On The Road Again But Where Are The Fans?

He's one of the music world's most identifiable stars. Flashy, hip, and with album sales of more than 22 million in the past three years, rapper Hammer was a natural to pitch Pepsi and Kentucky Fried Chicken to America's youth. But when the 30-year-old Oakland (Calif.) native traveled not long ago to Denver's Fiddler's Green Amphitheater, he was greeted by more than 7,000 empty seats--nearly half the house.

Nowhere are America's consumers more fickle than on the concert trail. And after suffering in 1991 through one of their worst years in history, promoters of country, pop, rock, and rap concerts were counting on a big 1992. Pop perennial Neil Diamond, after all, planned a national tour. Country heartthrob Garth Brooks had booked a tour, too. And Bruce Springsteen was going out for the first time since 1989. But a funny thing happened on the way to the stadiums. While Diamond, Bruce, and Brooks can still pack 'em in, many of the music industry's biggest stars are playing to row after row of unsold seats.

SMALLER PIECES. It's not a repeat of last year's disaster, because many promoters are holding down ticket prices and dreaming up new marketing gimmicks. So far this year, overall ticket sales are up by 18% over 1991, to $497 million, according to the trade publication Amusement Business. Indeed, sales are slightly ahead of record-setting 1990. But because the industry has booked more acts this year, the average gross per show has fallen nearly 25% from two years earlier.

"The triple-A acts are selling as well or better than I've ever seen," says Louis Messina, president of Houston-based Pace Concerts, which books for seven amphitheaters around the country. "But the farther you fall from that tier, the tougher it is to scrape up a good crowd." That means slow going for the likes of Paula Abdul and Ringo Starr. Even Ireland's U2, whose Zoo Tour has made headlines for weeks, is having trouble selling tickets for dates in the recession-racked Midwest.

As Tom Ross, who heads the music unit of Creative Artists Agency Inc., puts it, "the market is just plain too crowded." To steer clear of the traffic, some acts have opted out this year. Despite two well-received albums, pop vocal trio Wilson Phillips canceled a planned tour. So did hard-rock dinosaurs KISS, who may hit the road if sales of their latest album, Revenge, pick up.

Some acts that were supposed to hit home runs this summer are settling for singles. Hammer accepted a sharply reduced guaranteed fee to appear in Denver, says Barry Fey, head of Fey Concerts, which booked the rapper at Fiddler's Green. Because of rising costs, hard-rock heroes Guns N' Roses and Metallica, which have been touring together this summer, have netted less than $200,000 apiece for each of their giant stage shows. A year ago, GNR cleared some $1 million a night.

TIRED REUNION. And despite all the talk of a country revival, not even Brooks is immune. He has priced his top tickets at $17 apiece, only $2 more than he asked last year, and far less than many promoters expected a star of his magnitude to charge. Following his lead, other acts are holding the line on ticket prices. And even Los Angeles-based ticket seller Ticket Master, which has a virtual lock on the ticket concession in many cities, is in some cases cutting its service fee to move hard-to-sell seats. In other instances, promoters are resorting to fairly desperate gimmicks. Promoters for '70s retreads Emerson Lake & Palmer culled music-magazine subscriber lists to send out 50,000 postcards advertising seats for the reunion tour.

More successful, suggests Scott Sanders, executive producer at Radio City Music Hall Productions, are the bands and promoters who realize that "for $30, the fan is looking for more than a 90-minute show." Thus, the move toward package tours, in which two or more big-name acts go out together. Vintage rockers Eric Clapton and Elton John joined forces for shows in New York and Los Angeles. The most extreme example: Lollapalooza, the second annual Woodstock-to-go carnival of sideshow entertainment and seven "alternative" rock groups. Featuring the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Jesus and Mary Chain, the nine-hour minifestival has sold out 13 of its first 14 shows, which are held in relatively small venues.

Most tours, though, don't have it so good. The Grateful Dead, the industry's top concert attraction last year, recently canceled 20 shows when leader Jerry Garcia took ill. No doubt that made a few promoters feel a little sickly, too.

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