The concert business appears to be healthier in 2017, with more performers and artists on tour than in recent years – and more of them are booking shows in Memphis.
But it’s never that simple in the business of shows, where booking is a process and touring is becoming more of a necessity.
“In order for artists to make a living today, touring has jumped up at the top of what they have to do to generate money for themselves,” said Fred Jones Sr. of Memphis-based SMC Entertainment. “…You get very few artists that sell a million records today.”
Jones has been a concert promoter for 48 years. He is also the founder and promoter of the Southern Heritage Classic, an annual football game between Tennessee State and Jackson State that started 28 years ago and includes several days of non-gridiron events, including a concert.
Memphis in May International Festival president and CEO Jim Holt, meanwhile, isn’t in the concert business. He’s in the event business – a month’s worth, including the three-day Beale Street Music Festival, which is scheduled for May 5-7 this year.
“Memphis, right now, has not seen this level of concert traffic in many years,” said Holt, whose experience includes working at Mid-South Concerts, the dominant rock promoter in the region under the leadership of company founder Bob Kelley.
“All of a sudden you’ve got a tremendous number of artists that are playing the market,” Holt said. “I think that there’s a little bit of an uptick in touring in general. I haven’t looked at the venue tour histories recently, but I would think FedExForum probably has more concerts this year than maybe they had the last two years combined.”
FedExForum’s schedule includes a May 19 show by electronic dance music duo The Chainsmokers, who Holt had tried to book for this year’s Beale Street Music Festival.
“But they had a very compelling offer in San Francisco our weekend,” he said. “We made an offer to them, and there was another festival on the East Coast that made an offer to coincide with ours the same weekend. That happens.”
The right price…
Focusing on calendars a year or two out is a fact of life for concert promoters.
And Holt says tours are shorter and more select, with many artists accepting isolated dates or doing short tour runs instead of the formal touring schedule of years past.
“You still have some major acts that will mount a significant major tour,” Holt said, “but there’s fewer and fewer artists that are doing those.”
Jones says Memphis is limited in its ability to handle shows with high ticket prices that might not get a second look in other cities.
“You can’t get the same price in Memphis that you can get in an Atlanta, D.C. or Chicago,” he said. “It just doesn’t happen. You can do a $150 ticket as run-of-the-mill in Atlanta. When you start getting above $100 or $110 in Memphis, it can be kind of tough, depending on the artist. They have to be somebody really strong for that price.”
The same economics apply to Holt’s pursuit of artists for the 66 or so slots over the three-day Beale Street Music Festival.
“We’re constrained somewhat by our affordable ticket price to what we can pay the artist,” he said, comparing the price of BSMF’s three-day pass, which can cost up to $150, to a four-day pass for the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee, which can cost as much as $350.
Holt looks for diversity across musical genres, but some genres are scarcer year to year, depending on which artists are on the road.
“Last year we were very light in terms of hip hop. There just weren’t acts that we were targeting available to us at agreeable pricing structures that we were able to book,” he said. “Conversely, this year we don’t have as much EDM.”
And there is an attempt to carefully coordinate which artists play on a certain stage at a certain time. While the artist lineup is usually announced in February, the stage schedules for each day are released closer to the event.
“We already have an alternative appeal headline artist that night; we are not going to put another one right on top of it,” he said. “That’s just going to frustrate the patrons because they are going to want to see both acts. There is invariably going to be some crossover when you have this much talent performing in a compressed time frame, but we look at it at all levels.”
That includes a calculation that over three days, an average festival-goer can see about 20 different artists – maybe 25 if the attendee is “really active and moving and circulating to multiple stages.”
Jones also works well in advance to book talent for the Southern Heritage Classic’s annual concert, and he particularly remembers pursuing Usher for the 2004 show. FedExForum was under construction at the time and on its way to an opening that coincided with the classic.
Jones and his son, Nathaniel Jones, had been talking to the entertainer’s mother and others. They pushed the fact Usher would be the first artist to perform in the new arena – a concert that worked out to be the Friday before the game.
“But it took some conversations way in advance,” Jones said. “The building was new. Nobody knew what that was going to be like. We didn’t know whether the show was too big for the classic. It sold out in advance, and we went from there. It’s always difficult.”
Memphis is home for Jones, but he’s realistic about the concert scene.
“Memphis is not a major market,” he said. “But it’s a really good market. People will go out for the good quality show. … If you have a good show and don’t overprice, then Memphis becomes a really good place to play.”
That is the case for Charlie Wilson, whose rhythm-and-blues solo career post-Gap Band is thriving these days.
“Memphis is a Charlie Wilson market,” Jones said. “So if Charlie Wilson is going on tour, Memphis is going to be on the tour.”
Jones spoke to The Memphis News the day after Wilson headlined a show at FedExForum with Johnny Gill. Fantasia, who had also been scheduled to perform, burned her arm in her tour bus and had to cancel, but Jones said the show still turned out great.
…And the right size
With an abundant supply of performers and artists available, Jones’ wish list includes a venue that would fill the gap between the 2,300-seat Orpheum Theatre and the 5,000-seat Mud Island amphitheater.
“We need a venue that’s right in the 3,500 to 4,500 range. We don’t have that,” he said. The Levitt Shell in Overton Park has 3,800 seats, but it is outdoors and lacks permanent seating. In addition, it is run by a nonprofit and isn’t a commercial venue.
“Those are the right-sized venues today and you’ll be able to get a lot of acts,” he said of a 3,500- to 4,500-seat indoor venue.
“Because of the cost of doing business, you need more seats and you need more quality seats,” Jones added. “The Orpheum is a great place to do a show, but you’ve got 2,308 seats. That’s going to limit you in terms of what you have.”
On a smaller scale, Jay Sheffield sees the same robust touring and competition as he books live music on Sundays at the eight – soon to be nine – Huey’s restaurants in the Memphis area.
“I certainly think it’s a buyer’s market for guys like me,” he said.
And the competition can be intense in Midtown, the site of the original Huey’s, as nearby Overton Square is thriving once again.
“I think Lafayette’s has done an incredible job of sustaining for the most part local music and doing it as frequently as they do. My hat’s off to them,” Sheffield said. “But they haven’t diminished the pool that we can draw from at all by the competition. I think they’ve drawn some people in town that I think maybe we can piggyback off of from time to time. We did that over the years with Rum Boogie and some of the places Downtown.”
Sheffield’s personal preference is blues and soul music, but he recognizes a difference in the original Huey’s and the other locations.
“We still try to stay – at least for Midtown, which I think has more of an eclectic feel to it – it lends itself more to original music,” he said. “I can do folk. I can do blues, straight-up blues. I can do blues rock. I can do Americana. But I still try to stay rootsy when I’m booking Midtown.”
And he doesn’t lack for pitches from bands and performers locally and elsewhere.
“When I book the suburbs and other locations, I usually try to do local bands that have a certain following,” he said. “I do more of a dance, pop. I still try to keep the blues in there, because that’s kind of where my heart is – blues and soul.”