Billboard declared 1994 the "Year of the Stadium." Then receipts began sinking. Now, 20 years later, the big-venue shows are setting records again in a startling comeback.
Jason Aldean says that when his team first broached the idea of adding stadiums to his tour route in 2013, “I thought they were just talking shit. We were all just drinking a bit too much one night, and that’s something they came up with,” the country artist told Billboard backstage before headlining Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park on July 19. “Then I realized they were serious.”
Perhaps he and his team should do more brainstorming around a bottle. According to Billboard Boxscore statistics, Aldean’s graduation to stadiums has been a lucrative one. On Aug. 15, 2013, he sold out Riverbend Music Center in Cincinnati and took in $667,590 from a sold-out crowd of 20,424. Not even a year later, Aldean’s Great American show grossed more than $2.6 million and attracted 39,196 concertgoers. Even with production expenses of more than $1 million, that’s a clear winner for all parties. Cincinnati wasn’t a fluke either. Aldean grossed $10.2 million more from four additional stadium shows in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. And the benefits appear to extend beyond ticket receipts. When Aldean performed his new single, “Burnin’ It Down,” in Cincinnati, only the second time he had played it live, the crowd’s enthusiastic response to the song foreshadowed its leap from No. 42 to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart dated Aug. 9 -- the biggest vault to the top in the history of the ranking.
Aldean, 37, says “once we did a couple [of stadium shows], we thought, ‘All right, we’re onto something cool here.’ ”
It’s a conclusion that major acts are reaching in surprising numbers. According to Boxscore, this is the best year for stadium shows in two decades. Live Nation, the world’s largest concert promoter, will produce 72 stadium shows -- Aldean’s included -- before the year is out, and other promoters will push that number close to 100. That’s the most since 1994, the “Year of the Stadium,” as Billboard dubbed it then, when the duo of Billy Joel and Elton John, The Eagles, Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones packed almost 9 million fans into 214 North American stadiums. In 2004, that total sank to a low of 46 as concertgoers decided they preferred the acoustics, comfort and intimacy of arenas and music-only sheds, but 10 years later, stadium shows have made a startling comeback and, Billboard estimates, will generate $300 million in 2014, driven by new user-friendly stadiums, more efficient production, improved sound and video systems and a robust touring market that is producing more acts able to fill venues with capacities of 45,000 to 80,000 people. (That’s compared with a maximum of 20,000 in arenas and amphitheaters.)
Bob Roux, co-president of North American concerts for Live Nation, says that more than 3 million fans will see Live Nation stadium shows in 2014, and “every one of our 72 shows will be profitable.”
Aside from iconic venues like Fenway Park in Boston and Wrigley Field in Chicago, most stadiums hosting concert tours weren’t in existence in 1994 and were designed with more comfortable seats and luxury suites and bars, as well as more points of sale for concessions and merchandise. “The stadium experience continues to improve, which is one of the things driving the boom,” says Jeff Apregan, president of industry consulting firm Apregan Entertainment and executive director of Gridiron Stadium Network, a consortium of 10 NFL stadiums that work closely with agents and promoters to procure concerts.
Determining which artists can fill these mega-venues ultimately comes down to demand in a given market, and factors taken into consideration include an artist’s box-office history there, as well as those of similar acts, along with album sales and radio play.
But just because an act can level up to stadiums doesn’t mean it should. The thin margins of touring -- as little as 1 percent of gross for a promoter and no more than 30 percent for the artist -- require that a stadium play make more financial sense than a double- or triple-date appearance at an arena. The non-talent costs of producing a stadium show run $1.2 million to $1.8 million, nearly triple those of an arena show.
“Yes, production is more efficient, but the toys have gotten bigger and more expensive,” says Brad Wavra, senior vp of Live Nation’s North American touring division, who produced stadium runs by ’N Sync and Backstreet Boys in the early 2000s. “We didn’t have giant [high--definition] video back then.”
Staging multiple performances at an arena versus a single stadium show also carries the financial appeal of enabling a tour to reap multiple nights of box office against the costs of only one load-in and load-out. But Live Nation has devised a way to defray those costs by having two artists share production through back-to-back shows at the same venue.
Pricing tickets is another challenge. “The economics of the event drive a certain [gross] that you’ve got to hit,” says Wavra, who explains that artists who play stadiums “want to make $1 million [minimum], and sell T-shirts to 50,000 kids that day, rather than 13,000 to 14,000.”
That base revenue target drives ticket prices. “You know you have $1.5 million in expenses, so that’s $2.5 million before you start, plus tax, plus, plus, plus,” says Wavra. “So you have to be in that $2.8 million-to-$2.9 million range.”
But even with a financial goal line in place, scaling ticket prices to appeal to the largest possible swath of an artist’s fans can be tricky. “It’s a little bit of a Rubik’s Cube,” says Apregan. “You have to look at it on an artist-by-artist basis to come up with the right formula.” The country model calls for conservative pricing and adding more big-name talent to the bill. (Miranda Lambert opened for Aldean, for instance.) Apregan calls Jay Z and Beyonce’s On the Run tour “event” pricing that aims to be inclusive. (Tickets ranged from $40 to $275.) One Direction must take parents into consideration, and for an artist with the enduring appeal of Joel, the challenge is not undercharging for a venerable star.
Joel grossed $4.7 million from a 41,957-ticket sellout at Wrigley Field on July 18, and Blake Shelton grossed $2.7 million from a 40,912-ticket sellout in the same venue the next night. Production configurations account for the difference in capacity, and 30 years of career building accounts for the difference in gross.
As long as there are artists that can sell 40,000 tickets in a market, the stadium-show boom could very well continue, and, says Roux, “Based on the conversations we have going already for next year, it would not surprise me to see us at similar totals in 2015.” Wavra, on the other hand, gives the trend a couple of more years at best. “I don’t think it will be long term,” he says, predicting that the “market leaders will shift gears again” and return to arenas after deciding “they don’t want to mount such a big undertaking.”
In Cincinnati, Aldean tells Billboard, “We may [play stadiums] for two years, we may do it for 10 years, I don’t know.” What he does know, he says, is that some day, “my grandkids will look back at the pictures of us playing stadiums and go, ‘Damn, my grandfather was actually pretty cool.’ ”
This article first appeared in the Aug. 30th issue of Billboard