Rockin’ In Tampa Bay: Insiders Discuss The Music Market

Jeff O’Kelley
– Wild Night
Van Morrison grossed $1.5 million over three 2017 shows at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, Fla., the venue’s highest-grossing Pollstar Boxoffice report.

 Tampa Bay’s hot sports market, which includes the NHL’s 2020 Stanley Cup winner, the MLB’s 2020 American League pennant winner, the 2021 Super Bowl-competing Buccaneers and will host Super Bowl LV in February, is just one aspect of its booming live sector.

“I can’t explain how much it’s changed, how much it’s blown up,” says Summer Bohnenkamp, vice president of programming and marketing at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, located in downtown Tampa on the eastern bank of the Hillsborough River.

“It’s barely recognizable,” Bohnenkamp says. “Downtown Tampa, it just used to go to sleep at 5 o’clock. Everything was dark. If you were coming to the show at the Straz Center, you were alone downtown. Now, we have a vibrant nightlife.”

Tampa and St. Petersburg, a half-hour drive across Tampa Bay away, rank third and fifth in population among Florida’s cities, and the broader metro area’s population of 3.2 million – more than those of Denver, St. Louis and Baltimore – is second only to Miami’s within Florida.

“The Tampa Bay market is certainly one of the most vibrant and strongest markets in the state,” says AEG Presents senior vice president John Valentino, who has booked shows in Florida for more than 40 years, including a three-decade stint with legendary regional promoter Fantasma Productions. (Read Pollstar‘s full interview with Valentino here.)

More than anything, the Tampa Bay market is characterized by its diversity. While Miami’s known for Latin, hip-hop and EDM, and Jacksonville has more in common with the country and rock inclinations of other Deep South markets, Tampa Bay offers up something for everyone, from classic rock icons to touring Broadway. 

“The Tampa Bay demographic is very diverse and very vast,” says Steve Minick, director of entertainment at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa, which sits on the city’s eastern edge. “You can be in an area that’s very rural very quickly, just outside of the Tampa Bay metro, or you can be in a very urban environment very quickly.”

Tampa Bay’s varied nature means that sometimes the industry’s conventional wisdom doesn’t hold true in the market.

“We’ve always felt that our market here was a very unique market, and I think is still is in a lot of ways,” says Rob Douglas, director of music operations at Jannus Live, a lauded 2,000-capacity club in St. Petersburg. “You can’t take anything for granted, at least in the Tampa Bay market, because something may be trending wonderfully elsewhere, but when they get to us, it collapses – or the opposite.”

Like other Florida markets, geography plays a key role in determining Tampa Bay’s bookings.

“If you can’t get them four or five dates up and down the state – or at least the money that is the equivalent to that – then it’s like, ‘Guess what! We’re not coming to Florida!’” explains Douglas, who’s been booking shows from punk to reggae to jazz at Jannus since the mid-’80s.

If traveling down the Florida panhandle isn’t financially worthwhile for an artist, Douglas says, “they dip into Jacksonville and then just head west or north” to other regional markets like Atlanta and New Orleans.

Still, north-south Interstate 75 and east-west Interstate 4 run through the market, making it a convenient stop for any tour embarking on a Florida leg.

“What attracts tours to come through here is that we are right off major crossroads that get to all these other destinations,” Minick says. “We’re really poised locationwise.”

(Sources agree that, for most acts at the club level or above, location within the market doesn’t matter much – fans will generally go from St. Petersburg to Tampa or vice versa to see shows.)

Once in the market, artists have plenty of options. Super Bowl LV venue Raymond James Stadium also hosts marquee music talent when it comes through town; Taylor Swift set the stadium’s single-night gross record with an August 2018 show that raked in $7.2 million.

In recent years, Amalie Arena, which typically holds 14,000 to 16,000 for concerts, has hosted talent from Elton John to Chance the Rapper to Eric Church, while Yuengling Center, which accommodates about half that, has presented artists like Lizzo and Old Dominion.

While the market’s Live Nation-operated shed, MIDFLORIDA Credit Union Amphitheatre, stages plenty of rock and hip-hop, country is its forte, with recent box office highlights dominated by the likes of Luke Bryan, Sam Hunt, Jason Aldean and Dierks Bentley.

David Galindo / David Galindo Photography
– Hard Rizzy
Snoop Dogg DJs at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on Dec. 29, 2019.

Below the market’s largest rooms, acts of all stripes can find homes among Tampa Bay’s rich tapestry of theaters, performing arts centers, and clubs.

Among Tampa Bay’s most acclaimed spaces is the 2,200-capacity Ruth Eckerd Hall, located in the coastal enclave of Clearwater, north of St. Petersburg, and opened in 1983.

The theater hosts a little of everything, from traveling shows – recent highlights include eight-show runs of “The Book of Mormon” and “Kinky Boots” – to esteemed musicians. 

“We’ll go from Jane’s Addiction to Tony Bennett, and that’s the direction that really has worked really, really well for us in this community,” says Bobby Rossi, Ruth Eckerd Hall executive vice president, programming, who joined the Hall in 1996. “Audiences, we learned, will come. They really didn’t care what you did the night before or what you did the night after.”

In the ‘90s, Rossi identified that many arena-level rock acts were transitioning to more intimate, multi-night runs at theaters and performing arts centers, and made that a core part of Ruth Eckerd’s business.

A four-night Van Morrison run in 1997 “was a catalyst in changing the way people perceive Ruth Eckerd Hall,” and in January 2017, the musician returned to Ruth Eckerd for three nights, setting the venue’s box office record with $1.5 million grossed.

Ruth Eckerd’s influence extends well beyond the walls of the Hall itself under the umbrella of Ruth Eckerd Hall Presents, which ranked No. 81 on Pollstar’s year-end worldwide promoters list in 2019. The company books Clearwater’s 700-cap Bilheimer Capitol Theatre, a historic facility that turns 100 in March; like Ruth Eckerd Hall, the Capitol has found success booking reduced-capacity shows during the pandemic.

For the last decade-plus, Ruth Eckerd Hall On The Road has staged gigs at traditional concert spaces such as Amalie Arena, Tampa Theatre and Clearwater’s Coachman Park, and has also brought music to baseball games at Tropicana Field, the St. Petersburg home of the Tampa Bay Rays, and Innisbrook Resort, which hosts the PGA Tour’s Valspar Championship. Ruth Eckerd Hall Presents is even putting on an invite-only Dan + Shay show for 500 special guests the weekend of Super Bowl LV. 

“My mantra has been, ‘We’re promoters first, and we have venues,’” Rossi says. “We try to be wherever we can. We’ll do a show on the head of a pin if we can.”

Across the bay, Bohnenkamp oversees Straz’s six performance spaces, which include the 2,600-capacity Morsani Hall and the 1,000-capacity Ferguson Hall. Like Ruth Eckerd, touring Broadway and stand-up comedy are reliable bookings at Straz, which opened in 1987. But over the last decade, the venue has diversified, booking edgier comedy (Iliza Shlesinger), family programming (“Paw Patrol Live!”), and hip young acts (Bon Iver, The Weeknd, J. Cole).

“The folks who are coming to our venues have become significantly younger,” says Bohnenkamp, adding that Straz has made an effort so people don’t “see it so much as a formal kind of venue, which was certainly a reputation we had in our first 10 or 15 years.”

East of downtown, the Seminole Hard Rock seems poised to become a formidable player in the market post-pandemic. Among the buzziest aspects of the property’s recent $750 million expansion project was the Hard Rock Event Center, a 1,500-capacity space that opened with a Keith Urban concert on Oct. 4, 2019, and subsequently hosted legends such as Smokey Robinson and George Clinton before the pandemic forced its temporary closure.

“We’re looking to give [fans] a one-of-a-kind show that they’re not able to see anywhere else,” Minick says. “Our worst seat in our place is the best seat in an arena.”

Also included in the renovation: A new 20,000-square-foot outdoor pool area modeled after Las Vegas-style pool parties, where top-tier DJs like Tiësto, Alesso and Snoop Dogg (as DJ Snoopadelic) have played to audiences of 3,000. Minick describes it as “a home run in the market.”

It’s a far cry from the outré club scene that Tampa Bay was known for in the ‘80s, when Douglas and Rossi both worked with Valentino at Fantasma.

Back then, Douglas would regularly slap local favorites on as support to the national tours that passed through Jannus, and he’d readily create unusual pairings – one late ‘80s Jannus co-headlining show consisted of The Neville Brothers and Was (Not Was) – when two artists found themselves in the market.

Today, the local music scene has diminished in clout, though clubs like Jannus, 400-cap Crowbar, and 1,500-cap Ritz Ybor still offer smaller-ball alternatives to the market’s higher-profile arenas and theaters. Jannus, a courtyard in the center of a city block, holds particular cachet regionally, and has hosted just about every major act on its way up – or down, Douglas jokes – over its three-and-a-half decades in operation.

Jannus and small venues like it will play a key role as the Tampa Bay music market looks to rebound from the pandemic – and navigate the “disconnect between federal, state, county, and municipal regulations … that are thwarting our ability to carry on,” according to Douglas.

“We’re taking the risk on,” he says, “because the larger companies just aren’t quite back in the ballgame yet.”

Read More About The Tampa Market At Pollstar + VenuesNow’s Market Focus: Tampa / St. Petersburg Hub