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The Evolution of Vegas Residencies, the New Proof That You’ve Made It

On a recent Saturday night on the Vegas Strip, Celine Dion was giving her version of a flight attendant’s you-have-many-choices speech. “We all know that you do have a lot of options in Las Vegas to see a lot of amazing shows,” she told an audience at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace, where she has performed nearly 1,200 times over the past 16 years. “All of us here do appreciate very much the fact that you have chosen to give us the opportunity to share our passion with all of you.”

The Colosseum was built specifically for Dion in the early 2000s, replacing an aging venue that had been ushered out a few years earlier with one last old-school Steve and Eydie gig. In many ways, the entire city now feels like The Town That Celine Built. Residencies are king — although, as John Meglen, co-CEO of Concerts West/AEG, points out, “the term didn’t even exist in our business prior to Celine doing it” — and artists are pushing the format’s envelope. Britney Spears and Gwen Stefani proved the audience could skew younger, and artists like Aerosmith, Van Morrison and Queen + Adam Lambert showed they could skew more rock. A whole other kind of residency, featuring bottle-service nightclub shows by Drake and Cardi B, is set to shake up the meaning of the term too. And Lady Gaga has become the first superstar to set up twin engagements — one featuring her “progressive pop,” one of standards with an orchestra — and landed plaudits and resale prices in the thousands of dollars.

In a striking reversal, the announcement of a Vegas residency — whether it’s for five weeks or five years — is now considered a sign you’ve made it, not that you’ve lost it.

“In 2003, when Celine started, people still thought Vegas was a place to go and end your career,” says AEG Live senior VP John Nelson. “That dynamic is completely upside down now, and it didn’t happen overnight.”

Some say the transformation occurred only recently. “The number has gone up exponentially in just a few years,” says Amanda Moore, VP of marketing at Live Nation Las Vegas. “I’ve been here for four years, and my entire first year, I rolled out three residencies. This past year, I’ve rolled out about two a month.” (Live Nation and AEG split most of the major long-term bookings in Vegas, although some of the resorts do their own booking.)

The inspiration for the modern Vegas residency had more to do with Cirque than Sinatra. “René [Angélil, Dion’s late husband and manager] and I got the idea after seeing Cirque du Soleil’s ‘O,’” Dion tells Variety. “We wanted to do something very different from our touring show, and it would have been impossible to take something like that on the road.

“Many people were betting against us,” she continues, “but we thought it was worth the risk. We signed a three-year contract at first, and after that we extended the contract for another two years.” (She took three years off before returning to the Strip in 2011; this year’s run of shows is being billed as her last.) “It was so great to be based in one city: I’m very happy that in Vegas I can give my children a stable home life, and I can still do what I love doing as a career.”

Few artists reside in Sin City, as Dion did — but then again, it’s a 45-minute commute by air from Los Angeles. “Rod [Stewart] flies home every night,” says Meglen. “I don’t think he’s spent a night in Vegas!”

But is the concept getting diluted? The enormous production values that went into Dion’s initial “A New Day” production — and its first fill-in show in the Colosseum, Elton John’s “The Red Piano” engagement — have gotten scaled down as competition floods the market and runs get shorter. Jennifer Lopez has dancers, Ricky Martin has aerialists and Gaga has a giant robot, but for every one of those, there’s a John Fogerty, “who doesn’t need showgirls and elevators and magic tricks,” points out Nelson. AEG’s Meglen thinks there’s plenty of room for shorter or less elaborate runs, but hopes the wow factor doesn’t get lost. “Residencies in my mind were built to be permanent installations — shows you can’t tour because they’re too big — not someone bringing their arena tour in for five nights in a 4,000-seater,” he says.

When Gaga’s initial receipts come in, expect local records to be broken, but numbers can be staggering for less newsmaking gigs, like J.Lo’s. Pollstar reports that her earnings for September shows at Planet Hollywood’s Zappos Theater (configured at 5,000 seats for the run) topped $1 million a night, with tickets ranging from $54 to $412. Even the Backstreet Boys’ more modestly scaled performances in the same venue, with $34-$294 tickets, brought in $400K-$600K a pop.

For veteran rock artists, Meglen says, doing 40 residency shows pretty much equals 40 touring amphitheater shows — with lower grosses from smaller audiences balanced out by not paying to move dozens of trucks around every night. And Moore says the acts get off on the energy of smaller crowds who are buzzed not just on booze but on not worrying about the babysitter. “Think about that atmosphere they step into every night,” she says. “The energy in these rooms is second to none, because no one has to go to work in the morning. Except me.”

Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler tells Variety that when their upcoming residency was first proposed, “I didn’t like it, because traditionally, if you played in a small place, that meant your albums weren’t selling, right?” Now he’s working with designers and enthusing about special effects that are “over the moon.” Flying high above the audience a la Gaga won’t be among them — “Homey don’t do that,“ he says. But Tyler promises the greatest production value of all: “People are going to feel Joe Perry’s sweat.” 

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