- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 27, 2005

The concert business may be booming, thanks to blockbuster acts such as U2, Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones, but some industry observers see a crunch coming. Two snakes are lurking in the grass, they say — high gas prices, which may be gobbling up consumers’ entertainment budgets, and a malaise stemming from the recent succession of major hurricanes and the ongoing war in Iraq.

“It’s the kind of thing that has to have an impact — it’s just hard to quantify it,” says Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of the trade magazine Pollstar.

As of now, most area venues, such as the Filene Center at Wolf Trap, say they are thriving. “We had our second-highest grossing season ever, at over $15 million,” says Peter Zimmerman, director of programs and production at Wolf Trap.

Wolf Trap’s more intimate sister venue, the Barns, he adds, is doing well, too, moving about 90 percent of available tickets since its season began on Oct. 5.

Likewise, the 1,200-capacity 9:30 Club, which is open nightly most weeks, is averaging around 700 patrons per show.

“We haven’t had any impact yet,” says Sheila Francis, a spokeswoman for Washington Sports and Entertainment, which promotes shows at the MCI Center and the Patriot Center at George Mason University.

Why, then, the anxiety about an industry downturn?

Call it the lag effect: Tickets for the summer season and the highly lucrative U2, McCartney and Stones tours this fall were sold months in advance, well before the spike in gas prices and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. “Those aren’t dollars that are coming out of people’s pockets today,” Mr. Bongiovanni says.

In other words, the market may not go soft for months.

Michael Jaworek, local concert promoter with the Birchmere Music Hall, says the weather vane already has turned south.

“I think what’s happening is that we’re in a time of economic and — if you want to put it this way — mental depression,” he says. “There’s been a series of hits that have, I believe, depressed people and depressed consumer spending. I’m seeing business, coast to coast, regardless of genre, 20 [percent] to 30 percent off of what it should be.”

Bruce Springsteen, on a solo tour to promote the mostly acoustic “Devils and Dust” album, has failed to sell out some venues, including last Monday’s appearance at the Richmond Coliseum. And the Rolling Stones, who have pushed the envelope of ticket prices more than any of their boomer peers — premium seats in some cites topped $450, not counting service charges — haven’t seen automatic sellouts in every market on their Bigger Bang tour of North America.

If the concert business cools, Mr. Bongiovanni cautions, it will be difficult to pinpoint any one cause. The interplay of commodity prices and consumer confidence is too complex, he says.

The Washington region, with its steady supply of new jobs, government spending and transient population, may prove immune to broader consumer trends. “This market is a little insulated from some of those outside pressures,” says Wolf Trap’s Mr. Zimmerman.

Still, Mr. Bongiovanni notes, in April 2004, when the bottom seemed to fall out of the market, a spike in gas prices was cited as a factor, and an industry clampdown on ticket prices seemed to help boost demand across the country.

One thing seems certain: If the crunch comes, it will be smaller venues, and the artists who play them, that will take the hit.

Legendary arena rockers, with their store of audience affection and promise of high production values, have little to worry about. “The one thing that the industry has shown over the years is that people will pay a hefty premium for those concerts,” Mr. Bongiovanni says of high-dollar acts such as Mr. McCartney and the Stones.

The ironic thing about consumer behavior in tight concert markets is that “the blockbusters, which are the costliest, are the ones that get picked,” Mr. Jaworek says. “The shows in the middle are the ones that take it on the chin — the theaters and clubs.”

What’s a modestly sized venue to do?

The options, according to Mr. Jaworek: Lower ticket prices; consider packaging artists together for a more attractive bill; pass on lesser-known artists you normally might give a chance in a better market; be careful how much money you promise artists.

Above all: Hope for better news.

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