Editor's note: Times Free Press entertainment writers Barry Courter and Casey Phillips discuss the potential and challenges of the new Track 29 music venue on Market Street.
BARRY COURTER: You'd have a better chance of predicting who will be elected president of the United States in 2016 than you would trying to forecast whether a new music venue in Chattanooga will be a success. Judging from the number of clubs, halls and rooms that have opened and closed here over the years, Chattanooga is an especially tough market.
So why is there so much apparent excitement and optimism about Track 29, the new music venue at the Chattanooga Choo Choo? First, the movable stage allows the room to hold anywhere from 800 to 1,800 without feeling cavernous or empty. Those numbers fall between the capacity for clubs like Rhythm & Brews and the Tivoli Theatre, which holds about 1,700 people.
CASEY PHILLIPS: While it's great that Track 29 can give the impression of a packed house, the quality of the sound is also going to be a major factor in encouraging people to come back. With well-known artists such as John Hiatt and M. Ward already booked, people will be shelling out a lot of money for tickets.
Fortunately, despite being what amounts to a massive metal shoebox, Track 29 has a sound system that creates a surprisingly undistorted sound wherever you're standing. The concert bill for the Aug. 19 trial event included three bands whose differing instrumentation, intensity and vocal styles presented a real obstacle course for the custom sound system. As I walked around the room, however, I was pleased to find that the music was uniformly clear. Because of how the speakers are arranged, your eardrums won't pop if you like to crowd the stage, but you also won't have to struggle to hear if you're 10 feet off the ground in one of the VIP rooms.
COURTER: Ticket pricing is another factor. With the ability to get more people into the venue AND offer a full bar AND sell tickets to the four VIP rooms, the owners can sell tickets for less than a smaller club would have to charge for the same act. The limited concessions at the Tivoli Theatre and Memorial Auditorium have hurt those venues dramatically over the years, and Track 29 could fill that void. Promoters and venue owners, at least the ones that stick around, are in the business to make money. Period.
PHILLIPS: Track 29's capacity and potential drawing power also address the lack of local shows by "known talent," which is an issue music fans here are always complaining about. Previously, to see artists such as the two I mentioned above meant a two-hour trek to Atlanta, Nashville or another larger regional market. Track 29 may help (emphasis on "may") convince bookers that we have worth as a destination, not just a pit stop.
Also, thanks to a partnership with the Chattanooga Choo Choo, Track 29 can offer ticket packages combined with discounted hotel rates. For out-of-town visitors who enjoy a libation or two with their music, that could make the venue even more appealing as a part of a long weekend or vacation.
COURTER: It's a chicken-or-egg thing when it comes to booking known artists. Artists tend to go where fans tend to buy tickets. That said, I've been impressed by the amount of research co-owners Adam Kinsey and Josh McManus have put into this. They've asked all of the hard questions and have been willing to hear honest answers. They've traveled far and wide looking at how others handle security, band demands and green rooms, which at Track 29 feature washers and dryers and showers. Offering a coat-check room is a nice touch. Nobody wants to hold a coat all night. Just a couple of weeks ago, they reconfigured the whole "will call" ticket booth because guys from an out-of-town club pointed out flaws.
You and I and both know what it will take for Track 29 to succeed. I'll let you reveal the secret.
PHILLIPS: That's a two-part answer: time and ticket sales. We won't know whether Track 29 stands a chance of surviving until we see whether ticket sales hold up after the newness has worn off.
There's a fairly well-defined ceiling for many local shows ($20-$25), above which bookers tell me local ticket sales tend to decline, even for well-known artists. That gap is often filled by out-of-town fans willing to drive here to see a show. Whether out-of-town attendance ends up making the difference won't be clear for a while.
There are many other aspects of Track 29 that are exciting -- local music showcases, the potential for mini, indoor festivals, etc. -- but suffice it to say, it's nice to see new growth in the music scene.
Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...