By Jim McCarthy Jun 17, 2010 0 comments

There’s No Such Thing as the “Concert Business”

At the risk of being redundant, I feel it’s important to cover this ground again.

There’s no such thing as the “concert business.”

As you might know, Live Nation recently canceled about 200 shows. (UPDATE:  apparently the number of cancellations is in dispute.  Live Nation says it’s “comparable to past years” and other disagree.  Just FYI.)  This is big stuff, and it’s an indicator that concert tours are possibly in for a long, hot summer.  (And by “hot” I mean they’ll be sweating, not that they’re “hot” in the Paris Hiltonian sense of the word.)  This has led to wailing and gnashing of teeth about the state of the ‘concert business.’  What will the concert business do to adjust to this?  How will the concert business recover?  Lower prices!  No, make the experience better!

Blah, blah, blah.

The first law of economics states that if the price drops for something, there will be more units demanded overall.  True enough.  You can see in any of the literature on customer satisfaction that money spent on improving a customer’s experience leads to an increase in loyalty and satisfaction, especially if you know what you’re doing like the experience designers at Disney.

But all of that, while potentially valuable, misses the bigger point.  As long as a person thinks they’re in the ‘concert business,’ they’re already sunk.

Live music is eternal.  Rock ‘n’ Roll-era concert economics are not.  And remember that for most of the Rock era (since, let’s say, the 60s), concerts were cheap and scarce, designed to sell out fast and make you want to buy the album.  In the last few years, that’s reversed itself, but some of the cultural fundamentals underneath all that have totally changed.

First and probably most powerfully, the cultural primacy of popular music has ended.  You can probably mark the date of death (or at least terminal illness) at about the year 2000, and it coincides completely with the declining cultural power of the baby boomers.  Boomers, you see, lived for music.  I mean, really lived for music.  It was their soundtrack; it expressed their politics; it provided their worldview in many instances.  Boomer-era Rock ‘n’ Roll has even been credited with winning the Cold War and defeating communism.

A Boomer would say “is there anything a great 3 minute record can’t do?”

Interestingly, though, this gooiness about music is not a feeling shared by those before and after them.  Not to say that people don’t love music.  Like I said, that’s eternal.  But the historical blip on the radar screen that was the Boomer attitude toward music has passed.  Younger people, even Gen Xers who aren’t all that young anymore, don’t put music on the throne of their lives the way boomers did.

And the Gen Y and Millenials?  Don’t be fooled by the fact that they’ve got 5000 songs on their ipods.  It’s not the same and they’re still at an age where music carries with it the emotional punch of everything else about growing up.

There’s no law of nature that says the most popular musicians can sell out arenas.  Just because Elton John or the Who rocked people’s faces off at the Hollywood Bowl in ’79 doesn’t mean the latter day equivalent will do that in 2010, or 2015.

In fact, here’s a little thought experiment:  who’s a gigantic rock/pop star under the age of 40?    Not the Flavor of the Month like Ke$ha, but somebody that has a chance of being a viable commercial entity in 5 years? And somebody most people would know, not some niche-y nerd rocker (who might be awesome, don’t get me wrong).

Yeah, there are a few, but it took you a minute, didn’t it?

In 1980, you could have sat there for a half hour rattling off names like Springsteen, The Who, The Stones, The Beatles, Elton John, Billy Joel, Eric Clapton, Carly Simon, James Taylor, Michael Jackson, Led Zeppelin, and so on.  (I only stopped because I got bored with the sentence.)

What you have now is not the ‘concert business’ but a sub-genre of the live entertainment business.  It’s not a question of ‘which star do you like?’ but ‘whether you care at all.’

At one time, the ‘champion’ of the music world was the champion of the whole world.  The biggest rock star was probably the biggest star period, and definitely right up at the top.

Not anymore.

Is this bad news?  If you’re deeply embedded in things as they’ve been with concerts, yes, I’m afraid the news is a little grim.  If you’re not, either because you’re just a fan or because you’ll entertain the possibility of change, the news is what I’d call neutral.  It never did anybody any particular good that Led Zeppelin could drive Rolls Royces into swimming pools because they were so rich.  Except them and the local Rolls Royce dealer, of course.

On the other hand, the life-size scale of music may be a little less exciting.  In compensation, you’ll get a more intimate experience and there will be a lot more music to choose from.  Eventually, the paradigm of mega-shows will collapse, and really, that’s no great loss.  So the big stars will play in 5 to 7 thousand seat houses, which tend to be recently built and have better seats and acoustics.  Sure, the acts like to make more money, but I bet you would too.  They’ll still do fine, or at least some of them will.    Is it really that big of a tragedy if only 100 people worldwide get to live the rockstar lifestyle instead of 500?

So welcome to the new world.  There’s no such thing as the concert business; it’s just a part of the spectrum of live entertainment options for a dramatically empowered consumer with the tendency to put their preferences on shuffle.

There’s still success to be had and innovations to be created, but only if you can convince yourself that something’s changed.  Letting go of what’s already gone is the critical first step to getting to what’s next.

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