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Booking big acts is no easy gig

Coliseum, other venues take more financial risks

File photo
Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Tickets to see Elton John at the Coliseum last month were as high as $139, but it still easily sold out.

– If you want a major rock band to play a concert for you, it’s a little more complicated than just picking up the phone – Eddie Van Halen is not going to take your call.

Booking big acts – even for big venues like the Memorial Coliseum – has never been easy. But in recent years it has gotten much more complicated.

When Coliseum General Manager Randy Brown came on board in 1988, regional promoters would call arenas trying to book shows.

“It used to be you’d wait for the phone to ring,” Brown said.

Those days are long gone.

Today, the industry is dominated by a few big promoters but is also teeming with agents, managers, and venues competing against one another. And all of them want the best deal for themselves and their clients.

“At the end of the day, there are more venues than there are acts to play them,” said Andrew Prince, executive vice president of the Venue Coalition, a group of 55 arenas in North America, including the Coliseum, that work together to draw and book acts. “If you don’t book them, there’s a place just 100 or 200 miles down the road that will.”

The deals for booking these acts – especially big-name concerts, which are the most lucrative – are more complicated than ever, and more and more often the deal includes the venue taking on some of the financial risk of staging the show.

It used to be that the promoter took the risk. The promoter would rent the arena, hire the act and hope that ticket sales covered the costs. Now, artists want guaranteed money plus a split of the profits. And promoters often want the venue to help with marketing.

Gone are the days when an arena was just a building you rented.

“We’re in the deal with just about everything we do anymore,” Brown said. “We’re partnering on almost all of them.”

That carries risk, and in the Coliseum’s case, that risk is ultimately borne by Allen County taxpayers.

“They’re not taking big risks by any means,” Prince said. “And that little bit of risk gives you more reward. Sometimes you have to look at it as take the risk and get the show, or not have the show at all.”

One of the biggest risks the Coliseum has taken was for Walking With Dinosaurs, an immersive event featuring gigantic animatronic dinosaurs that stomped through the 13,000-seat arena in 2008 and again in 2010. Ultimately, that show could have cost the Coliseum $1 million had things not worked out.

“Imagine having to go before the County Council with hat in hand, saying, ‘I lost a million dollars’.” Brown said.

Of course, Brown is no gambler, either. To lose $1 million on the animated dinosaur show would have required not selling a single ticket, which was unlikely. Instead, the show made a profit of about $33,000.

The same goes for a concert like Elton John. Yes, the Coliseum took some risk in booking the show, but not really. There was no doubt the concert, even with ticket prices as high as $139 for the best seats, would be a sellout.

“Is there a real risk in something like Elton John?” Brown asked. “Not in reality.”

Live Nation Entertainment, which boasts on its website that it has promoted nine of the top 10 grossing tours of all time, was asked to comment on the industry but declined.

A $33,000 profit on a show might not sound like much, but this is a business of volume.

In 2011 the Coliseum’s profit for the entire year was only $65,246, meaning a small profit on an event might be the difference between a yearly profit or a loss.

And the profit splits that are part of most big deals now mean more money for the venue.

“The main thing is you’ve got to sell tickets,” Brown said.

The Coliseum also works to ensure its golden eggs aren’t all in one concert: The night of the sold-out Jason Aldean concert, the Coliseum was also holding a roller derby competition and a high school prom. The Coliseum’s rental price of $12,500 has not increased in 20 years, Brown said, making other components like parking and concessions – and lots and lots of bookings – vital.

On top of it all are the demands of the artists. Although the tales of bands demanding bowls of only certain-colored M&M’s are popular, that kind of hubris in a contract rider is rare, Brown said.

More common, Prince said, are the last-minute demands, such as artists who bring their children on tour and ask the arena staff if there’s anything for them to do in the area.

“You have to be a concierge to touring staff and artists,” Prince said.

But there’s a payoff for venues that go out of their way to be accommodating, especially in a competitive business where arenas all blend together on a 100-stop tour.

“An artist will remember a venue if they have a specific reason, and that might get you a booking in the future,” Prince said.

So when a member of Jason Aldean’s group twisted his ankle playing basketball, Coliseum staff found him a physical therapist. Some country acts like to play golf, Brown said, so he keeps the numbers of a couple of courses handy that can arrange tee times at the drop of a hat.

Another performer wanted a vinyassa yoga instructor for her daughter who had joined her on tour. Kenny Chesney had workouts arranged at Spiece Fitness. Children of artists often get trips to the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo. Elton John’s son is a hockey fan; he got a Komets jersey.

And some of the requests are truly vital – some older performers need a port-a-potty immediately offstage. Others need an oxygen tank.

“The answer is ‘sure,’ ” Brown said. The perks go for promoters, too. “Sometimes spending $100 on niceties gets you a booking. A big night can be worth $100,000, that can be the one event that can take you over the top.”