'On Fire'

Memphis concert scene heats up amid national slump

By Andy Meek

Fans packed Minglewood Hall to hear Bassnectar last week. Bassnectar is DJ and remix artist Lorin Ashton. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

The day after her Feb. 16 concert in Memphis at Minglewood Hall, the frontwoman for Grace Potter and the Nocturnals let her Twitter followers know how much she enjoyed herself.

“It made me really happy to see all the sassy sequined peeps dancin’ & singin’ in the audience tonite!” Potter tweeted. “Memphis was on fire.”

That note followed her performance to a crowd of around 775 people at the now two-year-old Midtown venue she’s played several times since its opening. Potter was tweeting specifically about the Memphis audience that turned out to see her rip through favorites like “Paris” and her band’s brew of soul and rock.

But her reference to Memphis “on fire” soon might be just as appropriate for something else. That something is a larger trend surrounding live shows like hers and the industry that makes them happen, both in Memphis and beyond.

Some local concert promoters, booking groups and owners of performance spaces say they’re hopeful a reversal of 2010’s North American concert industry slump is within reach, with some of them already reporting early signs that might be the case in 2011. For Memphis, at least.

Whether that comes to pass depends on a multitude of factors, some of them specific to the Bluff City and some – like high ticket prices and an economy that’s still not where it was during the boom years of the mid-2000s – that are relevant to concerts across the board.

Michael Rapino, chief executive of concert giant Live Nation Entertainment Inc., told a group of investors in New York last summer that the bad economy was hammering concert ticket sales. At the time, his company was predicting a 15 percent drop in ticket sales for the Top 100 tours in the second half of 2010.

Fans pack Minglewood Hall to hear Bassnectar last week.  Bassnectar is DJ and remix artist Lorin Ashton. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

That’s about where the drop for the year ended up falling, according to trade magazine Pollstar. And the magazine cited several reasons for a box-office decline of 15 percent in 2010 for the 50 biggest grossing North American tours.

Among them were the price of tickets, a preponderance of legacy acts whose fan base is aging and few if any young upstarts that can match the draw of the likes of Bon Jovi, AC/DC and U2. Incidentally, those were the top three biggest concert grossers of 2010, with a combined haul last year of more than half a billion dollars. Bon Jovi is playing FedExForum May 19 and U2 is playing in Nashville July 2, while another big touring act, Usher, played FedExForum in December.

A recent calculation by Digital Music News of the average age of band members among the top 50 grossing acts in 2009 produced an age – 46 – that might seem downright prehistoric to a generation of music consumers who no longer buys CDs and is more accustomed to downloading individual songs from services like iTunes.

Whatever the reason, fans stayed away from arenas and amphitheaters in large numbers last year. And Eric Granger, vice president of arena operations at FedExForum, said what’s arguably Memphis’ highest-profile large performance space did not escape the forces behind that trend.

“What we saw was 2009 was actually pretty good in most markets, even though the economy wasn’t,” Granger said. “But as 2010 came around, we started seeing the effects of the economy in a lot of areas, and the high ticket prices that had just really gotten out of hand were starting to have an impact in a lot of markets. Some of the acts’ productions are also getting larger. And fuel costs are getting higher. So the cost of producing the shows is higher, and that translates into higher ticket prices.”

R&B artist Usher performed at FedExForum Dec. 29. (Joe Murphy/FedExForum)

Worldwide, average ticket prices rose almost 4 percent in 2010, to $76.69 from $73.83 in 2009, according to the Wall Street Journal. There was a 2 percent decline in North American ticket sales during that same period, which the WSJ attributed to “widespread last-minute discounting” by Live Nation.

But that was then.

Like other industries recovering from the period when customers were tightfisted with any extra cash as the recession wound down, the concert industry appears for the moment to be benefiting from that recovery.

So much so, that Granger said he thinks FedExForum may see its busiest summer ever.

“We had two big on-sales this past weekend, with Bon Jovi going up and Kings of Leon too,” Granger said. “And without giving actual numbers, because I’m not allowed to, both were very good on-sales and are still selling very well. Kid Rock (who plays FedExForum March 12) is selling very well too.”

Dean Deyo, president of the Memphis Music Foundation, said the fact that fewer acts are still around that can pack an arena like FedExForum helps partly explain the concert industry’s lean year or two.

But “the mid-size halls in Memphis like Minglewood, the New Daisy and even the Orpheum Theatre have been growing like crazy and increasing the number of touring acts coming through town,” Deyo said.

Indeed, April alone looks set to be a big month in Memphis for fans of major indie groups. Making appearances here will be Kings of Leon and Band of Horses at FedExForum April 9 and Interpol at Minglewood April 25. Arcade Fire, the indie band that recently won a Grammy for album of the year, is playing the Orpheum April 28.

Jonathan Kiersky, general manager of the Hi-Tone Café in Midtown, said his venue is not in a price point that would have gotten it caught up in any widespread downturn.

He said the Hi-Tone, which has been around since 1998, has seen an uptick in ticket sales and concertgoers for shows like the one a few days ago headlined by Rooney.

“I’d say we bottomed out in October of 2008,” Kiersky said. “2009 got better as the year went on. 2010 was really good, and 2011 is looking even better.”

Scott Rosenthal, from left, Juan Wauters and Jose Garcia of The Beets play a set at the Hi-Tone Cafe last week. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

Memphis music maven Rachel Hurley said the opening of Minglewood put Memphis in a better position from which to draw top touring acts.

For a long time, the city has had too much of a gap between venues like the Hi-Tone and Young Avenue Deli, which hold a few hundred people, compared with the Orpheum, which holds more than 2,000, said Hurley, who produces a live music series for Ardent Studios.

“With Minglewood, bands have a chance to grow their audience and still make money,” Hurley said. “It’s also a place that really cares about music and the musicians they work with, so bands playing there are going to have a great experience, which means they will want to come back.”

Minglewood can hold a crowd as large as almost 1,500 people, but it also can be reconfigured for smaller audiences. DeHart attributed his venue’s success to the idea it was started with – filling a niche in the local market.

“The way Minglewood is set up, I can go to 500 or 600 all the way up to 1,500, and probably 98 percent of the bands that are out there touring, Minglewood fits their model,” DeHart said.

His venue also gets a wide variety of acts. Within the past several weeks, it’s hosted shows by the likes of rap star Snoop Dogg, indie band Cake and veteran rockers Huey Lewis and the News.

Meanwhile, Paul Chandler, a founding partner of Resource Entertainment Group in Memphis, said preparations for a new Latin music and cultural festival later this year in Memphis are among the many projects keeping his firm busy. REG also has started to produce galas, in addition to producing the annual rooftop parties at The Peabody and Madison hotels Downtown.

“We had a record year last summer at the Peabody Rooftop. And we had excellent attendance at the Peabody’s New Year’s Eve party. The lucky thing for us is we’re very diverse in our offerings. And that’s what’s helped us survive.”

Brandon Herrington is organizing a new festival coming to Memphis in March. The Fareveller Music Festival, www.fareveller.com, will unfold over three days – March 24-26 – and feature more than 40 acts in five venues across Midtown.

“People are genuinely hungry for things like this,” Herrington said. “I’ve always loved the music scene here, and I think things like this can help. It’s a cool event that will give local bands a great chance to play with out-of-town bands too. There’s always going to be people who need to see this thing happen for a year or two before they jump on board. This is something that’s going to grow and be a grassroots thing.”

Hurley said one problem that’s prevalent on the local scene is a kind of apathy, as she put it, between some artists for each other.

“I get contacted all of the time by musicians who want to record an episode of my podcast, The Ardent Sessions, yet they have never bothered to come to one of the dozens of performances we have had that are all open to the public,” she said. “My stance has always been that I want to help artists that are engaged with the community and not just self-serving.”

One way she’s contributing is by working to bring a national spotlight to the Memphis music scene. She does that via a website she edits, “The Vinyl District – Memphis.” It’s part of a network of sites that focus on the local music scenes of music cities like Nashville, New York City, Los Angeles and Austin.

The site’s key ingredients are a community focus and a hunger for promoting new bands grinding away in the hopes of making it – and any group, really, that’s producing something worth hearing.

The site also aggressively promotes upcoming local shows worth checking out.

“We have got to have a grassroots, do-it-yourself work ethic if we want to make something happen,” Hurley said, “and that means building community and bringing everyone’s talents to the table.”