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A Million Miles of Music

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Summer is the season when rock & roll gets a sunburn. After long, dim months in airless arenas and smoky clubs, the music finally has a chance to breathe. Concerts are more than just music. The urgency and tension that lie at the core of rock seem less essential on a hot day or warm night. In the summer, a concert — even an indoor show — can be a soundtrack for relaxation. The good times don’t just roll, they flow.

So do the dollars. No precise figures are available, but according to Amusement Business magazine, about one-third of the year’s concert-going dollars (which in 1989 totaled almost $550 million) will be spent between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Last year’s Who concerts, celebrating the band’s 25th anniversary, generated more than $35 million; the Rolling Stones raked in more than $100 million on their Steel Wheels tour (making it the highest-grossing ever). Tour revenues are just part of the summer gold rush. Tours sell albums as well as tickets. ”There’s no substitute for a hot performance,” says Jeffrey Shane, senior director of rock promotion for Capitol Records. On top of that comes money from sales of T-shirts, posters, etc. The average fan at a New Kids on the Block concert spends $10 on Kids stuff, which could translate into more than $500,000 at a major summer show.

Summer 1990 looks to be one of the strongest tour seasons in several years. ”You’ve got a whole roster of superstars on the road,” says Thom Duffy, talent editor of Billboard magazine. Most of the big names are familiar: Madonna, Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac, Bonnie Raitt, Phil Collins. But some headliners are relatively new: Soul II Soul, Milli Vanilli, Janet Jackson, and New Kids on the Block. The three hottest tickets will be Jackson, Madonna, and New Kids (though the latter may not be of much interest unless you’re a young girl — or her parent).

Janet Jackson’s sold-out Rhythm Nation tour kicked off in Miami on March 1 and continues this summer in 20,000-seat indoor arenas like the Forum in Los Angeles, Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, N.Y., and the Spectrum in Philadelphia. Her first-ever solo tour may be prototypical of the ’90s. An elaborately choreographed spectacle with 17 dancers, musicians, and backup singers, it aims to re-create the visual intensity of the videos from her two multiplatinum albums, 1986’s Control and the current Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814.

Most artists are hitting the road to promote just one new album: Phil Collins with his fourth solo effort, . . .But Seriously, Robert Plant with Manic Nirvana (though he’ll also be doing old Led Zeppelin songs), Fleetwood Mac with Behind the Mask (on which the two newest members of the band, singer-guitarists Rick Vito and Billy Burnette, play a much more active role than before), and Anita Baker with Compositions. But some musicians are having a second (or third) excursion to support the same release. The B-52’s couldn’t name this summer’s tour after the album Cosmic Thing because they went on their Cosmic Tour last year. Bonnie Raitt put out Nick of Time a year ago, but that was before she won the four Grammy Awards that gave the album new life.

Nostalgia fans will have several shows to choose from this year, including McCartney and Bowie. On July 8 in Pittsburgh and July 16 in Buffalo, the ’60s will live again when the Grateful Dead and Crosby, Stills & Nash perform together. But no single type of act or style of music will dominate the concert scene. For example, over one long June weekend in Denver there will be major shows by Fleetwood Mac, Midnight Oil, and Janet Jackson. It’s going to be that kind of eclectic summer.

Some tours offer more than the traditional headliner and unknown opener. Among the double-barreled concert attractions for 1990 are Fleetwood Mac with Squeeze, Linda Ronstadt with the Neville Brothers, the B-52’s with Ziggy Marley, and Tracy Chapman with Johnny Clegg & Savuka.

This year, more than ever before, up-and-coming bands are competing to open for major tours. In some cases, record labels for less-established acts reportedly have offered $50,000 in promotional money to the headliner for a chance to play to larger audiences. ”New bands are fighting and clawing over each other,” says Jon Zazula, CEO of Megaforce Records and president of Crazed Management, which represents such bands as Anthrax and Suicidal Tendencies. Sometimes business connections make all the difference. Chuckii Booker is a relatively unknown name, but he’s Janet Jackson’s musical director as well as her opening act. Alannah Myles may be touring with Robert Plant because she has two hit singles and a compatible style of music, but it didn’t hurt that the two artists share a record label and a booking agency.

So far only a couple of the summer’s shows promise something extraordinary. Madonna’s Blond Ambition tour is a nonstop extravaganza for the platinum singer and her nine-person troupe. The theatricality of her production is demonstrated by its often-outrageous costumes, including men’s suits for her and exaggerated brassieres for her male dancers. David Bowie has turned the control of his Sound + Vision concerts over to technology. To coordinate his live act with filmed performance clips, Bowie and his band pace themselves according to an electronic device that can keep every part of the show in sync. He may have wanted this note-for-note perfection because this is, he insists, the last time he’ll perform his older material.

On the other hand, Bowie simply may be giving the audience what it wants: errorless, preprogrammed music. Increasingly, rock and dance-pop artists are using prerecorded vocals and instrumentals on stage. Some, like Sinead O’Connor and Madonna, might use taped bits occasionally for effect or to fill out an arrangement. Others — including Janet Jackson, Milli Vanilli, and New Kids on the Block — are reported to use considerable prerecorded material, especially vocals, to overcome live-performance inadequacies. (Representatives of these artists, however, deny or decline to comment on the rumors.) ”It’s the result of having a generation weaned on MTV versions of concerts, which they expect to have duplicated on stage,” Billboard‘s Duffy says.

For the most part, though, a live concert in 1990 will be just that: a spontaneous, vital, risky performance. Summer is here and the time is right for dancing in the streets, the stadiums, and everywhere in between.

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