There was a time when Alpine Valley Music Theatre in Wisconsin was among the most elite music venues in the nation.
In its prime in 1989, the East Troy amphitheater hosted some of the biggest acts in the world: the Rolling Stones and the Who and the Grateful Dead and Metallica. The Dead played 20 shows there in the ’80s, and Pearl Jam brought its 20th-anniversary festival to Alpine in 2011.
But for its 40th anniversary year this summer, the 27,100-capacity Alpine Valley won’t host a single concert. It will be closed for an entire season for the first time in its history.
Jon Reens, the Chicago-based vice president of marketing for Midwest music for Live Nation, which manages Alpine, said the usual acts that swing through Alpine chose to play different venues instead.
“We started in the middle of 2016 working on the 2017 calendar. We went and discussed with a multitude of artists about playing the building for the first time in their careers, and it was met with universal acclaim,” Reens said. “It just didn’t work out. Artists wanted to play different venues. There was a definite desire with some of the artists to play stadiums. And in some cases, the production didn’t fit in the building.”
Artists and promoters play the venues where they expect to make the most money, said Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of concert industry trade publication Pollstar.
While concert business is booming for several larger outdoor Chicago venues and events, show and attendance numbers at Alpine have been dropping. Three years ago, the venue had just two concerts, and canceled a Wiz Khalifa hip-hop package “due to unforeseen circumstances,” a line frequently used to indicate poor ticket sales.
Meanwhile, the Live Nation-owned Huntington Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island in Chicago was expanded to a 30,000-capacity venue in 2013. This summer it’ll host Alpine regular Dave Matthews, who is taking a break with his band for shows with Tim Reynolds. Live Nation’s other Chicago-area amphitheater, the 27-year-old Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre in Tinley Park, also booked top summer tours with Depeche Mode, Future, Sam Hunt and Rod Stewart.
The annual Lollapalooza, which relaunched in Chicago’s Grant Park in 2005, attracted 400,000 concertgoers last year. Wrigley Field also got into the concert business in 2005, and will have its busiest season yet this summer. Among the 10 headliners: Alpine regulars Zac Brown Band and Jimmy Buffett. Dead & Company, the Grateful Dead spinoff that played Alpine last summer, also opted for the Friendly Confines.
And then there’s competition from Summerfest, which has lured A-listers such as the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Bruno Mars and Lady Gaga to its Milwaukee amphitheater in recent years.
Alpine is also more remote than its competitors, with the two-lane highway leading into the site known to create traffic headaches.
“If it’s a Phish show, that audience will go wherever they’re playing,” Bongiovanni said. “But a lot of people could be put off by the amount of work it takes to get in and out of there. Chicago is doing outdoor shows in the middle of the city and you don’t have to drive anywhere. You can take public transportation.”
Last year, the Walworth County Zoning Agency approved the conversion of a 25.5-acre lot at Alpine into a campsite, to accommodate up to 3,324 campers, that was introduced for the Dave Matthews Band’s two shows. It was a development Live Nation was long interested in, but the neighbors were leery about, following infamous episodes during the Dead years when some concertgoers would abandon their cars and sleep on neighboring properties.
Mark Campana, co-president of North America concerts for Live Nation, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2014 that camping at Alpine would be a “game-changer. … That’s when we go from two, three, four shows a year to seven, eight, 10 shows a year.”
It didn’t make an impact for 2017.
Reens said Live Nation is “fully committed to Alpine Valley. … It’s a beautiful theater. We find ourselves regrouping, looking at things in a more unique fashion, and trying to get 2018 rocking.”
During the off year, Live Nation will make roof repairs, upgrade concessions equipment and make other modifications, he said.
An affiliate of Zilber Property Group in Milwaukee has been a longtime owner of the facility. It briefly put Alpine for sale for $8.4 million in 2014.
John Kersey, executive vice president at Zilber, wouldn’t say why it was taken off the market. Live Nation has a long-term leasing agreement at Alpine, but Kersey wouldn’t go into specifics.
Piet Levy, USA TODAY Network