What Can We Learn From the Return of the Stadium Show?

Sometimes we get a chance to see a snapshot of the past and present side by side and learn something we might miss in the long, slow march of daily life.

Stadium tours are back, sorta. Read Ray Waddell’s great summary of the resurgence in concert tours taking place in stadiums this year. Calling it the “best year for stadium concerts in 20 years,” the article surprised me. The trend has clearly been in the other direction, toward better, smaller, more intimate venues and away from the cavernous expanses like the Rose Bowl or Giants Stadium.

"Billy Joel Concert Crowd," © 2008  Anirudh Koul, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license.

“Billy Joel Concert Crowd,” © 2008 Anirudh Koul, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license.

This is what I’d call a countertrend. But let’s not overstate things. Waddell points out that in 1994, there were 214 shows in North America that took place in a stadium, and this year, we should end up with around 100. Now, by comparison to recent history, and what Waddell identifies as the 2004 low point of just 46 shows, it’s a big number.

Waddell shares some good data in the article about the top 5 concerts based on the Billboard Boxscore ranking. I used that to determine how much people were paying on an inflation-adjusted basis to go to these popular shows.

For the top 5 shows in 1994, 964,022 tickets were sold at an average price of between $46.87 and $51.65. Let’s just round that off to $50 and think of that as about the price that people paid for a ticket for these big-time shows in 1994. Of course, there’s been 20 years of inflation since then, but if we adjust that to 2014, $50 is worth $81.

In 2014, we have a similar set of data. There are 309,881 people who paid an average of $132.89 per ticket.

That’s a 64% increase in the price paid for a ticket to a top 5 stadium concert, even after adjusting for inflation. Paul McCartney and George Strait account for all five of the top 5 stadium shows in 2014 so far, and they were both extremely well-known and successful in 1994. It’s unlikely that Sir Paul and George Strait got way, way better in that time. Note too that these are box-office prices and don’t reflect secondary-market activity, which may have effectively driven the price higher for some people. In short, people are demonstrating a willingness to pay more for a similar thing.

I noticed a couple of other differences as well. In 1994, all of the top 5 were multi-show runs. In 2014, they were all single dates. In 1994, all the shows in the top 5 had two price points.

Hold on … two price points? Yes, two. In Giants Stadium and the Rose Bowl, there were TWO price points for the Rolling Stones. If you were in the first row, you were paying $55, and if you were in one of the super uncomfortable backless bench seats at the top of the corner of the Rose Bowl, you were paying $25.

By contrast, the shows in 2014 had four official price points. At Target Field in Minneapolis, you could be paying as little as $19.50 and as much as $250. That’s a difference of 12.5 times as compared to just over 2 times in the Rolling Stones example above.

"AC DC Concert Crowd," © 2009  Anirudh Koul, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license.

“AC DC Concert Crowd,” © 2009 Anirudh Koul, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license.

So, what’s changed?

Despite the resurgence, there are still way, way fewer stadium shows. My view of this is that it’s because tastes are more diffused, and so there are fewer stadium-scale stars. Not just in music.
I would add that fewer and fewer people are interested in “poor” seats to any event, and stadiums are, let’s face it, full of those.
 More price points: The industry has gotten smarter at pricing, and this alone makes a big difference to revenue.
 More one-night appearances: Again, the stars just aren’t that big, especially at a higher price.
 People are paying, way, way more. Not even counting secondary-market prices. On a side note, the existence of a secondary market helps support higher prices to some degree.
 Production costs and expectations are higher. But then again, people are paying a lot more.

My bottom line is that even though this is an interesting countertrend, be careful not to extrapolate too much from it. Stadiums are much too big for just about any act, and the days of selling out night after night after night are probably gone forever.

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