- Illustration by Chris Williams/ Plasticflame.com
It's hard to argue with 67,425 people. That's the estimated number of concertgoers Bud Light Downtown Live brought to Moore Square Park last summer over eight free shows between May and September. Indeed, as filling Moore Square goes, Downtown Live, the Triangle's only free concert series presenting national acts, has been a complete success during its first two years. A mid-season engagement with The Violent Femmes in 2005 pushed the limits of the park with 11,000 people, and a show by The Spin Doctors last July had a similar effect downtown. But is that enough?
Probably not. It's harder, after all, to argue with these numbers: Over the next 20 years, Wake County's population is expected to reach 1 million, reflecting a 70 percent increase since the 2000 census. Raleigh is in the middle of a $221 million construction project to build a new convention center, too, and it's only the anchor of a revitalized downtown area getting its fill of expensive restaurants, glitzy retail shops and the polished open face of a television studio. Like it or not, Raleigh's making an effort to be a city. But, as free entertainment for such a city goes, Downtown Live—the creation of Raleigh music management and merchandising firm Deep South Entertainment, its partners at the Raleigh Convention Center and Budweiser, and a dozen small sponsors such as the Independent Weekly—is a humble, woefully misguided start. And this year, it's getting worse, much worse.
Indeed, if the last two years for Downtown Live have been defined by '90s alt-rock has-beens and one-time radio climbers you forgot existed, this year's line-up is, somehow, a large step down. There's an (award-winning?) U2 cover band, Night Ranger and The Romantics.
"Three years ago, we had Budweiser saying 'We think we can get some money.' We never had that in the past. We said let's get some real bands down here so that people go 'Oh, I know that music. I remember that,'" says Doug Grissom, assistant to the director of the Raleigh Convention Center. His "we" is the Convention Center and Deep South.
Real bands that people remember, huh? Remember is key with Bud Light Downtown Live. Of the eight headlining acts, only one has made any Billboard chart this decade. That was Everclear in 2001. Neither The Romantics nor Night Ranger has charted since the Reagan administration.
Such booking has left Raleigh with a festival with as little character or innovation as its growing downtown. Sure, it would be fun to see Warrant play one song (that would be 1990's "Cherry Pie" and possibly "I Saw Red"), but they are headlining the final show of a summer-long series that one organizer hopes will "become one of the premier festivals of the Southeast." Sure, give it 10 years and an endorsement from the AARP may be possible, but Bud Light Downtown Live is going to have to work hard and find some big help to turn many heads outside of its shining new city.
But at least Deep South is booking more local talent for Downtown Live this year, right? It's a move that's becoming more common for local festivals in Raleigh: This year, Artsplosure cut many of its ties with the professional buskers it brought to Raleigh for the last three years because, as director Michael Lowder says, he received "five or six complaints" from among the tens of thousands of people that flock downtown for Artsplosure every year. Lowder says he diverted much of the money saved by not bringing in those expensive buskers to local musicians, and that's categorically a good thing.
All seven Downtown Live bills this year will be stocked by at least half local bands, a slight increase over the last two years, when several touring acts were stacked on each bill. The Backsliders—a mid-'90s Raleigh alt.country band that flirted with popular success before breaking up in 1999—are joining for the first time since 2003 to open for Night Ranger on July 28, and familiar Triangle names like The Never, Big City Reverie, Terry Anderson, Big Fat Gap and American Aquarium dot the rest of the schedule.
The problem with such localism, though, occurs when the "free exposure" of such an appearance replaces financial compensation. Though the headliner for one night can often collect up to $15,000 at night's end, the local bands playing Bud Light Downtown Live are getting paid only $100. Several admit that they're doing it just in hopes of finding a slightly different audience at Raleigh's biggest concert series. Amy Cox, a longtime Deep South employee who became the third full partner in the business earlier this year, has long been a strong champion of local music, and she is rightfully enthusiastic about some of her favorite locals—The Bleeding Hearts, Big City Reverie, A Rooster for the Masses—finally getting some mainstream hometown attention.
"We want to have exciting bands from the national level play, but the series is all about bringing music downtown and bringing people out to see music, period," says Cox. "With that whole mindset, we hope that we've been able to get acts to bring people downtown but also get those people in front of local acts who play downtown all the time."
That would be ideal, but, as Deep South co-founder Dave Rose admits, it's not that simple. Bigger names don't always insure bigger audiences, he says, especially when the entertainment is stretched over a hot, sunny, summer afternoon: "Last year, we did start out the day with some bigger names, and they didn't have as much of a draw as some local guys."
Without mentioning the $100 pay, the other partner Andy Martin adds that local entertainment is simply more cost-effective. "If we were to have the guy from The Verve Pipe at 3 or 4 in the afternoon or [Raleigh band, managed by Deep South] Brite Boy at 3 or 4 in the aftenoon, we'd still get 100 people, or 200 or 400 or whatever it was. If people know they're going at 7 p.m. because they're going to see Candlebox, they're not coming out at 2 in the afternoon, unless they're completely crazy."
Essentially, Martin is saying that the event needs to last all day: The longer the concert lasts (nine hours this year), the more beer Deep South, whose role is that of a giant bartender in Moore Square, sells and the more money they stand to make. And it's, of course, more expensive to throw an all-day event with bands traveling to the city than with bands that live in Raleigh or nearby. If this sounds like the underpaid exploitation of local talent to sell kegs and kegs of one of the biggest brands in the world, that's because it is.
That's important when funds are smaller than they've ever been, which is the case for Deep South this year. During the first two years of the concert series, sources say local Budweiser distributor Harris Wholesale secured between $125,000 and $150,000 for Deep South to produce the series. But Harris marketing executive Rachel Hamilton says the company has to reassess its promotional budget each year. This year, with new national management at Budweiser, the company wasn't convinced that throwing more than a quarter-million dollars over three years behind a concert series in a small Southern capital made sense. Last winter, Rose and Martin met with several of those representatives to convince them that it was worth it, that their company would benefit.
"They got the national people into meetings with us and had Dave and I and the city folks pitch them, to say, 'This is a real thing. This is why you should write a check,' says Martin. "And they were like, 'OK, we'll write a check.'"
But the check was for less. Anheuser-Busch offered only about 85 percent of what it offered in previous years for Downtown Live. Because Downtown Live is a free event not supported by the City of Raleigh (aside from manpower hours from Convention Center staffers), the overhead, talent and consequently the expectations had to come down. The number of shows was reduced to seven.
For Downtown Live, money works like this: Deep South uses Bud Light's sponsorship funds to build the talent pool, booking a summer of shows using most of the money Bud Light forks over. Money earned from beer sold during the event is used to pay for security, production and the costs such an event entails otherwise.
Financially, the series has little room for risk. The only certain financial backing for the series, remember, is promised to bands long before the first note is played on June 2. Rose says that if weather threatens the event or people simply dislike the bands playing and don't come downtown, Deep South is the entity that stands to lose.
"If people don't show up and don't drink beer, I'm writing a big fat check at the end of the season. It's a huge risk," says Rose, adding that one of the biggest problems with the series is that most people don't understand how a private company can present a free concert series on city property without being backed by taxpayer funds.
And, if anything, that's why Deep South and Bud Light Downtown Live stand to be commended. They've taken a risk for Raleigh, finding the right corporate sponsor and the right enthusiastic voices in city government (Doug Grissom at the Convention Center refers to Rose and Martin as "my guys") to make an actual city-sized effort in the middle of a changing downtown. After all, Mayor Charles Meeker says no other company in Raleigh was looking to throw an event like this in Raleigh, and it's certainly something the city wasn't pursuing by itself.
To make Downtown Live a success, the city will have to become more actively involved. After all, Deep South stands, at best, to make some money if the series works. But the City of Raleigh stands to look cool and fresh and innovative if the series does, in fact, "become one of the premier festivals of the Southeast." And, if you haven't looked downtown lately, this is a city government very concerned with its image.
"[Andy and Dave] are my experts. I'm not the expert on music and all, and I don't even want to go that path," says Grissom. "You can argue all day whether or not this is the right band or that is the right band, but they know better than I do. Whether it's right or not, I sort of have to go with it."
But does the assistant to the director to the Raleigh Convention Center just have to "go with it," especially when the city is the organization that ultimately has to give the green light on bad rock music in a public park sponsored by one of the biggest beer companies in the world? Sure, if it is indeed the city's goal to have a clean, bland downtown where not much ever happens except "Cherry Pie" and Bud Light. But, hey, it's your city.
This year's suds
All eight events for Bud Light Downtown Live start at 2 p.m. this year, with Mickey Mills & Steel opening with a reggae set at each show. Maybe give the local boys a tip, too, especially since the show's free and they're only getting paid $100. It will probably cost The Never that much to drive from Pittsboro.
JUNE 2: Everclear, Hobex, A Rooster for the Masses, Big City Reverie, The Never
JUNE 16: Unforgettable Fire (U2 Tribute), Weekend Excursion, American Aquarium, Runaway Cab, Sullivan
JUNE 30: Firehouse, Nine Days, Sold, Sam Fisher, Stone Fox
JULY 14: The Romantics, Will Hoge, Royal American, Bleeding Hearts, SNMNMNM
JULY 28: Night Ranger, Backsliders, Five Star Iris, Kepteclectic, Big Fat Gap
AUGUST 11: Soul Asylum, Yo Mama's Big Fat Booty Band, Terry Anderson/Olympic Ass Kickin' Team, Brite Boy, J Roddy
AUGUST 25: Warrant, Parmalee, Parklife, The Fifth, Boxbomb
FOLLOW-UP (June 13, 2007)
After the publication of this article, three local bands who had been promised $100 for their afternoon performances—The Never, A Rooster for the Masses and Big City Reverie—were paid $250. Event officials declined comment on this story or if it caused the rise in band pay, but Dave Rose of Downtown Live co-presenters Deep South Entertainment issued a statement "embrac[ing] the vibrant growth of Downtown Raleigh."
As a result of the article, Downtown Live organizers removed the Independent Weekly as a series co-sponsor, meaning the newspaper could not promote itself at the shows. This was to be the second year of the Independent Weekly's sponsorship of the series, now in its third year. —Grayson Currin