Raleigh Amphitheater opens Friday, June 4, with a free concert featuring The Connells, I Was Totally Destroying It, Mosadi Music, Old Avenue, Sleep Control, The Small Ponds and Th’ Bullfrog Willard McGhee. The music starts at 5:20 p.m. Backstreet Boys perform at Raleigh Amphitheater Sunday, June 6, at 7 p.m.
Upcoming at Walnut Creek: Brooks & Dunn on June 5 and Lynyrd Skynyrd on June 18.
Upcoming at Koka Booth: Styx, Foreigner and Kansas on June 9 and Phoenix on June 11.
Never mind the solstice: In America, it’s Memorial Day weekend that welcomes the summer. In Indianapolis and in Charlotte, race cars sprint by, and baseball finally comes into focus. On porches and in parking lots, at barbecues and on boats, people pop the tops of their favorite domestics and let the high temperatures roll in.
Saturday afternoon in Raleigh, then, was the perfect summer inaugural. The air still dripped from a Friday night downpour, and the unobstructed sun burned even the coolest brow. But downtown, between the radiant Shimmer Wall of the Raleigh Convention Center and the concrete-and-brick blah of the county’s newest nine-level parking garage, a dozen construction workers weren’t reaching for cold ones. Rather, they were scrambling to install green plastic-and-steel seats and backstage facilities at the new Raleigh Amphitheater, a 5,500-capacity facility that, if the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission votes later this month to overturn a particular long-standing state regulationwhich is unprecedentedwill be named for Bud Light, the best-selling beer in America since 2001.
That’s a big if, with bigger consequences. When the amphitheater opens this week, it won’t have a title sponsor. In May, the ABC Commission delayed its decision, requesting to hear from the public first. In a subsequent City of Raleigh survey, only 55 percent of more than 1,600 respondents supported naming the venue for alcohol. Last week, neither Raleigh mayor Charles Meeker nor City Councilman Bonner Gaylordoutspoken advocates of the space and namewere convinced such a margin could persuade the commission.
If the exemptions aren’t granted, the City of Raleigh stands to lose $300,000 annually until it can find a sponsor willing to pony up that kind of cash for the next five years. The city could also fall behind on its seven-year schedule of paying for the $2.5 million amphitheater, which includes a $522,000 stage. That stage was built in part because city officials were confident the sponsorshipnow being debated by state officialswas secure. If it falls through, the financial burden will fall to Raleigh taxpayers, whether or not they approve of the venue, its name or the bands it hosts.
“If people understood that it was Bud Light or increased taxes, it would be a more rational equation,” says Gaylord. “Do we get $1.5 million from the pockets of taxpayers?”
The question of sponsorship is one of many immediate issues that face the evolving amphitheater market in the Triangle. Between 1991 and 2001, the 20,000-seat shed at Raleigh’s Walnut Creek could claim a monopoly over large-scale outdoor entertainment. In 2001, Cary entered the scene with a 7,000-seat sylvan haven, Koka Booth Amphitheatre at Regency Park. And on Friday, if the seats are in the concrete and the speakers are strung from that gargantuan stage, Raleigh will swing open the gates on its own boutique amphitheater. The combination and variety of venues should bring more big-ticket bills to the Triangle. Local promoters agree the spaces even have the combined potential to turn this market into a touring destination, not just a stop between Atlanta and Washington, D.C.
But none of these placeseach supported by public resourcesis perfect. Whether too big, too plain or too quiet, a combination of science, politics and music industry speculation presents a number of hurdles that must be negotiated sooner rather than later. Otherwise, picking which amphitheater to playor to pay to attendmay turn into a debate about which isn’t the worst.
Ryan Nichols is a 16-year-old of slight build, with braces and close-cropped black hair. He lives with his parents in Willow Springs, a bedroom community between Fuquay-Varina and Garner. Nichols doesn’t have a job, and he doesn’t play sports. Listing his hobbies, his first and most emphatic response is music.
“Listening to it. Talking about it. Writing about it,” he says one recent Saturday morning. He buys mostly vinyl, but he still purchases CDs. Nichols attends about 40 concerts a year in amphitheaters and clubs like Cat’s Cradle, and he often travels to see his favorite bands. He’s been to Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo, and this summer, he’ll follow Phish on tour with his uncle, from Chicago to California. Essentially, if 16-year-olds like Nichols were more rule than increasingly rare exception, the music industry wouldn’t be in such a tenuous place right now.
In late April, Nichols’ mom dropped him off alone at Koka Booth Amphitheatre, a little more than 20 minutes from the family’s home. Two months earlier, his parents advanced him about $40 of his birthday present to purchase a ticket for the first Triangle appearance in five years by Kentucky rock band My Morning Jacket. Nichols had seen the band play for more than four hours two years before at Bonnaroo. “One of the greatest shows I’ve seen,” he says matter-of-factly. In Cary, he arrived early, claimed a spot in the front row and waited for what he hoped would be a reprise of that sprawling Tennessee night.
“It was incredibly quiet,” says Nichols. “A loud, arena-rock-style band like My Morning Jacket should never have that low of volume, and they did. Obviously, the band played a great show. You just couldn’t hear it.”Nichols wasn’t alone in this complaint.
“I had fans, all night long, yelling at me and accosting me: ‘Cut it up! Cut it up!’ It’s so distracting, but I can’t blame them for feeling that way. You pay top dollar to see one of your favorite bands, and you get nothing,” says sound engineer Ryan Pickett. For the last nine years, Picketta veteran of several Triangle rock bands who lives in Durhamhas toured with My Morning Jacket, mixing their music. He’s risen with the quintet from small rock dives to the country’s biggest arenas, including New York’s Madison Square Garden. Pickett stands in front of the band, among the audience and behind a soundboard, adjusting the levels of instruments and voices so that the crowd hears the right sounds at the right volume. In Cary, he just couldn’t make it happen.
“It was one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had in my life,” he says. “Even the band had a poor show because they couldn’t feel the front-of-house speakers.”
The volume of rock ‘n’ roll shows was a persistent point of debate at Koka Booth for much of the venue’s first decade: for attendees, for bands, for town and venue officials and for residents of the affluent neighborhoods separated from the amphitheater only by Symphony Lake.
According to the Town of Cary’s Noise Ordinance, sound above 70 decibels cannot cross into a residential boundary, meaning that officials must closely monitor the volume of the music within the amphitheater. To prevent illegal sound, volume measurements are taken at the soundboardwhere people like Pickett workduring shows. In any five-minute interval, the band has to maintain an average volume of 92 decibels at a distance of 80 feet from the stage (or since April 2009, 90 decibels from 100 feet). The public health partnership Dangerous Decibels equates those levels to a household food blender or a busy urban street. For many bands, they just won’t work.
“People turn up rock music, you know?” says Justin Glanville, who has worked as the front-of-house engineer for The Avett Brothers since 2005. The Avetts packed Koka Booth in 2008 but, according to a Town of Cary report, refused to return in 2009 because of the volume limits. “They want to hear it. They want to feel it. That starts happening around 95 decibels at front-of-house. I usually mix a little louder.”
Venue records confirm that rock bands consistently push the town’s limits. In 2006, the amphitheater fined Black Eyed Peas $2,000 for their volume, a sum to be paid by the band. In 2008, three shows generated $5,000 in fines. Every headlining rock or soul act at Koka Booth in 2009 averaged or eclipsed 90 decibels, except Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, Indigo Girls and The Robert Cray Band. The Carolina Bluegrass Festival even averaged 90 decibels.
Kings of Leon finished their April 2009 set with the highest average allowed, but fans still took to the Internet to lodge complaints about the low volume. “I could easily hear the chatter of people around me. When the crowd cheered, I could barely hear the band play,” said a commenter on the blog Triangle Music. “The sound flat-out sucked, thanks to Cary regulations,” echoed another.
Koka Booth offers the most generous and thoughtful programming of any large venue in the area in one of the area’s most identifiable public spaces. Since 2005, it’s averaged 62 events per year. As a pop venue, it serves both as a platform for bands rising to larger amphitheaters or arenas (Kings of Leon and John Mayer) and for those no longer able to fill such spaces (Ben Folds and Counting Crows). Two years ago, the venue signed a new booking contract with Outback Concerts after several seasons with Live Nation. Local promoters agree it’s produced healthy competition in the area.
But that’s not the bulk of Koka Booth’s programming. The amphitheater screens a dozen family-oriented films each summer with its Movies by Moonlight series and hosts popular community gatherings like the traditional Indian celebration Diwali. The official summer home of the North Carolina Symphony, Koka Booth drew nearly 20,000 people to the park to hear classical music in 2009.
“The amphitheater structure was designed and built to specifically project symphonic music,” wrote Ted Leamy, an acoustics consultant with California company Pro Media/ UltraSound, in a study for the Town of Cary conducted in 2008. Situated among 14 acres of hardwoods and pines, the amphitheateran oddly wondrous glass, wood and steel frame that opens like the mouth of some benevolent alien craftwasn’t crafted for rock bands. It reflects too much sound for electric guitars and drums, and the grounds are intended more for sprawling out than packing in. But rock, soul, country and blues shows generated more income than any other event category by far in 2009 for the venue, which still receives an annual operating subsidy from the town. Those shows also attracted nearly a third of the year’s attendees, according to town documents.
Still, the town’s response to Leamy’s report suggests those shows aren’t the space’s top priority. The town spent $24,500 implementing a number of his suggestions. It built a second mixing position 20 feet back from the original to give sound engineers like Pickett a more accurate assessment and installed heavy drapes to absorb some sound that might misfire into the neighborhoods.
But they stopped short with Leamy’s report, which insisted that the two delay sound systemsclusters and rows of speakers that distribute music through the crowd after it emanates from the speakers on stage“should not be utilized for rock concerts.” My Morning Jacket used them. More important, the report’s first recommendation is that the town “design and install a sound system optimized for the venue.” The town passed on the idea.
“That would be extremely expensive,” explains Town of Cary Cultural Arts Manager Lyman Collins, “and require much more study than we have currently done.”
More study might be exactly what Koka Booth needs. Six years ago, a team of acoustic architects at the Massachusetts firm Acentech spent nearly two years investigating sound at Atlanta’s Chastain Park Amphitheater, a 6,700-capacity facility situated in that city’s largest park. Like Koka Booth, Chastain Park sits near a wealthy neighborhood that’s historically been sensitive to concert noise. After studying two-dozen concerts at the venue, the team concluded that the lower frequencies at concerts provided the nuisance in surrounding areas. These days at Chastain Park, sound engineers cap the sound at that frequency rather than fuss about overall decibel levels. According to Acentech consultant Thomas McGraw, who implemented those same standards at the new Raleigh Amphitheater, the community has been very satisfied with the results. So was My Morning Jacket, who played at Chastain Park one week before visiting Cary.
“The Chastain Park show went without a hitch. We had a perfectly normal show. No one complained. The band was happy. I was happy,” says Pickett. “Having done both venues now, I really feel like the Town of Cary should retool the way they temper the sound ordinances. Or they should book symphonic acts, folk acts, whatever. Anything amplified should be somewhere else.”
Management at Koka Booth has at least been proactive in informing bands about the venue’s limitations. The terms of the sound ordinance are included in contracts, and before installing any sound equipment the day of a concert, a representative of the artist must sign an agreement that restates the conditions and fines. Last year, two actsStone Temple Pilots and Jane’s Addictionbalked at the terms and passed on a show in the Triangle. My Morning Jacket reconfigured their entire live setup for the tour because of Cary. Frontman Jim James even bought a new amplifier. But it wasn’t enough. According to the band’s manager, Mike Martinovich, My Morning Jacket won’t return, either, at least until the necessary fixes have been made.
“I don’t think the band would want to put themselves or their audience through what they considered to be a diminished experienced,” says Martinovich. “I would love for Koka Booth to not get a bad rap for this. My Morning Jacket had a great turnout for the show. The market deserves an aesthetically pleasing music experience.”
If Cary’s Koka Booth Amphitheatre is a wooden wonderland, then Raleigh Amphitheater, as it’s temporarily being billed, is a downtown desert. Standing at a large Raleigh Convention Center window that overlooks the space, Doug Grissom, the convention center’s assistant director, points to the rows of puny trees that line the sidewalks framing the amphitheater.
“Once those things grow up,” says Grissom, pausing, making his hands balloon outward like the tops of maturing plants. “Once they grow up, you’ll get a big canopy.”
The greenest part of Raleigh’s newest public space might be the rows of 4,487 plastic folding chairs bolted into the amphitheater’s slab of concrete. One contiguous sliver of grass that wraps the corner opposite from the stage comprises the amphitheater’s general admission lawn, designed to accommodate just 1,000 of the space’s 5,500 patrons. And the stage is a towering steel-and-wood monolith, painted black and surfaced with thick plywood. Tethered to four high steel poles too big for the average person to hug, the roof can support 70,000 pounds and withstand the winds of a small, inland-bound hurricane.
That last detail is about as local as the Raleigh Amphitheater gets. Indeed, most criticisms of the Raleigh Amphitheaterits look, its bands, its beers, its namestem from what’s perceived as a generic approach to presentation and entertainment. Raleigh is proud of what it’s accomplished inside the beltline during the last decade. From the string of bodegas owned by Taiseer “Taz” Zarka to Greg Hatem’s appropriately named Empire Eats restaurant group, the revival of downtown Raleigh has been led largely by local entrepreneurs taking chances on unused spaces, not on chains doing what they’ve previously tested. The amphitheater should advance that spirit, critics say.
“Much time and money has been spent in recent years to make downtown Raleigh a destination and a place to stay,” an anonymous commenter wrote in response to a City of Raleigh survey. “Let’s find a name for the new amphitheatre that is authentic and represents this community.”
When the potential partnership with Bud Light was announced in May, a Facebook group demanding local brews quickly attracted hundreds of fans. “Nothing says generic garbage rock for the masses like generic garbage beer for the masses,” wrote a less grandiloquent commenter. Soon thereafter, amphitheater officials announced they would include Raleigh brews.
The City of Raleigh first considered a downtown amphitheater as early as 2002. Three weeks after the city announced plans to consider a new convention center, the media conglomerate Clear Channel presented a proposal for the “City Lights Pavilion” to city officials. A bold white roof that rose to one or several points would cap the amphitheater, and it would offer “the second largest meeting/ party space in the market.” Based on similar facilities in Denver and Boston, the design would be different for the Triangle.
But the parcel of land originally allocated for the amphitheater soon became the site of the new convention center. Its planning and constructiona $221 million, six-year process, the largest public project in city historytook priority. By the time Grissom and longtime Convention Center Director Roger Krupa returned to the amphitheater in 2009, music and sponsorship markets had withered.
“If this was five years ago, we’d have five to seven companies wanting to put their name on something like this,” explains Grissom. “There are so few companies out there willing to sponsor anything right now. It’s just not a sponsorship world.”
Ostensibly, this remains a drinking world. The Raleigh Convention Center and Harris Wholesale, the area’s Bud Light distributor, have worked together at least since Grissom began his career in Raleigh in 1988, he remembers. Through the Bud Light brand, the company served as the title sponsorthe co-founder, reallyof the city’s most ambitious and popular live music series, Bud Light Presents Raleigh Downtown Live, from 2004 until 2009. Harris provided the bulk of the funding (between $100,000–$200,000 each year), and the local management company Deep South Entertainment booked the bands and controlled each event. As its old building came down and its new one went up, Raleigh Convention Center allocated resources to support the series. Each show cost the city $20,000, Grissom says.
Last summer, as Downtown Live drew toward the close of its fifth year, Harris Wholesale approached Grissom and Krupa about the naming rights for the new amphitheater. Other companies expressed interest, but none were willing to approach the annual $500,000 sum Grissom and Krupa sought. Pursuing more sponsorship options, says Grissom, would have been a waste.
The convention center pressed ahead with the Harris Wholesale deal in mind, if not yet in hand, opting for the more sturdy stage to support more touring acts and to satisfy such a high-dollar deal. “If I want real sponsorship dollars, I can’t pull the stage in on the back of a trailer,” explains Grissom, chuckling. Raleigh City Council approved the Harris sponsorship in a closed meeting in early May.
Enter the North Carolina ABC Commission: In this state, strict limits govern the size, font and designs of signs used to advertise alcoholic beverages. What’s more, a business licensed to sell alcohol cannot advertise a particular alcoholic brand outside of its building. For the Harris sponsorship to work, the ABC Commission will need to grant exemptions for both rules on June 17.
“Granting this exemption would set a precedent that could be far-reaching given the number of local government-owned arenas, convention centers, community theaters and minor-league ball parks,” says Agnes Stephens, an ABC Commission representative. Grissom admits he never considered the legality of the sponsorship. Rachel Peterson, Harris Wholesale’s marketing director, never gave it pause, either.“I don’t know the rules about who’s allowed to talk to who. It’s sort of strange, because normally I could call you and ask you for money if it’s a legit public thing,” says Grissom, who, despite longevity and experience in his post, is admittedly naïve about how the state’s alcohol laws relate to the city’s new venture. “When alcohol or a regulated industry is involved, I don’t even know who’s supposed to reach out to who [in pursuing a sponsorship]. We’re just trying to pay for it.”
If they don’t, your taxes might.
In the Raleigh Amphitheater budget approved by the city in November, nearly one-sixth of the city’s annual net proceeds come from a $300,000 sponsorship the venue might not get. Nearly another sixth comes from a slice of each ticket Live Nation sells to concerts at the amphitheater. Live Nation is the space’s preferred promoter, meaning the world’s largest booking company is under contract to produce between 15 and 20 shows per year until 2015.
According to Grissom, two Live Nation agents book the space together to add variety to the market. Wilson Howard, 62, lives in Columbia, S.C., from where he’s booked almost every show at Walnut Creek in the venue’s 19-year history. Grant Lyman, 25, is a recent transplant from Detroit to Charlotte, where he books a similar boutique amphitheater. Howard is an irascible veteran who praises the market and himself and is quick to point to his institutional history. Lyman is chipper and assured, a Generation Y polyglot who talks about indie rock and insists he likes everything.
Despite the joint effort, the pair’s selections have been subject to intense local derision. Some see it as a continuation of the Downtown Live series, simply with high-ticket costs. Grissom chuckles at that suggestion but doesn’t deny it. The popular news-and-entertainment blog New Raleigh asked 16 local musicians, music critics and politicians to suggest bands for the space in April. “We see this as a start to the conversation of how the lineup could look if it wasn’t full of second-tier bands and reunions,” Downtown Editor Jedidiah Gant wrote.
In addition to Live Nation, other companiesespecially the local promoters that book rock clubscan use the space. The city can throw events in the space, too, and Grissom insists that the convention center is already considering several seasonal festivals, as well as a free series similar to Downtown Live.
Other promoters are the critical question, though. Aside from an opening day concert on Friday and two days of the Broadway musical Rent in July, no one has booked the space beside Live Nation. In fact, a week before the space opened, Raleigh Convention Center had yet to set a rental fee. The city’s approved budget for the amphitheater counts rental fees and profits from special events as more than a third of the city’s revenue from the space.
Frank Heath, the longtime owner of Cat’s Cradle, has used Koka Booth Amphitheatre, Durham Performing Arts Center and most venues in the Triangle for shows he can’t fit in his club. Grissom says Heath is a top target for the new venue. But Heath hasn’t been contacted about the space since last year, though he says he’d like to use it in the future.
Andy Martin co-owns Deep South Entertainment and Deep South the Bar, the rock ‘n’ roll watering hole across the street from the new amphitheater. He has a long relationship with Raleigh Convention Center, but his excitement for the venue is tempered by concerns about its terms.
“We’d love to do shows there,” he says. “But as a promoter, there are obviously a lot of questions you need answers to that they don’t know the answers to: ‘What’s the rent going to be? How much are you going to charge me for this?’”
“It’s a matter of letting the dust settle and seeing what kind of model they have,” says his business partner, Dave Rose. “In a month, the conversation could be a lot more detailed.”
The Avett Brothers had to perform in the Triangle in 2010. The Concord, N.C., quartet last headlined a show here in 2008, when they sold out that quiet night in Cary. Their star has only risen since: I and Love and You, the band’s major-label debut, fared well with critics and fans. They appeared on The Late Show With David Letterman and opened a string of dates for Dave Matthews Band last year. But where could they play?
Since the Cary gig, Dolph Ramseur, the band’s longtime manager, had pondered ways to get them back in the area. Perhaps if they played two nights at Koka Booth and limited each evening to 5,000 tickets, the music would just seem louder. Ramseur investigated Durham Athletic Park, as well as Hopscotch, the Independent Weekly’s new fall music festival in Raleigh. (Disclosure: Grayson Currin is the festival’s curator.) None of the options worked. The only move left was the classic colossusTime Warner Cable Music Pavilion at Walnut Creek, the 20,000-seat shed in Southeast Raleigh booked exclusively by Live Nation and managed by Raleigh Convention Center.
Though many fans have rightfully congratulated the band for making the biggest leap possible in its home state, some fans have grumbled about the venue’s lack of intimacy. Ramseurpragmatic and humble in the way many music managers aren’tlists the options the band pursued. You’d expect him to be ecstatic about reaching the biggest room in a market, but he sighs when he says there was nothing left.
“I don’t know,” he says of the band’s upcoming Walnut Creek show, scheduled for October 8. “We’ll see.”
A decade ago, Walnut Creek was the only major amphitheater not just in Raleigh or the region but in the state. It was a point of pride for the city. According to The News & Observer’s archives, community members overwhelmed officials with job applications for menial venue jobs in 1991. More than 11,000 people paid to see Raleigh’s The Connells on opening night. In a year that was considered to be a slump in the music industry at large, Walnut Creek was a sign of life.
“There was nothing like this in the Carolinas,” says Wilson Howard, who, as he puts it, has booked 99 percent of the shows in the space. “Charlotte had major-league sports, but Raleigh didn’t. At that time period, this was like their major-league franchise.”
The Triangle has, of course, changed. It now has a major-league sports team with a high-dollar arena that can host big-name concerts, too. From Broadway shows with extended local runs to the abundance of clubs and theaters built for bands and fans, there are simply more entertainment options.
And the music industry has changed: Big shows generally don’t sell like they once did. In recent years, giants like Walnut Creek have been sold and closed in markets as nearby as Nashville. The proliferation of music festivals in America and Europe has pulled both touring acts and ticket money from plain old shows that move from market to market by bus.
Walnut Creek’s numbers have been vulnerable to these trends: Of the venue’s 66 shows between 2007 and 2009, only 11 sold more than 19,000 tickets, while 25 sold less than 10,000. Last year, the amphitheater booked only 18 showsjust more than half the total in 1991. All but three of those shows broke the 10,000 ticket mark. Howard has already landed more tours than that in 2010, and he points at the last three seasons as proof that a “vibrant, great, great atmosphere” remains at Walnut Creek. After all, according to Raleigh Convention Center’s Doug Grissom, the amphitheater now pays for itself.
The supply and demand for these spaces is aging, though. Legacy acts still move tickets, but the fresh faces filling both the stages and the seats are disappearing, says booking agent Marsha Vlasic. Based in New York, she books big names like Lou Reed, The Strokes, Ben Folds, Elvis Costello and Neil Young. She pioneered traveling festivals like H.O.R.D.E. and Ozzfest. Her bands crave intimacy, she says, and the fans, she thinks, feel the same way.
“Year after year, you get the legendary artists that go and do it. And the amount of young artists that are breaking is slowing down,” says Vlasic. “If you look at the lineups of the amphitheaters, it’s pretty self-explanatory that there aren’t that many young rock acts that are there.”
Indeed, the acts at Walnut Creek announced this year fall roughly into three categories: modern country stars like Toby Keith and Tim McGraw; bands on reunion or farewell runs, or bands old enough to make you wonder if this is indeed a farewell run, like Santana, Creed, Phish, Tom Petty and Brooks & Dunn; and a smattering of young acts who actually have a shot at increased fame, like The Jonas and Avett brothers and John Mayer. They are the exception, says Vlasic.
“There’s, unfortunately, a handful, or maybe two handfuls, of acts that can fill a full amphitheater,” reiterates Vlasic. “So I welcome the small version.”
Of course, those small versions aren’t perfect, either. Free of the strict limits set on sound in Cary, engineers at Walnut Creek can crank the speakers. And though Walnut Creek has occasionally gone without a title sponsor, its current partnership with Time Warner Cable, which expires in 2013, is an important piece of the venue’s financial futureand a reason Grissom doesn’t fret over its diminished market share very much.
“We all have our different attributes,” says Grissom, the new amphitheater framing him in the background. “Cary is beautiful, with a stage that is a work of art. Walnut Creek’s got that big facility that’s hard to match. And we’re down in an urban environment where you can hop on the R-Line.”
That’s the hope, at least.