Summer Concert Boom Marks Industry Turnaround

"I can't think of a time in recent history that business has been any better," says one exec

A healthier economic backdrop helped the music industry realize one of its biggest summer concert seasons in years Credit: C Glanigan/WireImage

With the Rolling Stones, U2, Taylor Swift and One Direction on the road during an economic recovery, it's hard to imagine the concert business having anything other than a blockbuster summer.

First-half North American ticket sales were up 5.8 percent compared to 2014, according to Pollstar; top promoter Live Nation's sales, through July, increased 7 percent; and AEG Live, the second-biggest promoter, posted box-office gains of 26 percent. Plus, Lollapalooza drew 300,000 fans, the Stones grossed $80 million from just 10 shows, Swift has sold 2 million tickets so far, the Grateful Dead set an attendance record by drawing more than 70,000 fans to Chicago's Soldier Field and even Ed Sheeran is selling out stadiums internationally. "I can't think of a time in recent history that business has been any better," says Jay Marciano, AEG Live's chairman.

The most obvious reason for the summer concert boom is the turnaround since the 2008 economic crash. For a few years after that, promoters failed to find the right ticket prices for top artists, canceling numerous dates for Rihanna, Christina Aguilera and others, but heavy box-office sales have kicked in since 2013. "Everybody feels, from a paycheck basis, the economy has recovered," says Alex Hodges, chief executive of Nederlander Concerts in Los Angeles. "We could call it a Top Two or Three year."

Other reasons for the boom, according to multiple industry sources contacted by Rolling Stone: More than a decade of festivals has trained a new generation of fans to attend huge concerts everywhere; YouTube, Spotify and social-media word of mouth has more than made up for the reeling record business' inability to develop as many new artists as it did in the CD era; and big stars just happen to be on the road.

"When you have great artists, no matter, really, what the economy is, people are going to come see them," says Louis Messina, a veteran Austin, Texas, promoter working with Swift, Sheeran, Kenny Chesney and Eric Church. "There weren't many empty seats around the country, for me, anywhere."

If there's any weakness in the concert business this summer, it's due to numerous high-profile cancellations — Sam Smith, Iggy Azalea, Meghan Trainor, Charli XCX and Bleachers, Nickelback and others abruptly cut off tours. Smith, Trainor and Nickelback's Chad Kroeger cited vocal problems, while Azalea declared a "creative change of heart" and XCX recently posted, ambiguously, on Facebook, "I need to be creative."

Although promoters wouldn't say how well these shows had sold in advance — Billboard reported low ticket sales for Azalea, in particular — several in the concert business say artists have struggled after graduating too soon to large venues. "Everybody wants the maximum dollars, and sometimes you've got to build it a little bit slower," Hodges says. "If the result is a canceled tour, nobody really wins." 

But generally, business is so strong that an act like Fall Out Boy can team up with rapper Wiz Khalifa and sell 15,000 tickets per night — stronger numbers than the band did during its first popularity surge more than 10 years ago.

Bob McLynn, Fall Out Boy's longtime manager, says artists in all genres are emphasizing concerts far more than they did when CD sales were providing much of their income. Consequently, hip-hop and pop stars have focused on methodically building live fan bases rather than cobbling a tour together after a couple of radio hits. "Pop used to not sell tickets — that's changing now," he says. "I love that One Direction is out there filling stadiums. Those kids are now going out to shows. They get a T-shirt and talk about what show they're going to go to next."