When pop music got big: 1968 and the birth of arena rock
Most of them probably didn’t know it when they took the stage at their biggest concerts, but Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Elton John, the Who, Paul McCartney, Kansas, Queen, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, U2 and others among rock music’s most celebrated acts owe a debt of gratitude for their lucrative paydays to the National Basketball Assn. and the National Hockey League.
Thanks to back-to-back league expansions by the NBA in 1966 and the NHL the following year, a bumper crop of new sports arenas — most notably the Forum in Inglewood and Madison Square Garden Arena in New York — opened to house multiple new sports franchises: 14 NBA teams and a half dozen for the NHL in a relatively short period.
An unanticipated but monumental side effect of that growth spurt in the world of sports was the flowering of the era of “arena rock,” a transformation of the concert business that brought dramatic changes not just to the size of venues regularly hosting pop music’s biggest names, but to its structure, content and finances.
“I would say that the first few giant concerts we did at Madison Square Garden and the Forum, it was a real high to experience that mass adulation,” said drummer John Densmore of the Doors. The celebrated L.A. band, which had been playing clubs and small theaters that held at most 2,000 or 3,000 fans, headlined at the Forum on Dec. 14, 1968. It was the second rock concert at the Forum after sports magnate Jack Kent Cooke spent $16 million on a new West Coast home for his NBA team, the Lakers, and his brand-new NHL franchise, the Kings. The first was the October 1968 performance by English power trio Cream and opening act Deep Purple. Cream, which was on its farewell tour, also headlined Madison Square Garden’s first rock concert on Nov. 2, 1968.
You’d realize, ‘Wow, 15,000 people will come see us, and we can do it without getting rained on.’
— Bill Siddons, music manager for the Doors and other bands
It wasn’t long before other rock musicians were routinely checking into arenas that could accommodate 18,000 ticket buyers, meaning that performers could clear as much in a single night as they previously would have playing in mid-size theaters for a week, or in a month in the nightclubs.
A group playing a club might gross $750 to $1,000 in an evening, or $5,000 to $10,000 at a modest-sized theater. But with arenas, the potential gross suddenly shot to $75,000 or even $100,000 a night, when tickets were still averaging $5.
Not all of that money went to the performers, of course: Musicians split the take with concert promoters, building operators, managers, agents and others. But the difference in the sheer number of fans increasingly turning out for concerts was a game-changer.
“Certainly financially it was great,” Densmore said in a joint interview with the group’s manager at the time, Bill Siddons, who went on to manage Crosby, Stills & Nash and other arena rockers.
Arenas ‘were geared more toward things like Holiday on Ice and the circus. Rock music was a whole different world.’
— Claire Rothman, former general manager of the Forum
Initially, officials at new facilities such as the Spectrum in Philadelphia (which opened in September 1967), the Forum (Dec. 30, 1967) and the fourth incarnation of New York City’s Madison Square Garden Arena (Feb. 11, 1968), knew they’d have a significant number of open nights to fill when there were no NBA or NHL games.
“We found that the whole complexion of the arena business changed,” said Claire Rothman, the longtime general manager of the Forum during the 1970s and ’80s.
She moved west from the Philly Spectrum and became one of the rare women in charge of a sports arena in that era. “Up until then… there wasn’t really a method for doing the rock ‘n’ roll shows. They were geared more toward things like Holiday on Ice and the circus. Rock music was a whole different world.”
Rock music itself changed and adapted to its new environs.
Going back to the 1950s, pop music concerts were usually set up as revues: multiple acts each playing relatively short sets focused only on their biggest radio hits. It wasn’t unusual for support acts to get 15 minutes or less on stage. Even headliners would provide 20 or perhaps 30 minutes of music at the most.
But the advent of large, new spaces for musicians to inhabit roughly coincided with the shift in the music business from the 45 rpm single as the dominant medium to the 33 1/3 rpm long-playing album, or LP.
This technological change allowed musicians more room in which to experiment with creative expression, thematically and chronologically, a new freedom that carried over into their live shows.
Bands quickly began to adapt and expand their presentations to better play to the larger houses. They also were performing for audiences who were maturing with them.
“The Beatles quit touring in 1966 for a variety of reasons, one being that they couldn’t hear what they were playing,” said Craig Inciardi, curator and director of acquisitions for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. “Their audience was largely teenagers, who were screaming so loud that they couldn’t hear the music.
“By the time the [Rolling] Stones played their first [arena] shows at the end of ’69 at the new Madison Square Garden, things had changed significantly,” Inciardi said. “They had been off the road for more than a year, their audience had grown up a bit and they came back with a new vision for the band. It was a longer show, with much better sound quality. In ’69 you had the Stones play there, Jimi Hendrix played there and really put the place on the map.”
The Forum in the west and Madison Square Garden in the east quickly became linchpins in the new world of arena rock. Most of the biggest names in rock and pop were routinely showing up at both: Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan & the Band, Paul McCartney & Wings, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Barbra Streisand, Three Dog Night, Jethro Tull, the Jackson 5.
Perhaps most impressively, Led Zeppelin played the Forum a record 16 times from 1970 to 1977, including a six-night stand in ’77 before the fabled hard-rock group disbanded.
“It got to the point where it was a point of prestige to play the Forum,” former general manager Rothman said. “People would call up and say, ‘Do you have such and such an act?’ They started to think all the acts they wanted to see were playing the Forum.”
Was bigger better?
Individual musicians and bands quickly discovered that these large-scale concerts constituted a significant new source of revenue, no longer merely “promotional appearances” to help boost the sales of recordings.
“Bands like the Stones, for example, started cutting better deals and found out you could actually make money going on tour, and that it wasn’t just about supporting an album,” Inciardi said. “Rock was growing, there was a bigger demand and that’s why a lot of music acts end up playing in these 20,000-seat arenas. Maybe five years earlier, there were very few who could do that. The fan base wasn’t there yet.”
For the performers themselves, “Most of it was just plain exciting,” Doors manager Siddons said, “You’d realize, ‘Wow, 15,000 people will come see us, and we can do it without getting rained on.’
Bigger, however, didn’t always translate to “better.”
“After a while it got a little old,” drummer Densmore said. “I think Jim [Morrison, the Doors’ lead singer] got tired of it. We all did — but mainly Jim.”
Siddons recalled Morrison ruminating on the things that were changing as arenas became more common for rock shows.
“One of Jim’s more famous quotes — and I may not have all the details of the way he responded when people were asking him about performing — but it was something like, ‘The bigger the room gets, the bigger the audience gets and the more obvious you have to be on stage,’ ” Siddons said. “You are the shaman, and you want your music to communicate with people throughout the building.”
Or as Densmore put it, “One needs to exaggerate a bit more as the audience gets bigger.”
The Doors were hardly alone making that realization.
“It wasn’t a thrill to the band,” longtime Grateful Dead spokesman Dennis McNally said of the years in the 1980s and beyond, after that group’s rabid following expanded to the point where playing arenas became a necessity to meet fan demand.
The Dead’s lead guitarist, singer and songwriter Jerry Garcia “did not like playing stadiums in particular,” McNally said. “Even arenas — it’s still all a matter of scale.
“Specifically talking about playing in stadiums, Jerry said you really have to play to the last row, and in doing that your music becomes cartoonish, it can’t be nuanced,” McNally recalled. “It needs to be simple and clear to get to the last row. It loses subtlety.”
One result was a new generation of rock acts whose music fit those criteria: Journey, Kansas, Foreigner, Toto, Bon Jovi and others that specialized in songs with simple choruses tailor made for mass singalongs, even if they weren’t particularly innovative musically. But they played well to big crowds in vast enclosed spaces.
”Acoustically, a small, intimate room is the ideal,” McNally said. “The fact is, [the sports arena] became the model because of the economics. It was a model that was driven solely by economics.”
Economics — and physical scale.
“The Stones for example, whenever they went on tour, they created a different stage design each time,” the Rock Hall of Fame’s Inciardi said. “Bands like Queen had a classic giant lighting rig that became part of their iconography. Some groups changed everything up.”
Indeed, production values began to grow, sound systems got bigger, lighting effects became more dazzling, costumes often became more outrageous as performers tried to capture and keep the attention of fans, many of whom sat dozens or hundreds of yards away, rather than within spitting distance.
Playing music live became less like an actor’s subtle use of facial expression that’s possible in the movies, and more like the grand gestures and booming vocal projection of acting in a play in a massive Broadway theater.
“That’s a good parallel,” Densmore said. “A film would be like making a recording — or playing in a 60-seat theater.”
Rock concerts became increasingly elaborate affairs. The Rolling Stones’ famous lips-with-extended-tongue logo was rolled out in 1969, and was displayed in larger and larger ways in succeeding tours.
Other large-scale props became more common, adding both to the visual impact and financial burden of staging major tours.
By 1977, England’s Electric Light Orchestra was using a full-size mockup spaceship onstage along with laser lights, pyrotechnic effects and prodigious amounts of stage fog on its “Out of the Blue” tour of sports arenas.
The $100 ticket
One characteristic of rock shows that made them attractive to arena operators was they typically were one-night stands. As such, they could be slotted conveniently between basketball and hockey multiple-night home stands.
“It was such an important part of your ability to create enough income to make the payment of your mortgage or whatever it was,” Rothman said. “For an arena to be viable, you need a couple hundred nights [of events] a year to survive. Each of the [sports] teams could only give you about 46 nights, and then if they weren’t in the playoffs… In Philadelphia we had both hockey and basketball [at the Spectrum]. But together they only accounted for 82 nights in the year. The arena business is a lot like the hotel business: a dark night is revenue that is forever lost.”
Through most of the 1970s and well into the ’80s, ticket prices increased only modestly. Tickets for Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” tour in 1978 were still just $8.50 when he stopped at the Forum.
“I was brand new in San Francisco when I moved there in the fall of ’76,” the Dead’s McNally recalled, “and how we moaned at the price of ‘The Last Waltz,’ ” he said, referring to the star-studded farewell-to-touring event organized by the Band, which was joined by Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Ringo Starr, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, Dr. John and several others.
“The price was $25, which at the time was a great deal of money,” he said. “What would you pay now for a lineup like that?”
Two decades into the arena rock era, the Rolling Stones upped the ante only to around $30 for the face value of a prime ticket for their 1989-90 Steel Wheels tour, which grossed just under $100 million and held the record as the top-grossing tour in rock history for several years.
The big upward shift in ticket prices started in 1994, when the reunited Eagles launched the group’s “Hell Freezes Over” tour of arenas, amphitheaters and stadiums. It was the first time an act had charged $100 per seat, a move that outraged many fans but also tantalized promoters and other music business insiders.
Today, prices in the three-figure range are not unusual, especially when sold by secondary outlets.
One of the hottest tours of 2018 is Taylor Swift’s “Reputation” tour, for which she and promoter Live Nation are trying a new strategy of pricing the best seats according to what the market will bear, rather than a pre-determined low price that diverts tickets — and sales revenue — to the brokers rather than the artists.
“In the summer of 1995, which was our last tour [before Garcia died that year], we went out and Traffic opened for us, and Traffic was not cheap,” McNally said. “We charged $30 a ticket, and it was the first time we’d broken the $30 mark, and many of us felt, ‘This isn’t right — it’s too much.’ We were proud [about keeping ticket prices affordable]. You can treat your fans as family, or you can treat them as cattle who happen to carry wallets.”
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