Concerts run into a summer slump
Cancellations, low turnouts have made it a bad season for big touring shows
Wednesday, July 14, 2004
By Scott Mervis, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When it was hyped in the spring, the summer concert season sure looked rosy.
The live music industry was coming off a record year for revenue in 2003 and a strong first quarter in 2004, and there was no reason to think that wouldn’t continue through the summer.
But between canceled tours and low turnouts, it’s gotten to the point where Clear Channel might be longing for those good old days of Steve Miller sellouts.
A midyear business analysis just released by the trade publication Pollstar concludes that “For reasons that are still unclear, the bottom seemed to fall out of the concert market in mid-April. All three major concert promotion companies and several prominent independents reported a sudden drop in sales of anywhere from 15 percent to 50 percent.”
The summer downturn seemed to start with the pop tarts — Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera — both going on the disabled list. Norah Jones was downgraded (wisely, some would say) from outdoor sheds to indoor theaters. Fleetwood Mac canceled here because of rerouting (but surely would have rescheduled if promised a packed house). Despite a very edgy lineup, Lollapalooza, which was going to bypass Pittsburgh anyway, was canceled because of sales so poor they hadn’t even hit four figures in some cities.
Van Halen could be the poster boys for blockbusters gone bust. Far from selling out, the reunion drew only 13,593 at the Post-Gazette Pavilion, which can hold up to 26,000. Perennial favorites Aerosmith did less than that. The Dave Matthews Band pulled off one sellout, but not two, as in recent years. X-Fest, which usually has them hanging from the rafters, sold just 14,000 tickets. More surprising perhaps is that Sting, Rush, Blink-182 and Jessica Simpson would all come in at less than 10,000. The most consistent local draws have been the country shows — there are only five — from the 17,265 for Tim McGraw to the sellout for Kenny Chesney.
The Mellon Arena, one lonely dome during the summer, has had mixed success: first, Prince, who is spearheading the No. 1 concert tour at midseason, was a sellout, then Simon & Garfunkel, who hadn’t played Pittsburgh in 30 years, struggled to fill those expensive seats, drawing just more than 10,000.
Down at club level, The World, the former Rosebud space that re-opened in April, nearly closed, largely due to poor attendance at the shows. Jon Rinaldo of Joker Productions, which was operating the World, sums up the concert scene in the summer of 2004 with one adjective: “terrible.”
“All across the country,” he says, “there’s this downslide. It’s almost like a trickle-down effect from the high level of the amphitheatre all the way down to my level as far as sales go. Our lineup wasn’t really that bad. We had some good artists. It’s just that the numbers at the door were horrendously bad.”
A number of factors are cited to explain why the numbers are down: too many choices, too many “old” choices, too many good movies, free concerts and, of course, the hassles of traffic and parking.
Usher is going to hit arenas next month, but there has been a dearth of radio-friendly R&B/hip-hop acts on the road. “The popularity of concert attractions and those who sell CDs is continuing to diverge,” says Gary Bongiovanni, the editor of Pollstar. “If you look at the Top 10 ticket-selling artists and the Top 10 record-selling artists, there’s not a lot of overlap there. … Neil Diamond can sell out arenas without having a new record out. Yet there are artists who are selling 100,000 units a week on the Billboard charts that couldn’t sell a 2,000-seat theater.”
The biggest factor in the slump could be the price of concert tickets, which now forces people to make shrewd decisions about which shows they’ll see. According to Pollstar, the average ticket for the top 100 concerts last year cost $50.35 — double the price charged in 1996. In 2004, it’s up another 13 percent over last year to $58.71.
“The public,” says Bongiovanni, “is looking at a very large menu of very pricey options.”
“Some of those concerts are outrageously expensive,” Rinaldo says. “That goes back to the artist and the artist management and the booking fees. Sometimes it seems the industry itself doesn’t think ahead. The demand I’m getting from these agents, I’m still shaking my head. How can you expect me to pay this high guarantee when everything’s crumbling?”
While Rinaldo says Clear Channel will sometimes offer an artist double what he would pay just to dominate the industry, clearly the trend of higher ticket prices and lower turnouts, even if the revenues remain high, can’t be good even for the monolithic promoter, as its relies so much on parking and concessions.
“I don’t think Clear Channel is happy with that kind of arrangement,” Bongiovanni says. “They would much rather sell lower-priced tickets and do a bigger volume business. It’s important to note that the ticket price is set by the artist, not the promoter of the facility, and it’s a direct reflection of how much money they want to make.”
Clear Channel executives declined an interview request but did offer attendance figures and issued a statement saying, “We are pretty much now at the season halfway point at Post-Gazette Pavilion, and so far our 15th season is going well, but we’ve experienced some cancellations that are indeed not a typical summer-season occurrence.”
Clear Channel added that the season continues with “a very strong back half” that will include sold-out shows by Chesney and Jimmy Buffett, as well as expected strong turnouts for Ozzfest and Toby Keith.
To pump up attendance, last week Clear Channel held its third annual fan appreciation weekend, offering buy-one-get-one-free lawn tickets for Post-Gazette Pavilion shows such as Barenaked Ladies/Alanis Morissette, Linkin Park and the Allman Brothers and buy-one-get-one-free reserve tickets for Crosby, Stills & Nash, Brad Paisley, Bryan Adams and others at the Chevrolet Amphitheatre.
While the bulk of the year’s bigger concerts will take place at those outdoor venues, there has been a move in recent years back indoors. This year, for example, Prince, Rod Stewart, Bette Midler, Shania Twain, The Eagles and Simon & Garfunkel opted for arenas and have done reasonably well.
Could it be that the outdoor shed experience, like the audience itself, is getting old?
“Yeah, to some extent,” Bongiovanni says. “In a general sense, the concert business is largely fueled by acts from the ’60s and ’70s, the baby boomer bands. Those are the ones that charge the highest ticket prices and really draw the biggest crowds year in and year out. With the amphitheaters becoming such an important part of the concert business, we could have gotten to the point where the audience is graying enough to the point where sitting on a lawn for many of them is the less desirable option for entertainment.”
Who would’ve ever thought that, all these years down the road, a $30 ticket for The Jacksons’ Victory Tour in 1984 would look cheap and people would be talking about the intimacy of the arena?
(Scott Mervis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2576.)