Music in the time of COVID: How Huntsville is poised to top the charts

single-meta-cal September 22, 2020

Eight months ago, when Huntsville’s inaugural Music Board was installed, COVID-19 had yet to completely upend, well, everything.

“It’s not like a hurricane where you have a little time to prepare,” Dennis Madsen said.  “It’s been 100 years since we’ve had a pandemic, and, as a society, we had lost the playbook for what we do, especially as it related to the arts community.”

Madsen, the City’s Urban and Long Range Planner, is tasked with being the bridge between the Music Board and the City’s Planning and Economic Development departments.

Madsen attends Music Board meetings and advises the newly formed body on effective ways to work with the City. He said just as the Board began to organize itself, COVID-19 caused nationwide shutdowns, crippling the music industry worldwide.

It’s estimated that live music makes up over 50% of total industry revenues. With tours coming to a screeching halt and large gatherings banned in many states, the financial impacts from COVID have been felt by both large acts and local musicians.

Making the role of the Music Board that much more important as Huntsville aims to amp up this part of its economy.

Conversations about Huntsville are already brewing within the music industry.”

“We are all seeing widespread pain and hurt out there among music industry professionals who are still trying to make it and find work,” said Brett Tannehill, chairman of the Music Board. “We [the Music Board] are trying to connect people with resources and have a firm understanding of the challenges people are facing so we can find meaningful ways to help.”

This focus on weathering the impacts of COVID led the Music Board to release a local musician resource guide in early April to help struggling artists in the Rocket City.

From the structure of its meetings to pressing pause on some early, pre-COVID priorities, the ability to pivot has become second nature to the nine-member Music Board.

“Like many companies and institutions, we’ve had to completely rethink the way we do business,” Tannehill said. “We haven’t been able to have an in-person board meeting since our inception.”

If flexibility is the name of the game, the Music Board is winning.

And they’ve been particularly productive amid the curveballs thrown at them by a global pandemic.

Talking Details – Music Board Priorities

According to Tannehill and Madsen, three priorities are currently guiding the group’s focus for the remainder of 2020 (aside from the busy work of establishing a structure for a brand new board and ongoing COVID support):

  • Establish a Music Officer position (AKA, the person who, “when the music industry calls, picks up the phone.”)
  • Review City permit processes and ordinances (specifically the Special Event Permit and Noise Ordinance)
  • Outreach and connection with the local and national music industry (amplify the local music scene through promotional efforts; connect regional and national acts with Huntsville venues)

So, what’s the timeline for creating that much-anticipated music officer position?

The Music Board has completed the job description, and the role now sits before City Council as they consider its addition in the 2020-21 municipal budget.

Madsen says the City will be looking to fill the full-time role in 2021. The Music Officer would report to the Music Board and could ultimately widen its footprint, expanding into an office with multiple team members.

“Ultimately, I could see the position morphing into its own separate agency kind of like the Huntsville Sports Commission,” Madsen said.  “Just like the Sports Commission focuses on sports as an economic development tool for the City, the music office would focus on developing local sound, supporting local venues and attracting visitors to Huntsville’s music scene in a way that lifts our economy.”

The Music Board has also set its sights on establishing what’s called an “agent of change” policy.

In a nutshell, this policy suggests “whoever is there first” sets the conditions as it relates to sound regulations. Whoever comes in after has to make the accommodations.

For example, say Huntsville has a new music venue moving next door to already established townhouses. If the City had an Agent of Change policy in place, the music venue would have to tailor its hours and even perhaps the acoustic design of the facility to be a good neighbor to the existing housing.

Huntsville’s Amphitheater – “Every seat will be a good seat.”

All of this forward momentum is complemented by another major Huntsville music development: the soon-to-be-built amphitheater.

Ryan Murphy’s company, the Huntsville Venue Group, won the competitive bid to operate the 8,000-seat, open-air space and, according to Murphy, COVID-19 has positioned Huntsville to benefit greatly from the pent up demand for live music.

“Conversations about Huntsville are already brewing within the music industry,” he said. “People are talking to each other asking, ‘Have you heard about what’s going on in Huntsville? I heard Ben [Lovett] from Mumford and Sons is involved, etc. I can’t wait to see what they put together.’”

Murphy says whichever metaphor you prefer – a “Cinderella story” or a Phoenix rising from the ashes of a global pandemic – what’s happening with Huntsville’s music scene is something to get excited about.

“The moment it’s OK to tour again, everyone who has ever picked up an instrument is going to be hitting the road,” Murphy said. “The venues that remain, especially the larger venues, will be overbooked, and here is Huntsville saying, ‘Hey, not only are we building a state-of-the-art facility with COVID-conscious guidelines, but we have an open calendar, and we will have one of the most unique, beautiful, unbelievable, amazingly run amphitheaters in the nation with an extremely receptive market.”

“Wow factor”

The amphitheater isn’t just about drawing large acts to Huntsville though.

Night markets, farmers markets, arts festivals, local music showcases, gospel brunches – you name it and the space will likely be used for it.

And the design? Think “wow factor.”

The Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. The Greek Theatre in Berkeley. The Red Rock Amphitheater in Denver.

Murphy says the renderings of Huntsville’s own Greek-inspired bowl don’t do it justice.

“Look is one thing but it’s also about the function,” Murphy said. “Acoustically, 2,000 years ago, these congregating spaces were built without amplified sound. You could speak – and perform – in front of thousands of people and everyone could hear because the acoustics were built that way.”

That’s the goal for Huntsville’s nascent amphitheater. The best of the best.

“The design is meant to take up less of a footprint, to feel more intimate so you can feel more connected to the artist. You won’t be staring at a jumbotron to see the action. Every seat will be a good seat.”

Huntsville’s amphitheater is set to open in 2022. Two years out and Murphy says the anticipation is already heating up.

“This last month, my phone has started ringing off the hook – higher-ups throughout the industry, big promoters and artists, calling Ben and I and being like – ‘In 2022, we gotta come play and see what you are building.’”