NPR

For 2011, The Summer Concert Season Gets A Reboot

Wayne Coyne on stage performing with The Flaming Lips at Sasquatch Music Festival Memorial Day weekend. (Alex Crick for KEXP)

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:

"They had to have a show that was very attractive to consumers, something different like Roger Waters' The Wall or James Taylor and Carole King, or it had to be a strong package with a lot of value."

"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.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Last summer, the concert industry slipped - badly. After growing steadily for a decade, 2010 was the year of unsold tickets and cancelled tours. Jacob Ganz reports on how the industry is trying to fix what went wrong and what it means for this summer's big shows.

JACOB GANZ: How bad was last summer? Ray Waddell covers the touring industry for Billboard magazine.

Mr. RAY WADDELL (Billboard Magazine): For a lot of bands it was really bad, and for the industry overall it was very bad. You know, it's hard to tell exactly how bad but you can say it was down in double digits in both attendance and gross dollars.

GANZ: Acts as big as the Eagles and Rihanna canceled shows. Hundreds of millions of dollars were lost.

Mr. MARK CAMPANA (Co-President of North American Tours, Live Nation): I think that one of the problems that we've had in the past is that we've treated this industry as though one size fits all.

GANZ: Mark Campana is co-president of North American concerts for Live Nation, the biggest concert promoter in the world.

Mr. CAMPANA: We know that our attendance was down and we know that ultimately there was a great deal of discounting done in the marketplace in order to drive sales.

GANZ: It was bad. After Live Nation admitted as much during a shareholders meeting last July, its stock lost 20 percent of its value in just two days. When the company tried to unload unsold tickets by offering discounts, it really upset fans who had bought tickets early at full price. So, this summer there's a new theme.

Mr. CAMPANA: Value for the fan is really important.

GANZ: Live Nation knows it got beat up last year and it seems to be responding. The company will do away with many fees, like the ones you used to have to pay to print your own tickets at home. There will be discounts if you buy early. And the company has a new pricing model: It's called dynamic pricing but it's basically just many different tiers of tickets at different prices. It promises to lower the average cost of tickets while offering expensive options to fans who can afford them.

This summer, Ray Waddell says, promoters seem to be taking lessons from those few tours last year that did work.

Mr. WADDELL: They had to have a show that was very attractive to consumers, something different like Roger Waters' The Wall or James Taylor, Carole King, or it had to be, as in the case with the last one I mentioned, it had to be a really strong package with a lot of value.

GANZ: So, value and packaging are the guiding lights of this summer's tours. Live Nation is sending John Legend on the road with Sade and Cee Lo Green out with Rihanna - artists who could headline their own tours, sharing the bill in arenas or amphitheaters in order to lower the risk that their shows won't sell out.

Even better in terms of value for fans is the growing festival circuit. Bands seem to like it, too. The Dave Matthews Band is the most successful touring act of the last decade, but this summer it's making just four stops. The Dave Matthews Band Caravan is a series of three-day mini-festivals featuring 40 or so like-minded bands, including veteran psychedelic rockers The Flaming Lips.

Wayne Coyne, that band's lead singer, says for him festivals are a way to break up the grind of constant touring.

Mr. WAYNE COYNE (Lead Singer, The Flaming Lips): We've been doing this a long time, so I'm not always just worried about getting more audience, get more money. You know, to me sometimes, I want to play out on a mountainside in the fog just simply 'cause it's cool.

All right, how lucky are we, huh? How lucky are we? Thank you guys for all being here with us.

(Soundbite of cheering)

GANZ: Flaming Lips kicked off their summer last month at the Sasquatch Music Festival in central Washington wtate.

(Soundbite of music)

THE FLAMING LIPS: (Singing) All those (unintelligible) your head...

GANZ: Before this summer ends, the band will have played nearly 20 festivals in the U.S., Canada and Europe.

Mr. COYNE: I kind of feel like every festival needs, if not a Flaming Lips, you know, 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.

I mean, I think that's just - as much as it's about music and it's about art and it's about this communication and this communal experience, I think somewhere along the way, people want to see stuff.

GANZ: Stuff will feature prominently in pop star's Ke$ha's first big summer tour as a headliner.

KE$HA (Singer): I'm so excited and proud of the show I've put together. I've designed the lights myself and all the costumes and dances I have helped choreograph and I also have invested in a lot of lasers. So, that'll be awesome, 'cause they're going to shoot all the way to the back of the amphitheater. I'm stoked about that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

GANZ: Ke$ha's songs have been radio mainstays since her first single came out less than two years ago.

(Soundbite of song, "Blow")

KE$HA: (Singing) Back door cracked, we don't need a key. We get in free. No VIP, please.

GANZ: Last summer, she opened for Rihanna. This year, she says, she considered a co-headlining tour but decided to take a risk and head out on her own.

KE$HA: I don't really like to live in fear. I'd rather take chances and be disappointed than ever not do something that I want to do because I'm scared of what might happen. And so far, it's been really good.

GANZ: 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.

But Ray Waddell of Billboard says even more important are the shows that don't get anywhere near stadiums and amphitheaters.

Mr. WADDELL: All the stuff that fills the clubs every week, that's playing in casinos, playing fairs and festivals, and all this live business that is really crucial in terms of keeping the industry rolling, keeping the buses on the road, artist development - all these things happen before you ever get to a Chesney or a U2 level.

GANZ: That's hardly a one-size-fits-all world. The test for summer of 2011 will be whether the industry can adapt.

For NPR News, I'm Jacob Ganz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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