Flat sales strike sour note for summer concerts

July 04, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

For a summer concert, it was a bargain: Pop princes Guster, Ben Folds and Rufus Wainwright playing four hours of music on a warm, beautiful night at the Pier Six concert pavilion downtown. Reserved seats could be had for $35, and a spot on the lawn for $25.

But midway through the waterfront show Wednesday night, rows of orange seats sat empty, and plenty of green grass was visible on the lawn - testament to a summer concert season that is shaping up to be a disaster for an already reeling music industry.

The organizers of Lollapalooza canceled the festival's entire national tour, marquee names such as Van Halen are having trouble filling seats, and singers including Norah Jones are moving their shows to smaller venues. Meanwhile, a knee injury forced Britney Spears to cancel her 35-date summer tour, and "throat problems" have sidelined Christina Aguilera.

"For us, summer is the Christmas season," said Michael Caplan, a longtime music industry executive, "and it's definitely hurting."

Caplan and others place most of the blame on ticket prices, which have spiraled above $100-a-seat for top acts. But they also mention an unimaginative lineup of bands, poor packaging for all-day festivals and a reluctance among older fans to sit in the sun at amphitheaters and see the same aging rockers once more.

"How many times can you go see the Eagles come back?" said Caplan, co-founder of the independent label Or Music and a former senior vice president at Epic Records. "How many times can the Stones come back? I think people get sick of it at some point, and it's a reflection of what's going on in popular music. Everyone's waiting for the next big thing to come around."

In the meantime, even tired acts are charging triple-digit prices. The average ticket on Madonna's current tour is $175, a record for rock and pop shows. On top of that, concertgoers often face convenience and processing fees that can add $10 to a ticket, as well as high costs for food, drinks and parking.

"This was $7.50," said Maria Lueth, 32, of Harford County, brandishing a bottle of Coors Light before the Guster concert last week. "The price of everything is ridiculous."

In response to lagging sales, some concert promoters are dropping their prices. Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia is offering advance lawn tickets for $10 for five concerts this summer, and that includes parking. Pier Six is expected to announce a "value-priced ticket package" this week for its summer shows.

Other venues across the country are offering two-for-one ticket deals or letting children accompany parents for free. A promoter in the San Francisco Bay Area slashed prices for lawn seats to $20 at three amphitheaters, a discount of up to 65 percent for some shows.

The poor ticket sales cross all musical boundaries. Overexposed starlet Jessica Simpson, of MTV's The Newlyweds, sold just 9,900 tickets for her June 19 show at the 22,000-capacity Nissan Pavilion in Northern Virginia, in line with how the rest of her tour dates have been selling in recent months. On the older side of the spectrum, Fleetwood Mac sold 9,000 tickets for a June 22 concert at a 19,500-capacity amphitheater in California. The band has canceled some shows because of slow sales.

"The pain is fairly widespread," said Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of the concert industry trade magazine Pollstar. He said that after a good first quarter of the year, ticket sales dropped off sharply in mid-April. "No one can put their finger on a specific reason."

It could be, some suggest, partly the graying of the original rock generation.

Baby boomer audiences seem to be tiring of the amphitheaters - called "sheds" in the business - that have been the centerpiece of the summer concert season for the past three decades. Attending shows at such venues often involves driving some distance into the suburbs and dealing with unpredictable weather to sit on the grass, squint at a far-off performer and endure dubious sound quality.

Norah Jones, who has sold millions of records, was selling only half the seats at major amphitheaters in recent months. Her shows in Chicago and Nashville were moved from sheds to smaller theaters, more conducive to her mellow sound, and they sold well.

The Lollapalooza festival, which was to stop at Merriweather in August, similarly might have fallen victim to the older-skewing audience of its headlining performers - Morrissey, P.J. Harvey and Sonic Youth - and that audience's increasing reluctance to attend all-day concerts.

"Their fans are a little older and less inclined to want to spend a day in the sun seeing 16 bands," Bongiovanni said. "They're more inclined to sit in an air-conditioned theater and see a two-hour set. Lollapalooza didn't have the acts that were really going to spark the interests of the 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds that are the core of festivals like that."

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