Oct. 26--Five years ago, the city of Wilmington renovated Greenfield Lake Amphitheater. Two years later, the historic St. Andrews Church became Brooklyn Arts Center, another prominent music venue.
Soon after, artists like Todd Snider, Tift Merritt and Leon Russell showed up to sing and play, and hundreds of music fans spontaneously descended on the venues to listen, drink and dance.
If only it were that simple.
In reality, the venues represent potential. It takes a handful of promoters working diligently for months to turn that potential into real energy.
They evaluate the talent, contact their agents, synchronize the dates, stake their investment, market the show, sell the tickets, organize security, secure food and drink vendors, host the performers and ensure a smooth experience. Afterward, they analyze how things went and brainstorm ways to make the next concert better.
Sometimes, the shows go off without a hitch. Sometimes, there are glitches. And one poorly organized event, regardless of the responsible party, can have implications for everyone who promotes music in Wilmington.
The Penguin effect
Because Wilmington radio station the Penguin (98.3 FM) has a following of loyal, concert-going music fans, a lot of shows are promoted on its radio programs. That leads to some confusion.
On the morning after a concert at Greenfield Lake, program and music director Beau Gunn often gets emails from fans who were at the previous night's show. Sometimes, they complain about the beer prices or the overcrowded house. Sometimes, they even call to compliment him on creating an amazing night.
The thing is, not every show at Greenfield Lake is produced by the Penguin. Some are produced by HUKA Entertainment, Progressive Music Group or Pipeline Event Management.
Gunn has to try to clarify. He doesn't take credit for the shows he didn't produce, but he won't take the blame for others' mistakes, either.
"I tell them, 'We're sorry you had a bad time, but we had nothing to do with it.'"
Gunn said the Penguin expects to turn a profit on its concerts, but it tries to make them accessible. That means affordable ticket prices, free parking (which has become the standard) and no reserved seats.
"I'm a firm believer that live music is best enjoyed in that atmosphere where you can be with the people you love and your best friends," Gunn said. "I might not be able to afford a front-row seat. But if I love the band and really want to be in the front, I know that everybody pays the same amount. All I have to do is get in line first."
Behind the scenes
From the audience at a Grace Potter and the Nocturnals show at Greenfield Lake in 2009, Chris Lee saw people walking in without tickets. He saw ticket holders passing used tickets through the fence to friends on the outside for reuse. He saw fans wandering back to the band's bus and knocking on the door with no regard for security.
Foremost, though, he saw an opportunity. Shortly thereafter, Pipeline Event Management was born.
"If (concerts in Wilmington) were not managed and run correctly, all that will equate to is bands who play here going to other bands and saying, 'Nobody knows what they're doing,'" Lee said. "We wanted Wilmington to put forth our best foot so that the market would continue to grow."
That meant organizing the gates, putting up barriers, hiring more security and planning to have everything in place in advance of the concert, all things that Jenny Sikorsky -- she technically works for HUKA Entertainment but has worked for all of the major players in town -- now organizes for many area concerts.
Pipeline put on its first concert, by the California rock band ALO, in 2010. Over time, Lee and business partner Blair Walton lobbied the city for minor improvements to Greenfield and then took care of things themselves, buying their own barricades and tables for use on show dates. The Pipeline proprietors eventually started booking bands themselves.
Gunn trusts much of his show-day operations to Sikorsky. This weekend, she's working the Modern Rock concert at Legion Stadium on Friday night and the California Roots reggae festival on Saturday at Battleship Park.
"Jenny Sikorsky is the unsung hero of these concerts," Gunn said.
She shows up at 8 a.m. to coordinate the contract workers, lunches, loaders, meals, etc. And she keeps working until after the show is over.
"She affords me the ability to arrive at show time and do what I love, which is enjoy live music," Gunn said.
Make me a match
The process of bringing an act to the stage combines matchmaking with puzzle-solving and financial negotiating.
The first step is finding the right band. Sometimes the band's agent contacts the promoter; sometimes it's the other way around.
Those who have been booking in Wilmington for years have a pretty good idea of which acts will sell tickets and at what price.
Sean Gerard, who books bands primarily at the Calico Room, a smaller venue in downtown Wilmington, said that the Port City had a "pretty booming hardcore scene" around 2006 and '07. But that's changed.
"Over the past five years, people have become really into Americana, folk rock and the blues," Gerard said. "That's really what's getting people out again."
Not coincidentally, that's the style of music you'll hear frequently on the Penguin.
Jay Stephens, who has owned Ziggy's in Winston-Salem since 1990 and opened the 700-capacity Ziggy's by the Sea venue in downtown Wilmington in July, said Winston-Salem doesn't have a radio station comparable to the Penguin, so the audiences are different in the two cities. He amps up the volume at Ziggy's nearly every night of the week, but has found that double-digit cover charges are a hard sell in some genres.
He pointed to a concert by the hard rock band Jackyl that didn't fill up half of the venue's capacity. The Christian rock band Needtobreathe, on the other hand, sold a lot of tickets, but it wasn't a big payday for Ziggy's. The bar sales that night were pitifully low.
Stephens said some of Ziggy's biggest hits so far have been Delbert McClinton and Leon Russell, two old-school performers with a mature audience.
Gunn said it makes sense to bring a band to Wilmington if their tour brings them within about five hours of the Port City. That means artists that play Charleston, S.C., Charlotte or Asheville often also play Wilmington.
"You generally don't see Raleigh to Wilmington," Gunn said. "Those markets are too close together."
Get a room
Matching the band with a suitable venue and an open date leads to contract negotiations.
Mitch Warnecke of Progressive Music Group said once he's contacted by a band, he'll contact the venues to place holds on certain dates. Then the negotiations begin. Sometimes, more than one promoter is working to book the same band. Warnecke said if he has a history with a particular artist, then he has an edge on getting the show.
Promoters must figure in the cost of the band, which can be more than $50,000, the cost of the venue, promotions and marketing, and day-of-show operations. At smaller venues, the negotiations might include a percentage of bar sales, but at Greenfield Lake, the city sells the beer.
Sometimes, promoters will compete for dates. If one promoter has a hold on a date, another promoter can ask for a second hold. If the second promoter confirms the date, the first promoter has limited time to confirm or he loses that date.
Blame it on the rain
The object for all the promoters is not necessarily to maximize profits. Gunn said the Penguin builds its brand name by sponsoring concerts.
And Pipeline's five-year goal was not to make a certain amount of money. Rather, owners Lee and Walton set a goal to hold a major reggae festival within five years. They accomplished it in three.
And they've done it while keeping their day jobs. They operate Pipeline on evenings, weekends and lunch breaks. That makes for some busy weeks, but his employer has been extremely understanding, Lee said. "And my wife still loves me."
While profit isn't always the primary motivation, promoters do want to make money.
At Greenfield especially, there's always a risk. Bad weather can cancel a show, and even the threat of bad weather can hurt ticket sales.
Weather insurance is available, but the local promoters almost never purchase it. Unless they are paying tens of thousands of dollars for a venue, it's not worth buying coverage, they said.
Sometimes a scheduled outdoor concert can be squeezed into the Brooklyn Arts Center at the last minute.
For the Passion Pit concert scheduled for early October, rain postponed the show on Monday. Since Passion Pit had an open date, Warnecke rescheduled for Tuesday. But another day of rain forced the cancellation of the show. BAC wasn't an option, Warnecke said, because Progressive had sold too many tickets to fit everyone into the smaller venue.
Sometimes, unforeseen circumstances cause a good show to go bad.
"Maybe it's the day of the week," Warnecke said. "It definitely happens. Sometimes you have the best band in the world playing to nobody, and sometimes you see the worst band in the world playing to a sold-out crowd."
Beau Gunn, the Penguin: Perhaps the most recognized of the promoters. As the program and music director at the Penguin (WUIN 98.3 FM), which is the local radio voice of the Americana and jam rock bands that are a perfect fit for Greenfield Lake Amphitheater, Gunn is a radio industry insider with contacts and a vehicle to promote the talent he brings to town.
Dan Merker, HUKA Entertainment: Merker has been booking shows in Wilmington for about two years. The company is now based in New Orleans, and Merker frequently flies into ILM to oversee the operations on shows such as STS9, Gov't Mule, Umphrey's McGee and The Wailers.
Chris Lee and Blair Walton, Pipeline Event Management: Initially filling a niche with day-of-show operations, they gradually started booking small shows at local bars, expanded to Greenfield Lake and then moved on their biggest event yet -- the California Roots reggae festival at Battleship Park, which is Saturday, Oct. 26.
Mitch Warnecke, Progressive Music Group: He got his start booking bands at the Soapbox, the now-defunct venue on Front Street in Wilmington. He formed Progressive, expanded across North and South Carolina and now promotes three to six shows per week in cities from Greensboro to Charleston. Progressive's next big show in Wilmington is the ukulele wizard of Jake Shimabukuro at Brooklyn Arts CenterNov. 21, and they also staged Friday night's Modern Rock Festival at Legion Stadium.
Jay Stephens, Ziggy's by the Sea: Stephens brought Ziggy's by the Sea to Wilmington this past summer as a companion to his popular Winston-Salem music venue. Stephens books many of the acts that play Ziggy's, but he also provides open dates for other promoters.
Mike Voorheis: 343-2205
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