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The Shed Spread

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."

"I think they're experiencing a backlash," Morreale concurs. "And they're not the only ones. Green Day, Candlebox, you name it. People are turning their backs on them."

The rise of alternative bands that dislike playing in sheds only exacerbates the problem. "They don't seem to have the same drive as bands used to have," says Fey. "They don't care about being stars. And that's what we really need--a new crop of superstars." Kauffman, though, feels there's more to it than that.

"A band like Pearl Jam has been really smart," he claims, "because they haven't overexposed themselves, and they've consistently underplayed. And that's a good management technique--to tell a band to pull back on the reins a little bit and underplay to create more demand. They like nothing more than to have a band playing a sold-out show where they have to turn people away. Because if you see your favorite band in a place that's half-full, that reflects poorly on the act. It makes people think, 'Maybe this is over, and I should be checking out something else.'"

Another barrier to alterna-bands leaping into sheds is the performance style that's arisen during the Nineties. In Morreale's view, many younger musicians "don't really like to put on a big show. They just stand there and play. But if you're the average person and you've paid a lot for a ticket, you want something more. You want to see a real show--and so you're disappointed when you don't really get one. That might be part of the reason that some of these nostalgia acts are doing better than newer bands. You know when you go to see AC/DC, you're going to have big brick walls being broken down and wrecking balls and Angus Young crawling around on his hands and knees. And that's fun to watch."

Unfortunately, many of the older artists to whom showmanship isn't anathema have returned to towns like Denver so many times that concertgoers have had more than enough of them, too. Hence, heroes from the past are suffering from diminishing returns--and that's made bringing them into 18,000-seat sheds such as Fiddler's Green a risky proposition. "It hasn't really hurt Red Rocks that much, because it's only 9,400 seats," Fey notes. "You can do 5,500 or 6,000 there and it looks fine. And besides, it's become a place like Madison Square Garden used to be--the place that every band wants to play at least once. But there aren't that many 9,000-seat amphitheaters out there anymore. And if you only do 6,000 at a shed that seats 20,000, you're going to lose a lot of money, and people probably aren't going to have a very good time.

"But what an amphitheater needs is product. They have to get acts in there even if it's a gamble; they hope to break even on the door and then make some money on popcorn and parking. And so you'll have amphitheaters offering unheard-of deals--up to 80 percent of the gross--to bands just so they have something in there and keep the stockholders happy."

Of course, rolling the dice on dinosaurs from the past just to keep names on the marquee sometimes makes matters worse; sheds may lose more cash by staging a show than by staying closed until a more bankable combo comes around. That leaves venue owners such as MCA, the Fey Concerts partner that holds the deed on Fiddler's Green, in a difficult position. "Things like these have radically changed our business," Fey concedes. "It really has very little to do with music anymore."

No one knows at this point whether the summer of 1996 was merely a glitch or the beginning of the end of the outdoor-concert industry as we know it. Kauffman, for one, shrugs off the summer downturn, promising to promote more, rather than fewer, dates at Red Rocks in 1997. Morreale, meanwhile, feels that the rise of groups valued specifically for their in-concert acumen--Phish and Blues Traveler among them--suggests that there's a growing number of people hungry for concerts like those that distinguished summer seasons during the Sixties and Seventies.

And Fey? His predictions are a bit downbeat. "I don't think you'll see smaller crowds, but I do think you'll see fewer acts being booked," he says. Asked if he fears that the summer-concert industry will be a mere shadow of its former self ten or twenty years from now, he laughs as he responds, "I'm not really scared, because I won't be around anymore. I won't care.