The recent opening of Victory North at 2603 Whitaker St. marks the beginning of a new era for live music and entertainment in Savannah.
For years, the city has been disregarded by a certain range of musical acts that essentially had no where to play. Booking agents, who put together tour packages, have long ignored Savannah in favor of a Southeast coastal swing that hits cities like Richmond, Va., Charleston, S.C., Columbia, S.C. and Jacksonville, Fla.
Savannah’s entertainment infrastructure has long had a gap between the 100 to 150 capacity clubs on and around Congress Street and the 1,000-plus seat venues like The Lucas Theatre and Johnny Mercer. For that mid-range gap, essentially 200 to 800 capacity, the bands and acts who might draw that size of a crowd have been wanting.
“There was never a space to go to and never a space to pull national (acts),” Victory North’s General Manager and Chief Operating Officer Bryan Bailey, a Savannah native, said. “The last 600 space, I think, was The Zoo. They pushed a very particular genre and didn’t do anything outside of that genre. This has been a hole in the market for a really long time.”
The timing is right, however, for Savannah to step into the role of host city for a range of touring and local musical acts. The foundation for such a change has been built by local festivals like Savannah Music Festival, Savannah VOICE Festival, AURA Festival and especially Savannah Stopover Music Festival.
MusicFile Productions, which runs Savannah Stopover and Revival Fest, has spent years booking some of the exact acts that could fill the mid-range gap that’s been missing in Savannah’s live music menu. MusicFile works directly with booking agents for its yearly festival and that relationship has cultivated a foundation within the industry that has setup new venues like Victory North for success.
Savannah Stopover Music Festival has booked those acts for its yearly festival, but have relied on essentially improvised venues to support them. The Ships of the Sea Museum’s 800-capacity North Garden has been transformed into a music venue for Stopover, AURA Festival and Savannah Music Festival.
Revival Fest gambled rather successfully with a makeshift outdoor venue at The Georgia State Railroad Museum. In its early days, Stopover used The Knights of Columbus’ hall as a similar mid-cap venue, bringing in the infrastructure needed for it. Houses of worship, like Trinity United Methodist, have also been transformed into sitting rooms for one-off concerts, Stopover, Savannah Music Festival and Savannah VOICE Festival shows. The latter of which also took over a part of The Davenport House Museum to use as a listening room. All of those festivals, as well as the Savannah Philharmonic and American Traditions Vocal Competition are in talks with Victory North for future concerts.
Built for music
What sets Victory North apart from places like The Davenport House, Ships of the Sea, and The Morris Center — which was essentially built to host The Savannah Music Festival — The Clyde Venue, the Savannah Cultural Arts Center and other halls, is management's relationship with Zero Mile.
Originally, Developer Mohamed Eldibany was looking for a mixed-use, general purpose venue for weddings and corporate events. When he met Scott Orvold, President/ Talent Buyer, with Zero Mile booking, who handles two Atlanta venues, as well as Athens’ Georgia Theatre, they decided to team up to fill the hole in Savannah’s music scene.
The addition of Victory North to the scene with Zero Mile on board opens a door for Savannah to have actual listening rooms and mid-capacity venues that provide the infrastructure needed for a live show already in place. For instance, on July 17, Victory North will host popular experimental pop band Man Man. The stop in Savannah comes right before they play Terminal West in Atlanta and The Georgia Theatre in Athens, two venues also booked by Zero Mile. Without Victory North, the Man Man tour would have, as so many other tours have, gone around Savannah.
Victory North might be the vanguard in this respect, but similar venues will be opening in the coming years, reshaping Savannah’s live music scene.
“Honestly, it (Savannah) had been something that had been on our radar even before we knew Mohamed was doing anything,” Walker Beard, Business Operations Director for Zero Mile, said. “The right opportunity there, we always felt was, because you can route stuff through the Southeast. You can do something in Charlotte and Virginia and sort of move down the coast. At the size we are doing it: Our venues in Atlanta, we have one that is about 625 capacity and the other two are 1,100 capacity. There wasn’t really anything in those size ranges in Savannah. It’s always seemed like it’s ripe for the opportunity.”
Reshaping the culture
Much like the city and characters that inhabit it, Savannah’s music market is a strange one. In comparisons with similar size cities and larger ones, it can be quite the task to book live music in Savannah for a number of reasons. For one, the social culture of Savannah operates much later than most cities. Where in most cities, shows might began around 8 or 9 p.m. there are times where shows in the clubs won’t begin until 10:30 or later. Since bars are open until 3 a.m., the culture has organically shifted to a later timetable.
For touring bands, this presents a problem. Most acts have to either travel that night or early the next day to the next show. If they don’t hit the stage until 11 p.m., pushing their show past midnight, the next travel portion of their tour is much harder. Some managers force venues to start on time, in order to protect the health of the band as they tour.
Secondly, and most importantly, Savannahians are slow to buy tickets in advance. For most club shows and even some seated ticketed shows, people merely show up at the door right before the concert.
This presents a problem with booking agents and promoters who rely heavily on ticket sales to make the money that is guaranteed to touring bands. When out-of-town promoters see low ticket sales the day before a show, they get nervous. In Savannah, however, that doesn’t mean the crowds will necessarily be low. A sell-out show could easily have very low pre-sale numbers, according to several local promoters.
Victory North is looking to change that culture.
“Zero Mile is not scared,” Bailey said. “I have a lot of data from previous experiences to say usually ‘multiple by two’ is your walk up. Which is really dumb. The weird part too is you can try and punish them by giving them a higher walk-up price day of show and no one cares. They’re like, ‘oh, it’s only five dollars more.’ They’ll pay it just to walk up. You’re like, come on man. Buy the ticket in advance. It’s way easier for everyone involved. In fact, you get in the door quicker by doing that. Again, that’s a teaching moment that we have to get Savannah up to.”
The capacity of the venue might be an important measure that helps shift Savannah’s odd pre-sale ticket culture. If a few shows sellout at Victory North and would be attendees miss, that could galvanize them to buy early the next time.
“To be honest with you, I think the caliber of shows that we’re going to be bringing might actually push that envelope,” Bailey said. “Like the Drive-By Truckers. There’s a strategy that they have, as far as Zero Mile in play, they have to grown themselves in the market. They’re very successful in several other markets.”
“The good thing about Bryan is he is a native and has worked down there for a long time,” Beard said. “We’re definitely going to lean on him for a lot of those nuances. The way that we’ve worked is that we so too play it by ear. There are little nuances to every market that you’re in. Every venue has it’s own nuances too. In Athens, we’re always battling that it’s super seasonal. Every venue we have has it’s own quarks and I am sure Savannah will be no different. It’s just a matter of leaning on Th. local team for the insight we don’t have from not being locals there. Sort of rolling with the punches and improve as we go.”
Odds in favor
Victory North is up against some odds, but have some favors as well.
Aside from the defunct Stage on Bay — which is a poor comparison for myriad of reasons — Victory North is the first real live music venue to setup outside of the Historic District. At first glance, this could seem to be problematic due to the heavy concentration of tourists in the Historic District — a demographic that is needed to support the venue.
However, unlike Stage on Bay which set up up shop around nothing and drew the ire of locals immediately, Victory North is rather perfectly located for success. Sitting on the edge of the burgeoning Starland District — which as of this month added yet another restaurant to its growing fold and will have a food truck park soon — Victory North could potentially draw in a wider range of local attendance and tourists who are seeking to get off the main tract.
“Ultimately, from our data and in terms of analytics, it’s showing that the locals, in my past experience in facility management, as shown that you have to have a good foothold into the local market,” Bailey said. “Because their going to support you through off seasons. We’ve shown that we can get growth as long as we cater to locals. Really, the primary focus is getting the locals to buy in come to every show because they like what we put on in the market.”
Starland District was originally proposed as an arts and cultural hub for the local community. So far, it has fulfilled that role. But as tourists get wind of new bars and restaurants opening up in the area, they will migrate north from the tourist anchor of the Historic District.
A mixed crowd is a good thing for Victory North and arguably for Starland itself. Victory North’s opening night, which featured Little Tybee, was a pretty strong indicator of the venue’s ability to draw a full crowd. Graveface Records, one of the first businesses other than Back in the Day Bakery to set up in Starland, relies heavily on tourists for sales as well, according to owner Ryan Graveface.
“If we do any outside marketing — A good example, Drive-By Truckers -- Drive By Truckers is going to pull out a market,” Bailey said. “We’ll get tickets out of Augusta, Jacksonville, from surrounding areas. That’s an easy push through the software we have in place. We’re doing that and in turn we don’t want to discourage any tourist coming into town. We have a feeling that will grow naturally. The plan is to get in front of concierges and start talking to hotels and other event planners.
“We’re members of Travel Savannah, VisitSavannah, Chamber of Commerce and we’ve been lucky they’ve been receptive to what we’re doing. I’ve had several showings, wondering when they can book corporate here,” Anita Ard, the director of group sales said. “They’re already thinking destination things for us. They also know we’re a music venue. If we can get them to be able to know automatically to go see what we have going on show wise they can start pushing that for us as well."