On an October evening in 2016, some 80,000 enthralled concertgoers at Indio, Calif.’s Empire Polo Grounds gazed upward. As Roger Waters churned through “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” onstage, a giant, inflatable swine floated over the crowd. Waters’ performance was an anti-Trump declaration — one he has said he may incorporate into his 2017 Us + Them Tour. But there was another way to look at the scene at the Desert Trip festival: as a fitting summation of the global concert industry in 2016, a business rising high above uncertainty on the ground, with fans (many of them still hungry for classic rock) more than willing to pay for memorable music and theatrics.
“Live music continues to be the engine driving the business, across all genres, demos and venues,” says Rob Light, managing partner for Creative Artists Agency. And though the post-recession years remain a fresh memory — necessitating refined marketing, creative booking and constant re-examinations of pricing dynamics — the global industry (estimated at $25 billion in 2016) is up by nearly every metric, powered by an economic tail wind, a consumer trend toward “experiences” (like Desert Trip) and some of its most popular stars, from Beyoncé to Bruce Springsteen, on the road.
“In general, the market has been stronger than the economy,” says Rich Tullo, who tracks live entertainment as director of research for stock market analysts Albert Fried & Co. “There have been a number of studies that show consumers, especially younger consumers, prefer to spend money on experiences rather than products.”
And as the economy improves, both aging boomers (willing to shell out $1,600 for reserved seats at Desert Trip) and more cost-conscious millennials (who helped sell out Coachella before the lineup was even announced) are driving a festival boom that began pre-recession and, increasingly, proves that rock artists still sell: They accounted for more than half of the top 25 tours in 2016.
“I hear ‘Rock’n’roll is dead’ and it drives me crazy,” says rock fest producer Danny Wimmer. “Maybe it’s just that rock had to become uncool to become cool again.” Light agrees: “Artists who have been around 30-plus years are selling better than ever and drawing in younger fans along with their core audience.”
Both gross box-office revenue and attendance figures reported to Billboard Boxscore increased by more than 30 percent globally in 2016, exceeding $5.5 billion and nearly 74 million, respectively. Those numbers hold up in all areas: Per-show average grosses, a telling barometer for how the business is performing on a nightly basis, are up 25 percent worldwide (43 percent in North America), with average per-show attendance up 30 percent globally (39 percent in North America).
“Against the backdrop of the continuing global demand for live events, Live Nation achieved strong performance across all lines of business,” says Bob Roux, co-president of North American concerts for Live Nation Entertainment, the world’s largest promoter. “Overall, 48 million fans are attending our events in North America, up from 44 million in 2015, and globally, we will reach 70 million fans this year.”
The business is bigger than Live Nation; Marc Geiger, who leads William Morris Endeavor’s music division and calls the current live market “super healthy,” predicts that the market as a whole is set to grow another 50 percent worldwide “at a minimum” from this point onward. Even so, the live sector wasn’t immune to some signs of softness. A half-dozen country music festivals were canceled or never launched, and a few established events, including Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tenn., experienced declines in attendance.
Event producers must remember, warns Light, “that all of the success is driven by the artist-fan connection, and it’s the industry’s job to make tickets accessible, price them correctly, make the experience in the venue first class and not block the ability for the fan and artist to interact.” With the deaths of so many superstar touring acts in 2016, he says, “the industry chain must work to stay focused on building great new artists” who have those kinds of careers.
Still, most observers look at the year’s successes as evidence of more to come. The top three tours — Beyoncé ($256 million), Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band ($255 million) and Coldplay ($221 million) — each easily surpassed 2 million attendees. Adele’s first full-blown arena run became one of the hottest of 2016, raking in $159.2 million. The reunited Guns N’ Roses exceeded expectations, grossing $133.3 million. And Desert Trip itself (a Goldenvoice/AEG Live product) bet on boomer favorites like The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and Waters with an estimated $90 million production investment.
“It definitely seems like there is a runway for growth,” says Tullo, noting that Geiger’s prediction of 50 percent growth feels realistic. “It’s not going to happen over the next two years, but over the next 10 years, 5 percent a year, I can see that.”
“The shared live experience is so ingrained in who we are,” says Light. “And new opportunities, like Desert Trip, help to inspire new creativity.”
Ironically, social and digital media now look like driving forces behind ticket sales in the ongoing boom market, enhancing the way live music is experienced. “Streaming music worldwide [is] fueling music consumption,” says Geiger, who has long touted digital growth’s potential to benefit the live sector, “and, in a trickle down, ticket sales.” As Light notes, streaming makes finding new artists — and, especially, rediscovering old ones — easier. “Then,” he says, “seeing them live becomes part of everyone’s communal need.”