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Stadium success: but at what cost?

With their high ticket prices and the draw of the biggest names in music, stadium shows have never had it so good. But is their success impacting the rest of the business? James Drury finds out.

One of the big stories of 2023 is the hot stadium summer. In some countries, stadium concerts took place almost every weekend during the warmer months, and there were incredible attendance figures reported, such as 1m people going to concerts in just one weekend in London.

With the opportunity to create eye-popping shows that more fans than ever get to experience, plus eye-popping income, the appeal of a stadium run is obvious. Yet, with higher production costs than an arena run or a festival tour, they’re not for the faint-hearted.

But what effect has this had on the rest of the business? It’s only a rare handful of acts and promoters that work on these blockbuster shows. The majority of the international touring business – and the majority of promoters’ income – is from club, theatre, and arena concerts.

As German promoter Scumeck Sabottka grimly noted last year: “We don’t just live on cake, we live on bread. And all the bread is gone.”

His summary will feel familiar to many promoters around the world. Most countries are dealing with high inflation in some form; consumer spending is under pressure and – as has always been the case – when people are worried about money, they take fewer risks when it comes to seeing live entertainment. So, it’s the established or super-hot names that thrive, while the rest have to work harder than ever to sell tickets.

So, are the stadium shows affecting the rest of the business?

At the time of writing, Pollstar figures show the number-one selling tour in the world for the quarter to 25 September was Taylor Swift – her concerts grossed $756.m. With an average ticket price of $253.56, she had sold almost 3m tickets across 54 shows.

Number two was Beyoncé, whose average ticket price of $198.74 saw her gross reach $390.2m from almost 2m tickets.

Interestingly, the third and fourth highest-grossing tours (Harry Styles and Coldplay, respectively), were each charging an average ticket price almost $100 dollars less than Beyoncé:

$109.01 for Styles and $109.96 for Coldplay. Both acts sold in the region of 2.5m tickets.

The public appetite for these mega events shows no sign of abating. Live Nation’s Q2 2023 results showed attendance at its stadium shows was up 28% on the same period the previous year to a total of 8m fans. The company says the top markets for these mega-shows were Europe and Asia Pacific. For context, Live Nation’s arena dates saw an attendance increase of 19% to 10.7m people, largely in Canada, Asia Pacific, and Latin America.

Are these high ticket prices and higher-than-last-year attendances hitting people’s ability to buy tickets to an arena or club date?

Detlef Kornett is co-CEO of DEAG, which owns promoters and ticketing companies across Europe, including Kilimanjaro Live in the UK; Wizard Promotions and I-Motion in Germany; and CSB Island Entertainment in Denmark. And while his company also promoted stadium dates this year, he says these massive dates not only affected the rest of the business but were also competing for audiences among themselves.

“The smaller the market is, the tougher it gets. Bern, Switzerland, has a million people living in the wider vicinity, but within ten days, Guns N’ Roses, Muse, and Motley Crüe and Def Leppard all played stadium shows. It’s not only an issue in smaller markets. In the UK, the number of stadium shows were at a record level.

“[These concerts mean] the majority of artists are competing with those huge brand-name acts. It’s not just a matter of how big the consumer’s purse is and whether they also can afford to go to a show that might normally sell 5,000-7,000 tickets. It’s also about visibility. Budgets for stadium shows are high, brand recognition is high, market penetration is high, editorial coverage is focussed on the biggest names. So, everyone else is competing with that.

“For some artists who have a steady enough following and have a good enough presence on the web, they won’t be affected by stadium shows. But for acts that don’t have a high enough level of interaction with their fans, it’s a lot harder.”

Filippo Palermo, co-founder and managing partner of Australian independent promoter and festival organiser Untitled Group, says: “One of the most notable effects of these large stadium tours is the diversion of ticket sales and audience attention. When major artists embark on stadium tours, they essentially absorb a portion of the available ticket-buying capacity in the market. Some people who would otherwise attend smaller shows might opt for the spectacle of a stadium tour.”

However, he adds: “I still believe there’s room for coexistence provided the right strategies are in place to cater to different segments of live music audiences.”

And, as AEG Presents France managing director Arnaud Meersseman notes in our market report (see page 18), “There are tentpole events and artists that perform extremely well; there are newer things that perform extremely well; and then there’s that whole middle area where it’s just a bog and things aren’t that great.”

Agency Neil O’Brien Entertainment in London represents acts such as Ocean Colour Scene, UB40, Dionne Warwick, Brand New Heavies, and Joe Bonamassa.

Founder Neil O’Brien says he’s heard reports of the big shows squeezing the middle but says it’s about time the mid-level saw something of a ticket-price change.

“Although the costs of everything is going up and up, people are still going out for entertainment. On one end, ticket prices have gone up disproportionately. It’s the middle that needs to change a bit.”

He says getting creative with bills and marketing is key to success and suggests packaging artists together could be a way of ensuring mid-level artists continue to make money.

Anna-Sophie Mertens, VP of touring at Live Nation UK, tells us she thinks an uptick in prices for mid-level shows is a necessary correction. “The UK at club- and theatre-level has, for the most part, been under-priced in my opinion, so we are seeing a rebalance in this area,” she says.

And it’s not just mid-level acts that are feeling the pinch. Vincent Sagar, director of independent promoter Opus One, wonders if festivals will be affected.

“What we saw this year is many young talents such as Harry Styles and Taylor Swift went from arenas to stadiums without going through festivals first.” He notes that this year, the stadium industry has developed the ability to create a new generation of acts able to play such large audiences.

DEAG’s Kornett says the company analysed the effects of stadium tours on the rest of the industry, seeking to discover how to mitigate their effects. “It felt like there was no logic to what worked and what didn’t do so well. There were bands that for years always held solid and all of a sudden didn’t work. And there were bands that you felt were on the verge of selling half an arena, but they soared, and there’s no explanation for it.

“We did research. We did surveys. We wanted to get to the bottom of it, but there was no science to what worked and what didn’t. It is purely a matter of factors such as whether you went on sale in the same week as a huge show; if you did your marketing push at the same time as a stadium show tried to fill the upper tiers. That’s hard to predict and manage.”

And he says that while 2023 might be an outlier in terms of sheer number of stadium shows, the trend is here to stay, and it’s only going to grow.

“I think we will see more and more stadium shows, as some of the big names managed to get the economics organised in such a way that they fare better doing a stadium show than a festival. If you’re confident your name can sell enough tickets, it has become a fully legitimate alternative to do your own tour rather than tour festivals. Of course, there may be other motivations to play festivals, such as to show a different side of your repertoire, re-engage with an audience you don’t get to usually, and so on. But for some, it’s economics: they have a big show, and they want to give the full experience, which you can’t really do at a festival.

“I don’t think we’ll see as many stadium shows in 2024, but it will remain at a higher level than 2019.”

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