Does Size Matter?

http://www.musiciansatlas.com/newsletter/jul07/livevenues.asp

TAKING THE PULSE OF THE LIVE MUSIC SCENE

Bigger is not always better. As arenas continue to struggle to find new acts that will fill seats for the next generation, business at clubs and theaters is changing, and for many, booming.

“The business is transitioning,” says Ray Waddell, Billboard’s touring editor. “The time when 20,000-seat amphitheaters and venues are able to [sell-out] 20-25 shows a year is gone.”

With this void comes opportunity and independent promoters are among those taking advantage of the surge.

As noted in a June 7 story in The New York Times, Manhattan-based Bowery Presents has turned into a formidable rival to much bigger national promoters like Live Nation and AEG, even putting on concerts at Madison Square Garden after initially starting with the 250-capacity Mercury Lounge more than a decade ago. Also in New York, Steven Bensusan, the longtime owner of the venerable Blue Note jazz club has opened the 700-capacity HighLine Ballroom.

Beyond the Big Apple, promoters are following suit. In Los Angeles, Spaceland Presents has grown from promoting shows at their popular showcase to owning and booking two other nightspots, the Echo and Echoplex, as well as booking a stage at popular outdoor festival Sunset Junction.

Similarly, Mike Thrasher Presents has expanded from its Portland, Ore. base into the rest of the Northwest and plans to start its own summer series.

Nobody in Particular Presents in Denver, CO is another local promoter raising the roof – now promoting shows from 100-seat clubs to bigger venues like Denver Botanic Gardens and the 1300-capacity Chautauqua Auditorium.

HOUSE QUAKE

Not surprisingly, the major national promoters are not idly standing by as they see arena shows dwindle. In many cases, they are increasing their investments in smaller theatres and clubs.

AEG and Live Nation are building and purchasing more small-to-midsize venues: Live Nation now owns House of Blues and is recreating the vaunted Fillmore brand in at least five markets, including New York, San Francisco, Detroit and Philadelphia.

AEG has the 2,100-capacity Nokia Theatre in Times Square. According to a story in the July 7 issue of Billboard, Live Nation presented more than 6,000 shows in clubs and theaters in North America in 2006. This includes acts of all stripes, from local bands in the smaller venues to established acts in the bigger facilities. However, even the bigger facilities often put local bands in a support slot.

The rest of the live music industry will surely feel tremors as fearless independent promoters reach for larger spaces and territories and corporate giants are forced to graze in smaller markets and venues. What does this mean for the indie artist and others who have a stake in live performances? Legendary east coast promoter, John Scher told the New York Times, “No question, there’s a war. But the only people who benefit from this war are artists and managers and agents.”

HOW WE GOT HERE

As record labels distance themselves from nurturing baby bands, strong independent promoters are more important than ever to a developing artist’s career.

Additionally, more acts are seeing no need to chase a label and are content to develop on their own, leaving them to rely more on the promoter.

Traditionally, regional promoters presented acts in clubs and continued investing in the act as it grew. Promoters risked losing money as they nurtured developing acts banking on the artists’ loyalty as the act climbed the ladder of success into bigger venues.

“If you’re talking about building from local out, the small promoter has a lot to do with that,” Waddell says. He cites such examples as Dave Matthews Band developing along the mid-Atlantic seaboard or Phish in Maine as acts that established a base in their hometown and then grew one step at a time.

However, this all went sideways more than a dozen years ago as regional promoters were purchased by SFX (which sold to Clear Channel, which spun off its concert division, now called Live Nation). With deep pockets and stockholders to appease, their emphasis was on safer, mainstream acts. Additionally, reality shows like “American Idol” and “Nashville Star” created arena tours featuring acts that developed on television instead of through the traditional club system.

Loyalty between artist and fan has also become precarious as radio listeners and music consumers became fans of a song instead of a particular artist.

“Billy Joel, Pink Floyd, they toured on albums and people saw how great those shows were. This group of younger fans, they’re not as invested in the artist,” Waddell says. “They download a song and they move on. It’s very disposable.”

STOOPING TO CONQUER

Despite, or because of these turn of events, many audiences and artists big and small, hope to bond via more intimate performance spaces.

Craving the belly-to-belly experience, now mega acts and emerging artists may be vying for bookings at the same small to mid-size venues. Big name artists, however, can still command high prices and many fans are willing to open their wallets for the experience.

In June, Prince played seven shows at the Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles with the audience limited to 200 per night. But a seat didn’t come cheap. Cost for a pair of tickets, which included dinner prepared by Prince’s chef, was $3121. Similarly, a private school in the tony Hamptons offered five fundraising concerts by such names as Prince, James Taylor and Tom Petty for $15,000. Attendance is capped at 1,000 per show.

Such small room, big-ticket shows may not be the norm yet, but do highlight two interesting trends impacting the current live music scene: name acts playing intimate venues and how much audiences will pay for the live music experience.

Almost every talent buyer, agent or promoter that participated in our recent Atlas Plugged Live Venue poll cited the negative impact high-ticket prices and artist fees have on their business.

Says Tampa, Fla. booking agent, Craig Hankenson of Producers, Inc,: “Many artists are touring elaborate productions which greatly increase the cost of an engagement and increases ticket prices to the public which increases the risk to the promoter. With the increased cost of tickets the audience is able to afford fewer tickets to live performances.”

Ash Street Saloon in Portland, Ore. suggests that artists and agents must be willing to accept less money in soft and tertiary markets. Jeff Kahn at Cyber Cafe West in upstate NY agrees that more flexible pricing is needed: “I am on the side of artists, but there are those that value themselves by number of players (in a band) instead of the number of listeners. Perhaps think long term and book a few gigs over the year at an escalating fee.”

Lower ticket prices have proven effective for Thrasher Presents. Their “Low Dough” shows on Thursdays feature a $5 ticket for national acts like Brian Jonestown Massacre or Eagles of Death Metal; the price is less than half of what a ticket would normally go for. “We’re exposing these artists and since we build the shows, we can put a local artist on them” as opener, Mike Thrasher says. He estimates that up to 90% of the “Low Dough” shows have local artists on the bill.

Similarly, in an effort to fill the club a few years ago, Spaceland started free Monday night residencies. “Mondays started because that was the slowest night of the week and [Spaceland owner] Mitchell [Frank] wanted to give the local bands a platform and give something back to the community,” says Spaceland booker Jennifer Tefft. The residencies have supported many acts, such as Seawolf, who have gone on to sign label deals.

SMALL IS THE NEW BIG

As the independent promoters expand to bigger venues and events, they can bring along acts they have supported from the start and place them in opening slots or side stages.

This trend towards smaller venues has in many ways eliminated the barrier of entry for concert promoters. “Anyone who’s active on the club level is going to have a lot more of a shot [at promoting],” says Waddell. Risking $10,000 or less makes the prospects much more viable than putting $100,000 on the table and being willing to walk away. “You’re not going to lose your house on a show,” he says.

Waddell stresses that while indie promoters may not be able to compete with a national promoter’s deep pockets, they can still thrive by being nimble and more proactive. “They can catch things under the big corporate promoter’s radar; you can’t catch everything when you’re doing thousands of shows,” he says.

Plus, Tefft adds, a number of agents prefer working with a small promoter as opposed to a corporate partner. So Spaceland found when it decided to start branching out. “Agents would find us,” she says. “They wanted to work with us instead of Clear Channel at the time.”

“A lot of the stuff we do is street, underground and lifestyle promotions,” Thrasher says. Similarly, Tefft isn’t above dealing with the smallest minutiae to make a show a hit. “We do all the promotion for all out shows. I’ll send out MP3s to radio stations, I’ll tell press people. I’ve always done that.”

Which promoter to use is usually the agent’s call and often, says Waddell, the local promoter has an advantage. “Agents want to support independent promoters because they want their expertise, their knowledge of their markets.”

Eric Hansen, head of Tree Lawn, a Boston-area based booking agency that handles, among others, Jesse Harris, Sasha Dobson, Al Kooper, Charlie Hunter and the Yellowjackets, agrees. “Although there are definite exceptions, I believe in the cliché that the smaller guys know the music better and know their audience better. They’re hungrier and they have more to prove. All of these things contribute to their doing things more aggressively.”

He also notes that using indie promoters can be more financially advantageous for an act. “HOB and the bigger companies will only pay 10% [o the guarantee] two weeks out, whereas a lot of indie promoters will still do 50% 60 days out. That gives me a lot more confidence in the promoter. It symbolizes their commitment.”

Also indie promoters often find their niche among the jostling. Thrasher says there are four main promoters in Portland, Ore., including his company, but they have all carved out areas for themselves. “We’re geared towards a younger audience, teenagers and our average fan is in the early 20s.” And, when appropriate, his company co-promotes with AEG and Double Tee. But Live Nation’s purchase of HOB has affected him negatively. “We used to co- promote with HOB, but not so much with Live Nation,” he says. “We get the vibe they aren’t interested.”

CLUBS UNDER PRESSURE

Some markets and venues seem to be thriving, which ultimately is good for artists.

“If you have enough lead time, you can have your pick of clubs,” says Hansen. “I’m booking a lot of singer/songwriters and literally, in most markets there’s five-to-10 possible venues. The possibilities are way bigger than they used to be.” He says since many deals at that level are comparable, the decision usually comes down to if the artist had a positive experience at the club before and other factors including the club’s location in town.

“There’s way more competition now in terms of clubs,” agrees Spaceland’s Tefft. “On the east side [of Los Angeles] in particular. For a long time, Spaceland was it,” she says before reeling off names of clubs that have been born in its wake such as Tangier and Bordello.

Similarly, Thrasher sees a booming club scene catering to many musical niches. For example, even though sales of rap music have dropped off precipitously, Thrasher says underground Hip-Hop is doing very well in clubs.

Yet not every venue or market is experiencing this boom. Responses to our recent poll revealed that U.S. & international bookers are growing more cautious about trying out new acts; and original music and touring bands aren’t drawing crowds.

D. Dumais of the Milestone Agency in Dallas has noticed that many U.S. venues are reducing their music nights and budgets, or are closing altogether. Several markets, she says, are moving away from original music and keeping customers happy with cover bands and tribute acts. To overcome talent buyers’ reluctance to book new acts, she arranges gig swaps with local bands and encourages touring bands to accept “pay your rent gigs’’ to get their foot in the door.

June Lehman of The Circle Agency books Americana, Blues, Country and Folk artists throughout the U.S., Australia and Europe. Her sense is that many live music venues are struggling. To keep her artists working, she is booking more non-traditional venues, seeking private events and pairing two artists on one tour.

Mike Hofbauer of Garfinkels Nightclub in Whistler, B.C. sees clubs in his resort town booking more DJs and themed events instead of original live acts. The Mercury Lounge in Toronto however, switched from DJs to live music a year ago and business is booming. According to booker Sara Ainslie, adding more beer and properly promoting quality acts has been a successful strategy.

Says Brian Chambers of The Boobie Trap Bar in Topeka, Kansas, “While The Boobie Trap Bar is doing the best it has in 15 years of business, our live music is down to 2-3 shows a week – it was 5-6 shows a year ago. The music fans that support the bar are not willing to shell out $5 for bands they have never heard of. Very few touring bands get much reaction out of the Topeka market.

Melinda Newman is a Los Angeles-based music journalist who writes for the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, Associated Press, the Hollywood Reporter and many other outlets. She was formerly Billboard’s West Coast Bureau Chief/Deputy Editor. She can be reached at melindanewman@ca.rr.com.

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