With Touring Halted, Midyear Boxscore Charts Provide a Snapshot of an Industry in Crisis

Sir Elton John
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Sir Elton John performs onstage at Madison Square Garden on March 5, 2019 in New York City.

There's one word that best summarizes the 2020 midyear touring charts: zero. That’s how much money the concert industry has generated since mid-March, when the world’s two largest concert promoters halted touring. It’s also how much promoters, venues and artists are forecast to make through the end of the year.

Three quarters with zero revenue will be devastating for the live-music business, but the impact isn’t fully visible on the current midyear charts due to the delayed reporting window -- Billboard’s midyear period covers Nov. 1, 2019, to April 30, 2020. Nearly all touring shows were pulled off the road on March 14 because of the coronavirus, meaning the midyear charts include six weeks with zero ticket sales, with most venues showing a year-over-year drop around 20% to 25%. If these charts had been calculated according to calendar year, it would have been far worse.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. 2020 was on track to be the best touring year in history, one that would have beat 2019, which itself was a record year. Early ticket-buying data shows consumer spending was on track to hit an all-time high, with more bands and artists than ever competing for fans’ dollars. In fact, the top five tours at the midpoint — Elton John’s Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour, Céline Dion’s Courage Tour and jaunts by U2, Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Post Malone — were outperforming last year’s top five tours at midpoint by over $10 million combined, even though 2020’s midyear reporting period was shorter than 2019’s.

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The last six weeks of the midyear report are generally much more profitable than the winter months, when there are fewer shows on the road due to the holidays and inclement weather. But April marks the transition between spring and summer, as well as when two of the largest festivals in North America — Coachella and Stagecoach — usually take place; the media attention they drum up generally corresponds to an increase in ticket sales for shows later in the summer.

“April is a momentum month — the weather is starting to improve, and a lot of artists schedule some of their big stadium shows in the spring,” says Louis Messina of Messina Touring Group, which promoted Kenny Chesney’s rescheduled stadium tour. Instead, the biggest concerts are in a state of suspended animation. John had another six weeks of touring scheduled in North America, along with six weeks in the United Kingdom and Ireland that had originally been slated for September but have now been moved to October 2021. Dion pushed 28 of her European shows — about 40% of her tour, with an estimated gross of $30 million to $35 million — to the following year.

Meanwhile, Tool postponed nearly half of its 2020 tour, which was on track to generate $33 million, and the Jonas Brothers canceled their Las Vegas residency. The Eagles, Dead & Company, Ariana Grande, Maroon 5 and Backstreet Boys all canceled the remaining dates of their tours. Others — like reunion outings from Rage Against the Machine and My Chemical Romance; big arena runs for Billie Eilish, Harry Styles and Sturgill Simpson; and a series of one-off special engagements by Taylor Swift — were estimated to gross $1.3 million to $1.5 million per show.

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“There was definitely a sense of optimism going into 2020 that ticket sales would push incrementally higher one more time,” says agent Jarred Arfa of Artist Group International, whose clients include Billy Joel, Metallica and Rod Stewart. While most growth in the concert market now occurs overseas, he says there was the expectation “that with the economy going strong and ticket prices increasing, the business would push a little harder and we’d all have another record year. But now it’s clear that is not going to happen.”

Arfa knows the impact of COVID-19 all too well: He contracted the virus earlier this year and self-isolated for weeks away from his family while recovering. He said he’s worried about the financial toll of the pandemic, which will take years to repair -- and lead to an unprecedented default on the billions of dollars spent designing, constructing and financing venues built over the last decade. Even worse, of course, is the human toll, which is already being felt: 75% to 90% of the staff of most touring companies is either furloughed or facing layoffs. Many older, higher-paid touring executives and small business owners are facing the prospect of never returning to the workforce.

“Our survival as independent operators is at stake,” says Nadia Prescher of Madison House, a Colorado boutique booking agency that has signed on as a founding member of the National Independent Talent Organization, one of several independent advocacy groups and 501(c)(6) nonprofit associations lobbying Congress for federal aid. One of its most immediate goals is securing the passage of the RESTART Act, which would cover six months of payroll, benefits and fixed operating expenses for businesses that have taken a substantial revenue hit during the pandemic.

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That would help most businesses get through the end of the year, although it’s unclear when concerts and live events will be able to return. Most live-entertainment executives believe a large portion of the population will need to be vaccinated before there’s a return to normalcy. When vaccine producer Moderna announced on July 15 that phase-one clinical trials of its mRNA vaccine had succeeded, several live-entertainment stocks, including Live Nation’s, surged by nearly 20%.

But until that time, venues and festival sites will sit dormant. There’s a very high likelihood that the numbers reported now at midyear will look the same on the year-end charts, especially for venues that will experience little to no activity from much smaller events like drive-in concerts. One silver lining: The majority of tickets sold for postponed shows have not been refunded, and many shows that were set for 2020 will happen one day. But they won’t count toward this year’s charts.

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This article originally appeared in the July 25, 2020 issue of Billboard.