American music fans have a complex relationship with the dozens of amphitheaters that criss-cross the United States. A handful are put on a pedestal for their striking design and acoustics — think Denver’s Red Rocks or the Gorge in Washington state — while the majority are merely tolerated by fans who slog through muddy parking lots, uncomfortably hot bandstands and crowded plots of concrete and dead grass to see their favorite bands make their biannual visit.
After playing hundreds of amphitheaters in North America, Ben Lovett with the band Mumford & Sons is reimagining outdoor concert venues with a new 8,000-capacity amphitheater being built in Huntsville, Ala. The $40 million project, which city leaders hope will be part of a larger cultural effort to shape a new identity for the city, will be managed by Venue Group, which Lovett formed in 2018 with Mike Luba, who runs the AEG-managed Forest Hills Stadium in Queens, New York and Ryan Murphy, former manager of the St. Augustine Amphitheatre, who will serve as the GM of the project.
“Huntsville is an incredible opportunity to build a flagship project from the ground up,” Murphy tells Billboard. “Instead of plotting the different pieces along a large field, we’re building some compact and vertical that’s borrows from acoustic design concepts have been around for thousands of years.”
Many amphitheaters built in the early part of the 20th century — like the Hearst Greek Theatre in Berkeley which opened in 1903 or LA’s Greek Theatre which opened in 1930, relied on design and amplification principles dating back to Ancient Rome, with audiences packed in tightly and elevated above a central stage. But the popularity and power of the Grateful Dead in the 1970s and the success of two amphitheater projects in Northern California (the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View and the Concord Pavilion) by rock pioneer and promoter Bill Graham led to a building boom across the country. Through much of the 1980s and early 1990s, Promotion companies like Cellar Door Entertainment and Pace Concerts raced to build inexpensive outdoor amphitheaters on unused property.
Large fields gave fans more space to dance and socialize, while the growing distance between the band and the audience was shortened by louder speakers and new sound systems.
More than 40 years later, tastes have changed. The dawn of modern concert clubs and sports arenas have elevated consumer expectations with many fans craving more connectivity with artists and more imaginative creature comforts. Billboard recently caught up with Lovett to learn more about his ambitious project in Huntsville and how he hopes to create a new path forward for future venue design.
What’s your impression of the current American amphitheater world?
It really lacks imagination. There are a lot of carbon copy venues with the same pieces — a big lawn, folding seats and a concrete pad for the band — that tells you nothing about where you are playing. You feel like you could be anywhere. As a musician and a music fan, it’s clear there’s a desire for better amphitheaters in North America, it’s just largely not happening.
Why do this project Huntsville?
The city had hired a group called Sound Diplomacy to conduct a music audit and the mayor and city leaders got behind the findings which showed that developing new cultural centers and music venues in Huntsville would improve the quality of life. Sound Diplomacy had done a similar audit in London and looked at the impact that my (350-capacity) club Omeara had on the quality of life for Londoners. Sound Diplomacy put my name forward for the Huntsville project and I flew to Alabama to meet Huntsville mayor Roy Battle to talk about what it would take to build a great venue. By the beginning of 2018 we were locked in to the project.
The Huntsville venue looks like a small stadium with its circular shape and rear perimeter wall. Why was it important to you to enclose the amphitheater?
We feel that it was our task to harness the energy, both of the sound and of the feeling in the room. Even if that energy is an intimate one and a quiet one, we want it to get closer. There are some great venues in other parts of the world like the Roman amphitheater in Piazza Bra in Verona (Italy) or Waldbühne in Berlin that do that. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what makes these venues special as an artist and a fan and realized it’s that feeling of being outdoors but not having to compromise on that sense of enclosure. To be honest, I don’t quite understand why so few amphitheaters are designed without any enclosure. Outside of the Gorge in Washington and Red Rocks in Denver, the list of great amphitheaters is actually quite short.
Perhaps most were considered a means to an end when they were be built?
Yes and if I put my promoter hat on, I can see someone saying “put the parking over here, have the artists perform here and make this area where the fans will go to the restroom and where they’ll get fed and watered.” It was quite a utilitarian approach. But it’s the creativity and the design that layers on top of a functional venue that makes it so special and aspirational. As an artist, you want to play a venue where the thought and consideration of the design match the thought and consideration that’s gone into the songs you’ve spent your life writing.
You plan to open the amphitheater year round, even when shows are not taking place. How do you see it fitting within the social fabric of Huntsville?
There is this concept that we’ve really bought into called Third Space that examines the role spaces play in our lives as human beings. The first space is your home, the second space is where you work or attend school and the third space is where you can go and interact socially and exchange ideas. It can be your local town hall, or market or church. If you’re in the UK, the pub dominates that third space principle. Venues can be that third space if they can truly take on that dimension. That’s why we are so focused on creating a great food experience. You’ve got to tick off all the boxes and treat the overall operations with as much intensity as the rigging of the PA system. For this to become that third space for Huntsville, it’s got to be first rate and buttoned up.
What’s after Huntsville?
As long as there’s an opportunity to elevate the game when it comes to venues, we’re going to keep on going. And we have projects in motion right now that we will be announcing in due course. I’m very proud to write and perform and I love my band, but I also want to contribute beyond that to other artists and create a world where it’s just a bit better than it was when I first got going in this industry. There’s just not enough great venues and hopefully we will bring the whole game up a notch wherever we end up creating them.