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Big acts become less likely to aim for big venues

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By Rege Behe
Sunday, Dec. 18, 2011

Corporations aren't the only entities downsizing.

This year Motley Crue, Stone Temple Pilots and ZZ Top — formerly headlining acts at arenas or large amphitheaters — performed at medium-sized venues in Pittsburgh.

Welcome to the 21st century, when smaller, more intimate concerts are becoming increasingly prevalent.

"It's kind of the opposite of the way it was in the '70s," says Ed Traversari, formerly a concert promoter in Pittsburgh and now an instructor at Point Park University in the school of business. "At that time there were a lot of shows at the Stanley Theater and the Syria Mosque. All at once, more and more people wanted to go (to concerts), so you had to do shows at the Civic Arena. It kept getting bigger, and you started doing shows at stadiums. Now, it's going the other way."

In Pittsburgh, mid-sized venues have hosted many major acts in the last few years. Bruce Springsteen, with Joe Gruschecky & the Houserockers, has twice played Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland. Ray Davies and Bruce Hornsby performed at the Carnegie Library Music Hall in Munhall. John Mellencamp played Heinz Hall, Downtown. The Stone Temple Pilots played the First Niagara Pavilion in Burgettstown in 2010, then downsized to the Trib Total Media Amphitheatre earlier this year.

But why is the concert industry becoming more compact and leaner• It seems there are many contributing reasons.

Scott Stienecker started promoting concerts in Columbus, Ohio, in the 1980s. In the 1970s and early '80s, he recalls, almost every major city had one radio station that commanded the market, whether it was WMMS-FM in Cleveland or WDVE-FM in Pittsburgh. Those stations dictated tastes, but fans now find music via a multitude of Internet-based sites.

"We only knew what radio stations played for us," says Stienecker, who opened Stage AE on the North Shore in December 2010. "We only knew Cheap Trick and Tom Petty. Now, there's so much access to music. You're sitting next to your buddy and he's into Chip Tha Ripper. And you'll tell him, don't you know Mac Miller• There's so much music that is new, and they always want something tomorrow that's different from today."

The increase of options means more bands are touring. But with a more diffuse audience, it's harder to build a large fan base that enables performers to fill arenas or stadiums.

"Acts are not drawing the numbers like they used to," Traversari says, and he attributes that in part because of a diminution of talent.

"You don't have that same style where you used to get a CD or record and every song was good from top to bottom," Traversari says. "People would go and buy a record and they couldn't wait until Bob Seger or whoever came to town. Now it's 'I'll pick one song from this band, one song from that band.' They get people who come to see them when they come to town, but it's not quite with the superstar status bands used to have."

The superstars, however, still do well. According to Billboard magazine, U2's 360 tour that played Heinz Field in July grossed $293.3 million worldwide from Nov. 1, 2010 through Nov. 8, 2011. Bon Jovi grossed $193 million in the same time period, and two other tours, Take That and Roger Waters, topped the $100 million mark, with Taylor Swift falling just short at $97 million.

Other relatively new acts, including Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Justin Bieber, placed in Billboard's Top 20 list of highest-grossing concerts for the year. But Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the concert industry trade publication Pollstar, is not sure if new talent can build lengthy careers like the Rolling Stones or Bruce Springsteen.

"The question is will they be selling tickets five or 10 years from now," Bongiovanni says. "That's a worrisome thing, because we don't see a lot of evidence of a replacement crop of artists coming along. ... I think the conventional wisdom is that we will see more smaller shows and less of the larger shows at arenas."

Bongiovanni says the downsizing of the concert industry is in part due to some "mistakes that were made in the last few years" when bands booked tours at large venues and were greeted with disappointing returns.

In 2010, tours featuring Rihanna, the Jonas Brothers, Kings of Leon and American Idols Live! canceled concerts, all presumably because of poor ticket sales.

Bands that are savvy, Bongiovanni says, will underplay a market in order to build demand and provide a better show for patrons.

"Is it better to sell out a 2,000-seat theater or go into an arena, even a small arena, and sell 4,000 tickets but it's half empty or two-thirds empty?" Bongiovanni says. "The whole vibe of the show is completely different. People who go to a sold-out show in an auditorium are thinking they're in exclusive company and that they're lucky to be there. Whereas if you're in an arena and even though there might be more people there, looking around at all those empty seats detracts from the experience. Artists recognize that and want to play the right-sized building, even if that means not necessarily reaching for every possible dollar you can get on a tour."

Musicians themselves are increasingly cognizant that the industry is changing. Bret Michaels, the Lyndora, Butler County, native, performs at different-sized venues throughout the year. Most summers, he goes out with his band Poison, usually teaming up with a similar act such as Def Leppard or Motley Crue, for shows at arenas or amphitheaters. Recently, he performed at Adelphia Coliseum in Nashville with Hank Williams Jr., then played a solo gig a few hours later at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge in the same city.

The key, Michaels says, is finding a venue "you feel good at. But whether it's big or small or medium-sized, attack all of them like you're playing Madison Square Garden. Go into every one of those venues trying to make it the best show. I found with Stage AE, indoors it's a great venue for me as solo artist, and outdoors it's a great venue for me with the band."




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