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After Sluggish Start, Summer Concert Season Finishes Strong

While some promoters were forced to rely on Groupon to fill seats, sold-out stadium shows came back for the first time in two decades

Paul McCartney

Paul McCartney in San Francisco, August 14, 2014.

Brooke Duthie

At the beginning of the summer, the megastar concert business looked grim — Paul McCartney was sick and had to cancel shows, the Rolling Stones weren’t touring in the U.S., none of the biggest superstar acts from U2 to Madonna were on the road and festivals appeared to be luring away big names such as Outkast and Elton John from sheds and arenas.

But McCartney recovered, Billy Joel sold out Madison Square Garden several times and sold-out stadium shows came back for the first time in two decades. “It was a great summer,” says David Zedeck, an executive vice president for Live Nation, the world’s biggest concert promoter. “The economy helps — like the rest of the world, we rebounded after something that was bad a couple of years ago.”

Although ticket sales by mid-year had dropped 12.6 percent, according to Pollstar’s analysis of the Top 100 North American tours, those numbers didn’t account for One Direction‘s 27 stadium shows and most of Jay Z and Beyonce‘s On the Run, which grossed $96 million. With Rihanna/Eminem and Jason Aldean also selling out stadiums, promoters appear to have developed a new blueprint after relying on baby-boom throwbacks for the past 10 or 15 years.

“It took longer for those bands to become stadium attractions, because they were only dependent on their music and radio,” Zedeck says. “It might happen quicker now, with a band like One Direction being able to sell stadiums three years after their first album. There are so many more ways to reach fans.”

The summer concert business wasn’t flawless — promoters relied on Groupon deals to fill seats at shows from Wiz Khalifa to Arcade Fire to Kings of Leon, and Milwaukee’s Rock the Green and New York’s Electric Zoo were among the festival cancellations (the latter due to severe weather).

“My takeaway was the alarming amount of discounting that was going on,” says Andy Cirzan, vice president of concerts for Chicago’s Jam Productions. “It reminded me of looking at music like it was inventory in a department store: ‘We’re backed up, we’ve got too many of these things, trot ’em out on sale!'” But even Cirzan acknowledged the strong summer, particularly due to country stars such as Aldean, Lady Antebellum and George Strait, who grossed $62 million and hit Number One on Pollstar’s mid-year touring list.

As for fall, still no Madonna or Stones. But Justin Timberlake, Fleetwood Mac and Lorde are starting new tours; Jimmy Buffett, One Direction and Katy Perry are continuing; and Pearl Jam quickly sold out several Midwest arena dates. “A good economy has definitely helped our industry,” says Jay Marciano, chairman of AEG Live. “People are going to more shows.”

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