Chattanooga area music venues look for new ways to improve the fan experience

Staff photo by Barry Courter / Live music fans have grown to expect more than just a great stage performance. Events like Bonnaroo are looking for the next experience that will keep fans coming back.

Venue managers, musicians, promoters and just about everyone else involved in putting on a live music show have long considered the fan experience, but I don't remember them ever making it a priority the way they did in 2022.

Some have always done it better than others, of course, focusing on things like comfortable seats, great sound, lighting and unobstructed sightlines, but as these same people deal with more competition and a fanbase that expects more, the need to make sure fans are happy has become more important.

Locally, Riverbend officials made big changes in 2022 and said improving the fan experience was the main reason. The Tivoli Foundation has already greatly improved the fan experience at Memorial Auditorium and Walker Theatre thanks to $4 million in renovations that included adding fresh coats of paint throughout the building, cleaning and updating the bathrooms and adding far more concession areas throughout.

They also installed soundproofed areas as well as curtains that can be used to help the place not feel as empty during smaller shows.

For people who don't mind spending a little extra for their ticket, the foundation introduced the 1921 Society, which allows VIP buyers a space to hang out before or during a show -- which helps both the venue with extra revenue as well as the concertgoer looking for an upgraded experience.

Changes coming to the Tivoli will be even more monumental when the $55 million renovation is completed in the spring of 2024. Like upgrades to Memorial, it will add or update bathrooms and concession areas, as well as improve the sound. But it will also install an elevator that will make balcony access more accessible.

As Chattanooga Symphony & Opera Music Director Kayoko Dan told me last month, "If we know that our audience is having an overall pleasant experience ... it reflects on the overall quality of the service. I'm really excited about that."

Last month, Cory Smith and Brad Parker with C3 Presents were guests on a podcast I co-host called "The What Podcast" to discuss changes to the ticketing process at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival. The idea is that fans can now choose their experiences similar to ordering a la carte from a restaurant menu.

Say you want to sleep in a tent in the general admission area because that's where your friends are -- but you also want to sit in the VIP area for a show inside Centeroo. Now, you can -- for a fee, of course.

Or, maybe you are flying into Manchester, Tennessee, where the event is held, and you don't want to pack a tent. You can order that as well, and it will be set up and waiting on you.

Parker said the changes are not so much about increasing revenue for the festival as they are about giving people options. He points out that Bonnaroo is a business and has to make money, of course, but organizers realized that to do that they needed to figure out what people want and give it to them.

"The truth is, the [general admission] price will actually go down," he said, "and we realized some people have the money and don't mind spending it to get what they want."

What all this does is give fans a curated experience that can go beyond the actual music. People want to feel like they are getting something unique or special, Parker said.