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Even With Sold-Out Concerts, No-Shows Are a Big Problem for Venues

Billboard explains why low attendance most affects venues, even when tickets are selling well.

The concert industry was expecting a full-scale recovery in 2022, but persistent fears about COVID-19 have led to high no-show rates that disproportionately impact venues. So while live music may be back across the country, low attendance still has many venues hurting.

Prior to the pandemic, the average no-show rate — meaning the percentage of ticket buyers who don’t attend an event — averaged around 5%. But now, “sagging consumer confidence is causing national no-show rates as high as 50%,” Raeanne Presley, former mayor of Branson, Mo., and co-owner of the city’s Presley’s Theater, told the House of Representatives Small Business Committee during a Jan. 18 hearing. This is having a “devastating” impact, said Presley, who serves on the board of directors for her local chapter of the National Independent Venue Association, “because most of our venue members rely on in-house spending to pay core bills.”

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More than any other sector of the touring industry, venues bear the brunt of high no-show rates because of how they make money from concerts. Artists and promoters generate the bulk of their income before the performance from advance ticket sales. After production costs are deducted, the artist and promoter split the ticket revenue; the artist typically receives 85%, and the promoter gets the remaining 15%. Artists also profit from merchandise sales, of which they often must pay a 5% to 20% cut to the venue. On average, an artist will make at least 85% of their concert revenue from tickets and the rest from merch. While high no-show rates do negatively affect merch sales, most artists and promoters go into a concert knowing how much they will make each night. (For smaller shows, the venue typically acts as the promoter as well.)

It’s the opposite for venues, which often make at least 65% of their revenue during the concert from food and beverage sales, parking and their cut of merch sales. The remainder of their income generally comes from fees attached to tickets, rent charged to the promoter or artist and sponsorship money. That reliance on in-person spending leaves venues far more vulnerable. According to Billboard’s own analysis, a 5% drop in attendance equals a 7% drop in revenue for a venue, but only a .4% drop for artists.

No Show Graph

Venues like Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Ore., or the nearby Edgefield, both owned and operated by restaurant, pub and venue company McMenamins, are averaging 30% no-show rates during the current pandemic surge, says the company’s musical director, Jimi Biron. That’s equivalent to a 42% drop in revenue for his venues, but only a 2.1% drop for artists

“Thankfully, people are spending more going out that they did prior to the pandemic,” he says. “But if I’m making 10% more per head but attendance is down 30%, we’re still down significantly.”

“Psyko” Stephen Chilton with the Rebel Lounge in Phoenix, where some dates have seen as much as 50% of the audience not attend, says, “It’s almost impossible to predict which events will have high no-show rates and which won’t be affected.” His team was especially concerned about January’s 8123 Fest hosted by the popular local band The Maine “because two-thirds of attendees lived out of state and were expected to fly in” for the event. Those fears turned out to be unwarranted, and the concert was well attended, illustrating how hard it is to predict when fans will show and making advance planning almost impossible. Chilton and other venue managers say they often don’t know whether a concert is going to have a high no-show rate until an hour or two after it has started.

Trying to create certainty around attendance will become increasingly important as inflation rises, Presley said during her testimony, noting that the costs of goods and services at her venue have increased in the last year, while hiring has been more difficult in the current environment. The ongoing labor shortage has already made filling bartender and waitress positions harder, Chilton says, and having to send staff home early because sales are down due to a high no-show rate for the evening makes these employees difficult to retain.

Venues must also compete for bookings and will negotiate waiving rental charges and sharing ticket fees to attract top talent. In the past, the trade-off made sense — but venues may wind up regretting deals they made when they were feeling more optimistic months ago and lose a competitive edge if they’re reluctant to make them now. While the hardship falls primarily on venues, the no-show problem could become a no-sales problem if fans simply stop buying tickets in advance due to long-term fears about the spread of COVID-19, says Chilton.

“We don’t know where this is going,” he notes. “It’s not a clean end to the pandemic like we had hoped, but a long, messy end. The best we can do is stay flexible and try to adapt to any new challenges the pandemic brings.”