at the the Denver Museum of Nature & Science’s Ricketson Auditorium, Morris and Chuck Manning -- a traffic guru whose company has handled traffic flow for Bonnaroo for the past five years -- delivered a compelling pitch to City Park neighbors, augmented by a slick video presentation. The stylized thirteen-minute piece is littered with a gaggle of subtle, almost subliminal, sound bites and visual imagery, presumably intended to let the neighbors know who’s doing the pitching here.
Fact is, even the most ardent music fans are often oblivious to the name of the promoter stamped on their ticket. People tend to think about that sort of thing about as often as they give thought to their long-distance carrier. And whoever produced the video is keenly aware of this, because they did a masterful job of adding a sense of familiarity to the proceedings, giving folks a recognizable face to associate with the AEG brand -- namely Morris, Tuesday night’s pitchman, and his team.
The spot opens with a brief sound clip from the Dave Matthews Band, a group that’s basically become synonymous with the Front Range. Any idea who helped break that band in Colorado? Uh-huh: Don Strasburg, one of Morris’s most trusted protégés. Oh, and there are plenty of other subtle cues, assuming you’re astute enough to spot them. They're not all references to the exploits of AEG, nor are they all audible. Some are just pictures of familiar scenes -- food tents that recall the Taste of Colorado and the People's Fair -- or simply visual suggestions in the segues that emphasize key phrases. But they’re all clever, and extremely well thought-out.
For instance, after the stately narrator extols the many virtues of Denver – mentioning the 300 days of sunshine, the three major sports stadiums, the hundreds of restaurants, the art museum and performing arts complex, while a montage of those places plays – he notes the easy access to outdoor activities and points out that Denver is home to world renowned cultural institutions, such as the Denver Zoo and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (natch), and talks about the vibrant music scene. “From local bands looking for their first break,” he says, as a picture of Rose Hill Drive, a band that more or less made its name at the Fox, flashes on the screen, “to international superstars,” he continues as a shot of Dave Matthews sweeps in, “Denver has seen the world’s most talented musicians grace its many stages.”
The next frames feature archival footage of the guy who, ahem, brought many of those talented musicians to town, speaking with Bertha Lynn and Ron Zappolo – two media personalities likely more familiar to Denver’s rank and file everyman than Morris. Nice touch. As is a well-placed sound bite from Hizzoner Hick. Then Morris casually runs through a litany of his accomplishments over the years before the clip cuts back to a shot of Morris chatting with Lynn.
“There are rock promoters in this business that have made the name ‘rock promoting’ not the greatest name," he says. "And I’m really sort of committed to, before I retire, to sort of change that if I can.
“The community has been nice enough to support me for three decades,” he adds, in another subtle yet calculated moment in which he uses the dock of City Park’s boat pavilion for a backdrop. “I feel like it’s my turn to support them.”
With that, the video then spells out who AEG is. After noting that it's among “the world’s leading concert promotion and touring companies, bringing entertainment of epic proportions to venues across the world” -- shows such as Hannah Montana, Cheetah Girls, American Idol’s tour and the King Tut exhibit (translation: AEG is family-friendly) -- the piece points out that the company has also had a hand in putting together several other large festivals across the country, such as Coachella and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
“These festivals provide their communities with the chance to see exciting music and art and create a positive family event,” the narrator enthuses. “Local businesses also thrive from these festivals, with close to $300 million being pumped into local economies. Chuck Morris and AEG Live have seen the success of these festivals in other cities and now want to bring this fantastic opportunity to Denver in the form of the Mile High Music and Arts Festival.”
At this point, the festival’s logo is unveiled. Featuring two guitars protruding from a mountain range, the emblem sort of recalls the ‘80s-era Nuggets logo, with a blinking rainbow-colored animation inside the jagged mountains that looks like the EQ meter from an old stereo. And then, with all the introductions out of the way, the video gets down to business, actively addressing all potential issues head on, from parking and transportation concerns, to touching upon the security measures being taken, to highlighting the direct impact the festival will have on the community, both from a financial perspective – local food vendors will be utilized -- and a cultural one. The aim here is for the Mile High Music and Arts Festival to truly be a “local festival,” says voiceover guy, as opposed to a “corporate event.”
And just in case folks aren’t already sold, the video concludes with testimonial-style endorsements from several notable members of the community, including Dave Walstrom, Executive Director of Colfax on the Hill; George Sparks, CEO of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and Councilwoman Carla Madison. If you’re trying to win over folks who live in the neighborhood, these are some heavy hitters to have on your side. Clearly, Morris and his crew have done their homework and have crafted a pretty convincing plan. Hell, I’m sold, and I don’t even live in that neighborhood. To me, even without the flashy video, the concept sells itself. Not everybody was as easily swayed this past Tuesday, though.
“There’s always opposition,” Morris allows, “and we’re trying to – this is a process – we are trying to eliminate all of the problems that people perceive we’re going to create. Many of them are real. And we are working non-stop, twenty-four hours a day, meeting daily with neighborhood groups, churches, businesses, to talk about how we can help alleviate those problems.”
So what sort of specific opposition has he encountered thus far?
“Impact on the neighborhood,” he says. “Also, there’s some people that just conceptually don’t believe you should close the park off and charge money. And I understand that. Obviously, I have a different feeling. I think it will become a crown jewel of our town. It will help promote our state, our town. It will be a financial boon for both City Park and the city. And having a great city festival, to me, is a wonderful thing. But we are going to work non-stop to make sure that all the people in the neighborhood, all the people in Denver, are as happy as we can make them. And we have to, of course, go in front of city council and pass this thing.”
Oh yeah, there’s that. Morris and company are slated to appear before council in a month or so to state their case. And given the individual facets of AEG’s plan, the city stands to enjoy a sizable windfall. It’s hard to imagine that the council wouldn’t be on board. AEG is planning to donate a portion of the gate directly to City Park, specifically earmarked for improvements -- Morris is mum on the amount but says that it will be substantial, something in the six-figure range. And this would be on top of the hefty seat tax revenue that would be generated from ticket sales. Collecting 10 percent from each ticket sold priced between $70-$75 per day (kids under twelve will be admitted free), the city will end up with a sizable chunk of change, especially if the festival comes close to reaching its capacity, which is 50,000 people. (While that may seem like a lot, consider that that's actually fewer people than go to Broncos games and about the same amount who attended the World Series.) Not to mention the infusion of cash into the economy from any peripheral foot traffic generated on Colfax and the surrounding neighborhoods.
Even more important, Morris doesn’t anticipate the city being on the hook for too many additional expenses. AEG will be handling almost everything, including security, which will be comprised of off-duty officers along with a private security firm. Together they will police an area that equates to two-thirds of the park, which will be fenced off for the festival. With the conflicts that arose this past summer at the city’s jazz in the park concert series, security is certainly a relevant and valid concern, one that Morris has already considered.
“We have set procedures,” he says. “One of the things we’re doing is we’re going to close at ten, which is only an hour, maybe, at that time of year, of darkness. And also, of course, fencing in our area and charging a considerable amount to get in will certainly help. Somebody isn’t going to pay $70, or whatever it’s going to end up being to go in, to have a fight. And so we think that alone will help. But we’re also certainly going to have a real security and police presence.
“You’ve been to our shows,” he adds. “We don’t skimp on security. And we’re certainly not going to skimp on security or cleaning afterwards and making the park as pretty as it was beforehand, which we’ll sign a contract with the city that’s going to guarantee that.”
If it sounds like Morris has his ducks in a row, he does. He’s spent the past few months running through all the possible scenarios, everything from crowd control to parking to traffic. Hiring Manning’s Albany, New York-based company, Creighton Manning Engineering, was one of his first orders of business. CME has coordinated traffic flow for innumerable high-volume events, including two Olympics and both Woodstocks during the '90s. Manning, who’s already been out to Denver four times in the past few months, has been tasked with ensuring that the transportation situation is worked in a way that doesn’t cause any sort of imposition on the neighborhood.
“It’s always an issue when you’re trying to bring that many people into an event like this or like any of the other events,” Manning explains. “I guess the biggest challenge is getting everybody coordinated and on the same page and also to let people know what the system is going to be, the advance publicity and so on, so that they know what to expect when they come.”
What they can expect is that there will be absolutely no parking at City Park or in the surrounding neighborhood. Residents will be issued parking permits, and any vehicles without permits will be towed. There are plenty of viable transportation alternatives to driving,say Morris and Manning, such as walking or riding your bike – like Austin City Limits, which Morris recently attended and is sort of using as a template, a massive amount of bike racks will be available. Folks will also be encouraged to utilize bus and light rail services, which will be ramped up for the event, or they can take advantage of the fairly extensive park-and-ride shuttle service that will be in place for the festival. Concert-goers may incur a parking fee, but Morris says there's thoughts of rolling that into the ticket price.
“We’re talking about 200-300 buses that we’ll provide from these outlying parking lots that will come every five minutes or less,” Morris explains. “We’re talking with the city about the Denver Coliseum parking lot; we’re talking with the DNC, because they control the parking lot at the Pepsi Center in July, and we’re talking to Metro State about using their lot. People will just drop their car off, and there will be buses in line to pick them up and drop them off. We’ve also met with some cab companies.”
Morris seems confident that all the planning, lobbying and negotiating that’s taking place right now will pay off in the form of a fantastic urban festival. Slated to take place during the weekend of July 19, the festival will have a spot for local fine artists to showcase their wares, in addition to bringing in sixty artists to play on five stages. While top-tier acts such as Bob Dylan, Dave Matthews Band, Willie Nelson and John Mayer are name-checked in the video, Morris makes it clear that none of those artists have been booked; rather, he's alluding to the caliber of talent at the festival being on par with those acts. Everything is talent-driven, and according to Morris, he and his cohorts purposely chose that weekend at the end of July because of its proximity with other noteworthy festivals across the country, such as Bonnaroo, which traditionally takes place at the end of June. It’s far easier to line up talent if the outfits are already on the road, rather than having to fly them in for a one-off. Local musicians will also be part of the mix, but to what extent has yet to be determined. If Monolith, AEG’s inaugural festival outing that took place this past September at Red Rocks (and is still on track for next year), is any indication, there will most likely be plenty of love for the locals.
For a young company that started off with no “real estate” to speak of, AEG has made some interesting moves. But this one is clearly its most ambitious. Even if city council does approve the contract in December, that will leave Morris and his crew only a little more than six months to pull the whole thing off. But Morris is undaunted by the prospect. In fact, he’s invigorated by it.
“I love new challenges,” he concludes. “It keeps me young. I hate automatic pilot. The idea of starting fresh with some new ideas and having a company that really does a lot of things off the grid is exciting. AEG has done things a lot differently. I feel very proud of my boys, Don and Brent [Fedrizzi], and my new company, and the way we’ve started. We’ve got a long ways to go and a lot of mountains to climb, but we’re going to do some things that are going to surprise people, things that are not what you’d expect, and we’ll see what happens.” -- Dave Herrera