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.
Lil Wayne has a small A-team of performers with him, including Rick Ross, and earlier this year, Nicki Minaj. Rihanna traveled with Cee Lo Green, who has a massive hit on his hands with "Forget You," and Katy Perry has the Swedish pop singer Robyn opening for her. There's also the first traveling electronic music festival, IDentity, which has several stars of the genre, like Hercules and Love Affair.
"We know that in general people are looking for value in everything they do," said Live Nation's Roux. "People are very conscious of how they spend their money in this day and age. We want to provide ways that the consumer looks favorably on the concert business."
The strategy also reflects an underlying belief in the industry that there are fewer headliners who can justify stratospheric prices or even sell out arenas.
Even if co-headliner shows are more expensive to produce, and profits are more widely split, artists see them as both a long-term investment in their touring careers and one last piece of proof that they can sell out a venue.
"Everyone likes to play a full house," Bongiovanni said. "Sometimes you have to spend money to make money."
Increasingly, said Roux, "smart artists and smart business managers are putting together shows where there's going to be a high level of impact for their fans. They're sacrificing short-term earnings to put out the best show they can at the best price."
He said that as these co-headlined shows deliver, "you'll see more and more acts exploring it as an option."
For the rapper Lil Wayne, packaging is one of the keys to his touring strategy. Despite the cost, he's pursued starry marquees going as far back as his first major national tour in 2008.
At a time when consumers have plenty of entertainment options, a top-heavy bill makes the concert "a no-brainer for fans," said Shawn Gee, Wayne's tour manager.
"You want to provide a full experience for your fans. You want them to leave the dinner table full, like they can't eat any more," Gee said. "[Wayne] could have gone out with a no-name supporter, but from his perspective, he's investing on his long-term touring profile. He's building a loyal fan base of fans that hopefully, 10 years from now, will want to return to a Lil Wayne show."
Six months into the year, it looks like the strategies are paying off.
Pollstar hasn't completed its analysis of sales for the first half of the year, but Bongiovanni and Lucas said early signs are encouraging.
Several artists are seeing an immediate effect on their sales. Gee said the first leg of Wayne's I Am World II tour has been the rapper's most successful yet.
Lucas, whose company also handles some venues, said Maroon 5 did fair business last year at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Atlanta, but together with Train, they're close to selling out the tour's whole run.
Separately, New Kids on the Block and Backstreet Boys would be "decent shows," said 1st Mariner's Remesch, but together they're a compelling draw. Live Nation, which booked the show nationally, declined to give specific numbers, but Roux said the majority of the tour is sold out.
As for the rest of the year, "I am cautiously optimistic," Roux said. "We don't have any large problems out there, and fans seem to be responding favorably to everything we have to offer."
One place where the impact of reasonable prices on packaged tours has been felt is 1st Mariner Arena. Merchandise and concession sales are nearly back to pre-recession levels. End-of-year profits should be slightly higher than last year, Remesch anticipates. Attendance has been solid and the Sade show is "virtually sold out," he said.
He's hoping the two-for-one shows continue. "As long as it sells tickets, I'm up for whatever they want to do."