Gothic Theatre’s $2 million sale to AEG worries some Denver musicians

When promoter AEG Presents bought the historic Gothic Theatre for $2.07 million in November, the deal capped one of the Denver music scene’s longest, most impressive turnarounds.

Built in the 1920s, Denver’s first “talkie” movie theater, at 3263 S. Broadway in Englewood, has been subject to a litany of changes common among aging movie houses: major renovations inside and out, sundry event hosting (weddings, benefits), a descent into disrepair as it became a porn theater and finally, a loving, tech-driven overhaul in 1998 that preserved its Art Deco features and refreshed it as a multi-purpose venue for the 21st century. The sale price at that time to owners Steve Schalk and Todd Kinion was $175,000.

Thousands of artists, including Lady Gaga, The Black Keys and Beastie Boys, have played the 1,100-capacity room on their way up, and its mix of bands, stand-ups, drag queens and movie screenings have made it a catch-all for culture hounds. Critics’ rankings from news media such as NPR, and international travel guides from outlets like The Guardian, usually list it among Colorado’s Top 10 venues.

But even as this landmark burnishes its reputation, some Denver musicians are concerned that the new ownership represents a further squeezing of the city’s independent venue scene.

“We do have these large corporations that are starting to monopolize, or have for some time monopolized, venue ownership and booking in town, and they’ve grown exponentially,” said Erin Roberts, a veteran Denver musician and the Director of Music Ecosystems at the nonprofit Youth on Record.

Roberts, founder of the indie band Porlolo, and other musicians interviewed for this story pointed to AEG, a mega-promoter created by Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz, and its peer, Live Nation. While Live Nation is dominant on the national scene, AEG Presents Rocky Mountains has assembled a cadre of venues that have made it the biggest player in a Rocky Mountain region with robust concert attendance.

But AEG officials say the purchase simply formalizes a longtime arrangement at the Gothic, since AEG has already booked and operated the theater for Schalk over the last decade.

“Nothing’s absolute in life, but this (sale) is a far greater guarantee that the Gothic will remain a music venue,” said Don Strasburg, co-president and senior talent buyer at AEG Presents Rocky Mountains, who has been instrumental in building the careers of bands such as Phish.

“Often we have the opportunity to adjust our relationship with a venue from tenant to owner, and we obviously decided that it would behoove us to be an owner,” he added.

AEG Presents controls many of the Front Range’s biggest and most notable venues, either because it owns them, like Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre, the FirstBank Center (along with Kroenke Sports Entertainment), and Denver’s Mission Ballroom, or because it leases them with near- or full-exclusivity. This second group includes the Bluebird Theater, the Ogden Theatre and Red Rocks Amphitheatre, where AEG books the overwhelming majority of the annual calendar.

With such muscle for national booking, smaller and local bands are losing avenues to play, said Joshua Abeyta of Denver’s Los Mocochetes. A Denver native, Abeyta took the stage at the Gothic with previous acts such as Dyslexic Dinosaurs and Mute Man’s Microphone.

Both he and Roberts said they understand how difficult it is for music venues to make money in the era of COVID-19-induced social distancing, especially with heavy competition and ticket prices that barely cover costs. But when DIY venues driven by arts collectives, such as Seventh Circle and D3, and tiny indie clubs like the Hi-Dive are the last refuge of underground acts, he and other musicians wonder how artists are supposed to build larger followings.

Local opening acts used to be the standard at the Gothic, whereas AEG has lately been booking its big, out-of-state acts as package tours — pre-loaded with opening acts, and at the expense of opportunities for local artists, Denver musicians said.

“AEG’s just kind of eating everything up in general, and I feel like most musicians are pretty bummed about having to go through one small pipeline that picks and chooses who they want to share those stages,” Abeyta said, acknowledging that some local acts, like iZCALLi, have played the Gothic recently.

Independent clubs usually make it easier for smaller bands without agents to get in, said Gregg Ziemba, whose acts, Rubedo and Wheelchair Sports Camp, have played the Gothic. “That’s the problem with (AEG’s) monopoly: they have all the numbers, so it’s less about whether a promoter likes a band and more about sales.”

That’s usually the case in any city, Ziemba said. He knows it makes sense for AEG Presents to recruit the Denver promoters and venue owners who helped create the city’s current indie scene, such as Scott Campbell and Danny Sax, as well as the co-owners of jam-band and hip hop havens Cervantes and The Other Side, Duncan Goodman, Diana Azab, and Scott Morrill and Adam Stroul. All are talent buyers for AEG Presents.

“AEG being here has benefits for local bands, but the downside is that the pathway to play those shows is now by selling out Lost Lake, Globe Hall or the Larimer Lounge,” said Ziemba, who learned the ropes of the industry himself as an intern at AEG.

But Campbell, who owns those three clubs, said they are separate from his job as a talent buyer at AEG Presents, and that playing them is in no way a prerequisite to play bigger AEG venues.

“If an artist sells out or has a great show at one of those clubs, great. If they sell out or have a big show at another club, great. We will book them no matter what,” he added.

Promoter and venue owner Chris Swank, a former leader of Denver’s Nobody in Particular Presents, doesn’t think AEG’s Gothic purchase should cause any noticeable ripples. He leases his Bluebird Theater to AEG Presents, which in turn books the historic venue’s concerts.

“I don’t think you’ll see much change,” said Swank, who also owns Stampede, La Rumba, Mezcal and Goosetown Tavern. “They’ve been doing a great job with it, and that seems like it’s going to continue.”

AEG’s Strasberg responded to the “monopoly” claims by pointing out AEG has as much at stake locally as anyone else, and that the company works “tirelessly every hour of every day to provide the best entertainment to our community in the best-run venues.”

“Our entire team is part of the Denver community,” he said. “And most have worked in a facet of live music in Colorado as their first and only career. Part of our commitment to the community is to host the best and brightest local artists, which we do. … The (Gothic) still sits in a really healthy place in the ‘concert ecosystem’ for an artist who’s growing their career.”

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