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My modest proposal for City Stages

06.19.2009 by André Natta · → 1 Comment

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It’s amazing when you get a chance to look back at what you’ve written on a particular topic over time.

I decided that before I sat down to share my thoughts about City Stages that I’d look back at some earlier pieces both here and over on Dre’s Ramblings. I figured I’d share links to some of the more editorial pieces with you here – just in case:

City Stages is here… well? | My Birmingham, June 13, 2007

City Stages 2007 – some thoughts for the future | My Birmingham, June 18, 2007

Birmingham’s largest block party | My Birmingham, June 20, 2008

Some of the attendees' thoughts on City StagesLast year I said I was looking forward to this year’s festival, assuming that they would build on last year’s critical success with the launch of a social media-influenced marketing campaign.

Then I learned on Tuesday morning that the corporate ticket sales had been budgeted to be close to the same levels as last year (in the midst of an economic recession), leading to the last minute $250,000 request to the City of Birmingham. That, coupled with the virtual nonexistence of money in the Natta household, led me to decide that I will be working on projects and enjoying the air conditioning at Shift WorkSpace this weekend (and hopefully taking in some of the Secret Stages show at Speakeasy on Saturday evening) instead of making the trek down to Linn Park.

I believe George McMillan when he says that there are no more sacred cows in terms of the festival and that he is not sure of its future. How far will they go to secure a future is still to be determined.

The town hall meeting coordinated by Catalyst in November 2006 provided some good ideas for build upon for City Stages in the future, especially when you consider other festivals (even though this is old in terms of reference points).

I’d argue that people need to bring suggestions for real solutions to the table before completely bashing the festival and saying it needs to go. Here’s mine:

City Stages gets moved to the Railroad Reservation Park starting next year. There would be four stages – two at each end of the park. The Cultural Furnace that folks would like to see housed in the current Alabama Power steam plant could be integrated into the planning in later years, including an office for the organization to work out of year round. It would  allow CS to consider approaching Alagasco for the use of their parking lots in the surrounding area as festival space – most likely for things like video game competitions, smaller local stages and an arts and crafts section. You might even be able to scare a spoken word/comedy and jazz stage around out there too.

The festival would be contained in a 12-block area between 14th and 20th Streets, allowing for folks to access downtown Birmingham by car using local streets and taking advantage of a large, open space and a pretty cool view of the city center skyline. No, currently there may not be enough shade for a June festival, but there are no sacred cows anymore. You could even move it to the same weekend as the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival in September and make it into a huge event for the region.

We need to actually see what happens once folks get used to this new City Stages and not make another major change just because we are panicking

Now it’s only an idea and of course there would still be issues logistically, but it’s an idea.

I’m not necessarily ready to see City Stages go away and I’d love to hear what some of your ideas are.

You can post them in the comments section below. I’m also willing to invite a few folks over to Shift on Monday evening to share your thoughts about this year’s festival and what it could be in the future. If you’re interested, send an email to or comment below and if enough folks are interested, we’ll announce a time for Monday night.

If you’re going, enjoy the weekend and the music!

André Natta is the managing editor of

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Filed under: regional


I've published ideas for improving city stages many times before. Here's a current crop: 1. The main thing is to make the schedule a MUST SEE rather than a "ho hum". In my opinion, there are several tacks you could take to accomplish this (although you probably have to pick just one). A) Get blockbuster headliners that no one can pass up. This ain't easy but the Crawfish Boil seems to come close. B) Book unique mash-ups and market them. Fans who travel might just as well leave an outdoor festival in Alabama off their schedule, but if their favorite artist appears on-stage here with another big name as a one-off event, then they might jump at the chance to see a unique show -- plus you get lasting buzz from YouTube and fan sites C) Do at least one genre REALLY well. Maybe "shape note singing" isn't the most marketable example, but there's no reason City Stages couldn't put together a kick-ass line up of 3 days of gospel superstars, or blues legends, or hot bluegrass bands or SOMETHING that would get the big fans of those genres booking flights. D) And why not use the booking talent we have? In the opinion of lots of folks, any given weekend at Bottletree has more going for it than any of the last few City Stages. Even if you just give them one stage to book, you could get a lot of buzz (and maybe curtail their public criticisms). 2. The next biggest thing is to lower ticket prices. Somehow that first 1989 festival made a profit with 38,000 customers who paid $3 a day or less to get in. My guess is that we're wasting money closing off too many streets and renting too many stages for too many days. Maybe aiming for 200,000 visitors is the wrong way to have a fun festival. Maybe 60,000 who are really having fun and not going broke doing it is better for everybody. Maybe the Railroad Park will be a better setting, but if it stays downtown, why not just at Linn Park. (and remember, we already own a functioning stage at Boutwell... why not use it and let people cool off?) 3. Another possibility would be breaking City Stages up into a series of one-night music festivals. Put 5 or 6 really good acts on a bill and hold it at the Railroad Park amphitheater or Linn Park and charge $12. If you do 6 of those, anyone who goes to all six has paid $72 for admission (or $50 for a season pass) and hasn't felt cheated. Plus you've only had to book 36 acts instead of 200 and you've spread out the risk of bad weather. Keep the "brand identity" high with marketing and ancillary events (merchandise, dance stages, kids activities, etc) and take the artists with high cultural value to do teaser shows at the schools (throw in some low cost tickets for students and you can probably go after public support again, too)