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Concert venues are hurting all over, except in Philadelphia

THE QUARTET OF thirtysomething women chatted happily as they wandered through the lobby of the Susquehanna Bank Center in Camden, talking about the acts they'd see at this year's Lilith women's music festival. But on entering the "shed" a look of horror came over one gal's face. She gazed upon the sea of empty seats and despaired, "Hey, where is everybody?"

After $6 million in renovations, the renamed Dell Music Center has attracted large audiences all summer.
After $6 million in renovations, the renamed Dell Music Center has attracted large audiences all summer.Read more

THE QUARTET OF thirtysomething women chatted happily as they wandered through the lobby of the Susquehanna Bank Center in Camden, talking about the acts they'd see at this year's Lilith women's music festival. But on entering the "shed" a look of horror came over one gal's face. She gazed upon the sea of empty seats and despaired, "Hey, where is everybody?"

Where, indeed?

For some concertgoers - and even more so, some concert promoters - summer 2010 is proving a season of discontent and disappointment.

Lilith, in particularly, has been held up as the poster child for an industry in turmoil. (Maybe show headliner/creator Sarah McLachlan will need to start pitching charity donations for music fests on TV, as she has so successfully done for animal rescue.)

Ten of the 36 originally scheduled shows for this first-in-11-years Lilith were canceled for lack of sales. Some of the biggest and doubtless most expensive acts originally announced as participants - from Kelly Clarkson to Queen Latifah - dropped out of the rotating lineups. Here, nu-soul sensation Janelle Monae mysteriously fell off the program at the 11th hour.

By my nose count, fewer than 5,000 people were floating around the 25,000-capacity, riverside venue July 28. Most were planted, initially, in the really cheap lawn seats costing just $10, if you timed your purchase right.

Also pointing to the weakness of the concert business this summer have been a rash of cancellations of entire tours (Christina Aguilera, Limp Bizkit, Simon & Garfunkel) and select dates by the likes of the Jonas Brothers, Rihanna, this year's "American Idol" crew, and that ostensibly "super" country-rock crossover bill of the Eagles, Dixie Chicks and Keith Urban, which blew off stadium dates here at Citizens Bank Park on June 14 and in Hershey the following night.

An especially gloomy, doomy picture of the usually recessionproof concert business was painted recently by the Wall Street Journal, analyzing the downturn in sales by Live Nation, the world's most dominant concert promoter and order processor through its recently acquired Ticketmaster division. As a publicly traded company, Live Nation has to spill its collective guts every quarter.

The numbers revealed, most recently on Thursday, have not been pretty, with a net loss for the concert division of $34.6 million for the last quarter, ticket sales down 12.6 percent, and projected adjusted operating income for the entire year looking to be down about 10 percent from 2009.

But given the continued weakness of the economy - the No. 1 factor cited by Live Nation for its problems - the real surprise is that many concert attractions are still performing reasonably to very, very well - at least in Philadelphia.

The patient is hardly terminal.

Both a revitalized Mann Center for the Performing Arts and the newly renovated Dell Music Center have scored some major successes this summer. Working in a new partnership with AEG Concerts, the Mann lured 20,000 Deadheads to West Fairmount Park, including "many, who, um, stayed over," said CEO Catherine Cahill, for two nights of the Further tour in July.

Also on the pop side, the Mann did "quite nicely" with Idina Menzel, "who now has many new fans thanks to 'Glee,' " said Cahill.

And just a week ago, underground sensations Arcade Fire scored close to 8,000 ticket sales, with nary an empty (pricey) seat indoors and lots more warm bodies on the terrace and lawn. Not too shabby for a band that never gets played on commercial radio.

Just two nights ago, the municipally-owned Dell scored its first sellout (7,000) of the season with a double bill of Teena Marie and Keith Sweat. The refurbished (see sidebar) East Fairmount Park summer concert facility also notched a big attendance figure (5,231) last month with the Philadelphia Funkfest, top-billed by George Clinton.

And a hot time is expected tonight with War, the Urban Guerilla Orchestra and the Latin Jazz Ensemble, said city Recreation Commissioner Susan Slawson.

For every off night at the Susquehanna (Barenaked Ladies did even worse than Lilith; an overplayed Kings of Leon still had "lots of seats" to sell on Thursday, the eve of show, we heard WMMR's Pierre Robert pumping) there have also been unqualified smashes in Camden.

The season-opening WXTU Country Show, Phish and Dave Matthews each filled the huge venue. Later this week, Jimmy Buffett boats in for two shows, one already a full sellout, the other a few hundred seats shy of going clean.

Yeah, we know.

The Parrothead used to sell out back-to-back nights in literally minutes. But this is 2010.

Need even more proof that the concert business is still largely recessionproof? Check out some of the successes notched of late at the Wells Fargo Center (formerly Wachovia Center), including a 12,000-plus figure for Maxwell and Jill Scott on June 19; two full houses with James Taylor and Carole King in the round on their recent "Troubadour" reunion tour; and another pair - one a complete sellout, the other close to it - with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers just a week or so ago.

The future's looking pretty bright, too, for our South Philly arena, with fast sellouts already notched for Paul McCartney (two nights,) Roger Waters (three nights doing "The Wall") and teen sensation Justin Bieber.

"Philadelphia's such a great music market. It goes back to the infancy of the touring business," noted John Page, chief operating officer of Global Spectrum, the Comcast-Spectacor entity that operates the Wells Fargo Center. "So as tough as the economics are, if it's priced right, people will still come out to see the show."

In conversation after conversation, the high cost of tickets and ticket processing fees keeps coming up. Not to mention the wacky ancillary fees. (Think $25 parking and $13 beers at the Susquehanna Bank Center, the worst offender.)

Marti McGuire of the Dixie Chicks and Court Yard Hounds (the latter a participant in the local Lilith fest) said even she was "shocked" by the $150 and $250 she had to pay for friends' tickets for the six shows the Chicks did pull off with the Eagles and Urban.

Taylor, whose show with King was priced at $39.50 to $125, recently chastised artists and venues that charge a whole lot more to enjoy a show and get a drink. "When you do that, it means they're not going to go to two other concerts that year. That's going to be it for their summer. It's greedy. It's wrong. It's not necessary. People can come out and see us without taking out a small mortgage."

Live Nation executive Irving Azoff tweeted back last week to a complainer that he'd drop the price of tickets when people stop downloading music without paying for it. And in recent years, it's true, the concert business has become the primary profit center for artists who no longer make money off album sales.

To keep all its concert facilities buzzing, Live Nation makes exclusive deals with artists - maybe too many and not always wisely, it now appears - agreeing to huge guarantees. The promoting company promised a reported $400,000 a night for this year's "American Idols" production and $700,000 a night to Tom Petty.

But these deals, essentially giving the artist all the ticket revenue, only work if there's a full house, and Live Nation can make decent money on the food, drink and parking fees.

If attendance drops even just 10 percent, their collective goose gets cooked.

This year, Live Nation has summoned up some schemes to energize the lagging business - offering tickets free of service charges to early buyers, and bargain $10 lawn seats for a limited spell a few weeks before the show, just to put more (thirsty, hungry) bodies in the house.

Now the mega promoters have just come up with a buyer's remorse offer, giving you three days to change your mind and get your money back after making a purchase. And they're talking about standardizing a now-experimental "all-in" ticket that wraps the Ticketmaster processing charge into the advertised price of a seat, rather than socking it to you separately at, say $20 a pop.

Yeah, that's why they call them "Ticketbastards."

But some industry watchers believe those discounted tickets cause as much harm as good, training concertgoers to wait for a bargain deal directly from the promoter or from resellers like

"It's becoming much more of a nail-biter, wait-till-the-last-minute, see how the seven-day weather forecast's looking, then buy your ticket business," said Jesse Lundy of Point Productions, which promotes at the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville and books the talent for the Philadelphia Folk Festival.

While unwilling to share advance sale information about this year's (Aug. 20-22) folk fest near Schwenksville, Lundy said one recent folk festival sold "30 percent of its tickets in the last week, which is really scary."

And the Mann's Cahill agreed that "the walk-up business here has gotten much bigger of late. Arcade Fire sold about 1,000 tickets the night of the show."

To fix what ails the concert business in this still-troubled economy, everybody has to notch down their demands, believes Roy Snyder, longtime manager of the Keswick Theatre.

Promoters "need to learn to say 'no' to the excessive demands from talent managers and booking agents, and the managers need to learn to say 'no, you need to take less money,' to their artist clients. Because they're protective of their 10, 15 percent commissions, these people have been afraid the artists will say, 'You don't have faith in me anymore, I'm going to find new management.'

"But it's time to get real, people."