By Diane Toroian
Of the Post-Dispatch
11/28/2001 08:52 PM
Determined to get an upfront view of the supergroup U2, fans with general admission tickets withstood hours of dreary weather and puzzled stares Wednesday outside Savvis Center.
By 7:30 p.m., they were joined by 16,000 concertgoers who paid from $45 to $130 to see the Irish quartet on the last leg of its North American tour.
But the long lines and clapping hands paint a misleading picture of the concert industry. Venues large and small across the country report declining attendance and disappointing revenues. The public's boredom with overexposed artists and its lingering unease with large places certainly have contributed to the downturn. But the soft economy has hit the concert industry in ways that surprise even experts.
"I think the conventional wisdom has been that the concert business is recession-proof. Even in bad times, when people put off buying big-ticket items, they still had a little left over for a concert or dinner out," said Pat Hagin, an industry veteran who manages the Pageant nightclub in the Delmar Loop. "That seems to have changed."
Pollstar, the industry's top trade publication, reports that the first six months of this year saw a 12.3 percent dip in ticket sales for the top 50 touring acts compared with the same period last year - that's a drop of 2 million tickets.
The problem, says Pollstar Editor in Chief Gary Bongiovanni, is not the caliber of the bands touring but the cost of tickets. He noted that the last time America waded into a recession in 1991, a concert ticket cost as much as a good meal or a few martinis. Today, you can buy a plane ticket for less cash. Compare that with 1992, when U2 played Busch Stadium and fans could get in for $30.
"You have the same cast of characters touring, so I don't think you can blame the talent pool," Bongiovanni said. "People still want to be entertained, but concerts are no longer a frivolous expense.
"You don't have to budget for a movie, but a concert can cost three figures and for many, that's not pocket change."
U2 seems to be one of the few acts immune to the trend. The band has sold out every show on this tour except for these final dates. Reuters says the tour could take in $160 million by the time it ends early next month. Savvis Center General Manager Dennis Petrullo said the St. Louis show was 2,000 seats shy of a sellout.
Rock powerhouse Aerosmith has been less successful. The band has sold only 8,000 tickets for its Dec. 11 show - about 4,000 fewer than expected - and ticket sales have been off for a variety of events such as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and Blues hockey.
"When a U2 comes along, their gross revenues are phenomenal," Petrullo said. "Everything else seems to be down. It's just a cyclical business. Some years are great and some are marginal. This year is marginal."
Some observers are not so sure the industry can bounce back. They see escalating ticket costs as a long-term problem. Though fans continue to pay $100, even $200 to see their favorite acts, Bongiovanni says even fanaticism has its limits.
"A lot of ego is involved. Everyone thinks they can get away with it," Bongiovanni said. "They have to see the economy is faltering and make those adjustments."
Already acts such as the Dave Matthews Band and 'N Sync have announced plans to play smaller venues next year. Promoters also expect bands to stage simpler shows or scale back the number of dates they play. Potential tours from the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney may bolster the sagging industry, but Hagin doubts they will repair its structural woes.
"It's a little bit like baseball," Hagin said. "It's time to look at the whole picture."