How bad a year was it on the concert trail? Bad enough for the North American Concert Promoters Association to publish and publicize for the first time a list of the summer's least successful tours, a losers list that included such big names as Whitney Houston, Diana Ross, Huey Lewis, Alabama, Steve Winwood, the Doobie Brothers and Amy Grant. It was a bad enough year that six of those acts made Pollstar's Top 50 Tours list anyway.

The concert industry suffered through the worst year in its history. Pollstar, the industry's leading trade publication, estimated in its year-end wrap-up that ticket sales were off more than 25 percent, with the take for arena-level headliners falling from a record 1990 level of $1.1 billion to $830 million. That kind of drop-off has a deleterious effect on concert promotion, which has become an increasingly high-risk, low-return business as groups demand increasingly higher percentages.

According to Pollstar, there was a 35 percent drop in revenue between this year's Top 10 tours and last year's, and only 37 concerts grossed more than $1 million, compared with 92 last year. Of course, many of the big-name acts weren't touring at all, and it didn't help that the recession became a fact of finance during the summer, traditionally the busiest and highest-grossing period for big tours. Pollstar reports that the hardest hit area was shows appealing to an older demographic; the least affected were hard rock, metal and country shows appealing to younger audiences with fewer fixed expenses and a greater percentage of their income available to spend on tickets.

So who were the winners? According to Pollstar, the champs were elderly gents whose albums don't sell particularly well and who seldom get pop airplay. The Grateful Dead had the biggest touring year in their quarter-century-plus history, bucking the recession to earn $34.7 million on the road, with 76 shows in 27 cities. The runner-up, exactly $10 million behind, was ZZ Top (106 arena shows in 85 cities -- the Dead were the only act playing stadiums this year). The Judds, capitalizing on a year-long farewell tour, came in third, grossing $22.7 million (126 shows/116 cities).

The rise of country music on the pop album charts also was evident in Pollstar's Top 10 roundup, with Garth Brooks coming in No. 9 ($17 million, 100 shows/92 cities) and Clint Black No. 10 ($15.2 million, 100 shows/92 cities); last year, no country act was in the Top 10. Other Top 50 country acts included Randy Travis, Alabama, Reba McEntire, George Strait and Hank Williams Jr.

The year's most anticipated and publicized tour, Guns N'Roses' first as a headliner, finished No. 6 ($20.4 million, 43 shows/30 cities), but while there were relatively few shows, GN'R had the second-highest average gross per show ($679,972 vs. $1.3 million for the Dead). That was more than $200,000 per show better than Rod Stewart (No. 4, $21.9 million, 59 shows/47 cities) and more than twice Paul Simon's (No. 5, $21.2 million, 76 shows/72 cities). The other Top 10 acts were the Bell Biv Devoe/Johnny Gill/Keith Sweat package (No. 7, $17.6 million, 72 shows/66 cities) and Michael Bolton (No. 8, $17.3 million, 103 shows/70 cities).

Lollapalooza, the year's second most publicized tour and the only successful multiple-musical-genre package, helped the now-disbanded Jane's Addiction land the No. 19 spot ($12.8 million), three spots behind Frank Sinatra ($13.9 million). Metal bands held down 12 spots, country acts eight, black acts four. Jimmy Buffett, whose record situation is even worse than the Dead's, remains a monster summer act (No. 18, $12.9 million). George Michael made the Top 50 with the fewest shows (No. 49, $4.7 million, 17 shows/15 cities).

The single highest-grossing engagement belonged to an act that didn't make the Top 50: Liza Minnelli's 15-show stand at Radio City Music Hall grossed $3.8 million, just edging the Dead's nine-show run at Madison Square Garden. The Dead placed 26 of their 27 shows in Pollstar's Top 200 grosses (followed by 17 Rod Stewart shows, 15 Guns N'Roses and 14 ZZ Top dates). In 1990, a gross of $680,000 was needed to make the Top 200; this year, that figure slipped to $430,000. Cellar Door Productions (Washington/Florida) produced 19 of the Top 200 shows.

Locally, two Dead events were among the Top 20 concert grosses: At No. 14 was the sold-out four-show stand at Capital Centre in March ($1.4 million); at No. 17 was the group's RFK Stadium concert three months later ($1.3 million). Other local concerts in the Top 200 included a pair of Guns N'Roses dates at Cap Centre in June ($818,592), a pair of Luther Vandross shows there in September ($699,360), two Cap Centre shows by ZZ Top in January ($652,635) and the Lollapalooza festival at Lake Fairfax Park in August ($636,610). Cellar Door Productions did the Dead, Guns N'Roses and ZZ Top dates, Dimensions Unlimited did the Vandross shows, and IMP promoted the Lake Fairfax event.

"We were fortunate," says Cellar Door's David Williams. "We didn't get rich but overall we made money in Washington." Cellar Door does concerts in many other parts of the country as well. "It would have been better if we hadn't done the replays on AC/DC and Yes and passed on Operation Rock and Roll. Taking those shows out of the equation, we would have done very well." Williams says Cellar Door did those shows partly because very little else was happening. For 1992, Williams predicts a slow-starting year, peaking in summer, dying in the fall. And, in a move that makes sense in these economic times, Williams expects that acts will be demanding lower guarantees, which should lead to lower ticket prices.

Acts we'll definitely see soon: Dire Straits on Feb. 24 and the Grateful Dead March 8-9, both at Cap Centre, and Sweden's Roxette March 1 at Patriot Centre. Other acts we're likely to see before the summer sheds open: Metallica, Guns N'Roses, Bryan Adams, Richard Marx and Bruce Springsteen. Acts we probably won't see include Bob Seger, John Mellencamp and U2: The last is doing some arena shows in the next few months, but look for a summer show in a major stadium.