Last summer's concert season was a bummer for the industry: lackluster ticket sales, big tours canceled, venues half-filled for many shows.
And when summer is dismal, it matters to promoters, because roughly 70 percent of their business takes place from May through September.
Ticket buyers seemed fed up after years of escalating prices for tickets and such ancillary costs as parking, food and souvenirs, and were also caught up with a spike in gasoline prices, the ongoing war in Iraq and a faltering stock market. According to Pollstar, the concert industry trade journal, ticket prices more than doubled over the past decade (the average price hitting $52.39 for the top 100 tours in 2004) while inflation over the same period rose 24 percent. And although concert industry-wide revenue was up, from $2.5 billion in 2003 to $2.8 billion in 2004, it was the result of higher ticket prices. Attendance was actually down 6 percent.
The outlook for this summer? Much sunnier, according to Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of Pollstar.
"Absolutely. Last year, there was something in the American psyche that caused people to want to hang on to their money. Whatever it was seems to have abated," he said.
It helps that average ticket prices this year seem to be staying relatively flat, except for Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones, topping out at $250 and $405, respectively. But sales for those fall tours, along with that of U2, which recently finished the first leg of its American tour, have been robust. Tickets for McCartney (whose tour begins Sept. 16 and includes an Oct. 8 stop at MCI Center) and U2 (at MCI Oct. 19 and 20) are pretty much gone. Before playing a note, U2 sold out 110 shows, 32 in stadiums, and will have made $300 million before the tour ends in December. Even the premium-price Stones (whose tour begins in August, with an Oct. 3 date at MCI) are doing big business. Bruce Springsteen's recent solo tour sold out, and first-quarter tours by Motley Crue and Josh Groban posted surprisingly strong numbers.
"Remember that old saying that a rising tide lifts all boats?" Bongiovanni asked. "People going to those concerts will steer people to other shows. No one's really crying the blues, and promoters are the first ones to cry those crocodile tears."
"2005 is a great year for live touring," agreed Ted Mankin, talent buyer for Cellar Door for the Washington-Baltimore and Virginia markets and the booker for concerts at Nissan Pavilion. "The biggest acts in the world are out this summer. . . . Last year did not have this level of superstars on the road," Mankin said. "Sellouts are great for the business and reinforce the demand fans have for great shows."
"Last year wasn't a bummer for us," said Seth Hurwitz, whose I.M.P. operates the revitalized Merriweather Post Pavilion as well as the 9:30 club. "It was a bummer for the majority of the concert industry, which keeps booking the same acts again and again, hoping it's the industry that's in a slump, not the acts. I always felt there were too many tired acts out there, and we try to steer as far from those as we can. When our business gets back to genuine talent buying instead of taking phone calls and taking availables [dates], that's when it will be in good shape."
This year's schedule does appear stronger across the board, from rock (Green Day, Dave Matthews Band, Coldplay) to country (Kenny Chesney, Toby Keith, Brooks & Dunn) and R&B (Destiny's Child, the Sugar Water Festival with Erykah Badu, Queen Latifah, Jill Scott and Floetry), from new reality-TV-driven pop (American Idols, Fantasia, Clay Aiken) to classic rock (Neil Diamond, Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys -- albeit separately). Although hip-hop dominates radio, it continues to be underrepresented live: This year's only major rap tour is Anger Management 3 co-headlined by Eminem and 50 Cent. This month, at least, comedy is king, with performances by Jerry Seinfeld, Kevin James, Bill Maher, Lewis Black and George Lopez.
As usual, Wolf Trap's Filene Center, with 95 performances in 108 days, will be the busiest outdoor concert venue: First-timers on a schedule loaded with frequent summer visitors include Clay Aiken, John Legend and Joss Stone, Mark Knopfler, Michael Buble and Celtic Woman, a sort of song version of "Riverdance," which is itself celebrating its 10th anniversary there this weekend.
What's music to concert-goers' ears is that some ticket prices will be coming down, particularly for lawn tickets at Nissan Pavilion. Clear Channel Entertainment, the biggest and most powerful live-music entity ever (after its predecessor, SFX, gobbled up dozens of local concert promoters across the country in the late '90s) will even be running an ad campaign with the tag line "Music Sounds Better on Grass."
Clear Channel's regional offices have dusted off their old brand names -- such as Cellar Door Productions -- reversing a marketing blunder made in 2001 after Clear Channel Communications (which owns 1,200 radio stations) bought SFX for $4.5 billion in hopes of creating an entertainment juggernaut whose radio and concert operations would feed off each other.
Unfortunately for Clear Channel, the combination irked music fans, record labels and artists, who complained that the company used its resources to overpay acts in order to maintain its dominant market share and keep its venues busy, in the process contributing to the sharp rise in ticket prices, while sometimes punishing artists who didn't play by the new rules by keeping them off the radio or out of its venues. Clear Channel became one of the most criticized media companies ever, its vaunted synergy instead a public-relations disaster.
Looking to lure back sticker-shocked ticket buyers and to improve its image, Clear Channel has reduced lawn tickets for many of its shows from as much as $40 to sometimes half that and has cut other fees as well.
"Most artists/managers/agents seem to have learned from last year and are trying to find the right balance of scaling to provide the best accessibility for their fans," Mankin said. "In 2005, we have focused on delivering the most affordable concert ticket in live entertainment. The goal is to keep lawn ticket prices between $20 and $25. Prices include facility fees and parking and also have a capped Ticketmaster fee of $5. We offer this pricing model to all bands, and a large percentage of our shows will use this ticket scaling model. These tickets are on average $4 to $5 less than last year and selling very well this summer."
There will be some further tweaking of the lawn experience at select shows, via a designated "Family Zone" for parents, children and other patrons who may prefer a separate, monitored area where smoking and drinking of alcoholic beverages will not be permitted. Also available: a "mini" season lawn pass giving patrons the opportunity to attend eight shows for a discounted price. Such "value-priced" passes include lawn chairs and premier parking. At Wolf Trap, it should be noted, lawn tickets cost $10 to $20.
In an effort to lower prices, Clear Channel has been asking some acts to take smaller guarantees in exchange for a bigger cut of the box office, in some cases offering them 100 percent of the profits from ticket sales -- and no guarantees, or very modest ones -- at venues it owns (guarantees being the amount an act walks off stage with, regardless of a full or empty house). In such cases, Clear Channel will make its money off parking, concessions, sponsorships and other ancillaries.
According to Mankin, "artists are looking to provide as many fans as possible the chance to come to the show. As the promoter we share the same objective. Over 40 percent of the bands that will play [Nissan] this summer are booked under the 100 percent versus guarantee model. This has provided that opportunity for the artist to keep the tickets lower and provide great value to the fans and in the end attract more ticket buyers."
Many people don't realize that ticket prices and guarantees are set by the artist, with promoters sometimes offering outlandish guarantees to secure that act from a competitor. The new arrangement will give some acts greater motivation to sell more tickets. And as record sales slip, touring is becoming more important for artists as a revenue source: One estimate has acts now deriving 50 percent to 70 percent of their revenue from the road.
Nissan improvements include 2,500 new spaces in the parking lot and expensive new video screens. Merriweather Post made many improvements last year but has created a new community space in the back yard behind the hill, and, Hurwitz said, "we built a mosh pit for Green Day to play there. They didn't want to play anywhere that didn't have a GA [general admission] pit, so we built one."
Meanwhile, there are big changes coming at Clear Channel Entertainment. In April, parent company Clear Channel Communications reported that operating income in its live entertainment unit fell 27 percent in 2004, to $95 million. In contrast, the company's two other businesses, radio and outdoor advertising, both experienced rises in their operating income. Clear Channel Communications attributed the profit falloff to both "a significant amount" of concert cancellations last year and the high guarantees paid to artists, who pocket the bulk of ticket sales. Soon after, the company announced it would spin off Clear Channel Entertainment, which will become a separate, publicly traded company.
Pollstar's Bongiovanni said, "That's all good for the consumer and the industry because everybody's more price conscious these days. When it's spun off, CCE will have to be dedicated to making a profit and not have their results buried in with radio and billboards. . . . It's not about market share anymore; it's about making money."
Bongiovanni also applauded the return to such vintage concert promoter names as Cellar Door, Bill Graham Presents and Electric Factory. "It feels a lot more natural and reverses a mistake they made when [SFX owner Robert FX Sillerman] was building his brand for Wall Street. I'm not sure how much it means to younger kids, but it probably does to people who are likely to buy tickets to James Taylor."
Which brings up another issue: the need for a new wave of headliners. Look at the summer concert schedule and it feels like there are more acts from the '60s than from the '90s, with a healthy majority coming from the '70s and '80s.
"People like evergreens," Bongiovanni said. "James Taylor's been around for decades. He's one of the acknowledged masters who can perform a couple of hours of nothing but hits, who know how to do a live show and aren't just trying to fill an hour with material from their first album or don't have enough performance skills to make it work, especially in a large venue.
"The question with a lot of new acts is do we have them good only for a couple of years, or will they still be good 20 years from now? Is Green Day the next Who, John Mayer the next James Taylor? I hope so. We'll find out."
Richard Harrington is the music writer for Weekend.