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the Big Empty

Memphis-area venues have over 137,299 seats. What are we going to do with them all?



Quick: If Aerosmith came to town, where would they play?

If you said The Pyramid, you're right. When the band comes to Memphis in September, that's where they'll be rocking.

In the next few years, though, that question might not be so easy to answer. Not only will the new downtown arena provide a home for the NBA Grizzlies, it will also serve as another concert and event facility. Larger touring acts like Aerosmith will probably want to play there, continuing Memphis' merry-go-round trend of trading one venue for another.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, concert-goers packed the Mid-South Coliseum to see their favorite bands. As time went by, many concerts left the Coliseum for the greener grass of the Mud Island Amphitheater. A few years later, it was The Pyramid, and then the glittering stages of the Tunica casinos.

In sports the phenomenon is the same. The Liberty Bowl took over where Crump Stadium left off. The Redbirds left Tim McCarver Stadium for AutoZone Park. And RiverKings hockey deserted the Coliseum for the DeSoto County Civic Center.

While the Coliseum seems the hardest hit, many of Memphis' venues are dark for much of the year. While sports teams come and go, two national trends have made the chances of getting a particular concert slimmer than before. Event promoters nationwide have consolidated into a few key companies, meaning less competition between shows. Along with that, tours have gotten shorter. An artist who at one time might have played 100 tour dates will now do about 30 or 40. And unfortunately, Memphis isn't always a city they have to play.

"Memphis is on the cusp of whether or not it will be included in those 30 or 40 shows," says Alan Freeman, general manager of The Pyramid.

Memphis does have an advantage because of its location -- it's on the way to and from other, larger cities -- and its rich music history. Even so, this summer Memphis' concert calendar looks weak. With the exception of a few shows -- Aerosmith and 3 Doors Down among them -- there's not much going on.

Though the city may lack for concerts, it doesn't lack for concert venues. Larger "name" acts can play The Pyramid, the Coliseum, or Mud Island, while smaller acts can take the stage at The Orpheum or the Bartlett and Germantown performing arts centers. When Lyle Lovett rides into town in August, he'll be performing as part of the Memphis Botanic Garden's new summer concert series. Memphis' most popular music event, the Beale Street Music Fest, is at Tom Lee Park every year. Last month's Christian music One Festival was at Shelby Farms. And bars all around town highlight bands still trying to make a name for themselves.

And then there is what Charlie Ryan, the general manager for Ticketmaster in the Mid-South, calls the single most important factor in Memphis' concert market: Tunica.

According to Susan Hart, the entertainment manager for Sam's Town Tunica, the casino hosts about 70 concerts a year. Just in the last couple of months, Wynonna, the Wallflowers, and Jerry Lee Lewis have all performed there. In comparison, The Pyramid does about 12 to 20 concerts a year.

"Tunica completely changed the dynamics of this market," says Ryan. "What happened in Las Vegas is happening here."

So do we have too many venues?

Jerry Schilling, president and CEO of the Memphis Shelby County Music Commission, says no.

"I don't think so. I was actually concerned we were going to eliminate one or two with the no-compete clause."

During early negotiations about the proposed downtown arena, a no-compete clause said large acts couldn't play at another venue the same night as a Grizzlies game. That clause was eliminated, although the NBA arena retained first right of refusal for touring acts.

"More than likely," Schilling says, "acts will probably want to go to the new arena anyway."

Some even say Memphis doesn't have enough venues.

Chris Taylor, operations manager of KISS FM, laments Memphis' lack of a true "shed," an outdoor venue with a 5,000-seat pavilion and a 5,000- to 10,000-seat lawn area. Sheds snag most of the summer concert traffic, especially festivals like the H.O.R.D.E. Tour or Lilith Fair.

"In a roundabout way," Taylor says, "that's what the Memphis Botanic Garden is doing with their newest thing."

Schilling also applauds the Botanic Garden for hosting events such as Bluestock and the Isaac Hayes show earlier this month.

"We needed a venue in East Memphis that could do 5,000 to 7,000 people," says Schilling. "The first one sold out. That shows it's not about how many buildings you have. You've got to get the right acts playing at the right venue."

But while having a facility in every corner of the city is good for consumers, it might not be great for the venues.

"The public can never have too many venues," says Benny Lendermon, president of the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC). "But if you're looking at economic success, absolutely, you can have too many venues."

The RDC assumes management responsibility for Mud Island on July 1st. "Because of competition, [the amphitheater] is either too big or too small," Lendermon says.

Built over 20 years ago, the amphitheater seats about 5,000 and has long been a favorite concert site for many Memphians. Unfortunately, there just are not many shows there anymore. In its heyday, the Mud Island Amphitheater hosted about 35 significant events a year. Last year, it might have seen seven or eight.

"Mud Island found a niche a number of years ago in up-and-coming acts and oldie groups. When Tunica came around, it really hurt that opportunity," says Lendermon.

The amphitheater, which isn't compatible with some newer sound and lighting equipment, just couldn't compete with the newer casino theaters.

And for many Memphis venues, it may be just a matter of time before something similar happens.

KISS FM's annual Tango show used to be held at the Mid-South Coliseum. But this year the event was held at the DeSoto County Civic Center. Taylor says that the move came for a number of reasons.

"The backstage was perfect for our needs. It's difficult to do a show with multiple bands. You need dressing rooms for all of them," says Taylor.

"Some venues are not equipped for that. The Civic Center was," he adds.

The station also wanted to have a special VIP area, something the Coliseum just doesn't have the space for.

The Coliseum, which had a budget surplus only a few years ago, now operates at a loss. The question arises: Will the same thing happen to The Pyramid?

"We'll probably be able to keep some events," Freeman says. "Some events will probably move permanently." He cites the Harlem Globetrotters game as one annual event that will probably make the switch.

Freeman, whose company also manages the Coliseum, estimates that the facility is probably in use 100 days a year; The Pyramid is in use about 80 or 90.

"If you're looking at date availability, you could easily put everything in one venue," says Freeman. It wouldn't be a sell-out crowd every time, and it wouldn't be a perfect fit for every event, he says, but it could be done.

Memphis Venues

Compiled by Mary Cashiola, Chris Przybyszewski, and Hannah Walton

AutoZone Park

Age: Babe in the woods

Seating: 14,000

Main Event: Redbirds games

The Usual Spectators: Young urbanites looking for a place to start their evenings,

families looking for a place to end theirs

High Point: Opened to sell-out crowds and a dream season for the 'Birds

Low Point: None so far

Cost to Build: Including land and engineering, $80 million

In the Crystal Ball: If the park is kept up and service and entertainment levels

stay high, should remain the jewel of downtown

Bartlett Performing Arts Center

Age: Toddler

Seating: 350

Main Event: A September to June season of B- and C-list acts

The Usual Spectators: Suburbanites

High Point: Art Garfunkel, Judy Collins

Low Point: Nothing obvious

Cost to Build: $3.1 million

In the Crystal Ball: May have a difficult time competing with both GPAC

and the new Cannon Center for the Performing Arts

Cannon Center for the Performing Arts

(Cook Convention Center)

Age: Still in the womb; due date is August 2002

Seating: Just over 2,000

Main Event: Will be home to the Memphis Symphony Orchestra

The Usual Spectators: Society crowd, convention-goers

High Point: Remains to be seen

Low Point: Already a year behind schedule; both county and city, as well as

contractors, expected to bring lawsuits over the delays

Cost to Build: About $79 million for the entire expansion project

In the Crystal Ball: Poised to steal some of the Orpheum's thunder

Crump Stadium

Age: Old-timer

Seating: 10,000

Main Events: High school football games

The Usual Spectators: High school

parents, students

High Point: Was once the site of legendary football games between Memphis State, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State

Low Point: No college ball in 40 years

Cost to Build: $35,000

In the Crystal Ball: Historic status or wrecking ball?

DeSoto County Civic Center

Age: Baby

Seating: 8,000-10,000

Main Event: RiverKings Hockey

The Usual Spectators: Memphians willing to make the drive for minor-league hockey

High Point: 2001 CHL playoffs

Low Point: Houn'Dawgs or Explorers games with 100 fans or less

In the Crystal Ball: Attendance at hockey games is already lagging. The Houn'Dawgs only lasted one season before league was disbanded. Look for a steady stream of conventions, private events, and high school proms.

Germantown Performing Arts Centre

Age: Just a kid

Seating: 824

Main Event: IRIS, as well as Broadway, dance, and family series

The Usual Spectators: East Memphians looking for a little class, families looking for a little culture

High Point: Last year IRIS season sold out

Low Point: In 1996, allegations of mismanagement and sexual harassment rocked the venue.

Cost to Build: $4.35 million

In the Crystal Ball: GPAC lures a variety of top-notch acts; should continue to be able to fill the house.

Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium

Age: Getting up there

Seating: 62,380

Main Events: U of M football, The Liberty Bowl, Southern Heritage Classic

The Usual Spectators: Football fans

High Point: Probably the U of M's victory over UT in 1996

Low Point: Short-lived CFL Mad Dogs experiment

Cost to Build: $3.7 million

In the Crystal Ball: Still no sign of the NFL

Mid-South Coliseum

Age: Approaching mid-life crisis

Seating: 11,555

Main Events: Occasional events such as last month's "Clash of the Legends" wrestling match or April's Al Chymia Shrine Circus but more often home to mundane matters such as jury selection

The Usual Spectators: Varies by event

High Points: 1980s U of M basketball games; 1960s Beatles concert

Low Point: Lost the RiverKings to the DeSoto County Civic Center in 1999; appears to be in free-fall

Cost to Build: $4.9 million

In the Crystal Ball: Without reliable long-term tenant, outlook is bleak, despite "Historic Building" designation.

Mud Island Amphitheater

Age: Going to keggers and taking mid-terms

Seating: 5,064

Main Events: Once home to thriving summer concert series, now occasionally hosting the likes of Laff Yo Azz Off and the All-Access Hip Hop Tour with Da Brat

The Usual Spectators: Hip, young urbanites

High Point: Jimmy Buffet concerts

Low Point: Now

Cost to Build: Part of $63 million Mud Island Park project

In the Crystal Ball: The RDC says it's going to change marketing tactics next year. If new strategy works, great. If not, name could be mud.

The Orpheum

Age: Active senior

Seating: 2,500

Main Events: Ballet Memphis, Opera Memphis, traveling Broadway shows

The Usual Spectators: Culture Club

High Point: Many, including Cats, Phantom of the Opera, and appearances by Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Burt Reynolds, former President Carter, and Gladys Knight, to name a few

Low Point: Sally Struthers starring in Grease

In the Crystal Ball: Stands to lose two of its major tenants -- Ballet Memphis and Opera Memphis -- once the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts opens

The Pyramid

Age: Teenybopper

Seating: 22,000

Main Events: Wonders Exhibit, U of M basketball, big-time concerts

The Usual Spectators: Tiger basketball fans; those who don't mind shelling out the bucks to see Elton John and Billy Joel

High Point: Probably this year, with high U of M attendance, Billy Joel et al.

Low Point: Sidney Schlenker

Cost to Build: Over $60 million

In the Crystal Ball: New arena will be a tough competitor for concerts, especially if sightlines and acoustics are better.

Tim McCarver Stadium

Age: Old and in the way

Main Events: None

The Usual Spectators: None

High Point: Bo Jackson and Michael Jordan roaming the outfield

Low Point: Now

In the Crystal Ball: Ashes to ashes and dust to dust

USA Baseball Stadium in Millington

Age: Learning to drive

Seating: 5,000

Main Events: High school baseball

The Usual Spectators: Parents, college scouts

High Point: Training field for U.S. Olympic baseball teams in 1988, 1992, and 1996

Low Point: Lost the Olympic gig after 1996

In the Crystal Ball: Field is nicer than many minor-league parks; unfortunately Memphis just built nicest minor-league park in America

Tunica -- The Wild Card

In November, the Isle of Capri opened a $14 million, 1,500-seat, two-theater entertainment center for Vegas-type shows. Gold Strike, Hollywood Casino, Horseshoe, and Sam's Town all have built similar state-of-the-art venues.

The casinos host acts almost every night, many of the caliber that used to come to Mud Island Amphitheater. Entertainment runs the gamut: from Willie Nelson to Carrot Top to the Go-Gos. The future: Looks bright.

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