HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Zion Thompson, guitarist and backup singer for Hawaii-based reggae group The Green, fondly remembers going to high school and college sporting events at Aloha Stadium while growing up in the islands.
Fast forward to November 2018, and he and his five bandmates were suddenly on the other side — performing on stage in front of a crowd of hundreds of thousands as the opening act for multi-platinum recording artist Bruno Mars.
"It was huge," Thompson said. "We flew family out, parents out, friends or family if we could, because we knew that it was gonna be the biggest show that we have done yet and that it was gonna be just an important show for Hawaii."
Like Thompson, many who have grown up in the islands remember Aloha Stadium as an old, familiar community hub — a gathering place for families to watch football and baseball games, graduations and other events.
But for three nights in November, Aloha Stadium was packed to the brim for Hawaii native Bruno Mars' homecoming concerts. And it was a similar picture just weeks later when The Eagles, Guns N' Roses and hip hop sensations Cardi B and Snoop Dogg also performed in front of packed crowds at the stadium.
No doubt, Aloha Stadium experienced one of its busiest years to date and suddenly, a familiar place for community events had transformed into a vibrant, thriving venue for some of the biggest names in music.
The stadium’s resurgence comes as the 44-year-old facility is also showing its age. The facility needs tens of millions of dollars in priority repairs and lawmakers are weighing whether to tear it down and build a new stadium in its place.
But that debate can’t take away from the year Aloha Stadium had.
For Bruno Mars alone, some 110,000 fans packed into the facility for his three sold-out shows.
And Mars was just one of seven major events at the stadium over the span of a single month, generating a net revenue of over $2 million for the stadium alone, and making 2018 one of the busiest years for the facility to date.
Scott Chan is the stadium manager at Aloha Stadium. He believes this is just the beginning of a growing trend of big-name artists to look to Hawaii to perform at larger venues like Aloha Stadium.
“I think we’ve set a standard that Aloha Stadium is capable of bringing in these high-level, outstanding entertainers,” Chan said.
Prior to 2017, before welcoming the dance music duo The Chainsmokers, the stadium hadn’t seen a big act in about a decade. But it was still no stranger to big names.
The stadium’s history with musical acts dates back to the 1970s, with such household names as Chicago, Santana, The Beach Boys and the Eagles kicking off the stadium’s first decade of a variety of events.
And through the years, other huge names have taken the stadium’s field, from Stevie Wonder to Frank Sinatra and even the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson, who chose to end his “HIStory” tour with two shows at the stadium, beckoning some 35,000 fans each night ― including a young Bruno.
For years, Hawaii hasn’t been ruled out as a desirable destination for artists, but experts say it’s normally just a stop on their way to or from Asia ― and many have opted to perform at smaller venues like the Blaisdell Arena and the Waikiki Shell.
Chan said, however, he believes that's all changing: The mentality behind performing is evolving from thinking on a smaller scale to taking risks and performing at larger facilities.
"I think prior to this, maybe a decade or so ago, they're playing at smaller facilities because they want to make sure they know they can sell out the event, it doesn't tarnish their reputation to some degree," Chan said. "That has changed somewhat. They're capable of playing at larger facilities. Instead of doing two or three shows, they're playing one, maybe two shows."
That rings true in Hawaii, and especially at Aloha Stadium.
Hawaii promoters Jonny Mack and Mike Galmiche know that all too well.
They were planning what they hoped would be an epic New Year’s Eve party in 2017, featuring The Chainsmokers at Kakaako Waterfront Park. But with a growing homeless population and site limitations, they had to look elsewhere.
"We weren't allowed to do certain things that the artist wanted, like certain pyro, different types of special effects," Galmiche said.
The next best option: Aloha Stadium.
"Everything happens for a reason, and we were blessed where we reached out to Aloha Stadium because nobody's really done an event there because we needed someone to handle a capacity of that grandeur," Mack said.
Though Mack and Galmiche said they'd like to believe they set a trend for globally renowned artists choosing to perform at Aloha Stadium again, all they can really take credit for is being among the first to take that leap of faith.
“I don’t think we’d ever know, but what we do know is we’re the first ones to take the risk of going back to the stadium,” Mack said. “I think that potentially gave rise for other vendors — like Live Nation, and big corporate entities — to say, you know what, the stadium is a viable venue again. I think we did open that door.”
Mack believes stadium officials — and the state — have Bruno Mars to thank for the line-up of big artists performing at the venue. Mars not only sold out his three Hawaii shows within hours, but also gave the stadium a chance to shine among concertgoers.
Mack referred to Dream Weekend, the December event that featured Cardi B and Snoop Dogg, to make the point.
"I think Bruno Mars helped us get that opportunity as well, so when we came up with our Dream Weekend festival … it was palatable for people to be like, it's safe, I can come and enjoy myself," Mack said. "Today, it's our biggest show that we've created together till this day."
Mack talks about what he calls an ecosystem and a supply and demand in the event industry among the artists, promoters, consumers and radio stations.
For example, Live Nation — the promoters who brought Mars on board — wasn’t producing as many shows in the islands. But after seeing the effect Mars had, it likely prompted the realization that Hawaii is a viable market to bring world-class entertainment, Mack said.
Live Nation was also responsible for bringing both the Eagles and Guns N' Roses to the stadium. In mid-February, they’re bringing rapper Eminem.
Darren Araki — owner of Precision Sound, a sound production company based on Oahu — has been in the industry for years. In fact, his company helped with sound for Bruno Mars when he was little Elvis.
So Araki has seen Mars transition from a budding artist to an international phenom.
Araki agrees that by performing at Aloha Stadium, Mars set the tone for big acts at the venue.
“I think with this trend now, after seeing Bruno Mars come in and sell out three shows, a lot of these other acts are now starting to see that it’s possible to do something at Aloha Stadium, which makes it more profitable for them,” Araki said. “It’s a combination of if the act is willing to take the chance, the promoter, and where the act is in transit between tours.”
Araki said it also gives fans a chance to stay put in Hawaii to watch their favorite artists, instead of traveling to the mainland to see them, which is what a lot of residents had been doing.
Big names performing at Aloha Stadium also mean big opportunities for Hawaii artists.
The Green knows all about that. The band formed on Oahu in 2009. And less than a decade later, they were opening for Bruno Mars.
The Green’s Zion Thompson said the group has been touring for 10 years — both on the mainland and internationally. But nothing compared to the adrenaline rush of playing at a venue they’ve grown up with, in their home state, amid a packed stadium of music lovers.
“We’ve been waiting for this kind of stuff for years, at least The Green guys,” Thompson said. “We travel a lot and we see a lot of venues and we see just the way things work, and I think this is just all good stuff.”
Thompson said he looks forward to more internationally-acclaimed musicians coming to Hawaii — and hopefully performing at the Aloha Stadium.
"I think when artists come and play at Aloha Stadium, if it goes well and they love it, then they're gonna come back. Other artists will come. Hawaii has been waiting for something like this."
Industry experts point to these big events at Aloha Stadium as an opportunity the state should seize on when promoting Hawaii as a visitor destination.
Darren Araki, of Precision Sound, said the state should promote the islands in a way that makes it a prime destination to see top musicians and entertainers while still being able to go out and enjoy all the recreational activities Hawaii has to offer.
“It’s a destination — hey, you’ve got Bruno Mars, come to Hawaii, spend a couple days — nothing better than seeing a huge act like that in an open-air stadium under our beautiful weather in Hawaii, and the next day you can be at the beach," he said.
He added that instead of spending money trying to bring in events like the NFL Pro Bowl, which was hosted in Orlando instead of Oahu the past few years, officials should invest in attracting big-name entertainers.
Already, these musical acts have helped boost Hawaii’s economy by providing jobs and generating tourism dollars, industry experts say.
Aloha Stadium said the seven big events at Aloha Stadium in late 2018 helped bring in some $25 million to the venue alone.
They also provided workers — from ushers to parking attendants — with an additional source of income.
The producers behind Dream Weekend add they were able to give people full-time jobs to work on their festival in late December. Not only that, but they said approximately 20 percent of attendees were from out-of-state based on reviews of credit card information.
“It’s part of the tourism demand of Hawaii, so that’s an honor to say that, that we’re driving tourists to Hawaii not just for luaus and dinner cruises and swimming with the dolphins, but you have an amazing festival,” said Mack, the promoter.
Chan, of Aloha Stadium, said he and his team are always looking at ways to attract big names.
And, he said, a brand new stadium might do that better than the aging Aloha Stadium can.
“That’s always something we’d like to see improve the fan experience,” Chan said. “We believe that a new facility would help us recruit, attract and bring in these types of acts.”
As the debates about whether to build a new stadium or keep the old one continue, promoters are looking to keep up the momentum from 2018 ― and build on it.
Mack and Galmiche, the producers of Dream Weekend, say Hawaii has long been known for triathlons and other sporting events. Their long-term goal: Creating a major festival — like Coachella in Southern California or Lollapalooza in Chicago — that would put Hawaii at the center of people’s minds as a destination for music.
Come 2020, Mack said, “you might see an event where the world looks at Hawaii as a platform to come and experience Hawaii, and an event in Hawaii.”