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Verizon amphitheater alters strategy amid industry shift

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Live Nation Entertainment has scaled back summer concert schedules at large amphitheaters across the country, and that includes one of its top performers, Verizon Wireless Music Center in Noblesville.

Verizon Fans gathered July 10, 2010, at Verizon Wireless Music Center for a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers concert. The venue will host fewer shows this year. (Photo courtesy of Live Nation Entertainment)

The former Deer Creek amphitheater will host 22 to 24 concerts this season, down from 29 last year.

The cutback is part of Live Nation’s strategy for avoiding a repeat of last summer, when attendance at amphitheaters nationwide dropped 6 percent, to 9.4 million. That was on the heels of a 3.8-percent decline in 2009.

Overly aggressive booking and faulty ticket pricing contributed to a dismal summer in 2010, said Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar magazine, which tracks average ticket prices for artists and show attendance. This year, he said, there will be fewer shows, lower ticket prices and better supporting acts.

“Everybody from promoters to artists are going to be conservative,” he said.

This year’s season at Verizon Wireless, which kicked off May 14 with Jason Aldean, includes blockbuster country artists Brad Paisley and Kenny Chesney, Jimmy Buffett, and rockers Kings of Leon and Muse.

General Manager Tom Mendenhall isn’t finished booking the local venue, but he confirmed that there will be fewer shows at the 24,000-capacity amphitheater.

Meanwhile, The Lawn at White River State Park, which fits 7,500, may see as many as 13 concerts, the most since Live Nation started booking the downtown venue eight years ago.

“Every year in the spring, we’re cautiously optimistic,” Mendenhall said. “We’re still in that economic recovery time period.”

Verizon Wireless Music Center reported selling 365,415 tickets last year, making it No. 4 among its peers nationwide, according to Pollstar data. Actual ticket sales were probably higher, but Live Nation stopped reporting on a weekly basis in the midst of the “disastrous” season, Bongiovanni said. The data reflects 21 shows.

Verizon Wireless Music Center is one of eight amphitheaters that Beverly Hills, Calif.-based Live Nation owns outright. Others are leased or operated under a booking contract.

The ticketing and promotions giant inherited the venue through a series of mergers. Local concert promoters Dave Lucas and Steve Sybesma opened Deer Creek in 1989 and later sold their company, Sunshine Promotions, to SFX Entertainment. Clear Channel Communications acquired SFX and in 2005 spun off Live Nation.

Live Nation put the 203-acre Noblesville property on the market in 2006, but didn’t get any takers. The company invested in some upgrades ahead of the 2010 season, including a new stage and sound system in the lawn area.

The company also added the “Rockstar Club,” which has air-conditioned rest rooms, a bar and a viewing deck. Access to the area costs an extra $10.

The addition of cushier digs speaks to the industry’s recognition that fans are staying away from giant outdoor venues, at least for non-festival concerts.

Verizon numbers“There are less artists out there today that can sell out large amphitheaters than there were 10 years ago,” said Lucas, who now owns locally based Live 360 Group. The firm is a booking consultant to a number of independent venues, including Conseco Fieldhouse.

“There’s so many types of music out there,” Lucas said. “People’s tastes are splintered.”

Mendenhall said Rockstar Club was simply an idea Live Nation’s local crew had been “kicking around a while” and decided to try in 2010.

Ticket sales in 2010 were down slightly from 2009, Mendenhall said.

“I wouldn’t say we were down dramatically,” he said. With most shows selling 10,000 to 12,000 tickets, he said, “It’s still a really good business.”

The declining popularity of big amphitheaters mirrors the waning influence of radio and album sales, said Craig Pinkus, an intellectual property lawyer at Bose McKinney and Evans who has represented Lucas.

“It’s not something that started last year,” he said.

Pinkus thinks young people, ages 12 to 24, are less likely to tie their personal identities to certain bands or genres of music. At the same time, older people, who relate to big-name acts, don’t want to fuss with lawn seating.

“They want amenities. They want comfort. They want good food available. They want no jostling,” he said.

That doesn’t mean the outdoor summer concert experience is dying. Live Nation has ramped up its booking at The Lawn at White River State Park. So far, there are 11 shows on the calendar, compared with nine last year.

The Lawn is one of Pollstar’s top-rated venues. The midsize venues are more profitable because they offer the artists less gross potential, which in turn drives down how much they demand in fees, Bongiovanni said.

Though they may earn less money, he said, “Most artists would prefer to sell out.”

Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino told investors in a conference call earlier this month that the amphitheaters are a “mature” business, but still an “important profit driver.” (Arena concerts are the most profitable, while festivals are the company’s fastest-growing segment.)

Rapino said it was too early to forecast summer ticket sales, but he hoped better pricing from the outset—thereby avoiding last-minute discounts—and “optimizing” the mix of concerts would shore up the amphitheaters’ profitability.

The second part of that strategy means fans won’t see acts like Creed or Lilith, two shows that did not sell well in Noblesville last year, Bongiovanni said.

In the long run, Bongiovanni thinks Live Nation will continue trying to unload the high-capacity amphitheaters wherever possible. Even Verizon Wireless Music Center, lauded by fans and artists for its design and sound quality, probably is worth more as a redevelopment site than for concerts, he said.

“It’s almost like Live Nation created a Frankenstein monster with their outdoor amphitheaters, and it’s eating them alive.”•

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  • Love it
    Verizon Wireless Music Center has had an average of 20-25 shows per season for years. Last summer they had even more than that. I love the place and go to a lot of shows there every summer. Yes, beer prices are high, but I feel like they are at every venue I go to. I also find parking a lot easier than what it was years ago. Have made a lot of good memories with friends there. Also, it was written that older people don't like to sit on the lawn. I'm 52 and sit on the lawn all the time with friends. There are tons of people my age on the lawn. Tons of fun! Thanks.
  • Concert Experience Change
    Deer Creek, err.. VWMC should have kept its cool name instead of selling out its namesake. A destinations name always has appeal. I personally love this venue. Improvements to 146th & SR 232 have made access to the venue much easier. Daylight Savings Time has ruined light shows for concert acts out there, particularly quality opening acts. The only real complaint I have is the price of beer. $9 for a Coors light is rediculous. And not being allowed to tailgate in the parking lot with beer police is B.S. I too love The Lawn At White River as its a beautiful venue, HOWEVER THERE IS NO PLACE TO GO IF IT RAINS ! There is no cover at Lawn At White River.
  • I loved the idea when they built it, but I hate the place
    Hate is a strong work I guess...but Deer Creek/Verizon Wireless is everything that is wrong with a concert experience...there is nothing worse than the parking there...and how in the world could you design something that has insufficient restrooms when you built it so that you could get out of your former outdoor concert venue at the Tennis Courts downtown, where the restrooms were so totally insufficient that women used to use the men's facilities because they could get in and out faster...so they build it and it has the same problem...wet floors, and not enough capacity. The staff is curt at best, mostly rude...the beer is 9 bucks for a Lite...Acoustically, it is ok, given the dynamics of outdoor open air, but it is not great sonically...and as everyone has mentioned, the parking is overpriced (I loved the move where the parking fee got put in with the ticket price, so you had to pay for parking whether you rode with someone or not) and getting out of there, forget it... I always waited for 45 minutes after the show to even start my car. The Parking attendants were useless in helping people get out, and they cut off parking on the East side of the venue, which I did everytime in the early years (that helped a lot...getting out on that side was fairly quick). I decided several years ago that I would not go again and I have not missed it. I have been to the Lawn a couple of times, much better experience, I will go there again...for me, smaller venues are so much better, Murat, Vogue, Birdy's, Radio, Radio, Wheeler Center...but Verizon Wireless can keep their parking snarl, expensive bad beer, high ticket prices, and crappy restrooms. they can sell it to the developers anytime they want. I have been to outdoor arenas in Atlanta, Schaumberg, Cincinnati (3 different ones), Columbus...none of them has any of the problems that are inherent in the Deer CreekVerizon Wireless experience...good idea, very poorly executed, now doomed to eventual extinction by suburban sprawl and the collapse of the music business as it once was...it will make a better fossil than concert venue.
  • Really?
    "Though they may earn less money, he said, â??Most artists would prefer to sell out.â??

    I don't believe this even for a minute. If this would indeed be true, the "artists" need to wise up.
  • Hmmm -
    Haven't been to a concert there in years because:
    1. Their prices for everything are way too high.
    2. The staff was never very nice or even polite.
    3. They're more than happy to take your moeny for parking when you park, but there's never anyone directing traffic out of the lot after the show - you're just on your own and it takes FOREVER.
  • Lucas is right
    The entire live concert template that worked so well from the late 60s through the early 2000s is not working as well now. Although there are some exceptions (Jimmy Buffett etc) it's always been largely a youth driven phenomonen. When acts like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones were in their prime, rock music was the dominant music of youth, and it translated well to live concerts. That continued into the 80s with the hair bands and arena rock. Today's youth's tastes are indeed splintered though, and today's hit music tends to be more the work of a nameless producer with the "star" (Katy Perry etc) just putting down a few vocal tracks. In the case of rap/hip-hop, there's just not much to watch. A guy with a michrophone isn't nearly as dynamic as a rock band. As older music fans age totally out of the concert going demo, the splintering effect of the internet means thousands of acts with small fan bases and doesn't bode well for large concerts.
  • Verizon
    Like the idea of the Rockstar Club! Always hated the long lines and trek to the restroom. The two main reasons we don't attend concerts at this venue often and discouraged our teens from attending, is how far out it is from the city and most of all, how long it takes to get out of the venue's parking lot and back to the highway. Love White River Park!

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