Las Vegas revived Shania Twain’s career... and maybe her life, too
Halfway through her Las Vegas show “Let’s Go!,” Shania Twain invites a couple from the audience onstage into her Twain Town Saloon. As Twain sits on top of a bar with her guitar she shouts over to the couple: “What brings you to Las Vegas?” The man sheepishly offers: “Uh, you?!” Twain smiles and responds. “I love that I’m not a sideshow!”
It sounds like a well-oiled joke, but it’s also instructive market research. The big payoff in playing a Vegas residency rather than going out on a world tour is that the performer can root in the one place. The downside is that they’re not always the main event or primary reason for travel. Twain’s residency is in the Zappos Theater, Planet Hollywood and is one of scores of pop spectaculars in Vegas in the past few years. According to Amanda Moore, VP of marketing for Live Nation Las Vegas, entertainment is the primary reason for Vegas tourism now, surpassing gambling. And with 800,000 to 1 million people landing on the Strip each week, all with differing tastes, Vegas is committed to ensuring that there’s enough room to market and sell all of its superstars.
Gone are the days of Vegas as a musical nursing home for past-their-prime performers no longer able to sell out arenas. The Strip became a money-maker for still-vibrant acts during the music industry’s shallow years, when diminished revenue from recorded music sales led to live performance becoming an artist’s lead source of income. Hence myriad markets represented by performers spanning genres, eras and audiences: from Calvin Harris and Zedd to Travis Scott and Drake, Lady Gaga and Mariah Carey to Aerosmith and Sting.
Twain was an early proponent of Vegas: her first residency, titled “Shania: Still The One,” debuted at Caesars Palace’s The Colosseum in December 2012. Opening “Let’s Go!” last November, she’s due an additional two-year run with 23 dates scheduled in the initial three legs through next summer.
Her success here is a testament to her crossover appeal. Twain, 54, is not just the most lucrative country female singer ever but 1997’s “Come on Over” remains the biggest-selling album of any female artist in any genre.
Her show runs three times a week, a two-hour hit parade featuring a seven-piece band, eight male dancers and six outfit changes. The crowd of 7,000 is a mix of youngish women and elderly couples. “It’s time to stand up! Get off your butts,” shouts Twain. The tickets start at just $60. There’s merchandise galore, from long-sleeve tees to leopard print arm-length gloves.
Ray Waddell, president of Oak View Group’s media and conference division, which includes the live entertainment trade publication Pollstar, estimates that Twain makes as much if not more than the top performers in Vegas. Her average gross is $1 million per show, same as Gaga or Calvin Harris. Artists often say they don’t get paid to perform but to travel. In Vegas, there’s no such expense.
Still, a Vegas residency remains something of a gamble for most performers. “It’s like filling Radio City Music Hall every night,” says Twain’s manager, Scott Rodger. He cites the logistical challenge of keeping a crew on retainer for an elongated period and renting equipment that lies dormant in storage for months.
A roundup of new hotels, name changes and renovations coming to Las Vegas in the year ahead, along with a few other key visitor attractions.
Then there’s promotion, which is a different ballgame from a regular tour and far less predictable given the varying clientele coming through every night. On a tour, a return to a city might see a big proportion of the audience from a prior tour. That doesn’t happen here. Only one in four of Twain’s audience echoes her usual demographic of bachelorette parties, couples and gay men. “Unless they’re über fans they might not come again. It’s expensive,” continues Rodger. “In Vegas, you have people from 50, 60 cities in one room. They’re not all culturally the same. Any other manager will echo these sentiments. It’s not a case of hitting the jackpot by doing a Vegas residency. We’re working every show like it’s different.”
Backstage, Twain is with her dog Melody, her husband, Frederic Thiebaud, and Mark Davis, owner of the Oakland Raiders, who are moving to Vegas in 2020. She’s passing her iPhone around displaying videos of riding her horse this morning on the property she and Thiebaud live on when she’s in Vegas. It’s 30 minutes from the Strip — a sanctuary for Twain.
When Twain came to Caesar’s for her first residency, she was fresh from surgery. She hadn’t performed since 2004. “It forced me into recovery,” she says. She had divorced super-producer Robert “Mutt” Lange, come through a period of depression and had newly married business executive Thiebaud. The residency not only pushed her live return, it regenerated her life and inspired her first album in 15 years, 2017’s “Now.”
Fifteen years ago, Twain was offered a residency and refused. “I was still touring the world, making video after video, working my albums. I also remember thinking: Vegas is classic, it’s Elvis. I felt intimidated. Really? They would want me in Las Vegas? Do I have enough hits to do that?” Ten years later they asked her again. “I said, you know what? I’m gonna be brave. I’m gonna do it.” Vegas’ celebratory atmosphere, the way it treats her (“like royalty”), helped buoy her confidence. “A long-term residency is a privilege,” she says. “They don’t hand them out.”
According to Waddell, Twain was a shoo-in post-Celine Dion, whose groundbreaking 2003-07 Caesar’s run remains the highest-grossing residency for a musical artist. Twain was a country outlier, an international star, a performer who hadn’t “pounded U.S. markets to death.” Five years later she remains as unique among the other headliners. “Shania is a warm, professional performer with scores of hits and a huge draw: a perfect Vegas act.”
The exchange for Twain is the draw of intimacy and unbeatable production. “You can’t tour with this level of sophistication,” she says. “In an arena, the scale is bigger, but the technology is too fragile to tour with. In the theaters, the scale is smaller but the quality is better. It’s a great tradeoff if you’re looking for the crème de la crème of live performance.” Twain sees it when she sits in on shows too. “The magic of what we can achieve in stationary Vegas theaters is another planet.”
As soon as Twain finished her Australian tour in December 2018 she turned the conversation to a return to Vegas. Here lay an opportunity for her to indulge her passion for the outdoors. It also makes sense for work opportunities in L.A. — whether recording an album or doing TV appearances. With only three shows a week, there’s a lot of downtime for hiking and relaxing. The social circle is tight. Twain has friends from prior residencies. “We hang in each other’s dressing rooms, we go to meals, nobody’s rushing off on a bus or a jet because the next show is here.” She missed it. “My husband and I are settled here.”
The future for music residencies in Vegas appears bright. Younger artists (relatively) such as Blink 182, Jennifer Lopez, Backstreet Boys and Gwen Stefani are cashing in on ‘90s nostalgia. Resorts compete for exclusives, and the music industry has plenty to offer across genres, demographics and show styles. A forthcoming entertainment venue from the Madison Square Garden group will push production standards even further. In 2020, the Raiders open a stadium too. “The live business is in a golden era,” says Waddell. “Vegas is at the epicenter of that, continuing to reinvent itself with investment and commitment from very smart, strategic people.” For Twain herself, Vegas has brought her a sense of ease and comfort on stage that reminds her of her first years performing.
“This is about being stable enough in your skin to just roll with it,” she says. “What’s the worst that can happen? Nothing, really. I started in small venues and learned those skills young, but I’m only applying them now to the fullest here in these theaters. Vegas has brought that back round for me full circle.”
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