Shed Woes – region’s live music biz adapts

Chris Lockwood - Meadowbrook U.S. Cellular Pavillion
Chris Lockwood - Meadowbrook U.S. Cellular Pavillion

Remember when the concert market behaved like it had Hermes handbags on offer, not Jimmy Buffett seats?  Akin to luxury goods, the demand for high-end talent at a premium price seemed recession-proof.  The question wasn’t whether fans would pay, but how much.

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the gold mine.

Sir Paul McCartney, usually a sure thing, barely sold out Fenway Park.  Aerosmith/Dropkick Murphys struggled to fill the Comcast Center – a hometown gig, no less; hundreds of AC/DC Gillette Stadium tickets were quietly given away.

Stunned by their sudden reversal of fortune, Live Nation launched weekly Wednesday specials, with half price pairs and “all-in” no service fee offers at all four of their New England sheds.

That promotion, coupled with $5 ducat web deals from Subway and Citi, flooded the market with cheap tickets, but Live Nation spokesman John Vlautin believes it’s all good.

“The specials have brought in hundreds of thousands of new fans who might not have attended a concert this summer,” he said in an e-mail interview, adding that Live Nation plans to offer the Wednesday bargains indefinitely. “It’s been very positive for music fans who are getting a great deal and for the artists who are playing to more people night in and night out.”

But Chris Lockwood, Marketing Director at Meadowbrook U.S. Cellular Pavilion in Gilford, is less sanguine.

“No doubt fans are happy, but what’s going to happen next year? It’s definitely not true on the artist side of things,” says Lockwood, who thinks such sales stunts amount to “conditioning their customers to not buy their product.”

“It’s a bad business model,” he concludes.

Meadowbrook addresses worsening economic conditions differently, says Lockwood.  They sent a $3 direct mail coupon in May that’s still being redeemed on a regular basis, and offered a layaway program to help fans on a budget lock in premium seats.

Last minute blowout sales occasionally happen usually via a blast to Meadowbrook’s e-mail list.  “MTV Sunblock Tour” 4-packs sold for more than half off a week before the show.  But package deals – show tickets combined with dinner at the on-site “Center Stage” restaurant or a performer ‘meet and greet’ – are preferred.

In a clever co-op, Laconia Savings Bank bought and gave away 500 seats to three slow-moving June Bike Week shows, in exchange for event sponsorship, which usually costs thousands of dollars.  “We sold the tickets for service fees only, and the bank got 1,500 new customers,” says Chris.

Two big “all-in” promotions are left before the Meadowbrook season ends in September.  A $99 “Country Boys of Summer” package offers lawn seats for Big & Rich (8/30), Tim McGraw (9/5) and Alan Jackson (9/26), while the $99 “Rock Pack” includes lawn seats to four consecutive shows – Lynyrd Skynyrd/Joan Jett (8/21), Moody Blues (8/22), Judas Priest/Whitesnake (8/23) and Allman Brothers/Widespread Panic (8/24).

Verizon Wireless Arena appears to be dealing with the down economy by booking fewer shows.  But bargains can be had – a batch of $13.99 tickets for ‘tween queen Demi Lovato’s Auygust 24 show are gone, but $39.99 floor seats were still available last Thursday.

Tupelo Music Hall is weathering the economic storm without resorting to fire sales – one of the luxuries of being a small venue, says owner Scott Hayward.

“We’re in a fairly aggressive growth cycle,” reports Hayward, who just announced plans to open a second location in Salisbury, Massachusetts.  The beachfront club will seat 800, more than triple the capacity of the Londonderry location.

The recession has had some effect, notes Hayward. “People aren’t buying as many tickets as they used to, but we’re still selling out 70 percent of our shows, and we’re above where we were last year.”

Why?  “We’re in a tight niche,” Hayward says simply of the small, BYOB room, that caters to serious music fans.  “We get a lot of big names.  It’s not hard to sell 240 seats.”

Tupelo does offer a fan loyalty card that includes a waiver of their BYOB fee, but, says Hayward, “that’s not designed to save fans money, it’s for our base” – regulars who are more than willing to pay for advance notice of appearances from the likes of John Hiatt, Paula Cole and Shawn Colvin.

“These shows sell out so fast that if you’re at work, you’ll miss it,” says Hayward.

Tupelo Music Hall Salisbury, due to open in late October or early November, will feature top-level talent – Bruce Hornsby, Indigo Girls, Lyle Lovett, B.B. King – along with Londonderry regulars like Johnny Winter and the Little River Band.

Hayward can guess why he’s succeeding in challenging times.

“It’s not that the bigger rooms are doing anything wrong,” he says.  “It’s just a bigger machine to feed.”

Never Again – Buffett At Gillette Stadium

I didn’t attend the show, due to a business commitment that had me out of the country.  But I know people who did, and the Jimmy Buffett show at Gillette Stadium has to go down in the annals as the biggest rip-off in history.  Not only were the tickets too expensive, all the seats sucked, the staff ran the crowd like a cross between the Keystone Kops and the Gestapo.

The parking lot didn’t open until 3:30, and the venue charged an unbelievable, extortion rate of $40 to park.  As if the Ticketbastard service charges weren’t bad enough, it seems that Gillette wants to get in on the action, a gang bang of sodomizing.

I think Jimmy Buffett has outgrown live events if it’s really come to this.  I’m never going back, that’s for sure.  I’ll listen to Radio Margaritaville on Sirius and have a party at home.

Defiling Bill Graham’s Memory

billgraham.jpgWhen he was alive, Bill Graham had a framed note hanging in his office, that someone had sent him when the Fillmore West closed in 1971.

It read, “Bill Graham may be an asshole, but he gave me some of the best years of my life.”

The guy who wrote it obviously had his tongue in his cheek, but these days the concert business really is run by assholes – deluded ones at that.

Now comes word, via Lefsetz, that LiveNation bought the rights to name two venues (one in New York, the other in Philadelphia) after Graham’s brightest legacy. But calling a building “the Fillmore” won’t make it 1967 again. Hell, it won’t even make it 1997. The only comfort, I suppose, is that these two concert facilities won’t be named after a bank, a computer maker or a cosmetics company.

But tickets will still cost too much, and LiveNation won’t stop treating their customers with thinly veiled contempt, inventing charges for services that don’t exist and overcharging for those that do – like parking – and scalping, er, auctioning all the good seats.

Tickets are commodities, they say. It wasn’t that way in the world I came from, and I doubt Bill Graham would be a TicketMaster kind of actor were he alive today. The business he invented is so far in the past now that it may never come back.

I grew up believing that everybody presented live rock and roll like Bill Graham. He was a class act, even when he was wrong about something. For example, when a Who concert at the Cow Palace sold out in 1974, Graham let the San Jose Box Office sell marked-up tickets. I wrote him to complain that this was scalping, a deplorable (and in those quaint, pre-EBay days, illegal) practice.

He wrote me back with a thoughtful defense of why he allowed it. It was 33 years ago, but his position then could serve as a mission statement for StubHub today. Making these tickets available legally lessens the chance that people will be sold bogus tickets, he said. He believed he was protecting fans. I didn’t agree – I still don’t- but I always admired him for taking the time to write me and say so, when he could easily have blown me off.

These days outfits like LiveNation rip off fans because they can, and could care less what anyone thinks. It’s business, they say.

Graham was different. Here’s an excerpt from his Wikipedia entry that I can verify is true:

For all his competitive nature and fiery disposition, Graham was recognized as an expert promoter who genuinely cared about both the artists and the attendees at his concerts. He was the first to ensure that medical personnel were on site for large shows and was both a contributor and supporter of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, which he often used as medical support at events. He also loved putting together groups onstage from different ethnic backgrounds—many of whom were ignored by other promoters—and he had an eye for pleasing his audience, while making an effort to educate them in styles of music they would otherwise not have been exposed to.

When I was 14, I saw Howlin’ Wolf open for Alice Cooper at the Berkeley Community Theater; it was my first exposure to the real roots of American music. I ‘d paid to see a heavy metal show that ended in a hanging. Later the same year, blues guitar master Albert King was the middle act for a T.Rex concert; the Doobie Brothers opened that show.

I had many more such revelations in the 20 or so years I attended Bill Graham Presents concerts. In these times of packaged tours that almost never happens.

Every night at Winterland, or the Cow Palace, or later Shoreline Amphitheater, provided an opportunity for discovery. I’ve lost count of the albums in my collection made by performers who were opening or middle acts at BGP events. Loggins and Messina, Lynyrd Skynyrd, STEVIE WONDER (at the 1972 Rolling Stones show) were all on the bill below the headliner at Winterland shows.

Even when there wasn’t music on the stage, Bill Graham took care of the fans. One time, I waited in line all day for a Winterland show (Steve Miller and ZZ Top, I believe); it was bitter cold, so Graham opened the doors two hours early to allow fans to warm up inside, where we watched videos of past concerts and Betty Boop cartoons. Graham could definitely be a hard ass, but we’d cut him some slack when that happened. Besides, he usually had a good reason.

Such decency is a quaint memory. Bill Graham is dead, and the concert business is whored out to a disgusting mutation of Tony Soprano, Arthur D. Little and a cyborg. The only pure music environment these days is a dank, dusty club.

Concerts haven’t been fun since Bill’s helicopter crashed in 1991. But if he knew the Fillmore name was being sold out to LiveNation, I bet he’d kick some ass.

I miss you, Bill.