Get ready, Houston, 'cuz here they come -- rolling into town in waves all summer long. No, not the Bayou City's infamous mosquito swarms, but the rock and roll package tours featuring '70s and '80s bands. And though these acts may have been off the charts for decades, their shows still attract audiences in numbers that many of today's top artists can't touch.
Mostly taking place during the summer in outdoor amphitheaters or "sheds," the bands on these bills are out to stir memories, spur record sales and maybe throw in a few new songs to boot, hoping against hope you won't view them as a good time to take a leak. And with an estimated two-thirds of all annual concert revenue racked up between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the competition for a concertgoer's cash is more heated than ever.
"The baby boomer generation have tended to stay loyal to the artists they grew up with," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar, a trade publication that tracks the concert industry. "They really relate to those artists, and they still come out to support them."
Locally, most of these package tours stop at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in The Woodlands. It's a hot stop, according to Bob Roux, the VP of music for the southwest region for SFX, which books rock acts at the venue. "Houston is one of the strongest markets in the country for these tours. We often set records for attendance, and our merchandise sales are always among the highest in the country," he says. "And that's a pretty good tool for measuring fan loyalty."
Roux says that while many of these bands' original fans, now ages 35 to 55, are willing to dole out big bucks for seats (and restroom proximity), the general-admission hill tickets, often as low as $15 to $20, are ideally suited for the younger fan, or the cash-strapped senior headbanger deciding whether to pay the car insurance for the month or party hearty for one nostalgic night.
"They want bodies there to pay for parking and drink beer and eat hot dogs. That's where [a venue's] profit comes from, not tickets," Bongiovanni adds.
Houston has already seen one of these tours with the Styx/Bad Company/Billy Squier/Survivor/Blue Öyster Cult show last week, which had all the ingredients of a well-put-together package: instantly recognizable bands of a similar genre with a number of hits under their belt. Even if hearing "Eye of the Tiger" one more time makes you want to vomit that pavilion hot dog, just wait a little while, and you'll also get "Don't Fear the Reaper," "The Stroke," "Shooting Star," "Don't Stop Believin'," "Come Sail Away" and a veritable arena-rock hit parade all in the same night.
"We know that the economy isn't as good as it was, concert prices are high, and we've changed our lineup, so people might not be sure about going," says Jonathan Cain, keyboardist for Journey, who headlines a June 10 Woodlands show with Peter Frampton and John Waite. "So having a package like [ours] offers a value."
Lead singer Bret Michaels of Poison, whose band will oversee the all-day Glam Slam Metal Jam on Sunday, May 27, at The Woodlands, says he's "psyched" about having so many acts on his bill. The virtual who's who of '80s hair metal includes Vince Neil (of Mötley Crüe), Quiet Riot, Great White, Warrant, Enuff Z'Nuff and the Bulletboys.
According to Michaels, Poison has always done well in Texas, but he has another ace up his sleeve: the best-known lineup of his band. How much that matters to a band's ticket sales and credibility is a hotly debated topic among fans. While the loss of a drummer or a bassist is a generally unlamented fact of rock and roll life, things get dicier when the "missing" member is a lead guitarist or singer.
Of course, there have been many examples of bands who weren't affected by such major shake-ups. AC/DC went on to even bigger success after the death of vocalist Bon Scott. The Hotel California-era Eagles and the Rumours edition of Fleetwood Mac had less than half of their original members.
But for bands on the downside, it's another story. No two groups know that better than Styx or Journey, whose current lineups are without singers Dennis DeYoung and Steve Perry, respectively. The solution for both acts was to find a vocal doppelgänger. This thankless task involves subsuming one's own sound under that of the more famous predecessor, all while taking a ton of flak from hard-core fans for not actually being that person. In that respect, the jobs of Lawrence Gowan (Styx) and Steve Augeri (Journey) are even harder.
"If we had somebody who sounded different, then we wouldn't have called it Journey. It wouldn't have the same feeling," says Cain. "And without [Augeri], we wouldn't have already had two successful tours. We needed someone who could carry the old material off."
The hits, of course, are what people come to hear. But many of the package-tour bands are also still actively recording. Journey's Arrival (Columbia) manages to maintain its familiar sound with a more contemporary approach. But even Cain is skeptical about its potential commercial success.
"We have a certain number of people who are loyal and will buy the new CD, but unless radio embraces a song, it won't happen," he says, adding that even stations that play Journey would sooner spin "Open Arms" or "Separate Ways" ad infinitum than touch any new material. "Very few will step out of the mold, even if they like what they hear."
Nonetheless, these bands needn't worry about applying for food stamps. Many of them continue to move a staggering number of records. So much so that the current Billboard sales charts under the advent of Soundscan specifically exclude older material (known as "catalog" sales) because they do (for record execs) embarrassingly well. For example, for one week in mid-April, the 13-year-old Journey's Greatest Hits outsold the current records of Ricky Martin, Dr. Dre and Macy Gray.
But what has kept these bands in the public eye over the past few years? More than classic rock and all-'80s radio formats, the real answer is VH1. With its mountain of documentary programs, headlined by the sublimely guilty pleasures Behind the Music and Where Are They Now?, VH1 reminds older viewers of bands they'd all but forgotten, while introducing them to new audiences.
"They just keep repeating our episode, and we get new fans directly because if it," Michaels says. "They dig up some amazing stuff." Poison also earned the dubious honor of VH1's "Top Hair Metal Band of All Time" on a program hosted by an unrepentantly mulleted Dee Snider. Michaels accepts the accolade with gusto. "I take it with complete pride and wear the sash proudly!" Michaels says with a laugh. "Hair metal, glam rock, shock rock, hard rock, cock rock. Call us what the fuck you want, as long as it rocks!"
Both Cain and Michaels mention Aerosmith (which is touring this summer on its own new hit record) as the ideal career trajectory for a classic-rock-era band: It's a group that's been down, but never out, with both current hits and a rich back catalog.
Bongiovanni, though, notes that Aerosmith is the exception. More realistic careers to emulate would be those of the Allman Brothers and Jimmy Buffett, bands that continue to put on massively successful tours independent of slow records sales or the aftershocks of fluctuating lineups.
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Lynyrd Skynyrd, to name another, will headline 93.7 FM's upcoming Arrowfest at The Woodlands on July 8, a bill that also includes Deep Purple, Cheap Trick, Ted Nugent and Nazareth. Should be plenty of burning Bic lighters held aloft for that one. And 106.9 FM's inaugural Point Fest will be on June 9 in Eleanor Tinsley Park. It will feature mostly '80s new-wavish MTV-era bands such as Asia, Berlin, Missing Persons, the Outfield and the Fixx. Later in the year, look for the annual KLOL Fall Jamm. The cross-promotional aspect of these radio-station shows, of course, is obvious.
And so bands whose commercial heydays have long passed can still look forward to a lucrative career on the road -- just as long as fans have them in their collective memory banks. "Familiarity breeds attraction," says SFX's Roux, summing up the current appeal of these groups. "We all want to be comfortable and have a good time."
Not to mention yelling "Freebird!" at the top of our lungs -- and having a good chance of actually hearing it.
A package tour is coming soon to a venue near you. Trust us.