Promoter aims to give Downtown a boost with two-day country festival
This past Wednesday night, live country music returned to Anchorage as Downtown's newest bar, The Broken Blender, hosted Nashville duo Love and Theft.
The noise of clinking glasses and excited chatter seemed to drown out the worries that plagued many small business owners in 2020. For The Broken Blender co-owner Brad Erickson, it was the start of what he hopes will be a small business revival Downtown.
"Everybody's COVID story is different. You know, some people lost friends and family members to it. Some people lost businesses; some people lost jobs. There's a lot of people in business that have profited because of COVID. So, everybody's COVID story is different," says Erickson.
Not only a restaurateur but also the owner of Erickson Unlimited, an event promotions company, Erickson's own COVID story wasn't simple. Anchorage's health mandates forced him to cancel numerous events, and financial troubles with longtime vendor Brown Paper Tickets brought on by canceled events around the country left him out $200,000 in revenue from sales at previous shows.
While Erickson continued to produce smaller shows in Fairbanks, the Valley and the Kenai Peninsula, he faced an onslaught of public criticism for seemingly circumventing mandates on gathering sizes.
"I know I was a hated man, but the reality is that there wasn't a single positive COVID case traced back to any of my shows in 2020. And we had shows in Soldotna, Fairbanks, Kodiak, and the Valley. The reality was that I did my due diligence. I talked to the state. I spent thousands of dollars on masks, hand sanitizer stations, and thermometers, and we really restricted the number of tickets sold," he said.
But staying afloat during a global pandemic is just another thing that Erickson has had to contend with as a concert promoter.
"[It's] one of those things that people just don't understand. It takes months and months and months, if not a year, to plan stuff. You have to put all your money upfront and hope that you're going to sell enough tickets and enough people are going to come out to recoup the money," Erickson said.
Apart from catering to artist requests, booking venues, and selling tickets, Erickson also has to accommodate the unique nature of concert promotions in Alaska.
"I talk to promoters in Nashville, and they don't seem to get it. I ask them, 'Have you ever not sold tickets to a concert because the salmon were running?' Well, that happens here," he said with a laugh.
But fishing season is only one of a slew of idiosyncrasies associated with being a promoter in the Last Frontier. Convincing top-tier touring acts to take two travel days to perform for a fickle Alaskan audience is a challenge in itself.
"We are in the middle of nowhere, and artists make their money by touring," Erickson said. “It takes a lot of time to travel up here, and a lot of times, they look at that as a loss of revenue. We're also a small market and aren't going to sell the number of tickets places like Milwaukee and Minneapolis will.”
The difficulty of enticing acts has forced Erickson to find ways to sweeten the deal.
"In the Lower 48, a promoter takes care of the logistics, and as soon as the concert is done, the job is done. Up here, I'm taking artists fishing, or hunting, or on a glacier cruise. It's a lot more involved than you'd think," he said.
Although the hours are long and the job often thankless, Erickson said it is worth it because of the impact it has on the state.
"The biggest thing that you hear, especially now that things are back open, is 'Wow! I feel human again. I feel alive,'" he said.
With 2020 in the rearview mirror, Erickson is looking forward to bringing vitality back to Alaskan small businesses, starting with a two-day country music festival in Downtown Anchorage on June 26 and 27 at the EasyPark Chinook lot on Third Avenue and E Street.
A yearly event, the ninth Backyard Country BBQ promises to be the biggest one yet as it transitions from one night to a multi-day, multi-headliner festival featuring Sara Evans, 2011 American Idol winner Scotty McCreery, Easton Corbin and up-and-comers like Lainey Wilson, whose “Things a Man Outta Know” recently hit No. 14 on the country charts.
"I really, really wanted to do this Downtown because of how badly hurt the businesses, hotels, bars, and restaurants were in 2020," Erickson said.
He says his goal is to flood Downtown with thousands of excited festival-goers.
"Hopefully, people will stay downtown all day and go to the restaurants or go shopping. Maybe they will also stay at the hotels for the night. I think the atmosphere is going to be awesome, and I'm hopeful it can reenergize the area as we go into summer," says Erickson.
However, Erickson is not alone in his venture. McCreery is lending a hand by bringing his entire band and crew to the festival.
"Yeah, we're bringing everybody because playing Alaska has been a bucket list trip for all of us. It's the last state for basically all of us, so once we saw we were going, we were like, 'We all have to go on this one," said McCreery, who will headline Sunday.
McCreery's full band making the trip is a significant departure from most musical acts that travel to Alaska with skeleton crews to keep costs down. But McCreery says that his band has been itching to perform again, so it was a no-brainer.
"Last week, we put together a whole new show, and we have a new album coming out later this summer, so Alaska is gonna hear some new music that's not out there yet. We'll play some old stuff as well, but it's gonna be a fresh show. And the guys will be locked-in and excited to play that stuff. You know, sometimes you get to playing the same songs every night, so when you finally get to play some new stuff, it feels so good," McCreery said.
Saturday night headliner Sara Evans echoed McCreery's enthusiasm.
"I love doing live shows. I love interacting with my fans. I love being on the road! My kids travel with me; my son Avery plays guitar for me, and my daughter, Olivia, sings harmony for me. My brother Matt is my bass player, and my daughter Audrey travels with us also. So we are just one big family. We literally are taking our home on the road," says Evans.
Both McCreery and Evans plan to play tourist for a few days after the festival.
"I think I heard Miranda Lambert say it a year or two ago. She said something like, 'I've basically been everywhere, but I haven't seen anything because all I see is the airport and the backstage.' That's how it is in a lot of cities we tour,” McCreery said. “So I'm excited that we're gonna be able to spend some time and really get to see Alaska."
The Backyard Country BBQ begins on Saturday, June 26 at 3 p.m. with opening acts Lilly Winwood, Lewis Brice, Texas Hill, and Kendell Marvel. Easton Corbin is slated to take the stage at 7:15 p.m., followed by Sara Evans at 8:45. Doors open again at 3 p.m. on Sunday, June 27 with opening acts Josh Melton, Elvis Monroe, and Lainey Wilson. Headliner Scotty McCreery plays at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $55 per day or $100 for both days and are available at EricksonEvents.com.