Until this summer, which one band manager calls "probably the worst concert season since 1979," managers, promoters, venue owners and the musicians themselves had grown accustomed to skyrocketing ticket prices and big, guaranteed salaries. But in 2004, frustrated fans finally stopped showing up, sending Lollapalooza to the trash heap and Norah Jones to small theaters.
Stung by the unexpected recession, promoters vow they'll change their way of doing business next summer. Randy Phillips, president of promotion company AEG Live, calls for an "entire paradigm shift." Alex Hodges, executive vice president of House of Blues Concerts, adds, "The live-performance business is a broken model at this stage in the game. There must be a correction."
Not that there wasn't any good news this summer. Madonna, despite ticket prices of up to $350 on her abridged U.S. tour, grossed $5.6 million per venue, according to the concert-industry trade magazine Pollstar. Prince kept costs relatively low and has sold out eighty-eight venues since March, racking up $1.6 million; he also included a copy of Musicology with every ticket sold, driving the CD to Number Three on the charts. And the fall is already looking better, with the Pixies and Vote for Change (starring Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M., Pearl Jam and many others) doing strong late-summer business.
But promoters Phillips and Hodges are disgusted with what they see as a depressing trend: big-name artists receiving guaranteed, sky-high salaries no matter how many tickets they wind up selling. To make up for the costs, promoters have to charge more for tickets (not to mention parking, popcorn and beer). During the past five years, fans have literally paid the price, absorbing higher and higher costs -- with few complaints, until this summer.
Fans did receive a brief respite, in the form of deep discounts to dozens of shows. In July, Clear Channel Entertainment held a one-day sale on lawn seats for three Bay Area concerts, dropping prices to twenty dollars; that day, promoters sold about 50,000 tickets. House of Blues followed with a four-day, twenty-dollar-ticket promotion for seventy shows, from Linkin Park to Liz Phair; Hodges says that sales jumped by an average of 1,000 tickets per show.
"How else do they expect to fill the seats?" asks Amy Blackman-Romero, manager of Latin-rock band Ozomatli, which discounted tickets just weeks before a San Antonio show in August and boosted attendance from 300 to more than 1,000. "When the seats are filled, people drink."
So the discounts worked -- for now. "In the long term, discounts are disastrous, and it is a gigantic, massive mistake to put shows like that on sale," says Ken Fermaglich, an agent representing the 3 Doors Down/Nickelback tour. "You're devaluing the band."
As for fall, the surging Pixies are set to take the torch from Prince as an Eighties throwback act that can make money. "They're huge," says Marc Geiger, co-founder of Lollapalooza, adding that the shows have several characteristics summer tours lacked: an attention-getting act, a reasonable price (about forty dollars) and a refusal to oversaturate themselves in certain cities. And the Vote for Change Tour has sold out more than half of the twenty-two shows it has put on sale so far. As for next summer, promoters are already optimistic: Paul McCartney may return to the road.
The Troubled Tours
The numbers: Only two of thirty-one planned shows sold well. One Northeast date reportedly moved just 450 tickets.
The problem: "Ticket prices were too high, and Morrissey fans don't want to sit in a field for two hours," says a prominent agent, adding that Morrissey's new U.S. theater tour is selling well.
American Idols Live
The numbers: Reports of empty seats were rampant. Barely 4,000 fans showed up at Cincinnati's U.S. Bank Arena, which can seat 16,500.
The problem: "The people who won [the TV show] this year didn't catch attention the way Clay [Aiken] and Ruben [Studdard] did last year," says the agent.
The numbers: Promoters had to scale back the multiplatinum singer's tour from amphitheaters to smaller venues. For instance, a September show at the 30,000-capacity Tweeter Center near Chicago was moved to the 3,600-seat Chicago Theatre.
The problem: "Just because an artist sells records doesn't mean she's going to sell tickets," another agent says. "And some artists, like the Grateful Dead, sell more tickets than records."
The numbers: Averaged only 6,000 fans per show in large amphitheaters and heavily discounted ticket prices (to an average of $28.14) in late summer to boost attendance.
The problem: "She's never been on a headlining tour, so I think there's a building process," Clear Channel executive Dave Gerardi told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The numbers: The classic-rock stalwarts had to deeply discount tickets for most of their amphitheater tour, with prices as low as ten dollars for many seats.
The problem:"When Def Leppard, Aerosmith and Kiss are in the same market within the same week, what does one expect?" asks Lollapalooza co-founder Marc Geiger. "It's the same audience, and it gets split three ways."
The numbers: Averaged just 6,100 fans and grossed $189,000 a show playing large venues, such as the 22,000-capacity Palace of Auburn Hills, Michigan.
The problem: "They played big buildings, and they probably shouldn't have," says an industry source.