Bowie and Prince Are Gone, But Demand for Their Tours Appear to Have An Afterlife

ISSUE 26 2018 - DO NOT REUSE!!!
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The Bowie tour’s Gerry Leonard (left) and Bernard Fowler in February.

This fall, A Bowie Celebration: The David Bowie Alumni Tour announced its first European dates while making its second round through the United States without its namesake, with cameos by stars like Sting.

This fall also saw the launch of 4U: A Symphonic Celebration of Prince, curated by Tonight Show bandleader Questlove. The instrumental renditions of the late pop star's hits have been inspiring audience-wide singalongs.

"Aside from when I toured with [Bowie], it's the busiest I've ever been," says Bowie Alumni bandleader Mike Garson, who played piano on Bowie's records.

The events are among a string of tours hitting the road without the actual artists, including a hologram of Roy Orbison and digital avatars of all four members of Swedish pop ABBA group called the Abbatars. The artistless shows are tricky to market -- sometimes requiring repeat visits to cities before fans buy in -- and pull in a fraction of the seven figures they did when their star honorees were alive and onstage; the Bowie tour's 2017 date at Terminal 5 in New York grossed roughly $150,000, according to Billboard Boxscore. But promoters are playing the long game. Garson says that after the tour's first leg ended in March, fans were clamoring for a second, while the Prince tour's organizers have been fielding offers from foreign markets and think their act could run for the next five years.

"From a pop culture perspective, we're not touching even a small morsel of the potential consumers and fans that would love this presentation," says Live Nation's Shawn Gee, who worked with friend and Prince estate advisor Troy Carter to get the seal of approval and a multi-year licensing deal from the estate. Fans "leave dancing, singing, crying, laughing. It's an emotional connection that not many shows have."

Steve Cook of TCG Entertainment, who put together Prince tour with Gee, says "it is a chance for people to say goodbye. It is a chance to celebrate. These fans are really passionate and they are very knowledgeable."

Both the Prince and Bowie celebration tours hit the road around two years after each artist's passing. But the Bowie alumni tour stemmed from a Brits Award tribute where his former band members played together for a performance led by Lorde.

A Bowie Celebration has featured a rotating roster of musicians who toured or recorded with the artist, always helmed by Garson. The tour boasts Bernard Fowler, Gabby Moreno, and Sting's son, Joe Sumner as permanent singers, but has had guest appearances from Sting, Evan Rachel Wood, Gavin Rossdale and more.

"We usually start putting a certain amount of dates on sale and then we see how they do. When other promoters and buyers see the show is doing well, then we add more dates," Garson's manager, Mark Adelman, tells Billboard.

Ticket prices for the Bowie Alumni tour have ranged from $33 up to $195 in midsize venues across the country including the 2,000-capacity Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles and the 1,800-capacity Agora Theatre in Cleveland, Ohio. The 2017 date at Terminal 5 in New York grossed nearly $150,000 with roughly 2,000 fans in attendance.

Depending on the market, 4U shows also play in midsize venues such as 20 Monroe Live in Grand Rapids, Mich. and Red Hat Amphitheatre in Raleigh, N.C. with ticket prices ranging from $20 to $85 on average.

"It has been easy to sell. Some markets take a little longer because people don't know what it is. You have to educate them," Adelman adds of the Bowie dates. "We've come back to LA three times already, so now we actually have a fanbase here. Sometimes when it is Madison, Wisconsin it takes a little longer."

Promoters for 4U also stress the importance of testing the markets on their first run. The show sold out its Royal Albert Hall in London show in one weekend, while other markets are continuing to get the word out.

"What we are figuring out on this first leg is, we're identifying markets that get it right. Washington, D.C. got it right. Atlanta got it right," says Gee, who is using data from the first leg to route for 2019. "Figuring out what that true marketing plan is, we're going to take that across the world. This isn't an add-water-and-mix show to sell, from a promoter perspective. Prince isn't there. You can't just advertise to the Prince fans and say come buy tickets," says Gee. "We're really figuring out and being strategic with how this show is marketed because we're so confident in the creative."

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 10 issue of Billboard.