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Cruel Summer

A couple of weeks ago, the entire Lollapalooza Tour was canceled. Earlier this summer, Christina Aguilera likewise pulled the plug on a whole tour, citing a throat condition, and her rival pop tart Britney Spears also canceled a bunch of dates, pegging the blame on a bum knee.

Though there was no Houston date planned for Lollapalooza, neither Spears nor Aguilera will be treating Woodlands audiences to their naughty dance moves or saucy songs as scheduled. The Mary J. Blige show there in May was also a bomb, as opposed to da bomb. So far, it's been a down year for the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, Houston's foremost concert amphitheater, or shed, as they're called in the music business.

"We've got about the same number of shows as last year," says Mitchell Pavilion president Jerry MacDonald. "And so far it's been a little off. There's a number of reasons for that -- probably the No. 1 reason has been the weather. We've had 30 days of rain in the last month, and that hasn't helped us."

But even in sunnier cities, the summer season has been a washout. Nationwide, shed shows are hurting. Sales of general-admission lawn seats are said to be especially weak.

"Everyone from the Dead to Dave Matthews to Norah Jones is suffering," read a statement by Marc Geiger of the William Morris Agency, the company that helped found and organize the 13-year-old Lollapalooza festival. "There's not one explanation for this. It might be that ticket prices are too high…Maybe it's the sundry add-ons that up the cost? Maybe gas prices are too high?"

Think about all that in relation to Houston and the Pavilion. Let's pick an upcoming concert and apply Geiger's rhetorical questions -- say, the Kid Rock show on July 23. Lawn tickets are $28 -- not too bad, compared to some others; John Mayer is asking $35.50, Sting and Annie Lennox $38, Dave Matthews $39.50. But here come Geiger's "sundry add-ons." Ticketmaster tacks on its usual $7 "convenience charge" to each ticket and its usual $4.15 "order processing charge" for the entire order. (And these fees are nonrefundable -- even if the Kid dies before the show, you're out $18.15.) The Pavilion demands another ten bucks for parking, or $12.30 if you let Ticketmaster handle it -- they get a 23 percent markup. And in this case, alone among the shows this summer season, you would also have to pay a seven-buck-per-ducat "facility fee" to the Pavilion. (After all, it's Kid Rock we're talking about -- there will probably be more puke slicks to mop up than usual.)

So let's say you plan to take a date to go see the Kid. That's $56 for two tickets, plus $42.15 in fees, of which Ticketmaster takes $18.15 and the Woodlands folks $24. Ring-ring, that's $98.15, please, all before your first expensive beer or soggy nacho.

Of course, you could pocket Ticketmaster's share by picking up your tickets at the box office, but unless you're an extreme masochist who enjoys traffic on I-45 and can take a couple of hours off during their office hours (10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays), it's unlikely you will. After all, the Mitchell Pavilion is a full 30 miles of treacherous, traffic-clogged interstate from downtown, and much farther from Sugar Land and Pearland. At the end of all that driving and time off work, you'd still be stuck with the Pavilion's $24 worth of surcharges. And what does a 60-mile round-trip cost in gas these days?

When you get to this Kid Rock show, what do you get? The right to navigate a confusing system of parking lots, all far from the venue, for starters. Once inside, you get a few square feet of grass, hundreds of yards from the stage, in an amphitheater carved out of a swamp, in August, in one of the worst summer climates in the world. And then it might rain, transforming your patch of grass into part of a huge, sloped Woodstock-like mud wallow. At many shows, you can't bring in umbrellas or blankets, both of which the venue deems dangerous and/or a nuisance, though the venue will provide you with a rain poncho you can keep for $5 and a rented lawn chair for another four bucks. Or you can bring in a bath towel -- not a beach towel, mind you -- to sit on. (You can't bring in your own lawn chair, of course. According to the venue, you might block somebody's view.)

"They've played baseball indoors for 45 years in this city, and somehow we've built an outdoors concert venue 30 miles from town in a swamp," fumes one nonfan of the Pavilion.

Classic rock fan Pam Tinsley is another Pavilion basher. She claims that the back speakers -- the ones closest to the lawn -- have been off every time she's been there recently. "I went to the Boston, Journey and Aerosmith shows, and they were off every time," she says. "I confronted some people who work there about it, and they denied it, but I know they were off. You can't hear anything. I can hear the bands louder on my car stereo on the way home than at the concert." (Two other fans backed up Tinsley's claim, though MacDonald and Pavilion media relations director Cindy Dubois both said they had yet to hear similar complaints.)

 

All right, let's pretend you live downtown and you've decided to go to the Kid Rock show. You've forked over a hundred bucks in tickets and surcharges, and budgeted an hour each way to get to and from the show. Let's say it rains -- it's been known to do just that a fair bit lately. You and your date are either lolling in the mud or out another $18 for rain ponchos and chairs. You're seated about 500 yards from the Kid -- he looks like a doodle bug way down there on the stage. Since the speakers are nearly inaudible, you can barely hear anything other than undifferentiated racket spewing from the faraway speakers on the stage. And Kid cuts his show shorter than the one he performs elsewhere on tour -- after all, the good folks of The Woodlands have to get their beauty sleep, so off he goes at 11 sharp.

What other industry delivers so little for so much? Imagine if restaurants started operating like this. A parking lot attendant demands ten bucks for the right to stash your ride about a half-mile from the door. The maître d' searches all your bags, confiscates a bottle of water, demands one bribe to seat you, and then another to "process" the bribe he just accepted, and then tells you to go sit on a patch of grass outside. If you want chairs, that'll be extra. The kitchen bills you for the use of their facilities, and you have to pay your bill up front. Then the waiter brings your order to another table -- you can look at it, but don't get too close! Only those who have paid much, much more than you for far better tables are allowed to really dig in. If you are unlucky enough to be seated outside and it starts to rain, the owner comes over and charges you ten bucks per person to come inside. And then everybody gets thrown out on their ear at 11 sharp, whether they're done with their meal or not.

Is it any wonder that people would much rather go out to eat, or go to a ball game or a strip club -- anything other than a concert? As one poster put it recently on velvetrope.com, "If I go to a restaurant and spend $200, I get treated like royalty. If I go to a concert and do the same, I get treated like cattle."

This isn't to pick on the Pavilion. They do as good a job as anybody in the amphitheater trade, and their regulations and fees are by no means atypical. It's just that fans are getting the short end of the stick at these shows, coast to coast. And there doesn't seem to be an easy solution on the horizon. Promoters, artists, managers/agents, radio stations and venues are all blaming one another for rising ticket prices and slower sales, and all of them have a point.

Independent promoters blame the high prices on Clear Channel's live entertainment division. "You have a game plan by a large national corporation to try and capture market share by driving everyone out of the business," one California promoter told the San Francisco Chronicle, "overpaying for talent so other promoters can't afford to compete and raising ticket prices on a broad basis so the consumer has to pay for it." Other promoters blame Clear Channel Radio -- rock radio has created very few headlining acts over the last few years. In fact, one Clear Channel Entertainment regional rep even admitted publicly that this summer's concert season is dominated by "tired" acts. Ticketmaster comes in for a bashing from just about everybody except its own employees. Fans blame the bands for being greedy. God himself gets blamed for the rain and the heat.

Meanwhile, people are voting with their feet. Some club shows are thriving at the expense of the sheds, and huge events such as Coachella, Bonnaroo and the Austin City Limits Festival are positively thriving. Squeezed at both ends, by intimacy and comfort in the clubs and immensity and importance at the fests, shed shows had better find a happy medium, or their era could be ending.


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