When Elton John played 1st Mariner Arena last year, his first Baltimore performance in more than a decade, more than 12,000 fans turned out.
Sade, opening her first American concert tour in just as many years, drew an audience just as big later in the summer, and it became 1st Mariner's highest-grossing show of 2011.
The demand to see pop singer Robyn, who was playing her only regional show at Rams Head Live, was so large that some bus companies set up trips from Washington to Baltimore for the night.
These acts — and other marquee names, including Lil Wayne, Rihanna and The Pogues — helped 1st Mariner Arena and Rams Head Live, the city's major concert venues, defy national odds and have one of their best years in recent memory.
While ticket sales dropped across the country — the top 100 tours lost about 14 percent of their audience, according to trade magazine Pollstar — the two local venues exceeded their 2010 numbers. In addition, Rams Head Live and Rams Head on Stage in Annapolis both made a recent list of the top 30 clubs in the country, and the nearly 50-year-old 1st Mariner was named top-selling arena of its size by Billboard Magazine.
The venues' managers attribute their success to the diversity of acts they offer, the incentives they provide and their audiences' increasing confidence in the economy.
By the same token, there's a growing perception among artists that Baltimore isn't a tertiary market anymore and that shows here will sell. That's good news for fans, who can expect more top-shelf acts to play Baltimore instead of skipping it in favor of Washington, as was often the case in the past, promoters say.
"We've just gotten more opportunities to perform well," says Mark Mangold, talent buyer at Rams Head Live. "And we've answered the call."
The concert industry came into 2011 shaken by disastrous sales the year before. For the first time since 1995, total revenues had declined, to $4.25 billion, according to Pollstar.
"Everyone pushed the envelope, in terms of ticket prices, and the number of shows on the road, and the public wasn't ready for that," says Pollstar editor Gary Bongiovanni.
Though the industry increased revenues last year, ticket sales continued to drop, to about 35.7 million, a 2 percent decrease from the year before. The discrepancy can be attributed to the cost of tickets.
"We would have thought prices would stabilize or come down, but that's not what we found," Bongiovanni says. "The industry grossed more money, but it did it by selling fewer and more expensive tickets," he says.
Baltimore proved the exception to the rule — 1st Mariner sold 40,000 more tickets for its 2011 shows than it did the year before, for a total of over 164,000.
Rams Head Live sold 20,000 more tickets than in 2010, according to Pollstar.
At these venues, and smaller ones that Pollstar doesn't track, managers say the surge in sales isn't because of a higher number of shows or more expensive tickets. They say they owe their good fortune to a combination of factors, starting with competing more aggressively with other venues.
Frank Remesch, general manager at 1st Mariner, uses various incentives to attract acts. When Sade was looking for an American city to open her first tour in a decade, Remesch didn't charge rent for the five days or so that she and her musicians used the arena. He also didn't charge for marketing the show.
"I have Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and D.C. to compete with. They're all big boys," he says. "So I have to throw in these other things."
The strategy worked. Even without receiving rent, he still made money on the Sade show.
"Economics is still the heaviest weight on the scale," he says. "When there's an event that's going 13-14,000 seats, and I can give them enough of a deal to offset the amusement tax, and I make it an enjoyable experience for them to set up, it's gonna make these people want to come back."
Promoters also say the diversity of shows has helped attract different demographics. At Rams Head Live, the bubble-gum pop singer Sara Bareilles had one of the most successful shows, but so did the punk band Rise Against. At 1st Mariner, the other two top-selling shows were Lil Wayne and Elton John.
Booking shows that offer something other than music has also become an increasingly reliable way for arenas to build up their coffers.
"If you're an arena operator, you're looking to diversify your program," Bongiovanni says. "You can't do the same heavy metal and country act every year."
Non-concert events have always been part of the schedule for 1st Mariner — the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus every March and Disney on Ice every November. But last year, the venue also booked Cirque du Soleil, bull riding and a freestyle motorcycle event called Nuclear Cowboyz, which returns to the arena this weekend.
This year, the arena is also booking Appassionata, an entertainment show featuring 40 horses.
"In our business, the family shows are a staple," Remesch says. "If I can secure those, concerts are almost the icing on the cake."
But if there's one major reason for their success in 2011, the venues' managers say, it has been increased confidence in the economy.
At 1st Mariner, the recession didn't affect ticket sales, but it did take a bite out of concessions — Remesch says food, drinks and merchandise sales dropped 30 percent in 2008. That has changed.
"That tells me our patrons either have more disposable income, or they feel more comfortable letting it go," he says.
In recent years, promoters and music acts have come around to thinking of Baltimore as a city where their shows can sell tickets, said Mike Bowen, part-owner of the Ottobar, a smaller club that hosts live music.
"In 2001, Washington was the place to go play. We were lucky to get spill-offs, when the agents said, 'We've played D.C. five times in a row; let's check out Baltimore,'" Bowen says. "Nationally, agents now look at D.C. and Baltimore as equals in the time of money and audience they can get."
At Rams Head Live, Mangold says, audiences have been increasing steadily since the club opened in 2004, and over time it has become easier for the club to attract bands.
"There's nothing specific we did, but just the fact that the venue's just been getting a better reputation year after year," he says.
Remesch says he's had more success booking shows since the Rolling Stones played at 1st Mariner in 2006.
"If you talked to Live Nation in the past, they would have described us as a tertiary market," he says. "Now we're top 30. We are primary."
Bongiovanni says Baltimore will always have difficulty attracting top-level acts like Madonna and Bruce Springsteen. The venues are older and smaller, for one thing.
One notable exception was last June's U2 concert at M&T Bank Stadium. But the city's biggest venue rarely hosts concerts.
Van Halen — one of this year's biggest concert draws in the U.S. — passed over Baltimore for Washington's Verizon Center.
But that's only for the mega-successful bands, he says.
"If the local economy is good and people in Baltimore are supporting shows, then there won't be a shortage of shows that'll come here," says Bongiovanni. "Artists would much rather play to a full building, even if it's smaller."
Some of Baltimore's biggest draws
Tickets sold/gross revenue
Sade:12,313 / $1,241,793
Elton John:12,615 / $1,198,425
Lil Wayne: 12,019 / $969,190
Rihanna: 11,042 / $534,396
Jay-Z/Kanye West: 10,758 / $961,107
Quidam: 10,771 / $744,801
Rams Head Live
Erykah Badu: 919 / $$76,275
Staind: 1,600 / $58,400
Rise Against: 1,400 / $55,300
The Pogues: 1,216 / $66,880
Jagermeister Music Tour: 1,400 / $56,000