WILMINGTON – Music lovers are one step closer to seeing larger touring acts live — and more intimately. Brooklyn Arts Center (BAC) is launching a higher end, scaled-down fan experience with its dinner-and-a-show series.
BAC will welcome Blackberry Smoke’s Charlie Starr and Benji Shanks for three nights, March 24-26, for only 50 fans. Concert-goers will be served a three-course dinner from chef Bobby Zimmerman at True Blue Butcher and Table. Tickets already are sold out to the March 25 and 26 events.
“There has just been a void,” BAC owner Jay Tatum said of the pandemic, after having lost upward of 75 events in 2020, including concerts from Della Mae, Jorma, the annual Port City Jerry Day for the United Way, among others.
Tatum bought BAC from Dave Nathans in 2018, with the intention of strengthening its live music schedule. Rentals of BAC as an event space has become its bread and butter. The 1800s-era renovated church especially is known for weddings hosted practically every weekend throughout the year.
“And weddings pay the bills,” Tatum said.
The previous guard focused on renting the venue to promoters, who have brought in acts like Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, Karl Denson and His Tiny Universe, Third Eye Blind, Big Boi of Outkast, and Ani DiFranco, among others. Tatum wanted BAC to book acts in-house, so recently he hired concert promoter Jared Stone, with the goal for BAC to make a larger imprint on the music scene, much like other small venues have done for Wilmington. Specifically, Tatum points to the often-praised Mad Monk in the ’80s and ’90s.
“I saw The Ramones there when I was in high school — Social Distortion, Run DMC, Dave Matthews, 311, Public Enemy and Ice Cube,” Tatum rattled off. “Some of the best times I’ve ever had in my life is just going to concerts and music festivals.”
Stone’s Rolodex of industry contacts are expansive from working for Ticketmaster and Live Nation throughout the years. In fact, Stone came to Wilmington from Richmond originally to be the general manager for Live Nation’s new Waterfront Park, slated to open this summer. Because of Covid-19, he was furloughed and eventually laid off.
Like Tatum, Stone sees limitless potential for BAC. He knows firsthand the success of hosting intimate fan experiences in larger cities like New York; he did one on a small rooftop bar with members from Blink 182. He also worked with Mark Brown, who went on to found Cloud 9 Adventures, known for its concert-vacation packages, including Brandi Carlile’s Girls Just Wanna or Panic En La Playa, featuring concerts from Widespread Panic while vacationing in Mexico.
Stone said he sees parallels in the Wilmington market that present ample opportunity to tap into a viable fanbase. “People in Wilmington, the fans, are pretty rabid,” he said. “It has such a strong community around music that it seems to me most people would do a lot to be in a small room with very few people in it and see their favorite bands.”
Though offering intimate, specialized events isn’t anything new, Stone said the climate now seems right, especially with Covid protocols and mandates in place. It lends itself to a good business model. Technically, BAC can open to 150 people, safely spaced 6 feet apart under the governor’s orders, but Stone said they want to keep the dinner and shows to 50 to 70 people.
The real trick comes in curating the right bands. Stone said it’s a delicate balance.
“You’ve got to find a sweet spot of what bands are playing to the 5,000 people a night or 4,000 people a night,” he said. “I think it takes a special artist to do that.”
Stone has known Blackberry Smoke’s Charlie Starr and Benji Shanks for a while now and said they’re a great fit for the VIP experience. “They understand if they go out and give fans what they want, those fans are going to remember it and come back to buy 10 more tickets next time,” Stone said.
“The tickets are a little pricier [at $165],” Tatum said, “but, I mean, for a fan experience it’s a no-brainer.”
Not to mention, the concerts are catered with an artisanal focus from the chefs at True Blue.
On April 1 and 2, the series will welcome Billy Pilgrim meets Dark Water, featuring Kristian Bush of Sugarland.
Stone is working on booking another for the end of April or beginning of May. Though, he remains mum on details.
“I was just on the phone with Sam Bush’s agent, trying to figure out how we can get him here,” Stone said.
According to Tatum, the series has potential to grow outside of music too. He has his sights set on trying stand-up comedy.
“We’re going to put the infrastructure in place now,” Tatum said, “purchase some tables and chairs and things that live here at Brooklyn that we’ll just be able to use all the time.”
Stone’s also thinking ahead to when restrictions lift and the venue can be up and running in larger numbers; its capacity is 750. He is hoping it will be operating fully by end of summer or early fall. No matter, the venue has the functionality to be scaled down and comfortable.
“I can put 292 people all in seats and present a good quality concert still in a very cool space,” Stone said.
He also imagines growing a smaller concert series in the adjoining Annex, which has two additional rooms. BAC used to host them a few years ago with a focus on local artists.
“There are three rooms in this venue that could take some of the smallest bands that don’t really draw crowds, but we could spend three years cultivating them right there, which is a great way to build a brand and a band and a fanbase,” Stone said. “So we’ve been talking about starting bands off on a much more rootsy level — more underground-ish — and build them all the way up to where we can get them into BAC.”
Expanding the BAC brand offsite and into community partnerships remains top-of-mind to help broaden its stake as a cultural hub.
“What if we could pop up restaurants in the back of places or at a brewery in town or in the middle of a field somewhere with great artists playing?” Stone asked. “Or on the Battleship?”
Once they are booking acts fully, tapping into other genres of music not fully exposed in town will become a priority. Jazz especially tops Stone’s list.
“We don’t want to dose people in the same style of music over and over and over,” he said. “Though, I think we could probably have as much bluegrass and Americana as you wanted and people would just come.”
Stone would personally like to see national artists that go through Charlotte, Raleigh, New Orleans, Chicago and L.A. have an opportunity to play more in town. He explained since Wilmington is a smaller market, it likely wouldn’t get many weekend shows with big names, as those artists normally go to larger city venues on Friday and Saturday nights. Thus it makes Brooklyn Arts Center really viable for Sunday-through-Thursday shows.
“We feel like it’s gonna be a new game that we’re gonna seize here,” Tatum said.
Even when the pandemic is in the rearview mirror, Stone said some of the ideas they’ll put in place, like the dinner-and-a-show concept, has legs to stick around. Right now, it’s obvious some fans are willing to pay whatever just to have an opportunity to see live music again safely.
“But will fans still see the value of putting 50 or 60 or 70 people in the space for double the price, but get to eat really great food at the same time as see their favorite artist?” he asked. “My gut feeling is yes.”
Tickets to the upcoming series can be found at BAC online for $165. VIP tickets are available for $200, which puts ticket-holders seated in the balcony with carefully crafted cocktails made from Wilmington’s End of Days Distillery. True Blue will serve a three-course meal at the upcoming shows.
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