Saturday, June 24, 2006

The tail once again: the end of the blockbuster tour.

Music
Iron Man Slows, and So Does the Industry
By JEFF LEEDS
SAN BERNARDINO, Calif.

THERE are pockets of the country where a lurching 45-foot black bus festooned with demonic imagery would be an unwelcome sight. This is not one of them. When the Ozzfest 2006 motor coach, a rolling advertisement for Ozzy Osbourne's annual tour of hard-rock and heavy-metal bands, parks outside a shopping mall, a clutch of teenagers gathers outside hoping to score free tickets to the shows.

The bus is ostensibly part of a nationwide beauty contest designed to generate publicity, but judging from its reception here that hardly seems necessary. A woman in her 30's breathlessly dials her cellphone to tell her husband she has seen the bus. "The whole family loves Ozzy," she says. "They all pray to Ozzy." And they, like the multitudes of Mr. Osbourne's fans nationwide, worship at the box office.

Back in 1971 Mr. Osbourne prophetically declared himself the Iron Man. At 57 he finds himself with fans both older than he is and, thanks in part to his recent television stardom, a decade younger than his kids. Now in its 11th year, his tour, which begins again Thursday in Seattle, remains one of rock's biggest juggernauts. Generating almost $20 million a year in ticket sales — in addition to a lucrative mini-industry of souvenirs, merchandise and related CD's and DVD's — Ozzfest ranks among the top-selling tours in the nation.

But this year the Iron Man and his tour are confronting an uncomfortable reality: rust. Mr. Osbourne, who broke more than half a dozen bones in an accident a few years back, plans to play just 10 of this year's 26 dates. "Ozzy needed to take time out," said Sharon Osbourne, his wife and manager. (Mr. Osbourne was in tour rehearsals last week and unavailable for comment, his spokesman said.) "It just becomes like a routine. The thing is, you never want to get like that. He's got to be as excited as everybody else." But it is increasingly unclear how many more years a man of his age can stay with the tour in any capacity. "It's a worry to me," Ms. Osbourne acknowledged.

She's not the only one. The $3-billion-a-year concert industry is worrying right along with her, about Ozzy and all his contemporaries too.

This summer, a remarkable number of the projected best-selling tours are led by people eligible for AARP membership. Tom Petty is 55. Jimmy Buffett is 59. Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend are both 61. Madonna, whose tour is the hottest so far this year, is a youthful 47.

Last year, according to the concert trade journal Pollstar, 6 of the 10 highest-grossing tours starred artists in their late 50's or 60's, among them the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, the Eagles and Elton John. Those six alone accounted for more than $470 million in domestic ticket sales — about 30 percent of the total for the year's 50 biggest tours.

But keeping those guys on the road gets harder every year, with more canceled performances and more Bengay.

U2, Metallica and Prince, who made it big in the 80's, still seem to be going strong. After them, though, it's a precipitous drop-off to the next tier of younger performers. The Dave Matthews Band, Coldplay and Radiohead are often discussed as successors; the punk veterans Green Day and the dance-rock upstarts the Killers are also sometimes mentioned. None of them, however, can draw mass audiences at premium prices the way the older acts do. All of which has a great many people nervously counting down the years.

"Eventually," said Randy Phillips, chief executive of the concert promoter AEG Live, "we're going to run out of headliners."

Accounting for the shallow talent pool, some industry executives cite the effects of MTV, which lets fans see performers without ever leaving their couch. Others blame a recording industry more focused on disposable hits than long-term career development, or a universe of digital singles that can keep fans from establishing deep connections with an artist over a long career. Whatever the case, John Scher, the New York music promoter and entrepreneur, says that unless the industry's dynamics change, many of the nation's big summer music venues "will be plowed over and be made into housing projects."

MANY fans — and rival concert organizers — attribute Ozzfest's staying power to its mix. A daylong affair featuring 20 bands, it combines established rock acts that have older fans with up-and-coming metal talent that sways a fervent younger audience.

It's designed to serve as its own farm team. Smaller bands play on a second stage, usually in the parking lot. The greenest of them pay as much as $75,000 for this chance, in the hope of someday graduating to the highly lucrative main event. This year's headliner, System of a Down, is receiving about $325,000 per show, according to several people close to the tour.

Charlie Walker, president of the music division of Live Nation (the company that coordinates the tour with Ms. Osbourne), says the strength of the other headliners on this year's tour, including Disturbed and Avenged Sevenfold, shows that the system has worked. "The torch has been passed to these younger bands, and they're carrying their weight," he said. But the numbers are already slipping: roughly 431,000 fans purchased tickets last year, down from almost 575,000 in 2001, according to data from Pollstar, and tickets to shows Mr. Osbourne is skipping generally go for less than those he intends to play. As an incentive this year the tour is offering four tickets for the price of three in most markets.

Much of its competition now comes from smaller package tours of metal bands, some of which came up through the Ozzfest ranks.

That's yet another reason many predict a major realignment in the concert industry. As stars able to fill a stadium — or sell $250 premium tickets, as Sir Paul did last year — pass from the scene, the business may coalesce around medium- and small-scale shows.

For bands that would mean more days on the road, and more theaters and clubs than stadiums and arenas. For promoters it would mean relying on smaller individual paydays to make the bottom line. Promoters may also be forced to rely more on tours with ensemble casts. One frequently mentioned example is the Vans Warped Tour, a punk-oriented outing featuring up-and-comers, stalwarts and skateboarding, which has lasted 12 years without any huge star to anchor it. But perhaps as a result that tour can't charge nearly as much as Ozzfest. So bands get paid less and have to play more. "It's very exhausting," said Kris Roe of the Ataris, a rock band that has played the full tour twice. "You just try to adapt."

Many are also pinning hopes not on cross-country tours but on stationary multi-day festivals like the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Tennessee; such events are already a tradition in Europe. But would there be enough local interest to stage such events in every market? Even 20 festivals a year might not offset the disappearance of hundreds of millions of dollars in ticket sales from the classic-rock set, Mr. Scher said.

Bill Silva, a longtime Los Angeles promoter who is an organizer of events at the Hollywood Bowl and other places, said: "It feels to me like a lot of people have their heads in the sand. More people are focused on the fact that they're having a hard time selling tickets this summer than are focused on the fact that they may not have anything to sell tickets to in 10 years."


OZZFEST has tried to prepare for the post-Ozzy era by turning itself into a multifaceted communal affair. Away from the stage fans can wander a vast, circuslike concession area called the Village of the Damned, where they can get a tattoo or body piercing and play carnival games to win CD's. This year, in nine markets, they can also watch fire-breathers, "human oddities" and other sideshow performers. And they can patronize the tour's sponsors, like FYE, the music retailer, and Sony PlayStation.

"It's not about Ozzy anymore," said Josh Grabelle, president of Trustkill Records, an independent metal label and a partner in a competing tour, Sounds of the Underground. "It's about hanging out with your friends, barbecuing and drinking beers."

Organizers are also trying to reach fans where they live. That's where the black Ozzfest bus, bearing the picture of a woman with a bouquet in her hand and a demonic red glow in her eyes, comes in. Eddie Webb, a rock radio D.J., and Dave Moscato, who will be onstage introducing bands once the tour gets under way, are riding it cross-country, soliciting entrants for the first Miss Ozzfest beauty contest. To ensure that they find suitable candidates, the two young men are armed with a binder listing the location of every Hooters restaurant and strip club on their journey. Along the way they are making pit stops at record stores and tattoo shops to hand out posters and encourage potential fans.

"A lot of the bands these kids listen to, you won't hear them on the radio," Mr. Moscato said. "We have to go to the street level to tell kids, 'Ozzfest is transforming, and we have been listening to you.' It's growing with our crowd, rather than forcing it down their throat."

Is it working? On the streets of San Bernardino, a stay-at-home mother with pink hair, a Black Sabbath T-shirt and a car bearing an "Osbourne family" decal seems excited. But other fans have doubts. "Last year was really good," said Wynter Shaw, 22, a fan who posed for the Miss Ozzfest cameras in West Hollywood. "This year I wouldn't pay to see it. Ozzy's not playing all the dates. It seems really commercial to me."

Barbara Molina, 17, a clerk at a Hot Topic store, comes from a multigenerational Ozzfest family. Her aunt and uncle have attended regularly, she says, but this year may be a different story: "I don't know if they're going to go anymore, because Ozzy's not going to be on it." As for herself, Ms. Molina says she can't afford tickets, the cheapest of which run $35 or $40 in big markets. But at least she has her memories: it was at Ozzfest that she got her first tattoo, a handsome Celtic knot on her hip.

UNTIL anyone comes up with a better model, or a new roster of proven performers, the industry's war horses are doing their best to keep going. In part that means reining in old excesses. Even the members of Kiss, who with an average age of 56 are preparing to tour Japan, know better than to rock and roll all night. "They actually go to sleep instead of stay up for three months or drink themselves into a coma," said Doc McGhee, the band's manager. "You just can't do that day in and day out, not as you get older." As it stands, he added, "they definitely take more ibuprofen than cocaine."

Keenly aware of the toll that regular touring can exact on their aging bodies, many established stars have sought ways to retain their energy. Aerosmith has made regular use of a nutritionist, for example. According to contract riders posted on the Smoking Gun Web site, James Taylor, 58, wants his band's hospitality room stocked with packets of Emergen-C powder (lemon or lime, preferably). The Beach Boys, led by Mike Love, 65, require a licensed masseur qualified in either Swedish or Oriental deep-tissue massage. Mr. Osbourne himself has requested an ear, nose and throat specialist to administer a B-12 shot.

Steven Van Zandt, 55, a longtime member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, said he decided decades ago to build a workout regimen into his road life. "We brought all this gym equipment, and when we get to a hotel, we turn one of the hotel rooms into a gym," he said. "You need it more than you did when you were young." Mr. Springsteen, he noted, "has a special diet, you cut down on meat-eating," and sometimes wears kneepads to protect his joints while performing his famous knee slides across the stage.

Mr. Van Zandt said he believes his generation of musicians has more energy, and an "obligation" to perform up to the standards of rock's pioneers. "I saw this coming, 20, 25 years ago, and we talked about it. The sad truth is, when we're gone, it's over."

These efforts don't always work. In March, Aerosmith canceled the latter part of its North American tour when Steven Tyler, 58, had to undergo surgery. (The cause was never disclosed.) And health issues from Keith Richards's head injury to Ron Wood's substance abuse have bedeviled the Rolling Stones' tour this year.

Still, the news isn't all bad. Writing on his blog last week, Pete Townshend, 61, told his fans, "I began this diary wishing to speak about how doing all this makes me feel old." But he continued: "In many ways, despite the years I carry, it all seems easier today. Flying home on a Lear jet is an indulgence that no one really deserves, but six hours in the back of a van trying to sleep with amplifiers falling on your head, is not an option any more."

As for Mr. Osbourne, if he is heading toward retirement, he has his own way of staying young. This year the Iron Man is playing some of his dates on Ozzfest's second stage: out in the parking lot, closer to the most rabid fans.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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