With Memorial Day weekend now over, we're into the Summer season for entertainment options in Wisconsin, and that often means live music. Not only is there Summerfest and other outdoor music venues in the area, but the Bradley Center also recently announced two shows with a couple of bands that made my ears perk up - the Black Keys (in September) and Pearl Jam (in October).
With this topic in mind, the Journal-Sentinel had a thorough article on Sunday regarding the Bradley Center as a concert destination....or lack thereof in recent years. This is while other venues in the city have seen more people going through the gates to see shows.
Venues were rocking all over town last year. Summerfest attendance increased by 4.3% to 840,356. The Marcus Amphitheater had four ticketed events outside of Summerfest, including a sold-out Mumford & Sons show, and Miller Park hosted concerts for the first time since 2010. Two of them, Kenny Chesney and Paul McCartney, sold out.So what's causing the Bradley Center not to be used by artists on their tours? A recent Rolling Stone article offers a clue, as financially it may better off for bands to do shows at large festivals in front of audiences with numerous musical tastes, instead of headlining a multi-city tour. As an example, Rolling Stone brings up Outkast, who'll be at the Marcus Ampitheatre during Summerfest.
But the number of national live music tours that played the Bradley Center in 2013? Just three: Carrie Underwood,Blake Shelton and the annual holiday season appearance by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. In terms of quantity, it was the arena's poorest performance since 1989, its first full year of operation.
"Generally speaking, 12 to 15 shows at an arena level, that's what I think is midline," said Mark Campana, co-president of North America concerts for Live Nation. "That is way below the midline.
Welcome to the strange economics of the modern rock festival, where every summer, defunct or dormant bands reunite to earn more for a few gigs than they did in years of touring and recording. Outkast, who haven't released so much as a new song in eight years, are the most extreme example yet: Unlike many big festival acts, they're not famous for their live performances. "For the good bands, there's always going to be demand if you're away a long time," says Charles Attal, a partner with C3 Presents, which produces Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits. Outkast's success reflects a new reality: Thanks to huge competition for "event bookings" that sell $300 tickets and even more expensive VIP packages, festivals can afford to pay headliners up to $4 million.And on a related note, the Journal-Sentinel article brings up that festivals are often the only way that many bands can get large crowds to see them on their own. So if anything, the Bradley Center's large size becomes a disadvantage.
All of this is possible because festivals have come to dominate the music industry, with more than 60 slated to take place in the U.S. this year. Fifteen years ago, when Coachella organizers got 25,000 people to see Rage Against the Machine and Beck in the California desert, nobody could have predicted that an event like Las Vegas' Electric Daisy Carnival would draw more than 400,000 people for a single weekend. "Festivals have become a huge part of American culture," says Pasquale Rotella, chief executive of Insomniac, promoter of Electric Daisy, which began as a rave in 1997. "When we first started, it was really foreign – all people could remember was Woodstock. It made it really difficult to explain. That's no longer true."
Festivals have changed the way music is experienced – and released. A fan with a Spotify account and a Bonnaroo ticket can sample hundreds of bands, live or on record, in one weekend. "It's a good time to be a fan, if you just want a piece of everything," says Ben Dickey, manager of indie band Spoon, whose new album coincides with a tour that includes dates at Governors Ball and Shaky Knees this summer. "[Spoon] is going to play to tens of thousands of people at each festival – that's a pretty huge promotional platform for new songs."
"the growth area is not in arenas, but in 5,000 seats or fewer venues," said Gary Witt, executive director of the Pabst Theater Group, which oversees the Pabst Theater, Riverside Theater and Turner Hall Ballroom. Sales grew 40% last year, Witt said.Legitimate question, isn't it? Especially in an age of higher ticket prices for arena shows and many other things for people to spend their time on compared to when the Bradley Center opened 25 years ago?
"The Internet has given people the ability to find music from many places and opened people up to think Bon Jovi isn't the only band in the world."
"My arena-level show business was probably down," [President Fred] Frank [of Madison's Frank Productions] said of 2013. "My small arena business and theater business was way, way up. Would you rather see a favorite band at a 17,000-seat arena or a 2,000-seat intimate theater?"
That being said, would a new Bucks arena have a side benefit of encouraging more artists to show up and do arena shows in Milwaukee? The article brings up that the new basketball arena on the University of Nebraska campus hosted Bon Jovi, Elton John and Jay-Z in the first 3 months it was open, and speculates that a new Bucks arena would have a similar "Honeymoon" interest that could drive some larger-than-usual acts to play the arena. I recall a similar item happening with the Kohl Center in Madison in the first few years it was open, with acts like Aerosmith, Elton John/Billy Joel and Dave Matthews Band (at their late '90s peak) playing. But the KC hasn't hosted a big-time concert in quite a while, and I can't see concerts being a major reason to build (or not build) the new arena in Milwaukee.
In fact, maybe we should understand that with some big-time tours, Milwaukee is simply not a "needed" concert stop. Chicago is 90 miles away, and cities like Madison and the Twin Cities are within a few hours to get people in other parts of the state, so many promoters conclude that Milwaukee-area concert goes can just go to other places instead of bringing shows to them. In the Journal-Sentinel article, Live Nation's Capana describes the thinking behind one such decision.
"I did four nights with Roger Waters at the United Center (in Chicago). The fourth night in the run was supposed to be at the Bradley Center, but it kept selling and selling and selling, so I said, 'Let's go with the 4th night (at United).' The cost of moving the show, taking the chance to sell tickets, it wasn't worth it."So perhaps instead of thinking about having Milwaukee host large arena shows for the cold-weather months that the Marcus Ampitheatre is available, an improvement of the mid-size venues in the Wisconsin Center District could be more useful when it comes to the city wanting to attract artists that draw well. Improvements to the U.S. Cellular arena and/or convention center could be done to make the venue in the 8-to-10,000 seat range, but with modern amenities that some of the older fans of established bands may find desirable (I am including my 39-year-old self in that "older fans" category). Maybe that should be done as the "stage/concert performance" aspect of any downtown arena package.
I applaud the Journal-Sentinel for discussing this aspect of how the Milwaukee area's entertainment dollar is spent, along with where the city fits in the overall live music business scene, because I do think it needs to be considered as part of the ongoing arena issue. I also believe we need to look into how to maximize the ability of Wisconsinites to see top-level musicians, without shooting too big, and possibly missing out on a better situation for both artist and music fan, which is a discussion that goes beyond the arena question.