Why The (Relative) Dearth of Bands That Can Sell Out Arenas?

There is a site called Quora where people can ask and answer questions on a variety of topics. A question similar to the one in the title was posed by a reader and answered by a gentleman named Tom Higley to whom, all credit. I found it very insightful so I am summarizing it here and if you find it of interest, suggest reading the full post here

1. Technology, specifically, on the creation side, the availability of low-cost digital recording and distribution; and on the consumption side nearly zero cost to acquire and store content. The result is that more content is created and distributed than ever before.

2. Competition for scarce consumer attention. While content has exploded in quantity, each of us still has just 24 hours in a day, and we can listen to music for only a fraction of those 24 hours. Technology made creation and distribution vastly more efficient … but it hasn’t helped us consume songs in parallel.

But apart from mashups, we still listen to one song at a time. Consequently, while the supply of music has increased dramatically, consumer demand for music – on a per/consumer basis – has remained remarkably fixed.

3. Declining influence of mass media. In the 60s and 70s there were three television networks, and most major markets had a dominant radio station (or at most two – perhaps an AM and an FM station). If you grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, most of your friends shared your musical tastes and would cite the same top 25 artists within a 10% range.

Today? Forget about it. Pick 100 consumers in the 18-24 year old age range. There will be remarkably little overlap between them in terms of favorite artists.

4. A glut of touring artists who built their audiences before the points referenced in items 1-3 above. If you built your career as an artist at a time when media was consolidated, when content was relatively scarce, when the backing of your major label gave you manufacturing, distribution and clout, you have an advantage over most of the artists who have launched their careers during the last 5-10 years.

5. The 17-28-year-old demographic no longer generates any significant revenue for major labels. Yet there was a time – perhaps the golden era of rock in the late ’60s and early ’70s – when this demographic ruled!  They mattered more than anyone else in the marketplace for two reasons.

First, they listened to more music, discovered more music – and especially more new music – than anyone else. Why? Because they had the time to listen, they were self-differentiating through music – choosing an artist they liked based on that artist’s ability to connect with who they were becoming in life; and because they hadn’t already made up settled into a listening diet that was 80% of their past favorites.

Second, they spent a lot of money on music. For many executives in the music industry, a single or “album” release is “irrelevant” if it is content that no one pays for. Never mind that it may find many listeners in the 17-28 year-old demographic. If no one is buying those tracks, the music doesn’t matter. As a result, this demographic has become largely irrelevant. (Italics mine). Labels can make money from the youth and tween market. Disney can make money. Why?

Because at that age, kids want to fit in. They tend to define themselves in musical terms that are synonymous with the mainstream.

And the older demographic – those 29 and up – what about them? Most of their listening reflects content they’ve already settled into. Therefore, they don’t have the inclination or the time to discover a lot of new music. This is why this demographic can almost never be the principal market for up and coming artists.

And I will add here that that era from 1955 – 1975 was a golden era of music, perhaps never to return. And it happened just when the baby boom happened, and rock music went from being a novelty to an art form. The audience is still there. But it’s splintered. And perhaps music isn’t as central to their lives. That I can’t answer. 

9 thoughts on “Why The (Relative) Dearth of Bands That Can Sell Out Arenas?

  1. Cracking post again, Jim.
    It’s an interesting one – on the one hand changing tastes for the “17-28 year old” demo, would a band like U2 be the main draw now? I’m always feeling like the old man amongst my colleagues who fit in that demographic and listen to the likes of Beibers and some guy called the Weekend(?). On that hand there are still an awful lot of pop tarts and reality show winners clogging the arenas but I think there’s two other factors not mentioned above, kinda linked together, those changing tastes and greed.
    Live Nation; in their monopolising of those acts that can shift stadium-loads of tickets they’ve been able to hike the prices up beyond all decency. 17-28 year olds today have less disposable income than before as it is let alone when the hike of such prices goes beyond reasonable inflation. It’s also essentially closed the doors on allowing newer acts to get in.
    Meanwhile those of us in the… ahem… older demographic have to make that trade off that these increased prices mean for stadium tickets: a pair of tickets to see Bruce at Hyde Park (seriously, the price of tickets for this at a time when he was preaching about ‘high times on Wall Street means hard times on Main Street’ made me sick) along with travel etc, say, or a mortgage payment?
    Pearl Jam’s fight against Ticket Master may have been a lost one and mocked at the time but they had a point. I don’t think I ever paid more than £30 for a show (festivals excluded) – I don’t think I’d even get a round in at the bar for that now and I’m at a point in my life where I’ve got more disposable income than the 17-28 year olds.

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  2. I should have mentioned that the author of that Quora answer is somewhat of a music insider. Not that that means his word is the last word. But just FYI.

    As to U2, I like to think that quality will always win. And their sound fits neatly into that non-bluesy sound that’s been popular in rock for so many years. But on this side of the pond, the music in the younger part of the 17-28 demo is dictated by Top 40 and the later part typically by college radio. I have no idea what bands college radio is playing now but in the past, they broke the Police, U2, and REM not to mention a whole host of less commercial bands. And here in the States – at least in the Boston area – we no longer have an “alternative” station that’s truly reflective of college radio. My son tells that RadioBBC does a pretty good job of covering his demo. (He’s 23.)

    Agreed about the price thing. The only reason my son could afford to go see Foo Fighters is because I got him a couple tickets for his birthday. And yet with all that, they are certainly a band that can fill a stadium. Live Nation and Ticket Master are, in my opinion, monopolistic thieves. They don’t give one flying fuck about the fans or even the bands as long as they can line their pockets. I feel bad for kids today trying to see their favorite bands. Not to get all nostalgic here but when I was in that demo, for years I routinely saw three bands for less than 10 dollars. And they were usually all good!

    As to Bruce, et. al, search for my post from a while back called “Why Are Concert Tickets Priced So High?”

    I know I personally didn’t mock Pearl Jam for their quixotic quest. The real problem I think is not enough bands had the balls to join them and they couldn’t sustain it. Too bad.

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  3. Key quote: “The record business as most people know it, was just a short hundred-year blip in the 40,000 year history of the music business. A stopgap to solve a temporary problem that existed between the invention of sound recording (1890’s), and the invention of the internet (1990’s).”

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    1. Interesting perspective. I will say though that there are more than a few hangers-on to physical media. I just ordered “The Last Waltz 40th Anniversary” so I could listen to it in the car. I suppose I could buy it online and burn copies but that’s inefficient as hell. Or, I suppose, stream it on my phone while I drive around. Till that technology fails. So, I’m a fan of streaming when it’s appropriate and physical media when that’s appropriate.


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