Commentary: Live Nation and why the summer concert season sucks
It was bound to happen. Last year, while practically every other business sector took a hit during the recession, the concert industry eked out an okay, if not stellar, year. Now the chickens have come home to roost. Billboard has declared 2010 the worst summer touring season since the mid-90s. And that’s before it’s even officially summer.
Some tours that seemed like sure summer sell-outs are struggling or have been cancelled outright. Christina Aguilera postponed her “Bionic” tour only three days after tickets went on sale. The official reason was that she had too much on her plate to prepare the type of show her fans deserved. Right. Her managers, who are the brightest in the business, didn’t realize that until after they put tickets on sale? The Eagles canceled three dates from their summer tour, while the multi-artist Country Throwdown tour wiped four poorly performing dates off its roster after they’d gone on sale.
Additionally, Billboard reports that Rihanna, John Mayer, Kings of Leon, Limp Bizkit, Jonas Bros., and the Go-Go’s have either canceled dates or tours. Plus, Lilith festival dates are soft. Add in U2 postponing its sold out (or nearly sold out) summer tour due to Bono’s back injury and many artists deciding to boycott Arizona because of its new immigration policy and you have the makings of a brutal summer season.
There are several reasons for the slowdown and we’ll go through each of them: first and foremost, the economy, despite reports, is still in the toilet for most people. Secondly, concert tickets for many acts, but not all, are simply too expensive. Other factors include too much traffic, festival drain-off, unreasonable discount expectations by fans and weak line-ups.
But first, we wanted to get a feel for how bad it is. We decided to try a little experiment and our research found that folks aren’t buying tickets for some acts even when the concert is fast upon them.
Tonight, the Eagles play my hometown, Raleigh, N.C. With the concert only a few hours away, we were still able to purchase a pair of 12th row seats on the floor—smack dab in the middle—close enough for Don Henley to practically sweat on you. The cost? $195/ticket. There are no additional service fees.
With only four days left until the show, we could still purchase 12th row seats on the floor at the top tier price of $176 each for Sting’s June 21 appearance with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. (And how much was the service charge per ticket? $18.96). Total for two tickets with service charge: $389.92.
Not to pick on St. Paul, but Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are playing the same venue the next night. All the floor seats were gone, but five days out, we were still able to score some lower level seating about halfway down the side of the arena at $125 per seat. With a face value of $250 for a pair of seats, service charges brought the total tally up to $284.04. Now here’s a charge we can’t figure out: if you want to print out your own tickets, use your own paper, your own ink, it still costs you $2.50 per ticket.
These acts have older fans, many of them with disposable incomes and they still are having trouble selling tickets at the top ticket price. And yet, ticket prices continue to soar upward. The average ticket price for the top 10-grossing tours in 2008 was $151. That’s up more than $100 from 10 years ago, when it was $47, according to Billboard.
So, basically, some acts are just too darn greedy. Though his Las Vegas tickets are now $125, when Garth Brooks routinely toured arenas 10 years ago and sold out multiple nights in every city, the ticket prices were never more than $25 for the top ticket, and he still managed to make a tidy profit, we imagine.
Oddly, in an effort to balance out high ticket prices, promoters may have gone too far. In a move that now seems shortsighted, last summer, anyone who paid full price for a concert ticket must have felt like an idiot.
Every week, Live Nation rolled out a promotion designed to goose sales, whether it was $10 lawn seats at participating venues to special packages that offered fans six tickets for the price of four. This year, Live Nation, the country’s biggest promoter, declared June “no-service fee” month. In a press release, the company, which merged with Ticketmaster earlier this year, stated that 8 million tickets to shows by 110 artists would be offered without service fees in June at Live Nation’s 50 owned-and-operated venues in North America.
For a company like Live Nation, the real money comes not from ticket sales, but from parking, concessions and merchandise sales for the venues it owns, so putting butts in seats is what matters. After last summer, concert goers are conditioned to wait for the last minute. So even though Live Nation is offering no service fees this month, it’s entirely possible that next month, it will begin offering deep discounts on lawn seats or other promotions. Given how slowly tickets are moving, there’s no reason for casual fans to worry that if they don’t buy early, they won’t get to see bands they like—possibly at a price far lower than initially offered.
However, sometimes it’s not even a matter of price that keeps fans away. The Country Throwdown tour, which is produced by Kevin Lyman, co-founder of the Warped Tour, averages a $31 ticket price for a whopping 21 acts. However, it still canceled four dates in soft markets. In a statement, Lyman blamed a crowded marketplace so “we end up cannibalizing one another,” as well as “low ticket sales.” The line-up is awesome—it includes Montgomery Gentry, Jamey Johnson, Jack Ingram and Little Big Town—but the absence of a surefire chart-topper has no doubt hurt ticket sales.
There are a few bright spots. On the solo tour front, Taylor Swift just concluded a sold-out arena/stadium tour by selling 57,000 seats at Boston’s Gillette Stadium. Lady GaGa tickets are moving quickly. We couldn’t find any for her July 1 tour opener in Boston on Ticketmaster (however, we’d like to add that a $175 top ticket price for Lady GaGa is absolutely ridiculously high—even if her fans will pay it.)
Additionally, a number of multi-day festivals, such as Coachella, Stagecoach and the just-concluded Bonnaroo have posted banner years this summer. Here’s why: for a price similar to what one evening with the Eagles cost, festival goers could have their pick of more than 100 acts over a three-day period. (Despite the bang for the buck, several multi-act festivals, such as Virgin Festival Canada, Rothbury and All Points West went on hiatus this year).
As great as a festival like Lollapalooza or Bonnaroo may be, it then drains the marketplace for other acts coming through, plus makes it so that artists playing those festivals can’t come back to that region for several months, That’s fine for the headliners, who are paid a lot, but for a mid-to-small level band playing a festival, it can cause issues.
So what’s the solution? Acts need to check their egos at the door and stop gouging the public with such high ticket prices. Smart artists focus on building a career, not trying to drain the market each time through.
The average music fan only goes to two concerts a year—if you want it to be one of yours, make it impossible for the fan to resist what you have to offer. Plus, Ticketmaster (or Live Nation Entertainment or whatever you want to call it), has to realize that fans really are tired of exorbitant ticket fees and even if Live Nation says there are none, most fans are savvy enough to know the fees have just been folded into the one ticket price. Of course Ticketmaster should charge a fee for the convenience of buying online, but there needs to be some middle ground.
Booking agents also need to be smarter about routing. If Lady Gaga is coming to Seattle, an act with a similar following—whether it’s Rihanna or Ke$ha—needs to wait a good two months before hitting that market. Plus—and this has been an issue for years—70% of concert touring happens during the summer.
For acts that are dependent upon outdoor shows for their atmosphere—like Jimmy Buffett or James Taylor—we certainly understand that, but there’s no reason for an act like Tom Petty, who’s mainly playing indoor arenas, to tour during the summer (yes, we know it’s behind the new album), but why not wait until the crowd thins out a bit.
Are you going to fewer concerts this summer?