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Superstars Take On Risk, Reward of Stadium Show Resurgence

After two decades of diminishing returns, the age of the stadium show has returned

Zac Brown

Zac Brown Band's three-night sellout of Fenway Park was the latest in a resurgence of superstar stadium shows

Paul Marotta/Getty

If the Zac Brown Band hadn’t sold out all three of its shows at Fenway Park earlier this month, selling 105,000 tickets and setting an attendance record at the hallowed Boston baseball stadium, the shows might have been a disaster. Everything costs more in a stadium — video screens, pyrotechnics, unionized workers — and empty seats are more obvious. “It’s a very risky thing,” says Will Ward, who co-manages the band. “You’ve got to get pretty close to a sell-out to break even. You don’t have those issues at an amphitheatre.”

The risk helps explain why stadium concerts, dominant throughout the Eighties and Nineties given the Jacksons’ Victory tour, Monsters of Rock, the Eagles, Pink Floyd and Metallica, had largely disappeared for the last 20 years.

But since last summer, they’ve come roaring back — top concert promoter Live Nation booked 72 stadium shows last year, and 2015 appears to be even more dominant. The Rolling Stones grossed $81 million in stadiums earlier this year, according to concert-business magazine Pollstar, and Foo Fighters, James Taylor, Billy Joel, AC/DC, One Direction and numerous country stars have spent much of their summers in stadiums. “It’s as big as it’s ever been,” says Gary Bongiovanni, Pollstar’s editor-in-chief. “I don’t see anything ebbing off”

The obvious reason for the stadium resurgence is the recovering economy, which has encouraged fans to buy tickets en masse for both graying rock acts and pop megastars. AC/DC and Joel are able to play Wrigley Field this summer because they perform so infrequently and create higher demand; Foo Fighters and Zac Brown, by contrast, have been touring relentlessly and building up newer fans via new albums and YouTube buzz.

“I remember hearing video executives saying, ‘The days of movie stars are over’ — several years ago, around the time the economy crashed,” Ward says. “Now you have Chris Pratt, Chris Hemsworth, Channing Tatum. You look at who’s playing stadiums — it’s the Zac Browns, the One Directions and the Luke Bryans. That’s the next generation.”

“It’s as big as it’s ever been,” says one music industry watchdog. “I don’t see anything ebbing off.”

Another factor may be fan resistance to stadiums breaking down over time. After they peaked in 1994, which Billboard called “The Year of the Stadium” thanks to tours by the Eagles, Pink Floyd and others, fans began to tire of sitting in a different county from the stage. Today, more than a decade of Electric Daisy Carnival, Bonnaroo and Coachella has conditioned younger fans to share their live experiences with hundreds of thousands. “You’re just in a community of people for an artist singing your songs,” Dennis Arfa, agent for Joel and Metallica, tells Rolling Stone. “That’s just a generational change.”

Also playing into stadiums’ resurgence: Major League Baseball’s enthusiastic participation. Before 2003, neither the Boston Red Sox nor the Chicago Cubs were excited about music fans tearing up their fields or annoying their urban neighbors with excessive noise; team owners, though, have since changed their minds. Since Bruce Springsteen played Fenway in 2003 and Jimmy Buffett played Wrigley Field in 2005, the iconic ballparks have held dozens of shows. “It’s a great way for a baseball team to show off its facility to people who may not love baseball,” says Sam Kennedy, the Red Sox’ incoming president.

Arfa, though, is dubious about the future of stadium concerts, at least in a widespread way. U2, which dominated stadiums during the lean years when almost nobody else could play a full stadium tour, is playing mostly arenas this summer. One Direction’s 2015 tour isn’t quite the juggernaut it was last summer.

“It’s not like Taylor Swift is just doing a stadium tour,” Arfa says, referring to the pop superstar’s upcoming stadium shows in Tampa, Florida, and Arlington, Texas, amid mostly arena dates. “The number of bands that can do it is going to vary from year to year,” adds Andy Cirzan, vice president of concerts for Chicago’s Jam Productions, which is putting on Foo Fighters’ August 29th Wrigley show. “If only people in the concert industry could count on that kind of massive superstar talent being out on a yearly basis — we’d all be ecstatic.”

In This Article: Zac Brown, Zac Brown Band

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