As the sun began to set on Chicago’s Soldier Field, the positive vibe was palpable as more than 70,000 fans — most of them clutching American Beauty roses — settled in for arguably the most highly-anticipated shows of 2015: the Grateful Dead’s Fare Thee Well 50th anniversary concerts.
Fare Thee Well was the biggest show in a big year for the touring industry, which industry stakeholders say remains robust, buoyed by a healthy economy, popular artists on the road, and an increasingly global marketplace, as well as new media marketing that taps into the power of all three. Add to that a general consumer trend toward the purchase of experiences as opposed to possessions, and these are the best of times for live music.
That July 3-5 Dead run in Chicago generated the biggest Boxscore of the year, with an eye-popping gross of $30.6 million and aggregate attendance of 210,283. Those shows, along with the previous weekend’s take at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., brought the total Fare Thee Well take to $52 million, a reunion that illustrates the vibrant power of community that has driven the concert industry since its inception, and has now re-invigorated it into an estimated $20 billion global juggernaut in the digital age.
In reuniting the surviving members of the Grateful Dead (with the added juice of Phish’s Trey Anastasio replacing the late Jerry Garcia on guitar), FTW producers were able to tap into the sleeping giant that is the Deadhead Nation, and the results are a testament to the esteem the live experience yet holds in music fans’ consciousness.
“The key to Fare Thee Well was that it transcended being a concert,” observes Peter Shapiro of DayGlo Productions, co-producers of FTW with AEG Live’s Madison House division, and the man largely credited with making the shows happen. For Shapiro, the community is what powered the shows, which marked the bands 50th anniversary, to box office gold.
“The inter-mixing and overlapping of so many tribes of people who came from across America to Chicago was huge,” Shapiro tells Billboard. “That doesn’t happen a lot, probably never in this way in a single location, so that’s pretty powerful stuff that Facebook can’t provide. That kind of depth in an experiential, real-life form doesn’t happen enough, so I think when it does it occur, it really has impact.”
Fare Thee Well is the exclamation point on a year that continues a run of success the live business has not seen in years, if ever. Dating back to the end of the Great Slump of 2009/2010, the concert industry remains robust on a wide range of fronts: artist development, revenue generated, international growth, career maximization, the continued health of festivals, and big Boxscores in markets and venues both large and small. Today, concerts represent real entertainment in a digital world, and the synergistic co-existence between the two is not only driving ticket sales, but also enhancing the way live music is experienced as a community.
“When you spend your life tethered to something electronic, the only thing that takes you out of that is community, and live music is the basis of community,” observes Rob Light, managing partner of Creative Artists Agency, which booked major 2015 tours by such acts as One Direction, AC/DC, and Ariana Grande. “Social media and digital allows you to enhance that community experience. As a worldwide culture, people want to share that, and I really believe live music becomes a little more important because of that.”
As ever, the fortunes of the concert industry are driven by who is touring, and the business fielded some of its biggest stars in 2015. Pop sensations One Direction put the caps on one of the biggest two-year runs in history, Taylor Swift (arguably the biggest star on the planet) topped even 1D in 2015, and box office titans including U2, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Kenny Chesney, AC/DC, and Madonna were all on the road this year. Billy Joel’s sold-out run as a “franchise” act at New York’s Madison Square Garden easily would have been the No. 1 Boxscore of 2015 in a “normal” year, taking in $26.3 million from 12 performances within the time frame Boxscore tracked. Swift, whose 1989 tour was the highest-grossing trek of 2015, has seven entries among the Top 25 Boxscores, more than any act.
The Swifties and their age demo are spinning turnstiles worldwide. Rich Tullo, who tracks live entertainment as director of research for Albert Fried & Co., sees a demographic shift as fans of the baby boomer acts that have been the backbone of the industry for more than 30 years start “aging out of going to concerts,” he says. If that is the case, the good news is fans of younger acts, be they Swift, 1D, Nicki Minaj or Ed Sheeran, are taking their place, and acts like Foo Fighters, Pearl Jam, Metallica and Dave Mathews Band are now the legends for their own generations. For all, the sense of community that was the essence of Fare Thee Well’s success is now hyper-charged among all fans, powered by social media, digital marketing, and Web sales channels that are moving the needle in addressing the issue of unsold inventory that has plagued the industry for years.
Marc Geiger, who leads William Morris Endeavor Entertainment’s music division, calls the live business in 2015, “more of the same, plus.” Geiger has always been a vocal proponent of the possibilities that new tech offers the live business, and has long touted that live would benefit from the growth in digital consumption of music. He believes the biggest payoff in this reinvention of the music business is yet to come.
“One day I’m going to talk to you at the end of the year and say, ‘the single biggest thing that happened was that Spotify and all digital music services put concert preference information on who you like and who you’re listening to right in front of you when you’re listening to them,’” vows Geiger. “That is very low-hanging fruit that will probably make the biggest difference of all in terms of ticket-buying and information.”
Another factor coming into play in live music is the continued growth of festivals in North America, mostly powered by the Millennials and Decades generations, who find that varied festival bills match their listening habits. “My generation bought an album and went to the U2 concert,” says Tullo. “Their generation buys a lot of singles, and they want to go to a festival and listen to a lot of one-hit kind of performances.”
The growth of festivals in North America is truly the major story of live music in this millennium, a scene jump-started by independent promoters looking for a way in to an amphitheater-dominated industry in the post-consolidation era, and now a competitive battleground today as Live Nation and AEG Live, the world’s two largest promoters, battle for fest supremacy by acquiring existing events and launching new ones.
As the festival market continues to grow in North America, it begs the question as to whether there is a law of diminishing returns, particularly for destination festivals. “The big-budget, big-ticket A level festivals, [like] Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Coachella, most of them are set,” says Geiger. “I think the boutique niche festivals still have a lot of room for growth.”
AEG Live, which now owns and/or operates some 30 festivals in North America (adding Hangout and Firefly for 2016), and Live Nation (which in 2015 added Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, and ACL Music Fest to its portfolio along with launching three new country fests), are on roughly equal footing in North America with festivals. Internationally, Live Nation dominates the festival business in Europe, and is the overwhelming leader in the international growth of the live business overall.
As a testament to the global nature of the business, 11 of the top 25 Boxscores this year are from countries other than the U.S. Most believe the global touring market will continue to expand, given proper economic conditions. “As we look at next year, I think you’ll see a bit of growth out of Europe and Latin America as these countries recover from their economic situations,” says Tullo, who calls concerts a “leading indicator” for economic health. “I hate to sound Pollyanna-ish, but unless one of these economies goes into a major recession, I don’t think we’re going to see a slowdown in attendance of any significant measure.”
Digital and social takes the mystery of promoting Western artists overseas. “Companies that are really smart are using social media to plan and promote events,” says Tullo. “Say Taylor Swift has a million followers in Argentina, [promoters] are not taking a risk putting her down there for a week. You know she’s got the fans and you know how to contact them.”
Most artists come at the touring career from a global perspective today, but more market opportunities overseas means less time to play stateside, and secondary and tertiary markets in North America often get left out of tour plans. Where major acts 20 years ago might play North America, the U.K. and Europe, “now it’s Australia, New Zealand, China, Southeast Asia, South America,” says Light. “There are only so many days, and that’s why you’re feeling that [lack of shows] in secondaries and smaller markets, because everybody is playing around the world.”
That said, promoters that specialize in taking shows to the secondaries are thriving. Madison, Wis.-based Frank Brothers Productions generated a healthy average of 5-6,000 tickets per show promoting tours by Five Finger Death Punch/Papa Roach and Shinedown/Breaking Benjamin this year, and is looking at extending both into 2016. A Brantley Gilbert tour to start early next year is showing similarly strong results in smaller markets. “We’ve experienced in the last year that it’s the secondary markets that are really moving the tickets for us on these shows,” says Larry Frank, partner in Frank Productions and its affiliates NS2 and C Moore Live. “These markets don’t see as much [live music] as they used to, a lot acts play the same 20-30 markets, so it seems like the public welcomes us with open arms, and they have the money to buy the tickets right now.”
Live Nation, the world’s largest promoter, called its earnings report for Q3, the biggest quarter for live music, the “biggest quarter revenue in the history of the company,” up 10% year-over-year with over 24 million fans attending its shows. With tours like 1D, U2 and Madonna, plus a slate of shows from clubs to stadiums, Live Nation, says it expects more than 500 million fans in 40 countries to attend its events in 2015, and, from an analyst perspective, Tullo says Live Nation reported “great numbers in terms of concerts and attendance.” The nation’s other public live entertainment company, the EDM-centric SFX, “really disappointed in terms of revenue and performance of the business, in my view,” says Tullo, “but in terms of attendance, they’re doing great.” Overall, “there’s a stickiness to the industry right now that I don’t think many of us expected,” Tullo adds.
As for the privately-held AEG, which fielded tours by Shania Twain, the Stones, Eric Church, Ed Sheeran, Chesney, Swift, and others, 2015 will “close out as a record year for AEG Live, with mid-teen percentage increases year-over-year both in revenue and total show counts,” according to Marciano. “Some of this has to do with a shift in consumer preferences to experiences over possessions. Most of the marketing surveys you read today say consumers are spending more against having great experiences than they are acquiring more stuff.”
Though much of media has yet to catch on to this massive shift, touring’s status in the industry is at an all-time high, with the impact of live performance as a conduit connecting fans and bands now topping all other music delivery channels by a wide margin on a variety of metrics. Veterans of the concert industry recall a time when touring was much lower in the hierarchy, far below retail, radio, television and other means of exposure, in terms of building the career and generating revenue. Today, “the inclusion of live in every artist development platform has never been stronger,” says Light. “There isn’t a single record company or manager who, when they have a new artists and they’re laying out the marketing plan, doesn’t put live at the top of the list of how we’re taking the artist to market. That’s obviously great for our business, but speaks volumes as to how important live is to marketing an artist.”