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On December 15 last year, Bruce Springsteen brought the curtain down on one of the most startling runs of performances any rock musician had ever staged. Over 14 months at the Walter Kerr Theatre on West 48th Street in Manhattan, he put on 236 shows to 975 people a night. The show, performed on a bare stage, featured just Springsteen, a guitar, a piano, and — usually, though not always — his wife Patti Scialfa for a couple of songs. Over the course of just shy of three hours, he played 15 songs each night, interspersing them with anecdotes drawn from his autobiography, drawing a sketch — partial and selective, but gripping — of his musical life.
The reviews were ecstatic, the reaction from those who saw the show euphoric, and the Netflix special and live album that followed were not just souvenirs: they were valuable additions to the Springsteen catalogue.
In the course of those performances, Springsteen did more than entertain fans. He may even have suggested a new model for live performances by the superstar tier of musician. With ticket prices starting at $75 and rising to $850 — the average price was $505 — Bruce Springsteen on Broadway demanded that fans be willing to pay handsomely to see him in such a small room. And the fans acquiesced. Springsteen’s show grossed a reported $113m, and with minimal production costs, and no extra musicians to pay, that meant big profits. The weekly takings of the show — $2.4m — were $100,000 more than the supposed hottest ticket on Broadway, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, at a theatre twice the size.
“I think the Springsteen run in New York was genius. And I think to a certain degree it has opened up a different way of potentially presenting a show,” says Arthur Fogel, president of global touring and chairman of global music for Live Nation — and Madonna’s promoter for nearly 20 years.
Madonna has just announced her own theatre run: 82 shows in 10 cities, seven of them in the US, three in Europe. At the Palladium in London, where she plays 15 nights in January and February, tickets range from £61.50 to £481.50. With larger rooms than Springsteen, assuming the same average price of $500, she will gross about $106m, albeit with production costs that are likely to be significantly higher, and the cost of moving between cities.
It’s easy, in the circumstances, to be cynical. But the motivations for these shows — Madonna’s or Springsteen’s, or Morrissey’s for his own recent Broadway residency — are not necessarily purely mercenary.
Fogel says the starting point for the Madonna tour was not one of maximising revenues. “It was a thought that came from her on the basis of the new record, which lends itself to more intimacy than her usual arena or stadium venues.” It’s also simply nicer for artists to play extended runs in single cities rather then step on to the treadmill of Krakow on Tuesday, Kiev on Wednesday, Istanbul on Thursday.
“Listen, I don’t think there’s any question it’s less wear and tear, physically,” Fogel says. “And I think that’s an important consideration, particularly for some artists. I think it allows her to create a unique show and environment that can’t necessarily be transferred every day or second day to a new city. I’ve always been a great proponent of the strategy of changing up things: if an artist goes out and does the same thing in the same cities, the same venues, tour after tour, that catches up with you.”
“You can’t find any artist who doesn’t pine for the days they could look at the whites of the eyes of the audience,” says Tim Ingham, the founder of the music industry website Music Business Worldwide. He also points out that where stadium and arena shows have become subject to a production arms race, in which each artist has to out-spectacle the next, going back to theatres enables older artists to emphasise their strengths.
“It’s a really good showcase to remind people that they write their own music, or play their own instruments, and the theatre allows them to maximise that without facing an unfavourable comparison on a production level with some of the young superstars. How would Madonna at Wembley compare to an Ariana Grande Wembley show? But then again, how would an Ariana Grande theatre show compare to a Madonna theatre show, where everyone knows every single song?”
Being in a theatre changes the nature of the audience, too. At Springsteen’s show — and it will be the case at Madonna’s, too — the price of the tickets excluded casual fans, and brought in the most devoted. “That creates an amazing atmosphere,” Ingham says. Nigel Templeman, who managed Dexys Midnight Runners when they played five shows at the Duke of York’s theatre in London in 2013, believes that even being in a theatre changes the behaviour of a typical rock and pop crowd. “There are fewer people walking to the bar, put it that way. As an artist you have a much more engaged and focused audience, and you’re not going to have people talking, which is the remarkable thing when you’re in a traditional theatre. They just watch.”
The money matters, though, not so much in terms of the earnings from Springsteen and Madonna’s shows, but what they mean for the future of pricing shows by big stars. There’s a general agreement in the music industry that big shows are underpriced — hence the thriving “secondary market” where ticket-buyers resell at huge mark-ups. It’s also widely believed that promoters and artists have colluded to sell tickets directly to the secondary market, when artists have insisted, for their public image, on keeping face prices low, but privately demanded huge guaranteed fees from the promoter. The only way the promoter can meet the fee is to sell a chunk of tickets at a massive mark-up.
Fogel stops a long way short of denying that high prices for theatre shows might be a way of softening up audiences for higher prices in future for conventional arena or stadium shows. “If you look at the evolution of pricing, it’s changed dramatically,” he says. “The secondary market appetite suggests tickets are underpriced. Certainly the top end of pricing has increased and I believe will continue to increase, based on what the market dictates.” However, he adds, that’s just one sector of the ticket inventory, and it remains crucial that artists keep some seats cheap. “I do think there is a fundamental need to make sure everybody has some opportunity based on what they can afford. and I’m not sure that dynamic is ever going to change.”
Springsteen’s 236-show run is not likely to be repeated. But there are more artists who, like Madonna, might fancy the idea of scaling down the crowds, easing off the touring schedule, and charging what they believe they are worth. And, in this age of the “experience economy”, there are more and more people willing to pay a premium for an event that carries with it the air of something unusual or exclusive.
So does Fogel think more artists will copy this model? “Yes, I do. I think it’s opened up the eyes of artists and people in the industry to the potential for doing it this way. It will happen more often, for sure.” Given that Fogel also promotes U2 and Lady Gaga, and that he promoted the most financially successful tour in history — U2’s 360º tour — it’s worth taking notice. The neon lights are bright on Broadway, indeed.
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