August 27, 2009

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The summer of deals
Fans benefit (for now) as regional venues cope with economy
By Michael Witthaus music@hippopress.com

Remember when the concert market behaved like it had Hermes handbags on offer, not Jimmy Buffett seats? Like luxury goods, high-end talent at a premium price seemed recession-proof. The question wasn’t whether fans would pay, but how much.

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the gold mine.

Sir Paul McCartney, usually a sure thing, barely sold out Fenway Park. Aerosmith/Dropkick Murphys struggled to fill the Comcast Center — a hometown gig, no less; hundreds of AC/DC Gillette Stadium tickets were quietly given away.

Recently, Live Nation launched weekly Wednesday specials, with half-price pairs and “all-in” no-service-fee offers at all four of its New England sheds. That promotion, coupled with $5 Web deals from Subway and Citi, flooded the market with cheap tickets, but Live Nation spokesman John Vlautin believes it’s all good.

“The specials have brought in hundreds of thousands of new fans who might not have attended a concert this summer,” he wrote in an e-mail, adding that Live Nation plans to offer the Wednesday bargains indefinitely. “It’s been very positive for music fans who are getting a great deal and for the artists who are playing to more people night in and night out.”

But Chris Lockwood, marketing director at Meadowbrook U.S. Cellular Pavilion in Gilford, is less sanguine.

“No doubt fans are happy, but what’s going to happen next year? It’s definitely not true on the artist side of things,” said Lockwood, who thinks such sales stunts amount to “conditioning their customers to not buy their product.”

“It’s a bad business model,” he said. Meadowbrook is addressing worsening economic conditions differently, Lockwood said. It sent a $3 direct mail coupon in May that’s still being redeemed on a regular basis, and offered a layaway program to help fans on a budget lock in premium seats.

Last-minute blowout sales occasionally happen, usually via a blast to Meadowbrook’s e-mail list. “MTV Sunblock Tour” four-packs sold for more than half off a week before the show. But package deals — show tickets combined with dinner at the on-site “Center Stage” restaurant or a performer “meet and greet” — are preferred.

In a clever co-op, Laconia Savings Bank bought and gave away 500 seats to three slow-moving June Bike Week shows, in exchange for event sponsorship, which usually costs thousands of dollars. “We sold the tickets for service fees only, and the bank got 1,500 new customers,” Lockwood said.

A $99 “Country Boys of Summer” promotion offers lawn seats for Meadowbrook’s final three shows: Big & Rich (Aug. 30), Tim McGraw (Sept. 5) and Alan Jackson (Sept. 26).

Verizon Wireless Arena offers bargains — a batch of $13.99 tickets were sold for the postponed Aug. 24 show with ’tween queen Demi Lovato’s.

Tupelo Music Hall is weathering the economic storm without resorting to fire sales — one of the luxuries of being a small venue, said owner Scott Hayward.

“We’re in a fairly aggressive growth cycle,” reports Hayward, who just announced plans to open a second location in Salisbury, Mass. The beachfront club will seat 800, more than triple the capacity of the Londonderry location.

The recession has had some effect, notes Hayward. “People aren’t buying as many tickets as they used to, but we’re still selling out 70 percent of our shows, and we’re above where we were last year.”

Why? “We’re in a tight niche,” Hayward says simply of the small, BYOB room that caters to serious music fans.  “We get a lot of big names. It’s not hard to sell 240 seats.”

Tupelo does offer a fan loyalty card that includes a waiver of the BYOB fee, but, Hayward said, “that’s not designed to save fans money, it’s for our base” — regulars who are more than willing to pay for advance notice of appearances from the likes of John Hiatt, Paula Cole and Shawn Colvin.

“These shows sell out so fast that if you’re at work, you’ll miss it,” Hayward said.

Tupelo Music Hall Salisbury, due to open in late October or early November, will feature top-level talent — Bruce Hornsby, Indigo Girls, Lyle Lovett, B.B. King — along with Londonderry regulars like Johnny Winter and the Little River Band.

Hayward can guess why he’s succeeding in challenging times.

“It’s not that the bigger rooms are doing anything wrong,” he said. “It’s just a bigger machine to feed.”