For national acts, city is taking center stage

The Baltimore Sun

As they traveled the country by jet and by bus, many major music tours over the years have bypassed Baltimore, stopping in Washington and Philadelphia long before coming to the city - if they came at all.

"Baltimore for years was a no-man's land for music," says Brian Shupe, owner of the 8x10, a performance venue in Federal Hill. "It was local music with a few national shows, but nothing on the scale of what you got in D.C. or Philly."

But that perspective of the city's music scene may be changing as two big festivals - this weekend's Virgin Festival and next weekend's Paetec Jazz Festival - come to town, and as Baltimore begins searching for development teams to replace the 45-year-old 1st Mariner Arena.

"The festivals need a chance to grow, but Baltimore is coming around," says Lucas Mann, a Baltimore native and chief marketing officer for Music Nation, a New York-based artist development company. "It's a validation of the growing music scene in Baltimore."

The Virgin Festival made its U.S. debut last year in Baltimore, with 40,000 fans and such acts as the Who. Now, it returns to Pimlico Race Course with an expanded, two-day lineup of big names such as the Police and Amy Winehouse. Ticket sales are exceeding last year's, say promoters.

During the March announcement of the festival's return, Virgin Group Chairman and CEO Richard Branson described the city's qualifications: a regional draw; a government open to the convergence of 60,000 rock fans; and a prime cell phone market.

"With Baltimore, the atmosphere was fantastic, very friendly," Branson said. "It's a very centrally located place, perhaps the best for the East Coast."

In Baltimore, Jazz Festival producers John Nugent and Marc Iacona saw proximity to Washington, New York and Philadelphia; easy access to downtown venues; and an opportunity.

"We were strictly concerned with logistically if the city provided what we were looking for," says Iacona, whose festival lineup includes B.B. King, Little Richard and Al Green. "We didn't want to compete with another jazz festival in the city. Baltimore didn't have one."

But it does have a market for entertainment. In the past several years, Baltimore has seen high-profile development in many neighborhoods and the flourishing of an arts scene in areas such as Station North.

"You've had a swell of housing and businesses come to those areas, but Baltimore is still cheap enough for artists to live and work there," says Mann. "There's a vitalization of the scene ... and promoters notice that."

Also in the past few years, city venues such as Rams Head Live, Sonar and the newly rebuilt 8x10 have provided performance space.

"Baltimore is very much moving from a tertiary market to a secondary market," says Shupe. "We're starting to have a second rebirth of marketing downtown."

More retailers indicate more disposable income - which may attract more tours, he says: "This is what it boils down to when promoters are looking to book shows: economics, whether they can make money in the area and population density."

Music can also benefit the economic scene. Since 2002, Nugent and Iacona's Rochester International Jazz Festival has generated about $60 million for Rochester, N.Y., says Jean Dalmath, communications director for the festival.

The Virgin and jazz fests here may present similar opportunities. Generally, each dollar spent at an event would generate an additional 50 cents in economic activity in the community, says Richard Clinch, director of economic research at the University of Baltimore. But "modeling is very imprecise on a tourism event," he says.

The Jazz Festival in the Inner Harbor will benefit restaurants and hotels, says Anirban Basu, president and CEO of Sage Policy Group, an economic research firm in Baltimore.

"The further away [audiences] come, the more likely they are to make this a major center of expenditure," he says.

The quality of the city's venues is another factor. The spaciousness, acoustics and reputations of such venues as Columbia's Merriweather Post Pavilion and Washington's 9:30 Club attract more national bookings than Pier Six Pavilion or 1st Mariner.

A study commissioned by the Maryland Stadium Authority showed that the aging 1st Mariner Arena isn't well-positioned to compete.

"National acts have to go where they're going to get the best return," Shupe says. "The size of the facility and the quality of it has a lot to do with it."

The Baltimore Development Corp. announced this week that it was seeking development teams interested in building a new venue.

Sun reporters M. William Salganik and Jill Rosen contributed to this article.

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