For many artists, it can be hard to say goodbye. But as veteran acts are discovering, it can also be very lucrative. Elton John has the highest-grossing tour at the 2019 midyear mark, according to Billboard Boxscore, so far the most successful in a wave of farewell outings from such acts as Paul Simon, Slayer, KISS, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bob Seger.
The idea of boosting demand by offering one last chance to see a marquee artist goes back decades, but it seems to be getting more popular as more acts from the 1960s and 1970s prepare to retire.
The Rolling Stones, also touring this year, didn’t have to say goodbye to improve ticket sales — they just canceled and rescheduled. Typically, when artists have to move concert dates back a few months, about 10% to 15% of fans request refunds, which decreases ticket prices in the secondary market and in turn undercuts primary-ticket prices. But when Mick Jagger announced he needed a heart valve replacement in April, forcing the band to reschedule its 2019 tour and cancel an appearance at Jazz Fest in New Orleans, less than 2% of fans requested refunds, and the price on the secondary market went up 8%, says Jesse Lawrence, founder/CEO of TicketIQ, a ticketing search and aggregation site.
“It was a significant enough uptick for us to take notice,” says Lawrence, who had a simple explanation for the anomaly: “Fans thought this might be their last chance to see the Stones on tour, and they showed it with their wallets.”
The takeaway: Music fans still spent big on concerts in the first half of 2019, but they’re getting pickier about which artists they’re willing to pay to see. Unlike the midyear 2018 Top 10 Tours chart, where Bruno Mars alone brought in nearly a quarter of its revenue, this year’s chart has no single contemporary artist dominating the top 10, as many of the year’s big shows are expected to tour during the summer months and the second half of the year.
“Most of the big stuff we are working on is coming later this year,” says John Meglen, co-CEO of Concerts West, which is producing tours for Céline Dion and the Stones, and whose parent company is producing the year’s top-grossing midyear tour (John).
Meglen thinks the second half of the year will also highlight two trends pushing the market up: higher ticket prices, as artists try to capture more of the revenue that previously had gone to the secondary market, and more revenue from Asian markets like China, South Korea and Malaysia, driven by a regional venue construction boom.
“We’re not just building venues; we’re building a bridge to Australia and Japan and creating new ways to expand,” says Meglen. “The internet has made our business global, and the numbers bear that out.”
Billboard has made some changes to how it charts the touring year. The midyear reporting period was shortened in 2019 by a little more than a month, from Nov. 1, 2018, to April 30, 2019. Last year’s midyear period ran from Nov. 7, 2017, through June 4, 2018, a little more than seven months. That makes apples-to-apples comparisons difficult for now. Going forward, Billboard will report its midyear numbers for the Nov. 1-April 30 period each year.
The numbers reported to Billboard Boxscore only tell part of the story, since they’re reported voluntarily. While both AEG and Live Nation have been transparent with their concert-gross reporting this year, attitudes about what numbers to make public change constantly. So it’s important to remember that these numbers are as much a statement about which companies report their grosses as they are a snapshot of the live business.
The charts also provide a view of the top-earning venues, promoters and concerts, and generally don’t go deeper than the top 10. For the first time this year, however, Billboard ran an analysis of the top 100 tours of 2019 compared with 2018, finding that the 2019 midyear period was up 18.8% from the top 100 tours in the 2018 midyear period. That’s due to an increase in venues and promoters reporting to Boxscore, allowing for more detailed analysis.
Just look at the top promoters. Live Nation still dominates the chart, and posted 8% growth over last year at the midway point, while AEG Presents had a spike of nearly 89%. Factor in AEG’s purchase of 50% of Frontier Touring in April, which came in fourth this year, and AEG more than doubled its numbers — and closed the gap with Live Nation.
In the arena world, Madison Square Garden in New York jumped ahead of London’s O2 Arena for the No. 1 spot, with a nearly 25% boost in gross earnings, edging out the O2 by $660,000 — a first at the midyear, although the Garden did beat out the O2 at year-end 2018.
For the first time in nearly a decade, grosses for the Top 10 Tours chart actually dropped year-over-year for the same time period — 2019 registered $608.8 million in gross receipts, while 2018 had $635.4 million, a drop of 4.2%. The slight difference is likely the result of one person: Mars, who had an impressive $136 million gross as of midyear 2018.
Beyond Mars and 2019 leader John, the difference between this year and last narrows considerably. Without them, the top 10 tours of 2019 (including Michael Bublé, who got the No. 11 spot this year with a $40 million gross, and John, who nabbed No. 11 in 2018 with $28 million) grossed $548.9 million compared with $528 million in 2018 — an uptick of 4%.
The same thing happens with the average gross and ticket price. Include Mars and John, and the numbers show that tickets for the top 10 tours are up 4% for the year (driven by John’s $144 average price versus $116 for Mars last year), while grosses are down 12%, with Mars averaging $2.3 million per show versus $1.9 million for John. Without them, average grosses for the top 10 are only down 6%. In fact, the closer one gets to the middle of the chart, the higher the average gross climbs.
“It’s ticket pricing and artists asking for money at the on-sale,” says Arthur Fogel, chairman of global music and president of global touring at Live Nation, explaining that artists are pricing tickets higher out of the gate and capturing more of the revenue that previously went to the secondary market.
Pricing the best tickets higher can also allow artists to lower the price of less desirable seats and reduce the average price. Promoters are finding that the strategy leads to fewer tickets on the secondary market, since it’s harder to make a profit on the already high-priced good seats.
It’s a concept Billboard wrote about at the midyear point last year, with one increasingly prevalent new twist: fan and media backlash. The push to drive up prices for the best seats is less noticeable when there are cheaper tickets to offset them. But if an artist is intentionally playing small venues and a low inventory of tickets means they’re all priced at a premium, some fans feel priced out.
Just ask Fogel, who produced Madonna’s Madame X tour, which skipped arenas for theaters, with a lower inventory of seats and higher prices than many seemed to expect. While the tour is anticipated to move the majority of its tickets before kicking off in October, the lack of sellouts has led to some bad press for the Queen of Pop.
“There are some people out there who don’t understand the business and just jump to conclusions,” says Fogel, adding that part of the problem was the media, which fanned the outrage, but also fans who had become used to cheap tickets and quick sellouts.
“When tickets sell out in seconds, all that means is the market shifts to resale sites like StubHub,” says Fogel. “Fans know what artists are worth and they’re willing to pay scalpers what the artists are worth. It’s time to shift the way of thinking so fans can pay artists what they’re worth and cut out the middleman.”