Nelson just the latest star to perform in Macon

pramati@macon.comFebruary 4, 2014 

A few years ago, it was hard for anyone in Macon to convince even mid-level music acts to perform here.

Macon’s reputation as a walk-up town -- when people buy tickets at the last minute -- meant it was a risk for promoters to book an act because with poor advance sales, they weren’t sure they could make enough money to turn a profit.

Lately, however, a veritable who’s who of top-level performers have either played here or will be coming in the near future: Elton John, Gregg Allman, Jason Isbell, Art Garfunkel and Travis Tritt, among others. Country music legend Willie Nelson, in town Tuesday night, was just the latest big name to hit town.

It’s not just top-notch music acts coming here, either. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld came to town a year ago for a sold-out show, and comedy legend Bill Cosby is scheduled to perform here on Mother’s Day.

Officials from some of the city’s main performance venues said there’s been much more of a push to promote the shows of big-time artists, which have led to more advance ticket sales.

For example, Allman’s December concert at the Grand Opera House sold out so quickly -- about 26 minutes -- that a second show in January was added. That concert sold out in about 35 minutes.

Phil Banze, director of operations at the Grand Opera House, said he thinks Macon’s recent success in drawing the film and TV industry to town, such as “42” and “The Need For Speed,” has helped put the city on people’s radar.

“With Gregg Allman, it helped that we had the hometown connection,” Banze said. “But it’s all about developing relationships.”

Larry Shaeffer, Nelson’s promoter, said positive changes in the community can also mean a lot when a promoter considers bringing talent to town.

“There’s been a tremendous improvement in the downtown area since the first time I came here,” he said. “Cherry Street has really improved. This is becoming a bigger concert town than it was. This town looks a lot more robust than it used to. There seems to be more interest in live entertainment.”

With Nelson’s show being close to a sellout as of Tuesday afternoon, Shaeffer said he’s checking out venues for some of the other performers he represents, including B.B. King, Gordon Lightfoot and Merle Haggard.

“We know it’s a good market to play,” he said. “They’ve been spending some money on these venues.”

Mark Butcher, general manager of the Macon Marriott City Center (which oversees the Macon Centreplex), said other entertainers take note when top singers and comedians play a show in a city, making it much more likely to bring in other big names in the future.

“We’ve really been working to get these events,” he said. “We’re going out and getting these acts. It’s to the point where, if we can’t get a promoter, we promote it ourselves.

“When acts are successful, it draws attention from other acts. Success breeds further success.”

And it’s not just a single genre of music coming to Macon, Butcher noted. There’s been rock, pop, country and urban.

Macon’s venues also offer artists a variety of choices in terms of size, meaning the venues aren’t really competing with each other for the same acts, but they reap the benefits when an artist sells out.

Rebecca Sills, floor manager of the Cox Capitol Theatre, said her venue, which seats a few hundred, isn’t trying to go head to head with the Macon Coliseum, which can seat several thousand. Artists that the Capitol books are sometimes seeking to play smaller, more intimate shows.

“We have people coming in and thinking about the theaters” where they want to perform,” she said.

Banze agreed.

“We don’t compete too much with each other because each venue has its own size bracket,” he said.

Sills said Macon still has a ways to go to catch Savannah or Athens as similar-sized cities that draw top acts, but the gap has closed significantly.

“We’re still on an upswing,” she said. “We’re still catching up to them, but we’re on a good road to do it. Hopefully, in five years, we’ll be up there. ... There’s still a lot of work to be done, but we’re going in the right direction.”

Before Nelson’s show at the City Auditorium on Tuesday, Shaeffer stopped by the Grand Opera House to check out the venue. He said he’s already thinking which of his acts might be suited for it.

“Obviously, I have an interest in coming,” he said. “It’s all on my radar. But I can see more reasons to come back to Macon.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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