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Crowd Pleaser

Is Richmond preparing to become a big-ticket concert town again?



Across the country, corporate-sponsored arenas and mega-outdoor amphitheaters pop up seemingly overnight. Promoters like Clear Channel Entertainment pervade markets and buy the most popular music venues. So it's difficult to imagine how a venue such as the city-owned Richmond Coliseum can compete. How can Richmond attract headline concerts? How will it support them and keep them coming back?

"We haven't had a lot of concerts lately but now we're getting bookings," says Coliseum General Manager Larry Wilson. With a concert capacity of 13,000, the arena is Richmond's largest concert facility.

Booking popular performers usually means high profits. When country singer Faith Hill and her husband, Tim McGraw, crooned to a Coliseum audience in December 2000 it was a sellout. There hasn't been one since.

Wilson says the city's ready to change that. "We're back on the radar now," he says.

But becoming more than a blip on the national music radar may not be so simple.

City officials recently promised $7.1 million to renovate the 31-year-old Coliseum over three years. The money is a good start. It will cover reupholstered seats, restroom additions and renovations, a second grill for the concession area, upgraded flooring and lighting, renovation of the exhibition hall and lounge, club seating and luxury suites, repairs to sidewalks, a $900,000 scoreboard and a $350,000 sound system that should be installed next month.

Still, renovations mean little if concert tickets don't sell. Wilson expects it will take some time to build a popular roster of performers. But he sounds confident he can do it. Already he has tentative commitments for two premier concerts he won't name. He says getting them confirmed will prove to promoters that the Coliseum is back in business.

It wasn't long ago, he points out, that Elton John, Dixie Chicks, Shania Twain, Rod Stewart, Kiss and Reba McIntyre performed at the Richmond Coliseum. (That was 1998.)

There is another hurdle Wilson must clear: the past. He's been at the job eight months — long enough to learn the facility's ill-fated history.

Last November, condensation covered the basketball court during a televised Atlantic Coast Conference game. Players fell. The game was stopped. The folly made national headlines and embarrassed citizens and city officials. In 1985 Richmond City Council voted to ban The Grateful Dead after a concert produced as many twirling fans outside the Coliseum as there were indoors. The group never played Richmond again.

In the '90s, concert sales plummeted. City officials canceled a Marilyn Manson concert after protesters deemed the music satanic (the city backed down after the American Civil Liberties Union threatened a lawsuit, and the concert went on). And the city was stunned when a Richmond high-school student was murdered outside the arena after a show.

It's easy to see how audiences, performers, promoters and city officials invariably seem uneasy about Richmond's concert scene.

"There are some markets that seem to have just fallen off the [concert] map," says Widespread Panic publicist Paula Donner from her office in Atlanta. Richmond is one of these places, she notes. For a concert to be successful "everyone has to be involved, from press people to radio and TV stations to the entire city," she says. "You've got to create excitement and support."

Donner's client, Widespread Panic, has performed in Richmond at the Classic Amphitheatre. But the band no longer includes Richmond on tours. Instead, it performs at relatively nearby places such as the Virginia Beach Amphitheater (owned by Clear Channel Productions) and Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md. In these venues, excitement and support translate into more seats, more promotions, more ticket sales — and more money.

Washington, D.C., and Virginia Beach, places that trumpet gleaming facilities where sellout crowds can number 20,000 or more, are just 90 minutes away. Newer corporate-sponsored venues like the Nissan Pavilion, the MCI Center and the First Union Center are within an afternoon's drive.

Now, with summer touring months, people prefer concerts outdoors. Competition for stars and audiences is fiercer than ever. Meanwhile, Richmond suffers from its image as a concert-crippled city. It hasn't been able to compete. The city has only two large-scale facilities: the Classic Amphitheatre, which seats up to 10,000 and is part of the Richmond International Raceway Complex, and the Richmond Coliseum, which is run by SMG Corp., a management company based in Philadelphia. And while the Richmond market will never be as big as Washington, D.C., with more than a million people in its region, Richmond could compete with cities like Norfolk and Roanoke.

It's all about the facility, says Chip Hooper, an agent with Monterey Peninsula Artists, a booking agency that schedules tours for Phish, Bonnie Raitt, Lyle Lovett, Aerosmith, Cowboy Junkies, Bruce Hornsby and the Dave Matthews Band.

"We pick up venues that make the most sense," Hooper says. "What may be important to Aerosmith may not be important to Phish. What may be important to Dave Matthews Band may not be important to Bonnie Raitt." Performers have preferences and weigh in about where they want to play, he explains.

What's really important are numbers. Bands go where they're guaranteed a sellout audience. In Richmond there are no guarantees.

"If promoters lose $30,000 to $40,000 on a tour, like they have in Richmond, they won't come back," says the Coliseum's Wilson. That's been a problem. "Concerts that have sold out everywhere else haven't in Richmond," Wilson says. And when shows do sell out, the audience is about half of what Hooper can find elsewhere.

"I'm very familiar to the Richmond market," Hooper says. "We'd love to play [there]. We have a great feeling toward Richmond. But I haven't had any clients play at the Coliseum or the Classic Amphitheatre in a long time."

Wilson acknowledges this. "As long as there's a Virginia Beach Amphitheater, Dave Matthews will never play Richmond again," either at the Coliseum or the Classic Amphitheatre, he says. Interestingly, Dave Matthews Band arguably got its start in Richmond with Wednesday-night gigs at the Flood Zone.

It may take a while before concerts find their way back to the amphitheater. Ever since RIR took over its operation three years ago, the venue hasn't fretted about unscheduled weekends.

"We don't put on concerts — we rent the amphitheater out to people who do," says RIR's publicity and promotions director Leigh Eubank.

Still, it hosts events such as XL-102's Chili Cook Off that boasted an attendance of 20,000. And B-103's Earth Day celebration featured singer Sugar Ray and brought in 10,000 fans. Radio stations K-95 and Power 93 have events planned this summer, too.

Eubank says RIR may eventually seek to use the amphitheater for more large-scale performances like in the past. But for now, the most important music to come from the place is roaring stock cars and hollering NASCAR fans. "We make our money on three races a year," Eubank points out. "We're not financially dependent on concerts."

As for the Coliseum, Wilson says, there must be big concerts to survive. But so far, its calendar is wide open. Just one concert is scheduled: The rock band Incubus performs June 23.

A check online for schedules of coliseums in Hampton, Roanoke and Charlotte, N.C., reveals the same dearth of concerts. Fall shows must still be booked. And most summer concerts — big and small — are held outdoors, says Wilson.

There's hope for the Coliseum. Now armed with the $7.1 million promised by city officials, the dinosaur arena could be transformed into a concert mecca, and Richmond could finally win big-ticket cachet. It's Wilson's job to make it happen. He has 36 months.

Until then he plugs away. "I'm calling every day to reestablish relationships with promoters," he says. "It all goes back to ticket sales. When we do bring the [concerts] back they will have to do well."

I tell Wilson I remember when they did. I saw my first concert at the Coliseum. I was 14. It was Eric Clapton — "Behind the Sun." It was some crowd, some show. Concerts still make me feel connected. When everyone else sees you as old and you still feel young, you know what I mean. I don't mind that my Madonna T-shirt cost $150 at the show in Philadelphia or that I have to travel to New York again to see the rescheduled Billy Joel and Elton John tour. But it would be nice to spend that kind of money here at home. S