If you've been following concert announcements, you may have noticed something strange on May 25. Two of the world's most popular acts, U2 and Christina Aguilera, canceled their tours almost simultaneously. While U2 stated that singer Bono will be recovering from back surgery, Aguilera told MTV.com that the show's setup just "felt wrong." This seems like an odd about-face for someone who has a brand-new CD to promote and legions of staffers to plan her stage act.
Folks in the concert industry have another explanation: Live Nation, the promotion company that handles the tours of both Aguilera and U2, merged with Ticketmaster earlier this year, and the company has axed these artists' concerts because sales looked weak. According to a May 25 New York Times article, industry insiders are looking for signs of trouble with other tours promoted by Live Nation, whose roster includes the Eagles and Tom Petty.
Combined with a flimsy economy, the creation of this brand-new behemoth could mean changes in Madison's touring-music scene.
In particular: There might be even fewer Madison concerts by superstars. Bessie Cherry, co-founder of the Forward Music Festival and co-honcho of indie venue the Project Lodge, says the merger could force local music fans to travel to Chicago or Minneapolis to see a band like U2, if parsimonious tour planners deem Madison unprofitable. "I think most people who see a lot of live music have a set budget for it," she says. "If you're driving to Chicago to see a huge act, you're probably not going to see as many shows at the High Noon or the Majestic that month."
Indeed, notes Cherry, new ways of experiencing performances, such as live-streaming events in theaters, via cable or on the web, may be disrupting the live-concert model as a whole. "When you can get a 'live' experience in other ways than buying a [concert] ticket, it might affect turnout and make people like Christina Aguilera think twice about doing a big tour with staging and lights and dancers and an entourage."
But even if big acts do skip Madison, that doesn't mean the local business in touring music is drying up. In fact, more and more acts are competing for Madison concertgoers' dollars. The past decade's explosion of indie labels has led to hordes of artists who don't just record and play in their own cities. They, too, tour the country, competing for music fans' money and devotion.
Tag Evers, founder and owner of True Endeavors, an independent, Madison-based concert promotion company, says a record number of musicians are touring at the moment, primarily to make up for declining CD sales.
"That, combined with the still-weak economy, means it can be more challenging for artists to sell the number of tickets they might have sold in the past," Evers notes. Even so, Darwin Sampson, the Frequency's owner and booker, says booking requests at his downtown rock club have been as strong as ever.
Perhaps more than anything, the merger of Live Nation and Ticketmaster is a cruel reminder that ticket prices for major shows have gotten terribly expensive, and industry consolidation is not likely to lower them.Music lovers may not put up with the trend forever.
"As far as big names go, I think ticket prices are ridiculous," says Sampson. "I see people grousing over paying five bucks for a local show. Imagine how they feel when the nosebleed seats for U2 are $50 or $75. Maybe people are getting sick of that. It seems like it's about time."