In A Golden Era (Again?): Pollstar Live! Breaks It Down
ON THE COVER: A crowd enjoys Electric Callboy at O2 Academy Birmingham on Oct. 28, 2023, in Birmingham, England. Photo by Katja Ogrin / Redferns

When the memories start bouncing around, bumping into each other and shooting off into other directions like marbles at the schoolyard, someone, somewhere at Pollstar Live! will tell a tale about the old days.

It’ll be some wild yarn about the territorial era, about some spittle-flecked promoter in some wide-spot-in-the-road town or some bottom-dealing club owner with unhinged payout policies or some guy who might loan you money but also might keep you as a — ahem — less-than-voluntary guest if payments aren’t forthcoming.

Those stories, in many cases, aren’t being told second-hand, because those days weren’t so long ago. This business is not so terribly old.

When we talk about a Golden Era, it is not — as it is in so many other human endeavors — a period in the misty past with marble heroes or sepia-toned panoramas. Maybe the stories were better in those days or maybe they’ve just gotten better in the inevitable exaggeration of the re-telling.

There is nostalgia for a bygone time — of course there is; we are humans, after all, and nostalgia is a deeply human impulse — but the idea that an older time was a simpler one and thus a better one? That’s just not bound by evidence.

The table-setting panel for Pollstar Live! 2024, “Golden Era 3.0: How Long Will This Boom Last (And What Can We Do To Sustain?)”, will examine the current boom, but it’s important to remember: booms are only apparent in the context of a slump. If this is Golden Era 3.0, it’s only because there were two others, bookended by troubling downturns or difficult circumstances or tectonic shifts.

And if ever there was a seismic boom it came in the form of a kaiju metaphor at the 1999 edition of Pollstar Live!’s precursor, the Concert Industry Consortium.

Fall Out Boy So Much For (Tour)Dust
THIS IS A SCENE, IT’S OUR ARMS RAISED: Fans cheer during the Fall Out Boy “So Much For (Tour) Dust Tour” at Fenway Park in Boston, August 2, 2023.

“In the words of Godzilla: Size matters,” said Robert F.X. Sillerman, CEO and founder of SFX Entertainment said, as relayed in “Ticket Masters” by Dean Budnick and Josh Baron. Sillerman had already scarfed up many of the long-running, successful regional promoters — and he was on the offensive, saying he’d only get bigger.

“There has to be a market leader in every business segment. … You either make things better for all your constituencies or you are abusive, or some combination – there’s no question in my mind and in the minds of 99% of the people that we’re making things better,” Sillerman said. “I respect the fact that other people will be concerned about it. We have plenty of competition.” 

Many in the audience — including many of the regional promoters SFX had rolled up — looked askance at one another. Sillerman was believed to have been carrying a heavy debt load and though he was talking a good game, many felt he wasn’t sticking around.

The next year, Sillerman sold SFX to Clear Channel for $4.4 billion. And things changed forever, creating the modern version of the live industry.

That first Golden Era may have in fact just been a Gilded Age — shiny but with fragile fundamentals.

Indeed, the Great Slump came in 2009-10. It was an era marked by lower attendance, massive discounting, tours reconfigured or canceled outright for vaguely defined “aesthetic reasons.” There was a broader economic downturn that manifested a customer revolt against higher ticket prices. Live Nation’s 2010 merger with Ticketmaster raised hackles on Main Street and Capitol Hill.

Things bounced back, of course, and a steady wave carried the industry through what felt like a more structurally sound Golden Era 2.0.

Then the world shut down. An industry built on mass gatherings was going to have obvious struggles during a pandemic of a highly contagious respiratory virus and once it was OK to be together again, it was obvious there’d be a rebound, but The Great Return and the Golden Era it ushered in are unprecedented.

By some estimates, live music revenue worldwide dropped as much as 80% when the world closed in 2020. Even with a strong recovery, logically, it should take several years to recover from such a blow.

But people love being together. People love the joy. And people missed it. PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that by 2027, live music ticket sales will hit nearly $26 billion worldwide. 

Flawless: Beyoncé performs at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri, October 1, 2023 . Photo by Kevin Mazur / WireImage / Parkwood

“Through 2027, live experience revenues are expected to grow at 9.6% (compound annual growth rate), four times the 2.4% CAGR predicted for overall consumer revenue, highlighting the enduring appeal of live experiences,” PwC said.

It’s not just PwC saying so: fans are too. Annual consumer sentiment surveys report concertgoers plan to spend as much or more in the next year as they did the year before. This has been true despite the post-pandemic recessionary fears and the worst inflation in a generation. Recessionary worries have largely disappeared from the minds of both economists and consumers. Inflation has cooled, at least in the U.S., with wage growth now outpacing price growth. And unemployment is still stubbornly low.

Could a great time just keep getting greater?

It’s not all hunky-dory across the industry; there are still disquieting signs, particularly in small venues. Still, the pipeline at the blockbuster level is full into 2024 and beyond. 

Is the unprecedented now precedented? 

The Golden Era panelists represent a cross-section of the industry, uniquely positioned to provide insight on how to navigate uncharted waters.

Moderator Jeffrey Azoff, Azoff Company COO and Full Stop Management CEO, is no stranger to the rarefied air of the blockbuster tour, given his representation of Harry Styles. Matt Blake, who helms CAA’s comedy department, regularly has his comics atop the touring charts. Live Nation’s SVP of Global Touring Lesley Olenik promotes all over the map while helping artists to use their platforms for good. UTA partner Cheryl Paglierani represents many of hip-hop’s hottest acts. Veteran industry pro Rich Schaefer became AEG’s president of global touring in October.

Schaefer says though things are booming, the fundamentals of the business are still the same and euphoria can’t shove those fundamentals away.

“We would be foolish to think it’s going to last forever. It is incredible that so many acts can sell out stadiums, feels like more than ever before,” he says. “However, we must still be mindful of ticket prices as well as how much traffic certain cities can handle. While we’ve seen an increase in ticket prices and what fans are willing to spend, we must consider the economy both globally and on a local city-by-city basis. We are also very collaborative with agents and managers to make sure artists are playing the right size rooms and charging the fair market value so that the artists, and not brokers, are making the money.”

One of the lessons of the pandemic is that everything can fall apart in an instant because unforeseen events are unforeseeable. Prognostication is a fraught endeavor and “Prepare for the worst and hope for the best” is advice as worthwhile in the live industry as in any other.

The evidence is there, though, that if Golden Era 3.0 launched because of the prosaic economic force of pent-up demand coalescing with the poetic desire for renewed human connection, its continued existence may be buoyed by demographic heft.

For one thing, there are simply more markets and more places than ever.

“Fans continue to prioritize live experiences and I see no signs of demand slowing down,” Olenik says. “Live is growing for artists of all levels and genres. The globalization of music via social and streaming is driving success for the most diverse set of artists we’ve ever seen, allowing them to find success in more parts of the world than ever before.”

And there are new generational forces, too. Even before the pandemic, Gen Zers and Millennials were telling researchers that they craved the interpersonal connections of live events as an antidote to the solipsistic isolation of social media. Imagine how much those feelings were exacerbated by stay-at-home orders.

Gen Z has proven to be as passionate about live music as any other generation. A Live Nation study found that 93% of Gen Z concertgoers agreed with the statement “I will always find a way to see my favorite artist perform.” Being a fan of an artist is, particularly to Gen Z (those born between 1997 and 2012), an identity characteristic that leads to spending. The oldest Gen Zers are in their late 20s, earning their own money and making independent financial choices. The youngest are nearing teenagery and the first tiptoed steps of that independence. But their demands and expectations are different from the Boomers who made rock and roll the most dynamic cultural force of the 20th century, different from Gen X who drove the first Golden Era and the Millennials who carried the second.

Gen Z fans may keep Golden Era 3.0 alive, but only industry pros can cultivate it. Taylor Swift — a Millennial so famous, so gravitational, she’s a Billennial — obviously has cross-generational appeal. There are Z artists — Olivia Rodrigo, Billie Eilish, Megan Moroney, Peso Pluma — building fanbases that can fuel Golden Era 3.0, but that pipeline needs support.  

“We are certainly seeing a decline in artist development and the resources available to artists outside of the digital world needed to master their crafts and become the kind of entertainers who can go the distance,” Paglierani says. “Many artists who gain quick popularity are struggling to sustain their careers due to the lack of a solid fanbase. The key is to adapt to an evolving landscape while ensuring that artists have the proper support and resources they need for long-term success.”

When Gary Bongiavonni and the late Gary Smith (see page 34) formed CIC in 1994, it was, as Smith told Pollstar in 2022, because they wanted a conference that spoke directly to the live industry, where its power players could trade ideas and build a community.

The business has changed since 1994 and it’s changed countless times since some savvy someone long ago had the bright idea to charge money for live entertainment, but it’s still, at its core, about relationships (see page 6) and those bonds are the bridges on which knowledge travels, the bridges which carry us over troubled waters. The world has surprises. Gen Z may carry Golden Era 3.0 far into the future. Or it may tarnish for reasons we couldn’t possibly predict.

Either way, we’ll ride through it. Together.