Old Fiddler To Learn New Tunes

Clear Channel Entertainment is part of a new company that’s buying the U.K.’s Mean Fiddler, even though it’s in the process of being spun off by Clear Channel Communications. So far, there’s no reason to suspect CCE’s situation will be an obstacle to the Mean Fiddler purchase.

An anonymous spokesperson for Hamsard 2786 Limited (the joint venture company Clear Channel and Ireland’s MCD formed to buy Mean Fiddler) said – apart from chairman Vince Power’s departure – the company would be allowed to continue doing “business as usual” in the April 12 edition of The Independent.

Michele Clarke of Brainerd Communications, the public relations firm to which CCE was directing inquiries about it spinning off its music business, also claimed that the aforementioned music business would continue doing “business as usual.”

If you believe the new owners of Mean Fiddler will allow the company to carry on doing “business as usual,,” then. as the old saying goes, you’re probably the sort of person who believes that you can knit fog.

It’s no surprise that the journalist from The Independent, one of the U.K.’s so-called serious papers, should use a quote from an unnamed insider. During that period of due diligence, when Hamsard 2786 Limited was looking at Mean Fiddler’s books, any journalist that could get any sort of “on the record” quote out of anyone from either company – attributable or not – was at least a step ahead of everyone else who was writing about the deal.

What gives the quote its mark of authenticity is that it’s just the sort of thing that gets said at a time when negotiations are at a crucial stage; it doesn’t rock any boats. What makes it ridiculous, though, is anyone in the international live music business taking a cursory glance at the situation can see the old Mean Fiddler will be learning some new tunes.

Unless “business as usual” means losing money (last October, The Sunday Times‘ “Inside The City” column reported the figure as £12.6 million over the previous three years), it’s safe to assume Rapino, CCE president of Music (Europe) Alan Ridgeway and MCD chief Denis Desmond have some fixed ideas on how that can be turned around.

Power spent 23 years rearing Mean Fiddler from a leaky-roofed Irish music / C&W club in Harlesden, which is sort of the wrong side of the tracks in London, into a stock-listed company worth the best part of £40 million.

Under his reign, part of Mean Fiddler’s “business as usual” involved competing with both CCE and MCD, at times rather acrimoniously, and that will surely stop.

Last year, when Power was trying to sell his shares to financial institutions, a deal that came unhinged over a Mean Fiddler boardroom wrangle, Desmond claimed – with the help of a couple of expletives – that he didn’t know anything about that deal until after it was announced.

It seemed extraordinary because he’d been a Mean Fiddler director since buying 24 percent of the company 10 months earlier. It appears he wasn’t offered the chance to buy even more.

The city deal fell apart within five days and, despite dismissing Guardian reports that he’d “put a spoke in Power’s wheel” as “bullshit,” six months later there’s a lot of Desmond’s money behind the new bid.

Relations between Clear Channel and Mean Fiddler have not always been cordial. When they’ve co-promoted or shared tours, each has the amusing habit of omitting the other’s involvement from its press releases, but their tug-of-love over Steve Homer remains their most high profile spat, and their most amusing.

In July 2001, there was such a disagreement over Homer’s move from Mean Fiddler to Clear Channel that it dragged on for a month (Homer’s Odyssey?) and he seemed to disappear somewhere in the middle of it.

The Fiddler replied to enquiries about his whereabouts by saying “Steve Homer is on holiday and nobody is sure when he’s coming back.” At the same time, the CCE switchboard operator said, “Steve Homer hasn’t started working here yet.”

Apart from the £12.6 million losses talked about in The Sunday Times, there’s also Mean Fiddler’s reported staff of more than 300 running in its U.K. operation. Clear Channel has double that, but they’re not just in the U.K. – CCE’s figure covers a dozen more European territories. Add on Desmond’s staff at MCD and it’s obvious there will be several areas of overlapping and over-manning.

That’s not what Hamsard wants for its £38 million.

It won’t be “business as usual” for Mean Fiddler. For a significant number staff, it will likely be no business at all.

When the deal is concluded, and there doesn’t seem an obvious reason for the Office Of Fair Trading to object, then it looks sure to crack that old chestnut about whether Mean Fiddler does or does not own a stake in Glastonbury Festival. It became a public issue when, last year, Glastonbury chief Michael Eavis told The Guardian (June 25) and The Sunday Times (June 27) that he’s fed up with the way he sees Mean Fiddler chairman Power hogging the credit for the festival he founded. He was also fed up with the company for allowing the media to believe that it actually owns a piece of it.

“It makes me very angry when I see Vince using the festival to prop up the value of Mean Fiddler shares. There’s no money involved, there’s no artistic input, he doesn’t get involved at all. Mean Fiddler gets a small percentage at the end of net profit which basically pays for Melvin Benn’s wages,” he told Pollstar at the time.

Although there’s no record of anyone from Mean Fiddler ever claiming the company owns a part of Glastonbury, there’s equally no evidence that anyone from the company – or their financial press adviser Hansard Communications – has felt a need to correct the media.

The reports continued: Since Hamsard’s 60p per share offer was accepted by the Mean Fiddler board, some of the country’s serious news sources – including The Daily Telegraph, The Independent and BBC News – have all reported the deal includes a stake in the festival. So have The Guardian (April 9) and The Sunday Times (April 10), the two papers that had run last year’s pieces saying Eavis was fed up with reading about it.

Neither Ridgeway nor Rapino have commented on whether they think a share of Glastonbury is in the deal, although the latter has said, “It’s one of the greatest festivals in the world and we want to help continue its tradition with Michael (Eavis) and Melvin (Benn).”

Benn – Mean Fiddler managing director and effectively chief ops for the festival – looks to be the key to the Glastonbury situation. The work he’s done improving the event’s profile, security and crime rate means he’s held in high regard by Eavis. Rapino’s comment suggests the same and CCE’s U.K. vice president of promotions Stuart Galbraith is known to have had (at least) one recent meeting with the Glastonbury founder.

Whether all sides find a way of going forward or not, it’s doubtful if the legal solution to Glastonbury’s ownership lies in the contract that Mean Fiddler has with the festival. It was handwritten on a couple of sides of A4 paper during a meeting between Power and Eavis in London’s Landmark Hotel. There were no lawyers present on either side.

If anyone wanted to base a High Court case on such a contract, it would probably test the patience of any judge. It seems strange that such a major agreement should be documented in such a way.

And surely not what Rapino, Ridgeway or Desmond would consider “business as usual.”

— John Gammon