A story about a bogus concert promoter who scheduled a fake tour featuring Drake hit the web yesterday, and it reminded me that I should really write this story down.
The Concert Promotion
It was 2004 and I was working as the Music Director and the PM drive-time deejay at a local Fargo Top 40 radio station. It was a good time for Top 40 in 2004, too. Artists we consider superstars today were all over the radio then — Maroon 5, Beyonce, No Doubt, Alicia Keys, and particularly, Usher.
For eleven weeks, from the week of February 28th to May 15th, Usher’s song “Yeah” featuring rapper Lil Jon was the number one song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It would go on to be named the number one single of 2004. It was huge, and Lil Jon nearly outshone Usher on the song. He had enjoyed tremendous success with Get Low just two years earlier, had a unique sound, and I can only speak for myself and the rest of the guys at the radio station when I say, he was fun to impersonate. We spent most of that spring walking around the station loudly bellowing “Yeaaaahhh,” and “Okaaaaayyy” in our best Lil Jon facsimile.
It was in that atmosphere that an unsophisticated concert scam unfolded, and it would take us all by surprise.
Sometime that spring, the exact dates escape me, my boss came in to my studio to tell me a Lil Jon concert was coming to Fargo later that summer, to be held at a very large, now-defunct club called Playmakers. We were to get tickets to the show, some for staff and some for listener prizes, an in-studio interview with Lil Jon, and “Presents” status for our station. We got to own the show. I was very excited.
For weeks, we promoted and hyped this show, gave away tickets, and even gave away seats in the studio and the chance to ask Lil Jon a question during the interview. This was gonna be the most up-close-and-personal concert promotion I’d ever had the chance to be a part of.
On the day of the show, it was a beautiful summer day and I was in my studio, waiting for the front desk to call and let me know that Lil Jon and the Eastside Boyz had arrived. I had contest winners in my studio, waiting for the same. One of them had driven an hour for this opportunity.
The time of the interview came and went, but celebrities are late all the time for radio interviews, so I went with the flow and made small talk with the contest winners. They were still all smiles.
Fifteen minutes after the interview was to happen, my boss came in the studio and I told him I hadn’t heard anything yet. He had a mildly concerned look on his face and he told me to call the sales representative who was responsible for this promoters’ account. I called the rep and got his voicemail, so I left a message.
Ten minutes later, the sales rep came in my studio and he looked like somebody had punched him in the stomach. His phone calls to the promoter were going straight to voicemail. He said he had just gone over to the club, which was right down the street from our radio station, and there were no trucks unloading equipment yet.
That was the moment I first realized something was seriously wrong. A hip-hop show of that caliber should have been setting up equipment most of the day.
The sales rep left the studio and one of the contest winners said something that would prove to be a razor-sharp observation. “You know, I was on Pollstar the other day and they showed Lil Jon as scheduled to play a show in Omaha today,” she said. I immediately found that odd. An artist like Lil Jon would not likely play two shows in the same day, in locations as far apart as Fargo and Omaha, at club-size venues, and then fly out to Denver for a show the next day.
I eventually had to usher the contest winners out and promised them some future tickets or prizes for their inconvenience, but my friend and co-worker Rat, who is now my partner in this very blog and the Ghosts of North Dakota project, got the worst of it.
He was just leaving the station about the time the news was breaking, and two very large hip-hop fans who had just been turned away from Playmakers when they showed up to have some drinks before the show, showed up in our parking lot. They were very pissed off and they wanted to know how this happened, and they were ready to hold us, hold Rat, responsible. He later told me he thought there was a very real chance he was gonna get his ass whooped right there in the parking lot, but he managed to quickly but diplomatically extricate himself from the situation.
We had egg on our face and we wanted to know as badly as anyone exactly how this had happened, and over the next few days, weeks, and months, the story unfurled.
A man presenting himself as an independent concert promoter contacted a chain of local stores, music store, headshop-type places, and proposed a deal in which they would serve as ticket outlets for a Lil Jon concert in Fargo, and for every ticket they sold, they got to keep a dollar or two. Professional-looking tickets had already been printed.
It seems to me in retrospect that this is where it all got rolling. Fargo is a city of over 100-thousand people with over 250-thousand in our media market, but we largely continue to operate like we have historically, like a small town — where a man’s word is his word. You make eye contact, shake hands, and you have a deal. That’s not to say it was all small-time naivete. We would find out later that this guy was a showman on the order of PT Barnum.
I was only an employee in those days and a lot of things happened behind the scenes without my knowledge, so there are some things I don’t know for sure, but I know the ticket outlet deal and the deal with the club to host the show were made without anyone really questioning who this indie promoter was, and our local trustworthy promoter that we had dealt with on hundreds of occasions in the past was kind of kept on the periphery. By the time they came to us for promotion and advertising, the deal was pretty much done. The show got booked and the club and the promoter both got tons of free advertising from our radio station because we were excited to host the show. Ticket sales were brisk.
We found out later that the con-man claiming to be an indie concert promoter was a man named Scott Elkins, a former radio personality in Texas. He knew just enough about the informal way concerts were booked and promoted to be dangerous.
The payoff for Elkins’ scam happened on the day of the show. He showed up at the ticket outlets in a white limousine, collected the proceeds from the ticket sales, turned off his cellphone and vanished. By the time we discovered the fraud that afternoon, he was hours down the interstate already. Police estimate he disappeared with about two thousand dollars. If you read through the articles I’ve linked in this story, or Google Scott Elkins, you’ll find a myriad of reports from all over the nation involving similar scams that even include allegations of disguises and fake names.
After that, there was a period of time when this loser claimed he was really a promoter and that this was all just a misunderstanding, that Lil Jon was really gonna play a show in Fargo that day, but that he had been denied boarding on his flight in Omaha because he didn’t have ID. That was all bullshit. Lil Jon later said he had never agreed to play a show in Fargo and that this kind of scam “happens all the time.“
When Elkins was implicated in a similar scam sometime later, the Fargo Forum ran a story that read in part:
Robbie Cruz, a former roommate of Elkins who once worked with him at a Texas radio station, said Tuesday he wasn’t surprised to hear the pending charge in Fargo didn’t discouraged his behavior.
“The guy just has absolutely no scruples,” Cruz said. “He’s going to have to be locked up, or it’s going to keep occurring. The man has no regard for the law whatsoever.”
Elkins was implicated in a similar scam in Athens, Ohio to promote a fake Bernie Mac comedy show in 2005, and a fake rap concert in Dubuque, Iowa, a crime for which he would be sentenced to 78 months in prison in 2012. A press release from the US Attorney’s Office in Iowa says Elkins was involved in setting up additional fake concerts in Indiana, Alabama, New Mexico and Texas.
Our radio station dealt with concert promotion differently after that, and so did the ticket brokers and concert venues, unfortunately, at the expense of legitimate indie promoters and artists. It became much harder to book a show if you hadn’t already made a reputation for yourself.
There’s always somebody that has to spoil it for everybody else.