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James Taylor and Carole King Craft Season's Hottest Tour
When a James Taylor/Carole King co-headlining Troubadour Reunion tour was announced last winter, the concert industry reacted with the sort of laid-back reserve befitting the two mellow-rock icons. Few predicted that arenas full of smiling, dancing, sometimes weeping baby boomers-and their kids and grandkids-would blow up the box office in a summer that has seen its share of bad news for the touring business.
In an era of production bombast and fleeting popularity, a couple of sexagenarian singer/songwriters with classic songbooks put together a warm and intimate show and ended up with the surprise hit tour of the summer. Loyal fans wanted to be part of this one-time-only event, recession be damned. Not only has the tour grossed a remarkable $58 million, but the good vibes, in '70s parlance, created by the duo's pairing has provided Concord Records with a hit project in King and Taylor's "Live at the Troubadour" CD/DVD (from the 2007 club shows that ultimately spawned the tour), portions of which have become popular, pledge-inducing programming for PBS.
Alex Hodges, COO of Nederlander Concerts and co-promoter of the final show on the tour, says it's a must-see for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the artists' collective body of work. "They have done this for a long time and captured new audiences for decades," he says. "The Troubadour return a couple of years ago set this up in a way that is unequalled. It's a boost for the live event and concert business that needs bright spots."
It makes sense that older music fans would have more discretionary income, but these are times of double-digit unemployment and devastated portfolios. So how much, then, is a memory worth? "In this economy, who has money to plunk down to come see this show?" King wonders. "Yet people are finding the money somehow, and we're so grateful. I think we represent a kind of calm in the storm."
An unrepentant road dog who has, at this stage of his career, become a summer concert tradition for many, Taylor knows what draws fans, and he saw plenty of potential in a tour with King. "Essentially, a tour runs on hits and people's emotional connection with the material," Taylor says. "That's the lifeblood of this thing, how people are emotionally connected to the material that Carole and I are doing, what it means personally in their lives."
Though putting together Taylor, 62, and King, 68-artists whose careers have been intertwined but who had not played live together since the early '70s-looks like a great idea on paper, so do a lot of tour concepts.
"[Taylor's co-manager] Sam Feldman called me last fall and said, 'Don, I think I'm going to put James Taylor and Carole King together and go on tour. What do you think?' " recalls veteran promoter Don Fox of Beaver Productions. "I said, 'I think it will do pretty good.' All of a sudden we went on sale and it was, 'Whoa! This thing is phenomenal.' "
Asked why this tour outperformed its expectations, Feldman, who manages Taylor with Michael Gorfaine, emphasizes the importance of "two of the world's most iconic artists" joining forces. "Carole and James personify a time in music that had a massive emotional impact on the biggest segment of the population," Feldman says.
"It's more than nostalgia for a particular act, or an album or two," Los Angeles Times pop critic Ann Powers says. "It's nostalgia for a moment, when people felt hopeful and there was a lot of possibility. And it's not like going to a Rolling Stones concert, where you feel, 'Wow, in my youth I was so wild, and look at me now, I need a hip replacement.' It's a gentle trip back. It's a hug, not a strut."
SOUNDS LIKE A PLAN
According to Billboard Boxscore, Taylor/King is among the elite tours so far this year, surrounded by stadium-level rock acts like AC/DC and Bon Jovi and ranked neck and neck on the Boxscore charts with the Black Eyed Peas and Taylor Swift. Total ticket sales exceed 700,000, and the total tour gross should end up around $63 million by the time all 58 shows are tallied, according to Taylor's management. The tour has averaged a whopping 95% capacity.
The genesis of the tour dates back decades to the pair's milestone early-'70s shows at Los Angeles' famed Troubadour club, first in November 1970 and then most famously for two weeks in 1971. (The band that backed them then, and backs them today on the current tour, included the legendary assemblage of El Lay studio musicians known as the Section-guitarist Danny Kortchmar, bassist Lee Sklar and drummer Russ Kunkel.)
Taylor and King were already intertwined musically (though never romantically): In 1970 Taylor released "Sweet Baby James" (on which King appears), yielding the massive hit "Fire and Rain" and later notched his first Billboard No. 1 with the King-penned "You've Got a Friend." For her part, King, already a Brill Building super-songwriter, was quickly becoming a top-shelf performer and recording artist, having just released the landmark album "Tapestry," which boasted such hits as "So Far Away," "It's Too Late" and "I Feel the Earth Move."
Those Troubador shows, with those backing musicians, in many ways set both artists off on a string of successes that won them the hearts and minds of their generation. Taylor has remained a hard-touring artist, King less so, but their careers have remained connected in the eyes of fans. Those shows were also a watershed moment for King and Taylor, and it seems the two were intent on recapturing that magic.
"Carole and I would talk over the years about getting back together and doing it again, and when we heard that the Troubadour was going to have a 50th anniversary in 2007, that was our opportunity," Taylor says. "We jumped on that one, and got Russ and Lee and Danny back together. We did that gig, and that gave us the foothold to go forward."
"We were very careful about how we priced the tickets and where and when we went on sale," says Feldman, who worked closely with King's manager, Lorna Guess, and agents Rob Light from Creative Artists Agency (CAA) (Taylor) and Dan Weiner of Paradigm (King) on plotting the tour. "Putting one show only on sale for the Hollywood Bowl to start the buzz proved to be a solid decision. Having the rest of the tour dates come first out of the box in the new year fanned the flames."
While so many are talking about new models and innovative touring deals, the Troubadour Reunion tour is decidedly old school, and not because of the familiar songs performed. Rather than opting for a partnership with one promoter, this tour cut deals individually in each market with a wide range of promoters, many of them independents.
"We purposely did not use one national promoter, as I've always believed that there is a best promoter for the job in each market and, more often than not, that promoter is the promoter of record," Feldman says. "I don't like to change horses unless there is a damn good reason. As it turns out, there were no weaknesses in the campaign. There was Don Fox at Beaver Productions, Live Nation, AEG, Gregg Perloff at Another Planet, Jam Productions, Nederlander and Andy & Bill Concerts. They all did a great job."
Fox adds, "It obviously worked."
After late-March shows in Australia and the Pacific Rim, the tour began in North America on May 7 in Portland, Ore., and runs until the end of this month. One planned May 14 Hollywood Bowl show went up last November and turned into three, and the tour was suddenly a hot property, with large arenas being the primary showplace.
"Management said, 'Let's get the Hollywood Bowl tickets on sale early,' and that's management's world, so we said, 'OK,' " King says. "That was a good instinct on their part, because one show sold out, then two, then three. They said we could add a fourth show, but we felt we should stop while we're ahead."
Taylor says there's a "certain natural progression" to how the tour unfolded. "We decided to go to Australia because Carole and I have had offers before to go to Australia-it was a friendly outpost to hone the show," he says. The instincts were dead on, as the Pacific Rim run produced $15 million in gross and 80,000 tickets sold. "Then the agent came back with the information that the arenas would be best, that it would match the demand for tickets."
King found the idea of playing large arenas like New York's Madison Square Garden (three sellouts) "sort of horrifying, because we perform introspective songs intimately," she says. "Even with the Troubadour band, it was scary to think about how that would play in arenas. And James came up with the wonderful idea of doing it in the round and that made all the difference. It means that nobody, no matter how high up or far away, is more than half an arena away."
The tour played primarily indoors, but worked outdoors as well, blowing out the Hollywood Bowl and the Santa Barbara (Calif.) Bowl, where Nederlander VP Moss Jacobs promoted a sold-out date. "The audience understood the unique nature of it and that it was, perhaps, a once-in-a-lifetime event," Jacobs says.
Despite the large capacities, the tour captures the intimacy that the co-headliners were shooting for. "Carole and I have the sense that we're playing to the audience, but we're also playing to each other," Taylor says. "As it turned out, we needn't have had any worry about who to play to. We've been so overwhelmed by the audience participation, the level of energy they come back with. It's like you count off the first tune and they bear you to the end of the show like a running river."
King says her trepidation was soon gone. "I knew that people would turn out to see us because of our history, and people have told us many times that we are the soundtrack of the lives of a certain generation," she says. "But I wasn't sure that we would deliver. I knew we would deliver the essence of who we are, but I wasn't sure it would translate out as far as it does to every member of the audience. But it does. When James says we play to each other, we do. But the audience is very much a part of what we do. The large group of people becomes a single collective friend."
For most of the show, King plays piano while Taylor plays guitar, backed not only by the Troubadour band but supporting musicians Robbie Kondor (keyboards), Arnold McCuller (vocals), Andrea Zonn (vocals/violin) and Kate Markowitz. The headliners sing together on every song, trade hits and interact with each other, the band and the audience. The bulk of "Tapestry" is included in the set list, as is Taylor's "Greatest Hits," plus King songs made famous by other artists like "Up on the Roof" and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman."
It was King who proposed that the arena setup, a la the Troubadour club, feature some "sort of cafe/onstage seating," as Taylor puts it. "It meant an extra truck out on the road to do that, but that's doable-except that it presented us a real problem of, 'How do we price those tickets? How do we sell them? Who do we invite to be in there?' " Taylor says.
"That's where the lucky accident of my relationship with [Tickets for Charity founder] Jord Poster came in, and Tickets for Charity gave us a great way to handle that. We realized that we'd have to set the ticket price higher than what people were paying on the floor, but we didn't want to set them so high that it would be abusive or so low we'd just be asking for scalpers. What we did was turn them over to Tickets for Charity. They set the price and gave the proceeds over to charity."
Working with Tickets for Charity on the approximately 120 seats per show has an added benefit, in Feldman's view: "This has proven to be quite effective in thwarting scalpers in that we basically structured a secondary ticket market with funds for charities, as opposed to into someone's pocket."
Any tickets not sold through Tickets for Charity-there have been few-go to "the occasional real fan who ordinarily wouldn't have been able to afford that seat but is really stoked to be in it," Taylor says. The Tickets for Charity effort has raised about $1.5 million, and counting.
The tables around the revolving stage give the show a TV studio audience feel and the artists "identifiable faces to play to," according to Taylor. Two cameramen onstage transmit the action to even the most distant seats on eight large video screens. The cameras "never, ever interfere with the audience's enjoyment. All they do is bring more enjoyment to the audience," King says. "So when James and I do our two songs on a stool up front, people say, 'I saw the tears moistening in your eyes at the end of "You Can Close Your Eyes." ' I'm like, 'Oh, my gosh,' but that's how close it is."
Though it doesn't boast any pyro or explosions, the production is more elaborate than either artist is accustomed to. "The most that Carole and I are used to going out with in the past is maybe four trucks and five buses," Taylor says. "[On this tour] we've got nine buses and a dozen trucks. This is really a large production, not by the standards of a Jimmy Buffett stadium tour, or a U2 or a Rolling Stones, but from the point of view of a couple of singer/songwriters like Carole and me."
I'M A STEAMROLLER, BABY
Taylor, who's been a touring staple since the early '70s, has strong feelings about the current state of the concert industry. He finds high ticket prices particularly irksome.
"Carole and I were really clear about pricing. Rob Light, Sam Feldman and Lorna Guess all agreed that we need to be really sane and considerate with our ticket pricing," Taylor says. "What's the matter with a modest return on a ticket price that people can afford? I don't understand why people need $1 million a night to take their guitar out of the case."
That's not to say, given the unique nature of this tour, that the Troubadour Reunion couldn't have charged much more. "When Carole and I come out and do a tour like this, it's sort of once in a lifetime. When this thing ends it's a memory, it's history," Taylor says. "We'll probably come out with some kind of DVD recording because we've been working on that, but this thing will go away. So this could be the kind of thing where you could say, 'OK, we're going to ratchet the ticket prices up to $300-$400 for the best tickets to shoot for the moon.' "
And people would've probably ponied up, Taylor concedes. "But when you do that, it means they're not going to go to two other concerts that year. That's going to be it for their summer," he says. "It's greedy, it's wrong, it's not necessary. People can come out and see us without taking out a second mortgage."
So if the concert industry is slumping this summer, those in charge shouldn't expect sympathy from JT. "It's good that people are pushing back against high ticket prices," he says. "Some of [the pricing] has been really unseemly. I'm glad to see some reality injected into the system. Now we've got Live Nation and Ticketmaster and Irving Azoff's fantastic stable all at one conglomerate. It makes me uneasy," he adds. "Hopefully, that kind of centralization, that kind of corporate expansion, will result in better service for people, but that hasn't been the case in the past.
"The fact that live touring has been bought up more and more by fewer and fewer companies, who buy each other out as well, has actually meant that ticket prices and extra charges and parking [have increased]-if you hitchhike to some of these shows, you still have to pay parking. You're not able to bring your own blanket in, you've got to buy the $5 beer or you're going to go dry. Those things are an insult. They really have started to drive people away, to make the experience so mercenary."
Going to see a concert "is not life or death," Taylor says. "For many years this has been something I've felt really intensely about, that people overcharge, that corporations pull all of the money out of it without investing anything in sound or customer service or bettering the experience. Carole and I are trying to deliver as much as possible to the audience, and there are entities out there who would see that as an opportunity to pull more money out of it. It's time for these guys to wake up and realize that audience satisfaction is really what we're talking about."
Not surprisingly, working with independent promoters on this tour was another idea Taylor supported. "Competition makes for a healthy marketplace," he says. "If there is only one game in town, then the quality of the experience from everybody's point of view will start to disintegrate. We really do like to support independents and whenever possible we have done that."
Beyond the tour, the recorded project from the shows that inspired it has also been a winner. The November 2007 Troubador performances, six shows in three nights, were recorded by Peter Asher and directed and shot by Martyn Atkins for the CD/DVD release.
"As soon as everyone heard and saw the results, there was a sense of inevitability about [a tour] because it was such an amazing event," says Robert Smith, VP of A&R at Concord Music Group and executive producer of the "Live at the Troubadour" CD/DVD.
The CD/DVD was released May 5, the week the U.S. shows began, and the synergy was captured in a way most album/tour projects strive for but don't always reach.
"We began talking about putting out the CD/DVD with both artists and management last year when they were beginning to plan the tour, and as soon as we knew it was going to launch in the U.S. in May we went into overdrive to make sure we could get the package together so we could have an on-sale to coincide with the tour," Smith says. "You always hope for those drivers that occur in the marketplace, not just to launch a project like this, but to sustain it. I can't recall a release so perfectly timed to take advantage of a tour, and general interest from the public."
Portions of the DVD were shown as part of a one-hour PBS pledge drive for the month of June, which "whet the appetite of fans," according to Smith, who says pledges for PBS were "way above expectations."
So far the project has sold 309,000 units, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Of those, 96,000 came from nontraditional retail (digital, Internet, mail order and venue sales), 101,000 came from chains, 14,000 from indie retailers and 98,000 from mass merchants.
"In this economy and record-selling climate, this [project] is doing extraordinarily well," Smith says, "and will continue to do well. This isn't something we put out and hope does well for two months and then we move on. This is a legacy project they've created and it will keep selling. It's too important not to."
It's clear that the executives working on this tour find it rewarding beyond the box-office success. CAA's Light says these shows "remind us all of why we got into this business in the first place," and he credits "two great artists who had a very clear vision, combined with great management and a great co-agent in Dan Weiner."
Weiner credits the headliners and managers and says, "The greatest joys were the glowing calls that I received from folks after the concerts, and for the opportunity to see so many of the shows as an audience member from the first note to the last."
The touring industry is notorious for extending reunions and successful concepts to the point of diminishing returns, but both King and Taylor seem adamant that their July 20 gig at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., will be it for the Troubadour Reunion.
"It's not likely there will ever be another Troubadour Reunion tour," Taylor says, though he notes that a one-off benefit or European tour is conceivable. "It's tempting. When something works there's a great pressure to keep the big ball rolling, but the same reason it was difficult for us to finally get together and do this-it took such an effort, the initial thing at the Troubadour followed by this massive plan-it tends to argue against it ever happening again. Carole and I would be very surprised."
The Troubadour Reunion tour "was a confluence of events and people being together at the right time and place, and it came together very organically," King says. "This wasn't us saying, 'How can we make more money?' Making more money is certainly not something we object to, but it has to come from something we really wanted to do.
"We knew it would be fun. 'Fun' is an understatement-it's joy. Every minute on that stage for every one of us is joy. In order to protect that, one of the things you have to do is say, 'Let's not stay at the ball too long.' "