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Grand Rapids, Music City? New venues mean almost more music than beer






For nearly a decade, Grand Rapids has earned the "Beer City" designation from USA Today. With all of the new music venues and increased number and range of musical acts visiting GR, could “Music City” be in our near future?
For nearly a decade, Grand Rapids has earned USA Today designations as being a top “Beer City.” Could “Music City” be one of the City’s upcoming designations? Though opinions might vary, most would agree that the new music venues that have opened over the past several years have greatly boosted the number and range of musical acts visiting Grand Rapids. Not to let beer take backseat, local breweries and pubs have also increased musical opportunities, especially for local bands.

“Grand Rapids is becoming a destination city not only for beer but for entertainment, art, food, and more … people are coming into town from all over to experience the city. We had a couple people fly in from LA for a show last year,” says Amber Stokosa, marketing manager for 20 Monroe Live. “Grand Rapids is becoming a live music destination. Artists that might usually pass over the city are stopping to play shows here.”

Guitars are removed from cases and laid out at the Intersection for a performance by Rival Sons.

Alyson Bennett, promotions director for iHeart Media West Michigan, agrees. “I think not yet, but eventually it’s possible,” she says. “With the new venues at the Intersection and 20 Monroe Live, we are seeing more artists. At iHeart, we have more concerts in the next month than we had in a year. Certainly, having more venues creates a lot more opportunities, especially the Intersection’s new venues. They have opened up lower capacities, giving artists somewhere to play without having to sell 500 tickets.”

Bennett always saw herself working in the music industry and doing what she loves for a living. Her work takes her into all of Grand Rapids’ music venues. She likes how 20 Monroe Live offers big acts and lots of bars, that the Pyramid Scheme brings her up-close to performers, and describes events at the Intersection as being incredibly intimate—even the large back room, that holds up to 1,500, has a club-like ambience (the Stache space accommodates 400.) The Intersection’s talent buyer, Scott Hammontree, agrees that this ambience is one of the reasons people like coming to shows here.

Every mic must be carefully placed for each show.

“It’s smaller than some, bigger than some. In each room at the Intersection, you’re right on top of the act, never more than 50 or 60 feet away,” he says. “We’re trying to operate our business as family style as we can, not extreme corporate, and we create that same feeling with our customers. A rapport has been built with them that is cool to watch.”

He estimates that the Intersection’s two new venues, Elevation, capacity 1,100 guests, and Mint, capacity 150, will allow the club to add 70 more shows per year.

Drum kit setup.

“That’s 70 more opportunities for people to come out and see live music. It also provides local acts opportunity to jump in,” Hammontree says. “One of the things the Intersection has been known for is the variety of shows that we do bring. We’re bringing different people from every race, creed, and cultural interest.”

A smaller but equally popular music venue, The Pyramid Scheme, hosts a wide variety of artists, as well. Owner, Tami Vandenberg, notes that this is intentional.

Fans and photographers watch the Rival Sons at the Intersection.

“Music can bring different kinds of people together in the same room. They get to know each other and get more comfortable with each other,” she says. “We offer a lot of diversity, different kinds of music. We really try to provide a platform for local artists, women, and people of color. A lot have gone on to play other venues and festivals so that’s been fantastic to watch.”

The Scheme’s customers like its downtown location, the building, and the performance space, which offers up to 425 people great sight-lines from any place in the room. Keeping with its local focus, the club focuses on serving Michigan-made products.

“No Bud. No Miller,” Vandenberg says. “We’re extremely locally and community focused. We really do work hard to promote local artists and local art through community events. We definitely try to give back as much as we can to causes that we care about. We have had several local acts who have opened for a touring act and then are asked to join the tour. That’s really cool stuff to watch.”

Stokosa adds that Grand Rapids has made local music a priority long before the new venues came on the scene. Well known music destinations include Billy’s Lounge, Mojo’s Dueling Piano Bar, SpeakEZ Lounge, Mulligans Pub, Tip Top Deluxe Bar and Grill and others. “There are several smaller venues, clubs, and bars that host local musicians on a regular basis, not to mention 88.1 WYCE, who regularly hosts live local artists on their Thursday GR Live shows at The BOB,” she says. “Also, now that our (20 Monroe Live) Vanguard Lounge has been redone, we are hoping to do more with the room including hosting some local musicians, as we have done recently with our after-party series.”

Hammontree concurs. “With more venues, there are more shows and more opportunity for local bands to be on those bills,” he says. “The more excitement, the more people are talking about it, we’re seeing smaller bars and breweries like Founders and Creston offering more music.”

Despite busy schedules, sometimes hefty ticket prices, and technology that brings music to the ears on-demand, people continue to gather around live music. What’s the draw? Bennett, who usually attends several concerts every week, says, “It’s an experience you can’t really have doing anything else. You’re having an emotional experience with the band and all the people around you.”

“It’s good for the soul, for the mind,” agrees VandenBerg. “Look at history. Forever, people have loved to gather around music. There’s something really human about it—people feel inspired, happy, dancing, a whole other level. When we first opened, I was watching people in the front row, the look on their faces. They are all transported on the stage with the band.”

Stokosa adds, “Do a google search for ‘going to concerts helps you live longer.’ Live music provides an escape. There is no experience quite like seeing your favorite band play live right in front of your eyes. Studies show attending concerts regularly improves feelings of happiness, health, and well-being. I love watching faces in the crowd when the band takes the stage. It’s like there’s no place they’d rather be right at that moment.”

Whether or not Grand Rapids will receive national designation as a Music City, music lovers living here know that it already is one. Right here, right now, GR has the right number of venues offering every genre of music performed by local, regional, national, and even international acts. The City might not achieve Nashville status, but with more local breweries, pubs, and festivals featuring local musicians, live music is usually just around the corner.

“It has been so great to be a part of a city that is growing so much. More venues equal more live music coming through town,” Stokosa concludes. “Grand Rapids is becoming a live music destination, and artists that might usually pass over the city are stopping to play shows here.”

A working writer since 1992, Estelle Slootmaker has experience writing feature stories, editing book projects, and copywriting for a wide range of industries–from web text and video scripts to newsletters and reports. You can contact her at Estelle.Slootmaker@gmail.com or via www.constellations.biz.

Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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