While it seems more and more clear that the live music business is taking a beating this summer, blogger Bob Lefsetz’ surprising claim  that Live Nation has “supposedly” canceled as many as 200 shows by Creative Artists Agency acts alone cannot be confirmed at this point.
Individual shows, legs of tours, or entire tours have been canceled or postponed by such artists as U2 (due to Bono’s back surgery), Christina Aguilera, Lilith Fair, Limp Bizkit, the Eagles, Country Throwdown, Rihanna, John Mayer, Bamboozle, and the Go-Go’s. Other tours by what were considered hot acts are experiencing slumping sales, among them Jonas Brothers and Kings Of Leon, according to sources. But a source familiar with the situation says the 200 figure is “untrue,” and hundreds of shows canceled is a hard number to reach, especially considering Live Nation promotes about 900 amphitheater shows a year.
Rumblings of a tough year for touring began a couple of months ago, with predictions ranging from “mediocre” to “bloodbath.” Two main culprits may be at fault in what is shaping up as possibly the worst summer for touring since the mid 1990s: ticket prices and traffic. At the center of the storm is Live Nation, which controls the majority of summer touring, particularly at the amphitheater level.
Ticket prices have been a thorn in the industry’s side for years, and ticket prices are a direct function of how much the act is being paid. Live Nation’s detractors say the company pays artists unreasonably high guarantees in order to gain market share and keep its amphitheaters programmed and tap into ancillary revenues like concessions, sponsorships and parking. When an estimated 70% of touring traffic occurs during the warm months, ticket prices become more sensitive, as fans are forced to make choices as to which shows they will see.
Neither Live Nation or CAA have publicly commented yet, though calls to local promoters do point to an unusual number of cancellations. If mass cancellations are indeed taking place, apparently a June “no service fee” promotion did not provide the desired juice to ticket sales. Ticketmaster, which merged with Live Nation earlier this year, is now offering “two-for-one Tuesday” promotions on several shows.
Another issue created by traffic is that heavy schedules make it tougher for each show to get the kind of promotional attention necessary, whether it comes from the promoter’s own efforts or media coverage.
Also coming into play is the fact that many, if not most, Live Nation shed tours are negotiated and booked out of the company’s West Coast offices, without a lot of local input about which shows are programmed and how much an act is worth in a given market. An act that’s worth $250,000 in Boston may be worth only $50,000 in Cleveland, which should be reflected in local ticket prices.
Another factor cited by insiders is ill-advised touring by artists who either don’t have a new album or single out, or have made the rounds too many years in a row. Without a compelling reason to go see an act, whether it’s absence from the marketplace or a hot album or single, fans may be deciding to sit this one out.
Finally, there seems to be a level of skepticism from consumers toward the concert industry, much of it relating to numerous ticket add-on fees or high ticket and concession prices in general.
There are live music successes. Coachella, Stagecoach, Jazzfest and Bonnaroo all have done quite well. Tours by acts like Lady Gaga, James Taylor/Carole King, and Roger Waters are performing solidly under Live Nation, as is its entire country roster of tours. AEG’s Justin Bieber, Black Eyed Peas, Taylor Swift and Bon Jovi, are also doing sellout business.
Several independent promoters and agents contacted by Billboard.biz say they’re having solid summers. Sam Hunt, an agent at the Windish Agency who books Yeasayer, Girl Talk, Matt & Kim and dozens of other popular indie bands, found Lefsetz' claim surprising. "I forwarded that email to everyone I work with and it was news to them," he said. "I think it's happening in another universe of agents and buyers."
The Windish Agency has more than 100 artists out on tour this summer -- nearly a quarter of its roster -- with nearly 1,500 shows confirmed from June 21 - Sept. 21. The agency's artists play clubs small and large, festivals, and numerous outdoor gigs in venues off the normal concert circuit, and has suffered few if any cancellations.
But the agency only occasionally books shows with Live Nation past the club level, and currently has no artists touring sheds or arenas.
So while some touring artists are thriving, by and large, this looks like a long, brutal summer. The good news is that touring has always been a cyclical business.
Additional reporting by David Prince.