A few years ago, it was hard for anyone in Macon to convince even mid-level music acts to perform here.
Macons 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 werent sure they could make enough money to turn a profit.
Lately, however, a veritable whos 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.
Its 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 Mothers Day.
Officials from some of the citys main performance venues said theres been much more of a push to promote the shows of big-time artists, which have led to more advance ticket sales.
For example, Allmans 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 Macons 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 peoples radar.
With Gregg Allman, it helped that we had the hometown connection, Banze said. But its all about developing relationships.
Larry Shaeffer, Nelsons promoter, said positive changes in the community can also mean a lot when a promoter considers bringing talent to town.
Theres 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 Nelsons show being close to a sellout as of Tuesday afternoon, Shaeffer said hes checking out venues for some of the other performers he represents, including B.B. King, Gordon Lightfoot and Merle Haggard.
We know its a good market to play, he said. Theyve 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.
Weve really been working to get these events, he said. Were going out and getting these acts. Its to the point where, if we cant get a promoter, we promote it ourselves.
When acts are successful, it draws attention from other acts. Success breeds further success.
And its not just a single genre of music coming to Macon, Butcher noted. Theres been rock, pop, country and urban.
Macons venues also offer artists a variety of choices in terms of size, meaning the venues arent 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, isnt 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.
We dont 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.
Were still on an upswing, she said. Were still catching up to them, but were on a good road to do it. Hopefully, in five years, well be up there. ... Theres still a lot of work to be done, but were going in the right direction.
Before Nelsons show at the City Auditorium on Tuesday, Shaeffer stopped by the Grand Opera House to check out the venue. He said hes already thinking which of his acts might be suited for it.
Obviously, I have an interest in coming, he said. Its all on my radar. But I can see more reasons to come back to Macon.
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.