Boom and Bust for New Year’s Concerts


When the Eagles, Billy Joel, Whitney Houston and scores of others take the stage in cities across the world, New Year’s Eve 1999 may well mark the biggest collective artists’ payday in the history of live music. And, oddly, it also may be one of the most disappointing nights in memory.

Despite huge guaranteed purses for marquee acts--led by Barbra Streisand’s reported $15 million for two shows in Las Vegas--most of the night’s concerts have experienced anemic sales, which industry insiders blame on overpriced tickets and the public’s growing lack of interest in spending the historic night out on the town. Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Sean “Puffy” Combs and Jewel are among the big-name acts who have already canceled shows.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Dec. 31, 1999 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday December 31, 1999 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Buffett tickets--The top ticket price for tonight’s performance by Jimmy Buffett at Universal Amphitheatre remains $1,500, not the discounted price reported by The Times last week.

No concert has flopped more spectacularly than Celebration 2000, a supergala that promised to bring Sting, Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry, Tom Jones, Andrea Bocelli and others together on a New York stage--with a pair of prime seats going for a mere $5,000. When few of the 30,000 available seats sold, promoters tried slashing prices this month, but it was too late. They were forced to pay refunds to ticket buyers and lost the hefty deposits paid to the artists, some of whom are now scrambling for last-minute bookings.


“That show is the ‘Ishtar’ of concerts,” one manager said, referring to the costly and problem-plagued 1987 film flop starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman.

In Branson, Mo., the country music tourism mecca, more than half a dozen shows have been scrapped. Most concerts at Las Vegas resorts are lurching forward at the box office. Sluggish sales have dampened the festive mind-set for Billy Joel’s show at Madison Square Garden in New York--a hometown site that the singer-songwriter routinely sells out for a week’s worth of shows--and Gloria Estefan’s show in her fan stronghold of south Florida.

In Los Angeles, it looks as if confetti will be falling on empty $1,000 seats at shows by the Eagles and Jimmy Buffett. Sources say that the Eagles (joined by Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt) have 2,500 unsold seats left at the 17,000-seat Staples Center, while Buffett’s elaborate margarita party has sold barely half of the 6,800 seats at Universal Amphitheatre.

Prices have been slashed for the Buffett show (the top ticket is now $500, down from $1,500) and plans are in place to reconfigure the venue to create “a more intimate experience . . . and hide how empty it is,” says a source familiar with the show’s production.

Still, for some it’s a question of whether you view the champagne glass as half empty or half full. One source within the Eagles camp notes that at the price being paid by fans, “a hell of a lot of money” will be generated even if a good chunk of seats go unsold. Either way, the Eagles will walk off with a reported $7 million for the show.

They aren’t the only ones enjoying a career windfall.

“For a lot of acts, it’s the biggest payday, bigger than you can possibly imagine,” said Marshall Reznick of the William Morris Agency. “I have artists who have been in the business more than 30 years and this will be the best--or very close to the best--payday of their career for one night, one show.”


That’s especially impressive because Reznick’s client list includes stars such as Houston (playing Hong Kong), Barry Manilow (a Connecticut casino) and the Judds (a reunion show at a Phoenix arena), along with veteran artists performing on the holiday, such as Earth, Wind & Fire, the Temptations and the Four Tops.

Agents and managers zealously guard information about artist paydays, so it’s hard to pin down specific numbers. But major acts will get 20% to 50% above their usual fees, industry insiders say, and perhaps well beyond that if they happen to be playing overseas or in Las Vegas.

The usual business rules of the industry do not apply in the desert city, where the profit power of big-stakes gaming allows casinos to book marquee concerts that lose money on their own but create a surge of activity at the blackjack and poker tables.

Streisand will enjoy a career payday for her two shows at the MGM Grand, despite tickets remaining for the Jan. 1 performance. Bette Midler has acknowledged that she will ring in the new year with a record windfall. Others joining the profit parade in Vegas include Santana, Rod Stewart and Tony Bennett.

Artists also were enticed by lucrative markets overseas--Houston’s gig in Hong Kong, for example--but many managers were leery of traveling or dealing with the unknown.

Mark Rothbaum, manager for Willie Nelson, said the country music legend was inundated with offers promising “big cash” for the night, but settled for a return date at a casino in Sparks, Nev., where he got above-average pay and peace of mind rather than visions of a huge payoff.


“It’s sucker money,” Rothbaum said of the huge offers. “It sounds good, but we knew if we took it it’d be a headache. We don’t want to go anywhere or deal with people we didn’t know. So we basically played it safe.”

The big money was not enough to lure some superstars to the road.

Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band and the Backstreet Boys mounted the two hottest concert tours of 1999, but both plan to take the year’s final night off. The same goes for album sales superstars such as Britney Spears and Shania Twain, who reportedly plan to mark the new year with quiet family celebrations. The Rolling Stones and U2 are sitting this one out too, barring a last-minute change of plans.

Others are still undecided. Garth Brooks, the best-selling U.S. solo artist ever, hasn’t made up his mind about New Year’s Eve but may stay home, according to a spokesman at Capitol Records Nashville.

Staying at home sounds like a good idea to much of America, apparently.

Some national polls show that three out of four people plan to go no farther than their living room to usher in 2000. Some say it’s a weariness with year 2000 hype or a reflective mood created by the historic night. Others cite concerns about everything from Y2K technological mishaps to terrorism to drunk drivers.

Dick Allen, Aretha Franklin’s agent, said that something else probably scared off even more of the crowd: “The ticket prices. They were just too high. Way too high.”

About a year ago, managers, agents and venues circled the looming historic date as a dazzling opportunity to cash in. On a night when people would be hungry for unforgettable experiences, they asked themselves, how much would the public be willing to pay for live music to create a soundtrack for those memories?


The industry’s consensus answer: a lot.

“When that first salvo of asking prices came out for the big shows, we got scared away,” said promoter Brian Murphy of Avalon Attractions. “The prices were prohibitively high, and we just decided we didn’t want anything to do with it. Now when you look around, the problem isn’t that people don’t want to be out on New Year’s Eve. They just don’t want to be out at a ridiculously expensive concert on New Year’s Eve.”

Prices are even higher on shows that include dinners or drinks, such as the Eddie Money show at the Pechanga Entertainment Center in Temecula. Maybe for fans somewhere that sounded like two tickets to paradise, but a pair would cost $350. The show was canceled this month.

The glut of holiday shows also promises some odd musical moments. Rocker Alice Cooper will perform at his sports bar, Cooperstown, in Phoenix, while the popular jam rock band Phish will be hosting a two-day camping concert at the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation in south Florida. Grammy winner B.J. Thomas, meanwhile, will be singing his signature “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” at Van Nuys Airport.

It’s the promoters who will take the hardest hits for unsuccessful shows, since most artists have guaranteed payments and everyone from box office workers to the lighting staff will be getting holiday pay.

Perhaps the Artist Formerly (and Now Occasionally) Known as Prince was on to this early. Prince--who recorded the apocalyptic party song “1999” way back in 1983--decided that the tube will be his venue of choice on New Year’s Eve. The Purple One will stage a pay-per-view concert at his Minneapolis studios and says he will play his millennial anthem “1999” for the last time in public.

And the price to view? That would be $19.99.


Some Shows Go On

Lukewarm public reaction has forced some high-priced New Year’s Eve acts to cancel. Others have been met with slow ticket sales.


Still Singing:

Barbara Streisan, the Eagles’ Don Henly, Jimmy Buffet


Jewel, Michael Jackson, Sting