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Live Nation Swallows Fantasma

After longtime concert promoter Jon Stoll succumbed to cancer in January, at 54 years old, realizing that he'd suffer no more was probably a bittersweet relief for those who knew him best. For the many more who knew and admired his company, Fantasma Productions, Stoll's death raised another concern: that Fantasma, a local, independent firm for more than 30 years, would vanish with him.

Music fans feared it was just a matter of time before Stoll's widow, Lori, who was left in charge of the company, would sell out to one of Fantasma's larger competitors. They were right to be concerned.

On March 12, concert giant Live Nation announced that a deal had been reached for the Beverly Hills, California,-based conglomerate to acquire all of Fantasma's assets. While the financial terms were not disclosed, the acquisition includes leases for the Mizner Park Amphitheatre in Boca Raton and Pompano Beach Amphitheatre, the last two independent, mid-sized concert venues in South Florida.

Live Nation, a former subsidiary of Clear Channel Communications, already controlled the Cruzan Amphitheatre in West Palm Beach and the Fillmore Miami Beach. Now it looks like it'll have a stranglehold on the local concert market — precisely what Stoll and Fantasma resisted for so long. As Stoll's oldest son, Jesse, points out, for Live Nation, the Mizner Park and Pompano leases were the last pieces of the puzzle.

Fantasma was the proverbial little engine that could, a company that survived two recessions and numerous shifts within the music industry to remain ahead of the competition in South Florida. A list of the company's successes could fill a thick book; prominent among them would have to be the South Beach Comedy Festival in Miami, Sunfest in West Palm Beach, and the Wanee Music Festival in Live Oak. Jon Stoll built them all from scratch. For years he warded off suitors because he believed South Florida needed a large, independent concert promoter.

"I woke up one morning and my father's business was sold," Jesse Stoll said last week, speaking by phone from Aspen, Colorado, where he was vacationing. The news came as suddenly to many of Fantasma's employees, who learned of the acquisition through an article in the Palm Beach Post.

Jesse, Lori Stoll's stepson, seemed stung by the realization that Fantasma was now in the hands of its biggest competitor. "These venues will still be there," he said, "and [Lori] probably did what's best for the family — but the independent spirit is gone."

Neil Jacobson, who runs Live Nation's South Florida operations, says his company had been in talks about the acquisition since Jon Stoll's death, and they weren't alone. "There were a number of companies trying to buy Fantasma outright," Jacobson said recently.

"With Jon's untimely passing, Lori had a very difficult decision to make with three young kids to raise."

Live Nation's 2007 revenue topped $4 billion. They had the means to buy Fantasma outright, Jacobson says, but they opted to put together a deal that kept the Stoll family involved. Lori Stoll has been offered a position in Live Nation's South Florida offices as vice president of community relations.

"She can be a tremendous asset to the company," Jacobson said. "We'll use her philanthropic contacts in West Palm Beach, Pompano, and Boca Raton to do some good things for the community. That's something that would have been important to Jon."

An even bigger Live Nation may mean higher ticket prices, but probably only slightly higher. In return, music fans at least will get the resources of the world's biggest concert promoter, which puts together some damn good shows. If that leaves you cold, you still have choices.

Small, sexy local clubs like the Culture Room and the Bamboo Room feature local musicians. With the Goliath-like Live Nation on the march, they need your business now more than ever.

Meanwhile, Fantasma's independent spirit isn't totally gone, Jesse Stoll contends. "I have the same ideas that my father did, and those of us who worked with him are still around. Things are going to be different, but if there's a rock 'n' roll heaven, my dad's looking down encouraging us to fight on."

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Jonathan Cunningham