Singers Britney Spears and Nicki Minaj, shown here at the 2011… (Ethan Miller, Getty Images…)
When Sade's first concert in a decade was announced last fall, she was billed as the sole headliner. Interest was expected to be high because the British R&B singer hadn't toured in years.
But a couple of weeks after tickets had gone on sale for her show in Baltimore, which takes place Thursday, promoters decided to add some top-shelf support: Grammy-winning pianist and singer John Legend.
It turns out one headliner doesn't cut it anymore.
Reeling from last year's concert season that saw ticket sales fall for the first time in 15 years, artists and concert promoters, especially Live Nation, aren't taking any chances. They are pushing for two-for-one bills consisting of performers who would normally tour alone — Britney Spears and Nicki Minaj, Maroon 5 and Train, New Kids on the Block and Backstreet Boys, to name a few.
"Every artist wants to be in a building that they fill out," said Bob Roux, co-president of North American music for Live Nation. "If you've got a challenging economic backdrop, you've got to look to create more value for fans. When you have two acts together, you have an opportunity to sell out."
The strategy is an acknowledgement from the industry that it badly overestimated consumer demand last year, and that music lovers, still skittish about the economy, want to get their money's worth for live entertainment.
"Some people were too aggressive in chasing shows last year," said Dave Lucas, president of industry consulting firm Live 360 Group. "This year, there's an effort on everyone's part to be more conservative, to have big support, co-headliners, and to be more realistic with your guarantees."
When the economy bottomed out at the end of 2008, performers and concert promoters, uncertain of how music lovers would decide to spend their money, took few risks on the next year's tours.
"Overall decision making tended to be conservative," said Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar, a concert trade publication. The strategy paid off: While most markets were affected by the recession, concert ticket sales reached $4.6 billion in 2009, the decade's peak year, according to Pollstar.
But that seemed to give promoters license to pursue a more aggressive approach the next year. Untried performers flooded the market, while others chose to play venues that were too big for them without support, or they chose to play the same markets as the year before. Top-shelf tickets also became even pricier.
Another one of the more notable strategies was the wide practice of discounting or slashing expensive tickets at the last minute.
The public pushed back, and for the first time since 1995, tickets sales fell.
"It was a matter of artists and promoters expecting business to be better than it was," Bongiovanni said.
At 1st Mariner Arena, concession and merchandise sales also fell, dropping by about 30 percent, said general manager Frank Remesch.
Nationwide, "there were too many shows and no guarantees," Lucas said, explaining that some promoters expected to sell 10,000 tickets and instead sold half. "All and all, as an industry, last year was a wake-up call."
This year has seen promoters slowly regaining their footing with a series of new strategies to woo back ticket buyers. Ticket prices have held steady and are expected to stay that way for the rest of the year, Bongiovanni said. Artists and promoters are also offering more inexpensive price points for shows.
The rampant discounting has all but disappeared. "They saw that wasn't a good plan for long-term business," Bongiovanni said, though he noted it's still only halfway through the year.
Live Nation is also handling tours — like Maroon 5 and Train — in conjunction with independent promoters and venues, especially amphitheaters, instead of booking them entirely at its own spaces.
But it was the unexpected success of a national tour by James Taylor and Carole King that offered the most prominent promotional strategy this year.
While co-headlining shows had been successful before – Rod Stewart and Stevie Nicks present another recent example — the creative pairing of these two peers surprised the industry by grossing $51 million, the ninth-best-selling tour of the year. Lady Gaga was No. 8. A triple-billed tour with George Strait, Reba McEntire and Lee Ann Womack also grossed more than $41 million, according to Pollstar.
"Fans might have seen James Taylor numerous times, but Carole King made them pause and go back," Bongiovanni said. "Coming in the midst of what was generally a down climate for the business, a lot of people looked at that and said that was certainly a successful strategy."
This year, double-billed shows are ubiquitous. Kid Rock enlisted Sheryl Crow for his tour, which stops at Jiffy Lube Live in August. Def Leppard recruited Heart.