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SUMMER TIME BLUES Summer concerts: Big stars, big prices, fewer opening acts

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Summer has always been the concert industry's hottest season, with more bands and bigger names touring than at any other time of year.

This, after all, is when the weather gets warm and the fans -- particularly school-aged ones -- have more free time to watch their favorite pop stars play. That usually adds up to enormous profits for all concerned, from bands and booking agents to promoters and venues.

It wasn't that way last year, though. Concert business in 1991 was off by as much as 40 percent, as even the best-known pop stars found themselves facing empty seats and canceled shows. Whether this was the result of the recession, lackluster concert bills or ever-climbing ticket prices is still being debated, but the bottom line is undeniable: People lost money big-time.

Nobody in the business likes losing money, and as a result, last year's shortfall is already having an effect on this summer's offerings.

It's hardly the reaction most fans would expect, however. Instead of less, we'll get more, particularly when it comes to superstars. Among the famous-name attractions anticipated for tours this summer are Bruce Springsteen, Def Leppard, Garth Brooks, the Cure and another Lollapalooza Festival. There are also a slew of stadium tours in the works, including outings by Genesis, U2 and the Grateful Dead, as well as shows pairing Eric Clapton with Elton John, and Guns N' Roses with Metallica.

But fans won't just be getting more -- they'll be paying more, too. Although some tours are keeping costs within a reasonable range -- Genesis tickets average $25, as compared with the $32 asked for Paul McCartney's 1990 stadium shows -- many acts are insisting on higher-than-ever fees from concert promoters.

"Part of the problem with the more popular artists -- the people who have historically sold the most tickets -- is that their guarantees keep going higher and higher," says Jean Parker, the general manager of Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia. "If it were up to us, we would keep ticket prices lower. But we have this other factor to deal with, and they are demanding very, very large compensation."

Are these acts crazy? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Tight money, it seems, doesn't keep fans from going to see their favorites, it only makes them choosier about which bands they see. In other words, they want a guaranteed good time, and what that translates into -- from a business perspective -- is big bucks for the big boys, and a harder time for everyone else.

That's particularly the case with outdoor amphitheaters, or "sheds" as they're known in the trade. "In a way, they're catering to a different audience than the regular concert venues," says Robert Smith, a marketing executive at Geffen Records. "I think the sheds' business is predicated on past success, and on fans who think, 'Gee, every summer we go to two concerts; which two are we going to go to this year?' "

This audience, says Smith, is drawn to a specific type of concert act. "They tend to be the big stars who deliver these great two-hour shows," he says. As a result, he adds, such groups "kind of base their whole touring life around those things."

That's part of the reason the summer season seems to favor perennials like Jimmy Buffett, James Taylor, the Moody Blues and the Beach Boys. These acts may be past their prime on the pop charts, but they have no trouble turning a profit on fans who remember the good ol' days.

"Did you know that Steve Miller does 20,000 seats a night? And he doesn't even have a record deal," comments Larry Stessel, a senior vice president-general manager at Mercury Records. "You've got to understand that people who are 30-plus years old grew up with Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs and Aerosmith and Crosby, Stills and Nash. It's still considered a very active music to a generation who now has discretionary income and will go to listen to their memories.

"If you go see a John Mellencamp concert, you may not own his new album, but going there to hear him sing 'Jack and Diane' and 'Pink Houses,' people think about when they met their wife, when they were in college and when they were doing this and that."

Nostalgia not only factor

Nostalgia isn't the only factor, though. Many of the season's biggest acts owe their allure to a history of memorable music-making.

Take Genesis as an example. When this group announced the first dates on its stadium tour, many in the industry were surprised and relieved to see instant sell-outs. But Mike Farrell of the International Talent Group -- who has been booking Genesis tours since 1970 -- says the sales simply reflect two decades of good shows and fan loyalty.

"Genesis are a band that has built up their audience in America for over 20 years," says Farrell. "They have always given one of the best shows on the face of the earth, and this is the exact type of artist that the people are going to come out to see. Because it is a great show -- it's not just glitz, it's a presentation of their music."

What Farrell doesn't say is that it will present only Genesis' music; in other words, there will be no opening act. And that seems to be a growing trend among the biggest and best-known performers.

"They're doing 'evenings with,' " explains Larry Butler, vice president for artist relations at Warner Bros. Records. "Acts who have that kind of depth in their repertoire are finding that it's less expensive and less of a hassle [not to have another group opening the show]. They're finding that their audience really likes the idea of getting more of the same."

In other words, fans don't go out to hear new acts at concerts, but to experience live what they already know from their albums. Which -- given the fact that concert tickets often cost twice what a CD or cassette goes for -- makes perfect sense.

"Money's just much more precious," says Smith. "I think by the time you've spent $25 to see U2, you already own the record."

Unfortunately, that attitude is tough on performers still working their way up the ladder, and that's one reason why the summer is such a slow season for up-and-coming acts. Says Butler, "It's difficult to try to break a band in the summer for a number of reasons. Everybody's outside. Nobody is going into small nightclubs to see alternative bands.

"College radio doesn't shut down, but the campuses empty out, so that, as a force in exposing new music to that 18-to-22-year old element, kind of goes away. So we've even had a policy of holding off many alternative music releases until August and September, just because they would just wither on the vine in the summer."

Alternative music isn't a complete washout during the warmer months, however. Just look at last year's Lollapalooza tour, which not only matched such disparate (and seemingly uncommercial) talents as Jane's Addiction, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Nine Inch Nails and Body Count, but packed houses at a time when even Guns N' Roses wasn't a guaranteed sellout.

What made the Lollapalooza concept work? Part of it was the chemistry between the various acts, and part the sense of community the show instilled in its audience. But mostly, it was the fact that Lollapalooza combined several interesting bands

into a nearly irresistible package.

One plus one equals three

"What it's really about is value," argues Smith. "It's really a case of one plus one equalling three. There can be two bands standing alone that would do very well, but together, it becomes an event. And if you weren't at it, the next time it comes along, you want to go, too. That's what Lollapalooza did last year."

Ironically, the basic idea behind such tours is anything but new. "If you look back at how many of the great rock 'n' roll bands got their start, it was because of packages," says Smith. "There were R&B; revues, there were the first rock'n'roll revues. Those were events. None of those groups on their own could have really carried the day the way those things did."

This shouldn't be construed as mere safety in numbers, by the way, because in the wrong combination, a package tour can fail just as miserably as a single-band outing. Last year, for example, saw the heavy metal package Operation Rock and Roll go down in flames, while a Lollapalooza wanna-be called Gathering of the Tribes never even got off the ground.

"Six of what you don't care about won't work," says Smith. Nor will every band benefit from a collective success. "Lollapalooza provided a big bump for a couple of bands on the bill," he says, "but for one or two, it didn't have any measurable effect."

"I think touring has become as much a marketing concept as it is a musical concept," adds Stessel. "You really have to think about your audience. You can't go out there and have three bands from three different demographics and expect to be able to pull it off.

tTC "We have an idea for later in the summer of doing a tour with the Soup Dragons, James, and then a third -- and possibly a fourth -- act of that ilk, and putting them into 2,500-seaters," he adds. "Here you have four bands, all of the same nature, with the same type of audience; they share equipment, they share lights, they all happen to be in the same record company so your advertising is across all four bands. And you try to keep your ticket prices as low as possible.

"If you market that properly with that concept in mind, you tie it into some radio stations, you get the retailers involved, I think you'll do extremely well."

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