The battle of the brand-new, similarly sized venues is upon us.
Both are indoor-outdoor complexes. Both are operated by talent buyers with history and capital in the region.
On the Cincinnati side is the Andrew J Brady Icon Music Center, with an outdoor capacity of 8,000 and 4,400 for indoor shows. Across the river, it’s the PromoWest Pavilion at Ovation: 7,000 outdoor; 2,700 indoor.
They both have fancy names, but we can call them the Icon and Ovation.
They’ll be competing for the same bands. Could that drive up the guarantees paid to bands, thereby driving up ticket prices? Or could the competition force the venues to keep prices low?
It has been over a year since a Cincinnatian could stand outside on a warm evening with thousands of others, a beer in hand, watching a band. So it’s fair to assume there is pent-up demand in the marketplace.
Under normal circumstances, the battle of the new venues would be upon us, as big outdoor summer tours start typically around here in April. But the battle is deferred. Until when? We will see, as we check in with the principals at the Icon and Ovation, as well as other operations of outdoor music events in the area.
Cincinnati, remarkably enough, survived a Jimmy Buffett-less summer last year.
Can we do it again? Will we have to?
Rosemarie Moehring says there will be music at Riverbend this summer. But she doesn’t know when that first show will be.
“We don’t have an exact timeline,” says Moehring, the director of marketing for MEMI, Riverbend’s operator. “Obviously we’re still monitoring everything and going to follow the state guidelines, but we think mid-to-late summer is very optimistic, like mid-July timeframe.”
Buffett is booked for July 13. That’s mid-July. Keep the faith, Parrotheads.
Moehring says Riverbend would need 75-100% allowable capacity for reopening to make sense financially. The reason they won’t do a show with 50% attendance is that Buffett, for example, probably wouldn’t show up for 50% of his normal fee.
MEMI also operates the Icon, located at The Banks. The Icon will be ready to go for the summer touring season. All it needs is summer tours.
“It’s not just what Ohio does,” Moehring says. “When an artist goes on tour, they go from coast to coast, so all the states need to have the same regulations and allow the same capacities in order for a tour to be routed.”
Moehring is expecting big crowds at both venues when the gates open.
“People are ready to go back to live music again, and I can say, especially for myself, I will never take it for granted again,” she says. “People are just ready to get back to normal.”
In January, with the state of the upcoming summer tour season in doubt, it was clear to Scott Stienecker that he wouldn’t be able to book headliners for this year’s edition of Burnbury, so he pulled the plug.
And now it’s to be determined as to whether the festival will ever return as we knew it.
Stienecker, the CEO of PromoWest Promotions, is deciding if Bunbury will continue at Sawyer Point or if he’ll move it to Ovation in Newport.
“We’re looking at doing Bunbury in 2022,” he says. “We have to look and make a decision. Do we want to do the big Bunbury festival, or maybe do we scale it down and do it at the facility?”
Ovation will be ready to go whenever touring restarts this summer. Stienecker says the programming will mirror Bunbury’s.
“The up-and-coming, what’s-happening-right-now, hot-type acts. Everything from rock to punk to country to R&B to rap. Anything that’s coming up and is hot, that’s what we put in our facilities,” he says.
When will that first hot act take the stage at Ovation?
“We have to wait for the world to get back,” he says. “We’re thinking August. We think the world will be 100%, where we can do 100%. Prior to that, it depends on the individual states’ governors. Right now, they’re saying different percentages, but they’re still saying social distancing. Like Ohio said 30% at sporting events but social distancing and masks. We’re OK with masks, but we can’t do GA (general admission) concerts and socially distance, because once the band comes on, everybody will rush to the fence at the stage. We need the governor to come out to say 50% capacity and no restrictions on social distancing. That’s the only way we could open any earlier than when the world opens up 100% for us.”
What about the other music venues?
Ja Rule drew 20,000 to a free concert at Fountain Square in 2015, making it the largest crowd there for music.
Could it happen again in 2021 after the lockdown unlocks? Emily Stowe says 3CDC could book a big show with a national act at the end of the outdoor concert season, depending on COVID numbers.
“We’re thinking there’s little chance of anything of that size,” says Stowe, a senior event marketing manager for 3CDC, the booker-operator of Fountain Square’s free programming. “I don’t think anything’s off the table for fall, depending what the guidelines are. Right now we just follow everything that the governor recommends and anything local government recommends.”
Big touring acts are a small part of 3CDC’s programming on the square, in terms of the total number of calendar dates. Local concert series comprise most of their shows. The music was delayed until July last year; this year, it will start on time in the spring, but with the same crowd-size limitations in place as last year. The spring concert series runs on Friday and Saturday nights from April 30-May 29. In May, 3CDC adds Salsa on the Square on Thursdays. But because Fountain Square is subject to the same rules as bars, there might be no salsa-ing at these salsa shows.
“Normally, we clear the seating so everyone can dance. That’s not likely going to be possible, at least at the beginning of this year,” Stowe says.
Fountain Square has a new permanent stage. Gone is the old one at the west end facing east; the new one is in the end facing west. The new configuration allows for bigger crowds, and Stowe is eager to put it to use.
“I heard that national touring acts are re-booking and scheduling shows confidently for August, so I guess we’ll see what happens there,” she says. “We want to have events, we want to bring people to the square, but we want to do it safely.”
Canceling concerts in 2020 and postponing them to later dates this year has not only been done for the safety of fans but for the performers as well.
For the Nowhere Else Festival, curated by the folk-rock band-couple Over the Rhine and hosted at their farm an hour east of Cincinnati in Martinsville, Ohio, there are two acts at the top of the bill whose health comes first: singer-songwriters Patty Griffin and Joe Henry.
Over the Rhine’s Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist canceled the outdoor festival last year and moved the dates of this year’s from Memorial Day weekend to the weekend of Labor Day.
“Joe Henry was pretty public about his frankly scary cancer diagnosis a few years ago, and he was given, at that time, 6 to 9 months to live, something like that, and he ended up doing a lot of research with his wife regarding treatment scenarios, and I think he went with something pretty cutting edge and fairly intense, and he had sort of the best possible outcome from his treatment, and he is in remission. After going through that a couple years ago, he’s being careful about the whole COVID thing,” Detweiler explains. “Patty Griffin had significant health issues where she was off the road for a while. I think Patty’s manager came back pretty quickly and said May would be off the table, so we [brought up] the possibility of Labor Day, and they were excited and relieved.”
Detweiler says they had no requests for refunds from ticket buyers after moving the dates. That could be a result of having a strong lineup; it could also mean that people are craving to attend an outdoor music festival after skipping a year.
“Obviously, we lost some momentum. That’s a common story for people that had records coming out. That’s true in a whole lot of areas,” Detweiler says. “But I’m really grateful. I think this is hopeful.”