Everyone in the music industry knew 1991 was a bad year for the pop concert business, with a repressed economy and few superstar pop acts out on the road. Now they know just how bad.
Pollstar, the Fresno-based trade publication that tracks concert business in North America, will report in its year-end issue Monday that gross ticket revenues were down at least 25% from last year's estimated record high of $1.1 billion.
In 1991, only two kinds of acts showed impressive strength throughout the year: the Grateful Dead and country stars.
Thanks to its fiercely loyal following of Deadheads, the Dead has parlayed the free-form concert traditions it began in the '60s San Francisco hippie world into one of the most consistent money-makers in rock concert history. The group tops this year's roster with a gross of $34.7 million from 76 concerts in 27 cities. That's an impressive figure when compared to the No. 2 act, ZZ Top, which needed 106 shows to gross $24.7 million.
And for the first time in Pollstar's history, three country acts were in the Top 10: the Judds, whose touted "farewell" tour finished third with $22.7 million for 126 shows, country breakthrough Garth Brooks in ninth place with $17 million for 111 shows and Clint Black in 10th place with $15.2 million for 100 shows.
But only the top five acts this year would have registered high enough grosses to qualify for the 1990 list of the top 10 grossers. The 1990 crop was headed by the New Kids on the Block's $74.1 million, the second-biggest-grossing tour ever behind the Rolling Stones' 1989 "Steel Wheels" North America tour, which took in $98 million.
The Dead's figures this year were less than half that of the New Kids' last year. With those grosses, the band would have placed No. 4 last year, where it actually finished in 1990, behind the New Kids, Billy Joel and Paul McCartney.
"The economy has to be the major player," said Gary Bongiovanni, Pollstar editor in chief. "It's impacted not just the concert business, but the entertainment business in general. And in 1991 we didn't have a Pink Floyd or Paul McCartney or Bruce Springsteen or Rolling Stones to energize the market."
Several tours that could have had an impact started too late in the year. Guns N' Roses still managed to come in sixth, with $20.4 million in only 43 concerts, figures that would be pace-setters if projected over a whole year. Other late-starting successes include Van Halen, Paula Abdul and Metallica, all of which are likely candidates for the 1992 Top 10. Also expected in 1992 are a number of acts with strong past track records, including U2, Genesis, Bryan Adams, Dire Straits and possibly Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen.
Even so, Brian Murphy, president of Avalon Attractions, Southern California's largest concert promotion firm, says he is only "cautiously optimistic" about 1992.
"I'm confident about Guns N' Roses, confident about U2 and Metallica and Van Halen," he said. "And the Cure will be a home run. Their base just keeps getting stronger. And if Michael Jackson decides to go out next year, I think he'll enjoy tremendous success regardless of whether his album sells 7 million or 50 million. He is a huge live draw."
Where Murphy is concerned is with acts whose primary appeal is to the thirtysomething generation, an audience burdened by busy lives and multiple financial responsibilities.
"Dire Straits is a big question mark simply because they've been away for a long time, and that audience is the one that scares me," Murphy said. "They almost have to see an ad or something and look at each other and say we have to go. If they don't do that, they're not going to go. It has to be an overwhelming desire to see it for them to make the sacrifices they must make to see a concert these days."
Promoters tried many things to boost business in 1991 with little success. One intriguing idea was packaging several acts from different genres to try to combine audiences. Of those, only the Lollapalooza tour, featuring such "alternative" acts as Jane's Addiction, Nine Inch Nails and rapper Ice-T. In contrast, the "Gathering of the Tribes," without a solid headliner, was a bomb, ultimately playing only three shows rather than the originally planned 16.
Even attempts at packaging several more-related acts on bills were generally flops. Only an R&B; bill of Bell Biv DeVoe, Johnny Gill and Keith Sweat made the top 10. In contrast the "Operation Rock 'n' Roll" tour featuring Alice Cooper and Judas Priest, another bill of David Lee Roth and Cinderella and the Club MTV dance-pop tour--despite also featuring Bell Biv DeVoe--were all on a list of the year's least successful tours released recently by the new North American Concert Promoters Assn.
Bongiovanni said there are lessons to be learned from some of the year's few successes. They came not so much from the Dead--whose year-in, year-out ability to sell concert tickets regardless of the band's recording success is an anomaly--or the country acts, who make their money through playing a lot of dates. Instead, a strategy for success came from several youth-oriented acts that anticipated the economic downturn and took steps to lower ticket prices.
"Warrant priced their concerts at $11 or $12 a ticket for a three-act bill, and that's a bargain," he said. "They may have grossed the same as Iron Maiden, but they played before twice as many people."
For a band like Warrant, Bongiovanni said, more people at concerts means more T-shirt and other product sales at the shows, more fan loyalty and, ultimately, higher record sales.
"The bottom line is that if Warrant grossed as much as Iron Maiden but played in front of twice the people, Warrant did better," he said.
'91 Top North American Concert Tours
NO.ARTIST CITIES SHOWS GROSS 1. Grateful Dead 27 76 $34.7 million 2. ZZ Top 85 106 24.7 million 3. The Judds 116 126 22.7 million 4. Rod Stewart 47 59 21.9 million 5. Paul Simon 72 76 21.2 million 6. Guns N' Roses 30 43 20.4 million 7. Bell Biv Devoe, Johnny Gill, Keith Sweat 66 72 17.6 million 8. Michael Bolton 70 103 17.3 million 9. Garth Brooks 94 111 17.0 million 10. Clint Black 92 100 15.2 million
TOTAL GROSS: $212.7 million Source: Pollstar magazine
Top North American Concert Tours of '90
1. New Kids $74.1 million 2. Billy Joel 43.0 million 3. Paul McCartney 37.9 million 4. Grateful Dead 29.0 million 5. Janet Jackson 28.1 million 6. Aerosmith 27.4 million 7. Hammer 26.3 million 8. Motley Cruue 24.7 million 9. Phil Collins 23.8 million 10. Eric Clapton 20.7 million
TOTAL GROSS: $335 million