Billy Idol, David Gray, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Barenaked Ladies, Weezer, Christina Perri, Colbie Caillat, The Beach Boys, Gregg Allman and more than 20 of their musical colleagues will visit Portland’s Maine State Pier this summer.

The pier – the entire city, for that matter – has never hosted more than three or four big outdoor concerts in one summer. Now suddenly Portland is being inundated with them.

What in the name of rock ‘n’ roll happened?

The answer begins with Alex Gray and his collaboration with the world’s largest producer of live events, Live Nation.

Gray, 39, is the concert promoter who developed Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion in Bangor into a vibrant regional attraction that has hosted more than 75 major concerts since 2010. That open-air venue, which can fit 16,000 people, has drawn at least 300,000 concert-goers and pumped $48 million into the local economy in its first four years, according to a University of Maine study. The pavilion has brought economic and cultural life to a city that for many years was a pit stop on the way to other Maine vacation destinations.

This summer, Gray and Live Nation hope to use their experience in Bangor and their relationships with hundreds of touring acts to build a similar concert attraction on the 3,000-capacity Maine State Pier. Gray’s Waterfront Concerts held three major concerts there in May – Pat Benatar and country stars Lee Brice and Gary Allan – and has 21 more concerts scheduled through early September. Some shows will feature two or three major acts, such as a show with Barenaked Ladies, Violent Femmes and Colin Hay (of Men At Work) on June 26.

The city’s help has been crucial in allowing Live Nation and Gray to bring at least 24 concerts to the pier. Portland officials see value in a regular concert series there, and are letting Gray leave staging, folding chairs, mobile dressing rooms and other equipment on the pier all summer. That saves the promoter the time and cost of setting up and breaking down each show, which is what has happened with individual pier shows in the past. The city charges Gray a fee that is designed to net the city about $3,000 to $4,000 per show, said Anita LaChance, director of the city’s recreation and facilities management division.

Aware of Gray’s track record with the Bangor venue, Portland city officials last year granted him a “season” festival permit for the pier, LaChance said. That means LaChance’s department has the authority to approve Gray’s use of the pier, if it isn’t already rented, on the dates he needs.

“The reason Portland will see more shows is that now we have a venue we can use all summer. It’s very difficult to make money if you’re renting the pier for just one show,” said Bob Duteau, vice president of booking for Live Nation New England, based in Boston. “Alex’s development of the series in Bangor shows what outdoor concerts can do for a city, and we feel like people in (Portland city government) understand what we’re trying to do.”

CONCERT BUSINESS BOOMING

The Maine State Pier series is gearing up at time when the touring concert industry is stronger and more lucrative than ever. That’s largely because acts make the bulk of their money from touring today instead of from music sales, since so much music is now available for free. More acts want to do shows, and more promoters are looking for untapped venues such as the Maine State Pier.

One measure of how strong the concert industry is is that the average concert ticket price has almost tripled since 1996, from $25.81 to $71.44, according to the concert industry publication Pollstar. Concert ticket sales in 2014 topped $6 billion for the first time, nearly tripling the 2002 sales of $2.1 billion, according to Pollstar.

Bands and managers schedule more tours in the summer because more people are on vacation or simply have more time to see shows, said Gary Bongiovanni, Pollstar’s editor. Bongiovanni said he is not surprised that Live Nation and Gray have seized upon a picturesque, waterfront setting for a concert series – or that many of the scheduled acts at the pier are older performers who established their fan base 20 or 30 years ago.

“An outdoor venue like (the Maine State Pier) is great for an older audience, people who maybe don’t hang out in nightclubs anymore but will go outside in a beautiful setting to see a show,” Bongiovanni said.

Another appeal of outdoor concerts is that they start earlier than nightclub shows. Most of the pier shows will start around 6 p.m., and the city is requiring that the shows end by 9 p.m. on weeknights and 10 p.m. on weekends.

The vitality of the summer touring industry will be seen in other new, but smaller, outdoor concert events in Portland this year. The State Theatre, which books more than 200 shows a year all over the city, will host at least three outdoor concerts this summer at a new 5,000-capacity concert site on Thompson’s Point. Townsquare Media, owner of several radio stations in Portland, is staging a music festival on the city-owned Eastern Promenade in August, with alt-rockers Guster headlining.

MORE MUSIC, MORE SPENDING?

The impact of a Maine State Pier concert series on Greater Portland will likely be smaller than the impact Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion has had in Bangor. The 900-foot pier has a capacity of 3,000, less than a fifth of the Bangor venue’s. Also, Portland is already considered a cultural and recreation destination.

Still, music fans, city boosters and the business community are excited at the prospect of adding a large number of outdoor concerts to Portland’s list of marketable attractions and amenities.

“Whenever you have an event that can drop 2,000 to 3,000 people on the waterfront, that’s absolutely a benefit for businesses and helps make the city even more of a destination,” said Steve Hewins, director of the merchants’ group Portland’s Downtown District. “Twenty years ago I used to say Portland was a pub city, but now it’s really becoming a live entertainment city, and this can be a big part of that.”

University of Maine economics professor Todd Gabe, who has studied the economic impact of Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion, said more than 40 percent of the concert-goers in 2013 came from two hours or more away and 20 percent came from at least four hours away. So it was likely they would spend money on food and hotels. Gabe estimated that the pavilion generated more than $29 million in direct spending in its first four years, including tickets, meals and lodging. He estimated that another $18 million in indirect spending was generated, which includes money that workers or the venue then spend in other segments of the community.

“If there’s a big concert, and you don’t book a hotel in advance, you might end up having to stay in Waterville,” said Tanya Emery, Bangor’s director of community and economic development. “The concerts have really put Bangor on the map for a lot of people.”

Gray said contracts with the artists prohibit him from disclosing how well the pier shows in Portland are selling. But city officials said the Lee Brice show on May 16 sold out, and people attending the Pat Benatar show in cold weather on May 2 said the pier looked mostly full.

Wil Whalen of South Portland, who was at the Benatar show, said he was impressed with the venue’s scenic beauty and how smoothly the big crowd moved in and out of it. He said concession lines and bathroom lines were not an issue, and everyone was in a great mood, despite the low temperatures.

“I think it’s a spectacular venue. It’s sort of everything that makes Portland awesome summed up in one location,” said Whalen, 46. “If I was from out of state and caught a show there, I’d probably talk about it for the rest of my life. But I do worry about having 30 shows there and whether that can be sustained.”

AN EDUCATION IN PROMOTION

Gray thinks it can be sustained. He’s been working in entertainment since he was about 12, DJ-ing around his native Old Town with equipment he bought after his grandfather helped him get a loan from a bank. Gray’s family started Old Town Canoe, and even though his family sold that business around the time he was born, he grew up with a strong entrepreneurial spirit. He bought an Orono nightclub, Ushuaia, when he was a student at the University of Maine in Orono, with his great-aunt as an investor.

The club was popular, and Gray began to learn about booking entertainment and all the preparation and logistics that go along with it. But police calls at the club over the years led Orono officials to not re-issue his liquor license in 2006. Police said problems at the club included assaults, underage drinking and alleged drug use in the parking lot.

Running that club, which Gray calls one of the “best and worst” experiences he’s ever had, set the foundation for what he’s doing now, he said.

“I learned so much from that experience, how to market with zero budget, how to not pay too much for an act,” said Gray, who has homes in Old Town and Portland. “It was the same thing I’m doing now but on a smaller scale.”

Gray began working with Live Nation while running Ushuaia. Live Nation has its roots in the merging of two powerhouse entertainment companies, SFX Entertainment and Clear Channel Communications. Part of that combined company was spun off in 2005 and renamed Live Nation. Live Nation then bought the giant ticket-selling company, Ticketmaster, in 2010. Published reports list Live Nation as promoting or producing more than 22,000 events annually.

Before Live Nation books acts to play in Maine, Duteau consults with Gray about which acts might work well in certain venues. Then Gray and his company organize and promote the shows. Gray also owns a company called Production Services of Maine, which provides security, equipment and other services for concerts and events all over the region. He has about 400 employees, mostly part-time. Unlike some promoters who must hire staff and rent equipment for each outdoor show, Gray already has the needed infrastructure.

Still, when Gray first approached Bangor city officials about using city-owned park land on the waterfront for a concert series, there were concerns about his record as a club owner and a feeling that Gray would have to earn the city’s trust, said Cary Weston, a Bangor city councilor at the time. Weston and other Bangor officials say Gray has more than earned their trust. The venue is a huge draw for the city, and problems have been minimal. Emery said the city received 16 noise complaints after an Ed Sheeran show in May.

Gray says he knows there will likely be some problems associated with the pier shows, perhaps traffic tie-ups or noise complaints. But he hopes Portlanders will feel that the benefits of the concerts outweigh any problems.

That seems to be the consensus in Bangor.

“We take the noise complaints very seriously and want the (concerts) to coexist with everyone,” Emery said. “But to put it in perspective, the benefits to the city, the restaurants filling up, the servers going home with full tip jars, are so great.”

 


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