Summer concerts stage a comeback

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Rock-concert ticket, $58. Parking fees at the venue, $15. Cost of a beverage, $5. The option of staying home instead? Priceless. There are some things music fans can't buy, like cheap concerts.

Last year, the average cost of a rock show rose to $58.71 - a 13 percent increase from 2003 - leading some to joke that Alan Greenspan or the OPEC cartel were somehow to blame.

In the end, potential concertgoers opted to skip outdoor shows, a summer tradition once thought as sacrosanct as baseball or July Fourth fireworks, and spent their money on "Shrek" or "Spider-Man" instead. As a result, whole tours were canceled. Music titans such as Norah Jones downscaled from amphitheaters to mere theaters. Eric Clapton and others offered the sort of discounts consumers are accustomed to seeing only on Labor Day.

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This year, the concert industry is taking drastic steps to make music lovers feel welcome again. Some of those measures include revamping customer service and finding ways to improve the concertgoer's experience. More significant are moves to slash ticket prices.

"Everything is trending toward fan empowerment, or consumer empowerment," says Ray Waddell, a senior writer at Billboard magazine who tracks concerts. "You don't want to be gouged at every step of the way, from parking to these facility fees and ticketing company fees that [are] taking a $35 ticket up to $45 or $50. Consumers aren't stupid. They see that."

So what went wrong last year? Blame the overly optimistic - some would say greedy - promoters for overestimating how much audiences would be willing to pay for a night out. "The industry doesn't have a list price so everybody looks at what everyone else is doing and then assumes they can do that or better," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of Pollstar, the industry bible. "Clearly that wasn't the case last year and many of the tours overpriced themselves."

For the most part it was "mid-level" acts that overreached, but superstars like Madonna faltered, too. During her 2004 tour, the Queen of Pop charged her loyal subjects an average fealty of $175 per seat - a record in the business. Though her tour was profitable, Madonna struggled to sell seats with a $300 price tag.

Now Clear Channel, the country's largest concert promoter, is taking action to lower the face value of tickets on its end. The company, which was unable to provide an executive for comment, announced that it will no longer charge a "facility fee" at its amphitheaters.

Clear Channel may also lower prices for lawn seats. In past years, lawn seats had drawn people who weren't hardcore fans of a band but who were willing to check the band out live for a smaller price. In particular, the lawn had been a big draw for teens with limited funds. But audiences stayed away when outdoor sheds started banning people from bringing blankets (fewer spaces to cram people into) or from bringing coolers (which took away from concession sales).

Expect many of those policies to change, says Mr. Bongiovanni. At the annual Concert Industry Consortium conference, which was held in February, talk centered on how to improve customer service and make the concert experience more enjoyable.

Artists are taking some steps of their own to shore up sales by giving consumers more bands for their buck. Many musicians are resorting to the tried and true tactic of linking up with other groups that appeal to a similar demographic. Stevie Nicks and Don Henley are headlining a tour, as are Boston/Styx, Oasis/Jet, Judas Priest/Queensryche, and Def Leppard/Bryan Adams. There are also rumors of blockbuster pairings such as Audioslave/System of a Down, Van Halen/Aerosmith, and Kenny Chesney/Gretchen Wilson.

"People are a little bit gun-shy after last year, so there's nothing wrong with co-headlining with someone or building up your bill to offer more value," says Mr. Waddell. In all, he is optimistic that the industry can overcome its problems. "It's nothing that a hot tour, priced right, can't overcome."

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