Summer Concerts: Canceled shows, tours have industry in a sweat
By Chris Richards
Hear that? It's the sound of widespread fretting over the summer concert season.
Billboard magazine recently predicted that summer 2010 could be the toughest touring market artists and promoters have had to face since the mid-'90s, citing a spate of nixed shows and canceled tours -- many scheduled to visit the Washington area.
The Eagles and Maxwell scrapped recent local dates, and John Mayer, Rihanna and Lilith Fair have canceled dates elsewhere. U2, Simon and Garfunkel, Christina Aguilera and Limp Bizkit postponed entire tours.
"It's probably not as bad as it's being depicted, but it's clear that promoters are facing a challenging summer," says Glenn Peoples, a senior editorial analyst at Billboard.
Peoples doesn't completely agree with his Billboard colleague Ray Waddell, whose aforementioned article for the trade magazine has stoked worry. "We really have nothing else to go on other than anecdotes," Peoples says.
But there are plenty of anecdotes, with artists citing illness, scheduling conflicts, lack of preparation -- everything short of dogs eating homework. While Bono probably isn't faking the emergency back operation that caused U2 to postpone 16 U.S. dates, fans and insiders often see these excuses as code for lousy ticket sales -- an irksome surprise in a year when the concert business was expected to bounce back.
"Everybody thought 2009 was the recession summer and 2010 was the recovery year," says Peoples. "Well, just because economists say that there's a recovery doesn't mean that people feel there's a recovery. Consumer spending has improved, but maybe not for luxury items." Case in point: The Eagles, before canceling a June 15 concert at Nationals Park in May, were asking $55 to $240 per ticket.
Marquee tours are canceled every summer, and Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar, the trade magazine that tracks the concert industry, says that "just because Limp Bizkit can't sell tickets . . . that's not really indicative of overall health. If you're following Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift around, you get the exact opposite impression of the concert market."
Swift, the pop-country wunderkind, proved her ticket-selling prowess in Washington last month with two sold-out concerts at Verizon Center.
A majority of this summer's concert woes fall squarely on Live Nation, the promotion behemoth behind many of popland's highest-grossing tours. Live Nation representatives declined to comment, but other local promoters say they aren't feeling the same pain. IMP, responsible for booking Merriweather Post Pavilion, says it is faring just fine, and Wolf Trap says its season's first quarter actually sold better than last year because of the venue's low ticket prices.
Meanwhile, dark clouds continue to loom over Live Nation. "They are the biggest company and probably feel a lot of pressure to buy a lot of the shows that other promoters would pass on," Bongiovanni says. "They gotta buy a lot of horses to keep that stable full."
In 2009, Live Nation touted itself as the biggest promoter on the planet, boasting annual attendance of more than 52 million concertgoers. To keep those numbers up, the promoter has launched various campaigns to put keisters in seats. Its Jiffy Lube Live amphitheater in Bristow rolled out an "artist of the day" promotion for June, offering $10 lawn tickets for that artist's concert. The venue also repealed service fees for the month of June -- a logical step considering Live Nation merged with TicketMaster earlier this year.
But in the long term, those discounts might do more harm than good, Bongiovanni says: "If you train your audience to wait for a sale that's coming, what's the incentive for them to buy today?" And fans sitting on their hands waiting for ticket prices to drop can lead to cancellations.
"We in this business really gauge what is happening by our advance ticket sales," says Troy Blakely, a booking agent at the APA Agency who works with rock band Rise Against and the latest incarnation of Sublime. "Sometimes it looks so horrendous, you have to pull back and say, 'We can't go through with this.' "
Live Nation rarely speaks of poor ticket sales, but has cited "scheduling conflicts" when canceling high-profile concerts. Such was the case when the Eagles pulled the plug on a June 15 engagement at Nationals Park -- a triple bill that also featured Keith Urban and a reunited Dixie Chicks. The Eagles later announced plans to perform in Hershey, Pa., on June 15 but that concert was dropped, too.
Representatives for the Eagles declined to comment for this story, but bassist Timothy B. Schmit told the Boston Herald that "a lot of acts have had to cancel tours because of lack of sales. . . . We did not do that well with this package in a couple of areas, but there was no reason to back out of the whole tour." The Eagles are touring in a very competitive landscape. As overall album sales continue to drop, touring has become a necessity for many artists. Each summer, the market grows more crowded. "You have to go out and tour to make money," Bongiovanni says.
Some concert organizers have spoken openly about underperforming tours. In May, singer Sarah McLachlan pointed to "pretty soft" ticket sales for her resurgent Lilith Fair. On the eve of the tour’s launch in Calgary, Alberta, last Sunday, organizers announced cancellations in Nashville and Phoenix. On Thursday, organizers announced 10 additional cancellations.The tour is currently scheduled to visit Merriweather Post Pavilion on Aug. 3.
Kevin Lyman, founder of the inaugural Country Throwdown Tour, also cited "hard times" in a YouTube video after sluggish sales forced him to bail in Dallas, Houston, Phoenix and San Diego. Lyman is the founder of the 16-years-strong Warped Tour, a perennial punk rock smorgasbord that continues to thrive. The Country Throwdown Tour visited Jiffy Lube Live in June and featured a sprawling cast including Jamey Johnson, Montgomery Gentry and Eric Church. Lyman appears to be building Throwdown in Warped's image, aiming to build trust with fans by by offering a slew of talent at a reasonable ticket price -- and being upfront with his audience when sales are down.
Promoters aren't the only ones flummoxed by this unpredictable concert season -- fans are, too. Bowie resident Eric Stehmer was irked when the Eagles dropped their Washington gig. Stehmer is between jobs, which means coughing up $95 for a concert ticket in the stadium's upper deck wasn't easy.
"Ninety-five bucks is a lot for people to be paying out to sit upstairs," Stehmer says. "But then you just have to bite your tongue, grit your teeth and say, I really want to see this concert."
And that's why year after year, summer concerts can be slippery business. As the number of acts on the road continues to expand, as the economy continues to wobble and as consumer behavior becomes more difficult to predict, some feel the sacred pact between fan and artist risks drowning in the choppy seas of commerce.
"I always think honesty is the best policy," Blakely says. "Just stand up and say, 'Hey, we made a mistake this year. We overpriced our tickets, we overreached.' . . . The fans see through these facades that people put up. We all think they're going to buy our [expletive] but they don't."
July 2, 2010; 2:45 PM ET
Categories: News | Tags: Christina Aguilera, John Mayer, Lilith Fair, Limp Bizkit, Maxwell, Rihanna, The Eagles
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