The North American touring business is breathing a sigh of relief as the curtain drops on what many call the industry’s worst year in a decade.
The final Billboard Boxscore tally shows the industry finishing with a microscopic increase in gross ticket sales of 0.2% in 2004.
But that does not tell the full story of a year in which profitable shows were hard to find and promoters scrambled to fill seats, especially in an oversaturated summer season.
As promoters lick their wounds, the big question facing the industry is whether the flat performance of 2004 was a blip on the radar screen or the shape of things to come.
“The failures of 2004 can become a blip only if the people who write the checks decide to write smaller checks,” House of Blues executive VP Alex Hodges says, reflecting on the large artist guarantees that have changed the industry’s business model.
“As for the blip, well, it has been coming and everyone saw it coming, but no one was willing to lose a show,” Hodges adds. “In one view, it was five or six tours that caused the misery, but most tours have been falling short of expectations for a few years.”
For the full year, North American promoters reported $2.22 billion in grosses to Billboard Boxscore.
Globally, the numbers looked a little better, with an increase of 0.4% driven by a comparatively stable European concert market. But that was still not much to shout about.
The minuscule North American increase can likely be attributed to the 100 more shows reported this year than in 2003. Without that added activity – which may have been part of the problem – the touring business would surely have been down in 2004.
For an industry that has not experienced a decrease in eight years, this is sobering news, particularly when considering that touring has been a much-needed reliable income stream for artists in the new millennium.
Upon closer examination, the news gets worse. On a per-show basis, which many consider a more telling barometer for the health of the business, concert grosses averaged $172,990, down from $174,238 last year.
But what really tells the tale of touring in 2004 are the attendance figures. North American concert attendance was down 5.4% for the year, reflecting a decrease of more than 2.5 million people. Per-show attendance averaged 3,669 people, down 6% and nearly 300 people from 2003.
The decreases followed a decade-long trend of dollar growth outpacing attendance gains, which reflected higher ticket prices.
“The consumer is speaking loud and clear, and has been for the past several years,” says Jerry Mickelson, co-president of indie promoter Jam Productions. “They’re telling us ticket prices are too high, and it doesn’t take an economist or a journalist to figure this out.”
That the industry was able to overcome a 12.8% decrease in gross sales heading into October, as well as the fact that business was on a record pace until the bottom fell out in April, suggests an overcrowded summer marketplace with less-than-compelling, overpriced tours playing primarily amphitheaters as the main factor in the flat year.
Billboard Boxscore figures bear that out: Between April 1 and Sept. 30, amphitheater business was down 17% from the previous year.
QUESTION OF VALUE
“The consumer seeks value in every aspect of his or her life, and if we’re bringing in shows they have had the opportunity to see three or four times over the past few years, they’re going to be more selective. And if it’s overpriced, they’ll pass,” says Rick Franks, president of Clear Channel Entertainment subsidiary Cellar Door in Detroit.
Hodges says, “It’s more complicated than simply saying, ‘There are too many shows in the summer.’
“In years past, both arenas and amphitheaters had more shows than in today’s market,” he points out. “It’s a question of new artists developing to replace older artists and a question of packaging correctly rather than simply packaging.”
Hodges says too many artists are playing the wrong venue at the wrong point in their careers. “One advantage that amphitheaters generally have is providing a choice for consumers to pay for a reserved seat or to take advantage of a lower-price ticket on the lawn,” Hodges says. “But in 2004, we were charging too much money for the lawn to justify the deals we made. Likewise, in arenas the nosebleed seats were too expensive.”
While admitting that the factors contributing to the downturn are complicated, Peter Grosslight, worldwide head of music for the William Morris Agency, says, “Artists have to take greater care in deciding when they are going to tour, and the amphitheaters have to be more selective.”
But despite the travails of 2004, concert industry pros remain optimistic.
“Overall, I think the business will be stronger in 2005, and everyone will respond favorably to the issues around ticket prices, guarantees, marketing, etc.,” Hodges says. “We really do have the same objectives as the agents, the artists and the managers. We want successful shows and as many sellout shows as possible.”