Thank You For A Great Inaugural Season!
Posted on: 10/31/11
Organizers are pleased with performances, turnout and finances
By Mark Hughes Cobb, Staff Writer
Published: Monday, October 31, 2011 at 3:30 a.m. Last Modified: Sunday, October 30, 2011 at 11:14 p.m.
TUSCALOOSA | When Mayor Walt Maddox and Gary Weinberger from Red Mountain Entertainment spoke with Wendy Riggs about running the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater, they stressed that Tuscaloosa was a tertiary concert market.
Primary markets would be anchors such as New York and Los Angeles, but also large metro areas like Atlanta and its famous Fox Theatre, which Riggs ran before moving back home last year to become the first director of amphitheater operations.
Secondaries would be cities such as Birmingham. Tertiaries would be Tuscaloosa and similar small cities.
“They kept saying ‘This is not Atlanta,’ ” Riggs said.
But the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater has found ways to rise above the rest. Trade publication standard Pollstar recently announced the amphitheater has been nominated as best new venue in the country. Although figures are still being tabulated, it appears the first season may have made a small surplus, despite the tough decision that had to be made to cancel the April 15 Sugarland concert because of storm damage to the city.
“We’re very, very pleased at how we did financially,” Maddox said. The loss for Sugarland was roughly $286,000, including not only talent fees paid, but salaries for staff was on hand all day.
“When you consider that, consider we’re going to be at break even or better, it’s been a great success; and of course, artistically, we went over the top.”
In its first season, which ran from April 1 until Oct. 16, the amphitheater hosted 17 concerts, well more than a preliminary six to 10 goal, hosting legends such as Steely Dan, Widespread Panic, Alabama, ZZ Top, Lynyryd Skynyrd and Garrison Keillor, along with hot modern acts from the Avett Brothers to Neko Case to My Morning Jacket, with a diverse lineup of pop-rock bands, country, blues, classical, electronica and more.
The amphitheater also found space and time for Deontay Wilder’s boxing match, helped host the triathlon, the Mayor’s Cup race, Community Conversations and other nonprofit events, and its kitchens roared to life to serve city workers helping dig us out after the April 27 storm.
That’s not to say there were no issues or things that need tweaking for 2012. There’ll be a mid-November meeting with the mayor, involving Riggs, Weinberger and others, recapping the details, looking at places where they could improve, and placing final decimal points on the dollar breakdown.
Noise complaints were a concern, especially on the last weekend, which started on a Thursday with an electronica concert, heavy on bass and drums.
“It appears with the heavy-bass show, positioning contributed to that,” Maddox said. There were also some, but fewer, noise complaints that Friday, headlined by pop rock act 3 Doors down. “Both shows, attendance was probably 50 to 60 percent of capacity, and the less people you have, the more noise escapes the facility.”
Cooler weather may also have contributed.
“It’s thought that when it’s warmer, with more humidity, sound doesn’t travel as far,” the mayor said. “Those are lessons learned, and one of the things we’ll be discussing in the debriefing in November.”
Weinberger said he and Riggs were down on the ground with decibel meters after the electronica concert, working to get the sound under control. By Sunday, the ZZ Top/Skynyrd show, the problem was apparently diminished, if not fixed altogether.
“Now, when we’re making offers for bands that are loud, we’re going to let them know that with this facility being located in the middle of downtown, with residential areas around, the maximum dB level has to be X or below,” Weinberger said. “All our contractual offers will have that. Part of it on the front end is knowing that certain artists are real loud, and for those we’re just going to have to be making a decision whether they’re right for this venue. No harm, no foul. We’re gonna be a good citizen of Tuscaloosa.”
Riggs thinks there are at least three big reasons the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater became such a hot draw in its first year.
First, there was an outpouring of warmth from groups coming in to perform tornado-relief benefits, a temporary lift that will probably lead to long-term success, as artists and crews appreciate the beauty and hospitality of the venue, and spread word in the industry. Kenny Chesney donated hundreds of thousands of dollars from his already booked show, and bands such as Alabama, Widespread Panic, My Morning Jacket and others donated portions of their take to the city.
Second is the reputation enjoyed by longtime players in the industry Red Mountain Entertainment, the Birmingham-based group that’s booking and helping promote the Amphitheater. Red Mountain Entertainment has decades of experience booking facilities and opening and running amphitheaters. At Red Mountain Entertainment’s predecessor New Era, Tuscaloosa native Weinberger and partners opened and ran Birmingham’s Oak Mountain Amphitheater, now Verizon Wireless Music Center.
Red Mountain Entertainment also books venues such as The Wharf in Orange Beach, and festivals such as:
- Schaeffer Eye Center Crawfish Boil in Birmingham
- Bayfest Music Festival in Mobile
- Beale Street Music Festival in Memphis
- Riverfest in Little Rock
- Top of the Hops beer festivals in Biloxi; Mandeville,La.; Lafayette, La.; Greenville, S.C.; Jackson, Miss.; and Charlottesville, Va.
Over the years, Red Mountain Entertainment has booked shows and tours by the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, U2, Kenny Chesney, Jimmy Buffett, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, Keith Urban, Taylor Swift, Kings of Leon, Widespread Panic, Wilco, Sonic Youth, My Morning Jacket, Hank Williams, Jr., Kid Rock, John Mayer, Dave Matthews Band, Bob Dylan, 3 Doors Down, Motley Crue, Brooks & Dunn and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, among many others.
“This thing didn’t happen overnight,” Weinberger said.
Third, and hardly least, is the draw of playing for the University of Alabama student body, some 32,000 and growing.
“That’s a fan base anybody would want,” Riggs said.
Maddox and Weinberger praised Riggs for coming in and making things work on the nuts-and-bolts level. Early in the season, she showed staff, keying on her younger interns, the video for Jackson Browne’s song “The Load Out.” It’s a musicians-on-the-road song and includes roadies and crew who endure long hours and weeks away from home just to support artists who get too-few precious moments on stage:
They’re the first to come and last to leave
Working for that minimum wage
We do so many shows in a row
And these towns all look the same
We just pass the time in our hotel rooms
And wander ’round backstage
Till those lights come up and we hear that crowd
And we remember why we came.
Making the amphitheater friendly and comfortable for all, for customers and crew and artists, is key.
“ ‘What can we do?’ We say that all day long,” she said.
On show days, Riggs is up early in the morning to greet truckers rolling in with equipment. She and her staff then work all day and night, usually until 3 a.m. or later, cleaning up. If it’s a multi-show weekend, and there were several this year, the staff has to do more than a quick clean, which involves blowing trash out of the aisles and emptying containers. The facility has to sparkle for the new arrivals.
One weekend, Riggs was finally leaving around dawn, from the previous night’s show, when she saw the drivers for the next day’s show rolling in. She stayed and worked, getting in a few hours’ nap later in the morning, before launching back into that night’s show.
“We treat the truck drivers like we treat the artists,” she said. “Everybody’s a star here.”
From the outset, amphitheater proponents have stressed diversity of events, hoping to find something for everyone in the community and comfort of the experience. In the planning, consultants were brought in to figure out details such as how many bathroom stalls must be built for the number of customers at a sold-out shows.
“When someone gets close, comes in and has a great experience, they don’t have to wait to go to the bathroom, spend as little time as possible in front of concession stands, when the house staff, ushers and security are friendly and accommodating and make them feel comfortable, that word gets around,” Weinberger said. “We want our patrons to tell their friends, we want artists talking to their publicists. We want everyone going ‘Oh wow, what a place.’ ”