2010 not a good year for the touring business

When a significant number of concert dates were canceled earlier this month by Lilith Fair, Jonas Brothers and “American Idol Live,” it was the clearest sign that 2010 was not shaping up to be a good year for the concert touring business.

Already, U2 had postponed 16 shows in the U.S. leg of its worldwide tour after lead singer Bono underwent back surgery. The band of Irish rockers was the top draw in the U.S. in 2009, taking in $123 million in gross receipts. This also came in the wake of Christina Aguilera’s decision to bump 20 of her U.S. shows into 2011 due to what the singer said were too many commitments — but which many experts suspected was due to less than stellar business.

New figures reported late last week by Pollstar show just how far the business has fallen: a 17% decline in the top 100 North American acts for the first six months of 2010, with combined grosses down by almost $200 million. In terms of grosses and number of tickets sold, Pollstar’s mid-year figures were the lowest since 2005.

In the case of the “Idol” tour, which dropped seven dates, speculation swarmed the Internet, questioning if the cancellations were due to disappointing sales or a roughly 10% dip in the Fox show’s ratings over the previous TV season.

For many, the purpose of the Lilith Fair tour, which was conceived in 1997 from the notion that female acts were underrepresented on rock and pop radio, was undercut by the rise of acts such as Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga and Beyonce, which are ruling the charts, airwaves and arenas. With a decidedly weaker array of revolving acts in various cities compared to its last incarnation in 1999, the tour, already facing an uphill battle, nixed 13 dates and is ending a month early.

The depressed state of the economy is considered a key factor in the sinking fortunes of many touring acts.

“The way I look at it is we’re clearly in a recession, but I’m not going to use that as a thing to lean on,” said Terry McBride, CEO of Nettwerk Music Group, backers of Lilith Fair. “The only thing that is up is unemployment. Concerts are discretionary spending.”

Ray Waddell, senior editor at Billboard who specializes in the tour biz, points out that many of the canceled shows were in the South, which doesn’t always respond to a tour’s blanket marketing strategy.

“I don’t think that’s the way to do it,” Waddell told Daily Variety. “But not everyone disregards local conditions. James Taylor is doing a good job at tailoring ticket prices to the local market and fitting needs.”

Pollstar’s North American touring figures show Taylor ranking second in terms of sales for the first six months of the year. His concerts had an average ticket price of $86 and sales nearing $41 million. Bon Jovi ranks first so far in North America, with an average price of $94 and a total gross of $53 million to date.

Even in light of poor sales, Lilith Fair organizers estimate they will entertain between 230,000 and 276,000 people at 23 separate venues this summer — which would rival that of Coachella’s 225,000 weekend draw.

At the same time, Coachella, which features hundreds of artists and deejays on multiple stages over three days, could be considered the better bargain.

“Festivals like Bonnaroo, Coachella, they look like they have a high price, but when you break it down and consider the immersive experience, they’re a pretty good value,” Waddell said. This year, Coachella brought in $21.7 million, making it the country’s top outdoor event.

Not all groups are doing poorly. According to Waddell, achieving touring success in the current climate, depends on several factors such as understanding one’s fan base. In this regard, pricing is as critical as what he calls “having a real reason to be out there.”

“Country artists price pretty conservatively out of the gate,” he said, citing Taylor Swift, who ranks third on Pollstar’s chart with $32 million in grosses throughout North America. “On the primary market you don’t see this. Even though (country stars) are superstars and could charge more, they really know their audience. A lot of metal acts and hard rock acts also price conservatively.”

When it comes to worldwide figures, metal heads AC/DC ranks first on Pollstar’s top 50 touring chart, bringing in $177.5 million, more than $100 million better than second-ranked Bon Jovi. Swift is No. 8 worldwide with $40.4 million, topping Eric Clapton and Paul McCartney.

In a side note, spokespeople for the Eagles claim that Pollstar misrepresented the group’s standing in the trade’s North American figures, claiming it omitted 22 of the band’s 28 concert dates, which, if counted, would have put the group at No. 2 with a gross of $48 million, instead of No. 33 with $10 million. Pollstar countered that the “missing information” was not provided in time and based its numbers only on the “hard data” it had rather than attempting an estimate.

But the bottom line, according to Waddell, is timing and real incentive: “They have to be real hot and have a new album,” he said of prospective touring acts. “You can’t just tour because you want to make money. You’ve got to work. And you’ve got to know how much you’re worth.”

• For more music news, visit Variety’s new music blog SoundCheck.

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