x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Rock-band tours are more and more the domain of bigger stars

While behemoths such as U2 and the Rolling Stones continue to sell out arenas, touring is becoming prohibitively expensive for smaller bands.

Bands such as U2 continue to sell out massive arenas around the world, which could be in part to do with the fact that their fans are older and have more disposable cash to buy tickets.
Bands such as U2 continue to sell out massive arenas around the world, which could be in part to do with the fact that their fans are older and have more disposable cash to buy tickets.

It was at a sold-out show in Brazil earlier this month that the Irish rockers U2 broke the record for the highest-grossing tour ever.

Their 360 Degree world tour, beginning in June 2009 and playing to more than three million people in more than 30 cities, comfortably passed the previous record of $558 million (Dh2.05bn) set by The Rolling Stones' Bigger Bang Tour (2005-2007) with more than 20 shows remaining.

No doubt The Rolling Stones will have something to say about this, with a new album to be released next year and rumours of another live jaunt.

But while U2 and Rolling Stones fans, normally older and wealthier, still have the enthusiasm to see their heroes belt out their greatest hits, mid-tier and indie acts are bearing the brunt of a tightening live market. According to the trade magazine Pollstar, sales suffered a 15 per cent drop worldwide from $45.3m in 2009 to $38.3m in 2010.

The crunch was keenly felt in North America with a 12 per cent drop in ticket sales last year.

Despite these figures, average ticket prices rose globally by nearly 4 per cent.

Even established artists such as Christina Aguilera, Rihanna, Limp Bizkit and The Eagles were forced to dump dates from their touring schedules.

The figures also fly in the face of the general industry consensus that until a better legal framework is in place to curb illegal downloading, artists will have to spend more time touring to make ends meet.

Instead, with the increasingly tough economic conditions and growing cynicism towards ticket pricing, even the road is mired with financial potholes.

The British singer-songwriter Imogen Heap unfortunately reached this realisation in the middle of her 2010 world tour.

Tweeting before her club show in Seattle last May, Heap revealed not even her recent Grammy and Ivor Novello awards could ward off the harsh financial realities of touring.

"I just can't afford it, I'm going broke," she wrote.

"So expensive to tour! Just had a rather depressing meeting with tour manager. Record sales low [across the industry] really impacting me."

It is a much brighter outlook when it comes to music festivals, however. The influential Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which ran last weekend, sold out in six days.

This year, the three-day festival, which had more than 30 artists performing, attracted a record audience of 75,000 daily.

Charles Attal, the organiser of the popular American music festivals Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits, said cash-strapped punters were increasingly turning towards festivals as it made economic sense.

"For what they'd pay to see two bands separately, they can see 30 all at once," he told the Wall Street Journal.

Keenly aware of marketing trends, music promoters launched a plethora of packaged tours themed around a particular genre or music era. Last year James Taylor and Carole King, traditionally chart rivals, teamed up for the successful Troubadour Reunion world tour. We also saw the four heavy metal behemoths, Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth, discard old animosities to share the stage together as part of The Big 4 Live tour in Europe.

Boy band fans can also have a slice of the shared action when the New Kids on The Block and The Back Street Boys pair up this year for more than 50 dates across America and Canada, while the R&B stars Bruno Mars and Janelle Monáe are co-headlining a North American tour beginning in May.

While pooling financial resources makes sense for these arena acts, artists down the food chain are harnessing social networking to spread their message at less cost.

In fact it could be this new generation of younger, web-minded musicians who could put the touring market back on track. With a mixture of hard work and tech-savvy attitude, they seem to be bucking the trend by completing longer and more profitable tours. A study released in March by Songkick, a website aggregating hundreds of ticketing outlets to track global concert tours, showed a strong appetite remains for live music despite the reported decline in tour revenue.

Titled The Top 20 Hardest Working Bands of 2010, the study reveals a diverse list of established and indie artists across different genres. In first place are the American pop-punk band Mayday Parade, who managed a staggering 194 tour dates across 71,000 miles. This was followed by the fellow indie groups Caribou with 185, and Surfer Blood playing 183 shows.

By examining the artists' Twitter accounts for the past two years, the study found the top 20 acts (which also include the likes of Lady Gaga and Willie Nelson) tweeted 87 per cent more in 2010 than in 2009.

In releasing the results, the Songkick chief executive Ian Hogarth said social networking had become a sure-fire way to create tour demand in more locations.

"The concert business is increasingly two stories," he said.

"While tours are soft for a lot of established acts, there is real growth happening, especially for artists that are using social media to connect with fans and keep them up to date on when and where to catch their shows." Kevin Baird, the bassist for the Irish indie group Two Door Cinema Club, explained in the study how a simple tweeting competition to promote the band's forthcoming Indonesian tour resulted in a near sell-out Jakarta gig.

The record industry, however, remains unconvinced that social networking is the magic formula to pack venues. Alex Jacob, a spokesman for the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, a London-based lobby group representing 1,400 record companies including Sony Music and EMI, explains that album sales rather than touring remain the key to an artist's longevity.

While Jacob expects future tours by U2, AC/DC and The Rolling Stones to continue to be cash cows, he worries for "the U2 and The Rolling Stones of 20 years' time" who may not have access to such an enthusiastic live following.

"In the United States smaller arenas are having difficulty in filling seats for upcoming rock acts in particular ways they didn't have 20 years ago," he says.

"These upcoming acts will now have difficulty in becoming these international superstars like U2 because they built their reputation on the back of global record sales and massive exposure, which required publicity and marketing across the world. And record companies today can't get a return for that kind of investment, so it becomes even more difficult for these young artists to build that presence."

While the federation pushes for more robust legislation against music piracy, the rising acts that Jacob speaks of continue to find innovative and cost-effective methods to keep that tour bus rolling.

In the case of the UK folk group Mumford and Sons, they ditched the bus altogether and jumped on vintage rail cars on a six-stop American tour this month.

Their odd choice of transportation also extends to performance venues, one of which is a decommissioned steel plant in Chicago.

The American country performer Zac Brown is touring this year with a portable kitchen serving Creole jambalaya and chocolate peanut-butter biscuit pudding during his shows.

After her touring troubles, Imogen Heap decided to be more direct and appeal to fans. She told the BBC she was considering placing a map on her website where fans could request tours in their countries.

"Eventually I will get to you," she said. "But I need to know that you're there for me when I get there."

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