The Maryland Live! Casino came one step closer to completion at the end of last month when the Rams Head Center Stage unveiled its sparkling new 500-seat concert venue at Arundel Mills.
The new Rams Head is just the latest offering in the Baltimore-Washington Corridor’s regional concert market, with other venues, such as The Fillmore in Silver Spring, The Hamilton in Washington and Baltimore Soundstage at the Inner Harbor open in a market that is hardly lacking for concerts halls.
They’re big, mid-sized and small. They’re clubs, pavilions and arenas. And sometimes, as is the case with the latest offering from Rams Head, they’re part of something bigger — in this case, a Vegas-style casino; or in the case of the set-to-return Hammerjacks, a performance venue in a night club that was normally crowded on weekends, anyway.
And who knows where a concert will be advertised, anyway? Maybe a show will be set up at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen or across Route 95 at Aberdeen Proving Ground, or perhaps even in the field in front of at Blob’s Park.
While change is part of most any industry and competition is a given, the additions make some observers wonder what venue will be the next to rise — or fall — in the Corridor market?
Wolf Trap. The Strathmore. Baltimore Soundstage.
As for the new Rams Head at Maryland Live!, the multitude of venues in the area was cause to make the venue’s promoters give considerable thought about what type of entertainment will be offered to its clientele.
The answered ended up being offering local bands to the audience for free (or with the occasional cover charge), while more occasionally hosting nationally-known acts for ticketed events such as Sister Hazel, Chuck Negron (from Three Dog Night), Foghat and Patty Smyth & Scandal, all of whom will play during the venue’s first month.
“We’ll have entertainment seven nights a week, predominately focusing on classic rock, ’80s and country,” said Mario Maesano, vice president of marketing for Maryland Live! “Our demographic is skewing to 30-plus.”
Maesano agreed that when fans scan the local landscape, “There are plenty of music venues in this area, for sure, but not within the 15-mile radius of Maryland Live! and not really catering to a slightly older demo, like we are,” he said.
While the bigger venues are nice, he said, Maryland Live! is positioned to give concertgoers an intimate experience. “And while our local acts will attract fans in that 15-mile or so radius,” Maesano said, “our headliners will draw from approximately 90 miles away.”
Merriweather. Blues Alley. The Lyric.
Kevin Butler, CEO of Hammerjacks Entertainment Group, and his team are on the verge of bringing the storied venue back to Charm City with a 30,000-square-foot bar and concert hall just south of M&T Bank Stadium and just north of the where the casino will rise on Russell Street.
Like Rams Head Center Stage, Hammerjacks has more to offer than just its venue side, which will hold up to 2,800 people.
“It will be everything to everyone,” Butler said, as he plans to market festivities during Ravens games and other events, as well as attracting musicians from various genres in the venue.
“We plan to recreate the Hammerjacks brand and feel that it will promptly entrench itself in the market,” he said, adding that the sudden spate of venue openings simply means “that the music market is hopping.”
While Butler spoke in general terms, promoters have a keener view on the day-to-day operations of many venues and don’t always like what they see.
“I don’t know how long they can all stay open or which ones will opt to change their formats,” said Brian Smith, promoter with Baltimore Sound Management, who is working with Butler. “I’m a promoter, and I need places to place shows, so this worries me. If venues aren’t there, this whole thing will fall apart.”
In allowing that some “ebb and flow” of the scene is normal while noting some recently defunct local establishments like Fletcher’s (now The Get Down), Bourbon Street (the principals now run Baltimore Sound Stage) and Sonar, Smith noted that he expects the winds of change to blow through another well-known local venue soon.
On the other hand, in early August, he promoted six shows in five days in the Baltimore area. Save one show, each had hundreds of people in the room.
“That tells me that the scene is not dead,” said Smith. “There is demand.”
What Smith really wants is his own venue. “I see how they can be mismanaged,” he said. “For instance, once the shows are over and the [promoters] have a crowd on their hands, wouldn’t it make sense to have plenty of drinks and food available to sell them?”
The Fillmore. Pier Six. The Kennedy Center.
As for the Corridor, Gary Bongiovanni, president of the Fresno, Calif.-based industry publication Pollstar, felt positive vibes from the region.
“Clubs do come and go, but that is a very active music market and the facilities keep improving. It seems like everybody is doing well there,” Bongiovanni said. “While there are a limited amount of shows, that doesn’t mean that [the venues] can’t all coexist, but it’s important that they cater to right clietele. If they do, they can all stay in business.”
He didn’t notice that the local market is growing, but he did say that there has been a more conscious effort by promoters and the acts to focus on venue size and ticket price.
The artists, he said, are tending to book smaller places and sometimes feature stronger supporting acts, such as The English Beat warming up for Squeeze earlier this year at a sold out Rams Head Live!, for instance; and they aren’t asking for as much money for tickets as they were in recent years.
“But they know that they don’t have to sell out to make money, too,” he said. “They just need a deal with the promoter that allows them to do so.”
Seth Hurwitz, owner of I.M.P. Productions, has been booking Merriweather Post Pavilion for several years (among other venues) and co-owns D.C.’s successful 9:30 Club, and has ridden a few waves in his 32 years in the business.
“There will always be new clubs, and there will be others that close. What you have to do is be clear about your goal as a club or venue,” Hurwitz said. “A club needs to garner a following. It can’t be sporadic and wait for the big winners like Merriweather can.
“And that’s the difference between a club and a venue,” he said. “To borrow a baseball analogy, [venues] need to ‘Hit ’em where they ain’t’ in relation to finding a niche and not do what is already being done.”
The Birchmere. The Howard. The Recher.
While Hurwitz feels that the artists are “well-served” by the venues in the Baltimore-Washington area, to be successful, the venues have to find their own niche.
“There isn’t anyone skipping [the region],” he said, “but the venues need to build a better mousetrap, so to speak, and that isn’t as easy as it looks.”
As for the acts, they need to build up demand for their shows — interestingly enough, by staying away.
“One trap not to fall into as a promoter is not to book the same acts time after time,” he said. “There’s an arc from fans feeling like, ‘I just saw them and they were great,’ to ‘I haven’t seen them in awhile,’ to ‘Yes, I’d go again.’ Fans go through phases that create demand to bring a band back that had a successful show last go ’round.”
The number of acts that have the drawing power to sell tickets to a venue that are available at a given time fluctuates, too. “It’s not like acts are in a catalog and you can book them at your will,” he said. “There are many factors that affect a successful event, and the stars must be in alignment,” meaning a strong cross-section of demand, availability of the artist, new material, etc.
“People tend to rationalize that, if those factors are not in line, everything is O.K.,” said Hurwitz, “but that’s not always the case. It’s also important to know that there are no steadfast rules that apply in every situation.”
As for the seemingly sudden variety of venue options available to the artists, Hurwitz stressed that this isn’t anything that hasn’t happened before.
“This landscape is nothing new,” he said. “Openings come in phases, so this happens from time to time.”