Why The Problems With Philip Anschutz Go Beyond Coachella
, January 7th, 2017 18:17
Philip Anschutz, an ultra-conservative multi-billionaire, is making a fortune on counterculture via the tours and festivals he promotes. The profits indirectly benefit some grim causes - but what can we do against it, asks Joost Heijthuijsen
Radiohead’s Thom Yorke criticised former US President George Bush on US TV show Late Night with Conan O'Brien. While performing 'House Of Cards' from their London studio for the show, Yorke said that the song's chorus of "Denial, denial" was dedicated to ”that man who walked away from the Kyoto.” George Bush is friendly with fellow oilman Philip Anschutz, the full owner of Coachella, the festival that booked Radiohead several times, including a headlining spot for the upcoming 2017 edition. As a board member of the American Petroleum Institute in 1998 Anschutz was responsible for a multi-million dollar campaign against Kyoto. Of course Anschutz also donated to the Bush campaign. According to Greenpeace (who Radiohead made a campaign video for), “the Anschutz-owned opinion magazine The Weekly Standard has also been a promoter of so-called “climategate” emails. The magazine has served as a platform for prominent career climate skeptics Steven Hayward and Kenneth Green of the Koch-funded American Enterprise Institute (AEI).”
If you knew that by buying a product you were giving money to an ultra-conservative who works to prevent evolution from being taught in schools, evades taxes, owned a company that was sentenced for insider trading, worked to help kill the Kyoto Protocol, funds ultra-conservative organizations including the Institute for American Valueswhich campaigns for marriage and, uh, against single parenting, supports a group called Colorado Family Values that says gays molest children, gay pedophilia is common and gays support child abuse. If his newspapers call unions ”enemies of the state.” Would you boycott that product?
If the same ultra-conservative was behind one of the best festivals in the world, responsible for booking many of the best acts around, would things be different? Would you think twice, would you act against it? Most products are easy to substitute. But artists and festivals are less replaceable and can create a unique experience. Then cognitive dissonance might kick in. The experience of the music might be more important for you than your moral values. Seeing your favourite band live might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience and anyway, perhaps you can compensate later by donating to charity.
This is not about whether or not you think a festival in southern California on a Polo court where you can only drink in certain areas (and then only if you're a VIP) and it's full of Hollywood whoppers sounds like eating a shit sandwich. That’s a matter of taste. If you want to see your favourite punk band from a subtropical pool: that’s your choice. But if going to a gig indirectly undermines some of the values that you and your favourite band supports… well then perhaps it’s time to ask some questions.
Next to aesthetic choices you can make ethical choices about the world we want to live in. Can artists have a positive voice in changing a world? And what can artists and consumers do against millionaires with an agenda that’s more powerful than ours? People on the internet are shouting #boycottcoachella but that’s not the solution if you realise everything else Philip Anschutz owns.
AEG Live is the world's No. 2 live-event promoter. It owns festivals like Coachella and,according to their website, represents artists like Swans, Nick Cave, Buzzcocks, Morrissey, The Melvins, Beck, Belle and Sebastian, Blonde Redhead, Cat Power, The National, Pixies and Zola Jesus. And - the times they are a-changing - it also books Bob Dylan. The company is part of Anschutz Entertainment Group. That company owns sports clubs like LA Galaxy, Eisbären Berlin, Los Angeles Kings, 120 arenas and brings out movies like The Chronicles Of Narnia. Anschutz Entertainment Group is part of The Anschutz Corporation, which also deals in oil, telecom and owns conservative newspapers like The Weekly Standard and The Examiner. Owner of Anschutz Corporation is Philip Anschutz, whose worth is estimated at 12.1 billion dollars. He’s one of the 1% that pays extremely large amounts to conservative American lobby groups. Maybe some artists also protest, but the 1% outspends all of us. They can effectively change laws with their money and can put presidents in power. We can only protest against it. Anschutz can easily pay more than one million dollar a year to various candidates and PACs of the Republican Party. And he does. In 2013 he donated $100.000. and in 2014 he donated $200.000 to the Heritage Foundation, a leading conservative think tank, which is now the driving force behind Trump’s shadow transition team.
If you like DJ Snake, Martin Garrix or Steve Angello, artists that are also performing at Coachella 2017, you probably would have reacted indifferent to these facts. Their music is about total entertainment; you’re looking for it so it’s a match. But there’s also a scene that’s built on engagement. Black Flag started in Hermosa Beach, California. They worked on an ecosystem by constantly touring and bringing out their own records. Greg Ginn from Black Flag also put out fIREHOSE, a band by DIY godfather Mike Watt. Both Ginn and fIREHOSE played at the Coachella festival, a three hour drive from Hermosa Beach. AEG also books Billy Bragg in the UK.
Morrissey has never been shy about his opinions, and often takes action on behalf of them by banning meat at his shows, for instance. In America his live bookings are being done by AEG. The mother company also organises fishing camps and owned a working ranch with 5,200 head of cattle and yearlings, one of the biggest cattle ranching and agricultural operations in the West. Anschutz hosts an annual dove hunt for friends. Morrissey ”saluted LGBT rights” with Blondie in 2015. AEG represented Blondie. AEG books Morrissey. As Teen Vogue and Afropunk reported in posts on Wednesday, Anschutz’s donations have supported anti-LGBTQ organisations for years. Between 2010 and 2013, the Anschutz Foundation gave a combined $190,000 to Alliance Defending Freedom, the National Christian Foundation, and the Family Research Council. According to a 2016 report from the LGBT organisation Freedom For All Americans, ADF “has equated being LGBT with committing incest and bestiality.”
Bands are working with AEG Live.They are engaged, so it can’t be wrong? It seems like everyone is sharing responsibility. That’s typical human behaviour when they are operating in bigger, anonymous systems. Political theorist Hannah Arendt calls this “the banality of evil”: the great evils in history were not executed by fanatics or sociopaths, but by ordinary people who accepted the premises of their state and therefore participated with the view that their actions were normal. We can’t simply point the fingers at others. There’s a collective responsibility to eradicate it in our daily lives.
Anschutz fights collective responsibility. He has funded anti-teachers union movies like Waiting For Superman and Won’t Back Down through his holding Walden Media. His newspapers call unions ”enemies of the state.” According to Variety: “Tax records show that the Anschutz Foundation contributed $270,000 over three years to the Center For Union Facts, another Berman group. The foundation contributed $45,000 in 2012, $200,000 in 2011, and $25,000 in 2009. The Center for Union Facts campaigned against the Employee Free Choice Act, federal legislation which would have made it easier to form unions. It also campaigned against teachers’ unions. Anschutz is a major contributor to charter schools and education reform efforts.” Between 2003 and 2010, the Anschutz Foundation donated at least $210.000 to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, a think tank that opposes labor unions.
Of course some of the artists performing will rap or sing about smoking weed and getting laid at Coachella, as usual. Of course Mr. Anschutz with so many companies is virtually hands off in daily operations. If he would interfere an individual booking his employees would not accept that. You could say: Don't portray an agenda or bogeyman where there is none. Freedom means that people can disagree with one another. And artists, that don’t support the agenda of Mr. Anschutz can play at his festivals. But this is not a matter of good versus evil, it’s a matter of banality versus normality, or even worse: banality that actively tries to change normality with financial support and a network, with entertainment companies deeply rooted in society, that tries to change our perceptions.
“When a government controls the media, they can control what you see… and what you don’t see,” was the slogan of China Owns Us. According to Variety it’s “a project of the Center for American Security, which is itself affiliated with the Enterprise Freedom Action Committee. The whole thing is run by Richard Berman, a notorious D.C. figure known for stealth campaigns against unions, animal rights activists, and environmentalists.” Who’s the man behind this campaign? According to Washington Post “tax records indicate that the Anschutz Foundation has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Berman’s nonprofits.” It’s ironic that a man with strong ties to the government, owning one of the biggest media companies in the world, accuses a Chinese competitor for exactly the same.
Cruelty and evil are often not as simple as the instincts of a simple criminal, who commits crimes such as burglary, or maybe tax fraud in a direct way. A society can deal with this kind of criminal behaviour using the judicial system. Abstract evils are much more complicated. It’s about creating a system where the actions and thoughts of people are being corrupted by a system. That’s exactly what the banality of evil is about. As a reaction to this term media-analyst Edward S. Herman has emphasised the importance of "normalising the unthinkable." According to him, "doing terrible things in an organised and systematic way rests on 'normalisation.' This is the process whereby ugly, degrading, and unspeakable acts become routine and are accepted as 'the way things are done'.
Just as he denies climate change the owner of AEG also denied these facts to The Fader in a rare public statement: “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 organisations that pursue a wide range of causes. Neither I nor the Foundation fund any organisation 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 organisations either the Foundation or I have funded have been supporting such causes, we have immediately ceased all contributions to such groups.”
The fact that Anschutz rarely gives interviews does not matter. This statement he gave to The Fader also does not matter as long as he can’t deny the facts. Money talks. Anschutz is not only involved in many areas of the entertainment business. He also wants to change it. He barely speaks in public. In a 2004 speech at Hillsdale College he talked about his involvement in Hollywood: "My reasons for getting into the entertainment business weren’t entirely selfless. Hollywood as an industry can at times be insular and doesn’t at times understand the market very well. I saw an opportunity in that fact." It might be true that Hollywood's insular and it's the guy’s money. If he wants to make The Chronicles Of Narnia cause he likes it for his grandchildren, let him. But there’s more. Anschutz also says: "Another lesson I’ve learned is to keep firm control of the creative process."
If a company has shareholders, you can use your shareholder power to change how the company behaves in a socially responsible way. That works, again and again. But what do you do if the company is privately owned and lots of money, millions of dollars the company makes, goes to…?
Anschutz can do with his money whatever he wants. Only a few people in the world (most are his friends, not yours) have the vast amounts of money he has to pay lobby groups. But we can also use our words to oppress his oppression of freedom of speech and freedom of internet, his denial of science. We have to keep asking questions. And so can our favourite artists. Fans can write to their favourite artists to ask why they are operating in these kinds of constructions. Journalists can ask critical questions and investigate … and of course the artists represented by these companies can change the system from within. It’s only entertainment.