Grand Rapids is Slowly Becoming Michigan’s New Concert Destination
Sorry, Detroit. Grand Rapids is eating your lunch.
As an avid music fan and concert-goer, I've noticed a trend emerging in the last few years -- major musical acts either setting tour dates in both Detroit and Grand Rapids, or skipping Detroit altogether. Ten years ago, that would've seemed like an unlikely scenario, but, nonetheless, here we are.
How did this happen? I mean, this is Detroit Rock City we're talking about, right? Sadly, that moniker just doesn't have the brand recognition it did when KISS released the song of the same name 43 years ago. These days most non-Michiganders only know Detroit from its appearances in national media, most of which focus on the negatives like its bad reputation or its usually high placement on the "worst places to live" style articles.
Grand Rapids, on the other hand, has quietly grown into a pretty great city with a solid reputation. They haven't had to face nearly-crippling economic crises like the widespread industrial fallout Detroit has been recovering from for decades. The fact of the matter is one city continues to grow and the other, while in the midst of one hell of a comeback, continues to downsize and rehab its image in the public eye... and major musical artists have been taking notice, particularly rock artists.
It's a tough trend to face for those of us who live an hour or so away from Detroit, because we've become so accustomed to that being our concert destination. I first noticed this starting to turn in the late 2000s, when more and more rock tours began skipping Michigan altogether. Those were dark times.
When times got tough, so did ticket sales in Detroit. Perhaps the greatest example of that was the 2013 Orion Music + More Festival, which I was fortunate enough to witness first-hand. Sure, lots of newer music festivals fail, but you know who doesn't fail?
This was a music festival that was handcrafted by the biggest active powerhouse in hard rock. When they do shows -- they sell out. Metallica headlined the Orion Music + More Festival with support from acts like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Deftones, and Silversun Pickups. They even surprised the crowd on day one by playing 'Kill 'em All' in its entirety on the small stage under the alias "Dehaan." Huge success, right? Nope.
Despite being a pretty unique festival at a cool venue (Belle Isle), headed by the biggest active band in hard rock, it was a bust. So much so that it ended the festival in just its second year. James Hetfield later revealed that they lost millions of dollars on both the Detroit and New Jersey festivals. I'm not a concert promoter, but if I was I wouldn't be able to ignore something that seems like a home run on paper failing in its second year.
These days, it's not uncommon to see pretty big rock tours like the just-announced Korn & Breaking Benjamin run, opt for Grand Rapids over the Detroit area, especially if it's not a summer show (the Detroit area still has the edge there, for now). Even more common these days is a band playing both, like the recent Black Keys and Modest Mouse "Let's Rock" tour that just hit Little Caesars Arena and the Van Andel.
For me, the most telling statistic in this entire thing is the venue size. Metallica's WorldWired Tour has been on a pretty impressive run since late 2016. Their 2017 Comerica Park gig to an estimated 40,573 people netted them a cool $4.5 million according to reports. The next leg of their American tour ended in Grand Rapids in early 2019, where they made an estimated $1.4 million playing to a sold-out crowd of 11,692 at Van Andel Arena -- making it the smallest venue they've played on the entire tour.
That, to me, says a ton about Grand Rapids and its current relationship with the music industry and its artist. Bands like Metallica know going in that they're going to make less money in Grand Rapids. They just don't have enough seats to make the kind of cash they usually would, yet artists like Katy Perry, Elton John, Paul McCartney, Kelly Clarkson, Pink, Rob Zombie and Marilyn Manson, the Jonas Brothers, and Justin Timberlake keep adding Grand Rapids dates when any one of them could easily sell out a larger venues... in some cases much, much larger venues.
I'm not saying Detroit isn't still getting shows, because they are. A lot of them. They will continue to do so as long as artists can make big money there. It's just interesting to see Grand Rapids getting more and more of them, especially knowing how big of a role potential earnings play into it when a show is booked. I wouldn't be surprised to see GR add a new, larger indoor venue to really compete for those bigger names on a more regular basis. And if they get an outdoor venue that can give DTE Energy Music Theatre a run for its money, Detroit could be in real trouble... but that's just like, my opinion, man.