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Risky business: Uncertain ticket presales can mean boom or bust for Duluth events

Illustration by Gary Meader /

Earlier this week, Walt Aplin considered his first-time music festival’s budget and wondered where he could make cuts without affecting concertgoers’ experience.

Could he have less staff or fewer portable toilets?

Aplin’s company, Twin Ports Nightlife, is hosting Howling Moon Music Festival on Friday and Saturday at Bayfront Festival Park. The mostly Americana-roots event features headliners Brandi Carlile and The Guess Who in addition to popular regional acts like Nicholas David, a finalist on Season 3 of “The Voice” and Jeremy Messersmith, whose 2014 album “Heart Murmurs” has gotten national buzz.

Related content: Six acts to see at Howling Moon Music Festival

It’s a $250,000 event, and so far online ticket sales have been fair. But he knows from experience that he’s working in a market that waits until game-day to buy tickets. This makes planning ahead on staffing tricky.

“As a promoter, it’s gut-wrenching,” he said earlier this week.

Aplin’s goal is to get an audience of about 3,500 into Bayfront Festival Park — so far, he’s got about 2,000, he said.

It could happen.

When Twin Ports Nightlife brought Little River Band to Clyde Iron Works this past November, about 30 percent of the tickets were walkup sales.

It could fail.

When Twin Ports Nightlife brought Chicago to Symphony Hall, very few people bought tickets at the door.

“This is a unique market,” Aplin said. “When we got into the business, (another promoter) told us Duluth is the toughest market he does. It’s the most challenging, it’s the most unpredictable.”

The Duluth way

Of the 2,000 presale tickets that Twin Ports Nightlife had sold online through Sunday, 37 had been purchased by local concertgoers, Aplin said.

The slow turnout by Duluthians might be attributed to locals’ familiarity with the venue.

“People get the idea that Bayfront Park doesn’t really sell out,” Aplin said. “There certainly hasn’t been a situation lately where the park has sold out.”

Truth: It can sell out. The park holds 12,000 for standing room-only shows and 8,000 when there is a lawn chair/standing hybrid, said Jeff Stark, who is in charge of DECC venue operations and is the director of Bayfront Festival Park.  

The biggest show in recent history, Trampled By Turtles and Atmosphere in 2013, drew 9,500 — the biggest single-day paid event the DECC has on record for the park, Stark said.

Music aficionado Mindy Granley of Duluth said she is inclined to buy in advance for concerts by her favorite artists. But with Bayfront, she knows she can wait.

“When Toad the Wet Sprocket and other ’90s bands were there (in 2009), I knew it probably wouldn’t sell out, so I waited to get tickets,” she said. “I was pregnant and wanted to make sure I felt OK and that the weather would be good for the concert.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’d stand in the rain for Trampled or My Morning Jacket … but for Toad it was like, ‘let’s wait and see.’”

This trend doesn’t extend to Big Top Chautauqua, even though the tent-style venue near Bayfield draws largely from the Duluth-Superior area.

Jamey Penney-Ritter, marketing manager, said attendance at the seasonal venue depends on popularity of the act and ticket prices. Like Bayfront Festival Park, Big Top has an almost limitless amount of space for show goers. Still, Penney-Ritter said, they get very little walkup.

Late-buying ticket trends aren’t limited to the music scene.

Tessa Lang, promotions manager at the Duluth Playhouse, said ticket-buying habits for the theater crowds vary according to venue. Audiences buy early for shows at the Playhouse — which has a reputation for filling its seats; The Underground, also at the Depot, attracts more walkup sales.

“People kind of know,” Lang said. “I think Duluthians are privy to what’s going to be hot and big and the certain venues that will sell out.”

The Playhouse’s recent production of “Les Miserables” played at a venue about six times as large as its home theater. After an initial burst by season ticket holders, there was a lull — until the final week.  

“The last week, we sold 20 percent,” Lang said. “It was scary. It does help, as a promoter, to know that a lot of people are buying them at the last minute and going up to the door.”

The perfect dew point

Tracy Lundeen, who worked as a concert promoter in this market in the 1980s, said Duluth has always been a walkup market. This has been a nightmare for promoters, he said, and joked about the considerations of concertgoers:

“They wait to make sure it’s 70 degrees and the moon cycles and the dew point are perfect,” Lundeen said. “They wait to see if they can win a free ticket on the radio. And that they don’t have a better opportunity that day.”  

Lundeen has his theories for the last-minute sales: It might go back to the mining-shipping-railroad industry when it was feast or famine and people kept a tight budget.

“I don’t know if it’s our frugal heritage, we just watch our money,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s because we have a lot of Scandinavians or people who are conservative with money, they don’t place a lot of value in the blue sky things. If they’re spending $20 on a widget, that’s different than spending $20 on a ticket.

“In other words, when people give you money, they want something tangible in return.”

There are exceptions, of course.

Kelly Mullan is an active concertgoer who will travel as far as Chicago to see the likes of Devo.

Mullan bought tickets to see Trampled By Turtles, Doomtree, Low and Haley Bonar at Bayfront the day the tickets went on sale — like she always does.

“Most of the time, if I know it’s something I know for sure that we want to see, we’ll buy right away,” she said. “We knew for sure we had a lot of things we wanted to do and see this summer, so we had to plot in advance.”

Risky biz

These days, Lundeen’s business is the expo scene. Lundeen Productions is behind the Duluth Senior Expo, Duluth Women’s Expo and the Duluth Bridal Show. In recent years, he’s added a yearly theater production to the mix. “Pippin” closed this past weekend.

Lundeen has been out of the concert promoting biz for years.

“The potential for return is outweighed by the risk of the investment,” he said. “There was no way to get around that.”

Still, Lundeen sees the appeal of taking that risk.

“It’s probably for love of the game,” he said.

Aplin would agree. He said he enjoys bringing musical acts to local audiences.

“I look at it as: When you pull off an event and it’s successful, I love watching people enjoy the music,” he said. “There is a certain kind of high you get off of that.”

Go see it

What: Howling Moon Festival

When: Starts 1:30 p.m. Friday, 11:15 a.m. Saturday

Where: Bayfront Festival Park

Tickets: $25 Friday only, $43 Saturday only, $53 both days; Available at Fond-du-Luth Casino, Beaner’s Central and at