Summer concerts: Big stars, big prices, fewer opening acts

SUMMER TIME BLUES

May 03, 1992|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Summer has always been the concert industry's hottest season, with more bands and bigger names touring than at any other time of year.

This, after all, is when the weather gets warm and the fans -- particularly school-aged ones -- have more free time to watch their favorite pop stars play. That usually adds up to enormous profits for all concerned, from bands and booking agents to promoters and venues.

It wasn't that way last year, though. Concert business in 1991 was off by as much as 40 percent, as even the best-known pop stars found themselves facing empty seats and canceled shows. Whether this was the result of the recession, lackluster concert bills or ever-climbing ticket prices is still being debated, but the bottom line is undeniable: People lost money big-time.

Nobody in the business likes losing money, and as a result, last year's shortfall is already having an effect on this summer's offerings.

It's hardly the reaction most fans would expect, however. Instead of less, we'll get more, particularly when it comes to superstars. Among the famous-name attractions anticipated for tours this summer are Bruce Springsteen, Def Leppard, Garth Brooks, the Cure and another Lollapalooza Festival. There are also a slew of stadium tours in the works, including outings by Genesis, U2 and the Grateful Dead, as well as shows pairing Eric Clapton with Elton John, and Guns N' Roses with Metallica.

But fans won't just be getting more -- they'll be paying more, too. Although some tours are keeping costs within a reasonable range -- Genesis tickets average $25, as compared with the $32 asked for Paul McCartney's 1990 stadium shows -- many acts are insisting on higher-than-ever fees from concert promoters.

"Part of the problem with the more popular artists -- the people who have historically sold the most tickets -- is that their guarantees keep going higher and higher," says Jean Parker, the general manager of Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia. "If it were up to us, we would keep ticket prices lower. But we have this other factor to deal with, and they are demanding very, very large compensation."

Are these acts crazy? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Tight money, it seems, doesn't keep fans from going to see their favorites, it only makes them choosier about which bands they see. In other words, they want a guaranteed good time, and what that translates into -- from a business perspective -- is big bucks for the big boys, and a harder time for everyone else.

That's particularly the case with outdoor amphitheaters, or "sheds" as they're known in the trade. "In a way, they're catering to a different audience than the regular concert venues," says Robert Smith, a marketing executive at Geffen Records. "I think the sheds' business is predicated on past success, and on fans who think, 'Gee, every summer we go to two concerts; which two are we going to go to this year?' "

This audience, says Smith, is drawn to a specific type of concert act. "They tend to be the big stars who deliver these great two-hour shows," he says. As a result, he adds, such groups "kind of base their whole touring life around those things."

That's part of the reason the summer season seems to favor perennials like Jimmy Buffett, James Taylor, the Moody Blues and the Beach Boys. These acts may be past their prime on the pop charts, but they have no trouble turning a profit on fans who remember the good ol' days.

"Did you know that Steve Miller does 20,000 seats a night? And he doesn't even have a record deal," comments Larry Stessel, a senior vice president-general manager at Mercury Records. "You've got to understand that people who are 30-plus years old grew up with Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs and Aerosmith and Crosby, Stills and Nash. It's still considered a very active music to a generation who now has discretionary income and will go to listen to their memories.

"If you go see a John Mellencamp concert, you may not own his new album, but going there to hear him sing 'Jack and Diane' and 'Pink Houses,' people think about when they met their wife, when they were in college and when they were doing this and that."

Nostalgia not only factor

Nostalgia isn't the only factor, though. Many of the season's biggest acts owe their allure to a history of memorable music-making.

Take Genesis as an example. When this group announced the first dates on its stadium tour, many in the industry were surprised and relieved to see instant sell-outs. But Mike Farrell of the International Talent Group -- who has been booking Genesis tours since 1970 -- says the sales simply reflect two decades of good shows and fan loyalty.

"Genesis are a band that has built up their audience in America for over 20 years," says Farrell. "They have always given one of the best shows on the face of the earth, and this is the exact type of artist that the people are going to come out to see. Because it is a great show -- it's not just glitz, it's a presentation of their music."

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