Thomas marketing music in the field

Thomas marketing music in the field

May 18th, 2011 by Mike O'Neal in Catoosa

Chattanooga Market owner Chris Thomas entered into a four-year contract last August to manage the Northwest Georgia Bank Amphitheatre. Photo by Mike O'Neal

Production Notes

Q&A with Chris Thomas.

Q: What are some of your most memorable moments (good, bad, trying, rewarding, humorous) during your career?

A: I think I'll keep the bad moments buried.

When I first bought the Chattanooga Market a few years ago, it was about this same time frame (just prior to the season opener) that all of the self-doubt starts to find its way into my thoughts. It always happens (even now) - will they come?

They did; at the time, it was the largest opening day ever. That's a happy memory.

Q: What is your personal motto or philosophy?

A: Life's too short to do the same thing forever.

I like diversity and new experiences; perhaps that's why the event business is so attractive to me.

Q: What do you think people would be surprised to know about you?

My background is in technology. I cofounded a consultancy in Dallas, which ended up being acquired by a Paris, France-based company. I was chief information officer of the international group before I resigned - I'm not a great employee.

Q: Your educational background?

A: I'm a graduate of Western Kentucky University, where I met my wife Kim. I have a bachelor's degree in computer science with a minor in mathematics.

Q: Any hobbies?

A: Sailing. My kids named our boat The Grateful Dad.

Q: Greatest business challenge?

A: It's hard to say, I guess the most recent is always the most important?

The Chattanooga Market is now a 501(c)3 nonprofit, entering its 10th season and ranked by Frommer's as one of the Top 10 Public Markets in America. We'll see close to a half-million people this season. By most measures, it is a huge success - except that it's never broken even. There are huge challenges in creating economically viable events that offer free admission to the public. It might look easy, but it's really not.

Q: Favorite book or author?

A: I like espionage thrillers, shallow brain candy.

Q: Favorite magazine?

A: Really? Magazines still exist?

Q: Favorite quote or slogan?

A: Fall down six times, stand up seven.

Q: Your family?

A: Kim (married 21 years), and two children, Andrew, 15, and Sarah, 13.

Chris Thomas claims that four years is about his "threshold" for staying with any one job.

"I seem to get restless," he explains.

Maybe it is because Thomas - who has developed and founded computer software companies, headed his own record label and brought a local market to national prominence - relishes a fresh challenge. And perhaps that is why he has taken on management of the Northwest Georgia Bank Amphitheatre.

"This is my new focal point," he said. "The event business, the concert business is fun. It changes all the time and that diversity is energizing."

Last August, the Catoosa County Commission approved a four-year contract that has Thomas promoting, marketing and overseeing operations at the outdoor venue adjacent The Colonnade.

The season is young but already shows promise for the future. Soggy grounds prompted Oakwood Baptist Church's annual Easter in the Park service to shift from Wilder Tower at the Chickamauga National Battlefield Park to the amphitheater. By all accounts, that sunrise service was a rousing success and drew a crowd estimated at about 3,500.

"Like everything, it takes an advocate to make it take hold," Thomas said. "We've created a website and I've been having great conversations with people familiar with booking acts."

In three years, Thomas has brought The Chattanooga Market from the brink of extinction to being named by Frommer's Travel Guides as one of the 10 best public markets in America.

His involvement with this amphitheater - even with this area - seem guided more by chance than design.

He and his wife, Kentucky natives who met while attending college in Bowling Green, were living in Dallas and wanted to return to this region to raise a family.

"We had visions of living in Knoxville," Thomas said, but that dream quickly lost its appeal, and a chance visit to the Tennessee Aquarium brought him, his brood and the record company to Ooltewah about 11 years ago.

Though wanting to be "near enough to visit, but far enough that you call first" their Bluegrass roots brought them to the tri-state area, it was Texas-flavored music that led Thomas to both the market and the amphitheater.

After graduation, Thomas was recruited by a software company, then joined a start-up consultancy that was eventually acquired by a French firm.

"We were profitable," he said. "You do get lucky every once in a while."

But this family man found traveling three weeks of each month was too much, which led him in 2001 to start Palo Duro Records, an independent record label.

As the music industry went through changes - "more is used but less is purchased, the recording music business may officially be dead," he explained - Thomas was looking for ways to promote his label's artists.

In 2008, he was scheduled to meet on a Monday with county officials about taking over operation of the amphitheater. But the day before, while attending his son's swim meet, Thomas read an article that the Chattanooga Market was closing.

Impulsively, he contacted the market's owner, Nick Jessen, and reached an agreement to take over that operation.

"That was one of the most rash decisions I ever made," Thomas said,

It was a decision that offered a chance to showcase "about 200" bands a year at the market near Finley Stadium, and since has led to starting a smaller Saturday market near the Tennessee Aquarium and songwriters sessions at the Riverbend Festival.

Deciding to run the Market meant postponing ambitions for the amphitheater. It also allowed a chance for the worst of the recession to run its course.

"People are becoming more confident and willing to purchase concert tickets," Thomas said.

Once musicians and audiences figure out what a gem the Northwest Georgia Bank Amphitheatre truly is, Thomas said the venue should prove popular and eventually profitable.

Having a first-class facility that offers a break-even point with crowds of about 1,000 and having a maximum capacity of about 3,500 is attractive to promoters, Thomas said. That and the Benton Place Campus' proximity to Interstate 75 make it a natural route for musicians traveling between Nashville and Atlanta.

"We can bring great quality to the region," he said.

Already there are about 18 events on the amphitheater calendar, all at ticket prices that compete with movie theaters rather than concerts staged in arenas and stadiums, he said.

While the tornado shuffled some shows - this Friday night's Battle for Christ festival was originally scheduled for April 30, two days after the storm - Thomas said the shows will go throughout the season.

"The Blues Brothers (a Knoxville-based tribute band) will bring a huge band and a lot of fun," he said.

Upcoming events at the Northwest Georgia Bank Amphitheatre

• Battle for Christ: Friday, May 20, at 6-10 p.m. A festival of Contemporary Christian and Christian Rock bands. Performers include: Vapour (Lizella, Ga.), Grafted by Grace (Fort Valley, Ga.), Sean Blackley & The Glorious Sound (Calhoun, Ga.), Seeking Serenity (Hazlehurst, Ga.), Jon Mullins Band (Chattanooga, Tenn.), Avowry (Kernersville, N.C.), Day Seven (Calhoun, Ga.) and Kyle Veazey (Chickamauga, Ga.)

Proceeds benefit the Lookout Mountain Judicial District/Children's Advocacy Center

• Blues Brothers Tribute Show and Benefit: Saturday, May 21, from 6-10 p.m. A Blues Brothers tribute band from Knoxville headlines with special guests, The Stratoblasters and a surprise artist.

Proceeds benefit the Chattanooga Market. Advance ticket prices are $15 Adult, $10 Youth (under 10) and a special $40 Family Pack will admit two adults + three youth into the fun-filled event.

• Ringgold High School Band Awards: Monday, May 23, from 6-9 p.m.

Parking for all events is free.