Michael Jackson only ever performed in one Music City venue.
In 1970, and then several more times over the next 10 years, the late King of Pop — albeit, a boy King at the time — played Nashville Municipal Auditorium with The Jackson 5. But that was a different Nashville, before Bridgestone Arena, LP Field and, of course, the Music City Center.
Now, having just turned 50 last year, Municipal Auditorium is looking to find its niche in the new landscape. The domed structure looming over James Robertson Parkway is not unlike the Tennessee State Fairgrounds, minus half-a-century and all the drama.
Municipal may well be past its prime, but it doesn’t look like it will be expiring anytime soon. For now, demolishing the quirky relic to make way for more current development isn’t on the table. Bob Skoney, the facility’s general manager since 1994, said he’d like to think it never really was.
“The Dean administration has been pro-auditorium,” he told The City Paper recently, speaking in between meetings about prospective bookings. “Purcell was definitely always pro-auditorium, Bredesen saving the auditorium, as far as he was the first one to put major funds into the auditorium to do some renovations. And of course he started the Bridgestone Arena, so he was pro-facility, period.”
The question, then: If the Municipal Auditorium is still going to be here, what’s it going to be?
The primary hurdle, as always with the city’s Metro-owned facilities, is a fiscal one. The Dean administration opted not to recommend subsidies for the city’s three enterprise funds — the Nashville Farmers’ Market, Municipal Auditorium and the fairgrounds — in its budget proposal for the coming fiscal year. The approach, the mayor and others explained, would challenge the facilities to “get creative” in an attempt to meet expenses with revenues, knowing that supplemental funding will be available at the end of the year if it’s needed. (In the final budget, the Metro Council made an exception for the fairgrounds, approving $200,000 in funding for the struggling property.)
But even without a financial assist on the front end, Skoney — steering far clear of predictions — and other auditorium officials say the facility has a chance of meeting a budget projected at $1.3 million for the next fiscal year, beginning July 1. That optimism does not seem to be without merit. After a decade in which the facility consistently faced high-six-figure deficits, the auditorium missed the mark by just $40,000 in the 2011-2012 fiscal year. In April, the council approved a $188,000 withdrawal from the auditorium’s reserve fund to get the facility through the end of the current fiscal year, but Skoney said the final deficit remains to be seen, and could be smaller.
Auditorium officials said they’re hopeful a new tenant will boost revenues. Nearly two years after the Auditorium Commission struck a deal to house the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum — forced from its former location by the Music City Center — in the auditorium’s previously underutilized basement level exhibition space, the museum’s CEO and founder Joe Chambers said he expects to open his doors to the public Aug. 1. (The partnership also came with a name change. The facility is now officially known as the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum at Nashville Municipal Auditorium, as seen on its updated edifice.)
“It’s definitely not like being on Broadway, or within a block,” Chambers said. “But it’s also an incredible opportunity to become a destination for people to find us. It’s an opportunity to take the museum to another level because of the space that we have now. That’s a plus.”
Additionally, Chambers said, putting the hall of fame and museum in a building that’s hosted Led Zeppelin, James Brown and George Jones isn’t bad. Moreover, he added, the auditorium will serve as a natural venue for the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum’s annual awards show.
In lieu of rental payments, the hall of fame will share revenue with the auditorium, although both sides declined to venture a guess as to what those revenues might be. Chambers noted that it has been three years since he’s been open, while Skoney similarly cited a lack of precedent to go on. Skoney also cautioned that while he hopes Chambers’ operation will be a boon to the auditorium, it will also come with added expenses to operate the facility on days that wouldn’t have required it previously.
The Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum adds to the auditorium’s decidedly eclectic identity. Skoney said the facility averages around 110 booked days per year. In 2012, those bookings included the Ohio Valley Conference men’s basketball tournament, the Shrine Circus, seven cheerleading competitions, three religious conventions, the Nashville Rollergirls and the Harlem Globetrotters.
The auditorium also hosted nine concerts last year. Its midsize capacity means it will snag the occasional eye-catching act whose genre or fanbase won’t fit Bridgestone Arena or the Ryman. (For instance, Queens of the Stone Age is booked for Oct 7.)
During the council’s budget hearings last month, Councilman Ronnie Steine asked Skoney and Municipal Auditorium Commission Chairman Randy Rayburn for their thoughts on the facility’s role in Nashville going forward. Both suggested the auditorium could function in tandem with the Music City Center, hosting convention-related events, or serve as an alternative for business groups or musical acts when the MCC or Bridgestone are booked.
Rayburn said he favors commissioning a professional study to determine what the auditorium’s best uses might be. He told The City Paper more recently that the commission has expressed unanimous support for the idea.
“Bob Skoney has done an excellent job of running and managing the facility,” he said. “But the facility going forward, it needs to be determined what’s the best vehicle to do that.”
He added, “I want to see all the options, not just the ones I can think of.”
Skoney concurred, saying an outsider’s assessment might help determine if something’s missing, and how the facility can improve.
“The building is 50 years old, but we feel like it’s well-maintained and still serving a purpose, and we want it to excel,” he said. “I think that’s what page we’re all on.”
Rayburn said he and Skoney plan to meet with Dean administration officials in the coming weeks to discuss the possibility of such a study.
In the meantime Skoney just wants to fill up the building. He has offers in on everything from Macklemore, last year’s breakout rapper, or The Medium, a woman who says she speaks to dead people. The auditorium is already reserved for weeks by several marquee artists, who will use it to work out their stage setups and rehearse before national tours.
Skoney detailed his efforts to promote the building with the enthusiasm of a man selling his own venture.
“Buildings don’t talk, so it’s me and my marketing manager, we go to every organization we can join,” he said. “Whether it be the sports council, Meeting Planners International; I belong to the Greater Nashville Hospitality Lodging Association; Convention and Visitors Bureau meeting, getting all their sales leads and responding to them; I belong to the International Association of Venue Managers, where we develop good relationships with other buildings, compare notes.”
He could likely go on.
Since 1962, Nashville has acquired a space for just about everything. The Municipal Auditorium is, for now, the place for everything else.