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The Price Is Right: Touring Sector Sees Growth by Finding What Fans Are Willing to Pay

The biggest mistake that StubHub made in recent memory was putting out a year-end list in 2015 saying Taylor Swift's 1989 Tour was its No. 1 seller.

The biggest mistake that StubHub made in recent memory was putting out a year-end list in 2015 saying Taylor Swift’s 1989 Tour was its No. 1 seller.

“When I saw that, I thought, ‘They’re basically bragging about how much money they made off of us,'” says Louis Messina, Swift’s longtime promoter and one of AEG’s biggest earners. That claim by StubHub and other secondary sellers, detailing how quickly they were able to buy up — and mark up — tickets for Swift’s tour, served as the partial impetus for Swift’ s decision in 2018 to price tickets more aggressively and utilize a program like Ticketmaster’s Verified Fan to stump scalpers.

It was a gamble that drew plenty of scrutiny, with many pointing to slow-selling tickets and a lack of sellouts leading up to the tour opener in Glendale, Arizona. But once representatives from State Farm Stadium announced that the first show had sold out and broken an attendance record, the trajectory began to shift. Swift’s Reputation Stadium Tour would close out 2018 as the highest-grossing U.S. tour of all time, selling 2 million tickets worth $266 million.


Add in international dates and Swift grossed $315 million with 2.6 million sold, second only to longtime friend and fellow Messina Touring Group artist Ed Sheeran’s $429 million global gross with 99 reported shows for 4.8 million fans. Messina promoted Sheeran’s 25 U.S. stadium dates, grossing $91.9 million, while promoter Stuart Galbraith handled Sheeran’s international shows. Messina also promoted Kenny Chesney’s highest-grossing tour to date, bringing in $114.3 million from the Trip Around the Sun Tour, plus outings by Blake Shelton, Vance Joy and Tim McGraw & Faith Hill along with special engagements for Eric Church, George Strait and Shawn Mendes. In total, Messina sold 5.2 million tickets to 268 shows worth $670 million in 2018.

“It has just been that kind of year for us,” says Messina. “We had the perfect storm with the perfect artists.”

This was also the first year this decade that an artist appeared twice on the Top 25 Tours chart: JAY-Z’s solo 4:44 Tour ranked 25th, with 30 shows bringing in $45 million, while his On the Run II Tour with Beyoncé is No. 3, with $254 million from 48 concerts.

“Because of the ways tickets are priced and distributed, a lot of veteran artists are seeing some of the highest grosses of their careers,” says Omar Al-Joulani, senior vp touring at Live Nation, who says many artists like JAY-Z are heading into their touring prime after reaching their creative peak. By charging closer to what the fan is willing to pay and exchanging instant sellouts for a steady-as-she-goes sales approach, says Al-Joulani, artists are able to extract higher ticket returns from fewer shows.

Overall, the concert sector had a big jump in revenue for the top 25 tours reported to Billboard Boxscore, with over $3 billion in ticket sales reported this year, an increase of $500 million over 2017 and a 20 percent year-over-year uptick. That number is even higher among the top 10 tours, which are up 25 percent over last year and came within under $3 million of each breaking the $100 million mark, a first for Billboard Boxscore. (At No. 10, Journey and Def Leppard came in a tad short, clocking $97.1 million.)


What’s driving continued growth? While ticket prices are rising and the music industry is improving at pricing the right offer for the right fan, WME head of music Marc Geiger says that “streaming music and video is driving all demand right now,” especially for hip-hop, R&B and the next generation of Latin superstars like Ozuna, Bad Bunny and Maluma.

“Anyone can listen to anything at any time, anywhere, and that has allowed more fans to have relationships with artists,” says Geiger. Couple that with a hyperengaged social media atmosphere and artists’ ability to use streaming info and other data to geolocate their fans, and performers are utilizing a next-generation toolbox for connecting with fans. That can be helpful when booking the early stages of an artist’s touring career, changing how agents examine the touring map: Instead of sticking to geographic regions like the Southwest or Mid-Atlantic, more artists are city-hopping, going from one locale to the next based on the information they’re collecting from reporting tools.

And while stadiums drive the biggest grosses, arenas produce the majority of the business. This year the top 10 stadiums contributed a combined $410 million in ticket sales, while the top 10 arenas did north of $1 billion. Four of the top five arenas on the 2018 venue chart were part of the biggest facility story of the past two years — the venue wars between Madison Square Garden in New York (No. 1) and The Forum in Inglewood, Calif. (No. 3), on one side, and AEG and its Staples Center in Los Angeles (No. 5) and O2 Arena in London (No. 2) on the other. After MSG allegedly began telling artists hoping to play the Garden that they also had to play The Forum (an arrangement Azoff MSG Entertainment chairman Irving Azoff denies explicitly requiring of touring shows), AEG developed its own block-booking policy requiring artists wanting to perform at the O2 in London to play at least one show at Staples Center.

AEG’s policy was challenged by Sharon Osbourne, and after losing an early legal fight, AEG withdrew it. But did it work? Staples Center’s ticketing revenue was up 26 percent over last year, from $63.5 million in 2017 to $80 million in 2018, but total show count was down to 59 concerts in 2018 from 70 in 2017.


The likely reason: Staples Center was able to pull in more high-grossing concerts as a result of the block-booking policy. Big shows like four nights of K-pop superstars BTS displaced some of the less lucrative gigs from the prior year. That resulted in the average ticket price jumping from $85 in 2017 to $120 in 2018 — a 41 percent year-over-year increase. The Forum had even stronger growth, increasing its 2017 ticket revenue of $67.4 million to $115 million in 2018, a leap of 71 percent. Show count for The Forum was also up dramatically year-over-year, rising from 71 shows in 2017 to 104 in 2018, an increase of 46 percent.

2018 was also a watershed year for festivals: As several big-name events shuttered, a new generation of promoters took center stage. Gone this year were Lost Lakes Festival in Phoenix, after an unsuccessful debut in 2017, and the long-running FYF Festival in Los Angeles, which Goldenvoice canceled due to poor ticket sales; 2018 also marked the final run of the long-standing Vans Warped Tour after 25 years. Now, Los Angeles’ festival landscape is being transformed by Insomniac, which partnered with Rolling Loud to bring the hip-hop brand to the West Coast.

Across town, Gary Richards, who pioneered the HARD brand and eventually sold the EDM powerhouse to Live Nation, has joined forces with Randy Phillips at LiveStyle to stabilize some of the company’s existing properties like Electric Zoo Spring Awakening and create new dance-centric events. That includes Richards’ All My Friends Festival, which launched in downtown Los Angeles in June, as well as the inaugural Friendship festival aboard the Celebrity Equinox cruise ship.

Of the latter, Richard says, “We sold it out in 24 hours without announcing a single artist. It’s a sign that people are interested in trying something new. That’s what dance music is all about: breaking new ground and expanding the way we look at the live art form.”