Internet a haven for live music

A GOOD CONCERT PERFORMANCE sparks the ultimate marketing tool — word of mouth — which makes it the toughest commodity to control and, conversely, a perfect fit for the Internet. While music has helped drive the Web’s popularity, sites geared toward concertgoers are relatively recent arrivals.

Wolfgang’s Vault, opened with tapes that came with the acquisition of the estate of Bill Graham, now owns eight libraries of live recordings and offers streams of 1,600 concerts by 864 artists. It recently purchased the archives of L.A. folk and blues club the Ash Grove, allowing the Vault to offer concerts from 1958-93 and from 2004 to the present, with the later performances coming from the indie rock-oriented Universal Music plans to release live albums using the Vault’s tapes of the artists to which it has the rights.

Last month, AOL launched to create a community of users feeding on a database of concert tours. Rather than judge a tour by its revenue, AOL is measuring by clicks and comments. The top three on Monday: Madonna, Jonas Brothers and, out of left field, Bullet for My Valentine.

Yahoo has been staging and taping concerts for two years under the banner of Nissan Live. Next month, when it posts new videos of Brian Wilson, Buddy Guy, Joan Jett and the Pretenders, its catalog will hit 45 shows. An average of 2 million viewers watch each show.

THESE ARE ALL POSITIVES, although some veteran acts have sued Wolfgang’s Vault to block the posting of their tapes. These websites should attract like-minded fans, people who, like me, want to see how an act pulls it off live. We’re a minority, though: Only 30% of the U.S. population attends concerts, and among all concertgoers, only 11% go to more than five events in a year.

But just glancing at the offerings on these sites, we see how divided music has become. Older artists who began their careers prior to the dawn of MTV are among the most popular, and their competition for dollars and eyeballs are not so much acts who followed them but the ones who appeal to the kids of concertgoers who grew up on Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones and the Police.

The Web is not a replacement for the concert experience, Neal Weiss, executive producer of Nissan Live Sets on Yahoo! Music, told me last week. But there’s a major question as to the significance younger fans place on a concert.

“When we were younger, the concert was where the fan and artist consummated the relationship. If you were bad live, it ended right there. Good live, I’m with you until I’m an old man. There are so many ways to discover music now that I am not sure exactly how the concert fits into the overall love affair.”

The challenge is the same at Wolfgang’s Vault, where the most popular recordings are of Bruce Springsteen in 1973, Pink Floyd in 1971 and Little Feat show at San Francisco’s Winterland from 1976.

“People know us for the classic rock,” says Eric Johnson, the president and chief operating officer of Wolfgang’s Vault, “but the challenge is how do you keep the ethos and expand? How do you find the pockets of fans?”

A promotion involving a live set by Death Cab for Cutie brought “a whole new group of people to the site,” Johnson says, and they have struck distribution deals with a half-dozen artists to offer their live tapes, among them Kirsten Hirsch and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, artists whose careers date back into the early 1980s.

SCANNING THE CONCERT offerings of the late summer and early fall, we are once again reminded of how strong a divide has emerged between those who sell concert tickets and those who sell recorded music. Coldplay and John Mayer are the only acts in the top 50 with proven track records as concert attractions; the touring business’s top earners have lately become a revolving door of R&B packages, reunions and country acts, along with veteran acts such as Springsteen and Bon Jovi.

This is the result of record companies reducing rosters, eliminating artist development and cutting ties when hits don’t develop quickly. The indie rock sector, in which no one has figured out how to make significant profits, is where the confluence of acts who deliver on record and in concert has developed. That’s where the concert promoters and websites will find their future, even as the majors look elsewhere for hitmakers.

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