Despite increased security concerns, a battle brewing among some of the biggest venue owners in the world and legal issues in the festival and secondary ticketing markets, the live-music business is again on pace for another record-breaking year.
After swearing 20 years ago they would never tour again, Guns N' Roses boast the top-grossing tour in what has been another record year for the concert business so far, despite fears of market saturation, high-profile festival collapses and terrorist threats. The reunited group's Not in This Lifetime Tour, which began in April 2016, has been packing stadiums from Japan to the United Arab Emirates ever since.
"People love these songs but many haven't had the opportunity to see them live," says the band's agent, Ken Fermaglich, of United Talent Agency, noting that Appetite for Destruction is Spotify's second-most-streamed album of the 1980s, with "Sweet Child O' Mine" having racked up 250 million streams alone. "So it's new fans and people that have been fans of the band for some time. This music brings a lot of people back to their youth in a massive stadium spectacle, with some of the best sound and production on the road right now."
Halfway into 2017, megapromoter Live Nation's total gross, attendance and number of shows are all up between 8 and 10 percent, while AEG Presents has seen its number of shows and total attendance rise 4 percent. The top tours include runs by Coldplay, U2 and Bruce Springsteen, as well as impressive arena jaunts by Justin Bieber, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Eric Church, Billy Joel and this year's sole female among the top 10, Stevie Nicks; all have raked in at least $35 million so far this year. So, with the potential for another record-breaking year on the books, is there a saturation point ahead for the live-music business?
"I don't think we're even close to the point where we can max out," says Live Nation co-president for North American concerts Bob Roux, explaining that dynamic-pricing strategies, coupled with the growing practice of routing tours earlier, are helping promoters avoid the "arms race to get on sale and run into routing situations that cannibalize sales."
But while sales remain strong, there are several dark clouds looming over the industry. Concerns about terrorism persist following the May attack at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, that killed 22 people. The collapse of the supermodel-promoted Bahamas Fyre Festival in April, followed by the bankruptcy of Huka Entertainment's Pemberton Festival in June, spooked agents, investors and fans. The secondary ticketing market has been rocked by its own implosions, beginning with the crash of Scorebig in late 2016 that left millions of ticket orders unfilled and forced many brokers to write off hundreds of thousands in losses. In January, consolidation firm DTI was nearly brought down by investor/board member Joe Meli, whom the FBI accused of operating a $95 million Ponzi scheme. Months later, broker National Event Company went bust after its owner and founder also was accused of operating a Ponzi scheme.
Within the business, there is also concern over intensifying animosity between Live Nation, manager Irving Azoff and Madison Square Garden on one side and AEG and its allies on the other. Though Live Nation and AEG are longtime rivals, the fight has escalated lately: Azoff-MSG's Forum in Los Angeles has increasingly tied plays at the building to dates at New York's Madison Square Garden, with Azoff telling Billboard in April that "the premium MSG nights are going to loyal friends of the company. Playing The Forum -- the obviously better music venue in Los Angeles -- makes you a friend of the company."
In response, AEG announced a new policy making it harder for acts to play its O2 Arena in London if they skip its Staples Center to play The Forum. The fight became even more entrenched when the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., announced it was signing a booking deal with MSG, while Brooklyn's Barclays Center joined forces with AEG-owned Bowery Presents to buy Manhattan club Webster Hall, though Barclays reps insist the building remains neutral.
"I'm worried that ... there's a nastiness engulfing the concert business. Not just with promoters, but with how the agencies are fighting each other," says one high-ranking executive. "I've never seen it this bad before."
So far, though, the "venue wars" have not had much impact on the year's top tours. The four venues in the middle of the battle all appear on the midyear ranking for buildings with capacities of 15,001 or greater. All venues are slightly down from their 2016 grosses with the exception of Madison Square Garden. The New York arena had an 87 percent increase in gross revenue in 2017, growing by $46 million and closing in on the O2 as the highest-grossing arena in the world.
New York is also making headlines in the 10,001- to 15,000-capacity space; the reopening of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum by Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment as part of the NYCB Live Campus has turned the newly renovated facility into the highest-grossing building in the category in North America, and has hosted headline-grabbing shows by Bruno Mars and Billy Joel. As part of its ongoing effort to attract bookings, the coliseum has created special artist quarters and even offers helicopter rides to Manhattan.
Live Nation continues to be the most dominant promoter, grossing more money in the first half of 2017 than the promoters ranked second through eighth combined. The live-music giant was responsible for all or part of seven of the top 10 tours on the road, including U2's The Joshua Tree Tour, which already has sold 2.4 million tickets and is on track to be the biggest trek of the summer.
But indies posted big wins too. Louis Messina and his Messina Group helped country star Eric Church play in front of nearly 1 million fans and break the attendance record at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville in May, for instance. Also charting for the first time in recent memory: Frank Productions Concerts, which partnered with AEG on a majority of Red Hot Chili Peppers dates and is co-promoting Hall & Oates' tour while booking Brantley Gilbert's arena run.
"There's still plenty of opportunity for the independent guys," says Frank Productions president Charlie Goldstone, noting big upcoming shows from Foo Fighters, Ryan Adams/Emmylou Harris and Modest Mouse/Gogol Bordello. "We're staying busy in the rock category."
International touring continues to be a focus of growth, with eight of the top 10 highest-grossing events taking place outside the United States and spread out across Asia, Europe, South America and Mexico.
Rob Beckham, co-head of William Morris Endeavor's Nashville office, says the success of acts like Kenny Rogers abroad has inspired other country artists to look beyond the States for new opportunities. "We've gone from a couple dozen international dates per year to just over 350 shows a year internationally," says Beckham.
Besides security and terrorism, another persistent worry is the specter of fraud, with the collapse of both the Fyre and Pemberton festivals raising concerns about independent promoters' ability to stage shows in an era when major talent agencies are nervous about booking their acts on an event that might flame out.
"Any time you produce a new event, you're going to have to pay more as you prove the concept," says Superfly co-founder Rick Farman, who co-created Outside Lands and Bonnaroo and is developing the inaugural Lost Lakes Festival in Phoenix. "There is still plenty of opportunity to create new events, and many agents want to see these events be successful."
Bottom line: While the boom goes on, promoters can't let their guards down.