SHEPHERD OF THE BLUES: Kenny Wayne Shepherd and his band performed Jan. 31 at Kenan Auditorium on the University of North Carolina-Wilmington campus. (Courtesy Gregg McCraw)
Kenan Auditorium has got the blues
Charlotte promoter MaxxMusic has expanded its reach in the Carolinas by booking concerts at Kenan Auditorium, a performing arts center on the University of North Carolina-Wilmington campus.
Last year, Gregg McCraw, president and owner of MaxxMusic, signed a three-year deal with the school to book a minimum of two shows annually at Kenan, a 1,000-seat facility.
For 2023 alone, MaxxMusic has already exceeded the minimum with five shows confirmed through early September: Neko Case, Robert Cray, Little Feat, Judy Collins and Eric Johnson.
Those acts follow blues guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd, who performed Jan. 31 at Kenan Auditorium, which drew a crowd of 800-plus, generating about $54,000 in gross ticket sales, according to McCraw. Three days earlier, the five-piece band performed at the Knight Theatre in Charlotte, another MaxxMusic event.
Last year, MaxxMusic kicked off the UNCW partnership with Samantha Fish, Micky Dolenz of The Monkees and Jimmie Vaughan.
The concerts fall in line with the school’s Kenan Spotlight program, working with regional promoters to grow content and exposure, said Jeremy Summers, director of operations for UNCW Office of the Arts.
Kenan Auditorium turned 50 years old in 2021. Over time, it’s played host to a myriad of performers. The eclectic list runs from Pat Paulson, Jimmy Buffett, Bob Hope and Doc and Merle Watson, to the Dixie Dregs, Dick Gregory, Arlo Guthrie, the Amazing Kreskin and Abbie Hoffman.
Over the past several decades, Kenan has also served as a theatrical venue for ballet, opera and Second City, plus lectures and other school programming. Still, UNCW desired additional programming to fill dates and generate revenue for the 76-year-old institution.
“We’re trying to raise the profile of our performing arts center by bringing in more diverse acts that we wouldn’t normally do as a university venue,” Summers said. “As things get more expensive in the concert world, it’s beneficial that we help each other out. It’s a way to keep the average Joes like myself working and making things more accessible to our campus and community.”
The deal is a basic rental agreement. MaxxMusic receives the same discounted rate as other on-campus events, Summers said, without getting into details of the financial terms. McCraw decides which artists play Kenan, but the school has the right to determine whether the event is appropriate for a university setting, he said.
For MaxxMusic, the deal coincides with its strategy to grow business beyond Charlotte, a 3.5 hour drive to the coast, one small step at a time coming-out of the pandemic, McCraw said.
Prior to the pandemic, MaxxMusic promoted shows at Brooklyn Arts Center in Wilmington, an old church that can fit 750 for concerts, in addition to venues in Asheville, Greensboro, High Point and Raleigh, North Carolina.
Inserting Kenan Auditorium into the rotation was a no-brainer; booking the same artist in multiple markets within an overall region helps the agents and gives MaxxMusic more strength as a buyer, McCraw said.
The promoter continues putting shows at Brooklyn Arts Center, such as Tab Benoit in April, but it’s easier to secure dates at Kenan, which is set up well for live music. Brooklyn Arts does a lot of weddings and corporate events and doesn’t have the requisite production equipment that’s in place at Kenan, McCraw said.
“It’s working out very well as a partnership and they’ve been very easy to work with,” he said. “Wilmington is an interesting market. There’s a nice niche for blues. Compared to when I started in this business more than 25 years ago, it’s not as popular at the club level, but the blues artists playing larger rooms seem to be doing quite well.”
Kenny Wayne Shepherd said those rooms, whether large or small, play an integral part of the touring system that helps break new acts and extend the careers of established artists.
“This particular style of music has been around for a long time, so clearly there is an audience for it,” he said. “There are areas of the music industry that don’t support (blues) music like they once did, but thankfully, there are a lot of promoters who are still doing it.”
In Wilmington, Kenan’s concerts have targeted an older demographic, no surprise given it’s the blues. MaxxMusic offers student and faculty discounts for Kenan events, but for now, the promoter hasn’t booked anything to cater to the student enrollment of 18,000. That could change. There have been discussions internally about booking younger acts affordably priced for students, McCraw said.
“Wilmington has a lot of retirees that are maybe not being served currently and that’s part of what we have tapped into,” he said. “It fits within our growth strategy, to take some of these seated shows that we’ve been doing for years at the Blumenthal (complex) in Charlotte and find other markets for them around the Carolinas.”
Breaking into new markets is always a learning experience in terms of finding the right demographics for those who enjoy live music and buy concert tickets, and Wilmington is no exception, according to McCraw. An interesting trend on the marketing end is that terrestrial radio remains an important outlet for publicizing concerts in Wilmington, unlike Charlotte, he said.
In that respect, MaxxMusic has a local representative working closely with local FM station “The Penguin” to advertise Kenan shows and put posters in key locations such as Yellow Dog Discs, a record store near campus.
The Cape Fear Blues Society, a local group that supports and presents blues music in the Wilmington area, helps spread the word about Kenan’s blues concerts, Summers said.
“Outside of Gregg’s operation, we’ve tried all forms of media and I can’t say radio has shined brighter than the others, whether it’s social media, TV or print,” he said. “A lot of it is word of mouth. People see it, hear it and talk about it, and radio would definitely play into that.”
Editor’s Note: VenuesNow staff writer Wendy Pearl contributed to this story.