Skimpy concert crowds -- Why are audiences failing to attend big shows by Guns N' Roses, Whitney Houston, and Judas Priest?

Want to go see a rock concert? Great. That makes one of you. But don’t blame America’s concert promoters if they don’t believe you: For them, business has never been lousier.

Take Whitney Houston and Steve Winwood — platinum artists, right? Two summer-tour disasters. ”I didn’t get ’em,” gloats one now-relieved promoter. ”I was outbid.” Or former Van Halen singer David Lee Roth and hard-rockers Cinderella — a match made in heaven? Not this year; the tour recently became the latest victim of falling concert attendance and was canceled with just six dates left to go. Even multi-act shows, packaged as a hedge against hard times, don’t necessarily succeed. Operation Rock & Roll, featuring hard- rockers Judas Priest, Alice Cooper, Motörhead, and Metal Church, is ”destroying” some promoters, says one source. Even though overall concert attendance has dropped only 10 percent since last year, some shows have turned into disaster: Whitney Houston, for instance, drew only 31 percent in Austin, Tex., and a shocking 24 percent in Birmingham, Ala.

So what’s the problem? The easy answers, the ones artists, managers, and promoters give most often — the recession, lack of promotion, no tours by superstars like Bruce Springsteen or Michael Jackson, who are still finishing new records — can’t explain the size of the drop. Even one of the summer’s big successes, the Guns N’ Roses tour, played to crowds that sometimes fell below 70 percent of capacity.

Eight of the first 12 Guns N’ Roses shows even managed to lose money for their promoters, which brings up another key detail that nobody disputes. Promoters uniformly agree they’re paying too much for the privilege of presenting concerts by the biggest names. They have to bid high for important acts, then charge more for tickets, because the shows they’re booking cost , increasingly more to produce. ”The price of the band is driven by the cost of competing to have greater production,” notes Alex Hodges, vice president of Nederlander of California, one of the country’s biggest tour promoters. ”Thirteen trucks for an act whose last tour had six trucks….What’s taking precedence here? The music and the true talents and charisma of the artist? Or production?”

Ironically, performers’ fiercest competition may be their own videos. ”With MTV, the public is used to a high intensity of stimuli, of feed me,” says agent John Marx, vice president of contemporary music at talent bookers William Morris. ”When the same viewer then goes out to see a concert, it’s always a little bit of a letdown.”

Nederlander’s Hodges agrees. The prospective audience may be at home, playing video games, listening to albums and tapes, or maybe watching MTV, HBO, or Showtime. And what’s on? ”Whitney Houston’s pretour special,” he says. ”Sting’s special, coming up before his tour’s complete. Paul Simon’s special, coming up before his tour’s complete.”

”They’re gonna see the show,” Hodges adds. ”They’re gonna see it at home.”