Everything about the new Steelhouse Omaha music venue, operated by Omaha Performing Arts (O-pa), will be state of the art — the lights, the sound, the overall experience. The 3,000-capacity downtown venue, which is designed for standing concerts (mostly, there are also balcony seats), will celebrate its opening night May 12 with a performance by alt-rock band The Killers, a show that, despite its $75-plus ticket price, sold out in minutes.
The quick sellout proves more important than state-of-the-art facilities is booking quality acts. Last January, O-pa President Joan Squires was interviewed by local media saying one of the project’s motivations was to attract young patrons, specifically between the ages 18 and 45. “The entire venue is going to be an experience that will really help this city attract people this age,” she was quoted as saying.
I was a little bummed. After all, I’m in my mid-50s, well outside that target range. I envisioned a constant stream of TikTok-style pop acts playing in front of a huge, squirming crowd of squeaky-clean youngsters, all holding up cell phones for one giant Instagram moment.
However, after a few weeks of Steelhouse show announcements, it turns out I might be at the lower end of the target age. Among the acts announced so far: ’90s alt-rock legends Counting Crows, hair-metal bands W.A.S.P and Cinderella’s Tom Keifer, ’70s funk icons Parliament Funkadelic, 68-year-old singer/songwriter Elvis Costello, and The Flaming Lips performing an album released more than 20 years ago. In fact, all the above performers’ heydays were more than 20 years ago.
Oh, it’s not all legacy acts. Steelhouse is also hosting “fresh” hip-hop performer $not (pronounced Snot), Japanese novelty Babymetal and indie darlings Fleet Foxes, whose breakthrough debut was released 15 years ago, but that’s it for new-ish artists. So, what exactly is the venue’s booking strategy? Squires and Erika Hansen, director of booking for Steelhouse, said these early bookings are just that: early bookings.
“We’re just starting, Tim,” Squires said. “We’re certainly going to continue to move in a younger direction. This just happens to be who’s got opportunities to come to Steelhouse right now.”
Hansen, 48, who hails from Sioux City and has been booking gigs for 20 years, agreed, saying booking summer months was a challenge, because many acts had already been booked for festivals and outdoor gigs. “Not that this lineup is anything to be down about,” she said, “but it is a different type of crowd that we’re probably looking at for the first few months, and then we’re really going to start to get into the diversity that we’ve been talking about. If I showed you everyone who’s holding dates at Steelhouse, it’s a much different look than what you’re seeing right now on sale.”
Working with Live Nation
To power booking efforts, Steelhouse via O-pa signed an exclusive contract with Live Nation, the country’s largest concert promoter. “We felt they could work with us to ensure we get bands as they route them across the country,” Squires said, pointing out Omaha falls in the gap between Denver, Chicago, Kansas City and Minneapolis.
Headquartered out of Beverly Hills, the publicly traded company boasts “bringing 40,000 shows and 100-plus festivals to life” per year and works with just about every successful pop artist, from Alice Cooper to the Zac Brown Band.
Hansen said she’s in contact with Live Nation multiple times a day. “They definitely will suggest artists they know are touring that they think might be a good fit for Omaha and will work with the venue space,” she said. “It’s a two-way street, though. We definitely have suggested to them, ‘Hey, can you check out this artist or can you look for more artists that are within this genre and see who’s out there?'”
Steelhouse’s real goal isn’t putting on shows that target a specific age group. “(Steelhouse) was built with philanthropic dollars and really is open to everybody,” Squires said. “The target is to attract the bands that have been missing our city because there was no venue of this size.”
“We are absolutely looking at artists that have never played Omaha before or that maybe have played much smaller venues in the market and are now getting to the size where they could fill a venue like Steelhouse,” Hansen added. “I think the purpose is really to add to the music scene in general in Omaha. We want Omaha to be a destination for artists so that all of the agents looking at tour stops think of Omaha as a hot music scene.”
Building awareness is one of the challenges. Squires said Hansen and Live Nation have been busy telling agents and artists that there’s a new kid in town. “Part of it is just getting the word out,” she said. “And the more we book, the more we’ll book.”
What about Indie Music?
As an indie music fan, I had to ask if the venue’s 3,000 capacity will prevent booking important up-and-coming indie artists who draw fewer than 1,000. Squires said the space may not be appropriate for those shows, which would be a better fit for small O-pa-operated venues like the Holland Music Club. However, Hansen said Steelhouse is flexible and has options, including the use of retractable risers.
“We’re playing with the space,” Hansen said. “I think we will be able to do some smaller shows in there and make it feel full and really cool for the artist and the fan.” But, “we’re not wanting to step on anyone else, either. If some other venue in Omaha has a great opportunity to book a show and it’s a better fit for their room, by all means.”
What about local acts? I suggested local bands could be great openers for larger touring acts. O-pa has done this in the past. Local singer/songwriter Matt Whipkey, for example, opened for the band America at the Holland Center last year. Hansen said artists typically decide who will open their shows, not the promoter, but “if there’s an opportunity, we’ll absolutely do that.”
Ticketmaster ‘the right choice’
I couldn’t let them go without talking about Ticketmaster, a subsidiary of Live Nation that has been embroiled in controversy concerning ticket-selling practices. Just ask Taylor Swift, who appears to be fighting a one-woman battle against the company. Squires said it was O-pa’s decision to use Ticketmaster because “we felt Ticketmaster was the right choice for the marketing, for the fans, for the experience.”
The almost immediate sellout of The Killers concert left many fans venting their frustrations on social media. Squires said they expected a very quick sellout because The Killers play 20,000-capacity arenas. “We were sorry people were frustrated,” she said. “It was a demand question. We just hope people will stay with us to come back and try something else.”
“I think sometimes Ticketmaster takes kind of a rap for ticketing issues in general,” Hansen said. “Demand is always going to be a problem if you have an artist that has a demand that’s greater than the number of tickets available. That’s not necessarily a Ticketmaster thing.”
Squires and Hansen were both eager to hear my list of bands I’d like to see play Steelhouse, a list that includes Lana Del Rey, Yo La Tengo, Shame, Gorillaz, Boygenius, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Alex G, M83, The Strokes, Beck, Angel Olsen, Wet Leg, Everything But the Girl, Ladytron,
Death Cab for Cutie (They’re playing The Admiral June 7) and Nation of Language — all touring acts that as of now do not have Omaha as a stop.
They promised to share the list with Live Nation. They’re looking for your suggestions, too. You can provide them by following Steelhouse on social media, the best place to see the latest announcements.
“This is going to evolve,” Squires said of Steelhouse Omaha’s bookings. “We’re just getting open. We’re going to continue to reinvent and reevaluate. It’s going to keep moving.”
Steelhouse Omaha, 1100 Dodge St., is hosting a free Open House on Sunday, May 14. It will include tours and a performance by the Central High School Jazz Band, Nebraska All-Star Rock & Roll Band, Omaha Girls Rock, Salem Baptist Church Choir and Enjoli & Timeless. For more information about this and other community events, as well as the latest concert lineup, go to steelhouseomaha.com.
Over The Edge is a monthly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.