By Je’Don Holloway Talley For the Birmingham Times
The stars are shining brightly in the Magic City.
Over the past two months, artists like Erykah Badu, Babyface, the O’Jays, David Sanborn, Jeffery Osborne, and J. Cole all have performed in Birmingham—and more are on the way.
Gladys Knight will be at the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Center (BJCC) on June 17. Future and Friends will be at the Legacy Arena at the BJCC in August. Keith Sweat; En Vogue; Experience Unlimited, commonly known as E.U.; and Doug E. Fresh will be at the Legacy Arena in October. And the star of stars, Janet Jackson, will be at the BJCC in December.
That’s just a partial list of more than three dozen artists who have performed or will perform in the Magic City this year.
“Overlooking Birmingham is a thing of the past,” said 95.7 Jamz (WBHJ-FM) radio personality Dana “Lady Woo” Woodruff. “We love good music and entertainment, and we’ll support it when it comes. Birmingham is growing, and we’re networking. … Entertainers want to come where fans are waiting to see them.”
‘Can You Book Us?’
Jerome Skinner, a local music promoter who had a hand in last week’s Steel City Music Fest in Linn Park, said he’s been hearing from a lot of artists who want to perform in the city.
“These cats know a lot about Birmingham, and they look forward to coming [here],” he said. “I am getting a lot of requests from artists who say, ‘I have something going on, can you book us?’”
Larry “Luckey” McMullen Jr., proprietor and general manager of Skky Nightclub, said local promoters have been able to draw smaller acts to the city.
“This allowed larger acts to see Birmingham as a market that has culture and diversity, and people who are willing to come out and listen to different types of music,” he said. “Birmingham thrives off new opportunity. … After promoters see the response one venue gets from an artist, they try to get them out. Shortly after, we see that person selling out big shows.”
The quality of the music and the city itself are a magnet, many are finding.
Annette Watkins, a Birmingham resident who has lived in Chicago and Los Angeles, invited several friends, including two from Atlanta and another from New Orleans, to this month’s Steel City Jazz Fest.
“They thoroughly enjoyed it,” she said of her guests. “All of the acts were good, and [my friends] were really pleasantly surprised. When we left, we were able to take them out to get something to eat.”
“They made comments that I was happy to hear,” said Watkins, who lives in Pratt City. “[One of my friends said], ‘Driving in from Atlanta, we just loved the city, all the hills, the beautiful scenery. We didn’t realize Birmingham had so much going on.’”
Roderick “Rod Tee” Abernathy, CEO of Real Radio 101, said the Steel City Jazz Fest was an example of Birmingham’s music appeal.
“It was relaxing, very enjoyable. Even though it rained, everyone was prepared,” he said. “There was more than enough entertainment for the money—$100 for a two-day show with more than 15 acts—and [people] got to see the O’Jays. Seeing them alone would cost about that much for an hour.”
Tarver, who has been in the concert promotions industry for more than two decades with his brother Calvin Evans, said, “Downtown Birmingham is lively and magnetic, and culturally inviting. People are really starting to enjoy downtown again. The midtown area is vibrant. … [There is] so much diversity out there, and it’s really attractive.”
Tarver and Evans are president and vice president, respectively, of AEG Entertainment, which was founded by their father, Nate Tarver. The company, “plays” (books) about 50 to 60 percent of the major African-American talent that comes through Birmingham. Over the years, AEG has booked big-name acts, such as Charlie Wilson, Fantasia, Kem, Anthony Hamilton, Jodeci, Mary J. Blige, and the Temptations.
The city’s hometown feel can be appealing, said Tarver. “I’ve been around Frankie Beverly and Maze for the last 30 years, and the O’Jays are like our uncles. When they come to town, we have to take them to eat breakfast at Nikki’s West. I [also know] a guy who makes a gourmet bread pudding [the group] likes to have when they come here, so I’ve got to make sure I get it made when they’re coming to town.”
“Lady Woo” agreed that Birmingham’s hospitality is a lure.
“Artists are often familiar with the history of the city and have preconceived thoughts about Alabama,” she said. “When they get here, they fall in love with the good people, great food, and relaxed pace.”
Another draw, “Birmingham’s family-oriented atmosphere,” said Skinner.
“When Kodak Black was speaking to me, he said he’s well taken care of … when he comes to Birmingham,” added Skinner. “We treat him like he’s our cousin, make sure he gets food. [When he’s here,] he’s kickin’ with us, he’s laid back. He said he didn’t want to leave, but he had to catch a flight to go to another show. It’s that down-home, earthy feeling that artists get in Birmingham.”
Birmingham has several venues that appeal to artists, Tarver said.
“The last time we played Frankie Beverly and Maze, [Beverly] said he wanted to play to an intimate crowd, so we moved that show to the BJCC Concert Hall. The last time we played the O’Jays, we took them to the Fair Park Arena. It’s based on the show itself.”
“When we had Bell Biv DeVoe, we played them at the BJCC Arena,” Tarver said. “And last year when we played New Edition, we had them outdoors at Legion Field because it was during the warm months when people like to be outside.”
Skky Nightclub’s McMullen said some acts may be leery of Birmingham, but that changes once they arrive.
“They’re not sure of the demographics and the population here, so they come based on the contractual agreement,” he said. “[Then] they’re pleasantly surprised by the turnout and crowd interaction, and they offer to come back again. … On social media, that they post things like ‘Birmingham really turned up with me.’”
Still, there are challenges when attracting major acts to Birmingham.
Poppy Colon, 38, a musician and promoter, believes the lack of a stadium-size venue can be a detriment.
“There is a ton of interest for those people to come here, [but] it’s hard to get [artists like] Drake and Beyoncé [because] the venues here don’t hold enough people, so the big A-listers go to Atlanta, Miami, New York,” he said. “We don’t have the clubs for after-parties, either. Usually, when you do a big concert, there’s a big after-party with it. There are limited venues [in Birmingham].”
There also is the question of whether the cost of tickets would be prohibitive. For example, “some big-name artists have a $150,000 [or higher] fee, and that’s before the bells and whistles in their [contracts],” Tarver said. “After you pay for the venue, the production costs … that’s upwards of $250,000. Now, if the median income in Birmingham is $24,000, how many people are going to be able to pay for a $150 concert ticket [for themselves and the person they take?]”
Cost of Talent
The cost for bringing in talent can quickly escalate, McMullen said.
“A few years ago, a local promoter could afford to book a new artist [on his or her own] for a small venue and make a profit,” he said. “Now, because of where we are with self-promotion and social media, an artist’s net worth goes up quickly. After one hit single, prices can be double what they would have been years ago. That determines whether you can take them to, say, Iron City [entertainment complex] and make your money back, or if you need to go to the BJCC.”
Bringing in artists can be determined by a few concrete factors, McMullen added.
“If you have the money, the venue, and the experience in negotiation, you can get whoever you want. That’s been my experience in the industry,” he said.
Many in the local industry said the key is to get the artists to the city.
Skinner said, “When I spoke to Doug E. Fresh last Thursday, he told me, ‘Birmingham and I have a personal, special connection. Every time I come here, it’s like my second home.’”