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.”