For weeks, posters by the Michigan Theater’s box office advertised a Nov. 9 concert that would benefit Jewel Heart, an Ann Arbor-based organization dedicated to spreading Buddhist teachings adapted for everyday life. Despite months of planning and a lineup including luminaries in the classical, pop and local music scenes, the concert was unexpectedly cancelled Monday.
The benefit was officially called off around 5 p.m. “At this point, at the rate (tickets were selling), we weren’t even going to break even,” Debbie Burr, a spokeswoman for Jewel Heart, said a few hours after the cancellation. Even with the flat rental rate that the Michigan Theater asks of nonprofit organizations and the chance that door sales could spike the day of the show, it wasn’t feasible for the organization to go ahead with the event. “(We sold) less that 20 percent of the hall,” Burr said. And, with tickets priced at as low as $15, it wouldn’t do much good to slash prices.
For Burr – as well as for the music lovers and Jewel Heart supporters who had bought tickets – the most frustrating aspect of the cancellation was that there was no clear cause for such low sales. The planning, according to Burr, who was in charge of publicity for the concert, was the same for previous Jewel Heart benefits at the Michigan Theater and at Hill Auditorium – except that those concerts achieved their goal.
“We did a decent amount of advertising, and we had articles come out and it was on all the lists,” Burr said. “Some of (the past concerts) have been more successful than others – things fluctuate – but this, by (Monday), just looked like it wasn’t going to be feasible.”
Composer and pianist Philip Glass, who has been organizing Jewel Heart benefit concerts for decades, arranged the event’s lineup.
At press time, Glass could not be reached to comment on the cancellation. In an interview last week, Glass explained his selections for the benefit’s bill. “What I like about (the lineup) is (that) it’s not just art music, it’s not just experimental music, it’s not just pop music, it’s not just rock’n’roll,” he said.
Glass sought out artists and bands with local connections as well as star-power: The Paybacks are a longtime powerhouse of the Detroit-rock scene, and composer and violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain earned his Master’s degree from the University’s School of Music in 2000. Alt-blues outfit Califone, “new folk” singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin – a veteran of mainstream radio – and country-music performer Jimmie Dale Gilmore were to round out the evening.
“(Glass) has sold out the Michigan Theater a number of times just by himself,” Burr mused. “The Paybacks are really popular, Califone’s been popular opening for Modest Mouse around the country, Jimmie Dale Gilmore has a big following and is pretty big locally.”
During a season in which a lot of big acts played the Michigan Theater, one might think that locals would be more aware of other events there. “Most of the concerts that we’ve had were presented by Ritual,” said Tara McComb, the Michigan Theater’s Director of Operations and Programming. “(Ritual has) a huge marketing machine to deal with this kind of promotion, and Jewel Heart – They don’t have as much experience.”
Unfortunately, the lineup – a grouping of innovative musicians from an array of genres – may have contributed to sluggish ticket sales. McComb has seen a few trends over the venue’s busy concert season this fall.
“I’ve noticed with some of the shows that we’ve had recently – we’ve had a lot of sold-out shows like Interpol and Sigur Ros and Death Cab for Cutie – I’m expecting the college crowd and maybe a little older (in the audience). (But) it’s a lot of high school students. And I think it’s a disposable income thing, because if you have a money source in high school (and) you don’t have any bills to pay, spending 30 bucks on a concert ticket is no big deal. But for a student, it’s a really big deal.”
While Ann Arbor’s classical music community is strong, thanks to the School of Music and the University Musical Society, classical performers – especially those who don’t fit a local or more mainstream niche – can’t always expect to do as well at large venue.
McComb used the Ann Arbor Symphony, which performs their concerts at the Michigan Theater, as an example. “They do a great deal of development, and also, many symphony subscribers come to the symphony every year – they buy season tickets – So that’s sort of a devoted fanbase, sort of a community organization.”
Lee Berry, the Michigan Theater’s Marketing and Development Director, offered another explanation: In addition to the concert’s midweek date, the “Upcoming Events” calendars for local publications seem jammed with things to see and do. “I can only think that it’s a very congested market right now, with a lot of events,” Berry said. “I see that not only here at the theater, but in the Ann Arbor market. (It’s) just saturated with a lot of really interesting things to do right now.”
Though the event didn’t go on as planned, Burr remained sanguine, expressing gratitude to those who bought tickets – especially to those Jewel Heart members who didn’t ask for refunds in order to support the organization. “We want to thank everybody who bought tickets, and they can get their tickets refunded through ticketmaster or the Michigan Union Ticket Office – We thank them and hope to see them again sometime.”