COVER- Entertainment overload: Can so many music venues make it?
It's been more than a month since tickets for The Police went on sale, and the 16,000-seat John Paul Jones Arena still has not sold out. Why aren't Sting and the boys packing the house?
JPJ GM Larry Wilson says he "couldn't answer that question," but he predicts tickets will sell out before the November 6 concert.
Pavilion manager Kirby Hutto and WTJU program director Chuck Taylor, however, have other opinions.
"Have you seen the reviews of their shows?" says Hutto. "I think a lot of people have gone to them and said, 'Well, I won't do that again.'"
"Have you seen the ticket prices?" asks Taylor. (Indeed, they're between $90 and $225.) "They're outrageously expensive."
Still, bad reviews and high ticket prices seem not to have hurt Police shows at other venues. In August, the band filled the 55,000-seat Giants Stadium, and in March, the reunited trio reportedly sold out the entire British portion of the tour– including one stadium seating 82,000– in 30 minutes.
"The Police haven't sold out?" says Pollstar mag editor Gary Bongiovanni, clearly surprised by the news. "The Police are the tour of the year."
Indeed, JPJ has even had to do some billboard advertising for the show, including one above a used car lot on Route 20 south toward Scottsville. Could there be other reasons The Police haven't snowed Charlottesville, whose arena was named "best new concert venue" in February by Pollstar? Could Charlottesville be experiencing something that might be called... the Mick effect?
The DMB effect
The 1970s saw the Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, and Jackson Browne in Charlottesville, primarily at UVA's circular basketball arena affectionately known as U-Hall, which seats about 8,500 for concerts.
Within a decade, University Hall's acoustic deficiency and lack of air conditioning had become so legendary that it played host to just two major concerts in the 1990s: Bob Dylan and Phish. The former act no longer depended much on a venue's sonic strength, and fans of the latter were possibly interested in something other than U-Hall's acoustics, as local constables were kept busy making several parking-lot drug arrests.
Further complicating the Charlottesville music scene was the hike in the beer-drinking age from 18 to 21. With that change, most college-age concert-goers suddenly became unable to provide venues with a formerly key profit center. A town that once hosted Janis Joplin, R.E.M., and the Talking Heads suddenly hosted almost no arena concerts.
Meanwhile, a homegrown act had begun tearing up the national scene. But between its major-label debut in the fall of 1994 and the spring of 2001, Dave Matthews Band had grown too big for Charlottesville's small aging venues. In the early 1990s, Ray Charles and Lyle Lovett had to be content with the 1,276-seat Performing Arts Center, but DMB needed something bigger.
Then, in April 2001, a town that had considered live entertainment to be Fridays after Five and opera at Ash Lawn suddenly found itself with a 50,000-seat venue when UVA pumped $100 million into its football stadium– capable of hosting the hometown boys in the style to which they'd become accustomed. Among the surprises of their homecoming was that rock legend Neil Young was on the bill... as the opening act.
And further shocks were in store.
The Mick effect
On an unseasonably warm Tuesday in May 2005, word raced through town that the world's greatest rockers were on their way. Many thought it was a joke. The Rolling Stones in Charlottesville?
But they really did come that October, and so now, after arguably the world's biggest rock legends graced our little 'ville, it's impossible to be impressed anymore– even by legends like The Police.
Maybe it began before that with the DMB effect, but however it started, Charlottesvillians may be losing their ability to be impressed. With a nod to William Faulkner, are we simply so snobby and self-centered here that celebrities are not just assured their privacy, they're even ignored?
Perhaps the reason is something more mundane, more mathematical. In such a small college town, with our embarrassment of entertainment venue riches, might a $130 million spot like JPJ simply be too big for its britches? Or its metro area?
Like the JPJ, the Verizon Center is a state-of-the-art sports and entertainment venue that's home to a college basketball team (the Georgetown Hoyas). But unlike JPJ, it's located in a major city with a metro population of five million.
By contrast, Charlottesville-Albemarle has a metro population of a little over 130,000, and our Verizon-sized arena is home to a college basketball team that barely squeaked into the NCAA rankings last season. (And JPJ can't boast the NBA's Washington Wizards, the WNBA's Washington Mystics, or the NHL's Washington Capitals.)
The argument is that a facility like JPJ will help the University build and develop its basketball program– that the venue itself will help Charlottesville become an entertainment destination every bit as trek-worthy as larger cities. However, while it may be too soon to pass judgment on JPJ's financial viability (it celebrated its first birthday August 1), some might wonder if this "build it and they will come" approach isn't a bit of wishful thinking.
Regardless of how JPJ does, sticker shock plus the sheer number of shows coming through this now multi-venued town might be conspiring to make business tricky for some of these many venues.
John Paul Jones Arena
Opened: August 1. 2006
Some names: Billy Joel, Eric Clapton, Dave Matthews Band, High School Musical, Rod Stewart, Blue Man Group, Monster Jam, WWE Monday Night Raw
Opened: July 27, 2005
Capacity: 2,500 under roof plus lawn. Open floor is 4,000 plus the lawn.
Some names: Loretta Lynn, Flaming Lips, B52s, Lyle Lovett, Randy Travis, Robert Randolph, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, James Brown, Wilco
The Paramount Theater
Opened: December 17, 2004 (orig: 1931)
Capacity: 1,040 when the orchesstra pit is not in use, 1,005 if pit is in use
Some names: Tony Bennett, The Beach Boys, Herbie Hancock, Carrot Top, Taylor Hicks, Whoopi Goldberg, Bill Cosby, Lily Tomlin, Wynton Marsalis, Ryan Adams, Yo Yo Ma, Indigo Girls
V. Earl Dickinson Theater
Some names: Zydeco-A-Go-Go, Harlem Gospel Choir
Old Cabell Hall
Opened: June 1998 (orig: 1898)
Some names: Mary Chapin Carpenter, Pat Matheny, Jesse Jackson, John Prine, John Sebastian, Kurt Vonnegut, Charlottesville and University Symphony Orchestra
Opened: June 2003
Capacity: 160 seated, 200 standing
Some names: Leon Russell, Odetta, Devon Sproule, Paul Curreri, Lauren Hoffman, Jesse Winchester, Johnny Winter, Janis Ian, Ralph Nader
Martin Luther King Jr. Performing Arts Center
Opened: 1984 (using a bond referendum)
Some names: Ray Charles, Lyle Lovett, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Indigo Girls
Opened: December 2004
Capacity: 500 standing, 350 seated
Some names: Eddie from Ohio, Del tha Funkee Homosapien, Negativland
214 Community Arts Center (formerly the Prism Coffeehouse)
Opened: July 2006
Some names: Steve Smith, Troublesome Creek, Slaid Cleaves
C3A (The Live Arts Building)
Opened: November 2003
Some names: Poetry Lounge, Geoff West, Technosonics Festival, Corndog
Jefferson Theater (under renovation)
Opened: no set date
Capacity: 800 + (projected)
Some names: Terri Allard, Ben Folds Five, Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds- in the old days of the 1990s; Harry Houdini in the really old days.
Smaller local venues:
Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar
The Bridge Arts Space
Buddhist Biker Bar & Grill
Dürty Nelly's Pub
Baja Bean Company
Wild Wing Cafe
Rapunzel's Coffee & Books
South Street Brewery
Uncle Charlie's Smokehouse
The Hamner Theater
Recently (sort of) closed venues:
Max/Trax - late 2002
Tokyo Rose basement - December 2004
Prism Coffeehouse - April 2006
Starr Hill Music Hall - June 2007
The one that got away
Still not sure that Charlottesville has too many venues? UVA seems to be. In 2003, local benefactors Hunter and Carl Smith offered UVA $22 million to build a giant theater at the corner of Emmet Street and Ivy Road. Robert A.M. Stern Architects (of Darden School fame) even contributed a design. The 100,000-square-foot building would have held a 1,600-seat concert hall and a black box theater. However, in January, UVA announced that the gift had lapsed since construction hadn't begun by a deadline and that the project was being amended to include residences. Carl Smith died in December 2005.
A proposed rendering of the concert hall by Robert A.M. Stern Architects.
PHOTO COURTESY ROBERT A. M. STERN ARCHITECTS, THOMAS SCHALLER
Ticket revenue from concerts is up all over North America, according to Bongiovanni's industry mag Pollstar, which finds that ticket sales hit a record $3.1 billion in 2006, a 16 percent hike over the previous year. Much of the increase comes from rising prices, but attendance, which rose four percent last year to 37.9 million tickets sold, is also climbing.
While he's unwilling to reveal actual attendance figures (as were all the Charlottesville venues contacted for this story), JPJ's Wilson says the arena's last year has been a "phenomenal" success. He points to seven sold-out shows: Eric Clapton, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, George Strait, Kenny Chesney, High School Musical, and the grand opening back-to-back DMB shows.
Wilson doesn't mention that such internationally renowned venue-packers as James Taylor, Brad Paisley, Rascal Flatts, Billy Joel, Justin Timberlake, and Rod Stewart did not sell out.
However, according to Bongiovanni, seven sold-out shows for a new venue in a new market is "respectable." And JPJ's 79,111 reported ticket sales during the first three quarters of 2007 (as reported to Pollstar, numbers that rank 95th in ticket sales at venues nationwide, says Bongiovanni) is on par with similar-sized venues in the area: the Patriot Center at George Mason University reported 98,000, and the Scope arena in Norfolk reported 75,000.
As for The Police not selling out, Bongiovanni thinks it may simply be sticker shock. "It's a new market, and people in the area aren't used to those ticket prices," he says. In general, he thinks JPJ has done "pretty well" during its first year, but he says it all depends on whether the local population will support the programing with their wallets. "If the market can't support that level of artist, that ticket price," he says of The Police concert, "then high-level acts like that won't be back."
So, what has JPJ's Wilson learned over the last year that might make future arena shows more successful? While he says he'll try to avoid sandwiching acts between dates at nearby arenas, he also admits he has "zero control" over where else artists choose to play in our area.
For example, one reason the Rod Stewart show might have been such a sales bomb– sources says UVA gave away thousands of tickets to University employees, and Che Stratos of Gravity Lounge says JPJ was "begging people" to take tickets– could have been that the blonde-maned sex symbol had just played in DC and Norfolk. In short, folks who might have traveled to JPJ to see Stewart had already had their fix.
The same could have been true for the recent Bob Dylan/Elvis Costello and Maroon 5 concerts. While the muted black "failure curtain" was drawn to hide the empty upper decks at all three shows, the Maroon 5 concert appeared to be only a third full. Both of these performers had played in Norfolk, Maryland, and DC on either side of their Charlottesville dates.
Doubtless, having a venue like JPJ is a luxury for locals. While the typical American concert-going experience may involve an hour-plus journey to an unfamiliar city, Charlottesvillians can drive 10, perhaps 15, minutes, grab a leisurely bite to eat, park at Barracks Road (or pay for on-site parking), see some legend like Clapton, Dylan, Elvis Costello, or The Police, and still get home in time to tuck in the kids and watch the Daily Show.
And that's just one local entertainment venue booking big-name acts.
During any given week, household names also perform at the Charlottesville Pavilion, the Paramount Theater, and at many smaller venues such as the Satellite Ballroom and Gravity Lounge. Each has opened for business in the past four years, and each draws acts one would think we'd have no business luring– often too many to keep track of, and certainly too many to afford.
For example, in the next three weeks the city will host Barack Obama (technically a political rally, but entertainment nonetheless), The Police, Dionne Warwick, Cowboy Junkies, Toots & the Maytals, and Band of Horses. Then there's the Virginia Film Festival! Throw in the Lipizzaner Stallions, Disney on Ice, the Live Arts schedule, and acts at smaller venues too numerous to mention, and we're living in an entertainment Eden that could rival cities many times our size.
Indeed, in addition to the 36 acts and 67 shows at JPJ since it opened on August 1 last year, 66 national events have graced the Pavilion since July 2005, and 337 events have taken place at the Paramount since December 2004. And that's not counting the hundreds of shows in the last three years at Gravity Lounge, Satellite Ballroom, and the now-defunct Starr Hill Music Hall.
As a result, JPJ's Wilson admits it also takes skill to know whom to book locally and when, as acts and genres can overlap in ways that defeat promotion of a show.
For that reason, Wilson says he tries to coordinate with the folks at the Paramount and the Pavilion "to make sure they're not hurting me, and I'm not hurting them."
But the Pavilion's boss doesn't appear to be as concerned about timing.
"Yes, it can be a problem," says Hutto. "But we had Lucinda Williams the night before Dylan, and that show was a great success." Hutto says the Pavilion had always worried about scheduling shows on UVA football game days, but last Saturday's Phil Lesh and Friends show, which coincided with UVA's victory over the University of Connecticut, was "a monster success."
According to Hutto, 2007 has been the Pavilion's "most successful year so far," a success he attributes less to studying data and doing market research than to following instincts. This is, after all, the venue built in 2005 by Coran Capshaw, the man who propelled a little-known quintet out of Eastern Standard restaurant and onto the world stage.
"We ask ourselves," says Hutto, "does this artist, at this price, make sense in this market? Can this artist be successful in this venue? Yes, we look at tour histories, the last time they played in Virginia, past experiences, but in the end it comes down to a gut feeling. Having people like Coran and others having that experience, that ability to make good educated guesses is key."
Hutto admits that only a few shows have sold out the 3,500-capacity Pavilion– Bonnie Raitt was one– but he says the Pavilion doesn't have to sell out to make money if acts are chosen wisely, as the Lucinda Williams and Phil Lesh shows seem to indicate.
Hutto points out that overhead at the Pavilion– a canopy-covered outdoor venue that cost $3.4 million– is much lower than that $130 million, air-conditioned JPJ, which gives the downtowners more financial breathing room. But he's not ready to pass judgment on the big arena's performance. "I think it's too early," he says, "to decide what's going on there."
However, Hutto does embrace the build-it-and-they-will-come ethos. Using the success of the Downtown Mall as an example, he says that the "critical mass" of venues is what makes it a successful destination.
"Fifteen years ago," Hutto says, "you couldn't even get UVA students to go downtown. Now look at it. It's been successful because it's become an arts and entertainment destination."
Hutto also believes that Capshaw's latest venue, the soon-to-be renovated Jefferson Theater (which Capshaw purchased from Hook editor Hawes Spencer last year), and which will seat as many as 800 people when it's completed, will only strengthen this critical mass.
However, Gravity Lounge's Stratos suggests that entertainment overload could be hurting smaller venues like Gravity, a tiny Downtown Mall acoustic venue, and even confounding the general public.
"The week that Kings of Leon, Lucinda Williams, and Dylan and Costello played really blew us out of the water," Stratos says. "That was an overload week. Gravity Lounge suffered. People spent all their money on those other shows."
In addition to missing shows at Gravity, Stratos says many people had no idea that Kings of Leon and Lucinda Williams were in town because of all the Dylan/Costello buzz.
Still, Stratos isn't complaining. Like others, she enjoys the luxury of what JPJ and the Pavilion have to offer, and thinks having so many choices is, in general, a positive thing.
Industry mag Pollstar found that the average ticket for one of North America's top tours cost over $61 last year, about eight percent higher than the $57 average in 2005.
"When you start talking $30, $80, $100 for a ticket, that may be standard in DC," says WTJU's Taylor, who says he's been listening to music in town for 33 years. "But here in Charlottesville people are still in shock, I think."
While Taylor fondly recalls the time he spent $5 to see Jimi Hendrix, today's concerts at the Pavilion, the Paramount, and even Gravity Lounge typically cost at least $75 for a pair of tickets.
Jim Armstrong, a local middle-aged concert goer who says he's seen at least 80 shows in his lifetime, says he would have been at almost every show at JPJ (except Maroon 5), if the seat prices had been lower.
"When the average working person is asked to shell out $75 at minimum to go to the Paramount, and more for JPJ, how can anyone expect to fill any of the venues to capacity?" he asks.
"The last show I truly wanted to attend was Peter Frampton at the Paramount, but the tickets were so unbelievably high [$65 to $85], I couldn't afford to sit in the cheapest seats, never mind the 'golden circle,'" Armstrong says. "Charlottesville's promoters have overpriced the venues so that true fans can't attend. What's wrong with this city?"
Several concert goers who attended the B-52s gig at the Pavilion in July said they were surprised it wasn't sold out. Could it be that $35 tickets drove some people away? Indeed, many people, like local blogger Zoe Krylova, often choose to listen to Pavilion concerts in their own special way.
"I joined others lined up along the Belmont bridge," Krylova admits about the Rufus Wainwright and Neko Case show. "You can peek into the Pavilion and get some good glances of the performers and hear perfectly good sound (but for the traffic)."
Krylova writes that she had come mainly to see Case, but was a little disappointed.
"Maybe it was tour fatigue, or opening act annoyance, or the heat," she writes. "Or maybe it was just that I was watching her from a nearby bridge. But I'm glad I didn't pay $27 for a ticket."
Taylor, a self-described "long-time concert aficionado," can't help appreciating JPJ and its $7 million sound and video system.
"Musicians would get angry because the sound was so bad at U-Hall," he says. "At least the sound is good at JPJ; at least they thought about that. And hey, if JPJ doesn't work as a concert venue, they still have a pretty nice basketball stadium."
John Paul Jones Arena's booking boss, Larry Wilson, shows off the "best new venue" award to Chrystal Wilson and Steve Tadlock of Fresno, California's Save Mart Center.
POLLSTAR/Jason Squires, Jeffrey Mayer, and John Shearer
Coran Capshaw brings bands to the Paramount as well as to his own Pavilion, his Satellite Ballroom, and soon his Jefferson Theater. (He's shown here at the Pollstar awards in February with Will Botwin, the former Columbia Records president who now oversees Capshaw's Red Light Management as well as the ATO label.)
POLLSTAR/Jason Squires, Jeffrey Mayer, and John Shearer
The Pavillion has hosted 66 events since it opened, but only a few shows have sold out. "We don't need to sell out to make money," says Pavilion manager Kirby Hutto. Here, k.d. lang opens for Lyle Lovett, while non-ticket holders listen from the Belmont Bridge.
PHOTO BY HAWES SPENCER
After 36 years, Rod Stewart returned to Charlottesville, but JPJ was "begging people" to take tickets, according to one local music expert.
PHOTO BY MITCHELL JARRETT
During the April 22 Bonnie Raitt concert, one of the Pavilion's only sold-out shows, Raitt sang the John Prine song, "Angel from Montgomery." "I thought about those folks from Virginia Tech during that whole song," said Raitt as the crowd offered a standing ovation. "Virginia is for lovers, indeed."
PHOTO BY WILL WALKER
Not surprisingly, Dave Matthews Band sold out both their shows at JPJ's "Grand Opening" in September '06. Also not surprising: the Rolling Stones were the exit music when the house lights came on.
PHOTO BY H. MITCHELL JARRETT
The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne– who told the crowd that they had never played Charlottesville in 23 years of touring– surfed the ecstatic crowd at the Pavilion last year in a giant bubble.
PHOTO BY BILLY HUNT
At his Paramount show last February, 81-year-old blues legend B.B. King told the audience he was nervous because two of his favorite people were in the audience: John Grisham and Corey Harris.
PHOTO BY WILL WALKER