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Finding the key to a magical tour

The packages that have lifted so many “alternative” bands into auditorium-level headliners have been extended to the former arena superstars. The old are learning from the young.

Five years into the Lollapalooza musical extravaganza and three years into the neo-hippie tour package HORDE, classic rockers are finding that three-to-a-bill is the magic ticket back to larger audiences and more consistent paydays. A Foreigner-Cheap Trick-Loverboy show, for example, sold out two shows at L.A.’s Universal Amphitheatre; a Motown grouping of the Four Tops, Temptations, Spinners, Mary Wilson & the Supremes and Junior Walker & the All-Stars is taking the ’60s Detroit hit factory across the country; ’70s hit makers REO Speedwagon, Fleetwood Mac and Pat Benatar are collectively stirring baby boomers’ high-school memories; and Santana is seeing brisk sales in this summer’s partnership with guitar wizard Jeff Beck.

“The general trend, regardless of what type of act you’re talking about, is to do more packaging,” says Ken Scher, head of the booking department for Nederlander on the West Coast. “You’re seeing an effort from bands and promoters to offer more value for the concert dollar. Steve Miller and the Doobie Brothers is a great package; the Allman Brothers’ choosing a younger band, Rusted Root, has been working great in helping them attract a younger crowd.”

Promoters at large venues aren’t seeing those instant gold mines this year – Pink Floyd, Barbra Streisand, the Grateful Dead, the Eagles. Instead they are getting hit by groupings such as Soul Asylum, Jayhawks, Matthew Sweet and Victoria Williams, or the 16th annual Budweiser Superfest featuring three of the year’s chart-toppers (Boyz II Men, TLC, Montell Jordan), showing how a new level of stars has become a strong commercial viability.

The younger crowd has been a boon to the West Coast theaters that make the bulk of their earnings in the summer such as the Greek Theatre, Irvine Meadows and the Universal Amphitheatre. A considerable number of contemporary acts have broken through to the 3,000-to 6,000-seat level that promoters can bank on. Among this summer’s road warriors that have stepped up from the club/small-hall level are Live, Dave Matthews Band, Primus, Hootie & the Blowfish, Cranberries, Mary J. Blige and Sheryl Crow. And the younger acts still see the value of packaging, as Weezer, Teenage Fanclub and That Dog hit the road at the same time as Lollapalooza.

“Shows like the HORDE package (Black Crowes, Blues Traveler, Ziggy Marley) have been great for business,” says Alex Hodges, senior VP of MCA Concerts, and the head of the booking department at Universal Amphitheatre. “As fans get older, (those acts) will become the mainstream stars. They add a sense of vitality.”

New bands, Latin stars, classic rock packages and country acts mixed in with the summer stalwarts such as Gypsy Kings and Johnny Mathis, have broadened the appeal of venues along ethnic and age lines so that shows of a similar genre of music don’t wind up negating each other, as was the case two or three years ago.

Additionally, the venues themselves have looked at ways to attract and hold on to audiences by marketing special features. Even the venerable Hollywood Bowl, a year away from its 75th anniversary, has had to pump up its own volume to attract auds and corporate donations to the nonprofit org that runs the venue, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn.

“There was a time when you could just say Hollywood Bowl and people would come flocking,” says Steve Linder, assistant general manager of the Bowl. “Because it is such an integral part of the city, we try to appeal to as many people as possible and make the entertainment as diverse as possible.”

The Bowl has become an 18,000-seat home to pop acts such as Sting, Tom Petty and Luther Vandross without becoming locked into presenting one specific type of pop act. On the classical side, they’ve achieved a level of success with programs by the L.A. Philharmonic and the 5-year-old Hollywood Bowl Orchestra led by John Mauceri, which specializes in premieres of little-known works by famous composers and film music. Linder sees the latter as a springboard to developing new audiences.

“People have grown to understand the type of show they will see when the Bowl Orchestra performs,” Linder says. “People now expect something different from our city, something different even from what they used to get at the Bowl.”

The challenge, Linder says, is keeping sponsors interested in attracting a Bowl crowd and not taking a biggest-bang-for-the-buck approach.

That’s not to say everything is peaches and cream. Says Nederlander’s Hodges: “Our research into other events and talking to people who run other events would indicate that the market as a whole has turned soft a little early this year.”

At MCA Concerts, a solution has been to add more “low-dough” seats when possible, Hodges says. Many younger acts like a single price for the house, but other shows have had as many as six different ticket prices. Reba McEntire’s recent Southern California shows- three at Universal and one at the Blockbuster Pavilion in Devore – grossed nearly $1.4 million. Tickets at Universal ranged from $27 to $77; Blockbuster, which has the luxury of a lawn, sold out its 16,594 seats at prices ranging from $22.50 to $75.50.

“It’s a response to the needs of the public,” Hodges says. “It seems to be working.”

Of all the major tours, only one has yet to hit the Los Angeles market (R.E. M.) and another (Elton John) made it only as close as San Diego. Combined with Pearl Jam’s aborted “no Ticketmaster” tour, it makes for slim pickings on the superstar circuit.

“It’s more dramatically felt at Blockbuster,” Hodges says. “It needs some programming to get people in the seats and develop a back product. That’s a driving force behind low-dough’ shows.”

Venues across the country have been welcoming back Lollapalooza after it spent much of ’94 in fields rather than venues with permanent seats. Still, confusion about headliners and delays in setting dates caused the tour to take awhile to gain its momentum, despite a potent lineup led by Sonic Youth, Hole and Cypress Hill.

“The negative speculation in the media has played a major part in the perception of our tour,” says Lollapalooza spokeswoman Heidi Robinson.

The rolling thunder of alternative rock started its 25-city trek July 4 in George, Wash., and concludes at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, Calif., on Aug. 19. Its Orange County appearance sold out in 13 minutes and only Cleveland, where 8,000 of a potential 17,000 tickets had been sold by mid-July, appeared to be a trouble spot. Toronto for example, sold out its 28,000 seats, proving there’s a large aud willing to spend a day outside basking in rock ‘n’ roll.

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