Live Dead

Concert biz endures summer; Clear Channel screws bands

When the announcement went out in late June that this year's Lollapalooza had been canceled, Perry Farrell posted a sad, dramatic, self-aggrandizing, and slightly freaky message on the tour's website about "an influence far more damaging and threatening, as in: 'They are threatening to sue us for damages.' " "I want you to know that I fought for our lives into the final hour," he wrote. Dude: Nobody got killed!

Nonetheless, the collapse of Lollapalooza (thanks to catastrophic ticket sales) is a sign of the ongoing implosion of amphitheater tours. There's nothing intrinsically unworkable about all-day rock shows: Coachella and Bonnaroo were both packed this year. Around the middle of April, though, tickets for all but a few touring artists abruptly stopped selling in numbers promoters are used to. Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera both canceled tours due to injuries that may have been fortuitous; Lollapalooza, though, was the year's first major cancellation that fessed up to the sound of crickets at the box office.

What happened? For one thing, Lollapalooza 2004 wasn't quite aimed at the same college-ish demographic as its successful '90s incarnation—or rather, it was aimed at those same people 10 years later. Half of its headliners could have played at the festival 10 years ago (the Flaming Lips and Sonic Youth actually did). The Lollapaloozas of the '90s always had at least one or two hard rock bands who sold enormous piles of CDs—Tool, Living Color, Pearl Jam. But this year's headliners didn't have a single recent radio hit between them. The graying of Lollapalooza also means its audiences have jobs and kids now; it's not such an attractive prospect to take two days off work to drive to an amphitheater, sit on grass, and slowly roast for nostalgia's sake.

String Cheese Incident, being a jam band, bounced back just fine from Lollapalooza.
photo: C. Taylor Crothers
String Cheese Incident, being a jam band, bounced back just fine from Lollapalooza.

Which leads to the problem with the venues themselves. Generally designed with a high-priced assigned-seating section and a cheaper grassy area far from the stage, amphitheaters have seen their ticket sales drop 35 percent since last year. Jam bands still do well there, and Lollapalooza headliners String Cheese Incident bounced back immediately, scheduling a tour that sold out its first few shows. SCI spokesperson Carrie Lombardi says the business's troubles are "not too discouraging to us—we've spent a lot of time building a community that's seemingly protected from this bigger industry problem."

But pop musicians who get over more on choreography and staging than on live chemistry are ill-suited to amphitheaters, and big-name shows have a reputation for being expensive. According to Pollstar, the price of an average ticket for the top 50 concert attractions has risen from $38.56 to $58.71 in the last five years—not counting ever rising fees charged by agencies like Ticketmaster. Promoters have been experimenting with cut-rate last-minute tickets and one-day fire sales, but that pisses off people who've bought full-price tickets and gets concertgoers out of the habit of reserving their seats early.

As it happens, amphitheaters are a specialty of Clear Channel Entertainment, the live-performance arm of the radio and advertising giant; according to its website, the company owns, operates, and/or exclusively books 47 in the U.S., including seven of the 16 planned Lollapalooza venues. But Clear Channel's got another plan to make money off concertgoers, and it's not about to let anyone stand in its way.

Clear Channel's subsidiary Instant Live announced in early April that it had bought the patent to the process of burning recordings to sell right after a show ends. That was news to other companies that had been doing more or less the same thing, including DiscLive and eMusicLive. (The Mekons have mocked the trend at recent gigs, recording themselves on a cassette deck and auctioning off the "one of a kind" tape to the audience after each song.) It's a fairly broad patent, but if that interpretation holds up, only Instant Live (or its licensees) will be able to sell fans a copy of a show as they leave.

Clear Channel is reportedly already refusing to let DiscLive sell CDs at its venues. And although the jam band moe. is among the few major acts to use Instant Live, the company's not generally so friendly to improvisation. Instant Live's contract obligates bands to submit a set list a week in advance, to agree not to make a concert CD with any other company for six months, and to let Instant Live match any other live-CD offer they get for six months after that. "A band signs something to get a little more money for a show, and all of a sudden they're locked into Clear Channel for up to a year," says David Katznelson of Birdman Recordings. Maybe Perry was right.

 
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