Tough year for concert sales may push ticket prices down

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 31, 2010; C01

It's official. The concert business had a lousy 2010.

On Wednesday, Pollstar, a trade magazine that tracks the vital signs of the concert industry, released its annual ranking of the top 50 concert tours for the 2010 calendar year.

And it's ugly. The top tours in North America grossed 15 percent less than in 2009, dropping from $1.99 billion to $1.69 billion. Ticket sales fell 12 percent. And the total number of concerts was down about 3 percent. Oof, ouch and bummer.

But heading into the new year, the industry's pain could turn into the fans' gain. "Hopefully, there will be some more reasonable ticket prices [in 2011]," says Pollstar's editor in chief, Gary Bongiovanni. "I would expect that we'll see lower-priced seats on the low end."

That could mean cheaper nosebleed and lawn seats for many concert tours, but probably not for big-name acts such as Justin Bieber, Michael Buble or Lady Gaga - each of which enjoyed a very lucrative 2010 and are expected to continue filling venues at ballooning ticket prices.

But Biebers and Gagas notwithstanding, the concert biz still took a bruising last year. Ignoring that pesky economic recession, artists often refused to drop prices, opting instead to cancel underselling shows, or even entire tours. Rihanna, Maxwell, Christina Aguilera and the Jonas Brothers were among the numerous acts that nixed dates across the country over the summer.

Locally, the most dramatic example of the concert industry's woes was seen in May, when the Eagles, the Dixie Chicks and Keith Urban bagged a June 15 concert at Washington's Nationals Park. Promoter Live Nation cited scheduling conflicts, but lackluster sales due to steeply priced tickets may have been partly to blame. Seats were going for up to $240.

In 2011, promoters will likely have to be more choosy about whom they invite to the stage. And artists might have to reconsider what they'd like to charge.

"I think everyone is going to be more conservative in their booking," says Bongiovanni. "And I think the artists themselves have gotten the message that this isn't the time to push the envelope and try to make as much money as possible. It's better to be more conservative in your goals."

And while Bongiovanni expects ticket prices to fall across the country in 2011, that might not be the case in the Washington area.

"Gauging how bad [2010] was depended on who you asked," says Glenn Peoples, senior editorial analyst at Billboard Magazine. "In a big city like D.C. or New York, there is an incredible supply of live events - and there's also an incredible demand. What happens in a major market is not representative of what's happening in the rest of the country."

Many Washington area promoters second that.

"I'm sorry, but we just haven't had this problem," says Seth Hurwitz, chairman of I.M.P. promotions and co-owner of the 9:30 Club. He says that despite the industry's struggles this summer, I.M.P. - which schedules concerts for Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia - enjoyed a prosperous 2010. "Everyone is distracted by paying too much and feeling ripped off," says Hurwitz. "I didn't hear that at Merriweather this year. I seldom hear it at the 9:30."

Aside from increasing parking charges at the 9:30 in 2011 (they're jumping from $10 pre-order, $12 at the door to $12 pre-order, $15 at the door), Hurwitz says he plans to keep ticket prices competitive in the new year.

Expect a similar sticking to the formula at Wolf Trap, which is coming off the most successful summer in its 39-year history. Total attendance reached 450,000 and ticket sales rose to $16.6 million. Sold-out performances included concerts from Willie Nelson, Sheryl Crow, Earth Wind & Fire, Counting Crows, Backstreet Boys and others.

Live Nation didn't have the same good fortune. The concert promotion giant said attendance dropped 16 percent from July to September 2010, perhaps forcing the company to rethink its strategy for 2011. (Representatives at Live Nation could not be reached for comment.) "We know that if you lower the price, they'll come," chief executive Michael Rapino told investors late last year.

They got a head start last summer at Jiffy Lube Live, the 25,000-seat venue in Bristow that Live Nation owns and operates. As the season trudged along, employees began strolling the grounds wearing sandwich boards, peddling tickets to upcoming concerts for a mere $10. Such "fire sale" pricing helped fill the venue in the season's waning months, but some say the practice may have consequences.

"Fire sales are a major concern around the industry," says Peoples at Billboard. "A lot of people are concerned that the consumer will be conditioned to wait for lower prices."

"If they sell $10 tickets, [I hope] they do it from the very beginning," says Bongiovanni at Pollstar. "The core fan buys them at full price only to find that the casual fan can buy it for 10 bucks later."

One way to avoid angering those core fans, says Peoples, is to offer discounted tickets through a third party. Bon Jovi utilized this approach last summer, offering last-minute discounted seats through Groupon. By the end of the year, the band was the highest selling, highest grossing live act of 2010.

But next year, they'll have more competition. "The one thing about 2011 that'll be a lot different than 2010 is greater supply," says Peoples. "There are going to be a lot of acts out on the road who didn't tour in 2010."

Among them are country crooner Kenny Chesney, who took last summer off, and Sade, the resurgent R&B goddess who waited a year to hit the road in support of her 2010 comeback album "Soldier of Love."

With the field ever more crowded, concert promoters will have to be more selective. Michael Jaworek, promoter for the Birchmere and Birchmere Presents, said his grosses were down 15 percent this year, right in tune with Pollstar's 2010 figures for the rest of North America.

"We've tried to be very careful about the artists we make offers on as well as the ticket prices we feel the public can afford," he says. "This doesn't necessarily mean that ticket prices will go down."

What it means is that Jaworek will have to be picky about which artists he thinks fans are willing to pay to come out and see in 2011. And in a heavily saturated market such as Washington, there often can be too much of a good thing.

"There's an old maxim in the business," says Jaworek: " 'There's no show you have to do.' "

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