Last summer the concert industry, which had grown steadily for a decade, slipped badly. It was a surprise to almost everyone who pays attention to the hugely complicated network of bands, big and small, that tour the country, but looking back, it seems like maybe it was just a matter of time. Ray Waddell, who covers the touring industry for Billboard magazine, says that even though concerts have long been a surefire moneymaker for the music industry at large, on an individual scale, every tour is a gamble.
"Just like you don't know who's going to explode and be big, you don't know who's going to be less than compelling," Waddell says. "It's a very risky business at its best, and when things don't go right, it can be disastrous."
2010 qualified on that count.
"For a lot of bands it was really bad, and for the industry overall it was very bad," Waddell says. "It was hard to tell exactly how bad. You could say it was down in double digits in both attendance and gross dollars."
The Lilith tour was the most notorious casualty of the summer of 2010, but acts as big as the Eagles and Rihanna canceled shows as well. According to industry tracking magazine Pollstar, the money made by touring musicians in 2010 dipped by hundreds of millions of dollars over the previous year.
The narrative that emerged spread blame across the industry: artists were setting their fees too high, which bumped up ticket prices; promoters and agents were booking talent into venues that were too big, which led to half-empty arenas; venues and ticketing companies were charging concertgoers so many ancillary fees that even when the ticket price was reasonable, beer and parking would cost an arm and a leg. For the summer, it felt like the bubble of the concert industry, swollen after a decade of unstoppable sales, was finally popping.
The majority of the attention for last summer's sales slump was focused on Live Nation, the world's largest promoter.
"One of the problems that we've had in the past is that we've treated this industry as though one size fits all," says Mark Campana, Live Nation's co-president of North American concerts. So this summer there's a new theme. "Value for fans is really important."
Live Nation knows it got beat up last year, and it seems to be responding. One of 2010's clearest lessons came from the practice of discounting — when the company tried to unload unsold tickets at a reduced rate, it ended up angering fans who had bought tickets early, at full price. So Campana says that this summer, ticket prices in general have been cut, and many concerts will offer early bird specials within the first few days of tickets going on sale. The company will also do away with many fees — like the ones you used to have to pay to print your own tickets at home. And Live Nation has a new pricing model that it's calling "dynamic pricing": basically just many different tiers of tickets at different prices. It promises to lower the cost of many tickets while offering expensive options to fans who can afford them.
These changes, Ray Waddell says, are based on lessons promoters learned from the few tours last year that sold well:
"Packaging" could be the buzzword of 2011. Live Nation is sending John Legend on tour with Sade and Cee Lo Green out with Rihanna. These are artists who could headline their own tours, but who are sharing the bill in arenas or amphitheaters in order to lower the risk that their shows won't sell out.
Live Nation's Mark Campana says that last fall, his company met with artists' agents and managers to come up with ways to increase value. He cites packaging, along with lower ticket prices and careful routing — an effort to keep markets from being overstuffed with similar bills — as the industry's results.
"When you've got an artist of the magnitude of Sade agreeing to bring out a big act to play with her, that's the spirit of cooperation," Campana says. "In the past, pop stars wanted to be the center of attention. Packaging was an afterthought."
The gambit might not be enough to entice fans: According to a report by the New York Post, Rihanna's tour with Cee Lo, which started last week, has been threatened by low ticket sales. As of now, no shows have been canceled.
Even better in terms of value for fans is the growing festival circuit.
"The festivals that do so well — the Bonnaroo and the Coachella and Lollapalooza — generally what they offer is a lot of bang for the buck, a lot of bands for the dollar and a very immersive experience," says Billboard's Ray Wadell. "And that's appealing — obviously, by their success — to fans these days."
Bands seem to like it, too. Dave Matthews Band, the last decade's most successful touring act, is playing just 12 shows this summer. The band has organized a series of mini-festivals called the Dave Matthews Band Caravan, which will make three-day stops in four locations around the country. Veteran psychedelic rockers The Flaming Lips will play at two of those festivals. Wayne Coyne, the band's lead singer, says for him, festivals are a way to break up the grind of constant touring.
"We've been doing this a long time, so I'm not always just worried about 'getting more audience! get more money,'" Coyne says. "To me, sometimes I just want to play out on a mountainside in the fog because it's cool."
Before the summer ends, Flaming Lips, which is known for its theatrical, interactive stage show, will have played nearly 20 festivals in the U.S., Canada and Europe.
"I think it's because we play so many festivals that we've kind of organized this spectacle," Coyne says. "You know, I kind of feel like every festival needs, if not a Flaming Lips, someone that does something at the end of the night that lets the audience go, 'Oh yeah, there was lights and laser beams and things and it was loud and smoke and it was out of control. As much as it's about music it's about art and it's about communication, this communal experience, I think that somewhere along the way, people want to see stuff."
Stuff (laser beams included) will feature prominently in pop star Ke$ha's first big summer tour as a headliner.
"I'm so excited and proud of the show I've put together," the singer said on the phone from a hotel room in San Francisco last month. "I've designed the lights myself and all the costumes and dances I've helped choreograph and I'm really so proud of it. I also have invested in a lot of lasers, so that'll be awesome, because they'll shoot all the way to the back of the amphitheater. I'm stoked about that."
Ke$ha's songs have been radio mainstays since her first single, "Tik Tok," came out less than two years ago. Last summer she opened for Rihanna. This year, she says, she considered a co-headlining tour, but decided to take the risk and head out on her own:
"I don't really like to live in fear. I'd rather take chances and be disappointed than ever not [do] something I want to do because I'm scared of what might happen."
Right now the industry needs people like Ke$ha. Not to mention U2, which is in the middle of the highest-grossing tour in history, or country star Kenny Chesney, who took last summer off but is back on the road now, playing more than 50 dates over five months.
Ray Waddell of Billboard describes himself as cautiously optimistic about the industry's prospects for 2011. But he notes that even more important than the huge amphitheater or stadium tours are local shows that may be overlooked by the media.
"All the stuff that's below the radar that fills the clubs every week, that's playing in casinos, playing fairs and festivals, all this live business that really is below the radar of even our charts and our coverage a lot of times," Waddell says. "But it's really crucial in terms of keeping the industry rolling, keeping the buses on the road, the trucks, artists' development. All these things happen before you even get to a Chesney or a U2 level."
That's hardly a one-size-fits-all world. The test for the summer of 2011 will be whether the industry can adapt.