Last summer, concert promoters looked like bathers on a hot beach: hopping from foot to foot, cursing and yelping, and getting burned all over. But this year, they say, it’s gonna be different. Despite the slump of summer ’91, the worst in memory for concerts, several dozen national promoters are gearing up with big acts and hoping to ride a wave of optimism all the way to pay dirt.
What’s the creeping confidence all about? The return of Bruce Springsteen, for one thing. Even promoters who aren’t working with the Boss believe his tour will raise interest in other shows. And, unlike last year, there’s a slew of big-name tours hitting the stadium and arena circuit. Besides Bruce, the road show includes U2, Garth Brooks, Def Leppard, Genesis, The Cure, a hard-rock blockbuster with Metallica, Guns N’ Roses, and Faith No More; a second Lollapalooza tour (with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ice Cube, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden, among others); and the eternal Grateful Dead, one of the few acts that did well last summer.
What went wrong in ’91? Promoters still can’t account for the sorry season and its many out-and-out disasters, like Operation Rock & Roll with Alice Cooper and Judas Priest, or Club MTV with Bell Biv DeVoe. Some cite the recession; others speculate about the fate of live music in the MTV era. Can they avoid a wretched repeat of the summer when the last nine dates of the Sisters of Mercy/Public Enemy tour were canceled because of weak ticket sales? When the multigenre A Gathering of the Tribes played to a crowd of 4,000 in a Costa Mesa, Calif., arena, leaving 18,000 seats empty? Or when such seemingly bankable stars as Steve Winwood and Whitney Houston seemed like box office poison?
Top-heavy with superstars, 1992 seems more secure, yet promoters still worry about the midline acts that dominate the 5,000- to 10,000-seat amphitheaters. How many kids will spend their lifeguard salaries on Wilson Phillips? Will David Byrne without Talking Heads be more like Mick Jagger without the Stones (yawn) or Sting without the Police (yeah!)? Who’ll spend $20 on ancient acronyms like CSN or ELP? The schedule is short on certainties. Says Jack Boyle, head of the Cellar Door concert companies in Fort Lauderdale, ”Promoters in amphitheaters should get down on their knees and thank God for Jimmy Buffett” — another one of the few touring successes last summer.
What makes the season risky, too, are the hefty guarantees promoters pay even to unproven acts. With increased competition, promoters wrestle for power by playing chicken with their bids. ”I hear what promoters are paying for Paula Abdul and it blows my mind,” says manager Cliff Burnstein, whose roster includes hot road acts such as Metallica and Def Leppard. His partner, Peter Mensch, adds in amazement, ”I heard rumors of $150,000 guarantees for Wilson Phillips.”
Didn’t the summer of discontent teach promoters anything? ”Guarantees aren’t any lower this year, even though everybody swore they would be,” Cellar Door’s Boyle says. ”Promoters’ greed never stops.” But Barry Fey, president of the Fey Concert Company in Denver, claims that promoters’ problems aren’t caused by their own selfishness but by the bankbreaking terms of tour contracts. The act can demand as much as 90 percent of the ticket-price profit, says Fey, which is sometimes a greater sum than the set guarantee.
While some agents and managers suspect that promoters exaggerate economic woes to strengthen their negotiating positions, almost everyone agrees that the sluggish economy is a tour killer. Although most amphitheater prices have remained in the $15 range, arena tickets for major shows have gone up to $35, and even $50 for ”Golden Circle” seats. With ticket-agency charges and parking, a concert can easily cost more than $100 per couple, and that’s without a T-shirt or a paper cup of whatever beer has sponsored the show. So if Springsteen comes to town after U2 and Elton John/Eric Clapton, who’ll have any money left?