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With So Many Free Shows, Why Buy Tickets?
A dozen years back, Bruce Springsteen entertained concert audiences with a song whose message was “sell it and they will come.”
It doesn’t necessarily work that way in the world of live music, however. Free is becoming a major force in the marketplace — especially this year in metro Detroit.
A steady lineup of aggressively booked festivals — including some high-profile new arrivals such as Detroit International River Days, running now through Wednesday on the Detroit riverfront, and downtown Mount Clemens’ Stars & Stripes — is bringing more free music to the metro area than ever before.
They’ve joined a potent schedule that’s been dominated by entrenched events such as the Downtown Hoedown country weekend, the Detroit Festival of the Arts, the Concert of Colors and the Labor Day weekend trio of Pontiac’s Arts, Beats & Eats, the Detroit International Jazz Festival and the Hamtramck Labor Day Festival. Recent upstarts include the Friday night Rockin’ the Riverfront series at the GM Renaissance Center and Campus Martius Park’s daily lunchtime, weekly Wednesday and monthly 4th Friday shows.
And while you won’t see hot-sellers such as the Police or Toby Keith on those bills, they are giving fans the chance to hear credible headliners such as Grand Funk Railroad, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Paul Rodgers, Puddle of Mudd, Cheap Trick and many others — all of whom have played in the past for ticket sales at venues such as DTE Energy Music Theatre and Meadow Brook Music Festival — for nothing and spend their money instead on gasoline, parking, food and drink and, perhaps, baby-sitting.
It’s created a new kind of competition for Detroit’s summer venues, which find themselves battling for both patrons and acts in a much busier entertainment landscape and its wealth of free shows. In other words, it raises the question of, why pay when you can get it for free?
“It’s an upheaval,” says Michael Rand, a booking agent at Paradise Artists Motor City in Ann Arbor, who works with Yankovic and Rodgers, among others.
“The fairs and festivals are great in that they maintain the value of the big acts. The public get in for free. The artist gets paid well. Everyone benefits.”
Surprisingly, Detroit’s amphitheater operators, who seem the most likely to lose in this free show equation, say they wind up winners, too.
“I don’t think those (free) events have impacted our lineup at all,” contends Marilyn Hauser, executive vice president of booking and marketing for Palace Sports & Entertainment, which operates DTE and Meadow Brook. “We tend to bring some of the softer-selling shows in and out of the lineup every year. We kind of rotate them, so it’s always a fresh look at the summer.”
Hauser said she believes it’s working for PS&E this summer. While the overall event count is down — 88 shows are booked (so far) for DTE and Meadow Brook, compared to the combined 120 shows in 2006 — attendance has been strong. DTE has drawn well above 100,000 people in its first four weeks, with four capacity crowds. And some of the season’s biggest concerts are still on the horizon.
At Sterling Heights’ Freedom Hill Amphitheatre, the mantr a is “quality over quantity” according to Kevin Cassidy, director of marketing and programming for Hillside Productions, which operates the venue. Cassidy also is one of the producers of Stars & Stripes, which starts Friday in Mount Clemens, and says that the current environment allows most acts to find their proper place — whether it’s Blue Oyster Cult in Mount Clemens, former Allman Brothers Band guitarist Dickey Betts and Grand Funk at the Renaissance Center, Mitch Ryder or Maxi Priest at nearby Campus Martius, or whoever graces the stages at this year’s Arts, Beats & Eats.
“From our venue standpoint, it hasn’t made a difference,” Cassidy explains, “because the acts I was looking at putting in Freedom Hill are not the same acts we were looking for for (Stars & Stripes), nor the acts you see at River Days or CityFest.
“The acts that can play the amphitheaters are the acts that can sell hard tickets. The others are geared more toward fairs and festivals and do better when it’s a free situation.”
There are exceptions, of course. Arts, Beats & Eats producer Jon Witz, who’s also booking River Days, acknowledges that “we go up against DTE for an artist or two every summer.” This year, it was PS&E and Comerica CityFest (formerly TasteFest) who engaged in a battle for Yankovic, who’s traditionally played at Meadow Brook but took a bigger paycheck to move downtown.
Witz notes that even thought the ticketed venues know how to fill seats on softer shows through bargain pricing and other promotional devices, the free stages have an inherent advantage.
“We probably take a little bit away from ticketed concerts,” he explains, “because it’s a better value — music added to all the other festivities, the food and the art and whatever else is going on.”
And the performers, Witz adds, “have to find a balance between a better paycheck and a good experience. If you try to go for a ticketed date with guaranteed money and tickets don’t sell as well, it might hurt your reputation in the long run, whereas when you come to a free festival it’s generally a big crowd and a good vibe for the performance.
“So, generally, a free show probably gets them a little less money but might be better for their careers.”
GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR
Here’s a quick look at the major free music events taking place in the metro area during the rest of the summer:
Arts, Beats & Eats, Aug. 31-Sept. 3 in downtown Pontiac. Don’t Miss: A promised 200-act lineup, slated to be announced in mid-August. Info: www.artsbeatseats.com.
July 19-21, Shain Park, downtown Birmingham. Don’t Miss: Hot Club of Detroit, 8 p.m. July 20; Dave McMurray, 5:45 p.m. July 21; Terence Blanchard, 7:30 p.m., July 21. Info: www. communityhouse.com.
Campus Martius Park — Three music programs in progress through September: 4th Fridays (monthly), Buzz Bar Wednesdays (weekly), Lunchtime Arts (daily through Aug. 30, weekly in September). Don’t Miss: Maxi Priest, July 27; the Brothers Groove and Midtown Underground, July 18; Barbara Payton, Aug. 15; Buzz Bar Megajam, Aug. 29; Keith Anderson, Sept. 28. Info: (313) 962-0101, www.campus martiuspark.com.
Comerica CityFest, July 4-8, Detroit New Center Area. Don’t Miss: Femi Kuti and Spoon, July 4, Motor City Casino Main Stage; Carl Craig’s Demon Days, Pure Detroit Stage, July 4; Gorilla Funk Mob, July 5, Metro PCS Jazz & Blues Stage; The Go, July 7, New Center Park Stage; the Hard Lessons, July 8, Pure Detroit Stage. Info: www.comericacityfest.com.
Concert of Colors, July 19-22, Max M. Fisher Music Center, Detroit. Don’t Miss: Hugh Masekela, July 20, DaimlerChrysler Main Stage; Black 47, July 21, Comerica Diversity Stage; Golem, 4 p.m. July 22, DaimlerChrysler Main Stage; Hassan Hakmoun with Wendell Harrison and Rayse Biggs, 5:45 p.m. July 22, DaimlerChrysler Main Stage. Info: www.concertofcolors. com.
Detroit International Jazz Festival, Aug. 31-Sept. 3 at stages in Detroit’s Hart Plaza and Campus Martius Park. Don’t Miss: Herbie Hancock Quartet, Aug. 31; Medeski Scofi eld Martin & Wood, Sept. 1; Bettye LaVette, Sept. 3; the Sean Jones Quartet featuring Kim Burrell, Sept. 3. Info: www.detroitjazz fest.com.
Detroit International River Days, in progress through Wednesday on the Detroit Riverfront. Don’t Miss: Joan Jett, tonight, EDS Stage; Dickey Betts, Tuesday, EDS stage; Nadir, Wednesday, Sprint Stage; 49th annual Target Fireworks, Wednesday, Detroit River. Info: www.detroit riverdays.com.
Hamtramck Labor Day Festival, Aug. 31-Sept. 3, downtown Hamtramck. Don’t Miss: A talent lineup will be announced later this summer. Info: www.hamtramckfestival. org.
Rockin’ the Riverfront,
Fridays through Aug. 10, GM Renaissance Center Riverfront Plaza, Detroit. Don’t Miss: Asia (original lineup reunion), July 6; Marshall Crenshaw, July 13; the Romantics, July 27. Info: www.gmrencen.com
Stars & Stripes Festival,
Friday through July 1, downtown Mount Clemens. Don’t Miss: Puddle of Mudd and Ashes of Soma, Friday, Blue Cross/Blue Shield Stage; Matt Austin, Friday, WRIF Stage; Polish Muslims, Friday, WCSX Stage; Paul Rodgers, Mark Farner and Blue Öyster Cult, Saturday, Blue Cross/Blue Shield Stage; Pazman’s Super Session, Saturday, WCSX Stage. Info: www.starsand stripesfest.com.
Taylor Summer Fest, July 13-15, Heritage Park, 12111 Pardee Road, Taylor. Don’t Miss: Country star John Anderson, who plays for free on July 13, followed by a fi reworks show. There’s a charge for the other national acts — REO Speedwagon and Kansas on July 14 and the Cheetah Girls on July 15. Info: www.cityoftaylor.com/summer festival.
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