Rumors of live music’s death in central Arkansas have been greatly exaggerated.
According to executive management, Verizon Arena will close 2018 having hosted 20 concerts, the “magic number” in the words of Michael Marion, longtime general manager. And while that’s down from 2017’s mammoth 27 shows, Marion isn’t alarmed.
“Last year was an abnormal year,” he said. “And next year is looking, right now, stronger [than 2016]. If we get over 20, then we’re doing good.”
Number of performances is one thing; the quality of those acts is very often another. Here again, Verizon Arena stands out among smaller markets. This year alone has seen the likes of Janet Jackson, Green Day, Chris Stapleton, Bruno Mars, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jason Aldean and the late Tom Petty. Faith Hill and Tim McGraw were also slated to play, but canceled at the last minute due to health issues.
Marion said careful artist research and a thorough understanding of the market are the most important elements of the North Little Rock arena’s success.
“Sometimes agents will tell you they sold out in two days at the Hollywood Bowl. Well, who cares?” Marion said. “Three days at Madison Square Garden. Great. Congratulations. How hard is that? I’m a lot more worried about Greenville, South Carolina and Norfolk, Virginia than I am the big cities.”
“Competitively, I consider our neighborhood Wichita, Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Memphis, Jackson, Nashville. That’s kind of our neighborhood. Nashville, being the city it is, gets almost everything. Tulsa, being next to Oklahoma City, gets a lot of stuff. Then I think when agents and managers are looking at where to go to next, because of our performance over the years and the fact that we take good care of them, we’ve risen to that second tier of good secondary markets.”
Marion said this year’s announcement that Riverfest was coming to an end is likely to have little, if any, impact either way on the arena’s fortunes.
“Festivals and the arena world are kind of apples and oranges,” he said. “What’s happened in the festival world over the last seven to eight years is, they have just popped up everywhere. So now you have all these festivals trying to get the same talent, so guess what happens? The price of the talent goes up and they price out a lot of the smaller festivals like Riverfest.
“It’s sad that [Riverfest] closed; we enjoyed working with them all those years. But the festival business has just gotten tough.”
Still, at least one new player is convinced the multi-artist event still has a place in central Arkansas. The Fulcrum Festival, slated for its inaugural one-day event in March, is expected to begin announcing headliner artists next month.
According to promoter and longtime touring musician Cliff Aaron, the event will succeed due to its laser focus on its audience.
“My team around me is full of extremely shrewd business people and touring musicians themselves,” he said. “We’re all well-versed in not only business but at the same time how to run productions… how to produce it correctly and what brings in your target audience.”
The Fulcrum has already caused a sensation by allowing potential concertgoers to pick a headliner through an online poll, a list of acts including The Roots, Migos and Paramore among others. The same give-em-what-they-want philosophy extends to vendors and attractions.
“We’re selling even more than a concert; we’re selling the experience. That’s the thing that Riverfest never did,” Aaron said. “We’re selling a full-on experience with the half pipe with the skaters and bikers coming to do all kinds of exhibition tricks. We’ll have tattoo artists, piercing artists, even a barbershop on location. We’re definitely targeting that kind of audience.
“We’re even turning down cotton candy vendors; we don’t want it to look anything like you can bring your little 5-year-old kid out there.”
Photo courtesy of Verizon Arena