You can’t engineer Athens, Ga., Minneapolis or Muscle Shoals in a lab.
A viable, vibrant local music scene has to happen naturally.
But if the right opportunities are created, good things have a better chance of happening.
And right now, multiple projects are in development that could radically change Huntsville’s music landscape within the next two years – and possibly affect larger resonance for decades.
Some of the projects are aimed at giving musicians a better chance to flourish here.
Others, at giving fans more opportunities to see high-level concerts in Huntsville, and thereby help make the city more attractive for young professionals and companies that employ them.
These projects include a city-funded 8,500-seat amphitheater at MidCity, the sprawling mixed-use facility being built on the former Madison Square “super mall” grounds, on University Drive.
Current plans are for amphitheater construction in 2019 and the first concerts in summer 2020.
Huntsville finally landing an amphitheater would be significant for live music fans here, because many touring acts specifically tailor concert production during warmer months for amphitheaters. If a market doesn’t have an amphitheater, that market will likely be bypassed for those tours.
The Huntsville amphitheater will be a city-owned facility similar to the Von Braun Center, with the VBC assisting with operations, according to Huntsville Director of Urban Development Shane Davis.
The city has targeted MidCity as the most viable location for an amphitheater, with proximity to I-565, and thus convenient access for both local and regional fans, being key. Next steps for the amphitheater would be to enter into a design contract this summer and bid the project sometime in 2019.
“We should have a finalized budget later this year,” Davis says. “We are currently working with national experts to make sure that not only will the amphitheater be a great experience for the public, but also for the performer. In today’s world of entertainment and the number of venues available for an artist to book a show, a venue must in designed in a way that artists enjoy the experience – sound, lighting, layout, etc. We want the venue to be known as a ‘place you must experience as an artist.'”
Amphitheater funding, as with the city’s other facilities, would be allocated from Huntsville’s Capital Improvement Plan.
There’s also a privately funded, multi-purpose performing arts center called MidCity Live planned for MidCity, a project by Alabama-based real estate developer RCP Companies. MidCity Live is expected to cost around $8 million to $10 million. “Although we are in the early stages of design, the venue is planned to be multi-purpose and technically and acoustically superior to anything in the region,” says RCP Companies co-founder Max Grelier. RCP is aiming for a design that would allow the performing arts center to adjust capacity from 500 to 1,500. Plans are to begin construction early 2019 and to open the MidCity Live venue later that year or early 2020. (The VBC is developing its own new 1,200-capacity music hall.)
MidCity plans also include a restaurant/entertainment venue involving Nashville pop-country hit-makers Rascal Flatts, who’d reportedly perform there at least once a year as part of the deal.
Perhaps most intriguingly, MidCity is also set to build “a music and cultural arts incubator,” dubbed The 7-2, for Huntsville original music. Named for the nearby highway U.S. 72, the project would, according to RCP, include performance venues, rehearsal spaces and recording studio. The 7-2 would also be a place for musicians, songwriters, producers, publishers, booking agents, dancers and management companies to connect and collaborate. The project is set to be physically located adjacent to MidCity Live. RCP-sponsored entities would fund The 7-2.
[Plans are for the overall MidCity development, which also includes residential, dining and retail components, to be built over three to four years, covering an area equal to around 12 city-blocks. “Phase 1A” began in 2017 and includes Topgolf, a 125-room boutique hotel and cozy outdoor entertainment/food venue The Camp, which debuted its Fireside Music Festival last year.]
The 7-2 leadership is set to include Codie G, known for managing record label Slow Motion Soundz, and Shawn Patrick, former bassist with ’90s hard-rock band The Storm Orphans. Patrick previously founded “The Call-Muscle Shoals,” which involved developing talent and encouraging collaboration at FAME Studios.
“My instinct tells me,” Patrick says, “from talking to a lot of people around Huntsville that the amount of talent tucked into garages and homes, not to mention the talent at UAH, Alabama A&M, Oakwood, Calhoun and even in the Shoals at UNA is significant. Meaning, we have a lot of great musicians looking for opportunity. And we intend to meet the need, so we have the ability to grow.”
Huntsville City Council recently approved a contract with London-based film Sound Diplomacy to conduct a two-part “music audit” of Huntsville. The audit’s first part will look to identify existing musical assets (musicians, songwriters, producers, etc.) and determine the local music sector’s economic impact on the city, and a strategy to grow this sector. “Much like past focuses of Huntsville to grow the defense and space sectors, advanced manufacturing, bio-tech, cyber security, etc.,” Davis says.
The audit’s second part will inventory current performance venues and examine how the city might expand entertainment and cultural options for Huntsville residents. “This is the quality of life component of this effort,” Davis says.
“We definitely are not looking to become the next Nashville or Memphis, but if you look at cities we compete with for both industrial growth and workforce talent, they have a diverse offering in culture, with music being a large portion of the mix. For example, Austin, Texas took a serious similar look years ago as they experienced tremendous growth. As a result, they have a strong music scene and the national-known South By Southwest festival.”
Shain Shapiro founded Sound Diplomacy in 2013. In addition to its London headquarters, the firm also maintains offices in Barcelona and Berlin. Their staff numbers around 20 and includes music industry vets, development and planning specialists and cultural policy researchers. Sound Diplomacy’s past consultations have involved locales including London, Berlin, Cuba, Costa Rica and St Lucia.
Before you scoff at Huntsville’s chance of developing a thriving music business, consider this: although the city’s never produced a legitimately famous band, internationally renowned live-venue or truly iconic recording studio, the area has produced a bevy of successful musicians and industry professionals, including some who currently work with superstars like Jack White and Eminem.
Anyway, even if a city produces one huge band that hardly guarantees success for other local groups. And every city doesn’t need to be, say, ’90s Seattle.
“To me it is about infrastructure, rather than history,” Shapiro says. “Huntsville punches more above its weight than people know, especially within hip-hop, and the biggest challenge I feel is for us to recognize what Huntsville has and then understand what we need to develop to ensure that music becomes a revenue generator for the city, much like space, cars or other sectors. Music doesn’t need to be flashy to be lucrative.”
Huntsville is home to Oakwood University, a hotbed of young talent that produced Take 6, the long-running a cappella group with at least 10 Grammy Awards to their credit. Doug Jansen Smith owner of local recording studio Sound Cell, has worked with the likes of Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt and Phil Collins. In recent years, Tangled String Studios at Lowe Mill emerged as one of Alabama’s premier intimate music venues. Earlier this century, Slow Motion Soundz gained international buzz for their underground rap music. Listen Local and Jim Parker’s Songwriters Series showcase tunesmiths. Luthiers Tom Shepard and Danny Davis craft guitars that conjure signature tones. International touring vet Microwave Dave is an Alabama blues legend, as well as being someone many other top local musicians look up to. WLRH public-radio show “The Invisible City” gives area bands access to airwaves, and Vertical House Records is one of the Southeast’s premier vinyl shops. Of course, there are the many talented musicians regularly playing Huntville clubs and other venues.
We could keep the above list going.
But, Davis says a lack of assets isn’t the issue: “The inventory of music success (in Huntsville) is fragmented, and has not been spotlighted within the community. We just need to develop and document this existing presence and build on it.”
Sound Diplomacy’s Huntsville music audit will be completely transparent, Shapiro says. The firm will start the process by interviewing local artists and music business owners. The firm will return in the fall for follow-up. Sound Diplomacy’s website will maintain a list of all Huntsville music audit activities and deadlines, and post a survey interested parties can fill out.
“I think that music has an incredible amount of opportunity in Huntsville,” Shapiro says. “Huntsville has a sizeable student population, some of the smartest people in the country and is growing rapidly.” According to 2017 U.S. Census Bureau data, Huntsville is currently Alabama’s third-largest city, behind Birmingham and Mobile, and on track to overtake Birmingham as the state’s largest.
So, how could developing music resources realistically change Huntsville five, 10, 20 years from now?
“I believe we will create some world-class live and recorded music infrastructure,” Shapiro says. “We will also show that Huntsville is a viable place to live, record and work in music, and I think, like other sectors, we will see music and the ancillary industries it supports grow in the city incrementally over the next five, 10 years.”
Huntsville will pay Sound Diplomacy $165,000 for the audit over a 14-month contract period.
That money will be allocated from the Economic Development Fund, used to assist the city in growing its economic base, studying market conditions, workforce development and job recruitment. For financial context, Huntsville corridor studies have ranged from $75,000 to $150,000. The Western Growth Plan, involving the area for Polaris, Toyota/Mazda and GE Aviation development projects, cost $650,000, while the Cummings Research Park Master Plan update ran around $250,000.
Davis says Sound Diplomacy’s Huntsville music audit will look to determine if Huntsville could become a “support city” to a place like Nashville.
He also believes there’s potential for synergy with Muscle Shoals to strengthen North Alabama’s overall music presence, “so that everyone can share the success and growth.”
But what do local musicians think?
Producer, songwriter and musician Kelvin Wooten has lived in the Huntsville area since around 1970, when his dad moved here to work for NASA. Wooten has played, written, arranged or produced for stars including Al Green, Mary J. Blige, Macy Gray and TLC. But he notes some of his biggest career successes have been collaborations with Oakwood talent. For example, he co-wrote “Freedom,” from the soundtrack to director Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 hit film “Django Unchained,” with Oakwood product Elayna Boynton. (He also co-produced that Anthony Hamilton-sung tune.)
But Wooten thinks Huntsville’s lack of a focused, musical hub has led many Oakwood students to leave the city soon after graduating.
“To them, it doesn’t look like it’s not large enough scene because there are so many small pieces,” Wooten says. “It’s like eating peas on a plate. When they’re all spread out it doesn’t look like much to eat, but you put them all together and alright that’s a sizable amount of food there. I think we definitely need something that will bring us all to one place.”
Americana singer Amy McCarley has combined skilled songwriting and hungry work ethic to release compelling albums like 2014’s “Jet Engines,” record with Nashville studio aces and serve as opening act for the likes of Marty Stuart and John Hiatt.
“People who I tour with and meet at festivals, particularly music friends up in Nashville, are interested in Huntsville,” McCarley says. “They know about it. So, I think they’re ready to come here and want to come here. They’re looking for opportunities and venues and festivals, things like that. Every time I’ve been on a tour and we’ve stopped off in Huntsville they all love what they find here.”
McCarley often travels to Nashville for writing, recording and business. But she enjoys being based in Huntsville, which is an easy two-hour drive from Nashville and offers a more laidback lifestyle and affordable cost of living. “I think other musicians would be attracted to that,” she says, “and there’s enough going on here, plenty of restaurants and hiking, things like that.”
Jonathan Byham plays guitar with Huntsville band Seminole Strut, a quintet with a strong local following and solid studio releases. He says the 2017 opening of SideTracks Music Hall was a big shot in the arm. SideTracks has hosted shows by well-known touring acts like rising classic-rockers Greta Van Fleet and even a solo set by Americana star Jason Isbell, as well as giving local groups a place to play more of their original material. “Before SideTracks was around,” Byham says, “there were not too many places here where you could really go and see a show rather than just going to a bar and seeing a bar band.” Bynam hopes Sound Diplomacy’s music audit involves reaching out to cities like Birmingham and Muscle Shoals to “get their input as well, scenes that have yielded some more success.”
Dave Anderson is one of Huntsville’s most accomplished musicians. He’s performed on “The Tonight Show” (with gospel icons BeBe & CeCe Winans), toured as Van Halen’s opening act and scored hits (with Brother Cane) and placed music in TV and film (with various projects). Anderson is a member of jazzy Southern rockers Atlanta Rhythm Section. And he’s longtime cornerstone of Huntsville live music.
As local musicians began learning of the upcoming music audit over the last week or so, some voiced skepticism on social media. One musician, who Anderson respects, made the comment to him personally that “politics and music don’t mix.”
Anderson admits he’s also usually the first person to be skeptical of something like the music audit, but he’s encouraged by the concept of building a “music ecosystem.” “They’re putting a lot of focus on educational opportunities and rehearsal places for young musicians,” Anderson says, “so I really think there would be great potential.”
Anderson respects The 7-2’s Shawn Patrick personally and musically. So when Patrick reached out to him about being part of an advisory board, he agreed. “He’s somebody who I trust and his excitement is coming from the right place,” Anderson says of Patrick. “There’s nothing financial, no political agenda I want to further for myself. At best I think there’s a lot of potential for this firm to do some cool things in Huntsville, and at worst I’m an ambassador to make sure local musicians are represented if there is something dubious about it. I’m taking a positive attitude and hoping good things happen. If it’s not a good thing, it’s not going to happen because it’s going to take support of the local scene for it to work.”