Mid-Year Touring Report: Will Slow And Steady Ticketing Win The Race?

Amy Harris/Invision/AP
Bruno Mars

In one of the biggest and most controversial new concert-industry trends over the last six months, the practice of "slow ticketing" sets seat prices higher and sells them over a longer period of time, often leaving thousands of seats still available on the night of the show.

Artists who've experimented with the strategy so far -- including Jay-Z and Taylor Swift -- have endured criticism for the high prices and lack of sellouts. But when it comes to the goal of maximizing revenue, a central question remains as the touring industry's mid-year revenues dip below last year's levels: does the practice actually work?

"It absolutely works, but of course like everything that is new, we're still learning and finding ways to improve," said promoter Louis Messina with the AEG-backed Messina Touring Group, which is promoting one of the top tours of the summer, Taylor Swift's Reputation stadium run. Swift's defenders says the lack of sellouts has been a good thing because fans can buy tickets at any time, and Swift is on track to have one of the highest grossing tours of the year and one of the top runs by a solo female artist ever, averaging $5 million per show and grossing nearly $300 in one year.

But it isn't clear how much of that success can be chalked up to slow ticketing. At the same time, Swift has pioneered another new tactic for Ticketmaster, placing resale tickets for her tour on the same sales seat map where primary tickets were still available. Ticketmaster President Jared Smith told Billboard in May the practice was another "experiment" that improved visibility and overall sales for the tour, but has since put in place changes to the way Swift's tickets are resold on the platform, making it impossible for fans to undercut primary tickets with lower prices. 

Couple that with Swift's program to boost a fan's place in the virtual ticket line through merch sales, along with the sheer volume of tickets available on the tour, and it can be difficult to draw any conclusions.

"They might not keep the 'slow' part, but they will keep the part where they make Taylor hundreds of millions of dollars," said one tour insider. "Pricing tickets aggressively to maximize gross is a practice that isn't going away, and that means shows won't sell out instantly, which is probably better for the business. Will tickets sell slower, but make more overall? Probably yes. Do we keep calling it 'slow ticketing' for artists who are concerned with what a lack of sellouts means for their image? Probably not, but the goal remains the same -- putting money in artist hands and not scalpers."

As usual, Live Nation has been by far the most dominant promoter in the live music space, charting nearly $800 million for 1,770 shows with an attendance of about 9.5 million -- the actual number would likely be much higher if the publicly-traded promoter reported all of its shows to Billboard Boxscore. Live Nation easily beat out rival AEG, which brought in less than half that amount in 2018.

Compared with 2017, both promoters were down from the same point in the year prior -- in 2017, Live Nation reported $878 million with about 160 more shows for the year by this time while AEG was down about seven percent compared with this same time last year. Part of the drop is because many of the big stadium shows are beginning later this year -- Taylor Swift and Beyonce still have large legs of their tour to complete that didn't make the mid year, but will be counted at the end of the year, and nearly none of Ed Sheehan's shows have been counted yet. But in general, experts say, there's just slightly less content on the road this year compared to last year. 

The revenue drop comes despite a rise in prices. Live Nation -- which  promoted six of the top ten tours of the year, has seen the prices on those tours increase on average about $10, increasing from $74.78 in 2017 to $84.17, an increase of 13 percent. Same goes for AEG, which had three of the top ten tours and saw average ticket prices rise from $69.02 to $89.74, a large leap of 30 percent.

"Fans are already paying these prices on the secondary market and it only makes sense for artists to capture more of that money from ticket resellers and brokers who essentially do nothing and take home big margins," says Messina, who is promoting Kenny Chesney and is backing big runs by Shawn Mendes and a mini-run of dates by George Strait, who came out of retirement for a number of shows including Country Bayou Festival at the Super Dome in New Orleans which grossed more than $10 million.

Jeff Nickler with the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma says higher ticket prices aren't just a result of artists pushing out scalpers, but also individual markets proving their buildings can deliver seven-figure grosses. Strait's two performances at the Oklahoma arena in June grossed a combined $5 million, breaking a number of attendance records at the building.

"We want to show the promoters that Tulsans value live music and are willing to support touring properties with aggressive ticket prices," Nickler explains, saying besides rock and country, pop music is very strong in the market. "We don't have any professional sports teams in Tulsa and in some ways, we are the only game in town. That makes our value proposition very strong."

International growth is still important to the long-term health of the touring world with agents and promoters looking to international markets for growth opportunities. Four of the top grossing box scores for the 2018 mid-year report come from non-U.S. markets -- two of which came from Bruno Mars, whose four dates at Saitama Super Arena in Japan grossed $15.5 million while his five shows at Qudos Bank Arena in Sydney brought in $9.2 million.

Owning the top spot in 2018 is Billy Joel, who performed his 100th show at Madison Square Garden in New York on July 18, capping off an odds-defying run at the famed Manhattan arena that began with three shows in 1978 and and blossomed under a revolutionary monthly residency that began in 2014 and has consistently sold out dozens of shows. Joel's eight reported shows for the mid-year time frame that runs from early November 2017 to June, grossing $17.3 million with nearly 150,000 tickets sold. 

"The idea for the residency actually began in 2012 when we did a benefit show for Hurricane Sandy," explained Dennis Arfa, CEO and founder of Artist Group International who has been with Joel for more than four decades. Arfa said he negotiated the residency plan with then-MSG president Jay Maricano, who now serves as chairman and CEO of AEG Presents while the two were vacationing in the Caribbean.

"The idea was to create a franchise for Billy, just like the Knicks or the Rangers," said Arfa, who said the Joel residency shows are sold out through the end of the year.

The turf wars that began in 2017 between Live Nation and Madison Square Garden one side and AEG on the other have shown no signs of cooling off, or being especially bad for business. AEG, which is requiring artists who play the O2 Arena in London to sign a letter committing to playing the Staples Center as well, has seen substantial gains at its Los Angeles venue. While grosses at the O2 Arena are down about 10 percent, Staples Center grosses are up 75% over 2017, with sales jumping from $24 million to $42 million.

Staples Center has nearly doubled its gross with less shows -- 31 last year compared with 27 this year -- with concerts from Guns N' Roses, two nights of The Killers, Lorde and Pink. While AEG officials won't say how much of the uptick is tied block-booking, company officials acknowledge that  an uptick in marquee talent has certainly helped the company's bottom line, boosting it from No. 10 last year to No. 5.

The Forum in Los Angeles, meantime, which has called for an end to block-booking -- Irving Azoff told Billboard in August the company had backed away from tying its LA arena to Madison Square Garden  -- hasn't suffered at the ticket window, either. Reported sales to Billboard Boxscore are up 150% at the mid-year over 2017, wth 55 shows reported in 2018 compared to 31 last year. While reported ticket revenues are off 15 percent at partner venue Madison Square Garden, like Staples Center and O2, the increase in sales at the Forum far outpace any decline in New York, showing that in some cases war can be good for business. 

While security and terrorism are always top of mind, the music space was able to avoid any serious attacks for the first six months of the year, although concert officials aren't out of the woods yet.

"Our jobs really changed after the [2015] Bataclan attacks and we've adapted each time there has been an incident" says Scott Dennison, Director Risk and Crowd Services at LiveStyle, which puts on dozens of mostly-EDM festivals a year. He said the lack of serious attacks in 2018 could be a sign that deterrence is working, but added that event planners should not make much of the lack of violence and need to stay vigilant.

"If we make it through 2018 with out any serious attacks, that's obviously a good thing, but we shouldn't throw up our hands and say 'we're safe now, the threat is gone," he explains. "The threat is constantly changing, constantly evolving. No one expected an attack from above like we saw in Las Vegas (at Route 91 Festival) and now we have tools in place to counter that kind of incident."

Another industry trend watchers note is the continued consolidation of the agency space, with fewer independent talent agencies selling bands, while major firms like WME and CAA continue to grow into industry behemoths. The six biggest agencies in the space -- WME, CAA, Paradigm, UTA, ICM and APA -- continue to grow by offering clients access to branding experts, TV and Film departments and digital deals, while the independent agencies are doing their best to hold on or are selling to the big guys. Earlier this year, UTA purchased Circle Talent Agency, strengthening its electronic division practically overnight. Meanwhile, David Viecelli of Billions Corporation is feeling the repercussions of turning down multiple offers to sell his boutique firm to several big agencies. So far for the year, he's lost seven agents to rival firms and the majority of his acts.