Silence at box office hurting concerts Prices, economy blamed for decline

August 15, 1991|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Back before the summer concert season got under way, the music business was abuzz with news about who would be going out this year -- Guns N' Roses, Whitney Houston, Frank Sinatra and Rod Stewart, among other superstars.

Now, the only thing concert promoters want to talk about is who stayed home -- namely, the fans.

So far, the year has been the industry's worst ever, with analysts inside and out of the business blaming everything from the recession tooverpriced tickets to an excess of touring acts. Business for the first six months of 1991 was off 25 percent nationally from last year, according to the trade publication Pollstar -- and 1990 wasn't a very good year, either. Despite a plethora of musical offerings, concert attendance has remained low this summer, with business off locally by as much as 30 percent.

"Concert business, from a theater standpoint, is terrible," said Don Wehner of Baltimore's Upfront Productions, a booking agency. "From a nightclub standpoint, it's not too much better."

"It's not what it should be," said Dave Williams, president of the Virginia-based Cellar Door Productions, which books acts into the Capital Centre in Landover and other such venues nationally. "This summer is slow."

Slow? Business has been at a virtual standstill for some acts, which have ended up facing half-empty houses and canceled shows. The Club-MTV tour, whose lineup boasted such chart-topping acts as Bell Biv DeVoe, C+C Music Factory and Color Me Badd, barely filled a third of the Baltimore Arena recently. Whitney Houston did even worse in Birmingham, Ala., earlier this summer, filling only 4,649 of the coliseum's 19,000 seats.

Ms. Houston's tour has since been canceled (her management blamed "throat problems," not ticket sales), and it hasn't been the summer's only casualty. David Lee Roth bailed out of his "A Little Ain't Enough" tour, apparently deciding that when it came to ticket sales, a little wasn't enough. Several other tours pulled up short as well, including outings by the Scorpions, Crystal Gayle and Olivia Newton-John and a package featuring the Sisters of Mercy and Public Enemy.

Even the season's hottest tickets have turned out to be lukewarm draws. Guns N' Roses, for instance, has been playing to less-than-capacity houses across the country, as have such superstars as Don Henley, Steve Winwood and Huey Lewis. Nationally, only 36 percent of this year's concerts have been sellouts, as opposed to 47 percent in 1990,reported the trade journal Amusement Business.

Locally, things seem even drearier. "Jimmy Buffett did great. The rest of the shows have been so-so," said Jean Parker, general manager of the Merriweather Post Pavilion. "It's definitely down over last year."

The same is true for the Capital Centre, said Pat Darr, executive director of Centre Management Productions. "Last year we had 16 shows [scheduled] in July, August and September. This year it looks like we're going to have six or seven." Of those, the most promising -- a two-night stand by Guns N' Roses -- failed to sell out either show.

Things got off to an especially slow start at the Pier Six Concert Pavilion, in part because reconstruction delayed the venue's opening until July 25. "August is a tough month," said facility manager Jon Wright. "People are on vacation, and it may have hurt a little bit." Indeed, one concert -- "A Night On the Town," featuring Patti Austin and James Ingram -- was canceled because of poor ticket sales. (Although tickets were refunded, Pier Six lost its deposit, which Mr. Wright indicated was between 5 percent and 10 percent of the artists' fee. He would not disclose the amount.)

Why is business so bad? Everyone, it seems, has a theory. Some, such as Pollstar editor Gary Bongiovanni, blame the recession. "In a recessionary environment where there's high unemployment, people's discretionary income is restricted in many cases. Food and shelter and clothing are going to come ahead of concert or movie tickets."

Others blame the current craze for dance music, something that has never done well at the arena level. Bud Becker, the booking agent for Hammerjacks, noted the failure of the Club-MTV tour. "The kids will buy 7 million records, but they won't buy a ticket to see the show," he said. "These [acts] want $6,000 to $10,000 to come out and do 40 minutes of lip sync. Nobody will pay the amount of money they want to see these bands in a club."

But Seth Hurwitz of the D.C.-based production company I. M. P. puts the blame on the promoters. "People never learn the lessons of the previous year: Which are that there's too many acts touring," he said.

But Mr. Hurwitz puts particular blame on outdoor amphitheaters such as Merriweather and Pier Six -- venues known in the trade as "sheds" -- which he believe aggravate the situation by depending on quantity more than quality.

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