From 5 a fan's perspective, the summer of 1990 looked great. Every week, it seemed, some superstar or other was playing nearby: Paul McCartney. Madonna. M.C. Hammer. Phil Collins. Eric Clapton. Janet Jackson. David Bowie. And on and on, right up to the beginning of September.
But in the concert business, the number of stars out on tour is only half the story. What really matters is the number of fans paying to see them, and from that perspective, the summer of 1990 was not so sunny.
Take M.C. Hammer. His biggest single boasted "U Can't Touch This," and that was true as far as album sales went, for his "Please Hammer, Don't Hurt 'Em" was the biggest seller of the season. But on the concert circuit, Hammer got pounded, filling only half of the Baltimore Arena (roughly 7,000 out of 13,000 seats) and two-thirds of the Capital Centre (11,000 out of 18,000) in July.
Still, that's better than Milli Vanilli or Sweet Sensation did. Despite the fact that both groups put several singles into the Top 10 in recent months, scheduled shows at the Merriweather Post Pavilion were canceled after ticket sales failed to materialize. Several shows at the Pier Six Concert Pavilion, including a performance by former Go-Go Belinda Carlisle, were also canceled.
Or take the New Kids On the Block. Back in January, these teen idols were able to sell out a total of four shows in the Baltimore-Washington area, playing to more than 50,000 eager young fans. But when the New Kids returned to the area for an RFK Stadium show in July, more than a quarter of the seats were empty.
Nor was Washington the only town where the New Kids took a beating; one of two New Kids stadium shows scheduled for Los Angeles this month was canceled recently, and tickets continue to go begging for the other.
"The feedback we've gotten is that it was not a good summer," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar, a concert industry trade publication. "The first quarter of the year was spectacular, but the summer definitely dropped off."
What happened? "There was a 20 percent rise in average ticket prices over 1989, and that certainly had an impact," he says. "Combine that with the glut of tours that are out on the road in the summer. There are too many shows for the amount of discretionary dollars that are available."
"I term it 'choice stress,'" agrees Bud Becker, who books concerts for Hammerjacks. "You've got a market out there now that is being inundated with options. Coupled with that is the fact that there's only so much money; what [the audience] is trying to figure out is, 'What is this guy going to do to entertain me?'"
As a result, says Ron Furman, the owner of Max's on Broadway, "It's been very up and down. It has not been consistent. Shows that I thought would do very well have not; shows that in other cities are doing well sometimes do not do well in Baltimore, and sometimes shows that do well in Baltimore are not doing well in other parts of the country."
Not everyone is complaining. Dave Williams, the president of Cellar Door Productions, promoted concerts by Madonna, McCartney, Collins, Clapton and others, and he describes the season as having been a "hell of a summer, probably the best year in the history of our business.
"I had every major attraction play the marketplace, and they all did well," he says. "Yes, some of them didn't sell out. For instance, Phil Collins did not sell out -- but he did 31,000 people. I mean, that's not shabby.
"Motley Crue played the building [the Capital Centre] twice, and does 32,000-33,000 people. Aerosmith did the building twice -- same thing, 33,000-34,000 people. We had a hell of a year."
Likewise, Jean Parker, general manager of the Merriweather Post Pavilion, finds it hard to complain about attendance at that venue. "Our average attendances were up," she says. "The only way that we were down was just in the number of shows. Once the season is finally completed, we'll have done 44 shows, including three benefits. Typically we do in the vicinity of
about 55 or so."
Parker admits, though, that part of the reason the Pavilion did so well was due to a few fortuitous cancellations. "The Milli Vanilli/Young MC/Seduction package, fortunately, was canceled," she says. "Otherwise we would have lost our shirts on it. The same with the Tommy Page/ Sweet Sensation/Linear package."
Attendance figures can be deceiving, though, because the profit margin for concert promoters is getting smaller even as ticket prices go up.
How so? To begin with, as concert productions grow ever more spectacular, the cost of mounting a major tour increases dramatically. Madonna, for instance, went on the road with a show that included hydraulic stages, several set changes, elaborate lighting and a massive crew. Although her tour did sellout business across the United States and Europe, it did not make money; the singer admitted early on that her show's running costs were so high she'd be lucky to break even on ticket sales.
Then there's concert insurance, an absolute must in today's litigious society. The cost of covering a concert has tripled over the last five years, with insurers now charging between 15 and 30 cents per person for $1 million of liability coverage.
Add in factors like entertainment tax (which stands at 10 percent in Baltimore) and union fees, and the profit potential can easily wither away to nothing. "When you start talking about marginal acts where you have to do 7,000-7,500 people [to break even] in a city the size of Baltimore, that's tough," says Cellar Door's Williams.
Particularly given Baltimore's less than sterling reputation among concert promoters. "Baltimore is a lousy concert town," says Williams. "It always has been. It's a very blue-collar town; it doesn't have the money that Washington has. You have a very strong music following there, but for some reason they won't go to the Baltimore Arena."
"I don't want to say it's a cheap town, because it's not," says Furman. "But it is a blue-collar, neighborhood town. They're not going to do the $100 night out very often."
Consequently, Baltimore is likely to lose out as the concert market tightens up. Part of that is pure economics; as Williams admits, "If you're going to sell out both the Baltimore Arena and the Capital Centre, you're better off in the Capital Centre."
Moreover, as $30 tickets become the norm for superstar performers, a peculiar logic falls into place, one which benefits the big stars at the expense of the lesser lights. Explains Don Wehner, president of Up Front Promotions, "With the mega-superstars, like a Paul McCartney or a David Bowie, people will find the money to go see them.
"The baby-boomer audience can say, 'Oh, yeah, I'm going to see Paul McCartney.' They have plastic, they can charge the tickets. But not the rock and roll kid, who has $20 in his pocket. If he takes his date, he can't afford to see Aerosmith and Poison in the same week. So he'll be selective."
As a result, says Wehner, "The middle-line rock shows are suffering the most from high ticket prices. And Baltimore can only sustain so much. Everybody fails to realize that Baltimore is a secondary marketplace, and it's a blue-collar marketplace. You can't push this marketplace. You have to allow the market to dictate."