For live music fans, the experience is everything. A performance by a favorite artist can sometimes be marred by bad sound or poor stage visibility.
In 20,000-seat indoor venues and large amphitheaters, performers often rely on giant projection screens so those in the “nose-bleed” section can feel like they’re part of the performance. Those same venues were built for sports, not music, and are plagued by poor acoustics.
Don’t expect those shortcomings when the new Huntsville Amphitheater opens in summer 2022 at MidCity. The 8,000-seat outdoor venue is being designed to create a unique visual and audio experience for performers and fans alike.
“Amphitheaters have gone the way of the giant stage and the jumbotron screens,” said Ryan Murphy, president of Huntsville Venue Group, the company overseeing the project. “The intimacy has gotten lost along the way, and it’s exciting to get that back.”
Murphy, general manager of the Huntsville Amphitheater, knows a thing or two about how outdoor amphitheaters should look and sound. Prior to moving to Huntsville two years ago, Murphy headed up the St. Johns County Cultural Events Division. He also served as general manager of two St. Augustine, Fla., music venues – the Ponte Vedra Concert Hall and The Amp, an outdoor amphitheater.
Murphy’s business partners – Ben Lovett, Mike Luba, Don Sullivan, Jeff Kicklighter and Al Santos – also have experience with music venues, though Lovett’s is more unique. In addition to being a member of the Grammy-award winning folk group Mumford & Sons, Lovett also manages two venues in London. The Huntsville project will be his first in the U.S.
After a 2019 music audit revealed the need for an outdoor amphitheater in Huntsville, Lovett and Luba met with City officials and subsequently told Murphy about the opportunity. When the City decided to move forward on the project, Murphy invited Huntsville officials to St. Augustine. He wanted them to see how the amphitheater had become a booming cultural center that hosted other events like farmers markets.
“It just so happened that the band Alabama was playing (the amphitheater),” Murphy said. “That wasn’t planned.”
Impressed by what they saw, the City gave Murphy the opportunity to build his vision. Described as “Romanesque,” the Huntsville Amphitheater is now under construction at MidCity District, already home to a number of popular eateries and attractions.
This venue will be flexible and adaptable, whether it’s a mega country star or the hottest DJ. It will be scalable for anyone, whether they play arenas or clubs.
To say the amphitheater will look like nothing else around it is a bit of an understatement. Murphy said every aspect of the design takes sound and experience into consideration. When asked about inspirations for the design, he mentioned a few outdoor venues live music fans hold dear – The Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, Red Rocks near Denver and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga, N.Y.
“I’ve been speaking to a lot of artist management groups, promoters and agents because there hasn’t been a building like this,” he said.
Another unique function of the amphitheater will be something it doesn’t have – an in-house sound system. Murphy explained most touring acts travel with their own sound and lighting gear, so it didn’t make sense to spend thousands of dollars on additional equipment.
“This venue will be flexible and adaptable, whether it’s a mega country star or the hottest DJ,” he said. “It will be scalable for anyone, whether they play arenas or clubs.”
Murphy doesn’t doubt the amphitheater will help Huntsville achieve its goal of being one of the South’s top music destinations. The facility should also provide an abundance of patrons for nearby businesses.
Nadia Niakossary, business development manager for RCP Companies, the primary developer behind MidCity, said the amphitheater could generate $4.8 million in revenue from concert tickets alone in the first year. Add that to money spent by concertgoers in adjacent restaurants, bars and recreational attractions before and after a concert.
Businesses outside MidCity, including area hotels, should also see a revenue boost from the amphitheater. Niakossary said the facility will undoubtedly attract new businesses that want to be part of the excitement.
“The Huntsville Amphitheater and the programming that Venue Group has created are prominent parts of our story and a major attraction because of the traffic patterns it will create for this area,” she said. “Restaurants want to be that pre/post show spot, retail tenants love the visibility and the hotels will have that convenience factor of their proximity to the venue.”
John Meredith, Huntsville’s District 5 Council Member, said a new mixed-use development will contain hundreds of apartments for those who want to live at MidCity, and another residential project is in the works. Infrastructure improvements are also ahead, including a new entrance off Research Park Boulevard near the amphitheater.
A musician’s dream
The Rocket City is home to hundreds of professional musicians who can be seen performing at local bars, restaurants and music halls. At least two of them, solo artist Remy Neal and Jerome Villarreal of Them Damn Dogs, have followed the progress of the amphitheater and look forward to the finished project. They would also love an opportunity to perform there.
Neal, who describes his music as “art pop,” said he’s performed in a variety of indoor and outdoor venues. He explained the amphitheater would accommodate not only his music, but also his costume changes.
Like Neal, Villarreal’s band has played numerous bars and clubs around Huntsville. He believes musicians who have dreams of playing the amphitheater will “step up their game” to make it happen.
As live music fans, he and Neal look forward to seeing what acts will be passing through Huntsville. They also believe the amphitheater will have positive impacts on the existing musical landscape.
“I think things will trickle down and help the music scene on a more local level,” Neal said. “Hopefully people will start to recognize us as more of a music town and maybe it will bring people to the smaller venues.”
Beyond the stage
The part of the project that excites Murphy almost as much as the amphitheater is the exterior grounds that will also contain a park and smaller outdoor stage for up-and-coming local artists like Neal and Villarreal. And like the amphitheater in St. Augustine, Murphy hopes the Huntsville park becomes a cultural center for other events like farmers markets.
Meredith shares that hope and believes the amphitheater will also be an ideal location for theatrical performances, festivals and high school graduations.
Even though the project is still more than year from completion, the excitement in Murphy’s voice is palpable. There are a few more bridges to cross before opening night, including which ticket company will get the amphitheater’s business.
There’s also a matter of staffing. Murphy estimates about two-dozen people will be hired as full-time staff, but its success may also depend on dedicated volunteers who do everything from working gates to ushering people to their seats.
Does Murphy have a wish list of acts he’d like to see on stage? He wouldn’t provide specific names but said he’s a big fan of Tennessee Valley natives Jason Isbell and Brittany Howard.
When asked what he would do on opening night when he finally hears the roar of the crowd and those first christening notes, Murphy laughed.
“I’ll probably faint,” he said.