Area concert circuit is feeling the pinch of economic straits


It's not unusual for area concert promoters to talk about a "soft" market or a lack of quality shows during the post-holiday season.

But the problems in booking performances this season has extended beyond the run-of-the-mill weather related difficulties and lack of record sales after Christmas.

One promoter said thinking about the future of live music in the Baltimore-Washington marketplace is "frightening."

A quick glimpse at the concert calendar shows its obvious holes.

The Capital Centre has four acts on its schedule: ZZ Top (Sunday and Monday), Keith Sweat, Bell Biv Devoe and Johnny Gill (Jan. 24), INXS (March 1) and Paul Simon (March 13). Tickets remain for all of these shows, and sales for INXS, in particular, have been very soft with more than 11,000 seats left. Many expected to see two sold-out performances from the Australian band.

To date, the Lyric Opera House, Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Painters Mill and the Baltimore Arena have no pop groups booked for the coming weeks.

Perhaps the hardest hit in the area is Hammerjacks, which had 22 national bands during January and February of last year but has just three this year -- Lord Tracy (tomorrow), Nine Inch Nails (Jan. 19) and Tommy Conwell (Jan. 26).

The only area club not being extremely affected is the smallest, Max's On Broadway, which did sold out business with a pair of 'Til Tuesday shows earlier this week and has Yo La Tengo (tomorrow), The Ocean Blue (Jan. 18), Leon Russell (Jan. 24) and Don Dixon and Marti Jones (Feb. 3 & 4) on its agenda.

But even Max's has had acts like The Feelies fall through due to booking problems.

Don Wehner of Upfront Promotions said many of the bands are working with promoters to get through the recession. "Some are saying they don't need extra frills and perks and are willing to not be wined and dined," Wehner said. "Every little bit helps."

But as the prices of gasoline, travel and production increase, either the band, the venue or the promoter has to take the loss. The other variable is the new alcohol taxes that also cut the venue's profits.

If the price isn't right, many times the promoter will simply pass on the show.

"I had 10 shows offered to me this week, and I had to turn seven down," Wehner said. "The guarantees to the bands are too high and we're apprehensive about anything that isn't a sure bet. Actually, to say we're apprehensive is candy-coating it."

Bud Becker, who books shows for Hammerjacks, said the rock and roll business has been depleted by the lack of record company support of the bands.

"A lot of rap bands have cut into the market because it's easier for the record companies to make money," Becker said. "Rock albums cost more to make and they have to put the band on the road and subsidize them immediately for the product to be successful. All the rap and Top 40 acts need is a good product, a good video and some quality marketing."

Last year gave us three prime examples in Vanilla Ice, M.C. Hammer and Bell Biv Devoe.

All three were unproven and came very inexpensively to their labels. All are now multi-platinum acts that have had at least moderate success on the road. Ice and Hammer were teamed up during the fall and Ice returns to area with his own show at the Patriot Center in Fairfax, Va., on Jan. 13. There is also a tentative date at the Arena on March 31.

"This time last year we had a lot of up-and-coming rock bands that each had a radio hit and each had money being pumped into them by their companies," Becker said. "They were all fishing for the next Warrant, or Bon Jovi or Skid Row. But it's all changed now. The bands are left to do it for themselves."

So for alternative bands like the Soup Dragons or Jellyfish, which are content with playing 300-seat clubs like Max's or the 9:30 in D.C., there will always be good business. But for everyone else -- excluding mega-superstars like Paul McCartney -- times are tough.

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