Even though last year was financially disastrous for rock & roll tours, promoters and booking agents are gearing up for what they hope will be one of the most successful summers for concerts in years. Buoying their hopes is the larger than usual number of big-name acts hitting the road, including Elton John, Queen, Foreigner, Eric Clapton, Journey, the Clash, Ted Nugent, the Police, Fleetwood Mac, Genesis, the Doobie Brothers, Asia, REO Speedwagon, Rush, the Steve Miller Band and Crosby, Stills and Nash.
"It's going to be amazing," says Barry Fey of Denver's Feyline Productions. His enthusiasm and that of other promoters around the country is based not only on the sheer quantity of artists making the rounds but also on the ever-increasing number of tours being booked into such popular outdoor facilities as Detroit's Pine Knob, Denver's Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Chicago's Poplar Creek Music Theater and Cleveland's Blossom Music Center. At the 8500-seat Red Rocks Amphitheatre, for example, bookings have increased from forty-one shows in 1981 to sixty-two this summer, according to Fey. And at the 7800-seat Starlight Theatre in Kansas City, Fey says, "I think we might end up having more shows in a three-month period than we usually have there during the entire rest of the year."
These amphitheaters — which range in capacity from 7500 to 20,000 and sell tickets priced, on the average, from $8.50 to fifteen dollars — are gaining in popularity primarily because booking agents have finally realized that the teenagers who made stadium-sized shows a safe bet during the Sixties and early Seventies are now in their late twenties and early thirties and no longer in the market for a daylong boozy bash in a sun-scorched stadium or an evening spent in the distant rows of a cavernous arena.
"The people who won't go to a Forum show or a Madison Square Garden show would definitely go see the same act in a more romantic setting, with picnic baskets and things like that," says Tom Ross of International Creative Management (ICM), one of the country's largest booking agencies.
The Beach Boys, Chicago, Jimmy Buffett, Bonnie Raitt, Elton John and Crosby, Stills and Nash have all been booked into summer theaters. And though pop acts are the main staple of these venues, such hard rockers as REO Speed-wagon and Rush will also be playing them this summer. But on the whole, those groups with a large teenage audience stand as good a chance of making big bucks at a large arena like Madison Square Garden as they do at an amphitheater. "Your hard rockers — your AC/DC audience — would just as soon be inside," says Ross.
Yet just because the amphitheater appears to be the venue of the future, large outdoor stadium shows — another vestige of the Woodstock years — have not gone completely the way of the dinosaur. In fact, some promoters think that since there have been so few large shows in recent years, they're sort of like gold: a rarity and, thus, bankable. "When you're talking about an outdoor show," says promoter Jim Rissmiller of Los Angeles' Wolf and Rissmiller, "it's such a special event that traditional problems are thrown out the window."
Larry Magid of Philadelphia's Electric Factory Concerts says it takes either a package of big-name groups, one supergroup like the Rolling Stones or something very unusual to sell out a show in a place the size of Philly's 90,000-seat JFK Stadium. His plans for JFK this summer include a $15.75-per-ticket extravaganza with Foreigner, the Kinks, Loverboy, Joan Jett and Huey Lewis and the News on June 19th. He will put on three other concerts at JFK, one of which will feature black artists and be headlined by Rick James.
"I have a good feeling about it," says Magid of the James show. But citing the federal government's cutback of summer jobs, he adds, "I would be crazy to say I envision 90,000 people showing up."
Other large outdoor events planned for this summer include several of Bill Graham's Days on the Green at the Oakland Coliseum. The first, on June 26th, will feature Journey and Santana; the show will cost $16.50, up $1.50 from last year.
Package shows are one device promoters and agents are using to try to combat the slump that hit the touring business last year, when many established artists found themselves playing to half-empty arenas. Queen, for example, will tour all summer with Billy Squier; Foreigner will do some dates with Loverboy, as well as play two 40,000-seat outdoor dates with both Squier and Loverboy; Elton John is teaming up with Quarterflash; and Journey will have Sammy Hagar on its bill for a few dates.
"The continuation of packaging will definitely help business," says New York promoter Ron Delsener, who will again present a series of outdoor concerts in Manhattan this summer. "You've got to double up." Furthermore, says ICM's Ross, a package bill "will justify a higher price [in most cases, a dollar more], give the kids a better show and safety-valve the careers of both acts." Indeed, one of Ross' most successful tours last year was a tandem package with Jefferson Starship and .38 Special.
If packages are one reason for this summer's high hopes, another involves the change in the country's economic picture, from an inflationary period last summer to a recessionary period this summer. "People will go to extremes to entertain themselves in a recession or depression," says Electric Factory's Magid. "If you can't buy things on credit, you just might have a few extra bucks in your pocket for a concert."
Nevertheless, the effects of Reaganomics still have many industry people concerned. "The public has gotten very choosy," says Bill Graham. "Maybe five years ago they could afford to go to three shows a month. Now they can only go to two shows a month -- or even just one."
Likewise, Delsener says, "Kids are going to have less money because there are fewer jobs. There are going to be more shows this summer, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're going to do great."
The very fact that there are so many acts going on the road might even produce a nationwide glut in which there's a surplus of concerts and not enough ticket buyers. "What happens is there are too many acts and they bump into each other," says Magid. "You can't maximize your business with four acts a week." As a result, he adds, "We're not taking everything that comes along."
Meanwhile, promoters are dismissing for this summer the conventional wisdom that says a group should only tour when it has a hit record or single out. While Ross still buys the party line that going on the road helps a midlevel act bolster its album sales and airplay, he says that the continuation of the record-business blues has many acts actually turning to the road to augment their income. "It used to be you could just sell a triple- and quadruple-platinum album and obligingly do twenty or thirty concert dates. Now a successful album goes double-platinum and we find a lot of acts making their money from the road again."
That could explain part of the tour glut this summer. But it's also true that many groups prefer the hot summer months to make their rounds. Others, such as Elton John and Queen, didn't tour last year but will be back on the road this summer. In any case, promoters say the acts that will make the most money this summer are still the ones trimming away the excesses — limousines, fancy touring buses, extra crew members — that were once considered de rigueur.
Some groups, of course, can't be economical, if for no other reason than that their live-show appeal is based not so much on their music as on their stage shows. Queen, for example, prefers to limit its performances to the larger indoor arenas that can handle its vast panoply of technological and theatrical needs. The final tally of winners and losers, of course, won't be available until the summer is over. "I'm optimistic" says Ron Delsener, expressing the nationwide mood. "But I'm not dancing in the aisles yet."