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Why Radiohead Won't Play Detroit


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Radiohead in the D? No signs yet


As far as Detroit's music fans are concerned, it's one of rock's most enduring mysteries.

Why won't Radiohead play here anymore?

More than a decade has passed since the celebrated English band played a stage in the Motor City, a place that has been regarded as one of the country's premier concert markets.

During that time, the group has booked three full tours of the United States, and has had other scattered dates. But not in Detroit. Not since a 1997 visit that spawned all manner of rumors about the group's ongoing absence from the Motor City.

The issue is hot on fans' minds in the wake of Radiohead's latest tour announcement, made last week, which finds Michigan again eschewed in favor of shows in Cleveland and Indianapolis. Those cities are part of a 23-date North American run that launches next month and stretches into August.

Radiohead's absence has become so conspicuous that several explanatory tales have gelled as gospel, widely circulated around town and the Internet with a mix of titillation and frustration, often delivered with a flourish of insider insight. Radiohead, they say, is boycotting Detroit.

But they're wrong, say the close-knit handful of people privy to the band's dealings. There is indeed a reason we haven't seen Radiohead in Detroit since that transcendent performance at the State Theatre in August 1997. It's just not what fans think.

Talk to Radiohead fans in Detroit -- even just typical rock buffs -- and they're sure to acknowledge the band's absenteeism.

The frustration is ripe. Radiohead is widely considered one of modern rock's most important acts, a mystique-laden band whose epic music has broken new ground and elevated the group among the all-time greats.

"They have a lot of fans here. It's unfortunate they won't come," says Phil Zott, a Royal Oak fan who will travel to the band's tour opener next month in Florida. "I want to sympathize with these guys because I love their music. But it's frustrating. We want to see them."

Detroit is strong Radiohead territory: The 2003 album "Hail to the Thief" sold 16,000 copies here, according to Nielsen Soundscan. That makes Detroit the album's 13th-best market, well ahead of tour sites Indianapolis (8,000 copies) and Cleveland (10,000).

Around Detroit this decade, three tales have dominated the chatter.

First: that the band's equipment trailer was burglarized after its State Theatre concert, prompting the group to boycott Detroit forever.

Completely false, says a Radiohead spokesman, a position supported by others who worked with the band that evening, including the theater's former manager. (The Detroit Police Department says it has no report of such an incident that night outside the State, now known as the Fillmore.)

Radiohead was indeed a victim of equipment theft -- in Denver in 1995. The band, which was fleeced of several vintage guitars, has played that market twice since.

Then there's the overexcited-crowd rumor. Concertgoers at the State Theatre were moshing so hard, the story goes, that they offended the artsy sensibilities of Radiohead, who wrote off rowdy Detroit Rock City for good.

Wrong, say those close to the band, including the man who has worked with Radiohead longer and more intimately than any other stateside music executive.

"The band has never, ever had anything negative to say about Detroit or the fans there," says Phil Costello, a former Capitol Records vice president and head of ATO Records, which released Radiohead's latest album. "I've heard remarks about L.A., other places they've played. But I'll reiterate: I've never heard anything negative about Detroit fans."

Others who are privy to Radiohead's scheduling laughed when told of the mortified-by-moshing rumor.

Former State Theatre manager Joe Nieporte says he's familiar with the tale. He even grants that band members, backstage after the State show, may have noted the unusual response of the Detroit crowd.

"But that's not a reason you'd stop playing a market," says Nieporte, who now runs the Emerald Theatre in Mt. Clemens. "That's not it."

Finally, there's the anti-promoter rumor: Radiohead is snubbing Detroit, so it's said, because of a falling-out with the local office of mega-promoter Live Nation, formerly Cellar Door, during the State date.

That would seem plausible ... except that Live Nation's Detroit office is staging Radiohead's upcoming shows in Cleveland and Indianapolis.

That office also worked with the band in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to stage a Radiohead show in Detroit in 2001, the band's first U.S. tour after 1997.

"The band was attempting to come back here," says former Live Nation staffer DeAnna Park, echoing others familiar with the goings-on. "They were looking at out-of-the-ordinary places to play," including Belle Isle.

And that appropriately brings us to the real reason Radiohead hasn't played here in 11 years:

Metro Detroit doesn't have a venue the band likes.

From that 2001 tour onward, Radiohead has sought a particular sort of concert setting: outdoors, out-of-the-way, pastoral. Browse the band's itineraries and you'll find a host of venues fitting that bill -- places such as the rustic Gorge Amphitheater in Washington state and the riverside Parc Jean Drapeau in Montreal.

But DTE Energy Music Theatre, this market's top outdoor venue and the one that would best fit the band's criteria, is a no-go for a very specific reason: It has too many corporate-sponsor signs for Radiohead's taste.

"That is absolutely, 100%" the reason Radiohead did not include Detroit on this year's U.S. outing, says a source who has been involved in tour negotiations, but asked not to be identified. Instead, the band opted for less-branded amphitheaters in Cleveland and Indianapolis -- facilities that also have capacities significantly higher than DTE's 15,000 seats.

The source is backed up by others familiar with the situation. In standard music-biz fashion, they declined to speak for attribution because of ongoing business relationships.

Label chief Costello is not versed on the DTE specifics. But he says Radiohead's anti-sponsor position is a core philosophy for band members, especially vocalist Thom Yorke.

"Thom is a real stickler about that," says Costello. "Two albums ago, he read a book or an article about corporate sponsorship, and it just sent him crawling up the wall. He decided there would be no more of the bullshit on the side" of the stage. "They've really drilled in to see who's doing what" in terms of sponsor presence at venues.

Officials at Palace Sports & Entertainment say that's news to them. The Palace owns DTE, though it would not necessarily be involved in negotiations for a Radiohead concert booked by an outside promoter such as Live Nation.

"We are not aware of Radiohead's concerns about sponsor signage," says spokesman Jeff Corey.

Live Nation officials declined to provide a statement about Radiohead's choice of venues.

The former Pine Knob is regarded by industry insiders as one of the nation's most successful sponsorship operations. In addition to the title rights -- for which DTE Energy paid $10 million in 2001 -- the venue has secured deals with many big-name corporations.

Last summer's stage and video screens were flanked by an array of ads for Belle Tire and Verizon, among others. Their target: the 634,000 sets of eyeballs on the venue grounds in 2007 to once again make DTE the nation's busiest music amphitheater. (Detroit Media Partnership, which manages Free Press business, is a Palace and DTE sponsor.)

Radiohead aims for venues that have no sponsor signs or that will mask them, such as the Verizon Wireless Music Center in Indianapolis.

"We know they don't want sponsorships, so all that will be covered up," says venue publicist Susan Kreiner.

Asked if DTE officials would consider removing or covering ads at a performer's request, Corey said the company does not comment on sponsor signage.

The Radiohead situation offers a rare if hazy peek into the deeply guarded innards of the new music world.

With record sales bottoming out, the music business has turned to a variety of fresh revenue streams: television song licensing, tour sponsorship deals, advertising tie-ins. What was once perceived as rock's natural foe -- corporate America -- now can be a lifeline.

North American corporations are projected to spend $1.04 billion this year for venue, tour and festival sponsorships, according to IEG LLC, a Chicago firm that tracks the industry. That's up nearly 17% from 2006.

By declining to buy in and sell out, Radiohead makes itself an anachronism of sorts. Costello says Yorke's anti-sponsor epiphany can be spied on the cover of 2003's "Hail to the Thief," with its ironic splay of ad slogans.

Artists remain sensitive about the appearance of corporate ties, but Radiohead is an especially striking example, says William Chipps, senior editor of IEG Sponsorship Report.

"Radiohead seems to be taking it to another degree," he says. "If they don't want to play in a particular venue because of in-your-face sponsorships -- that's unique."

A venue with an unusually high amount of sponsor signage faces a challenge if a performer requests it be covered, says Chipps: "The venue would have to work with every sponsor to say, 'Hey, are you guys OK with this?' They know who butters their bread."

A facility might decide it's not worth all the trouble, opting to instead "use those nights to sell seats for acts that don't mind logos," he says.

For Detroit-area Radiohead fans such as Leslie Sullivan, the lack of a local date has one upside: She gets to take a road trip.

"They really need to come here," says Sullivan, who was 6 years old when the band played the State. "But Radiohead is so great that people will do anything, and go out of their way, to see them."

Contact BRIAN McCOLLUM at 313-223-4450 or bmccollum@freepress.com.

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