Music biz sharpening its concert-touring act

In the concert business these days, it’s buyer beware.

Music shows that were thought to be instant sellouts are languishing, while talent costs are soaring. The shake-up is creating some unexpected beneficiaries: Due to the lack of interesting concert tours, alternate oddities like the clog-and-lighting spectacle “Lord of the Dance,” are flourishing.

While the people selling the concert talent — the booking agents — are downbeat about prospects this year, it’s a source of optimism for the people buying the talent: concert promoters. They note that the biz had the same disadvantages last year, but ended with basically positive results.

Either way, the results are crucial: The majority of concert venues must do a year’s worth of business in the brief four-month period. But the past two years have not approached the $1.06 billion peak of 1994, and even the most upbeat observers agree that this year won’t either.

Venue owners are counting on such names as Tina Turner, Beck, Counting Crows, Reba McEntire and U2 to fill their coffers while looking to such rising stars as Wallflowers, Erykah Badu and Bush to excite audiences. In past summers, eight-hour concerts have lured rock fans, but this year, promoters are banking on them even more; they’re skedding a record number of such marathons to tour the country.

Since promoters can’t rely on such previous concert cash cows as the disbanded Grateful Dead, they’re trying new things: building venues in unexpected places, lowering ticket prices, and linking together acts that seemingly attract different audiences, such as Grand Funk Railroad and the Sarajevo Symphony.

After the 1994 bonanza, there was a drop in 1995, thanks to the dearth of acts on the stadium circuit and the absence of the Grateful Dead. Last year saw a mini-rebound with grosses of $950 million, according to concert trade publication Pollstar. However, concert industry insiders estimated that this year will see profits only 1% to 2% higher, even though gross revenues could increase 7% to 10% over 1996.

One problem: there will be little new this season for the baby boomer set, which constitutes the majority of the summertime concert-going audience, and who need to be lured out and to fight their tendency to be in bed for the 11 o’clock news.

More than 500 artists of all musical genres will hit the road this season — which typically runs from Memorial Day through the end of September — stopping at venues ranging from the grandstands at state fairs to Dodger Stadium.

Hitting the sheds

The lion’s share of artists will hit the huge circuit of “sheds” — industry-speak for venues averaging 12,000 seats, usually with at least a portion of them outdoors — and arenas, such as the Forum in L.A. or Madison Square Garden in N.Y., which seat 14,000 to 20,000 but are all indoors.

The average ticket price in 1997 will hover around $22.50. Even U2’s $45 pricetag appears reasonable in the shadow of the Rolling Stones $75 tickets during their 1994 outing and the Eagles’ $100 ducats in 1995.

For the upcoming season, it’s easy to discern some trends.

* The year’s lone stadium tour from U2 has been slow to catch consumer fire. While some of their shows have sold out, key tour stops like L.A. have not. But not all of the dates have “gone up” — promoter parlance for tickets being on sale.

* There will be fewer classic rock artists on the road this year than last, as promoters’ profits were squeezed in 1996 as a result of big guarantees paid to these acts, which dominated the schedule but failed to lure enough audiences to be profitable.

There will be a hefty lineup of the usual suspects, such as Styx, Supertramp and Santana, to name a few, but the deals are likely to be less expensive than in previous years.

* For those interested in the eight-hour concert experience, the season will boast more festivals than ever, as more than 10 such gatherings hit the road. Such reliables as Lollapalooza and the Neil Young-led HORDE tour will mix with the new Lillith Festival — a triple bill featuring Sara McLachlan, Tracy Chapman and Natalie Merchant — and the WARP tour, a sports-and-music fest billed as a lifestyle concert.

* Packages will also rule the roadshow roost, including newcomers such as Jazz Explosions, Rock En Espanol and a pair of head-scratching outings: the Pretenders with Sinead O’Connor and Grand Funk Railroad with the Sarajevo Symphony Orchestra.

“Packaging is going to be key this year because there aren’t enough acts capable of being headliners,” said Tom Ross, chief of the contemporary music department of Creative Artists Agency.

* Venues with 10,000 to 15,000 seats are expected to be the big winners this year, with artists such as Tina Turner, who hasn’t toured in four years, Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones ringing the registers.

While Alanis Morissette and Hootie & the Blowfish won’t be out this year, they will be replaced by Counting Crows, Live and the Wallflowers, acts that have made the leap from show opener to headliners and can draw anywhere from 6,000 to 15,000 in a given city.

Few rappers on tour

Tours from rap artists will be few and far between this year, though many of the genre’s artists occupy top berths on the nation’s album sales charts. Security concerns and insurance costs are among the reasons forcing promoters to think twice before scheduling shows.

“The rap business has had difficulty translating record sales into concert tickets,” said Jay Marciano, prexy of Universal Concerts. “And with some exceptions, rap music doesn’t make a great live show.”

Agents and promoters note that if there is one thing 1997 will be known for, it is the price-sensitivity of artists who are keeping their costs low so promoters can charge less for tickets.

“The new young artists and managers are sensitive to ticket prices and are willing to make less money in order to get fans excited,” said Debra Rathwell, VP of the Gotham-based concert promoter Metropolitan Entertainment Group.But it’s not only new acts who are making deals to keep ducats reasonable. James Taylor this year informed promoters that he’ll reduce his fee if they reduce their ticket prices. He said he wants fans to be able to afford to come to his show every year, rather than every two or three years.

Upbeat prospects

Aside from more seductive ticket prices, observers point to other reasons for optimism. Though the sale of U2 ducats have been slow in the U.S., three of the band’s shows in Canada have sold out. Many promoters think the sales pace will quicken once the tour gets under way in July and the full-scale media machine starts hyping the roadshow. A new single hitting the radio waves is also likely to help.

Opening act crucial

Old-timers also note another reason for a potential upswing in sales. It’s traditionally hard to sell tickets to stadium shows, they note, with the first 60% to 70% of the house typically going quickly, but the remaining 30% to 40% a tougher sell.

Filling those nosebleed seats is typically the providence of the opening act, which the band has yet to select.

Marciano estimates that he’ll have a good year, thanks to a combination of concerts and theater-style shows, such as “Lord of the Dance.” The Michael Flatley-led dance spectacle has become a national phenomenon and is selling out multiple-night runs in medium sized venues.

The industry has also recognized the need to go outside of the traditional halls and offer shows at such places at college campus centers, where venues that boast 4,500 seats can be used to lure students who like their entertainment on campus. “Campuses are a growing market,” said Rathwell. “In the old days acts just played the (expected) places. Today artists have a real selection.”

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