It is sort of the Goldilocks version of concert venues. It’s not too big, not too small. It’s just right.
The year-old PNC Pavilion at Riverbend has proven to be just the right mix for the Cincinnati concert porridge.
The 4,100-seat amphitheater opened last spring, immediately filling a void in the Greater Cincinnati concert scene. Outside of the 4,500seat Fraze Pavilion in Kettering, the region did not have a mid-size venue to fit between the clubs and theaters and U.S. Bank Arena. The market likely has missed out on numerous tours from bands too big for the clubs but perhaps not big enough to draw arena-size crowds. That has changed.
This year’s exhibit no. 1 was Kings of Leon, which played a sold out PNC Pavilion show May 12. It is an act that likely would have not played here if not for a medium-size venue.
Promoters say Boomer faves Jackson Browne and Crosby, Stills and Nash, booked for July, also would not be playing here if not for the pavilion.
“Absolutely not,” says Mike Smith, Riverbend general manager. “You have artists — like Kings of Leon — that will grow into the big venues. And you got artists like Jackson Browne in a point in their careers that they want to play the smaller venues. With PNC you have an intimate venue that is still large enough to attract those artists.”
The pavilion was indeed designed with intimacy in mind. A steep rake puts even the furthest seats at eye-level and close to the artists, and there are acoustic-friendly design touches so the music doesn’t ricochet around as it does in the big shed. It actually feels more like a theater than an outdoor venue.
“We’ve had nothing but positive consumer comments about the venue and the concert experience here,” Smith says. “Many say they like the lack of congestion compared to a Riverbend show.”
Smith has settled in to a formula where he can book the mega concerts at 20,0000-seat Riverbend (officially the J. Ralph Corbett Pavilion). They are the acts that people seemingly never tire of seeing such as Aerosmith, Jimmy Buffett, Chicago and Dave Matthews, along with the country superstars like Toby Keith, Rascal Flatts and George Straight.
He can get a little more experimental at the PNC Pavilion. For example, booked this summer are such acts as The Fray, niche heavy metal shows, O.A.R.
for the jam band crowd and one for the alt-folk fans: the Three Girls and Their Buddy Tour (Emylou Harris, Patty Griffin, Shawn Colvin and Buddy Miller).
“I think the schedule this year is extremely eclectic and diverse,” Smith says. “It’s all over the musical genres.”
Originally called National City Pavilion (until PNC bought the troubled bank), the facility was built for $6.8 million. That is not a lot of money for a concert venue.
Savings came because the existing Riverbend facilities — parking, restrooms, concessions — could be used for the pavilion. Smith said building a smaller venue from scratch these days would not have made economic sense.
It has also put Cincinnati on the map for promoters and booking agents by offering them options. Riverbend is the only outdoor complex in the country with two distinct stages.
This season there will likely be slightly more than the 40 shows the two stages hosted last summer. Attendance last year was around 326,000 for both facilities, which, according to Smith, would rank the complex 11th in attendance for the nation’s outdoor venues.
That’s good news for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, which owns Riverbend. It has made up to $1.5 million a summer in profits from contemporary music shows, which are booked by Live Nation.
Riverbend rejuvenated the area concert scene when it opened 25 years ago. In 1984 the Cincinnati touring market was hurting. Bands stayed away in droves as part of the hangover from the 1979 Who concert tragedy.
The CSO built Riverbend as a summer home for its orchestras and didn’t envision that the pop and rock concert business would be so lucrative. At the time there were only 16 outdoor amphitheaters in the country and Riverbend was well positioned to take advantage of the blossoming outdoor touring business. Cincinnati started getting shows again.
Similarly, PNC Pavilion is well positioned to take advantage of the current decentralized concert scene that reflects the niche-driven music world brought on by the digital delivery revolution. Observers will tell you the heart and soul of the music scene is now in the clubs, with a few successful bands able to move to the mid-size arenas. There are fewer new artists capable of touring at the 15,000-20,000-seat level. (Just look at the sameness of the acts playing the outdoor amphitheaters every summer.) The heart of the touring business has been moving to the mid-size venues.
Even the PNC Pavilion can’t overcome the fact that a lot of tasty bands simply won’t be coming here. There is a perception — with some truth to it — that the really cool shows don’t play Cincinnati. For example, some acts out touring that will likely not play here in the near future include Green Day, No Doubt, Phish and Eric Clapton.
Smith, who has been running Riverbend for almost 20 years, says to local boosters: Don’t take it personally. This is simply not a top-25 market.
“It has everything to do with size of market more than anything else. Is U2 going to play Cincinnati? Probably not. It’s not because they have anything against Cincinnati. It’s because they are in demand in larger markets for the dates. You play the biggest markets where you have the biggest chance of making the biggest amount of money with people willing to pay the largest ticket price. Second tier markets like us are going to be a second leg, if there is one.”
Greater Cincinnati is ranked somewhere between 31 and 34 in market size, depending how the area is measured.
But, judging by last year’s attendance at Riverbend, concertgoers in these parts do turn out for their music, whether it’s the corporate rock and country acts or the up-and-coming buzz bands. And Smith is finding there is little evidence of an economic downturn at his facility.
“Ticket sales came roaring out of the box,” he says. “Music is an emotional discretionary spending choice. We are seeing people will still make a purchase if it’s their favorite band.”
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