The (Almost) Big Stage

Playing for pre-show Meadowbrook fans
By Michael Witthaus

The music at Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion at Meadowbrook always starts a couple of hours before the lights go down for the headlining act. As fans pass through the gates for every show, there’s a band playing on an elevated stage decorated like a country store. This year, the Gilford amphitheater began offering pre-show talent in its premium parking lot.
The gig looks great on a performer’s résumé. 
“It’s easier to book clubs when they see that,” said Tim Souza, whose band Maganahan’s Revival played prior to Steely Dan last September. “Owners take us more seriously.”
“It has brought us a lot of exposure,” agreed Shana Stack; her country band has appeared four times, dating back to 2010. “When people see names like Band Perry and Sugarland [her band’s opened for both] they think, ‘These guys must really have their stuff together.’ … It makes people comfortable.”
It takes more than talent to land a gig on Meadowbrook’s Magic Hat Stage. Social media skills are essential.
“We look for at least 1,000 followers on Facebook, to show they can build that, and they know a bit about marketing,” said Emily Keane, who books the acts for Meadowbrook. 
A well-maintained Reverb Nation presence is also critical, posting recordings, videos, links and an up-to-date show schedule.  The music website offers Band Profile, an app that links it seamlessly with Facebook.
“I go through pages and pages of bands to find the ones that work for me,” said Keane.
If your band’s social media skills haven’t yet culled thousands of online fans, your best Meadowbrook option is performing during the pre-show Ultimate Tailgate Party. 
“It’s a great stepping stone to the second stage,” said Keane. “There have been some amazing talents out there, like Erin Ollis before Band Perry, and Beechwood at Zac Brown. … They don’t have a stage, but they play their hearts out. It adds another level of music.”
Musically, the venue seeks a balance of unique and familiar. 
“I like to book original songs, maybe some covers,” said Keane. “I look for something that makes me go, ‘I have to have them here.’” 
The selection process starts months before Meadowbrook’s typical mid-May opening day. Once a show date is set, Keane begins scouting for second-stage acts that line up musically with the headliner. Alt pop twin duo The Cranks got the nod for a Fall Out Boy/Paramore double bill, while the rootsy Adam Ezra band fit perfectly with Willie Nelson and Alison Krauss.
Meadowbrook recruits most of the acts, but artists are encouraged to reach out directly. 
“Definitely email me, in January or February when the shows come up,” said Keane. “Get familiar with our schedule, and look for a match.”
For many years, pre-show music happened in a beer tent near the gate. 2013 brought a permanent stage, with improved sound and lights. Initially placed adjacent to a food concession, it was moved to the opposite side of the midway this season. 
“We want to make it more open, provide room to dance,” said Keane.
Magic Hat Stage performers play a plugged in set prior to the show, which usually lasts a couple of hours, and an acoustic show for departing fans. Performers aren’t paid outright, but can make money selling show tickets to their own fans using a special code. The venue often sweetens the deal, Stack said. 
“For each show, fans using our code are entered in a drawing to win a meet and greet with the headliner.”
For Souza and his band, the primary benefit was exposure. 
“We got maybe 50 ticket purchases, but we did big business selling CDs,” he said. “Plus, our social media activity went way up, with all kinds of new followers.”
By providing prominent placement in the season program and click through to Magic Hat Stage bands’ websites, Meadowbrook adds a big boost in that department. 
“We track that information, and we get a lot of hits from the Meadowbrook website,” said Stack. “It’s a huge help.”
It’s not unheard of for a band to parlay pre-show success into a slot in the big amphitheater. In 2013, the Mallett Brothers Band provided support at an Allman Brothers concert. In June of this year, the Maine band opened for Lynyrd Skynyrd and Charlie Daniels. 
“It was a really cool night … when they said direct support, main stage, we jumped for joy,” band member Luke Mallett said last August. “It was kind of a dream gig. I grew up listening to WTOS in Northern Maine, and I can recite every single Skynyrd song.”
The Shana Stack Band is already eying the 2015 season for a fifth appearance on the Magic Hat Stage. 
“We’ve been super lucky to have the opportunity to present our music there,” said Stack. “It’s a fantastic stage, with great sound. It’s the highlight of our summer.”

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