Northwest Arkansas is well known for Razorback athletics, and it’s ground zero for retail and supply chain logistics. Very few, though, would think the region is on the minds of some of the biggest touring musical artists around the country. But’s that’s exactly what has happened in the past five years at the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion (AMP) in Rogers.
Since opening in June 2014, the venue has sold more than 737,000 tickets and hosted 165 concerts or community events, according to Jennifer Wilson, public relations director for the AMP. The venue raked in $55.2 million in topline revenue in its first five years. Ticket revenue for the five-year period topped $26.89 million, growing each year by an average of 21.5%.
The fifth season, which ended in October, was the biggest year on record with 35 public events resulting in 213,337 tickets sold to patrons from 43 different states. Projected revenue for this year is $15.93 million, up 35.6% from the prior year. Part of that increase relates to seven more concerts in 2018, than in 2017. The top selling concerts last year were Dave Matthews Band, Chris Stapleton, G-Eazy and Kenny Chesney.
Looking back at the past five years, AMP Vice President Brian Crowne said the most stressful time was getting the venue open ahead of the first show June 7, 2014.
“For the five days prior to opening was the most stressful in my life,” Crowne recalled. “I worried about the toilets flushing and the paint drying in time for Blake Shelton to open his show. But then it was like, ‘Holy cow, we did it. We pulled it off.’ It takes an entire team to make the Walmart AMP run, and I am proud to be at the helm.”
Crowne is in charge of booking the concerts, and he’s a veteran in that area, having worked in the business for decades as a musician himself and club owner after he bought George’s Majestic Lounge on Dickson Street in Fayetteville in 2004. He bought the Arkansas Music Pavilion in 2008 and booked the first concert there at a temporary site in Fayetteville just outside the Northwest Arkansas Mall. Crowne sold the AMP to the Walton Arts Center in 2011. He remained connected to the venue and was named vice president of the AMP in May 2016.
Crowne said booking concerts is a detailed business. Over the years, he and the organizations he represents have been able to develop a good reputation for treating artists well. He said sometimes it’s not how big a check you can write, but about the comfort level agents and artists have with the people in which they’re doing business.
“Say a band is going to do 40 shows this year. They are looking at routing and perhaps a city they haven’t played, or a venue or region where they feel like they can sell tickets,” Crowne said. “I am looking at variety and diversity for our market, and always thinking about selling tickets.”
Crowne said sometimes managers and agents come to him saying they want a date in 2019 or 2020 and ask for a hold on the future calendar if the routing works out.
“When it comes to routing, we are a good stop because we’re centrally located between Nashville and Oklahoma City going east to west and Dallas and Kansas City when moving north to south,” he said.
Crowne said agents and managers email him regularly, sometimes representing artists who have played the AMP before, and other times “it’s me reaching out to them asking if an artist like Eric Church is coming through the region this next year,” he said.
“I spoke to his agent the other day and said if it’s next year or later, just keep us on your radar,” Crowne said. “It takes dogged pursuit to get new acts, but once they play here, they often want to come back. Country and classic rock [entertainers] have been in our wheelhouse for some time, but we are now booking shows in lots of other genres.”
Crowne said the level of artists who are playing the AMP is a still a bit amazing to him.
“Did we ever think a Beatle [Ringo Starr] and Janet Jackson would each play shows in Rogers, Ark., in the same season? No, we did not,” Crowne said. “I had been chasing Ringo for five years, and it just finally worked out where he was able to come. He put on a killer show. Then we had Janet Jackson fall into our lap late in the booking cycle last year. That’s one artist I would have never imagined being on stage in Rogers given she’s a Super Bowl star and mega-music icon over the past three decades.”
Crowne said when the AMP was being built in Rogers, he had hoped to sign an act like Dave Matthews Band or Kenny Chesney, but he didn’t know if the venue would be too small to get a deal worked out.
“In 2015, we had Chesney,” Crowne said. “He was on his way to play Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City the next two nights. He had 50 trucks on the road, 20 stayed with us and 30 went on to Kansas City to set up there. We squeezed him in, and I couldn’t believe it. I rarely meet the artist, but I did meet Kenny. And he asked how come he had never played here before. I told him the venue was only a year old. Two days after he left, Kenny’s team called us and said he wanted to come back because he really enjoyed it. Dave Matthews Band also wanted to come back, and that says a lot,” Crowne said.
Crowne said most of the time the bands set the ticket prices, and they also get a lion’s share of the proceeds. He said the AMP team works with band managers to ensure the ticket prices are within the reach of the majority of consumers in the region.
“We work to ensure we always have some less expensive tickets with the lawn seating to allow plenty of folks to see the show without spending a lot of money,” Crowne said. “We have to try to set the prices high enough to get the band to come but not keep the general public from being able to attend. The artists themselves are mostly considerate in that way. We would never book a show if we thought the ticket prices were not appropriate for the market.”
He said the AMP also does not guarantee a minimum gate payment for any artist.
Crowne said the planned expansion for the AMP, which is slated to add 1,000 new seats when it’s completed in 2020, will generate more ticket revenue overall and perhaps attract some bigger acts that require a higher payout.
He said there is a finite number of tickets, and though some shows may be more crowded than others, the AMP never oversells a show. He said there are fire codes that prohibit that. Many times it’s the demographic that is attending the show that makes the difference in the space on the lawn. He said younger crowds like to stand, and they take up less space while older patrons often like to stretch out on the lawn, taking more space.
Crowne said Arkansas’ unpredictable weather can make running an outdoor venue nerve-racking. In its first five years, Crowne said, though, he’s been lucky to have never canceled a show because of weather.
“We have delayed gate openings on occasions, and we evaluated one time and then resumed play for those who stayed,” he said. “I like to tell my CEO, my wonderful mother in Rogers prays for me every time we have an outdoor show. I am keeping her on the payroll because it’s working.”
This past season, one show was rescheduled when Alan Jackson had a death in his immediate family. That show was recently rescheduled for Aug. 9, 2019. Crowne said anyone who holds tickets and can’t make the show can request a refund.
Crowne would not tease to any acts he is working with for the 2019 season. He said to look at the caliber of shows and artists that have played the AMP the past couple of years and expect more of the same.
Crowne and his team will continue to scour the earth for music artists who are looking to fill dates between April and October in an intimate venue. He already has six shows for next season on the docket, and expects no less than 20 concerts in 2019.
Crowne said one of his biggest joys is seeing people from all walks of life entering the AMP gates with big smiles to see great entertainment from varied music genres.
“People are passionate about their music and will travel long distances to follow the artist they love,” he said. “I love hearing stories of folks who travel here just to see a live musical performance. I have seen people fly in from both coasts just to see a band performance.”