Underplays In Overdrive: Why Big Artists Are Increasingly Playing Small Venues

Neilson Barnard / Getty Images / SiriusXM

Billie Eilish performing at L.A.’s 500-capacity Troubadour, as part of an exclusive concert for SiriusXM and Pandora Sept. 18, 2019, in West Hollywood, Calif., roughly a week before announcing her new arena tour.

Over the last several weeks a slew of major artists of varying backgrounds have performed what in the industry is well-known as underplays, i.e. artists performing at smaller venues with capacities far below their usual plays and market demand. While underplays of differing stripes have been around for as long as there’s been music performance (consider the Beatles on the rooftop of London’s Apple Corp, Prince’s many after-show jams, Springsteen at the famed Stone Pony, etc.), it’s a phenomenon that is increasingly becoming commonplace and in recent weeks may have reached its zenith.

Consider just one recent mid-September week when Billie Eilish played the Troubadour (Sept. 18), Guns N’ Roses rocked L.A.’s Palladium (Sept. 21), Miranda Lambert owned Nashville’s Exit/In (Sept. 23), The Black Keys hit L.A.’s Wiltern (Sept. 19), Sturgill Simpson announced a underplay benefit tour (Sept 23) and, most prominently, Madonna launched her “Madame X Tour” (Sept. 17), which, as the organizing principle of the superstar artist’s latest tour, may be doing more than anything to popularize the concept.
“I’ve seen the connection between her and the audience and what the audience is experiencing and they’re seeing her in a way they’ve never seen her before,” says Arthur Fogel, Madonna’s longtime promoter and Live Nation’s chairman of global music. “When she plays an arena or stadium it’s like this larger than life Madonna pop star who is up on a pedestal of sorts; here, there’s a very real audience-to-artist interaction.”
It’s that intimate and deeper connection between artist and fan that’s the core value proposition of any underplay. It brings the audience as a whole within closer proximity to the artist and often includes a scaled-back production to enhance that intimacy. The trend coincides with, and indeed is reinforced by, the rise of VIP packages over the last decade which places a premium on greater access during performances and can include artist meet and greets, acoustic performances, sound checks and premium seating.
An underplay similarly gives those in attendance that VIP experience of exclusivity. “There’s certainly no bad seats,” Fogel says of Madonna’s show at the 2,100 cap BAM Howard Gilman Opera House. “It’s such a different vibe. The intimacy, the no phones [via YONDR], her comfort with stripping away the layers all combine to deliver something really unique and special. And it absolutely works.”  
Indeed, grosses for an underplay gig can vary widely depending on if the event is sponsored, promotional or a proper tour. For “Madame X,” for example, “Tickets range from nearly $50 to $750, which is scraping up against VIP territory (though VIP packages for this tour run from $1,750 to $2,000). Some rough math on the “Madame X” tour: if the average ticket price is say, $350, a 2,100-capacity theater would yield $735,000, a gross more akin to a substantially bigger arena show.
But it’s not just veteran superstar artists like Madge who are underplaying. 
The Queen of Reinvention:
– The Queen of Reinvention:
Madonna, seen here performing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, has taken the art of the underplay to another level with her current “Madame X Tour.”
“People were genuinely excited about [Billie Eilish’s] underplay,” says her agent, Paradigm’s Tom Windish who saw the 17-year old phenom play back-to-back underplays at L.A.’s Grammy Museum and the Troubadour, the latter of which was a performance sponsored by SiriusXM and Pandora. (A branded event, according to an industry source, can easily “bring in a seven-figure” paycheck for the artist though it can be less when media is part of the deal.) 
“I was standing out in front of the Troubadour and everyone was like, ‘She’ll never do this again,’ including the owner of the venue.” 
It’s that unbridled enthusiasm that often generates an organic social media buzz, something marketers constantly strive to create. It can start with the show announcement and continue with the ticket sale, the performance and long afterward. Underplays quite often are a way to promote a new album or tour cycle. 
“It’s the kind of organic marketing you can’t pay for,” Windish says. “It sounds funny because playing Madison Square Garden or The Forum or Staples, that’s a big deal. But it’s not as big a deal when there’s so many artists doing the same thing. When you go do something unique people talk about it.” 
It is not much of a coincidence then that just this week, following her underplays, Eilish announced her upcoming arena tour. Or that this cluster of underplays transpired in September, a traditionally busy month for new album releases and tour launches.
“The buzz coming off of the Guns N’ Roses event we did [at the Palladium] was enormous and excellent and a great way to start the [next leg of their] tour that kicks off [Sept. 25], it checked all the boxes for us which is why we did it,” says United Talent Agency’s Ken Fermaglich, the Gunners’ agent and who compared their underplay to the 2016 launch of its “Not In This Lifetime Tour.” 
“That had significant sentimental value for Guns N’ Roses to go back and play the Troubadour in 2016. It was the first thing we did so there was a sentimental component to it in that The Troubadour was one of the first places the band played many years ago,” he said. 
Having real fans in attendance is also an essential ingredient to any successful underplay. Fermaglich noted GnR’s show was a Citi Sound Vault sponsored event with ticketing divided between brand, fans (sold through the band’s Nightrain fan club) and the general public using Ticketmaster’s Verified Fan platform to “weed out bots and scalpers.” 
The agent explained they “put a limited amount of tickets on sale Friday morning for the event on Saturday to try and minimize the amount of secondary ticketing sales to get as many tickets that we were allotted into the fans’ hands.” 
Brands too have long recognized the value of underplays as a potent marketing tool. Jennifer Breithaupt, Citi’s global consumer chief marketing officer, has overseen her company’s music programs for some 10 years. This includes the nearly three-year-old Citi Sound Vault, an underplay concert series for Citi card members that has featured Beck, Metallica, Katy Perry, Chris Stapleton, Muse and most recently one of Madonna’s BAM shows and a Guns N’ Roses set at the Palladium. 
“Underplays are a nice way to enhance our program and create additional value for our customers,” Breithaupt explains. “We get billions of impressions on these shows and that’s great for the brand as always,” she says, “The biggest piece is everything we’re doing around entertainment, it lets us connect with people on a completely different level through their heart and their mind. That’s the hardest thing as a marketer to do these days. It’s an amazing way to get somebody who already knows you and give them this once in a lifetime experience that might turn them into a lifetime brand fan and hopefully an ambassador.” 
In terms of best practices for marketing Citi’s underplays, Breithaupt believes in letting the artists dictate their creative vision. “We’ve done everything from two guitars on a stage with Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds to pyro with Metallica or the Chainsmokers. It depends on what that artist wants to do.” 
Also recognizing the power of the underplay is a new series titled OFFAIR that recently launched with Raphael Saadiq (Sept. 11) and Angel Olsen (Oct. 1) at Public Records, a new venue in Brooklyn. Founded by Versus Creative, the initiative is self-described as a “direct response to the frustrations of modern concertgoing, which has grown overcrowded and clogged with screens.” OFFAIR’s antidote to this is for each show to be an “intimate underplay” with limited free tickets for an audience of 150-300. 
“Fans get to feel like they’re part of something, and get that you-had-to-be-there feeling for themselves and a pic to prove it,” says Nate Auerbach, a partner at Versus Creative and former Head of Music at Tumblr. “They’ll have a story about how they got in, and they won’t have to spend $75 plus $20 fees to sit up high.” 
As universally lauded as underplays certainly are, one could argue what keeps the live industry so dynamic and thriving is the endless array of options to present and engage the live experience from festivals and sheds to podcast performances and surprise cameos. Indeed, Windish was en route to see Eilish headline the Life Is Beautiful Festival in Las Vegas after her two underplays. This came a few days before Eilish’s phenomenal “Saturday Night Live” debut a few days before she announced her 2020 arena tour.
“What’s the smartest thing that plays to longevity that an artist can do?” Arthur Fogel asks rhetorically, having overseen massive global tours including U2’s groundbreaking “360 Tour.” 
“It’s to change it up, right? If you go out and you tour the same way and the same venues every tour, it’s okay; but when you change it up, it adds a whole different perspective on who and what an artist is and it plays very well, too.” 
Still, the variety of performing options doesn’t mitigage the exciement of an underplay. Asked about her favorite, Citi’s Breithaupt diplomatically says she “likes them all for different reasons” and name checks Dave Grohl, Pink and a few others before the consummate marketer switches to fan mode. 
“We had Prince in San Francisco play before a couple thousand people” she says. “I would call that one of my favorite shows of all time. He started the show by coming on to the stage and saying, ‘Alright, everybody on your feet. You sit, I stop.’ 
“And then he goes, ‘So many hits, so little time.’ I was like, ‘This is going to be crazy.’ And he played for like three and a half hours. It was really an incredible experience.”