There are signs that the concert and entertainment industry is back.
Packard Music Hall had its busiest drop in years, Disney on Ice drew more people to Covelli Center than ever, and Nelly had one of the biggest crowds in Youngstown Amphitheater’s short history. Foundation, according to Eric Ryan, president of JAC Management, which operates the three sites.
The Robins Theater offered more than 10 performances in December, mixing veteran musical acts and family entertainment. And Sunrise Entertainment president Ken Haidaris said River Rock at the Amp does very well whenever the weather permits.
The Stambaugh Auditorium has seen audiences return for events ranging from the Opera Western Reserve to Youngstown State University lectures, and Youngstown’s Westside Bowl has hosted several national tours with local and regional artists performing there.
But many of the attractions that have come to Youngstown and Warren have performed in front of smaller crowds than expected, and in several cases promoters have offered discounted tickets to attract more people to the gates. In a business where it’s always been a gamble to guess what the public will pay to see, the odds of success are more difficult as COVID-19 (and inflation and other issues) remains a concern.
“There are shows here and there that are doing well, but an overwhelming majority of attendance is down 20-40% to just about everything else,” said Westside Bowl owner Nate Offerdahl. “For the record, I hear the same thing from other theater operators. It’s a very different environment right now with multiple headwinds.
MASKS AND VACCINES
With COVID-19 cases soaring as the omicron variant moves across the country, the politicization of wearing masks and obtaining the coronavirus vaccine continues to be a problem for site operators. If masks are required, some potential ticket buyers will object and stay away. If they are not, some potential ticket buyers will feel insecure and will stay in their homes.
“Either way, it’s going to cost you ticket sales,” Ryan said. “We are in a tertiary market with a lot of competition. Put us up against any market of 500,000 people, and I guarantee you we’re in the top 10 for the number of events we host, but we need everyone to make this work financially. I think you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t (masks are needed).
Dani Dier, commercial director of Stambaugh and the DeYor Performing Arts Center, said she recently attended an event in Cleveland where members of the public were required to wear masks and show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test.
“No one seemed to question it,” she said. “It’s really weird to see here in Youngstown-Warren how far back there is. For our paid public events, people are required to wear masks, and we control this as much as possible. The safety of our staff is our concern and the safety of the artist.
When these buildings are rented out for private events, the tenant can set the policy for the attendees, but Stambaugh and DeYor staff still wear masks, Dier said.
Haidaris said it received numerous requests for reimbursement when the America Group instituted a mask requirement for its October show at the Robins.
“We are following the guidelines of the Ohio Department of Health and the CDC,” Haidaris said. “There is no mask warrant; there is no vaccine mandate.
The Westside Bowl may be the only concert hall in the area that requires masks and proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. Offerdahl said he still believed it was the right policy, but also knew it was hurting sales.
“What is the vaccination rate in the city, 45%? This means that 55%, if they want to come, have to take a test, ”he said. “If it’s a group on a national tour, you could take a test. But what if it’s a local band that plays here five times a year? You don’t come, you just don’t come.
PROMOTERS BECOME YOUNG
While COVID-19 concerns and coronavirus policies can affect attendance at any event, the impact appears to be greatest on shows that appeal to older audiences.
Ryan said he has studied the demographics and shows that target audiences 55 or 60 and over appear to be performing the worst.
Offerdahl was even more blunt.
“If you watch (a show that appeals to people under 35), it will perform up to expectations or a little less,” he said. “35 to 54 and over 54, you’re going to have a hard time, I don’t care if it’s a national act, a regional act or a local act.”
Haidaris said he believes certain genres seem more resistant to COVID-19 than others, particularly country music and blues. He said early sales were solid for a spring show from blues guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd, which was announced earlier this month.
Ryan agreed that country audiences seem more willing to brave crowds, but he still thinks age is more of a factor than gender.
“I don’t see the problem going away anytime soon,” he said. “I would think twice before bidding on the old demos. ”
EXTERIOR TO INTERIOR
Crowds this summer at the Youngstown Foundation Amphitheater and the Warren Community Amphitheater indicated that spectators seemed comfortable seeing outdoor performances. And Ryan said nationwide attendance figures indicate that outdoor shows attract better than indoor concerts.
It might be great in the South, but outdoor events are impossible in Northeast Ohio for at least half of the year, and unpredictable during many spring and fall months.
Haidaris said he would consider using the Warren Amphitheater for more than the acts of tribute that fill the River Rock to the Amp program, but other factors are involved.
“It’s more expensive to do a show at the amp because we have to provide the sound, the security, everything,” Haidaris said. “It’s a lot cheaper to do a Robins show because it’s all stand-alone.”
Ryan expects a busy summer at the Youngstown Amphitheater, but he could also experience issues beyond his control. Tours that play in venues this size are smaller than those that go to Blossom Music Center and have smaller teams. Three of the 12 domestic acts booked in 2021 have canceled their dates in Youngstown due to outbreaks of COVID-19 within their touring entourage, Ryan said. Larger circuits appear to be better equipped to overcome these problems. This is one of the reasons why there haven’t been so many concerts booked at the Covelli Center for the fall and winter.
“These shows couldn’t support one, two or three crew members receiving COVID, where bigger tours playing in bigger arenas could support it better,” Ryan said. “Booking the arena was more of a challenge. That being said, I expect next summer and fall to be really good in this space. ”
Since the start of the pandemic, many promoters and theater operators have expressed cautious optimism that things will get better in three to six months. It’s just how unpredictable things remain that they always use that three to six month time frame to discuss their expectations for the New Year.
With many Broadway shows shutting down due to concerns about COVID-19, Dier said she was concerned the same could happen with touring productions, and Stambaugh and DeYor might rely more on local bookings than on attractions on tour until the future is clearer.
Offerdahl said he would likely be more conservative in the guarantees he offers to Westside Bowl numbers, at least until spring. But he stressed that the Westside Bowl is first and foremost a concert hall, and will continue to be one, even if it means losing money in the short term.
Haidaris said he believes more and more people will feel comfortable going to indoor shows as they get vaccinated and / or tire of living under restrictions.
Ryan has plenty of events in the works for the JAC managed sites, but he’s also aware that that could change.
“In 2022, you would be crazy not to worry about omicron and how it could hurt the industry again,” he said. “Nobody has a crystal ball.”