The sound music fans are hearing most of this summer is the -- wanh-wanh! -- sad trombone.
In a flurry within the last few weeks, concert tours have been canceling shows around the country. American Idols Live trimmed seven dates from its original schedule. The reborn Lilith Fair nixed 11 stops throughout the South. Limp Bizkit, Rihanna, Maxwell, even the Jonas Brothers have erased concerts. The Country Throwdown Tour called off shows in Dallas and Houston.
When a country tour tanks in Texas, there's trouble.
The national numbers are, indeed, not encouraging ...
- A report this week from Pollstar, a magazine that covers the live music industry, found that in the first six months of 2010 the combined gross revenue for the top 100 tours in North America was down 17 percent, nearly$200 million, from the same period in 2009.
- That total haul, $965.5 million, was the lowest for the first half of the year since 2005, when gross revenue was $730.9 million.
- The actual number of tickets sold is also down. The top 100 acts sold an average of 6,951 tickets per show, down about 9 percent from 7,639 during the same period in 2009.
Speculation about reasons for the slump ranges from the poor economy -- which until now had not much dented concert receipts -- to higher ticket prices.
The average cost of a concert ticket is actually down a bit: $60.77, compared with last year's $62.57. But it's still 35 percent higher than 10 years ago (and inflation has only gone up 24 percent). The range of ticket prices also has widened. Tickets for Bon Jovi's July 30 stand at Chicago's Soldier Field, for instance, run from $36.50 for nose-bleeds to a $989 VIP ticket.
The reaction of concert promoters in Chicago, though, is, "Slump? What slump?"
Local multi-act festivals, in particular, are so far oblivious to the woes of the rest of the country. This weekend's bill of indie rock at the Pitchfork Music Festival has had little trouble nearly selling out ($40 per day, $90 for all three days). Lollapalooza, likewise, as it has in previous years, sold out its first round of three-day passes before even announcing who was playing there, and regular tickets ($90 per day) are selling well.
"We have been reading a lot of the same press about how the concert business numbers are off. While we have been seeing this across the country it has not currently affected our business," Charles Attal said in a statement from C3 Productions, organizers of next month's Lollapalooza in Chicago and October's Austin City Limits festival in Texas. "Austin City Limits sold out, and Lollapalooza is on target and on the same path as last year."
Mike Reed, director of the Pitchfork Music Festival, reports "great sales" for his annual event in Union Park. The Saturday and Sunday bills are sold out, and Friday's is close. "There's been no slowdown for us at all," Reed said. "For us, we've seen an increase in demand."
To meet that demand, Pitchfork has announced it will make a limited number of extra tickets available for Saturday and Sunday; they go up for grabs at 11 a.m. Thursday only at the on-site box office, 1501 W. Randolph.
Festivals are doing well across the country, in fact. The top-grossing concert thus far this year has been the Coachella music festival in California, which drew 225,000 fans and $21.7 million in mid-April.
Chicago so far hasn't seen many cancellations as the result of poor ticket sales. Only a June 16 concert by jazz pianist Chick Corea was yanked from the Charter One Pavilion because of a quiet box office.
"That show wasn't doing as well as we'd hoped," said Mark Campana, president of Live Nation in Chicago, on Friday. "Our other shows are fine. Dave Matthews just did 75,000 people in Alpine Valley [July 3-4 in East Troy, Wis.], and I think we'll be selling out his Wrigley shows." Matthews' band plays the Cubs ballpark Sept. 17-18; tickets go on sale Saturday.
In June, Live Nation tried to fill more seats by cutting prices, eliminating service fees and offering a few $10 tickets.
Two cash-cow tours are off Chicago's docket along with everywhere else, but for non-sales reasons. The return of U2's world tour was silenced when singer Bono, 50, injured his back during rehearsal. Christina Aguilera had planned to tour in support of her new album, "Bionic," but pushed the whole trek into 2011 "due to scheduling issues."
Many of these struggling tours were booked early in the year, when promoters thought the economy would recover more quickly than it has. "The story of the summer so far is overconfidence," Glenn Peoples, an analyst at Billboard, told NPR last week. "It trickled through what kind of tours were booked, what kind of venues they were booked in and what they were priced."
Who is selling tickets? Some performers with young audiences aren't hurting -- Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Muse, Black Eyed Peas and Jack Johnson are selling well -- but the top-grossing U.S. tours so far in 2010 are Bon Jovi ($52.8 million), James Taylor and Carole King ($41 million), Taylor Swift ($34.2 million), Paul McCartney ($31.6 million) and George Strait ($29.8 million). Worldwide, the champ is AC/DC -- back in the black in 2010 with a whopping $177.5 million.
Pollstar editor Gary Bongiovanni tells USA Today: "There's still a strong appetite for live music if you have the right attraction."