Bands Warm Up for Busy Summer on the Road

A sagging economy hasn't put the brakes on bands hitting the road this summer. Enticed by high-profile acts and discount tickets, fans are still opting to keep live music in their budgets.

"The popularity of live music continues, and people want to be entertained," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the touring trade publication Pollstar. "Maybe they are forgoing a more expensive vacation, staying close to home and treating themselves to a concert."

That's good news for the hundreds of acts beating paths to venues from coast to coast, and indications are that they won't be playing to many empty seats. The industry is coming off a banner 2008 in which it grossed $1 billion in summer ticket sales, according to Billboard Boxscore, and observers say 2009 is looking good, too.

Live Nation, the world's biggest promoter of live music and owner of more than 50 amphitheaters across the USA, expects to put on 6,700 concerts globally this summer. The slate includes such heavyweights as Aerosmith, Beyoncé, Bruce Springsteen, Coldplay, U2, the Dave Matthews Band, Elton John & Billy Joel, Green Day, Kenny Chesney, Kings of Leon, Phish and The Dead.

"They are all selling tickets," says Jason Garner, Live Nation's CEO of global music. "The average fan only goes to one or two shows a year, and these are their Kodak moments. There may be 80 baseball games in your city this summer, but only one night with U2."

Then there's teen faves the Jonas Brothers, who were playing clubs two years ago but have sold 850,000 tickets for their summer tour, including some stadium dates. "They're an amazing American success story," Garner says. "Any concern that they were a momentary flash is gone."

Several other signs point to a healthy summer. April's Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., traditionally the first big music event of the warm-weather season, had its second-biggest year to date with an aggregate three-day attendance of 160,000 people. That's up from the 151,666 who attended last year. The festival lineup boasted Paul McCartney, The Killers, My Bloody Valentine and Leonard Cohen, and 18% of the concertgoers bought tickets through a new layaway plan.

The country festival Stagecoach, which comes a week after Coachella at the same site, also had more than 100,000 attendees. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival had more than 400,000 attendees over its two late April/early May weekends.

AEG Live, which produces those festivals and others like Denver's Mile High and New Jersey's All Points West, says business is holding up.

"Our festivals have done exceedingly well so far, which is the first real test of the economy," says AEG CEO Randy Phillips. "It's hard to tell how others will do this summer, because with a festival, you have almost unlimited seating, so people don't have to buy immediately. They are off a bit from last year but not significantly."

Phillips says Michigan's Rothbury Festival, July 2-5, is running about 15% behind last year (it drew 120,820 in 2008), but a drop-off was expected because of the struggling auto industry. "I expected it to be much more difficult than it has been," Phillips says. "People still need to get out of the house."

Vans Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman says his roving rock and extreme sports festival is selling better than last year. The tour, which starts June 26 in Pomona, Calif., and features dozens of bands for about $30, has sold more than 35,000 discounted early bird tickets, compared with about 24,000 a year ago. "We won't really know until the end how we're doing," Lyman says. "Warped can sell 75% of its tickets in the last three days before a show, so you're sweating it a bit. But we're very strong at the beginning."

Sonicbids, which connects talent bookers for clubs and festivals with more than 200,000 independent bands, has seen no falloff in demand, says CEO Panos Panay.

South by Southwest, the annual indie-band showcase held in Austin each March, is "a good barometer of how the industry is going to go," Panay says. "This year, they booked 1,800 bands, about 20% more than before, and every venue was jammed. If you had asked me in October what I thought about South by Southwest, I would have been fearful, but we have been fairly insulated."

Not all of the news is rosy. Miami's Langerado Music Festival, which was scheduled for March, fell by the wayside, while Pemberton Festival, which launched last July in British Columbia, announced it was on hiatus until 2010.

Smart packaging, careful routing and increased scaling of ticket prices to consumers' comfort levels have all helped keep live shows attractive.

"Tours that don't have a compelling reason for fans to come see them — a great new album, a significant absence from the marketplace or a package that's a great value — could struggle," says Billboard touring editor Ray Waddell.

Teamed attractions such as Bob Dylan/Willie Nelson/John Mellencamp, Chicago/Earth Wind & Fire, Blondie/Pat Benatar, Aerosmith/ZZ Top and Eric Clapton/Steve Winwood have given fans a lot of bang for their limited bucks.

"Normally, Clapton would be the only act of significance on a bill," Bongiovanni says. "But putting Winwood on there may be an homage to the economy. Clapton's fans are probably people who have seen him before. So when it comes to making the decision whether to see him this year, having Steve Winwood on the bill is a new wrinkle."

The Warped Tour is aimed at 13- to 19-year-olds, but until last year also drew 24- to 30-year-olds who were Warped fans in their youth, Lyman says. But the tour lost that crowd when fuel prices soared last summer, because they "needed money just to buy gas and go to work." This year, the tour has added some older bands to the bill that those fans might want to see.

Musicians keenly felt gas prices last summer, but they don't see the economic downturn having a similar effect.

"When the gas prices went up, that was an instant adjustment that we had to deal with because of trucks and buses," says Marc Roberge, O.A.R.'s guitarist/vocalist. "This year, I don't know that we anticipate anything that drastic. But I think that where parents used to give their kids $100 to have a good time, people are not as free with their cash."

Bands Fine-Tune Their Thinking

O.A.R. is one of many acts doing what it can to give fans something extra. The band just started, a website where audience members can get a free download of the concert they just attended. No Doubt is letting ticket holders download the band's entire catalog free, and Coldplay is giving away a live album.

The economy has forced bands to think about how they do business, Lyman says. In the early 2000s, when young bands were flush with gold albums and record-label backing, they did their own thing. "Now you're seeing bands sharing buses and sharing crews," he says. "That's a positive thing, and it's more of a community feeling."

Keyboardist/guitarist David Price of Natalie Portman's Shaved Head says bands such as his do everything from staying with family and friends (and friends of friends) when touring to designing and producing their own merchandise. "We'll also bunk three to a room when we get a hotel, and we ask for a lot of stuff on our contract rider," Price says. "We'll ask for fruits and vegetables and a case of water, and then we'll just take it with us in the van."

He says bands also stay more in touch with fans on MySpace. They have found that helps them build a more loyal following. "If you have that personal connection, that person is more likely to buy a T-shirt and go to a show."

Industry observers say live music may have actually benefited from the decline in CD sales. Bands realize they can no longer count on moving large numbers of albums like they once did.

"Twenty years ago, you toured to sell records," Bongiovanni says. "Today, you tour to make money and maybe you sell a few records along the way. You are getting more money off your merchandise table than you are from records."