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Playing the Music Market

Jam booker Andy Cirzan/Why is this man smiling?

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The summer concert season, according to a recent issue of Pollstar, is a disaster. Last year the industry rebounded only anemically after the 1991 debacle; now it's gazing into the maw of hell as Pollstar's accounting of the top 20 tours of the year so far puts ticket sales off 10 percent from last year. How bad is that? Well, this year's top 20 have thus far earned only a skosh more than the top 10 tours did as recently as 1990. Most depressing is the aesthetic news: the three biggest acts--and the only ones to bring in bucks in the ten-digit range--were the Dead, Paul McCartney, and Neil Diamond.

You'd think that there'd be long faces over at Jam Productions, the biggest promoter in the midwest, but no. "We've had a great year," enthuses booker Andy Cirzan. Why? The answer lies in the way the concert promotion business is financially structured. Promoters offer a band a guarantee based on an estimate of how many tickets the group can sell locally. So it matters less how many acts or how many tickets than how well the promoter finesses the acts and tickets that pass through its hands. Enter the bookers, whose job it is to make the estimates.

Native Chicagoan Cirzan, who has a master's in arts administration from Western Illinois, worked at Ravinia out of college until he came to Jam in 1987. Now 36, he's one of the organization's senior bookers, point man on its biggest shows--the Dead, Lollapalooza, Peter Gabriel.

"We invest x amount of dollars in a particular band's performance," he says. "You put the tickets on sale and hopefully we've made the correct deal on that band and made it possible to make money." When the industry's down it's just a bit trickier, he notes. "It's like playing the stock market: when everything's selling you can look brilliant and not devote a tremendous amount of attention to it. But the way the industry has been lately you have to consider each show carefully and construct deals that make sense."

And as in the stock market, it's harder to make money off the sure things. Cirzan won't talk specific figures, but the Dead, for example, has a reputation for the hard bargains it drives with promoters. This year the band expected to sell out its two shows at Soldier Field. That's 57,000 people shelling out an average of $26 a ticket--you do the math. The Dead certainly do, and pitch their guarantee correspondingly high. Since there's little risk involved, Jam doesn't earn much money on the show.

While escalating ticket prices are the entire concert industry's fault, promoters included, Cirzan points out that the constraints his company works under begin and end with artists' fees. Shows with low ticket prices--in the low 20s for Def Leppard, in the mid to high teens for Garth Brooks--have them because the artists keep them there, despite the fact that they could charge more.

But the booker's art comes in assessing the nonsure things. These days the industry is to some extent shaped by new technologies like SoundScan, which reports exact regional record sales, and BDS, which does the same thing with radio airplay counts. "We do look at radio plays, record sales, the history of the band in the market," Cirzan notes. "But it's a little tricky. I don't want to dis SoundScan, but I will say this: for the mainstream, it's great, but for a band like Fugazi, which does most of its sales through small mom-and-pop operations that don't do SoundScan, it's less reliable.

"Even album sales can be very misleading. You can sell a gigantic number of records, but not do that live. Or for a band that doesn't sell records--the Dead is the best example--you can't print tickets fast enough."

Likewise, radio airplay can be unreliable. "Some stations sell more tickets than others. If a band's getting banged by 'XRT, you can count on their audience, which is predisposed to want to go out and do things. They can deliver an audience, so to speak. Other stations, in different formats, aren't so powerful. So while all of that is part of the modern promoter's research, you don't depend on anything as much as your gut: you have to understand what music is hot and who's hot for it."

Even then there are surprises. Take the Spin Doctors tour, an Alternative Nation-sponsored outing with Soul Asylum and the Screaming Trees, which stopped at the World Music Theatre July 25. "I would have been happy with 15,000," says Cirzan--half a house at the World. "Thirty thousand was mind-boggling. It was the biggest date of the tour."

Jam is ending the summer with two chancy shows. The WOMAD tour, a Peter Gabriel-backed smorgasbord of pop, world music, rap, and poetry featuring Gabriel, P.M. Dawn, Crowded House, James, Jah Wobble, and many more groups, hits the World September 11. It's a lineup that puts Lollapalooza to shame with its adventurousness, though it lacks that show's hype appeal. And on September 17 there's the Dr. Dre/Snoop Doggy Dogg/Run-D.M.C. road show, Jam's first rap concert at the World. Many rap tours, like country tours, are done by genre promoters, though Jam's handled major acts like Public Enemy and Ice T; but as rap's gotten bigger, the smaller acts have started to be handled by normal Jam contacts like the William Morris Agency, who set Dr. Dre up at the World. Security concerns at rap shows, Cirzan says firmly, are overblown: "The hard-core rap audience is not dramatically different from the hard-core metal audience. It's the way kids are: they want to come to a show and mosh and have fun. Rap fans are certainly no crazier than suburban white kids."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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