Friday, February 22, 2008

Bands find gold mine in concerts

By Ben Rayner Source:

With CD sales down the drain, musicians are spending more and more time making money the only way they still can: on the road

The recording industry might appear a place of never-ending woes these days, but one shouldn't confuse sagging CD sales with the looming death of music altogether.

While a sizable segment of the public apparently no longer wants to pay for its recorded music, the age of downloading could be turning into a golden one for the concert business. Concert-ticket revenues are up, younger acts are touring earlier than they would have a few years ago – often without albums to flog – thanks to the magic of online networking, and live-music venues are so jammed in some cities that artists are finding it tough to weasel a little onstage space for themselves.

"For me and for most musicians these days, we pretty much have one option left to put a career together, which is to tour. And to really make a living, you've got to tour all the time. But if that's becoming the case for everybody, you're going to have every band on the road all the time," Halifax-bred hip-hop MC/producer Rich "Buck 65" Terfry, who handles most of his own touring affairs, recently remarked to me.

"When I was booking the tour I'm currently starting in the U.S., we were having some real problems. We wanted to go into, you know, Albuquerque, New Mexico, during this particular week, but even way in advance there were so many other bands and only so many rooms. And we came to find out that we're in a time right now that's kind of unprecedented in the amount of bands that are out there on the road. So that's going to spread things a little thin."

With rare exceptions, musicians have always made most of their money on the road, anyway – major artists earn 75 per cent of their income from touring, according to Fortune magazine – while usurious record-label contracts and the numerous other professional interests leeching off them kept the dollars earned from album sales to a minimum.

Now, however, there's a growing trend among labels to sign performers to what are known as "360 deals," where they share a stake in management, tour promotion and even merchandising, in addition to recording.

And then there are artists going the other way. Madonna, clearly mindful of where her future lies, left her label of 25 years, Warner Brothers, last October to sign a $120-million (U.S.) contract with concert-promotion company Live Nation (a spin-off of the Clear Channel entertainment conglomerate) covering every aspect of her affairs except publishing for the next 10 years.

Live Nation has no experience releasing records, mind you, but that doesn't seem to matter any more.

On the smaller scale, online word-of-mouth has made it easier for untested, up-and-coming acts to arrive in strange cities to packed houses or, at least, to route their tours around those cities where they're reasonably assured of an audience. The Arctic Monkeys, for instance, were able to largely sell out a tour of North America in 2005, months before their first album was released, simply by circulating their music free for months online.

As a result of factors like these, then, it's starting to feel a little crowded out there.

"In the last two years of touring, I've picked up the rags in every town and counted the number of great bands you can see on any night, and there's at least four or five – in small cities," observes Toronto singer/songwriter Jason Collett.

"Often, you're doing the same route, so you're plagued by the same goddamn band every night. And it's not just the night – if there are four great bands in one night to see, there are 12 great bands in one week to see. And people only have so much money to go out...

"It makes it difficult. But it's got to be a healthy sign."

The "trade-off" that labels have been slow to perceive, says Collett, is that "the more people download, the more people wind up coming to your show," often paying more for concert tickets than they would have for a CD. A lot of those fans, too, will also leave the venue with CDs, vinyl, T-shirts and other tour merchandise purchased directly from the artist.

It does seem foolish to complain of a developing "touring glut" when so much has apparently gone wrong for the music industry since the turn of the millennium.

The concert industry has never been healthier – primary-market ticket sales in Canada and the States went up for the ninth straight year in 2007, according to Pollstar magazine, hitting a record $3.9 billion, surpassing the previous year's tally of $3.6 billion – so musicians and the promoters, venue owners and booking agents who handle their road work are still making a living.

Increased competition for venues during certain times of the year just means a need for more diligent planning on the performers' parts, opines Paul Gourlie, a booking agent with Toronto's Agency Group who handles Bedouin Soundclash, the Trews and the Cancer Bats, among others.

"We have to plan way ahead to do this properly, and you also have to be paying attention to what everybody else is doing out there," he says.

"It's more of a process than just going after certain dates when you're a higher-end artist – you're trying to place holds on certain dates and route things and juggle things.... If you expect to pick up the phone and have a tour a month after you start, you're crazy. You're gonna run into all those holds and bookings and you're not going to get those dates.

"A lot of bands don't really know what they're doing."

In Toronto, at least, we should harbour no fears of any touring glut eating into our concert diet.

With new live venues, such as the recently minted Parkdale haunt Wrongbar, opening up all the time, local promoter and Horseshoe Tavern co-owner Jeff Cohen suspects there's no such thing as "a local limit on venues."

"There's more opening every day. I've never seen so many here," he says. "The competition for acts is fierce.... If the other, traditional areas of the music biz are in decline, live music, here in Toronto, has held firm. If anything, it's on an upswing.

"The only `glut' I notice is that because the live music scene is so healthy here – probably Top 5 in North America – artists often come back too soon, most likely because there's dollars to make here and great audiences, in terms of numbers."

This is good news for fans: Forced to choose between two or three choice gigs on one particularly crowded night, they can at least rest assured that most of the acts will be back within the next six months. (Maybe twice.)

And if touring traffic ever gets too heavy on these shores, enterprising bands and singers could always follow Buck 65's wisdom into uncharted, or at least under-charted, territories.

"I just got back from Iceland. I've been making plans to go into, like, Bulgaria and Slovenia," he says. "I think that's the key for me – I've got to dare to go where no one else dares to go, make a few bucks and a few new friends."

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