Touring

Cincinnati Doubles Down With Two New Game-Changing Riverfront Venues

The Andrew J Brady ICON Music Center; The Ovation
Courtesy of The Andrew J Brady ICON Music Center; Ron Valle

The Andrew J Brady ICON Music Center; The Ovation

The Icon and the Ovation will bring hundreds of shows to the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky sides of the Ohio River.

Cincinnati has long been a great town for music fans who love going to big amphitheater or arena shows, indie rock clubs or cozy theater gigs. But for years the city has missed out on an untold number of mid-level touring acts or larger bands looking for buzzy underplays because it lacked a state-of-the-art 6,000-8,000-capacity room that would help the Queen City slide onto routing between stops in Cleveland/Columbus and Louisville, Kentucky.

That should all change starting this week when the first of two new modern venues, the Andrew J. Brady ICON Music Center in Cincinnati opens up, followed on Aug. 21 by the PromoWest Pavilion at Ovation just across the river in Newport, Kentucky. With touring just starting to pick up after more than 16 months of idled calendars due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the groups behind both buildings took advantage of the downtime to complete construction on the venues that promise to put the city on the map in a whole new.

"Out intention when we signed on and started building was to fit a niche of the kind that didn't exist in this market with a multi-functional space that can do bands from 1,000 up to 4,400 in all-seats or GA floor, which is attractive for a lot of artists that don't necessarily want an all-seated or all-GA venue," says Rosemarie Moehring, director of marketing for MEMI, Music and Event Management Inc.

The Icon is the latest building in the collection of the 20-year-old MEMI, the wholly owned subsidiary of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra that is a leading local promoter and producer of events in the area. MEMI already has a suite of venues in town, including the 20,500-capacity Riverbend Music Center amphitheater and adjoining 4,100 outdoor PNC Pavilion, as well as the 2,500-capacity historic Taft Theatre (which also has a smaller 500-capacity basement venue).

Moehring says for artists such as St. Vincent -- who played a sold-out show at the Taft on her previous tour in January 2018 -- the Icon is the "cool hip kid in town" that was built with the ultimate fan and artist experience in mind.

That focus includes a large main indoor room with comfortable cushioned seats with high-end sound and a design that focuses on clear sight-lines, with no seat more than 125 feet from the stage. "Artists are looking for that connection with fans and when they're playing arenas and stadiums they just don't get that," Moehring says.

The Icon will be first out of the gate with a huge underplay gig by the Foo Fighters on Wednesday (July 28) on the building's outdoor stage, with 8,000 lucky fans scooping up tickets within minutes last month for the venues' inaugural gig. The outside space offers attendees a spectacular view of the Cincinnati downtown skyline, with artist's looking out on the Ohio River and the iconic Roebling Bridge. MEMI's shot at building the Icon came after a bidding process in which the city chose the local vendor they knew over another major regional musical power player who decided to look just over yonder to build their own version of a multi-functional set-up for bands looking to play in a shiny new space.

"Cincinnati has not been a top priority for a long time and now with the ICON and Ovation it will spur the whole market to another level," Scott Stienecker, founder and CEO of Columbus-based PromoWest Productions tells Billboard. The wholly-owned subsidiary of AEG Presents -- PromoWest also owns and operates Express Live, Newport Music Hall, The Basement and A&R Music Bar in Columbus and Stage AE in Pittsburgh -- had been looking to move into the Cincinnati market ever since it acquired the city's independent Bunbury Music Festival in 2014.

"Once we purchased the Bunbury Festival and got into the market we felt like it really needed a new kind of venue because all the existing venues have been around for a while," says Stienecker, who modeled the Ovation on Express Live, the first venue of its kind to have an indoor/outdoor format. "The feedback we got from Bunbarians was, 'we need an Express Live down here,' and so that got us started thinking about how to do that in this market."

What they'll get is a $27 million all-purpose venue with a 7,400 GA capacity (1,040 seated) for its outdoor mini-amphitheater with stunning views of the Cincinnati skyline in the distance and a 1,500-,2,790 GA indoor space that can scale down to 428 seated for more intimate gigs. The building, which pays homage to the area's music history with a King Records room backstage and murals of local and national music icons splashed on the walls throughout, is part of a larger $1 billion structure being build by Corporex going up just outside the doors. That adjacent project will include hotels, bars, restaurants and condos/apartments that is expected to draw nearly 400,000 music fans a year.

They'll have to wait a bit longer to feast their eyes on the Ovation, though, which will officially open its doors on Aug. 29 with a show by Kesha and Betty Who. And while the bidding process to fill in one of the last remaining holes in Cincinnati's decades-long, multi-billion dollar riverfront Banks project and its immediate aftermath were a bit contentious, both Stienecker and Moehring say they are looking forward to serving up the best and brightest at their respective venues, with both planning to book well over 120 shows a year.

"With both venues music fans can benefit the most because I don't know too many midwestern cities that can claim they have as many music venues as we do in Cincinnati -- and over the river in Kentucky," says Moehring. "Now there is no excuse for any artist to bypass us."

As for whether the Icon might cannibalize some of MEMI's other similarly sized venues such as the Taft and PNC, she says both have "great" schedules for this year and next -- with four or five shows on the same night in MEMI's portfolio on some dates -- especially since so many artists are beyond eager to get back out there after more than a year off the road.

As hopes that the pandemic would fade by fall have been upended by the rapidly spreading, more deadly Delta variant of the novel coronavirus, both venues have made plans just in case. Stienecker says there will be plenty of hand sanitizer stations backstage and in the venue and a super-charged HVAC system that has first-class filtering that is "as good as can be" to handle scrubbing the air inside. For now you won't have to be vaccinated, wear masks or social distance for shows, but he says the Ovation will continue to follow Kentucky mandates if and when they change.

The Icon is similarly situated to handle the ever-changing protocols, with a robust HVAC system with biploar ionization -- which Moehring says is proven to kill viruses, including COVID-19, within 30 minutes -- as well as hand sanitizing stations throughout, touchless points-of-sale at all registers and 100% capacity indoor and out with no social distancing or masks required.

So far, Stienecker says feedback from booking agents has been "ecstatic," and if Cincinnati wasn't necessarily on everyone's radar as a must-play before, he's certain it will be now; because of the proximity of Newport, Kentucky to Cincinnati, that riverfront city is often considered part of the Queen City touring market. "With two new state-of-the-art facilities I think it will spur the whole market to another level," he says.

Check out photos of both venues below.

The Ovation

Ron Valle
Ovation

Ovation

Ron Valle
Ovation

Icon

Courtesy of The Andrew J Brady ICON Music Center
The Andrew J Brady ICON Music Center