December isn’t just the holiday season, it’s also postmortem season -- including annual concert-attendance recaps for Raleigh’s two biggest outdoor venues, 20,500-capacity Walnut Creek Amphitheatre and 5,990-capacity Red Hat Amphitheater.
On the whole, both venues were slightly up this year over 2013, both in terms of overall attendance and number of events. And Walnut Creek should just change its name from “Amphitheater” to “Country Club” and be done with it, given the preponderance of country shows there.
Walnut Creek’s 10 country shows accounted for just over one-third of its 28 total events this year; but the 159,000-plus people those 10 shows drew represent well over half the shed’s total attendance. By comparison, Walnut Creek’s 12 rock shows drew around 108,000 people total.
Even with that dominance, however, country is showing signs that it might be creeping past its prime in the Triangle concert market. In years past, it was not unusual for a handful of Walnut Creek country shows to draw in excess of of 20,000 people to Walnut Creek. Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan both came close, and Bryan’s two-night total cracked 37,000. Still, the fact remains that not a single show (country or otherwise) drew more than 20,000 in 2014.
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Walnut Creek opened in 1991, the product of an era when the live-music industry had a bigger scale. But the big-shed business has been eroding for at least a decade. Ever-fewer new rock or pop acts are capable of filling the biggest venues, and aging classic-rock acts are also seeing declines in their drawing power. The strength of country in the Triangle -- fed in part by the popularity of country radio station WQDR-FM, which has been No. 1 in overall ratings for years -- masked that weakness longer here than in a lot of other cities. But now that even country acts aren’t drawing those 20,000-plus power crowds anymore, obsolescence truly might be on the horizon.
That makes smaller venues the wave of the future, like Red Hat and Cary’s 7,000-capacity Booth Amphitheatre (which hosted country acts including Willie Nelson, The Band Perry, Alabama and Little Big Town this season). Walnut Creek had no R&B shows to speak of this year, but Red Hat had a solid handful of R&B shows, highlighted by John Legend, George Clinton and Lauryn Hill. And Wide Open Bluegrass has turned into a nice late-season anchor for Red Hat, drawing two hefty crowds in October.
We can only hope that will continue in years to come.