Tuscaloosa Amphitheater official remains hopeful for live music in 2021
By Leah Goggins
Grace Schepis, now a junior at The University of Alabama, still heads out to The Strip some nights. But she has her limits. Limit No. 1: No nightclubs. Limit No. 2: No concerts.
“I don’t know what artist could come here that would motivate me to [attend a show],” Schepis said. “I have not been in that sweaty, packed on top of each other, loud kind of situation, that’s a no-go.”
But concerts are slowly making their way back into Tuscaloosa nightlife. In January, Druid City Music Hall, also on The Strip, hosted its first event since March 2020. The venue was shut down for most of 2020 due not only to the pandemic, but also significant renovations. While Druid City’s website notes that the venue is “taking enhanced health and safety measures” for upcoming shows, reporting from The Crimson White indicates that Druid City’s grand reopening was marred by a mostly unmasked crowd.
Mask enforcement troubles aren’t at all new in Tuscaloosa. After the Velcro Pygmies, an ‘80s rock cover band, posted photos from a crowded September 2020 concert at Rhythm & Brews in downtown Tuscaloosa, Mayor Walt Maddox was forced to respond.
“Please help us to keep moving forward & not backwards in the fight against COVID-19,” Maddox wrote in a tweet.
All entertainment venues in Alabama are currently subject to rules about social distancing, face coverings and sanitation under Gov. Kay Ivey’s ‘safer at home’ order. Those rules include the many outdoor concert venues in the state.
None of Alabama’s three major amphitheaters, located in Tuscaloosa, Oak Mountain and Orange Beach, have hosted events since March 2020. All three outdoor venues are booked and promoted by Red Mountain Entertainment, a Birmingham promoter recently absorbed by Live Nation.
According to Jeff Bryant, deputy director of arts and entertainment for the City of Tuscaloosa, Red Mountain has been trying to find booking opportunities for the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater without much luck.
“We just haven’t had anything work out for our schedule yet,” Bryant said.
The amphitheater’s upcoming Riley Green show was recently canceled again, months after being rescheduled from its original 2020 date. The show was canceled, Bryant said, due to concerns about capacity and event clearance from the state.
Krymson Hammond, a UA alum and former Red Mountain Entertainment intern, saw her fair share of concert cancellations and delays in March, when she was still working with Red Mountain. Hammond had planned to work The Lumineers’ Tuscaloosa Amphitheater performance in May 2020, but that show was swiftly canceled. Since then, Hammond has attended a couple of outdoor concerts, but she knows that organizing those shows can be a challenge.
“I wouldn’t have much of a safety concern [with an outdoor show], but more a sound quality and sound design concern,” Hammond said.
Hammond, who studied music business at UA, also said that the pressure to recoup the cost of a live show makes limited-capacity concerts difficult at a minimum and, more likely, impossible.
“Pre-COVID, when you’re looking at a concert… really the venue and the promoter will not make money on a show unless it is sold out,” Hammond said. “When you talk about a reduced capacity show, you’re either going to have to charge a much, much higher price for tickets or you can’t hold the show, because there’s just no way to make money off of it.”
While the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater hasn’t been making money on concerts in the past year, it has at least avoided concert-related expenditures. Even after cancelling or rescheduling numerous shows through 2020 and into this year, Bryant said the typically empty amphitheater hasn’t been a major revenue concern for the city.
“I don’t want to speak for our mayor or our council members, but the amphitheater has always been a quality of life venue,” Bryant said. “Sure, when we can make some money, it’s a great thing, and we have in many years, but I don’t believe the city is dependent on the amphitheater making money every year.”
Without concerts on the calendar, Tuscaloosa Amphitheater employees shifted to a focus on side projects and more general entertainment events. The amphitheater hosted its annual July 4 fireworks show this year with guests spread out in the parking lot, and the venue also offered ice skating around the holidays before shutting down due to a spike in COVID-19 cases in the state, Bryant said.
Bryant also said he’s optimistic for live music at the amphitheater in 2021. Red Mountain does have concerts on the books for this year at another Alabama outdoor venue, the Wharf Amphitheater.
As for Schepis, while the acts booked at the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater usually aren’t in her wheelhouse, she said she’d find a socially-distanced outdoor concert more appealing than one at an indoor venue. Although it’s worth noting that Schepis’ standards for making the trek out to the amphitheater are pretty high.
“What about my girl Tay-Tay Swift?” Schepis said. “Do you think she would make a Tuscaloosa appearance?”