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Return of the rock: What’s behind Maine’s rise as northern New England’s music mecca

Posted Aug. 29, 2014, at 12:09 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 29, 2014, at 10:05 p.m.

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Tim Reynolds (left) and Dave Matthews perform &quotTwo Step" at the Darling's Waterfront Pavilion in Bangor in this June 2014 file photo.
Tim Reynolds (left) and Dave Matthews perform "Two Step" at the Darling's Waterfront Pavilion in Bangor in this June 2014 file photo. Buy Photo
Arcade Fire plays during their concert at the Darling's Waterfront Pavilion in Bangor in this August 2014 file photo.
Ashley L. Conti | BDN
Arcade Fire plays during their concert at the Darling's Waterfront Pavilion in Bangor in this August 2014 file photo.

Ten years ago, live music fans in Maine mostly were out of luck. In 2004, there was no venue on the Bangor Waterfront. The State Theatre in Portland was on the verge of closing. There was no Port City Music Hall. The Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland slowed down its booking of bigger names, and the Bangor Auditorium mostly was silent.

Back then, the artists and bands people wanted to see live were playing anywhere but Maine. These days, though, things have changed.

“If you’re a live music fan in Maine, you’re in the right place at the right time,” Waterfront Concerts President Alex Gray said.

This summer was the fifth season Waterfront Concerts brought major acts like Dave Matthews Band, Brad Paisley, Arcade Fire and Willie Nelson to the Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion in Bangor. The 1,800-capacity State Theatre in Portland, which reopened in 2010, regularly hosts bands like Primus, M.I.A. and Bob Weir. Port City Music Hall, a 530-seat venue open since early 2009, features cult favorites and indie artists, as does longtime Portland venue Asylum. The year-old Cross Insurance Center in Bangor already has played host to several big concerts like Queens of the Stone Age, and the newly renovated CCCC, now known as the Cross Insurance Arena, is set to do the same.

Why is it all working now? Maine is becoming a destination for music lovers. And for Bangor — a city that, until 2009, had almost no entertainment infrastructure — it all starts with geography.

Location, location, location

Bangor is uniquely positioned: It’s close enough for fans from New England and Canada to visit for shows. There isn’t a single permanent venue north of Boston and east of Montreal that can accommodate the number of concertgoers the 16,000-capacity Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion can.

Even the Colisee Pepsi, in Quebec City, at 15,176 capacity, is smaller — and it’s also almost exclusively used as a hockey arena. And while the Magnetic Hill Concert Site in Moncton, New Brunswick, can hold as many as 80,000 people, the site lacks things like permanent plumbing and has not booked a concert on its grounds since August 2012.

That’s probably why Alex Gray sees so many New Brunswick license plates parked in downtown Bangor on concert days, as well as Massachusetts plates. According to University of Maine economics professor Todd Gabe’s 2013 economic impact study, 26.7 percent of all Waterfront Concert attendees traveled three hours or more, and more than half were from Canada.

“We knew from Day One that Canada was going to make up a huge percentage of the people who would come to concerts here,” Gray said. “We are uniquely positioned to draw people from beyond our borders. We can bring in those big names that others just can’t.”

The slate of touring acts coming through Portland dropped to an all-time low in the late 2000s, when the Civic Center’s future became mired in lease disputes and the State Theatre closed its doors in 2006.

“From 2006 until 2010, there was no mid-size room for a band to grow into, so it made no sense for agents to bring an emerging act to smaller rooms when the act had no other room to grow,” said Lauren Wayne, who books events for the State Theatre and Port City Music Hall in Portland and occasionally books events for Empire and the Cross Insurance Arena, also.

Since reopening in 2010, the State joins the 200-capacity Empire, Port City Music Hall and the 6,700-seat Cross Insurance Arena as the third in a series of graduated steps for growing bands to climb up in Portland.

Wayne attributes the varied venue sizes to why Portland’s music scene is thriving. Both venues are owned by Wayne’s employers, Bowery Presents, a New York-based concert promotion firm, and Higher Ground Presents, a Burlington, Vermont-based concert promotion group run by Alex Crothers.

“The sign of a healthy market is live music at all levels and sizes, and that is exactly what has transpired since we opened in 2010. So essentially an act can start at Empire, move to Port City Music Hall, move on to the State Theatre and maybe even eventually the [arena],” Wayne said.

Power, water, lights, sound

Location is one thing, but ensuring there’s a proper venue for those artists to play is another entirely. When the State Theatre closed in 2006, it was lacking proper fire escapes and had dangerous, decades-old electrical wiring. When it reopened in 2010, after $1.5 million of renovations that included improved bathrooms, brand new wiring, new seating and fire exits, it was ready to take its place as one of the premier mid-sized venues in the Northeast.

Having top-notch sound, lighting and security, as well as comfortable surroundings, are keys to whether a venue thrives or dies. The State and Port City offer all that in spades, along with a staff that knows what the business of live music is all about.

“Our staff is the best in the business,” Wayne said. “It’s important to us to be as professional and courteous as we can be to both artists and patrons. We know what we are doing, and we do it well.”

Bangor, however, lacks those smaller venues that allow bands to grow and fosters the development of a diverse live music scene. Waterfront Concerts instead excels at bringing in mega touring stars to the Queen City, like Kenny Chesney, Phish and Jason Aldean, thanks to a longstanding partnership with Live Nation, the mega entertainment corporation that owns Ticketmaster and books most of the world’s biggest artists. Waterfront Concerts this year also began booking shows at the Maine State Pier in Portland, an outdoor venue than can hold 3,000 people, in addition to booking the 600-capacity Asylum in Portland, making them a statewide music organization.

The size and geographic location of the Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion is, of course, favorable. But the fact that an outdoor venue such as Darling’s can exist in Bangor at all is almost entirely because of the investments the city of Bangor made in revitalizing the waterfront.

When the Bangor Waterfront revitalization project began in the late 1990s, the area by the river was nothing more than dirt, grass and garbage. By the time it was completed in the late 2000s, there was an ample supply of electricity and water, as well as proper streetlights and well-manicured grounds.

“When people approach me and say, ‘Why can’t we have a concert venue like you have in Bangor in our town?’ I say to them, ‘Do you have power and water available? Do you have a police and fire force that can handle an event like that? Do you have parking?’” Gray said. “Bangor works because the city made the investment well before we came on the scene to make sure the infrastructure was in place to have a venue.”

The biggest acts in the world today bring with them on tour multiple tractor-trailers filled with hundreds of lights, HD video projectors and 40-foot screens, huge stages and walkways and many other set pieces to enhance their shows — not to mention huge crews to set up and take down that set. That level of production value has become an industry standard.

“Until recently, there was no venue in Maine that could handle the technical requirements of a big country show,” Gray said. “Now we can host those artists and fulfill those needs. That wasn’t true 10 years ago.”

Give the people what they want

In the end, though, it’s not as simple as the old mantra, “If you build it, they will come.” You can build a venue; but unless you bring in artists people want to buy tickets to see, not many people will come. A successful, ongoing concert series requires all the elements be present: technical, economic and artistic.

Despite their best efforts, some things fail. The KahBang Festival was not able to present a festival this year, after years of financial struggles. Other start-up venues and festivals — such as the failed Nateva Festival in Oxford County and Waterfront Concerts’ few attempts to stage concerts at Scarborough Downs — never gain much traction.

“You can point to lots of reasons as to why things are working now, but in the end it’s all about the fans,” Gray said. “People want to see live music. They want to be entertained. We started Waterfront Concerts in the middle of the recession, and it still worked. That flies in the face of what you might expect. But it works because if you know your audience and you bring the artists people want to see, guess what? They’ll show up.”

There are also more bands on tour than ever, largely because of the destruction of the recording industry in the age of Spotify and iTunes. Live shows are the single largest moneymaker for the majority of artists today. That certainly helps. But it also helps that Maine, even with its uncertain economic future and graying population, remains a place people want to visit. A thriving live music scene just adds to the appeal.

“Portland and Maine have experienced a terrific boom in the last few years, with the attention that its creative community has received,” Wayne said. “Music, arts, food, craft beer — couple these with the great outdoor life that Maine has to offer, and I feel as though all of our hard work in each of these areas has really started to pay off. [It’s a] destination for both touring artists and fans who want to visit. You can see a great show, eat some great food and generally enjoy what this state has to offer. It’s a beautiful thing.”

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