Sade: The Billboard Cover Story
Preparing for a 100-plus-date international concert tour is daunting for even the most seasoned musical acts. Doing so after a lengthy absence from the marketplace presents a whole other set of challenges. But unconventional English singer Sade Adu, whose similarly named band recently embarked on its first North American tour since 2001, decided it was best to not prepare at all.
"I do the opposite and pretend it's not going to happen, immersing myself in the details of production as a way of distracting myself from reality," Adu says. "When the time comes, I don't test the waters -- I just jump straight in."
Video: Sade Tour 2011 Teaser
The vocalist's instincts served her well. Boasting visually stunning production elements and a strong package with John Legend, who opens all U.S. dates, the critically acclaimed, Live Nation-produced arena tour -- which follows the 2010 release of Sade's sixth studio album, "Soldier of Love" (Epic Records) -- has become one of the biggest success stories of the concert business this summer. This is good news for the touring industry, which looks to be on the rebound after last year's bloodbath: Numerous tours and concerts were postponed, canceled or reconfigured for various reasons.
A SMOOTH OPERATION
Sade's North American tour launched about 18 months after the release of Soldier of Love. Epic executive VP of marketing Lee Stimmel, who serves as the band's product manager, says it would've been ideal for the group to capitalize on the marketing and promotional efforts of the album by mounting a North American tour in the summer following its release. "It definitely elongates the marketing plan to have a band active in the marketplace in some form or fashion," he says.
Without going into detail, Davies cites "personal reasons" and other commitments as the reasons why Sade didn't tour sooner. But the group stayed active in the marketplace during the lengthy gap by engaging fans through Facebook and Twitter. Earlier this year, Sade also received media attention when "Soldier of Love" was named best R&B performance by a duo or group with vocals at the 53rd annual Grammy Awards.
In late April, following a month-long tour rehearsal in Nice, France, the band returned to play Europe for the first time in 18 years with a 21-date stint of arena performances. The next month, Epic released the band's second greatest-hits album, "The Ultimate Collection," which featured two new tracks and a remix of "Moon and the Sky" featuring Jay-Z. The 28-track set bowed at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 and has sold 127,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Video: Sade feat. Jay-Z, "The Moon and the Sky" Remix
"Sade is touring off a hit record that's 18 months old," Stimmel says, noting that there aren't many acts capable of embarking on a successful tour so long after an album release. "That's the unique parallel universe this band lives in."
Sade's North American tour was booked, routed and put on sale 280 days before opening night in Baltimore, according to Live Nation's Wavra. The tour promoter announced the first round of dates last September and tickets were available for purchase the following month. Some wondered why tickets were put on sale so far in advance of the trek's launch date.
"Sade has historically been an artist that sells over time. There was no rush," Wavra says. "The deal was done, the routing was set, and there was a window to go on sale, so we did."
Seven months later, as ticket sales grew from word-of-mouth and the addition of Legend as opening act, Live Nation announced a second round of dates. Davies says he wanted to be sure there was enough demand in the marketplace before adding more shows. In addition to some new territories, the second on-sale added multiple nights in such markets as Atlanta (Philips Arena), Chicago (United Center) and Los Angeles (Staples Center).
"When you haven't toured for 10 years, putting 54 shows up on sale is a little daunting, just given the way the world is going," Davies says, noting that Adu personally requested to play tougher sales markets like Memphis, St. Louis and New Orleans. "When we felt the demand, we made the tour bigger."
But not all cities on the trek have been overly successful. The July 28 stop at St. Louis' Scottrade Center sold 6,868 tickets out of a possible 9,000. And in Nashville, Sade's Aug. 1 show at the Bridgestone Arena sold 5,407 tickets out of a possible 9,094. Davies notes that he advised Adu that some cities could be a tougher sell. "But she said, 'No, we have to play to everyone,'" he says.
Wavra says that Sade concerts will typically sell between 2,000 and 3,000 tickets in the week leading up to the concert. "It will do 400-600 the day of show," he adds. "And it's all full-priced tickets."
CHERISH THE DAY
When it came to selecting tour stops, Wavra researched past ticket sales information and regional data on album sales and radio airplay. "She's got a very solid urban fan base," he says. With that in mind, much of the tour's marketing strategy was focused on buying spots on adult R&B and top 40 radio. "Even though they weren't playing Sade, the demographics of top 40 says that they've got an audience of 16-46 listening," Wavra says, noting that ads were also purchased on NPR and some jazz stations.
Between Sade's exquisite production and Legend's one-hour set, Davies believes concert-goers are getting their money's worth. "We wanted to do a value for money thing; we didn't want to overprice," he says. "We were sensitive to the markets, and I think that's paid off."
Adu made certain that her fans wouldn't be disappointed with the band's return. "We wanted the show to be spectacular, transporting the audience on a surprising, emotional adventure at the polar extremes of dynamics," she says. "So for one moment they believe they are in a huge stadium and the next an intimate club where each note hangs in the air.
"This show is the best thing we have ever done as a band," Adu adds. "We know these are really hard times, so we better be greater than any expectations. It's our way to say 'thank you' to our audience."
When Sade finishes its world trek this December in Australia, where the band hasn't toured in 26 years, Davies estimates the group will have played 107 shows. He says there's "a little talk" about another stateside run. But with Sade, nothing is certain.
"I have absolutely no idea what the future holds," Adu says. "It's a miracle to me we are here now. I just know I will look back on it and feel good."