Forget Punxsutawney Phil and the swallows returning to Southern California. For the music industry, the most important harbinger of the summer touring season is April's Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. Elsewhere, this coming weekend's Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival and Electric Daisy Carnival and upcoming festivals such as Lollapalooza and Outside Lands bring plenty of concert heat. With some promoters attributing as much as 75 percent of their annual business to summer shows, the outdoor concert season — a period lasting roughly from April to well into October — constitutes a massive chunk of the revenue pie.
As for that pie in 2011, tours in North America grossed $1.19 billion, down 4 percent from the previous year, according to data compiled by Pollstar. Industry insiders don't believe the slight drop signals a full-fledged landslide.
"I think part of the decline was a reaction to 2010, when people took too many risks," says Garry Bongiovanni, Pollstar editor-in-chief. "Some artists were late to realize that the current economy wasn't going to allow them [to be] as aggressive as they were. Some promoters were overly aggressive … but now we're seeing fewer risks."
Nederlander Concerts CEO Alex Hodges calls it "the 2009 effect" — a reference to the economic shock wave that hobbled the U.S. concert industry, including Nederlander venues in California such as the Greek Theatre, Santa Barbara Bowl and San Jose Civic.
"The 2009 effect got us all to seriously consider tickets prices," says Hodges. "We've not been as overachieving on some of the larger shows at the Greek, trying to max out the top price both in price and quantity. We've even been able to do $35 shows to some degree with new, younger bands. Those adjustments, ever so subtle, have really paid off. Our number of shows went up and our gross sales were up about 24 percent last year."
With Hodges and his peers having learned their lessons, many promoters expect a healthy 2012 concert season, with festivals continuing to offer maximum bang for the buck. "The festivals really are a great value in terms of the number of acts you can see, and the amount of time that you're out there being entertained," says Bongiovanni.
Perhaps to get a jump on the festivals, both Bruce Springsteen And The E Street Band and Van Halen hit the road in spring for jaunts that extend through summer. Though Madonna's world tour won't hit the United States until August, some markets such as New York, Boston and Philadelphia have already sold out. Following their performance at the 54th GRAMMY Awards in February — their first public appearance in more than two decades — the Beach Boys are on the road this spring and summer for their much-anticipated 50th anniversary tour.
Former Pink Floyd singer/songwriter Roger Waters brings his conceptual The Wall Live show across the United States through July. In a tour that unites master and apprentice, Kiss and Mötley Crüe will bring old-fashioned rock spectacle to venues nationwide, while prog-rock stalwarts Rush and legendary singer/songwriter Neil Diamond are expected to play to sold-out crowds.
On the country front, the Brothers of the Sun tour teams Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw. Superstars Jason Aldean, Sugarland, Rascal Flatts, and Brad Paisley have been doing boffo box office, boding well for the future of the country genre.
"The country world continues to bring up new headliners — Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert, Eric Church," says Bongiovanni. "Those acts are steadily developing and growing fans."
The concert industry is welcoming an infusion of new blood in the form of relatively green acts such as the Black Keys, LMFAO, Florence & The Machine, and Alabama Shakes. But the king in the new artist category appears to be UK boy band One Direction. Formed in 2010, the teenage quintet is already headlining arenas in major markets such as Los Angeles and New York. "It's amazing how popular that band has become," says Bongiovanni.
Having gestated in the shadows, electronic dance music is poised for a 2012 breakthrough. Demand for Miami's annual Ultra Music Festival in March was so intense that pre-sale tickets sold out within 20 minutes. This weekend's Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas is expected to surpass last year's attendance of 189,000. Fans are also looking forward to festivals such as New York's Camp Bisco Eleven in July, as well as summer shows by Afrojack, Skrillex and Avicii, among others.
All eyes will be on EDM artist Kaskade, whose Freaks of Nature show at L.A.'s Staples Center in August will mark the first time that a solo electronic dance musician will headline the world-famous arena. For his part, Kaskade (real name Ryan Raddon) believes 2012 may be a watershed year for EDM acts.
"With the success of Electric Daisy, more people are noticing it and copying it," the DJ/producer says. "I've probably turned down more festivals this year than I've ever been asked to play. They're just kind of popping up all over the place."
With their hallucinogenic mix of throbbing digital music, carnival rides and costume ball antics, EDM festivals have pretty much become surefire concert best-sellers. Less certain is the appeal of solo EDM shows such as Kaskade's tour. Pasquale Rotella, creator of Electric Daisy and founder and CEO of Insomniac Events, believes EDM solo performances are far from a sure bet.
"Kaskade is a great artist and he makes great music, but finding a seat and watching a DJ twisting knobs — I don't know how that's going to work," says Rotella. "I think it will go well for a while, but I don't think there's longevity in that."
It remains to be seen whether Kaskade's tour will begin a trend of EDM artists becoming household names in their own right, but for now rival promoters are taking notice of this still emerging music genre. With a career stretching nearly 50 years, Hodges witnessed firsthand the emergence of the soul, southern rock and post-punk movements. Increasingly, he is booking EDM acts such as Tiësto, Deadmau5 and Bassnectar.
"In the past, during every one of these changes, you asked yourself, 'Is this lasting? Is this real?'" says Hodges. "Let me tell you … this [EDM] thing is real."
(Bruce Britt is an award-winning journalist and essayist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, San Francisco Chronicle, Billboard and other publications. He lives in Los Angeles.)