Conceivably, today's announcement that the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority has agreed to act as landlord for the proposed Houston Dynamo stadium in downtown's East End could present a serious challenge to the Houston area's reigning concert King Kong, the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion.
The Dynamo's stadium would be bigger, with a planned capacity of around 25,000 versus the Pavilion's 17,000, and a much shorter drive for the approximately 75 percent of Greater Houston residents who do not live around Bush Intercontinental Airport or northward. That certainly seems to be the intention of the Dynamo's owners, who also happen to be one of the biggest concert promoters in the U.S.
"We're a larger venue," Dynamo president Chris Canetti told Rocks Off's sister blog Hair Balls Thursday afternoon. "Our parent company is AEG, that's their business, live entertainment and they do a lot of musical shows across the country. So I suspect that we'll be looking to do a handful of shows, if not more, in the new stadium."
But that may not be the case. To paraphrase Ghostbusters, AEG may have the tools (or will soon), but does it have the talent?
In today's concert industry, it's no longer as simple as artists about to go on tour auctioning themselves off to the highest-bidding promoter. Many still do, but to account for the loss of revenue from the severe decline in record sales this decade, other artists - especially those who can sell concert tickets by the thousands and not the hundreds - are signing exclusive "360" deals with promoters like AEG and its main competitor, Live Nation.
These 360 deals encompass everything from management to merchandising. More importantly, since touring revenue has become so important (even vital) to the music business' bottom line, it's in the promoters' interests to route their clients into venues they have a stake in wherever possible. In Houston, Toyota Center rents itself out to both AEG and Live Nation (and anyone else who can pay for it, for that matter), but the Woodlands Pavilion has a booking partnership with Live Nation.
Last month, concert trade journal Pollstar reported that the Pavilion ranked No. 2 in the world for 2010 ticket sales among amphitheaters with 307,489 through the third quarter, which ended in September. The following shows sold out: Jimmy Buffett, Jack Johnson, John Mayer, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Rush, as well as Buzzfests XXIV and XXV in May and October.
"I think they have a niche both in terms of where they're located and the size of the venue, and I think we're going to provide something that's just a little bit different for everybody," Canetti told Hair Balls.
Actually, they already do. Rocks Off does not know enough about the inner workings of concert promotion to say for sure - and the people who work in the business are way too tight-lipped to ever come out and admit it to the press - but to a layman's eye, Live Nation and AEG seem to have divided the local big-concert pie along genre lines.
Although on the club and theater level - House of Blues, Warehouse Live - both companies book artists from all genres, the majority of Live Nation's recent arena/amphitheater events have been rock, hip-hop and Latin. Besides those sold-out Woodlands shows, there's been Shakira, Vicente Fernandez, Roger Waters, Drake and Gorillaz. (Lady Gaga, who sold out Toyota Center twice for Live Nation in July and is due back in April, is practically a genre unto herself these days.)
Country seems to be the only type of music with enough talent, a big enough fan base, or both to go around. This summer and fall, Live Nation produced both Brad Paisley and Sugarland at the Woodlands and several shows at the Sam Houston Race Park. AEG countered with Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood at Toyota Center this year, and produced George Strait's most recent Houston date at Reliant Stadium in August 2008.
Underwood aside, AEG's larger Houston shows this fall have otherwise been pop and R&B: Justin Bieber, Adam Lambert, Fantasia and Usher. Save Bieber - maybe - none of those acts can currently draw enough people to fill a 25,000-seat stadium on their own.
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Naturally, this could all be a big coincidence. And furthermore, if only seven out of the dozens of shows at the Woodlands this year sold out - and two of those were all-day festivals heavily promoted by one of Houston's most popular radio stations - there seems to be little incentive for the artists who didn't, or actually their management, to book an even larger venue.
No doubt some people put off by the lengthy drive to the Woodlands would go see the same show downtown, but enough to make up a difference of between 5,000 and 10,000 tickets? In this economy? Sorry, but if it were Rocks Off's money, we wouldn't bet on it.
That said, there's no business like show business, where money has a funny way of changing people's minds. If the stadium does go through, could Houston one day see a Live Nation show, or a Live Nation 360 artist like U2, Madonna or Jay-Z, there?
Probably so... if the price is right.