Following a year in which three of the biggest touring acts in the world – the Rolling Stones, U2 and Paul McCartney – all hit the road, summer 2006 doesn't boast quite as much star power. But with Madonna, Eric Clapton, the Who, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers and possibly Prince planning tours, promoters are confident they'll avoid a downturn. "This is the time of year when every promoter and talent buyer says, 'Gosh, it's slow,'" says Alex Hodges, executive vice president of House of Blues Concerts. "It's not really slow. I feel good."
Hodges is especially optimistic about Madonna, who played only fourteen U.S. cities in 2004 yet still grossed $79.5 million. She plans a full tour this summer, beginning with an April 30th performance at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, playing up her disco-oriented 2005 album Confessions on a Dance Floor. Michael Rapino, CEO of Live Nation – the country's largest concert promoter (spun off from Clear Channel last year) – has high hopes for Mariah Carey's first summer tour since 2003. "She's going to be huge," he says. "Her record being Number One in the world just put her back on the pedestal as one of the greats."
Prince – who has yet to make an official tour announcement, although concert-promotion sources are optimistic he'll be on the road – was the top-grossing act in 2004 ($87.4 million) and is likely to do huge business this year. Other top tours include the Who, who hit the U.S. in September; Radiohead, headlining the Bonnaroo festival on June 17th before U.S. summer dates; Bruce Springsteen, who plays New Orleans' Jazz Festival, then tours Europe and the U.S. in May and June; and perennials such as Jimmy Buffett, Dave Matthews Band and Tom Petty.
While Pearl Jam could be one of the year's top-grossing bands, their ticket prices will be more in line with Matthews ($40 to $60) than the Stones (who set a record last year with $450 seats). "How rich do you have to be?" asks Kelly Curtis, manager of Pearl Jam, who plan $50 seats. "This band's philosophy is they're really fortunate with the money they're making." Many top attractions, including Ozzfest and Buffett, will continue last summer's trend of "scaling" arenas so that top seats are $100 or more and nosebleeds are $30 to $40.
As usual, some of the best shows aren't necessarily the biggest: The Warped Tour, in its twelfth year, packages punk pioneers the Buzzcocks and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts with emo-punk acts like AFI and Saves the Day; System of a Down headline Ozzfest (with Ozzy Osbourne topping the bill for the first ten nights); Nine Inch Nails bring along TV on the Radio and a reunited Bauhaus; Ben Harper has a late-summer run with Damian Marley; and Slayer headline the Unholy Alliance Tour: Preaching to the Perverted.
Such diversity is a promising sign, but many promoters say they have yet to solve ongoing problems. High ticket prices for the Stones, U2, McCartney and others helped the business make more money in 2005, but attendance dropped – and competitors accuse major promoters such as Live Nation of spending too much money on tours, which drives up ticket prices. "Until these companies change their business plans, they're going to flood the market," says Washington, D.C., independent promoter Seth Hurwitz.
Still, Hurwitz says several shows are already selling well, notably Fall Out Boy and the Black Eyed Peas. And House of Blues' Hodges says average amphitheater sales went up from 9,000 to 10,000 in 2005. "We'll see how that holds, but so far sales and shows look pretty decent," he says. 'The summer looks healthy."
This story is from the April 20th, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone.