Recession or no, music touring pays, Robert Everett-Green, Globe and Mail, Aug 29, 2009

Posted by on 31 August 2009

Against the economy's negative tide, concerts in most musical segments continue to sell well all across the country

The recession bites, but the bands play on, and in many places the tickets are selling better than ever. Just when you might think that Canadians would have good reason to stay home and watch TV, they're streaming out to concerts, club shows and music festivals.

"The business in general is very solid," says Harvey Cohen, director of touring for Union Events, a concert promoter based in Alberta, one of the provinces most shaken by hard economic times. "Our volume is certainly up, the number of shows and number of bands touring is up. We have more shows booked for September than in any month in our history."

The Calgary Folk Music Festival actually did better than ever this year, selling out all tickets for the first time in its 30-year history. "And our tickets sold 10- to 20-per-cent faster than usual," says Kerry Clarke, the festival's artistic director. Prices were the same as last year.

The Calgary Folk Music Festival was sold out for the first time in its 30-year history.
Nationally, the concert business is reinforcing the old adage that when economic news turns gloomy, entertainment becomes more important, not less. The national unemployment rate stands at 8.6 per cent, but Riley O'Connor, chairman of Live Nation Canada, says the country's biggest concert promoter is doing a robust trade.

"There has been a drop, but not to a point where it's hurting," says O'Connor. "1991 was way worse, and severely affected our business."

Live Nation's total number of shows has declined to about 1,400 this year from about 1,600 in 2007, partly because some bands read the headlines and decided not to risk touring, O'Connor says. The caution was largely unnecessary in Canada, he says, because Canadians tend to go to more live cultural events than Americans do.

Against the Grain (ATG), a prominent Toronto club-show promoter, is having a banner year, according to co-owner Jeff Cohen. The company has even bumped up the number of its larger theatre shows at Massey Hall, one of which sold out.

"We've had more success this summer than any other summer we've ever done," says Cohen. "I don't think anybody has a problem with paying $20 to $100 for the bands they want to hear." Most tickets for ATG shows at Lee's Palace and the Horseshoe Tavern, their two main venues, sell for less than $30.

Some outdoor festivals around Toronto have had trouble attracting audiences, Cohen says, noting the Virgin Festival's decision to move downtown from a venue near Barrie because of slow ticket sales. But he says the problem is more likely related to those events' relatively low degree of local identity compared to the strong grass-roots tradition of the western folk festivals.

The softest parts of the concert market may be those with the biggest share of middle-class, middle-aged fans. Cohen says that "adult contemporary" performers such as Michael Bublé appeal to the most worried segment of the concert public - 40- to 60-year-olds with kids and mortgages. "Those are the guys in suits sitting in their offices, thinking, ‘Will I have a job tomorrow?'" Cohen says.

Good concert action is the best news for many performers, who now derive much more of their income from touring. For a band such as Toronto-based Metric, a CD may be more valuable as a lure for the concert experience than as a generator of direct revenue. "CD sales have to be really, really strong to make the kind of money Metric is getting from their live shows," says Lenny Levine, president of Last Gang Records, which released the band's album Fantasies in April and also manages the group.

For bands at a lower level of recognition, recordings are often the engines that drive touring. "Nine out of 10 times, a booking agent will say, ‘Okay, what's going on with the record?'" says Levine.

Ticket resellers appear to have had surprisingly little immediate effect on the concert business, including those who operate on the Internet. Live Nation's O'Connor says he estimates the combined take by all types of resellers (including sidewalk scalpers) to be two per cent or less of total concert revenues.

Those resellers have mostly paid full price for their tickets, O'Connor adds, so even if they fail to resell them all, the musicians and promoters have been paid.

But if online resellers are left with a block of unsold tickets, they're unlikely or unable to hawk them on the sidewalk before the show. A venue that is technically sold out may have empty seats inside, and people outside unable to buy tickets. The venues end up selling fewer hot dogs, pints of beer and T-shirts than they might have if the resellers hadn't been involved, says O'Connor.

TicketMaster's much-reported stake in reseller TicketsNow, and its apparent funnelling of business to TicketsNow for some U.S. shows even when regular-price tickets were available, may have temporarily soured some people on a night of live music. But Last Gang's Levine says it did nothing to quell the desire that feeds the concert business.

"I think fans want to have a piece of the artist," he says. "They want to see them live, they want to buy the T-shirt."