The fate of Huntsville’s musical future starts here

By Matt Wake

Want more or different music offerings in Huntsville?

Are you a local musician who wants a better chance to flourish here?

An open forum to begin the city’s previously announced music audit will be held 5:30 – 8 p.m. June 6 at Yellowhammer Brewing’s Lost Highway Bierhall, address 2600 Clinton Ave. W., at Campus No. 805.

The audit, to be conducted by London-based firm Sound Diplomacy, aims to help plot course for Huntsville to grow a thriving music economy.

At the June 6 open forum, Sound Diplomacy and Huntsville officials are hoping to receive input from local musicians, fans and industry pros.

In a press release, Huntsville Mayor and Alabama gubernatorial candidate Tommy Battle said,

“Music plays a vital role in our health and well-being, but we haven’t been as intentional about supporting music as we have in other aspects of quality of life. This audit is our first step in strategically creating a direction.”

Sound Diplomacy’s audit will examine such components as local musicians, venues, festivals and education, to identify key musical assets here. The audit will take approximately 14 months to conduct. The city is paying Sound Diplomacy $165,000 for the project.

Huntsville officials confirmed for the June 6 open forum include Huntsville Director of Urban Development Shane Davis, business relations officer Harrison Diamond, long-range planner Dennis Madsen and city administrator John Hamilton. Huntsville Communications Director Kelly Schrimsher says, following a date change, Mayor Battle’s schedule is being worked in hopes Battle can attend as well. Sound Diplomacy’s global head of projects Katja Hermes and senior project manager Azucena Mico will attend the open forum. Sound Diplomacy is also set to conduct a music audit for the current Muscle Shoals/Florence music industry.

During the last six years or so, Huntsville residents have enjoyed a noticeable increase in dining options, downtown events, comedy and locally-made craft beer. However, live music – particularly touring-level – has not similarly progressed. And Huntsville, although home to an array of notable talents past and present, still has never produced a single legitimately famous band, local venue or recording studio.

The 2013 closing of downtown music venue Crossroads, which hosted acts like Alabama Shakes and Jason Isbell on their way up, practically cratered week-to-week club-level touring here. The lack of a large-scale music festival – following the demise of Big Spring Jam, which hosted legends like Al Green and future stars including Taylor Swift, shuttered after its 2011 version – also impacted fans.

In the wake of those developments, breweries (like Straight to Ale, Yellowhammer and Salty Nut), arts facility Lowe Mill, development nonprofit Downtown Huntsville Inc. and other non-traditional outlets provided stages for local and regional bands to play on. Since opening in 2017, downtown’s SideTracks Music Hall has hosted some national acts, including rock’s hottest young band Greta Van Fleet, as well as local and regional bills.

Tangled String Music Festival, set for June 23 at Big Spring Park and previously known as Spring Fest for the event’s first three years, is another bright emerging spot, although much smaller in scale than Big Spring Jam.

But as tertiary markets like Huntsville, which in the ’90s could still occasionally attract concerts by huge bands like Metallica and AC/DC, now struggle to bring in bold-font shows (factors include higher artist guarantees, increased touring efficiency targeting mostly larger markets, etc.), fans residing there often must travel to see marquee shows.

But there’s more at stake than having more cool concerts here.

As Huntsville vies to retain and attract young professionals and the companies that employ them, improving the city’s music offerings and music culture would be a recruitment asset.

The city has begun to act. In 2017, broke the news Von Braun Center was planning on building a new 1,200-capacity music hall, the size room many rising acts and established touring vets play.

“Huntsville doesn’t really have anything that fits that niche,” VBC Assistant Director Michael Vojticek told at that time, noting the Crossroads closing.

A 2 percent lodging tax increase and $1 per room night surcharge has been targeted to fund the $7 million music hall project (plans also include a rooftop bar), as part of a $42 million VBC expansion. In addition to the 9,000-seat Propst Arena, the VBC, which opened in 1975, is home to the 1,995-seat Mark C. Smith Concert Hall and 330-seat VBC Playhouse. A seven-person board, appointed by Huntsville’s mayor and city council, governs the VBC.

In April, the city announced plans to build 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. A budget should be finalized by end of year with construction targeted to begin in 2019, Davis previously told Since many touring acts specifically tailor concert production during warmer months for amphitheaters, the current lack of such a venue automatically eliminates Huntsville from many tours.

There’s also a privately funded, multi-purpose performing arts center called MidCity Live, with an adjustable capacity of 500 to 1,500, planned for MidCity. A project of Alabama developer RCP Companies, MidCity’s Phase 1A involves Top Golf and a boutique hotel. MidCity also has plans to build an ambitious music business incubator called The 7-2. Named for the nearby highway U.S. 72, the project would, according to RCP, include performance venues, rehearsal spaces and recording studio.

In April, David told Huntsville officials don’t have illusions of “being 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.”

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