The misplaced political anger that has sent entertainment media scurrying to find anyone they can tie to the “alt-right” and then character assassinate for the benefit of their web traffic has claimed yet another victim in the music realm. This time it is Philip Anschutz, the billionaire owner of AEG Live—the second-largest concert promoter in the United States and the owner of the massive Stagecoach and Coachella Festivals in Indio, California. Anschutz has come under fire after some enterprising journalists unearthed that a foundation in his name at one point gave contributions to Christian organizations that some on the left consider to be anti-LGBT.
However according to Anschutz, contributions to those organizations have stopped, they were never politically-motivated to begin with, and were just a few of dozens of organizations that benefited from the billionaire’s non-partisan philanthropy.
The rancor can be traced back to a Washington Post article from July 7th, 2016 that tied Anschutz’s charitable contributions to organizations such as Focus on the Family, and the National Christian Foundation. According to the information attributed to the Freedom For All Americans (FFAA), which calls itself a bipartisan group seeking protection against individuals from discrimination, Anschutz is part of the “enemies of equality,” and was lumped in with high-profile individuals such as Kentucky public worker Kim Davis who famously refused to marry gay couples in her county office, and Dr. James Dobson.
However at the time, the Washington Post information really didn’t resonate within the music community. It was only when Coachella recently announced their 2017 lineup that certain members of the media pounced, looking to paint Philip Anschutz as anti-gay and anti-environment, most notably in a story on Uproxx entitled, “Coachella Is Apparently Owned By An Anti-Gay, Climate Change Denier.”
For his part, Philip Anschutz has flatly denied the charges, and has called the accusations against him false. In a statement sent to the press last week, Anschutz said,
Recent claims published in the media that I am anti-LGBTQ are nothing more than fake news—it is all garbage. I unequivocally support the rights of all people without regard to sexual orientation. We are fortunate to employ a wealth of diverse individuals throughout our family of companies, all of whom are important to us – the only criteria on which they are judged is the quality of their job performance; we do not tolerate discrimination in any form.
Both the Anschutz Foundation and I contribute to numerous organizations that pursue a wide range of causes. Neither I nor the Foundation fund any organization with the purpose or expectation that it would finance anti-LGBTQ initiatives, and when it has come to my attention or the attention of the Anschutz Foundation that certain organizations either the Foundation or I have funded have been supporting such causes, we have immediately ceased all contributions to such groups.
Nonetheless, Philip Anschutz is a billionaire Republican, and the whole incident has inspired entertainment media to go scurrying to print smear pieces on Anschutz, exposing that much of his wealth comes from the oil business, how he’s hobnobbed with the Koch Brothers in the past, has sued the IRS to get out of paying his taxes, and supported Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in his recall fight. None of these things are particularly scandalous except from a political standpoint, but in the progressive environment of concert promotions in California, especially for the types of artists and fans AEG’s flagship festival Coachella looks to attract, it has caused many to ask if a boycott of Coachella and all AEG Live events and properties is in order, including multiple sports teams the company owns in California.
As the story continued to spin out of control last week, AEG CEO Dan Beckerman sent out a statement to all employees, saying in part,
As all of you already know both diversity and sustainability are two of the core values that we here at AEG live every day and are wholly committed to fostering in our workplace and throughout the world. We believe that employing people of diverse backgrounds with a variety of experiences is critical to our success. Our inclusive workforce not only makes us stronger by providing us with a diversity of thought and perspective, but also allows us to better understand the needs of the local communities where we operate.
Over the years, there have been numerous examples illustrating the company’s support of the LGBTQ community, including a very significant moment in 2013, when we and the L.A. Galaxy broke new ground by signing Robbie Rogers, the first openly gay professional athlete to play in any of the major sports leagues in the United States. We did it because he is a great player and that is all that mattered.
This year, AEG’s industry-leading environmental sustainability program, AEG 1EARTH, celebrates its 10-year anniversary. Over the last decade, we have established an undisputed reputation for leadership on sustainability in sports and entertainment.
At the moment, the damage to AEG Live has been minimal except the manpower expended to attempt to stay ahead of this story. Coachella sold out within hours of posting its 2017 lineup and putting tickets up for sale, and so far none of the performers have pulled out of their obligations, including headliners such as Beyoncé, Radiohead, Kendrick Lamar—all known for championing social causes, which underscores that if Philip Anschutz was some type of hardcore zealot, he probably wouldn’t be promoting a festival like Coachella that is full of progressive performers in the first place.
But that still has not stopped some from probing the idea of declaring a boycott against the company, and if one big artist decides to pull out of the Coachella lineup, it could possibly cause a peer pressure domino effect that could see the whole lineup of one of the nation’s biggest and most established festivals implode.
Which leads us back to the question of why it took information published by The Washington Post over six months ago to finally surface in a controversy at the same exact time the Coachella lineup was released? It could be that the Coachella announcement made the story of Philip Anschutz’s political dealings topical. But according to Billboard‘s Dan Rys, he thinks it’s possibly part of what he calls “The Trump Effect”—something we’ve seen in country music where even progressive alt-country and Americana musicians are being attacked for being “alt-right,” even though nothing could be further from the truth. As Dan Rys says in Billboard,
That it’s taken six months, a festival lineup announcement and rapidly-replicated headlines about Anschutz’s donations (which stretch back to at least 1998, though likely further) to cause a backlash among music fans — many of whom may have unwittingly contributed to Anschutz’s coffers by attending Coachella or any of the thousands of concerts AEG Live has promoted over the years — might be a symptom of The Trump Effect.
In the Post-Trump Internet, any tweet or headline is liable to cause an explosion of echo-chamber coverage, which often diminishes in quality the further it is removed from the source — if the source itself is accurate. The number of music blogs and millennial-focused web sites that have posted breathless stories in the past day hours about Anschutz’s donations are just the latest example.
But perhaps the reason for the timing is a bit more sinister. As all of these stories on Philip Anschutz have been underscoring, AEG Live is the second-largest concert promoter in the country. The largest is the behemoth Live Nation, who has been spending the last few years gobbling up every single festival and local/regional concert promoter they can purchase—including Coachella rivals Bonnaroo, and ACL Fest / Lollapaloosa owned by C3 Presents (recently purchased by Live Nation at 51%)—and pulling out all the stops to dominate the entire world of the popular live music space. About the only thing standing in Live Nation’s way from total world domination of live music is AEG Live, who instead of trying to match Live Nation in an arms race, seems perfectly happy expanding in a more sustainable manner, focusing mostly on their home market of Southern California, and diversifying by investing smartly in sports and other live events.
In his letter to AEG employees about the Philip Anschutz controversy, AEG CEO Dan Beckerman says point blank, “These attempts to perpetuate and spread false news are part of a long running and coordinated attempt by our competitors to smear AEG and our many businesses, including our live music and facilities divisions.”
Of course, this is AEG’s take on the matter, and even though Philip Anschutz’s dealings with charity groups may be getting overblown by “millennial-foucused websites” posting “breathless stories” as Billboard characterized, it might be a similar stretch to call the stories “false news.” Donations were made to charities that do take anti-LGBT stances, even if it’s a small part of their platform, and even if the donations were small themselves, and stopped previous to the controversy.
Nonetheless, the timing does call into serious question the motive of who is behind the smearing of Philip Anschutz. There was nothing holding left-leaning media from going after Anschutz when the information first surfaced in July of 2016. Why didn’t they attack AEG Live and Anschutz when the lineup for the country version of Coachella called Stagecoach was released? Instead, they waited until there was the possibility of inflicting the most damage, not against Anschutz personally, but against the Coachella festival specifically, which as direct competition with other destination festivals such as Bonnaroo and ACL Fest, these festival would hypothetically see a boon in the face of a Coachella implosion.
Of course, some of this is conspiracy theory. But it underscores the importance of a healthy and vibrant AEG Live and Coachella to the live music environment in North America. If AEG Live were to implode from an open boycott of their events by both artists and fans, it would almost immediately grant Live Nation an undisputed monopoly in popular live music promotion. That is why the people plotting the destruction of Philip Anschutz and AEG Live should think beyond the political page, and understand the importance of healthy competition, or at least any competition at all in the face of the already scary prospect of what live music in North America could look like as Live Nation continues it’s campaign to control as many festivals, venues, and major tours as possible.