It’s been another tumultuous year in the music industry, a business that’s seeing significant challenges to virtually every aspect of its business model, and that needs the pressure of such change as much as a polar bear needs a heat lamp. With peer-to-peer downloading of music that seems unstoppable no matter how many companies get shut down, bad press generated by poorly conceived punitive lawsuits against said file sharers, declining CD sales, increasing failure among traditional music retail stores, and well-known artists like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails striking out on their own and offering new releases online for free; it seems these days the music industry can’t catch a break.
But with all of this doom and gloom, the one positive for the industry in 2007 has been a relatively strong live concert market. Nostalgia has been the order of the day, with classic rock acts continuing to hit the road, their numbers bolstered by reuniting 80’s acts who’ve either got the itch as part of a midlife crisis, or who want to pad out their retirement income. Just look at the acts currently (week of November 20, 2007) holding the top fifteen spots on Pollstar’s Top 50 list of concert tours:
1. Bon Jovi
2. Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
3. Van Halen
4. Celine Dion
5. Foo Fighters
6. Neil Young
7. Ozzy Osbourne
9. Billy Joel
10. The Police
11. John Mellencamp
12. Elton John
13. Stevie Wonder
14. The Spice Girls
15. Rage Against The Machine
I count four reunions (five if you include Springsteen touring with the E Street Band), one lounge act trying to escape Las Vegas, and a couple of relatively current bands. The rest will definitely fit nicely under the “nostalgia” umbrella – not that Billy Joel or Elton John aren’t good or relevant, it’s just that their music isn’t what you’d typically expect a twenty year old to be rocking out to, as their first choice.
The numbers aren’t all in yet, but the grosses are looking pretty good. While their tour actually began in 2005, The Rolling Stones’ A Bigger Bang Tour wrapped up in the autumn of 2007 and made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the highest-grossing concert tour in history. Just how big is that, you ask? They raked in $ 560,000,000 (US dollars) for the 144 dates they played. That’s right, over half a billion dollars; almost four million dollars per night. Not bad pocket money.
Before we get all star-eyed about the dough that’s being made hand over fist on touring though, there are a few reality checks to consider.
First of all, the record labels themselves seldom see any money from touring, so it’s not like the concert revenue is helping to make up for declining CD sales. The artists themselves can find touring a very lucrative business, although even they don’t typically see the bulk of the cash that’s collected at the gates. According to industry averages, an artist can expect to net as much as thirty-five percent of ticket prices and fifty percent of merchandise sales for a show. The bulk of the take goes to paying promoters, road crews, venues, ticket sellers, and anyone else who has any involvement in the planning, marketing, running, setting up or cleaning up after a show.
Complicating the equation is the fact that ticket sales themselves have actually been relatively flat; as a matter of fact, they have shown a slight decline in some recent years. But, ticket prices have continued to increase significantly, especially among bands whose audience demographic skews toward the older, wealthier listener. According to Rolling Stone, the average concert ticket cost under £18 in 1999, and in 2003 that had increased to over £24. An LA Times investigation determined that the average price had climbed to £30 for 2006, so clearly there is something more than simple inflationary pressure at work.
This key issue becomes the critical factor behind the ranking of top-grossing touring acts. Promoters charge what the market will bear, and a group with a history (like the Rolling Stones) or a significant pent-up demand due to a break-up (The Police) or tendency to have somewhat older fans (both The Rolling Stones and The Police) will allow the promoters to charge considerably higher ticket prices. So it’s no surprise that the mega acts like The Stones, U2 and The Police can manage to tour, consistently pulling off premium ticket prices at multiple dates and ending up topping the concert charts, even though they may not have released a new CD in over twenty years.
Looking at numbers supplied by Pollstar (note: these have been rounded), you can easily see that relationship. In the 2005 concert year, the top concert gross list displayed what has become a familiar pattern: domination by nostalgia and classic rock acts, with the top five spots being held by The Rolling Stones, U2, Celine Dion, Paul McCartney, and The Eagles. Okay, Celine Dion is an odd one, but you can attribute that to gamblers in Las Vegas with more money than they know what to do with and a healthy bar tab.
The Rolling Stones captured the top spot by earning £80 million with an average ticket price of £65. U2 came in second, grossing £68 million with an average ticket price of £49. Look for a contemporary act on the top twenty list and you can find Coldplay in seventeenth spot, grossing £11 million with an average ticket price of a much more modest £19; Green Day hit number 12 with £17 million on £18 tickets. See the pattern? Even if Green Day or their promoters tried for the big payday at this point, would there be enough “kids” willing to shell out £49 for tickets? Would they attract enough baby boomers to make up for the shortfall? I doubt it.
The relatively lower grosses don’t mean other acts aren’t doing well touring, it simply means they aren’t playing as many gigs to as many fans, or they’re not charging nearly as much for tickets. They can do quite well, just not well enough to make the big early retirement pay cheque.
So now we’ve established that 2007 has been a pretty good year to be a touring rock band and gotten the financial nonsense out of the way, which shows have actually been getting the buzz?
The Police rank up there pretty highly. At first people watched with morbid curiosity, half expecting the old tensions to resurface and end with Sting and Stewart Copeland beating the hell out of each other on stage – come on, admit it, you were hoping it would all go down at the show you saw. Despite a slightly rough start, showing the band was clearly out of practice after all these years; they quickly found their groove and played to sold out shows and excellent reviews. The critics were happy, and the fans couldn’t buy tickets fast enough.
Rage Against The Machine was another of the most anticipated reunion acts, especially among the younger alternative rock set. The comic soap opera that has been Van Halen and David Lee Roth settled down enough to actually hit the road in 2007. Genesis reformed – at least the Phil Collins-led version of Genesis. Canadian progressive rockers Rush toured in support of their Snakes & Arrows CD. The Rock the Mic tour brought Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Busta Rhymes and Missy Elliott together for a series of over 30 shows. According to Forbes magazine, the Dixie Chicks took less than a week to sell over £22 million in ticket sales for 57 shows.
For the pre-teen and (possibly early teen) set, Disney’s Hannah Montana has been “rocking” sold out venues everywhere. Another reunion of sorts, The Smashing Pumpkins, were also back in 2007, along with veterans Gordon Lightfoot, Van Morrison, John Fogerty, Rod Stewart, Roger Waters, Bob Dylan and Neil Young who all toured. Even occasionally befuddled rocker Ozzy Osborne has started out with Rob Zombie. Bon Jovi is selling tickets in a big way with favourable reviews, and old new wavers (is that a contradiction in terms?) Duran Duran and The Cure were on the road. Justin Timberlake got his groove on and Dane Cook proved that stand-up comics could sell out arenas too. Not to be left out in the cold by classic rockers and reunion acts, Incubus, Tool, Foo Fighters, Avril Lavigne, Mr. Avril Lavigne’s band (Sum 41), Korn, Modest Mouse, Jimmy Eat World, Fallout Boy, Cake, Avenged Sevenfold, Band of Horses and Arcade Fire, all made representations for the alternative rock crowd.
So how is 2008 shaping up in terms of concerts? Obviously we can’t predict too much at this stage, but I will be willing to throw this one out: tickets are going to continue to rise in price at a rate greater than inflation and the biggest grossing acts will once again be ageing rockers, with the ultimate combination of rocker and reunion topping the list. If the chemistry was right for their reunion concert in December, and if Robert Plant and Jimmy Page don’t end up in fisticuffs, it just might be that Led Zeppelin may commit to a tour, and if that happens look for them to be at the top of the list by this time next year. But coming back full circle to the problem record labels are having with declining CD sales, mega group and thorn-in-the-labels-side, artists’ rights champions Radiohead are also planning a 2008 world tour. Don’t count them out either.
It’s bound to be an interesting year.
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