The Shed Spread

This summer's outdoor-concert season was the weakest in years. Doesn't anyone want to hear music outside anymore?

In early June, on the cusp of the summer concert season, I received an e-mail message from a reader, Bryan Matheny, who had a terrifying anecdote to relate. "I usually have my radio dialed in to the benign KVOD when I wake up in the morning," he wrote. "But apparently my one-year-old randomly turned the dial (and the volume up) to tune in the Fox--I am hoping there is no hidden meaning in that. I was half asleep when a deep voice very seriously talked about the upcoming summer shows, which included the Allman Brothers, Jackson Browne, James Taylor and also...Cheap Trick and Boston."

"I am not kidding you," Matheny went on. "I thought I was lying in bed at my parents' house and I had to get moving in order to make first period--the year being 1979. Now, this scenario could have easily been last year, or five or even ten years ago, and it would have had the same effect on me. Except for one thing: Am I getting too old, or do things just really suck right now?"

This last question, of course, requires a subjective answer. But Matheny's observations about the deja vu aspects of the concert season are disturbingly accurate. The 1978 Summer of Stars bill featured the Doobie Brothers and Kansas, two outfits that ventured through local amphitheaters (known in industry parlance as "sheds") in 1996. The next year witnessed visits from '96er Jimmy Buffett, as well as the Grateful Dead (sort of represented this year by the Further Festival) and the aforementioned Cheap Trick (whose appearance with Boston, set for this August, did not take place). And the correlation between the 1996 summer roster and ones from the Eighties is even stronger. Take 1987, for instance, when Bruce Hornsby, Chicago, Crosby, Stills & Nash and Dwight Yoakam all anticipated their recent visits by almost a decade. And that's not to mention outfits such as Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Sex Pistols and Steely Dan, which predate that summer but were dormant until their recent discovery that there was still plenty of money to be made from old ditties, or graybeards like Styx, the Scorpions, the Steve Miller Band, Linda Ronstadt and other acts that have appeared in sheds or arenas in Denver since, seemingly, the beginning of time.

However, this Invasion of the Rehashers wasn't the only intriguing entry in this summer's concert diary. In fact, an even more provocative storyline involves the tepid financial performances of both veteran acts that have a history of amphitheater success and contemporary artists whose album sales implied that they should have been selling tickets at a feverish pace. None of the oldies purveyors met sales expectations, and even fresher products garnered mainly lukewarm enthusiasm. In fact, a dispute over one such date, featuring the Cranberries, has led to a nasty fight involving promoters Barry Fey and Doug Kauffman. (See Feedback, page 76, for more details.)

Sure, Bush, Alanis Morissette, Phish and Rage Against the Machine packed area sheds. But Hootie & the Blowfish, a band that moved well over 10 million copies of its debut album, scheduled two shows at Red Rocks and sold out neither of them. Just as amazing is the failure of Buffett to draw enough Parrotheads to fill his October 1 and 2 concerts at Fiddler's Green--the last major outdoor shows of the season. Simply put, more big concerts bombed or underperformed during the summer of 1996 than in any other year this decade. Furthermore, the season saw no stadium shows. Not one.

Where, then, does that leave the summer-concert concept, a warm-weather phenomenon that's been a major part of the live-music business since at least the Sixties? Fey, Kauffman and Jesse Morreale, whose Gess Presents recently was folded into the Fey Concerts combine, aren't ready to write off these once-lucrative gigs yet. But all three acknowledge a variety of problems afflicting amphitheaters--and none of them see quick fixes on the horizon.

Perhaps the biggest single reason for the decline in business at the sheds is the severe shortage of new acts that have stepped up to this higher level. Morreale cites a recent four-band bill topped by Everclear. "Based on the sales of those acts," he says, "they should have done eight or ten thousand. But nationwide, they only did a thousand or fifteen hundred seats." He adds, "People are getting fickle about artists. A band may sell a lot of their first record, but on their second record, people are turning on them and don't want to see them play."

Kauffman echoes this observation. "There's this tendency to write people off--to expect a sophomore slump and not even give them a chance. What happened to writing two or three records and then knocking it out of the ballpark on the fourth? That ain't happening in this business anymore. You'd better nail it on the first one, or else you'll never get a chance to even make a fourth record."

In fact, the huge sales successes that have greeted numerous debut albums of late practically guarantee that artists will be unable to match these peaks the second time around. Kauffman uses Dookie, the major-label bow by Green Day, as an example. "That record was a real phenomenon in the music business," he says. "But it happened because people in the business threw all their support behind it. And even though the new album [Insomniac] is a good record, it doesn't matter--because you're never going to have the combination of factors again that made Dookie take off. The same thing happened to Hootie. Their first record [Cracked Rear View] sold 130,000 copies in this market alone; you would have thought their shows would have sold out in twenty minutes. But the second album [Fairweather Johnson] hasn't done nearly as well as the first one--and people already seem to be sick of them."

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