"We've had a banner year." "There's more traffic than ever." "Sensationally hot."
These are just some of the statements heard from agents, managers and venue executives when surveying Canada's arena touring market in the past year.
"People want to tour Canada on a national basis," Live Nation Canada chairman Riley O'Connor says. "It's taken about 15 years to convince people that there's more to Canada than Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver."
The top five Canadian venues, as recently ranked by Billboard Boxscore, span the country coast to coast, with two in Canada's largest city, Toronto. There are also more arenas in secondary markets, providing additional routing opportunities and fulfilling a need in growing urban areas. Overall, that accounts for a very healthy live business.
Such artists as Paul McCartney, Lady Gaga, One Direction, Bon Jovi, Peter Gabriel and Leonard Cohen are among the many international acts that contributed to the strong year for some of Canada's top venues.
Likewise, burgeoning Canadian acts like Hedley, Metric, Johnny Reid and Marianas Trench have graduated to headlining status at arenas and amphitheaters, joining the ranks of Canadian mainstays like Rush, the Tragically Hip, Neil Young, Bryan Adams, Simple Plan, Nickelback and Billy Talent.
Ranked by gross, from Boxscores compiled by Billboard for the 12 months ending Jan. 31, 2013, are Montreal's Bell Centre, Toronto's Air Canada Centre, Vancouver's Rogers Arena, Toronto's Molson Canadian Amphitheatre and Edmonton's Rexall Place. (Some industry executives point out that Boxscore numbers aren't always fully reported, a topic examined in Billboard's 2012 Year in Music issue.)
In the top spot, Bell Centre had 90 shows (15 sellouts at 21,242 capacity) for a total gross of $54,555,251. In second, with half the shows (44, of which 32 were sellouts at 19,800 capacity), was the Air Canada Centre, grossing $44,840,035. (All figures are in U.S. dollars.) The summertime venue Molson Canadian Amphitheatre staged 42 shows during its relatively short season, with 12 sellouts at 16,000 capacity; Rogers Arena brought in 17 shows (10 sellouts at 19,700); and Rexall Place had 28 shows, seven of which sold out at 16,840.
What's curious in this ranking is the number of shows at a couple of the venues.
Toronto, whose population is 5.6 million in principal metropolitan areas, is understandably the primary market in Canada for touring acts; top-tier talent can choose among an arena (Air Canada Centre), a shed (Molson Canadian Amphitheatre) and a stadium (Rogers Centre) in the city core. But Montreal, with about 1.8 million fewer people, is doing double the shows at Bell Centre. The differential could be explained by the fact that there is no amphitheater competing for shows during the summer months, and there's also only one professional sports team competing for dates (the National Hockey League's Canadiens), while Toronto has two at the Air Canada Centre (the NHL's Maple Leafs and the National Basketball Assn.'s Raptors).
"If you look at the size of the city compared to Toronto, New York, Boston or Chicago, for us to do as well as we do is a testament to the fact that people like to see live shows here," says Nick Farkas, VP of concerts and events at Evenko, which operates the Bell Centre. "It is a cultural thing on all levels. We're the city of restaurants, theater, music; it's very European."
Air Canada Centre executive VP of venues and entertainment Bob Hunter says he hates to sound boring, "but we basically get everything that tours the U.S. Shows come here because it's a very big market. The Tragically Hip wouldn't do big numbers touring the States, but we'll do 14,000 with them."
Meanwhile, O'Connor knows exactly why the Live Nation-owned and -operated Molson Canadian Amphitheatre gets roughly as many shows between the last week of May through the third week of September as Air Canada Centre does the entire year: "Great location on the waterfront in downtown Toronto. You've got the city all lit up as your backdrop."
The strong Canadian dollar--on par with the United States--means it's now an equal playing field. Rexall Centre president/CEO Richard Andersen says the economy has positively affected business. "We have the advantage of having low unemployment, so people generally have more discretionary income," he says. "It's a market that has a high desire for entertainment content. And because of our [Edmonton] location, we draw from all of Alberta. So, just about any tour that's going on, we have a pretty good shot at having and, in fact, in some cases get multiple dates."
Rexall was one of the few North American venues to get McCartney in November. He had never played Edmonton before, and did two nights.
On the West Coast, Michael Doyle, executive VP/GM of Rogers Arena and Canuck Sports Entertainment, says the market there has been very strong. "We had one of our record years in 2012," he notes. The venue entertained firsts by such acts as Madonna, Springsteen, Bieber and Lady Gaga. McCartney hadn't played there in 50 years, and Neil Diamond included it on his big 40th-anniversary tour. "We pull [concert-goers] from neighboring cities and provinces, such as Alberta, and from Washington [state] too," Doyle says. "People tend to make the drive for the big shows."
The adjacent stadium BC Place doesn't affect their business, much the same as Rogers Centre in Toronto doesn't affect Air Canada Centre or Molson Canadian Amphitheatre. "Artists tend to tour either in the arenas or in the stadiums," Doyle says.
So, what are the considerations for doing multiple nights at, say, the Air Canada Centre versus one night at Rogers Centre as Springsteen and Bieber did last year?
Vinny Cinquemani, senior VP of the Feldman Agency--which doesn't represent either act but does have Simple Plan and Michael Buble, who just sold out an unprecedented 10 nights at the O2 Arena in the United Kingdom--says that decision involves many factors, from the ability to sell out the venue to the sound quality. But it primarily comes down to the artist's schedule. "Playing multiple nights in a city, you stay in town, can do more press, get more done with the label and so on," he says.
More important is how and when a manager, agent and promoter decide it's time to move their successful theater and concert hall act to arena headlining status, which happened this past year with Reid, Metric, Marianas Trench and City and Colour.
CP Records & Management's Tony Sal, who manages Toronto's the Weeknd, says his client (real name Abel Tesfaye) preferred to do four sold-out local shows at the 2,600-capacity Sound Academy rather than one night at the Air Canada Centre.
Sal says it had nothing to do with the risk of taking on a big arena so early in his career. "Abel wanted to do this first tour in more intimate venues," he says. "The next tour is all arenas--later, in 2015."
Alexisonfire did the same thing at Sound Academy for its last-ever tour, but went out with a bang-a sold-out show at Hamilton's Copps Coliseum, 45 minutes west of Toronto. Singer Dallas Green has graduated to arena status now with his new band, City and Colour. Marianas Trench has done the same, headlining arenas, mostly with the 4,000-5,000 cut-down configuration (up to as many as 8,000 at Rexall), while sticking with theaters in other markets.
"You have to sit down and be realistic about what the band can actually draw and what kind of show they want to put on," Agency Group president Ralph James says.
Rock band Billy Talent has been headlining Canadian arenas since 2007, and kicks off a 19-date tour this month--14 of which are arenas, including the Air Canada Centre; Bell Centre; K-Rock Centre in Kingston, Ontario; MTS Centre in Winnipeg; and some multipurpose rooms, a conference center and a casino. While some former arena acts have recently found themselves returning to smaller venues, Billy Talent's success has remained consistent.
"They're a great live band, current at radio, and people are still buying their records," says the band's manager, Pierre Tremblay of Hive Management. "It's always been about the best concert experience possible for the fans."
Feldman Agency's Cinquemani says Simple Plan--on a 17-date arena tour that took a month to put together--kept the ticket price under $50. "It's a young audience, and we want to give an opportunity for people to come," he says.
The number of potential dates for a tour has also increased with the availabilty of new arenas in such secondary markets as London, Kingston, Oshawa and Brampton in Ontario. Meanwhile, western Canada is leading the charge in a new buildup of facilities in Kelowna, Kamloops, Prince George, Red Deer, Moose Jaw, Fort McMurray and Estevan. And old buildings in Peterborough and Sudbury, for example, still get a lot of traffic.
"Back on Barenaked Ladies' Gordon tour [in the early 1990s], we went into small markets and were only able to go into some really rudimentary arenas and make the best of it," says Trembley, who was with Nettwerk at the time. "Now in a lot of these secondary and tertiary markets there are some 4,000- or 5,000-seat arenas that are great venues and capable of accommodating the production of touring bands."
While in a secondary market, the 5,700-capacity K-Rock Centre in Kingston during 2012 hosted Reid and Jann Arden among Canadian-based acts as well as Young, Bryan Adams, ZZ Top, Deep Purple, Martina McBride and Billy Currington. Despite the challenges of a smaller building, K-Rock GM Ken Noakes credits the venue's ability to draw acts with top-notch marketing, production and catering crews, plus the ability to "cut creative deals that allow everyone to be successful, including the promoter."
Looking ahead in 2013, execs from the top five arenas and booking agents use superlatives similar to the ones they voiced last year.
Bob Hunter says the Air Canada Centre has upcoming shows from Bieber, One Direction, New Kids on the Block, Beyonce, Green Day, Sarah Brightman, Rod Stewart and the Killers. "Everyone is waiting to hear about Kanye [West], Usher, Nine Inch Nails-they are all out looking for dates, so hopefully we'll hit home with those," he notes.
Evenko's Farkas says Bell Centre has sold out shows by Beyonce, One Direction and P!nk, while Rihanna and Alicia Keys are doing well. He adds that Billy Talent "is massive" and more dates from Bon Jovi, NKOTB, Fleetwood Mac and Bruno Mars are on the horizon. Francophone artists booked include Canada's Mary May, and Indochine and Michel Sardou, both from France.
Live Nation's O'Connor says by that April the Molson amphitheater should have its summer lineup set, but right now it has Dave Matthews Band in May, Mars in July, Kenny Chesney in August, Depeche Mode in September.
Rexall's Andersen says his venue has 27 holds, but has booked Bob Seger and Rihanna in March; Motley Crue in April; Fleetwood Mac, Carrie Underwood and Mars in May; and two dates by Taylor Swift in June.
Rogers' Doyle says 2013 "looks even stronger" than 2012 for his venue, with upcoming dates by Fleetwood Mac, One Direction and a discussion on routing for big country shows.
"All the arenas are reaping the benefits of artists needing to tour-it's that simple," Hunter says. "I'm not saying it's our only source of revenue. It's certainly a more significant source of their revenue, and I think we are all reaping that benefit. Needless to say, we all hope that continues to be the case."