Live From Detroit!

Despite the sluggish economy, the Motor City’s unique concert and theater venues are still finding a way to thrive
Warped Tour at Comerica Park, Detroit, July 2007. Photo Courtesy of Olympia Entertainment

Whether this summer finds you rocking out to John Mellencamp at DTE Energy Music Theatre, reminiscing about young love with the ballads of Boz Scaggs at Freedom Hill Amphitheatre, fulfilling your quotient of culture with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at Meadow Brook Music Festival, or helping rekindle the career of the Stone Temple Pilots at the Fillmore Detroit, you may be surrounded by different crowds — but you’re part of the same big phenomenon.

Southeast Michigan is one of the best markets in America for concerts and other live shows, and even the feeble local economy of 2008 isn’t going to change that. The exact historical reasons metro Detroiters have demonstrated an abiding appreciation of live entertainment — which is even defying the area’s financial challenges this year — are somewhat elusive. But there’s no doubting the results. For the 18th year in a row, the DTE Energy Music Theatre in Clarkston is expected to rank as the most-visited outdoor concert amphitheater in the United States, by a large measure. And according to Pollstar, the Fox Theatre in Detroit, which offers a mix of plays and concerts, came in seventh nationally in first-quarter paid attendance.

What’s more, many family-oriented shows do double the business here that they do in similar Midwestern cities. And a wide variety of venues, such as the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts in Clinton Township and Hill Auditorium on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, unabashedly anticipate strong seasons this year.

“Above and beyond other cities in the Midwest and elsewhere, there’s an electricity in Detroit, from the opening announcements to the last note of the show — they become events here rather than just another show,” says Dave Clark, vice president of marketing for LiveNation, the world’s largest concert promoter. “Detroit fans have always been there for the music.”

Players in the local live-entertainment industry say that Michiganians behave in line with economists’ general theory about how recreation spending shifts during a downturn. “People travel less and spend more of their money closer to home,” says Sara Billman, director of marketing for the University Musical Society, a not-for-profit venture that manages live performances at several venues on U-M’s sprawling campus. “That certainly seems to be the case with us this year. We’ve had fabulous houses and some sellouts.”

Of course, local concert-goers are getting more help this year from the executives running the showplaces, who are making it easier for consumers to squeeze out a budget for summer entertainment amid fast-rising prices for fuel, food, and other necessities. For example, “four-packs” of tickets for the cheapest seats are more available than ever. Some arena managers have consciously refrained from booking artists who are available — but who would prove too expensive for their constituents’ pocketbooks. Even the acts themselves, aware of today’s economic pressures on their fans, are getting into the act.

But to make 2008 another banner year and to stay in the upper crust of the industry nationally, the live-performance business in southeast Michigan remains much more reliant on a fundamental vitality that has flourished over the last half-century, having sprung from roots as deep as the salt mines under Detroit and as sturdy as the steely self-identity of this long-beleaguered region. Again and again, the 5.4 million people who live in the nine-county area of southeast Michigan, as compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau, have demonstrated that, especially when summer comes, they want their music — and they want it live.

“Musicians and athletes seem to be our gods in this town,” says Tom Wilson, president and CEO of Palace Sports & Entertainment, which owns and operates DTE and the Palace of Auburn Hills, and also manages Meadow Brook. “And we’ll follow them.”

Explanations for Detroit’s outsized appetite for live music are tightly intertwined with its very being. Much of it seems to stem from our unmatched heritage as a town of blue-collar workers, where the line between job and recreation has never been fuzzy — and where entertainment is pursued with a single-minded gusto that’s more diffuse in other metropolises.

Some also cite other characteristics, including our relative lack of alternative distractions — and our short summers. “In Los Angeles, you can also go to the beach,” says Dana Warg, president of Olympia Entertainment, the Mike Ilitch company that owns and operates the Fox Theatre, Hockeytown Café, and City Theatre, and manages sports facilities such as Comerica Park and Joe Louis Arena. Warg moved here last year from a position as executive vice president of AEG Worldwide, a Los Angeles-based entertainment company that owns or controls venues such as the Staples Center in L.A. and the Target Center in Minneapolis. “Even in recessionary times here, people tend to want to go out,” he says. “They might not be able to buy that flat-screen TV now, but they still want to escape reality and be entertained.”

But none of those factors seem to be enough to explain why DTE Energy Music Theatre, for example, can support at least 65 to 70 shows annually, including this year — double or triple what any of its counterparts around the country sustain. Nor do these reasons fully convey what makes Detroit a measurably more enthusiastic consumer of live shows than other Midwestern outposts with similar economies, demographics, and climates, such as Chicago, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh.

Clark, 38, who works for LiveNation in Farmington Hills, figures one of the unique aspects of Detroit, compared with all the other big American cities that grew up in the 20th century, is its almost complete lack of mass transit. Thanks largely to the machinations of the Big Three automakers, Detroit’s population sprawled without the concomitant development of a collective-transportation network like the subways underneath New York, the elevated trains above metro Chicago, or even a capable bus system.

As a result, Clark believes, “We’re a market that grew up listening to the radio in our cars a lot more than other places did. Whether it was WRIF or a pop station, a greater appreciation of music was built into our DNA.” Such was the background noise of Clark’s early adolescence in Madison Heights, for example. Then his family moved out to Lake Orion. “My brother and our friends would spend our summers going out to Pine Knob,” he says of the venue now known as DTE Energy Music Theatre.

Of course, another reason — even today — that Detroit is a great concert town is the robust, grass-roots culture of musical performances that has always marked this city. It began in earnest with the nurturing of native Motown talents such as Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder in the 1960s. But in subsequent decades, music appreciation has deepened and broadened here in myriad ways.

Part of it is a strong feeder system. Everyone here seems to know someone who belongs to some sort of garage band. Nowadays, for example, the Palace’s Wilson is among those who are networking on behalf of the first CD by the Jettisons, a group fronted by 22-year-old Jimmy Higgins and Sammy Vitale of Rochester Hills.

“Bands that could get up and perform in Washington, D.C., or in college markets around the country wouldn’t be able to survive in Detroit because there’s an emphasis on quality musicianship,” says Richard Florida, a University of Toronto professor and author of the new book Who’s Your City? How the Creative Economy is Making Where You Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life. His wife is a Michigan native.

Photo by Sue Rynski

Detroit has long been fertile ground for rock music, as evidenced by this scene from a White Noise magazine benefit concert at Bookie’s Club 870 near Woodward and McNichols in May 1978. From left to right, Mitch Ryder (standing), MC5 front man Rob Tyner, journalist Lester Bangs, musician Ted Lucas, and disc jockey Doug Podell. Bangs, a music critic for magazines like Rolling Stone, Creem, and The Village Voice, was immortalized in the Hollywood film Almost Famous. In the midst of the disco era in the late 1970s, Bookie’s was a welcome oasis for rock musicians, as bands found it difficult to play clubs without agreeing to play a set list of songs.

“It’s like Pittsburgh producing so many professional quarterbacks,” says the former Steel City resident. “There’s a highly competitive environment in Detroit and an incredible culture of music appreciation that has made music a big part of its DNA.”

Another vital strand of metro Detroit’s music DNA is a disproportionately large number of small clubs that do a fine business on their own — but also serve as talent incubators and as steps up to the larger venues in the area. “Few other cities have 20 or 30 different places where you can go to play and hear live music like we do,” says Andy Patalan, a Saline-based music producer who has worked with many local acts. “And a lot of these places are cool.”

These locally renowned musical halls include the Magic Bag in Ferndale, the Crofoot Ballroom in Pontiac, and St. Andrew’s Hall, a LiveNation venue in downtown Detroit. Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and the Dave Matthews Band are fondly remembered for their long-ago gigs at the Blind Pig, a cozy, 400-seat room in Ann Arbor. And many local music connoisseurs reverently recall the night Jack and Meg White, aka the White Stripes, got their start playing the Garden Bowl inside the Majestic Theatre Center on Woodward Avenue in Detroit.

Jack White — the now-famous co-founder of both the White Stripes and the Raconteurs — also illustrates another fundamental advantage of Detroit as a mecca for live music: A plethora of local performers have gone on to fame and fortune. Jersey has its Springsteen.

Minneapolis has its Prince. The Jackson Five managed to make it out of the seedy, smoggy Chicago suburb of Gary, Ind. But ever since Motown picked up and moved to Los Angeles in 1972, southeast Michigan has birthed a steady stream of performers who have made it to the top, including Bob Seger, Mitch Ryder, Madonna, Eminem, and, more lately, White and Kid Rock.

Exemplary management of our showplaces is another factor that has helped Detroit develop and sustain the vigor of live entertainment here. Palace Sports & Entertainment, owned by Detroit Pistons majority owner Bill Davidson, bought Pine Knob in 1990 and quickly began transforming the place from a typical sleepy amphitheater into a perennial powerhouse.

First, to make Pine Knob a more inviting haven, Palace Sports immediately invested $10 million in upgrading the grounds, including the addition of a range of concession facilities. At the pace of $1 million to $2 million a year, the physical investments have continued. This year, for example, Palace Sports has opened a new barbecue concession near the entrance to the grounds. Also, in 2001, the company gained a powerful marketing partner for Pine Knob by selling the name to DTE Energy for a decade at $1 million per year.

But even more important was a massive shift in the overall business strategy for Pine Knob. The Nederlander family — a Detroit-born theater-industry powerhouse that owns and operates the Fisher Theatre inside the Fisher Building in Detroit’s New Center, as well as a piece of the New York Yankees — had operated Pine Knob “as a conventional, ‘go there because Aerosmith is playing’ kind of place,” as Wilson puts it, staging only about 20 shows a year. Wilson and his colleagues believed that they could generate vastly more business out of Pine Knob by better leveraging the site’s inherent advantages: an ideal size, with its 15,000-seat capacity, and an exurban location that’s just close enough to Detroit to be easily accessible to the masses.

“We decided to make it a respite from everything, and instead of just being a home for teenagers, we decided to bring [Tony] Bennett and many other types of people in here,” Wilson says. “What we go after isn’t necessarily 50 shows that everyone would want to see, but 15 that [baby boomers] would want to see, and 15 that their kids would want to see, and even 15 that the grandparents would want to see. We want to give everyone 10 or more opportunities to go out there every season.”

What’s more, operators like Palace Sports generate revenue from parking and concessions, meaning there’s more money on the table to lure musical acts. For venues that lack control of surrounding parking revenue or that don’t take in as much at concession stands because they might have to share the overall till with a publicly owned arena, offering more affordable ticket prices and packages can be a challenge.

So this summer, DTE’s shows include top-price headliners such as Jimmy Buffett, the Dave Matthews Band, Bon Jovi, and the Police, as well as country favorites such as Martina McBride and Trace Adkins, rock staples such as Motley Crüe and a “Mayhem Festival,” nostalgic favorites such as Peter Frampton and Rod Stewart, and a variety of other acts such as the Gipsy Kings and Anita Baker. DTE’s packed schedule is supplemented by about 40 shows a year at Meadow Brook, the boutique venue on the campus of Oakland University with a capacity of about 7,700, and by big indoor concerts at the Palace itself.

A number of second-tier venues in southeast Michigan have placed themselves in solid niches around the Palace properties. Freedom Hill, in Sterling Heights, for example, specializes in reasonably priced acts who are mainly echoes of yesteryear. This season’s schedule includes Al Green, and Huey Lewis & the News. A few miles away in Clinton Township, the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts, on the campus of Macomb Community College, stages a variety of live concerts and theatrical productions year-round.

In Detroit, the Fox and Fisher theaters, along with the Masonic Temple, specialize in Broadway and off-Broadway productions, family shows, and the occasional concert. Sesame Street Live’s run at the Fox each year is among the five top-grossing engagements in the United States, says Olympia’s Warg.

And there’s a whole lot of ticket packaging going on, especially at the low end of the price scale. An increasingly favored tactic by both LiveNation and the Palace properties has been to create “four-packs” of lawn seats that provide an overall discount of about 25 percent, including parking. “The No. 1 reason people go to concerts is to see the act,” says LiveNation’s Clark. “But the No. 2 reason is to hang out with friends and family. Four-packs make it easier to do that.”

As he has the last couple of years, Wilson will make an early-summer stock-taking of sales trends for each of the Palace’s shows, figure out what artists haven’t proved as popular as expected, and go back to the promoters proposing a deal. Warg also spent part of the spring meeting with artists’ agents and promoters, trying to increase their receptiveness to more affordable pricing.

“Sometimes artists aren’t as big as they think they are, and they’re stunned when we have a few thousand lawn seats left for their show — even though it may be happening all over the country,” Wilson says. “So we may propose cutting the price to $10, or even take something off pavilion seats. Then we have  a big blitz and let our market know that these, say, 30 shows are on sale at drastically reduced prices. It gets some people off the schneid. And suddenly you do an extra $1 million in business in a couple of days.”

Such exercises underscore one more powerful undercurrent working in the favor of Detroit-area venues and concertgoers, as well as those across the rest of the country: As royalties from recorded music continue to erode thanks to digital file-sharing of songs, the artists, more than ever, need fans who are willing to drive out to see them play.

As a result, more artists and their representatives are open to the idea of stringing together two or three performances over consecutive days, which venue managers say their customers like. And, for example, LiveNation client Robert Plant, the lead singer of Led Zeppelin, was planning to give away a CD to each fan who attended his recent performance at the Fox with Alison Krauss.

“The [artists] used to tour only because the record companies wanted to sponsor them,” Clark says. “Now, it’s just the opposite: Their bread and butter is now coming from live entertainment.”

And if they want their bread buttered thick, music artists know they can come to Detroit.

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