On April 23, just one day after the release of her soon-to-be No. 3 album on the Billboard 200, Iggy Azalea was onstage at the House of Blues in Boston playing for a sellout crowd of 2,500. A major artist in front of a small crowd -- investors call it a "perishable experience"; fans call it a once-in-a-lifetime moment. It plays out over and over in the club world, and it is one reason why the live music business remains at a premium in an ever increasingly on-demand entertainment culture of streaming and DVRs. Live Nation, which commands 21 out of the 25 spots on Billboard's annual list of the best-attended clubs in North America, reported $2 billion in revenue in 2013, with gross ticket revenue up 30 percent.
Indications are that 2014 will be just as strong, and Live Nation stock has risen 14 percent in the 12 months ended July 31, to $21.16. "Overall for our portfolio, we're up in show count and ticket sales," says House of Blues Entertainment CEO Ron Bension. "It's a good business if you can withstand the cycles, and we've been able to do that." How good? Billboard estimates annual gross ticket sales for Live Nation clubs approaches $300 million annually.
The Live Nation portfolio boasts about 80 clubs and theaters, about 65 of which are clubs under the House of Blues or Fillmore banners, with others including established venues like the Tabernacle in Atlanta (No. 8), the Palladium in Hollywood (No. 14) and Irving Plaza in New York (No. 17).
"Four years ago, Live Nation created this organization and put all the clubs and theaters under one roof, and they committed to it," says Bension. "We've doubled our portfolio in the last three years of venues we operate or exclusively book into. But, more importantly, we've made a huge commitment to artist development. We're starting to help [developing acts], and we're seeing evidence of that as we see bands work with us from 300-capacity rooms to 3,000-seat theaters."
Here's the list of the 25 most popular clubs in the U.S. (based on clubs reporting to Billboard Boxscore, May 1, 2013-April 30, 2014):
1.) House of Blues, Orlando Fla.: 339,470 (attendance)
House of Blues Entertainment CEO Ron Bension remembers moving 7,000 attendees through this 2,200-capacity venue for five different events in less than 24 hours: Guns 'N Roses at midnight, two gospel brunches, a local evening show and a sold-out Dropkick Murphys concert.
2.) House of Blues, Boston: 322,755 (attendance)
3.) 9:30 Club, Washington, D.C.: 268,727 (attendance)
4.) House of Blues, Dallas: 222,988 (attendance)
5.) House of Blues, Chicago: 211,446 (attendance)
6.) House of Blues, Houston: 209,799 (attendance)
7.) House of Blues, Anaheim, Calif.: 192,424 (attendance)
8.) Tabernacle, Atlanta: 185,769 (attendance)
Originally a Baptist church, this Live Nation venue is a 104-year-old historical building that destroyed most of the surrounding buildings. It still maintains its full pipe organ -- which is 50 feet high and 32 feet wide -- and has modernized other original touches, like lining the VIP lounge with flooring from the gymnasium.
9.) House of Blues, Los Angeles: 172,005 (attendance)
10.) House of Blues, San Diego: 155,938 (attendance)
11.) House of Blues, Cleveland: 155,566 (attendance)
12.) The Fillmore, Silver Spring, Md.: 152,332 (attendance)
The Fillmore opened in 2010 as part of Live Nation's campaign to extend the San Francisco Fillmore Auditorium's brand across the country. Formerly a story, the Silver Spring incarnation is one of the first music venues to be LEED-certified. "We literally have a green roof," says Bension.
13.) The Fillmore, Denver: 151,387 (attendance)
14.) Palladium, Hollywood: 148,555 (attendance)
15.) House of Blues, New Orleans: 145,077 (attendance)
16.) The Fillmore, San Francisco: 140,100 (attendance)
17.) Irving Plaza, New York: 135,398 (attendance)
18.) The Fillmore, Charlotte, N.C.: 133,212 (attendance)
19.) House of Blues, Las Vegas: 131,208 (attendance)
20.) House of Blues, Myrtle Beach, S.C.: 129,528 (attendance)
21.) The Fillmore, Detroit: 129,199 (attendance)
22.) Lifestyle Communities Pavilion, Columbus, Ohio: 128,975 (attendance)
Nicknamed 'the LC,' Lifestyle Communities Pavilion is both indoor and outdoor. It's also part of the city's Arena District, a sprawl of residencies, restaurants and event spaces that used to be the state penitentiary. Next door is Basement, a former shipping and receiving area, where smaller acts perform. "It's one of the oldest buildings here," says marketing director Marissa Luther. "They say it's haunted."
23.) The Paramount, Huntington, N.Y.: 127,730 (attendance)
24.) Stage AE, Pittsburgh: 124,013 (attendance)
25.) Stubb's Bar-B-Q, Austin: 116,582 (attendance)
At famed resturant and concert venue Stubb's, nothing brings people together like good barbecue -- or like the recently renovated Airstream trailer out back. "It was gutted and lined with wood panels and decked out to be sleek and stylish, but still have that outdoor age-old music vibe to it," says talent buyer Margaret Galton. "It's become a cool hang for bands to meet or talk or jam together."
A version of this story appeared in the Aug. 23 issue of Billboard.