The landscape of our summer concert season has changed rather radically in the 10 years that we've been bringing you this Gusto Summer Concert Guide. Below, I trace these changes through some of the more seismic shifts, trends, triumphs and travails of the past decade of summer music in Buffalo.
From Lafayette Square to Canalside
Perhaps nothing offers a more accurate measurement of those changes than the move from the free Thursday at the Square series to the ticketed Canalside Live lineup.
In general, the changes have been positive ones for music lovers who demand a robust and diverse lineup of concerts on par with similar events in primary markets. But change is off-putting to some, often understandably so. Ten years ago, things felt much more low-key, and Lafayette Square provided a meeting place for people who worked downtown and could indulge in what was essentially a big happy hour with live music. It was fun, and it was relatively chilled-out.
Thursday at the Square began in 1987 as a community-based event showcasing local acts. Within a decade, the acts expanded and got bigger. By 2008, artists like Jakob Dylan, Mike Gordon, the Disco Biscuits and Zappa Plays Zappa were part of the lineup -and the once welcoming and comfortable Square started to feel too small, overcrowded, straining at the seams. The move to the Canalside area was inevitable. The area can accommodate bigger crowds, and we also got in early on the expanding region around our waterfront.
But again, things changed. Keeping the shows free started to seem like an untenable idea. So a nominal fee for shows offered one solution to controlling crowd size and making sure the people who came to the shows had some interest in the artist performing.
There's been some grumbling, naturally. But a healthy weekly outdoor concert venue near the waterfront strikes me as essential to the city's growth. Growing pains aside, we've got one.
The move from free to paid concerts
The trend of free concerts morphing into ticketed shows isn't limited to the Thursday concert series. By now, it has become the norm for the majority of our major summer concert venues, to the point where the Erie County Fair has announced a new ticket option for 2018 that offers $20 preferred track seating for its free concerts.
When Artpark's Tuesdays in the Park series grew to the point that controlling crowd size became an issue, the venue started charging a nominal fee, responding to concerns voiced by Lewiston residents and common sense. In 2012, the Tuesday shows added a $5 admission, though the Wednesday concerts remained free. That wouldn't last, however. Crowd sizes again became an issue, and coupled with Artpark's dedication to its other cultural programming – live art projects, chamber concerts, lectures, all of which are at least partially funded by the summer concerts – the Wednesday shows became ticketed as well. The addition of VIP tickets, limited reserved seating in the bowl area, and a division of the general admission seating into bowl and lawn areas are recent changes. Though there has been some grumbling about the $77 total for the best seats during the biggest shows of the season, Artpark Executive Director Sonia Clark said the higher-priced tickets make up a very small percentage of availability. "1.75 percent of total capacity for the entire summer season of Tuesdays has that price point," Clark said. "Seventy percent of the audience for the biggest shows will have paid $17 for their ticket."
Live Nation stronghold leads to predictability
In 2010, when Live Nation, the world's biggest concert promoter, merged with Ticketmaster - the world's predominant ticketing agency - in a move approved by the Justice Department, something bearing striking similarities to a monopoly was born. Optimists predicted that an atmosphere of healthy competition would allow more choice for concertgoers. That hasn't really happened. LiveNation and Ticketmaster are pretty much running the concert industry these days. The Darien Lake Amphitheater is a Live Nation-run venue. Many of the top-tier shows at KeyBank Center are from Live Nation including the Eagles, Def Leppard/Journey, Metallica, Justin Timberlake. (Elton John is an outlier. He's working exclusively with Live Nation's only real competition, AEG Presents, for his "Farewell Yellow Brick RoadTour.")
Ticket prices are at an all-time high, service fees have not gone down as optimists predicted in their post-merger giddiness, and a "one size fits all" approach to concert booking means that much of our big-ticket summer concert action is all but interchangeable with the lineups at other Live Nation-run venues nationwide. Make of this what you will. We are certainly getting some great shows around here. But then, so is every city that has a Live Nation venue.
Larkinville offers showcases for local, second-tier national
The Wednesday night Live @ Larkin series and Food Truck Tuesdays at Larkinville have long been local artist-centric affairs. That's been a boon to the local – and predominantly original – music scene. This year, a mix of nationally touring bands join local artists on the lineup, particularly at the Wednesday free series, where uber-hip nationals like funk powerhouses the Nth Power and Turkuaz share the season with locals the Buffalo Afrobeat Orchestra, the Tins and Miller & the Other Sinners. Tribute acts share the love, too, which is only proper in a market where they are clearly in demand.
The addition of national bands reduces spots available to locals and expressions of disappointment are being heard on our original music scene. The Larkin gig has been a major score for a local act and one of the best summer gigs an artist can get. However, local acts are on all 12 of the Live @ Larkin shows and also are being booked exclusively for the official Larkin after-parties at Hydraulic Hearth.
Uber provides a safe alternative
Concerts provide a party atmosphere, particularly at outdoor venues during the summer. I've had many discussions with area concertgoers who have said they would rather skip a show at a semi-remote location than attend and stay completely sober, in order to drive home safely. Ride-sharing changes all of that. An Uber ride from Darien Lake to downtown Buffalo will cost you in the area of $60, and from Artpark to downtown Buffalo in the area of $50, according to uber-fare-estimator.com. Split it with a few friends.