In an economic environment where the music industry largely withered, the concert industry in 2008 held steady - but just on the surface.
Tour grosses from November 2007 through November 2008 were up nearly 13 percent from the year before, with overall ticket sales hitting a record of a little less than $4 billion worldwide, according to Billboard magazine. North American concert grosses were up 8 percent in 2008 after a 10 percent decrease the year before.
However, the trend of declining global concert attendance continued, falling 2 percent after a nearly 20 percent drop in 2007.
It was the ticket prices - up nearly 6 percent - during the first half of 2008 that caused gross revenue to rise. So, consumers were charged more for what they wanted to see, and those shows were limited to tried-and-true acts - trends that industry officials say are likely to continue into the new year.
Based on the past year, concert promoters say they will continue to push the big names and find new ways, such as e-mail blasts, to get the word out about lesser-known acts or those not getting a lot of attention on the radio.
The two top-grossing tours between January 2008 and June 2008 were veteran rockers Bon Jovi with $56.3 million and Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band with $40.8 million, according to Pollstar, the music industry trade publication. Others in the Top 5 were Van Halen (No. 3, $36.8 million), Kenny Chesney (No. 4, $35.5 million) and Michael Buble (No. 5, $32.5 million) - established names with huge, devoted fan bases.
Although ticket sales slumped as ticket and fuel prices increased, area promoters say the live-music industry is fine, for now. But they still felt the economic pinch in some ways during 2008.
"We're at budget, which is good news. I have nothing bad to say about our numbers," says Frank Remesch, general manager of 1st Mariner Arena. He wouldn't divulge gross figures but says the venue's business wasn't completely unscathed.
"Concession sales are down 25 percent," Remesch says. "I think that's a direct hit of the economy. But if you put the right show out there, people will come. When the economy takes a dive, people look for instantaneous gratification. To spend a couple hundred bucks on a show is no big deal."
But it seems consumers were more discerning about which shows they paid to see in 2008. The highest-grossing shows at 1st Mariner Arena were family-oriented affairs such as the Rockettes, the Jonas Brothers and Hannah Montana. Acts with strong reputations for punctuality and memorable, or spectacular, presentation did well at the box office, Remesch says.
"Artists who abuse their fans - show up late or don't show up at all like T.I. or Lil' Wayne - don't sell as strong," he says. "People are cautious with their money if they know that the artists are unprofessional."
In clubs and medium-sized venues where shows are far less extravagant and cheaper to produce, promoters also noticed some decline.
"We try to present the leading artists in a popular and artistic sense, but we're going to be more careful about the shows we present next year," says Michael Jaworek, promoter of the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., and Birchmere Presents, which books shows at other venues in Washington and Northern Virginia. "We are seeing some shrinkage" in ticket sales.
Jaworek, who wouldn't release exact numbers, says he noticed a drastic drop in ticket sales of shows whose musical style went unsupported by local radio in 2008.
"I'm seeing a lack of folk and acoustic artists because of the lack of radio play in the D.C. area," he says. "Next year, we'll definitely be presenting less smooth-jazz artists, because we don't have a station in the area that plays that anymore. The draw of those artists absolutely diminished."
But the club is seeing an influx of shows by legendary names such as Tom Jones and B.B. King.
"They make a good amount of money without the overhead production costs of an arena or theater," Jaworek says.
To reach ticket buyers, Jaworek and Remesch used e-mail blasts, an effective and rather cheap promotional tool.
"I've been able to sell out tickets through our e-mail lists or an artist's e-mail list," Jaworek says. "We have over 35,000 names on our e-mail list. It may not be in the six figures, but it's a good number and I don't have to spend a dime on promotion."
Remesch says, "We don't use our e-mail blasts unless the show's promoter tells us we can, but everybody takes us up on it. In this economy, everybody, no matter how big they are, is open to help with ticket sales."
best bets for 2009
Here are a few diverse artists likely to fill venues next year:
Labelle - Feb. 13 at DAR Constitution Hall: It took a little more than 30 years, but Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash, who made up the ground-breaking '70s rock-soul group Labelle, reunited in the studio in 2008 for the stellar Back to Now. Although the show will surely focus on the new CD, the trio is sure to throw in "Lady Marmalade," Labelle's classic No.1 hit from 1975.
Fleetwood Mac - March 10, Verizon Center: This supergroup defined California pop-rock in the 1970s. The band's Rumours, released in 1977, is one of the biggest-selling albums of all time with 30 million copies sold. Fleetwood Mac's tour will coincide with the release of Unleashed, a new greatest-hits compilation that contains previously unreleased tracks.
Motley Crue - March 14 at 1st Mariner Arena: With numerous brushes with the law, members of this heavy-metal band have lived as hard as they play. But age hasn't necessarily tamed Motley Crue. The group, which has sold more than 40 million albums worldwide and influenced the likes of Nine Inch Nails and Linkin Park, takes its Saints of Los Angeles tour on the road.
Britney Spears - March 24 at Verizon Center: Despite a rough two years or so for the tabloid and pop blog queen, Spears has emerged triumphant with her new album, the uneven Circus, which spawned the smash "Womanizer" and sold more than half a million copies the first week in stores. The show is guaranteed to be all spectacle, naughty dance moves and not a trace of substance: all the things we've come to expect from one of pop's most successful and controversial performers.
B.B King - March 29 at Lyric Opera House: Though some of his vocal thunder has diminished, King is still an undeniable force. At 83, he mostly sits on a stool in concert, sharing stories between toothy licks on Lucille, his famed guitar. The greatest living blues musician remains a treat to see.
Katy Perry - April 10 at the 9:30 Club: She had one of 2008's biggest singles with "I Kissed a Girl." Despite having such a huge hit, Perry, whose style is a little kitschy and certainly derivative, was still one of the year's most forgettable acts.