A scene from Cosmic Opera at Hammerstein inside the Manhattan Center, New York.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story stated that AEG booked the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. While AEG does provide some services to the arena, they do not have a booking agreement and the facility is open to all promoters. We apologize for the mistake.
One of New York’s iconic theaters is being retooled into a HD broadcast-capable concert facility, equipped to stream or broadcast any event live in beautiful 1080p.
The iconic Hammerstein Ballroom, built in 1906 and once a popular stop for vaudeville acts, is now home to a new revolution in performing arts — the complete integration of a state-of-the-art broadcast and recording studio. Since 1997, the Hammerstein has been the anchor of the Manhattan Center, a television and music studio used to record musical performances for television, special concert events and other programming.
In December, the Manhattan Center made two large changes to open the space up to new clients. First, they ended Live Nation’s exclusive booking contract for the facility, opening up the 3,500-capacity standing room concert hall to independent promoters and anyone interested in booking the building.
The Manhattan Center management team also completed the installation of TV1, a new fully HD recording studio that allows any content performed at the space to be streamed in HD, or digitally delivered for future distribution. The upgrades come on top of some physical improvements to the building including renovated dressing rooms and a new marquee.
Control Room at Manhattan Center (Photo Credit: Frank Oudeman)
“It’s the premier HD television studio in Manhattan right now,” said Sarah-Jane Bennison, the building's director of Sales & Marketing.
While many concert promoters are still figuring out how to monetize concert video, both the Hammerstein and the facility’s adjacent 1,200-cap Grand Ballroom are fully wired for video. The building is owned by the Unification Church, and Manhattan Center Studios leases the building in its entirety.
“We recently did a 24-hour webcast with feeds coming in from several different locations, all different time zones, from all over the world. It was called '24 Hours of Climate Change with Al Gore' and examined how global warming is making an impact on our planet,” said Bennison. “We continuously webcasted for 24 hours, live, ending with a 650-person audience for the final hour.”
Bennison said the studio has been utilized for several concerts, but the strongest market remains television. Talk show host Graham Norton taped 13 episodes of his BBC America program “Would You Rather…?” at the Manhattan Center in October. Viacom has taped scenes from its “Storytellers” concert series at the Hammerstein, along with the Comedy Central Roast of Donald Trump, tapings of “America’s Got Talent” and a corporate event for the launch of Microsoft’s Openhouse, rolling out its new Windows Phone 7.5 Mango update.
“A lot of production groups are used to bringing in their own truck and crew for taping, and it's hard to get them past the hurdle that they don’t need a truck, that we have everything in house,” said OBie O’Brien, director of Audio & Television at the Manhatttan Center. The building’s control room has a brand new HD switcher, an audio room for television with a Solid State Logic C10 HD broadcast console and Dolby 5.1 surround recording capabilities for television.
Music directors have also taken advantage of the space, using the building's superior acoustics and HD recording equipment to score several films, including the Oscar-nominated film “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” Film scores for “True Grit,” directed by the Coen Brothers, and “You Don’t Know Jack,” directed by Barry Levinson, were both recorded in the Grand Ballroom, as was Spike Lee's 9/11 Tribute “Empire State of Mind.”
Concert promoters have been slower to utilize the building's HD broadcast capabilities, although producer Justin Cohen has found success with the Cosmic Opera, a Cirque du Soleil-style performance combining the music of Swedish House Mafia’s Axwell with an operatic story line and colorful dancers. The second performance in the series, “Act II: Imbroglio,” runs in early April. The Ticketmaster venue hosted a concert by rowdy rappers Odd Future on Tuesday, with a concert by former American Idol star Daughtry booked for May 1.
“We decided to open up the building to all promoters because we were getting so many calls from people wanting to come into the building,” said Bennison. “The Cosmic Opera show, which brought in an independent promoter we never worked with before, kind of opened the flood gates. Now we're doing a lot of shows with the independents, not just the majors. It's changed the landscape and kept us busy.”
Among the Bowery Presents, which owns the Bowery Ballroom, the AEG-booked Best Buy Theater in Time Square and Live Nation's Irving Plaza, there are relatively few truly agnostic venues in the city not tied to promoters. That appeals to outside promoters who don't neccesarily want to pay their competition for use of their building, and Bennison said many artists grew up attending shows at the Hammerstein and view staging a concert at the hall as a career milestone.
“We can handle four-to-five truck shows, but in a much more intimate setting,” she said.
O’Brien said she expects more promoters to take advantage of the facilities' abilities to simulcast concerts. A number of acts like Justin Bieber and the Black Eyed Peas have found success broadcasting their concerts to movie theaters and charging a premium for tickets. Artists like Zac Brown Band charged fans for access to an internet live-stream of their 2011 concert at Red Rocks in Morrison, Colo. Festivals like Austin City Limits and Coachella have been selling corporate sponsorships to free simulcasts of their events for the past five years.
“Concerts from what I can see have come full circle,” said O’Brien. “The price of tickets got ridiculous and now the ability to simulcast concerts, whether it be on the internet or through movie theaters not only makes concerts accessible and affordable, in many cases it’s easier to experience.”
Interviewed for this article: Sarah-Jane Bennison, Director of Sales & Marketing (212) 279-7740 x290; OBie O’Brien, (212) 279-7740 x212