GRAND RAPIDS — The Verve Pipe had billed its show at 20 Monroe Live, the long-awaited new Grand Rapids concert hall, as a 20th birthday party for the West Michigan rock band’s platinum-selling “Villains” album.
The plan was to hit the stage and play the record front-to-back before addressing the audience. But after performing two songs on a Friday night in February, frontman Brian Vander Ark couldn’t help himself.
“Dammit, look at you! You’re beautiful,” he told the crowd of more than 1,500 spirited fans.
It’s also possible Vander Ark was referring to the room itself. Since opening to the public Feb. 1, the venue quickly has established itself as a top-shelf music destination in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids. What’s still unclear, once its novelty subsides, is how 20 Monroe Live will affect West Michigan’s concert market over the long term.
“I think we’re already seeing the effect,” said Josh Newman, promoter and talent buyer at the venue for Live Nation, the concert industry giant that operates 20 Monroe Live through its House of Blues Entertainment division. “We’re seeing a higher caliber of act coming through on a more frequent basis, thus giving the public even more choices than they already have in Grand Rapids, so they don’t have to travel to Chicago and Detroit.”
The venue is part of a long-in-the-making expansion of The B.O.B., Greg Gilmore’s entertainment complex that opened in 1996 across West Fulton Street from Van Andel Arena. The $16 million 20 Monroe Live venue has a capacity of 2,580 and is positioned to fill a vacancy in the city’s cultural landscape as a medium-sized venue that can draw bigger artists who might otherwise skip over Grand Rapids between the Motor City and the Windy City when touring the Midwest.
In size and function, 20 Monroe Live is comparable to Live Nation’s Fillmore Detroit theater, which holds nearly 2,900. Newman said the new venue will be a logical step between clubs like the Intersection (about 1,500 capacity) and the Orbit Room (1,700) and arenas like the DeltaPlex (6,200) and Van Andel (11,000).
“It’s a big jump from building to building, and if you can make that jump not so big, it’s in everybody’s interest,” said Newman, formerly a promoter with the Intersection who now works out of Live Nation’s Detroit office.
20 Monroe Live, which likely will host about 150 shows per year, joins an already robust concert market locally. The Intersection, which relocated downtown in 2003 after decades in Eastown, last year hosted more than 250 shows between its main stage and smaller front-room companion venue, the Stache. The 6-year-old Pyramid Scheme holds 420 people and typically books three to six shows per week. Additionally, the taproom at Founders Brewing Co. usually has two shows every week, often with local talent, but sometimes national acts.
Outlying venues such as the Orbit Room and the DeltaPlex regularly book shows, but less frequently. DeVos Performance Hall, which seats 2,400, hosts occasional concerts by popular touring acts (Beck in 2014, Puscifer last year), but its calendar is dominated by the city’s symphony, opera and ballet, as well as Broadway Grand Rapids shows.
Calvin College’s Student Activities Office brings big indie-rock and pop acts to stages around its campus, both individually and as part of its biennial Festival of Faith and Music. Frederik Meijer Gardens’ popular outdoor summer concert series attracts top talent to its 1,900-capacity amphitheater. Kalamazoo’s historic State Theatre, capacity 1,524, has intensified its booking efforts and averages 55 shows during the September-May season, more than double what it offered just a few years ago.
About three-quarters of the artists in 20 Monroe Live’s eclectic early lineup wouldn’t have an appropriate stage in Grand Rapids if the new venue didn’t exist, Newman said. Several, however, have played different local venues previously.
The Verve Pipe — along with fellow West Michigan veterans Pop Evil — have made regular appearances at the Intersection, as have national acts such as Jimmy Eat World, Dan + Shay and Dropkick Murphy’s. Clutch has been an Orbit Room mainstay. The first two touring acts to perform at 20 Monroe Live, Trombone Shorty and Umphrey’s McGee, both played sold-out Meijer Gardens shows in 2015.
Despite the possibility of some tighter competition for acts, managers at nearby music venues generally struck an optimistic tone about the role 20 Monroe Live could play in the community.
“I think it adds a nice new arrow in the quiver of the entertainment landscape,” said Chris Mautz, who has booked the summer concert series at Meijer Gardens for more than a decade. (Mautz is based in Salt Lake City, where he also promotes shows for the Red Butte Garden and Arboretum.)
Music sales now represent a smaller part of most artists’ income than touring, so there are more acts on the road for venues to pick from, Mautz said. And since each venue offers fans a unique experience, the more the merrier.
“I’m sure a lot of people who went to see Trombone Shorty at the Gardens probably checked him out at 20 Monroe Live,” he said. “If Trombone Shorty came back around and decided to play the Gardens again, I’m sure the same thing would happen.
“There certainly will be nights this summer when there’s a show going on at the Gardens and a show going on at the Intersection or a show going on at 20 Monroe Live or a show at the Pops series at Cannonsburg. To me, it’s just a reflection of the dynamic growth the community has experienced. The ability for multiple things to be supported on a nightly basis, I think is pretty exciting.”
Nicole LaRae, booking and venue manager at the Pyramid Scheme, said 20 Monroe would be a welcome addition to the city’s music landscape.
“I’m all for more music venues in GR,” she said. “There was definitely a need for a venue the size of 20 Monroe Live. I imagine the types of shows they will host will be like having a Meijer Gardens series year round, which is rad.”
COMPETING FOR ACTS
Scott Hammontree, talent buyer for the Intersection, Stache and DeltaPlex, was more hesitant in his optimism. The Intersection holds about 1,500 and likely has the most potential for overlap with the new venue.
“Some of the shows that have been booked there are shows I would otherwise book,” Hammontree said. “The number isn’t big, but there are shows booked in that room that in my opinion should be playing a smaller capacity room.”
Based on recent ticket sales numbers at the Intersection and Van Andel Arena, Hammontree said the market probably is strong enough to sustain a new venue of 20 Monroe Live’s size. The same night of the Verve Pipe show, the Intersection was packed to the gills for the annual WYCE Jammie local music awards.
The extent to which the two venues will directly compete “would all depend on the shows that ultimately are playing there on a regular basis,” he said.
“If the right artists play the ‘right rooms’ in regards to capacity, I think both venues will work just fine,” Hammontree said. “Our customers here at the Intersection tend to be younger and like the feel of a standing (general admission) room. Our drink prices are reasonable and the shows we offer are from a pretty wide spectrum.”
Hammontree also told MiBiz exclusively that two new venues will open in the lower level of the Intersection’s building by early 2018. One will have a capacity of 250 and will host private and VIP events and smaller ticketed shows. The larger of the two will hold 850, and focus on ticketed shows, including acts that sell out the 400-capacity Stache, but aren’t big enough for the main room.
“There is a void in the market for rooms this size and we are looking forward to growing artists in the various rooms we will soon have,” Hammontree said.
The concert industry functions as an ecosystem as well as a directly competitive market, relying on a web of relationships between venues, promoters, booking agents and artists. Venues frequently work with outside promoters; Live Nation already books between 60 and 70 shows per year in West Michigan between the Orbit Room, Van Andel Arena, Kalamazoo State Theatre and DeVos Performance Hall. About 20 percent of the Intersection’s shows are Live Nation productions.
Newman said he didn’t expect existing relationships to change much in response to 20 Monroe Live.
“I think it can be an enhancement to partnerships that already exist,” he said. “Certain promoters do things really well. I think it can enhance the market more than it could hurt. It’s an interesting business, because we’re not just selling a half-gallon of milk. We’re selling a unique product every time we book a show, with a whole unique set of circumstances to market and produce it.”
Hammontree said the Intersection and Live Nation have co-promoted shows for more than 15 years and described it as “a great partnership.”
“If the room is booked to reflect the capacity and the shows for the most part are not things we would normally book at the Intersection, then I would expect that relationship to continue,” he said. “If we have to make changes in the future, we’ll adjust as we see fit.”
BUILDING THE LOCAL SCENE
Shannon DeVries, talent and production manager at the State Theatre, said she expects to continue working with Live Nation and other promoters throughout the Midwest. She echoed the idea that a new venue is a step in the right direction for West Michigan’s concert market.
“In general, I’m excited more shows make the stop in Kalamazoo or Grand Rapids than they did when I was growing up in this area,” she told MiBiz. “I think it takes a village of promoters and venues to build a strong music scene in West Michigan.”
The State Theatre draws concertgoers from Grand Rapids and farther north, DeVries said. It is understood regionally that a tour of medium-sized venues can include consecutive dates in Grand Rapids and Detroit, but that Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo are too close for artists to play both cities.
Still, she said it would be counterproductive to view a new player like 20 Monroe Live as a competitor.
“As a business model, it’s not helpful for venues to try and outbid each other. That only raises the cost passed on to fans,” she said. “It’s more important, I’d say, for venues to receive the acts that make sense for their venue and calendar availability. There are enough tours coming through the Midwest for all of us.”