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The state of the scene 

So maybe you've heard: The music industry is imploding. Unable or unwilling to reconfigure themselves in the age of the download, record labels have seen album sales plummet nearly 25 percent since 2000. While the majors busy themselves searching for a miracle cure and shedding employees faster than you can say “the end is near,” record stores — chains and mom-and-pops alike — are shutting down right and left, and Radiohead, one of the world's biggest bands, recently released an album digitally, without a record label, for whatever its fans feel like paying.

Once upon a time, that impending doom might also have signaled catastrophe for the concert business. In ye olden, pre-Napster days, tours served as a means to promote albums. Now albums help promote concerts.

The modern record contract sets up bands to fail. In a typical deal, an act gets around 12 percent (if they're lucky) of every album sold, which only goes to artists after expenses — studio time, producers' fees, travel costs, promotional outlays, etc. — are recouped by the label. Even platinum-selling artists might not make any money on their albums, especially now that your average tween sees free downloading as a birthright.

Tours pay the bills. On the road, artists command a sizeable slice of the pie in box office arrangements with promoters or venues. Typically, major bands take in half of the box office gross, more if the show is a success. Even if a concert fails, all name acts — and even a lot you probably wouldn't recognize — command guaranteed payments, which increasingly grow astronomical, local promoters and venue owners say.

Because live music encompasses such a broad spectrum — from the tiniest club and unknown acts to mammoth arenas and the Rolling Stones — it's difficult to get a clear reading on the state of the industry. Broad indicators, however, suggest that the concert biz is flourishing. Last year, ticket revenue in North America rang in at $3.6 billion, a 12.7 percent increase from the year prior, according to the industry website Pollstar, and though the average ticket price for the industry's top 100 grossing tours was high ($61.45), more tickets than ever were sold.

According to regional and national promoters, national tours, at least at the highest level, are thriving in Little Rock. “Pound for pound, in terms of being a secondary market, Little Rock is one of the strongest in the country — in terms of selling tickets, in terms of shows may perform in Little Rock better than they would in larger markets,” enthuses Barry Leff of Beaver Productions, a promotional company based in Memphis and New Orleans that books acts like the Foo Fighters and Keith Urban.

Leff says Beaver probably put more shows in Barton Coliseum over the years than anyone else, but now he directs most of his Central-Arkansas-bound traffic to North Little Rock's Alltel Arena, the 18,000-seat facility that opened in late 1999. To date, the arena's done nearly 200 shows. Among those, almost a third have sold tickets for more than 9,000 seats, which was capacity for Barton.

In a more concentrated view, last year, the arena landed 17 concerts, seven of which played to more than 10,000 people. At a George Strait concert last January, 18,004 folks squeezed together to set the arena's attendance record. In the months that followed, three of the five highest-grossing acts of the year came to the arena: the Rolling Stones, Tim McGraw/Faith Hill and Cirque du Soleil: Delirium.

Alltel's show-by-show attendance figures fluctuated between 15,000, for the Rolling Stones, all the way down to around 3,800 for Canadian crooner Michael Bublé. But rather than a mark of poor ticket sales, those different draws represent Alltel's ability to rearrange stage positioning and cordon off sections of the arena with curtains, which allows the facility to morph between cavernous arena and a more intimate theater-style configuration. Newer arenas are increasingly using similar curtaining systems.

Additionally, the arena is fairly unique in that it has a pool of money to promote shows on occasion. By assuming a part of the risk, Alltel can land some shows that other arenas cannot.

Simple availability, too, works in the arena's favor. Since the RiverBlades hockey team called it quits in 2003, Alltel hasn't had to contend with drawn-out schedules of sports teams beyond the eight games or so the Twisters play a year (when the RimRockers used Alltel, the arrangement allowed the arena to move their games when necessary).

For all of Alltel's amenities, the man in the middle of all the action — Michael Marion, the arena's general manager — might be the venue's biggest key. John Huie, head of the Nashville branch of CAA, a booking agency that handles acts like Tim McGraw, Amy Grant and Styx, says that Marion is the best thing the Little Rock concert industry has going for it.

“He has a very well-rounded view of the entertainment business and a handle on his marketplace to know what'll work or won't work,” Huie explains. “A lot of times you'll have building managers who are so desperate for shows, who'll just tell you what you want to hear. Michael doesn't mince words. He tells you what the market will bear, and he's usually spot on.”

Marion came on in 1999 with more than two decades of experience, first working venues in small markets like Starkville and Tupelo and, later, serving as a booking agent in L.A. for the likes of Tina Turner and Robert Palmer. With that unique background, he says his booking philosophy at Alltel is “to try to book everything that we can, but to realize that we're not Dallas or Atlanta, we're a small Southern city, but to not let that slow us down.”

Still, for all Marion's savvy and for the shows we've gotten under his tenure — Kenny Chesney, Nickelback, Bob Seger, the Who, the Rolling Stones — that business about us being a small Southern city? It's always going stand in the way of getting certain tours.

When Marion breaks down tours, he talks in terms of the number of dates they play. A show that plays 20 dates is not coming to Alltel, says Marion. Ditto, usually, with one that plays 30. Forty is more on the cusp — Marion's proud that the arena's been able to get a handful of shows at that level. At 60, he says there's a good chance Alltel will be in the running. Ticket price is another factor. Marion says he tries to be very cognizant of the thresholds for our area — they're often lower than a lot of other markets, he says.

Taken together, those two criteria seem likely to count us out for a Police date, Marion says. “They're not doing too many dates [around 50 in North America] and tickets are in the stratosphere [$57-$227 in Atlanta].”

But don't be surprised if we land concerts from Fall Out Boy, Tom Petty and Tool in the near future. They're all on Marion's wish list.

While Alltel has boomed in North Little Rock, the last decade has also seen a dramatic growth spurt in the club scene across the river. Ten years ago, national touring acts played, almost exclusively, in one of five venues: the River Market Amphitheatre, Barton Coliseum, Robinson Center Music Hall, Juanita's and Vino's. Two of those, the amphitheater and Robinson, were (and continue to be) only viable at certain times or for certain acts. The weather-exposed amphitheater usually operates during the seven months from April and October. Robinson, meanwhile, fits only those acts geared for a theater setting, in terms of stage set-up and style (not a lot of rock acts, for instance, work Robinson, where you can't bring drinks into the auditorium). A decade ago there was also a large disparity between the capacities of the mid-sized venue, Robinson (2,600), and the clubs, Juanita's and Vino's (roughly 300).

Today, more than 10 local venues regularly host national acts. In 2000, Chris King decamped from an ownership and booking position at JR's in Fayetteville to start Sticky Fingerz (200 capacity) with his partner Suzon Awbrey. The club opened in the River Market when the area was just a glimmer of the thriving entertainment district it's become. In 2001, the Clear Channel Metroplex opened on Colonel Glenn in West Little Rock. The former Sam's Club can hold 2,300 people, but might feature Hinder one night and a Duck's Unlimited convention the next weekend.

Last year, King and Awbrey expanded their holdings by opening Rumba-Revolution (550 capacity) on a prominent River Market corner, while former rapper/performer Blake Sandifer converted the old Cinema 150 into a theater-style venue with the Village (800) in southwest Little Rock.

The most obvious consequence of this growth is that there are more live shows than ever. Sticky Fingerz, Juanita's, Revolution and White Water host a mix of local, regional and national acts nearly every night of the week, while Vino's and the mostly metal club Downtown Music typically book on a Thursday to Saturday schedule. Shows come to the Village and the Clear Channel Metroplex more intermittently.

It's a little harder to quantify to what degree we're getting acts that wouldn't have come to Little Rock before the venue boom, though anecdotally, it's not difficult to reel off bands like Queens of the Stone Age, Cross Canadian Ragweed and Lucero that have played to capacity (or near) in the city's new mid-sized venues.

Still, for all the options for concertgoers, promoters and owners of the major clubs in town say they've fallen on hard times.

“I've been doing this 15 or 16 years now, and it's very difficult right now,” says King, who books and owns Sticky Fingerz and Revolution. “It wasn't this hard five years ago,” echoes Erin Hurley, who runs Green Grass Entertainment, a booking agency that secures shows for Juanita's, a regular chunk of Vino's and the Village and, occasionally, elsewhere. “It's a struggle to make ends meet just booking entertainment. Business has been cut almost in half.”

King diagnoses the dip as an “economy issue.” His argument in a nutshell: Because of high gas prices and the generally poor economy, bands have to make more money to stay on the road. That cost gets passed on to the ticket price. Concertgoers, because of their own general economic struggles, can't afford the tickets. To illustrate his point, King brings up Lifehouse, a West Coast act that had the number one single in 2001. Two and a half weeks ago, he brought the pop-rockers in to play Revolution. Tickets were $25. The show underperformed. “If you're going to take your date to see Lifehouse, get some dinner and some drinks, that's like $150,” King says. “[The show] didn't perform as it well as it should have, and I think that's because the ticket was too high, because that's the ticket the agent demanded. There's a line that people won't cross.”

“If the community is not going to support a show that's $25 or $30 or $45, we can't afford to bring that band in,” Hurley says. “If people were willing to spend the money, then I could turn around and get the [bigger] bands.”

Inflation has long been identified as the culprit behind high concert prices, but in his study “Rockonomics: The Economics of Popular Music,” Princeton economist Alan Krueger notes that the rise in ticket prices outpaced inflation by a whopping 8.9 percent from 1996 to 2003. When Krueger compared price growth of other entertainment events — movies, theater, sporting events — concert prices rose 64 percent from 1997 to 2003, compared with only 32 percent for other entertainment.

Even with that rise, revenue from concerts only represented 2 percent of the broader entertainment pie in 2005, including movies, theme parks and major professional sports, according to Michael Rapino of Live Nation, the largest concert promotional company in the country. Furthermore, Rapino points out that only 29 percent of the American population attended at least one concert in 2005. The number drops to 4 percent for people who attended two concerts and down to 2 percent for those who went to three or more.

That small percentage of regular concertgoers might be overserved, speculates James Snyder, who works with Hurley at Green Grass. “Maybe we're giving too much: There's too many options — too much opportunity to see live music.”

Already, Vino's has mostly cut its live offering down to Thursday through Saturday, with some exceptions. Hurley says he's considering doing the same for Juanita's as a step towards “retraining the market.”

To bolster his base, Hurley says Green Grass will continue to look outside of Central Arkansas and even outside of music for events to promote. Last year, the company helped put together Inksplosion, a tattoo convention in the Clear Channel Metroplex that Hurley describes as the company's biggest success, and last month it helped bring together the Full Moon Horror Convention at the Statehouse Convention Center.

Blake Sandifer, a 26-year-old former rapper and dancer who went by the name Blest, opened the Village with a partner, Jon Love, who'd previously worked with Hurley. The partnership dissolved this summer and Sandifer has taken over the booking, with the help of Green Grass and other outside promoters. Shows have been intermittent and ticket sales have been mixed to low, and particularly disappointing for Sandifer, who's a fan: The name rap and R&B shows he's brought in, artists like DMX, the Ying Yang Twins and Bobby Valentino, have all tanked. Undeterred, Sandifer says he hopes to move to where he can book the venue almost every night of the week. He's also aiming for a more diverse line-up, including comedy and jazz.

Over the course of a month, Chris King might do 50 shows — four or five a week at Sticky Fingerz and often six per week at Revolution. He thinks that's an ideal amount. “I think there's a way to make it work. We do a lot of DJ events [at Revolution], and I think about increasing that activity. Everybody is trying to figure out what's going to make the consumer come out. It might not be paying $5 to see your friend's local band on a regular basis. It might not be paying $20 to see Blues Traveler or whoever.

“But the bottom line is that people are always going to want to socialize, people are going to always want to meet other people. That's the experience we have to offer, with the caveat being that there's going to be kick-ass bands playing.”

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