When the Dallas Stars play in the American Airlines Center, the joint holds 18,000 people; when the Mavs are there, the capacity jumps to 19,200. But the AAC is just as likely these days to host concerts that seat a mere 5,000--well below what it oughta hold, and just enough to make the so-called Hangar look like more cavernous than usual. That's because the AAC has become a member of something called the Arena Network Theater Group, according to the latest issue of music-biz trade magazine Billboard, which isn't online yet; the AAC is already part of the 46-member Arena Network, a consortium of arenas across the country.
Billboard actually has a handful of pieces this week about this new Arena Network "subgroup," which is necessary because there just aren't enough touring acts that can draw 15,000 these days. And when there are bands capable of selling out the joint--like The Who, who will play the AAC November 17--they're charging $202 for premium seats (Who ducats go on sale this morning, actually). Fact is, the AAC's having to compete more with the 6,800-capacity Nokia Theatre in Grand Prairie than the amphitheater formerly known as Starplex (and you can forget Reunion Arena, which gets a concert as often as my parents go to one). Says Billboard, "Most arenas boast capacities of more than 15,000, but the magic number in touring these days is about 5,000-6,000. Theaters in arenas aren't just an innovative marketing concept anymore. For many, they are now mainstream venues."
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Problem is, it ain't cheap when an arena transforms itself into a theater: The trade publication says it costs "from about $400,000 for a curtaining system to up to $1 million for an elaborate, self-contained theater look and feel." Which begs the question: Why even bother? Why is the AAC spending that much to bring in fewer folks than it was meant to hold to when a show could just as easily wind up at the more comfy Nokia?
"Many of our facilities have invested in creating the theater setup and have made a comfortable return on their investment," Brad Mayne, president of Center Operating Co., which runs the AAC, tells Billboard. "At the American Airlines Center, we have found a way to be part of the [Arena Network Theater Group] while using rented equipment. We are pleased with the results we have experienced with the shows we have hosted." Among those, Mayne says in a different story, have been a Dolly Parton show and a U.S.A. Gymnastics exhibition. "It gives us the best of all worlds, to be able to choose the direction that is most important to me as an individual facility, but [also] gives me leverage as most of the time we are [more than 40] venues speaking as one," he says.
Lance Yokom, who does marketing for the Nokia and does some promotions for shows at the AAC and the Will Rogers Auditorium in Fort Worth, says the AAC's entry into the market hasn't affected Nokia thus far. "The arenas have a niche with sporting events, and that's not going to go away, but artists who can sell out 20,000-seat arenas is beocming more an more rare," he tells Unfair Park. "When their sports aren't in season, and they still want to be full 365 days a year, they have to create something on their own."
Fact is, some of the shows going into the Nokia probably ought to go into smaller venues; last Saturday night's Flaming Lips show played in the theater's smallest configuration (about 1,600 seats), and while the band did its extravaganza best to fill in the blanks, the place still felt a little...empty. The show probably should have been at the Lakewood or Granada...or the Fair Park Bandshell, which remains one of the best and least-used venues in town. But there are other factors--availability of venues, relationships with agents, sponsorship deals--that determine why a band plays one place and not another. And certainly, smaller shows will wind up in the House of Blues, which is expected to open in the next few months in the former White Swan Building. But one message is very clear from the series of stories: Amphitheaters are in decline. Speaking of which, anyone been to the Smirnoff Music Centre lately? --Robert Wilonsky