The Mountain Eagle
Whitesburg KY
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Concert amphitheaters face wrecking ball


It doesn’t take a second for David Kells to recall the first concert he ever saw: Aerosmith with Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Starwood Amphitheater, 1990.

Over the next 16 years, few summers passed without Kells catching at least one show from the grassy slope at Starwood. Not this year, though. The 22-year-old Nashville amphitheater was sold for $4.2 million to a developer who plans to level it and build homes where Kells and his buddies once partied under the stars.

Amphitheaters in at least four other markets – Columbus, Ohio; Sacramento, Calif.; Indianapolis; and San Antonio – are up for sale and at risk of closing.

People who monitor the con- cert industry say the outdoor venues, known as “sheds” in the business, aren’t as financially feasible as they once were. Arenas can bring in more revenue with tiered ticket pricing, and the land where many amphitheaters were built 20 years ago has become prime residential property with enticing real-estate values.

“It’s similar to what happened with drive-in movie theaters. You couldn’t justify using that much land for that purpose,” remarked Gary Bongiovanni, editor-inchief of the concert industry publication Pollstar.

When it opened in 1985, Starwood was considered a prototype. Owned by PACE Concerts, it seated about 17,000 and had a covered pavilion with reserved seating and a large grassy area for general admission. It cost far less to build and operate than a covered sports arena.

The sheds became a summer favorite for concertgoers who pile in each year for acts like Jimmy Buffett and the Dave Matthews Band.

Bongiovanni said the concert industry shifted in the mid-’90s when top touring groups like the Rolling Stones began using tiered ticket pricing, allowing them to charge higher rates for better seats. Amphitheaters, with most of their seating in open-air general admission, had a harder time competing. Weather, too, is always an issue, limiting use and stifling attendance when conditions are poor.

Still, the outdoor venues remain a staple of the summer touring season. Gwen Stefani, Rascal Flatts, Kenny Chesney, John Mayer and Ozzy Osbourne’s Ozzfest are some of the major tours playing them this year. In many cities, they routinely sell out.

The decision on where an act performs depends less on tiered ticketing than on what venues are available at the time, the demographics of the artists’ fan base (younger fans are more likely to buy general-admission lawn seating) and even the configuration of the stage, said John Huie, vice president of Creative Artists Agency in Nashville.

“It comes down to the artist and the timing,” observed Huie, whose agency sets tour schedules for the Dixie Chicks, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Keith Urban, Alan Jackson, ZZ Top and many others.

Huie hates to see amphitheaters close.

“It’s a part of our culture, part of our history. I’m sad to see it go,” Huie said.

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