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As Canalside moves to ticket model, WNY's era of free shows ends

For the first time in the 30-year history of Buffalo's Thursday summer concert series, there will be no free admission.

You will now pay $5 for concerts at the newly dubbed Canalside Live! summer concert series at Canalside, which kicks off with a performance from alt-blues artist Gary Clark Jr., on June 15.

[PHOTOS: See the 2017 Canalside Live! lineup]

The move to an admission fee represents the end of an era and the logical outcome of what is essentially a failed experiment. Free concerts have been a feature of our summers since Thursday at the Square launched in 1987, and the tradition spread to venues like Artpark, and concert series' in North Tonawanda, Lockport and the City of Tonawanda. These free concerts held an obvious appeal, but once that appeal spreads far and wide, crowd size and crowd control become serious issues.

"It's about controlling the crowd and the environment," said Matt LaSota, general manager of Canalside, which is now being overseen by Be Our Guest, Ltd. Group. "We want to return the series to what it once was, going all the way back to Thursdays in Lafayette Square – a friendly environment for an older crowd."

Lest anyone get the idea that the move to a $5 ticket is meant to chase away the economically disadvantaged, LaSota said Canalside will introduce "a program offering free tickets for those who simply can’t afford it." Details will be announced soon.

"Diversity is something we cherish, and I think this year's lineup reflects that," LaSota said, pointing to a lineup that includes rock, blues, pop, hip-hop, country and EDM. The talent booking for the series was once again overseen by Artie Kwitchoff and Donny Kutzbach of Fun Time Presents, who have been involved with the series going back to the Thursday at the Square era.

With the Be Our Guest Group taking over from Global Spectrum, the Chicago-based event management company that began running Canalside in 2015, many changes are expected with the commitment to ticketed events perhaps the most jarring of the lot. Many longtime concertgoers equate "free" with "inclusive," a concept central to the Canalside experience, where multiple ages, varied cultures and disparate economic groups can come together in celebration of our city and its at-long-last revitalized waterfront.

That said, in recent years, reports of periodic violence, public displays of intoxication, and a massive influx of younger concertgoers, many of whom did not seem to be there for the music, placed a black cloud over the series.

Keep the concerts at Canalside

In 2012, Artpark committed to ticketed-only events when managing the crowd size at the Tuesday and Wednesday free concerts became a serious issue.

"Fencing and gating the venue allowed us to charge small admissions and helped us control the size of the crowd and make a safer venue," said George Osborne, former Artpark president, whose tenure included the decision to begin charging admission. "The additional revenue helped us book bigger acts and remain competitive in the booking battle for the best bands."

Osborne raises a significant point: Revenue from ticket sales can help a concert series compete for the best available talent. This can translate into a series that leans less heavily on third-tier oldies acts or multi-band nostalgia bills and begin to pepper the lineup with of-the-moment and/or up-and-coming artists.

This has been the case with Artpark, which now largely splits the difference between evergreen artists (Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ian Anderson), iconic 1980s and '90s bands (Tears for Fears) and hip, contemporary artists, a la recent appearances by the Flaming Lips and Ray LaMontagne.

Canalside concerts will be free no more

The inclusion of Gary Clark Jr. and USS in the Canalside lineup speaks to the continuation of the Canalside tradition of balancing such hipper, youth-oriented acts against heritage acts. Plus, there is a renewed commitment to using local artists as openers on "as many of these shows as possible," LaSota said. That deepens such possibilities by shining a light on the abundance of relevant young artists in bands in our region.

LaSota cites the name change from Thursday Canalside Concert Series to Canalside Live! as an effort to "build our brand" to be more adaptable to future development-based changes.

"There is uncertainty, with all of the development coming," LaSota said. "These are positive things, but if there is more development, then the available area for the concerts might shrink, by necessity. Ideally, we'll have the opportunity to present concerts on different days, and if necessary, in different locations.

"Our commitment is to keep the concerts here, but as development happens, we'll have to see. We definitely value the history of the Thursday concerts, and we will honor that history. But we are open to whatever the future might bring."

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