Does Chattanooga need an amphitheater for bigger concerts?

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Kane Brown performed at Finley Stadium in May 2022, drawing a crowd of 15,000. The country star reportedly helped foot the show's bill because he wanted to perform for his hometown.

Local live music has been in the news quite a bit lately with the Chattanooga Tourism Company's music census taking a hard look at the local industry, in addition to another survey asking for public input on whether the city needs a new venue and if so, what it should look like.

And, if you missed it, according to a recent Southern Living article, the Chattanooga area is flush with high-quality live music festivals. According to article writer, Cameron Beall, among the top 10 best music festivals in the South, three take place in Chattanooga or an hour away in Manchester, Tennessee, where Bonnaroo is held.

Bonnaroo is listed at No. 2 behind Austin City Limits. Moon River at Coolidge Park is listed fifth and Riverbend is tenth.

Meanwhile, the recent census showed that we have a lot of talented people in the music industry and a lot of opportunities to grow the scene. The challenge is to get more of these people working together.

But having three festivals make the Top 10 on Southern Living's list speaks well of where we are in regard to festivals.

So — back to that additional survey — what kind of music venue might we need then?

Do we need a brand new place that is something we don't already have, like an amphitheater? Do we need to upgrade the venues we already have? Or, do we need to create a venue to fill a particular capacity need or genre niche?

The amphitheater idea has been floating around for years with possible locations mentioned including on the river near St. Elmo or in East Ridge near Camp Jordan, among others. But how big should it be? Five thousand? Eight thousand? Twelve thousand? Should it be an outdoor seating-only amphitheater or a hybrid with both covered and uncovered seating?

A large amphitheater with thousands of seats would create a new venue that also fills a particular capacity need.

AT&T and Finley stadiums are capable of hosting large outdoor shows, but they are sports venues primarily. (Though Finley proved it can host a large event last May when Kane Brown performed there, drawing about 15,000 people.)

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's McKenzie Arena can seat about 9,000 for a concert, but hasn't hosted many big shows in recent years and is better known as a place to watch basketball.

So the questions is: Does Chattanooga actually need a 5,000-10,000-seat venue?

We have smaller venues such as Barking Legs Theater, JJ's Bohemia and Clyde's that can seat 100-200 people, as well as places such as Barrelhouse Ballroom which seats around 500. The Walker Theatre can hold around 850, and the newly opened The Signal can seat 1,500. The Tivoli seats around 1,700, and Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium holds around 3,700.

That's a decent progression, numbers-wise.

Owners and booking agents at all of these places have told me at various times that they work together to try to get the artists in the right venue. If they think their room is too big or too small, they will recommend a different place.

They also understand and like the idea that an artist can outgrow a space. This helps grow an audience for an artist over time and helps everyone in the long run.

  photo  Staff file photo / The Chris Robinson Brotherhood performs at Walker Theatre in 2018. The venue seats only about 850 for a more intimate concert experience.