Knoxville's music scene: A 'social glue' and economic boost
In 1957, before the alarm clock of Ashley Capps’ parents struck in their Fountain City home, the 2-year-old took it upon himself to wake up the family. But he didn’t cry out for his parents or climb into their bed. He cranked up his red plastic record player — capable of playing only 45s — and sent soundwaves of Sheb Wooley’s “The Purple People Eater” blaring throughout their home.
“I somehow always had this urge to share music with people and to explore it,” Capps said.
That urge led to the creation of AC Entertainment and kickstarted a 40-year career booking shows in Knoxville, which helped lay the foundation for a modern music scene that continues to drive business and attract visitors from throughout the world to Scruffy City.
Numbers provided by Knoxville’s Arts & Culture Alliance show that seven local nonprofit music organizations, including the Bijou and Tennessee theaters, hosted around 573,000 visitors from Knox County and beyond in fiscal year 2018 and created a nearly $43 million economic impact.
That impact is roughly $19 million more than in 2014. Other nonprofit organizations included in the data are Jubilee Community Arts at the Laurel, Knoxville Jazz Orchestra, Knoxville Opera, Knoxville Symphony and WDVX.
The data do not include local for-profit music venues like Scruffy City Hall and The Mill and Mine.
“If there is a benefit of 40 years and a benefit of a 40-year anniversary, you kind of look backwards and see this flow and continuity that you certainly didn’t see in the middle of it because you are involved in making it happen,” Capps said. “Everything has, in some ways, influenced everything else and helped make it possible — even occasionally in a negative way.”
Booking began 'dominating everything’
Capps started as a WUOT host his senior year at Central High School, exposing him to the radio station’s catalog and greatly expanding his musical taste.
“I loved not just the music but everything I associated with the music,” he said. “I was very interested in where it was coming from and all of the atmosphere that surrounds it.”
He wanted to see as many shows as possible, even if that meant traveling. Around 1979, an ad for an Evan Parker concert in Alabama caught his attention, so he decided to make a call to learn more about attending the show. He was too late.
The show was happening that day, but the people in Alabama got his number and called back later when they learned cellist Tristan Honsinger was traveling through Knoxville and would be willing to perform.
Capps admits he didn’t know the first thing about putting on a concert, but the people in Alabama assured him it was as easy as finding a place to play. He decided on the Laurel Theater, renting the venue for $10.
Yes, Capps said, actually $10. "I thought it was expensive," he said.
“We charged $3 for a ticket,” Capps said. “Nobody had heard of this guy. I made posters with white paper and a black magic marker that I basically stole from the UT library. I made copies and it sold out — 200 people at $3 a pop just because it was different and people were curious and they came. … I think, from that moment, I was hooked.”
Capps went on to promote shows at the Bijou Theatre in 1980, which had just reopened. His first show at the Tennessee Theatre was Chick Corea and Gary Burton a couple years later.
“I liked being the catalyst that created this special evening for people that, if it was really good, could become a really unforgettable experience,” he said. “I found myself doing more and more concerts, but I had not committed myself to the idea that I was going to be a concert promoter as a career. … But it increasingly started dominating everything.”
‘AC Entertainment was born’
Capps said things really started to change for the local music scene when he opened Ella Guru’s in the basement of what is now the Melting Pot in Old City. The venue later moved to The Foundry near World's Fair Park.
In June 1988, The Neville Brothers performed the first concert at the Old City venue, which Capps said "wasn't even officially open."
“The Neville Brothers were laughing because they are basically walking through these areas of rubble." Capps said. "It was just electrifying. It was an incomparable experience that no one there will ever forget.”
In a town the size of Knoxville, Capps said, it was important to appeal to as many people as possible. The club booked artists from a variety of genres from African pop to jazz to legendary bluegrass acts like Doc Watson.
“It was not unlike Big Ears in a way,” Capps said. “I’ve never thought of that before.”
It’s crazy to think now, he said, how unrelated events can impact a person. The start of the Gulf War meant many artists stopped touring, and Ella Guru’s went from having some of its best months to having almost no one booked. The last show was the Goo Goo Dolls in December 1990.
“My wife describes me as being curled up in the fetal position on the couch during the Christmas holiday,” he said. “I didn’t have a plan, but I did have a lot of relationships.”
The success of the club put Knoxville on the map, and bands still wanted to play there. Capps was able to book Widespread Panic and Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ back-to-back nights at the Bijou Theatre the following February.
“AC Entertainment was born,” Capps said. “I didn’t have to worry about the alarm going off at the club at 5 a.m. and all of the stuff I had to worry about on a daily basis managing at the club. It was one show at a time.”
Just as the Gulf War impacted Capps, the construction of Knoxville Convention Center put his “Hot Summer Nights” concert series at World’s Fair Park on hold, leading him to create Bonnaroo in 2002.
Jim Dick, looking to sell his radio empire around 1996, also had a tremendous impact. Dick also owned the then-failing Tennessee Theatre and wanted it off the books. Capps took over managing the theater, which led to the creation of its nonprofit board. The theater has remained a nonprofit organization to this day.
“I’m really proud of that,” he said. “I was scared to death that the theater was going to close. … It took some time to get it honed to the point it is now.”
The venue now has a schedule packed with off-Broadway dates and nationally acclaimed musical acts like Kacey Musgraves, who just won the Grammy for best album. The theater is just one of the many venues that shows Knoxville “celebrates music unlike any other cities across the state,” said Kim Bumpas, president of Visit Knoxville.
Businesses near music are a 'win, win'
When Capps started Ella Guru’s, the Old City was dead. The growing theater scene of the '90s was happening when Gay Street was a “ghost town,” and AC Entertainment’s Sundown in the City festival was held in a Market Square in major need of its soon-to-come revitalization, Capps said.
“I would love to put forward the notion that I was some kind of genius predicting the future,” he said about Sundown. “But to me, it was just an opportunity that was sitting there. It was this big open space that no one was using.”
Plenty of people use Market Square now, Bumpas said, and that’s partially thanks to the music scene.
“Without a doubt, if you’re a business owner or someone who wants to start one, the number one thing you are going to look at is location, location, location,” she said. “Being near (music) institutions is a win, win.”
Business owner Jesse Newmister is about as close to a venue as a business can be, with his Tako Taco restaurant attached to The Mill and Mine. The venue is managed by his wife, and AC Entertainment handles all the booking.
“(Proximity) absolutely helps,” he said. “As a whole, people who are going out to see music and me personally — if I’m going out to see a concert, I’m going to dinner first.”
He recalls the Gary Clark Jr. show in November drawing at least double the amount of business compared to a non-concert night at Tako Taco.
“What’s cool about it is with each success of a show, we are getting more reservations saying they are going to the show next door,” Newmister said.
Business nearly tripled last year at his Kaizen restaurant during Big Ears. The festival was founded in 2009 by AC Entertainment and brings more than 100 dynamic performers to Knoxville. This year's festival, happening March 21-24, is still produced by AC Entertainment, despite the festival becoming a nonprofit.
A 2017 study by Americans for the Arts showed locals spent an average of $35 outside the cost of admission when attending a nonprofit arts and culture event in the greater Knoxville region during fiscal year 2015. An average of about $16 was spent on meals before and after the event.
Nearly 48 percent of locals attending these events said they would have traveled to another community to see a similar event, meaning arts retain local dollars, according to the study.
The total expenditure for locals attending nonprofit cultural events in fiscal year 2015 was $34,482,150. But that’s only about half the amount spent by cultural tourists.
“I meet a lot of people who come to these shows who aren’t from Knoxville,” Newmister said.
Music can 'enhance the experience’ of tourists
“You never heard people speaking German or Mandarin on Market Square 25 years ago,” he said. “You didn’t see people with cameras taking pictures of buildings and pointing at things. You saw a lot of people who worked here and kept their eyes on the ground and went from one known location to another. This tourist vitality is something that is new and fun to watch.”
The increase in tourism and entertainment opportunities is good news for Knoxville, because cultural tourists spend more money than locals when attending arts events, the study showed.
Nonresidents in the greater Knoxville region accounted for around $63 million of the total $97 million of expenditures made around nonprofit arts and culture events in fiscal year 2015. That includes an average of around $30 for one-night-only lodging and $30 for meals before and after the event. Souvenirs, refreshments and transportation were also calculated to determine nonresidents spend around $95 in addition to the cost of attending the event itself.
The study also showed that nearly 70 percent of nonresidents attending nonprofit arts shows in fiscal year 2015 came to the greater Knoxville region specifically for the event.
Over 100 people arrived for a tasty brunch held at the Mill & Mine for the Big Ears festival brunch on Saturday, March 24, 2018.
“What’s not always so clear is the importance of a (now-closed) Mercury Theater or a Preservation Pub or the smaller components,” Capps said. “What keeps it completely alive and vital is that night after night after night activity. UT football is great, but it’s not enough to have eight football Saturdays. You need this steady, continued activity. I think culture tends to provide that more.”
Many people visit Knoxville with the primary intention of attending a convention, Bumpas said. But out of the 6.3 million visitors in 2017, 13 percent said they visited a bar or nightclub while in town.
Visitors can catch music every weekend at venues like the Concourse, Boyd’s Jig and Reel, Barley’s and the Pilot Light. Live music also happens nearly every night at Preservation Pub and Scruffy City Hall.
“We are all music all the time,” Bumpas said. “We are playing off the musical heritage of the state. … You can come to the visitor’s center every day at noon and hear the Blue Plate Special. And places like Pres Pub and The Mill and Mine — part of what they’re bringing to Knoxville is that ability to enhance the experience of someone here for a convention.”
But major events help, too. More than any other cultural event, Bumpas said, Big Ears exposes Knoxville as a tourist destination on an international scale.
According to numbers provided by the Arts & Culture Alliance, more than 15,000 people attended Big Ears in 2017, with roughly 8,000 coming from beyond the region. Capps said attendees of last year’s festival came from 48 states and almost two dozen countries.
“It brings the world to Knoxville and showcases Knoxville for the world,” he said. “They’re filling the downtown hotels, restaurants and bars and the sidewalks. The experience of being here in the city is really fantastic to see it through their eyes because we have incredible world-class venues and everything is in walking distance. … People come here and they want to explore.”
Spending related to Big Ears had a $2.1 million impact on the local economy in fiscal year 2017.
Capps said a proposed change to the alcohol policies for non-sports events at public campus arenas could bring even more popular performers and tourists to Knoxville. A state bill would allow alcohol sales at Thompson-Boling Arena, where AC Entertainment promotes a handful of shows.
“It’s pretty archaic, at this particular point, not to be able to get a beer at a concert,” he said. “I don’t say that everybody has to drink in order to have a good time, but it just makes for a better, more controlled environment.”
State Rep. Rick Staples, D-Knoxville, is co-sponsoring the bill in the house. He estimates the city and county could be losing out on some $2 million in sales and hotel taxes because of shows not coming to Knoxville due to alcohol restrictions.
Giving back to the community
Just as patrons give to venues when attending a show, those venues give back to the community. Expenditures by nonprofit arts and culture organizations in the greater Knoxville area during fiscal year 2015 totaled roughly $48 million.
The organizations employed 2,397 people while generating a $1.5 million revenue to local governments and a nearly $3 million revenue to state governments.
And even with Capps' success outside of Knoxville with festivals like Bonnaroo, some of his proudest moments have been about giving back to the local community.
“We cared,” Capps said. “We really want the artists to have an amazing experience, and we want the audience to have an amazing experience. We’ve really tried to pay attention to the little details that make that possible. Then artists want to keep working with you and audiences want to come back.”
Capps said Live Nation’s 2016 purchase of AC Entertainment has given him access to more resources, information and capital when looking to grow the company and bring great music to Knoxville.
“Music tends to be a social glue of sorts,” Capps said. “I think one of the most important things about music is it’s an accompaniment and a catalyst for daily life in so many ways. … Twenty years ago, people would come to visit me, and I had to do a little song and dance about why I still live here. Now, people want to meet my real estate friends. They really fall in love with this city.”
Source: Knoxville News Sentinel by, Ryan Wilusz
The East Tennessee Economic Development Agency markets and recruits business for the 15 counties in the greater Knoxville-Oak Ridge region of East Tennessee. Visit www.eteda.org
Published September 6, 2019