In 2011, 18 shows were staged at Aaron’s Amphitheatre at Lakewood.
This season, that number jumped to 26, the first time since 2004 that the venue presented more than 25 shows.
Were there sellouts? Sure. Two nights for Jason Aldean, one each for Zac Brown Band, Dave Matthews Band, Jimmy Buffett and Phish, who returned to the venue after a nine-year absence.
Most of the other shows were in the 15,000-17,000 range (the amphitheater caps at about 19,000), with even newbies to the shed scene, such as Wiz Khalifa with Mac Miller, pulling in a crowd of about 12,000.
The reasons are many-fold.
“It was a big touring cycle,” said Akeasha Branch, general manager of the venue. “It helps to have Jason [Aldean] doing two nights and Drake stepping up from college tours to headlining amphitheaters.”
Peter Conlon, president of Live Nation Atlanta, which operates Lakewood, believes that the concert industry, which obviously suffered greatly during the worst of the recession, is finally off life support.
“It’s definitely doing better, and the industry also assessed some things like pricing and programs. But people are more comfortable spending money on entertainment. I think confidence is up a bit,” he said.
Branch also credits inventive tour parings, such as Brad Paisley and The Band Perry or Motley Crue and KISS, as incentives for fans to plunk down 100 bucks.
But despite the success on paper, Lakewood Amphitheatre, located between downtown Atlanta and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Airport near the Screen Gems studio, receives plenty of criticism for what many believe are unpleasant aesthetics (“a dump,” is the term frequently heard).
The folks in charge hear those comments and they have one message: Come and see it for yourself.
“Most people who say those things haven’t been here in awhile,” said Branch. “Just because we’re of age (the venue is 23 years old) doesn’t mean that we’re flawed. Yes, a new building may have shiner new things, but at the end of the day, we offer the same thing. The [nearly] 300,000 fans who came through our building this season don’t have a problem with it.”
Conlon, too, is aware of what he calls misperceptions about the amphitheater and is quick to reel off the positive characteristics of the building.
“It has a good road network around it, great sightlines, the largest video screens that I know of in the country,” he said. “Driving through, the neighborhood has changed. The [surrounding] buildings have been restored by Screen Gems. When you get to the venue, the fencing has changed, the parking lot has been resurfaced.”
The venue did indeed receive a noticeable sprucing up this season, including the addition of new signage from Aaron’s (which earlier this year extended its naming rights contract through the 2014 season); a food truck scene to complement the usual concessions, where some items received a price slashing; two VIP decks; and other improvements not visible to fans, such as roof and pipe work.
In the past four to five years, Conlon estimates about $4 million was spent on upgrades – “That’s a lot for a venue,” he said.
This offseason, more tweaks will be made, starting with ripping out about 2,500 seats in the front section and replacing them removable versions so the pit can become general admission when an artist requests it.
The first set of onsales for the 2013 season will likely be announced in January and Conlon is hopeful to produce a 25-plus show lineup again.
“We’re finding more acts are wanting to play the venue who historically didn’t like it before,” he said. “We re-educated some artists and agents as to what this place is now. With fans, we did the same thing. When you have the artists who want to come back and the fans who want to see them…this is kind of the future.”
By Melissa Ruggieri, Atlanta Music Scene