The trucks were loaded out, the stage was set, and Panic! At The Disco was ready for their “Viva Las Vengeance” tour stop at Fiserv Forum Sept. 16.
But it never happened.
Less than three hours before the first opener was set to begin, the band abruptly postponed the Milwaukee show due to a COVID-19 diagnosis. Four days later, the concert was canceled entirely, due to scheduling conflicts between the band and the arena’s calendar.
It was a disappointing, dramatic reminder of just how unpredictable the live music industry remains more than 12 months after big concerts came back to Milwaukee, following 16 months of dark venues due to the pandemic.
There have been plenty of blockbuster shows in that time. Post Malone played a sold-out show at Fiserv Forum less than 24 hours before the Panic! cancellation, and nearly every major venue in town — including American Family Field, American Family Insurance Amphitheater, the Rave’s Eagles Ballroom and Miller High Life Theatre — have hosted multiple concerts at full capacity.
But some shows are still struggling, their attendance dampened by a variety of factors, from record inflation to stiff competition. And show cancellations are still happening in atypically high numbers.
Bandsintown, a website that tracks concert dates, reported more than twice as many show cancellations in the first half of 2022 compared with the first six months of 2019, according to a Wall Street Journal report.
And while the Delta and Omicron waves of COVID-19 — which resulted in waves of concert postponements and cancellations in Milwaukee — have waned, concert cancellations are still happening at a high rate in Milwaukee.
Since July, at least 35 different Milwaukee concerts featuring out-of-town artists have been canceled. Reasons haven’t been cited for all of them; low sales and logistical complications are likely factors, experts say. Some shows have been scrapped for health reasons outside of COVID — including a growing number of artists, such as Shawn Mendes and Wisconsin-raised KennyHoopla, who have called off tours and Milwaukee dates due to mental health struggles.
“We had a good number of tours that were confirmed into May, and then when we lined up to announce a show on sale, they did a double check, and from a budgeting and supply standpoint and staffing standpoint, they made the decision to again punt into 2023,” said Matt Beringer, chief operating officer for the Pabst Theater Group, which runs the Miller High Life Theatre, Riverside Theater, Pabst Theater, Turner Hall Ballroom and the Back Room at Colectivo Coffee.
“It’s a sad reality of what COVID has done,” Beringer said. “The pandemic was and continues to be disruptive to this industry.”
Following a scattering of shows in June and July 2021, “everyone shot off a gun at the starting line, and everyone took off,” Pabst Theater Group CEO Gary Witt said. “There was an unprecedented number of bands on the road.”
“Look at the economics of our industry. Record labels have been making a record amount of profits the last two years,” Witt said. Earlier this month, the Recording Industry Association of America reported $7.7 billion in revenue for recorded music for the first half of the year, led by $6.5 billion amassed through streaming. That’s up 38% from the same time period in 2020.
And yet, as Witt notes, “the past two years, (many) artists are only making money if they tour. Their incentive is they have to get out on the road.”
Consequently, venues in Milwaukee and elsewhere experienced a “traffic jam,” suggested Dave Brooks, senior director of live and touring for Billboard.
“And now there’s just too much,” Brooks said. “It got a little bit too dense.”
“There were some acts that couldn’t sell tickets,” said veteran Milwaukee concert promoter and Shank Hall owner Peter Jest. “No one wants to play in front of three people.”
It’s also harder for bands to afford to go on tour. Inflation reached a 40-year high in May, and remained near a four-decade high for August, up 8.3% from August 2021.
“Every line item for a touring show is more expensive,” Brooks said. “It’s just harder to make money right now or to break even than it has been in the past. … There’s less incentive now to just kind of continue to do dates that aren’t selling well.”
As a result, “the cost of tickets in general is inevitably going to go up,” said Cactus Club owner Kelsey Kaufmann, although she said the Bay View club’s clientele haven’t pushed back against price increases.
“The difference between $15 and $20, at the end of the night, that’s hundreds of dollars for artists,” she said.
The average ticket price for the top 100 grossing tours in North America for the first half of 2022 was $108.20, up from $91.86 in 2019, according to concert trade publication Pollstar. In turn, the average show gross for the top 100 tours is up 24.4% from the same period in 2019, Pollstar reports.
But attendance is dropping, with 15.6 million tickets sold for those top 100 tours in 2022, vs. 16.9 million for the same top 100 tours during the first half of 2019.
On average, Jest said attendance for shows at Shank is down about 10%. But the club will still host about 160 shows in 2022, on par with 2019, and there hasn’t been pushback over higher ticket prices (up at most $5) or alcohol price increases of 50 cents to $1 due to rising costs from the club’s distributor.
“People understand for a club band it might cost them another $100 to get here,” Jest said.
Touring acts are still touring because they have few other options.
“This is how a lot of these guys make their money,” Jest said. “Maybe they are raising prices of merch. Maybe they’re taking one less crew member or doing an extra date. … Some of the bands are doing VIP (packages) and meet-and-greets to make a few extra bucks.”
A wide range of factors can play into softer sales, from the “gravitational pull of the couch” to “changing consumer habits,” the Pabst’s Beringer said.
“People have been mostly outside for (music for) the summer,” Jest theorized. “Since we skew a little bit older, I know some people in their 50s, 60s and 70s are not comfortable going indoors for anything.”
But even attendance for Milwaukee’s biggest annual outdoor music event, Summerfest, was soft compared to pre-pandemic levels. On a per-day basis, Summerfest drew more than 49,500 people in 2022, down sharply from more than 65,000 people per day in 2019. Ticket prices also jumped from 2021, up $2 for single-day general-admission tickets to $25, and up $30 for six-day general-admission passes.
“Consumers are looking at their overall entertainment budget and allocating more carefully than they have in the past,” Brooks said. “Sales are more unpredictable now than they’ve ever been. People are waiting longer to buy tickets. … That just increases the risk for promoters and makes forecasting more difficult.”
For instance, Lollapalooza, the huge Chicago music festival, used to sell out almost instantly. This year, about 30% of tickets were sold within 10 days of the festival, Brooks said.
Beyond market conditions, the concert industry is still facing “a lot of adversity” on a logistical level, Beringer said.
“Nationally speaking, there is a real lack of support and services to put on a tour,” said Scott Leslie, co-president of Madison-based promoter FPC Live. “Tour buses are at a premium. Semi-trucks are hard to come by. There’s a shortage of drivers nationally and techs to handle audio and lighting. … Like every other situation right now, there is a lot more demand than supply.”
A recent Billboard story illustrated how dire it’s been, with one tour bus company cancelling on a band, which in turn forced the band to cancel its dates.
But even some artists who have had logistics in place and solid ticket sales are abruptly pulling the plug. Following Shawn Mendes’ surprising announcement in July that he was canceling his global arena tour for mental health reasons — including a Fiserv Forum date — several artists have called off tours and shows citing exhaustion and mental health struggles. That includes artists that were set to play Milwaukee this fall, including Arlo Parks, Gang of Youths and KennyHoopla.
Because of COVID, “these folks are touring the world and touring the country in a much more isolated way,” Beringer said. “They’re not able to say, ‘I am going to decompress and go out to dinner one night,’ or visit this friend or folks I normally see on the road. Suddenly for reasons that have to do with the good of the broader production, they’re having to isolate themselves more than many of us have had to contemplate for our jobs.”
Brooks likens it to a growing number of athletes with injuries staying on the sidelines for longer periods of time “to protect their long-term value.”
“It’s also a sign just how difficult the lifestyle is,” he said. “To be famous is already a tricky thing. … Add into that long touring cycles, and it’s very stressful and very difficult.”
Ultimately the growing number of cancellations attributed to mental wellness is a good thing, Beringer and FPC Live co-president Charlie Goldstone said.
“Mental health and mental stress are real issues certainly coming out of the pandemic,” Goldstone said. “It’s encouraging to see artists being open about it and transparent so there’s not a stigma around it. People struggling who see it will get help, too.”
Despite all the difficulties, Brooks suggests the live music recovery is still “in a pretty ideal place.”
The Brewers’ American Family Field hosted three stadium tours in 2022, the most in a single year since the stadium opened as Miller Park in 2001, including a sold-out Mötley Crüe and Def Leppard show for 41,000 people in July.
Despite one cancellation and one postponed show, the American Family Insurance Amphitheater had its busiest season since 2004, when it was known as the Marcus Amphitheater, with 19 shows for 2022. FPC Live, the preferred promoter for Maier Festival Park concerts outside of Summerfest, sold 180,000 tickets to amphitheater shows and BMO Harris Pavilion concerts this year, Goldstone said.
Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy also hosted the most concerts it’s had in a single year since 2003, while the Rave packed the Eagles Ballroom with white-hot artists like Olivia Rodrigo and Machine Gun Kelly — shows that swiftly sold out.
Fiserv Forum has sold-out shows coming up with Chris Stapleton and Bruce Springsteen. The Miller High Life Theatre has had an uptick of bookings since the Pabst Theater Group took over operations this spring, including sold-out Mitski and Glass Animals concerts.
And Cactus Club is hosting more events than it ever has in its 26-year history, Kaufmann said, further expanding beyond concerts for events like book club meetings, panel discussions and film festivals. Business is solid enough that she’s focusing more on the club’s fundraising efforts to construct accessible bathrooms.
“The wins are outshining the losses or any of the challenges,” FPC Live’s Leslie said.
Some are even more optimistic about long-term prospects for live music in Milwaukee. FPC Live and the Pabst Theater Group are planning to open new, built-from-scratch venues in 2024.
And they’ll have significant support from concert industry titans. Live Nation has a majority stake in FPC Live’s parent company Frank Productions, also based in Madison, while AEG reportedly will partner with the Pabst on its new venue in the Iron District, according to the Milwaukee Business Journal. (AEG reps did not reply to the Journal Sentinel for confirmation; Witt declined comment.)
“There’s no way you can look at 2022 as being back to normal,” Witt said. “We’re in a new normal. But we can celebrate the reality that we can survive this period of time.”
RELATED: After 4-hour debate, FPC Live scores narrow victory at Milwaukee Plan Commission for proposed Deer District concert venue complex
Contact Piet at (414) 223-5162 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @pietlevy or Facebook at facebook.com/PietLevyMJS.
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