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On the Cover: Standing Room Only

 by Si Robins
 published on Thursday, September 7, 2006

/issues/arts/697529
Jeremiah Armenta / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
 
Ash, the lead singer of New Years Day, belted out tunes at the Brickhouse on Friday, Sept. 1. The group is from Orange County, California./issues/arts/697529
Jeremiah Armenta / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
Ash, the lead singer of New Years Day, belted out tunes at the Brickhouse on Friday, Sept. 1. The group is from Orange County, California.
 
Robbie Holingsworth, lead guitarist for local band March Against Fear, plays feverishly at the Stray Cats Bar./issues/arts/697529
Jeremiah Armenta / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
Robbie Holingsworth, lead guitarist for local band March Against Fear, plays feverishly at the Stray Cats Bar.
 

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On a muggy Thursday evening in late August, Phoenix's Modified Arts is packed to the brim with sweaty attendees waiting to see Phoenix band Reubens Accomplice take the stage.

Two nights later, a long line of people stretches down Jackson Street in Phoenix, waiting to enter the Brickhouse Theater to see a show that features local acts The Stiletto Formal and DeSole.

Both crowds are here to see shows that feature both local and national acts.

While national magazines like Rolling Stone and Billboard have reported decreases in live music performance sales in the last few years, many Phoenix and Tempe venues are not experiencing a problem.

Local venue owners, ranging from the huge, superstar stadiums to the smaller clubs and music halls, claim that attendance is high, but there continues to be news of a national slump.

Phoenix could be an unlikely exception to this rule.



The national slump

The national news media has been telling consumers for quite some time that ticket sales are down. Even the international media has commented on the state of live music in the U.S. Just last year, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported that American concert attendance had fallen by nearly 12 percent. The first six months of the year were down to 14.5 million tickets, compared to 2004's 16.5 million tickets. If such a drastic slump is occurring nationwide, one might expect music experts to predict an even more dramatic effect for the Phoenix area, which isn't regarded as a mecca for the music scene like Los Angeles, Chicago and Seattle.

But then, music experts would be wrong.

Danny Zelisko, head of the Phoenix office of Live Nation, the country's largest concert promoter, says he hasn't noticed a decrease in concert attendance at Phoenix venues.

"[The attendance slump] is obviously a farce, or I wouldn't have a job," he says.

Zelisko's word contrasts sharply with the statistics that show it is the biggest venues that suffer the most from the slump in sales.

Phoenix's Cricket Pavilion (2121 N. 83rd Ave.) definitely fits this description with its 8,000 reserved seats and room for 12,000 on the lawn.

Many will argue these statistics only include major mainstream concerts at the arenas, amphitheatres and stadiums across the country, with focus put on the top 100 money-grossing acts. It's the big acts like these that often charge the most per ticket.

"The fall in the number of tickets sold comes after years of escalating prices which had put off many fans from going to concerts," music industry magazine Pollstar's editor in chief Gary Bongiovanni told BBC.

Industry magazines like Billboard and Pollstar group these top 100 grossing tours together and, depending on how much money they made, decide whether the live music culture is progressing or crashing.

According to BBC, the average ticket price from these top 100 acts was $50.27 last year. At the end of last year, Billboard reported U2's yearlong Vertigo tour sold $260 million worth of tickets from 90 sold-out shows.

But BBC says the average ticket for the tour cost $96 - before venue and ticket fees are included. Clearly, the Vertigo tour is a great exception to this so-called slump. Every show on the tour sold out the biggest venue in its market and did so with a massive ticket price.

In contrast, the annual summer festival Lollapalooza was cancelled in 2004 due to poor ticket sales in many markets. The festival is now just a two-day event in Chicago.



How Phoenix compares

But Zelisko says big-name artists can't be blamed for more expensive ticket prices at the large venues like Cricket Pavilion.

"[The artists are] trying to make as good of a living as they can," Zelisko says. "They are trying to make a giant nest egg to take care of themselves."

With all of these artists competing with rising prices, consumers are forced to accept it or not attend, Zelisko says. But he adds that people are still flocking to venues like Cricket Pavilion.

"The bottom line is it's a one-time opportunity to see history being made," he says. "These shows will never be the same again. The next night in Denver or Los Angeles could be completely different."

And despite more expensive tickets, Phoenix somehow manages to stay on the live music map year after year, despite its undefined local music scene.

Part of this may be due to the plethora of smaller venues present in the area.

Steve Chilton, also known as "Psyko Steve," brings national acts to Phoenix to play with the locals. He says that Phoenix's small venues are thriving.

"On the one hand we are definitely not a music town; we are not Chicago or Austin or Seattle or LA. I think everyone knows that," Chilton says. "But the scene here is far better than a lot of places I have been."

Though Phoenix is plump with large venues like Cricket Pavilion, US Airways Center, Glendale Arena and others, Chilton says it is in a constant struggle to gain a positive small-venue reputation.

"I have read all sorts of articles this year in trade magazines and online industry sites about the slump in the 'superstar' shows and the effect of fewer huge tours," Chilton says. "But I have not seen any [articles] tying this year's slump to club shows or small tours.

"Calling it a slump at all is a shortsighted view that big businesses are using to try and justify higher ticket prices, more service fees and parking fees to consumers and to defend their business practices to investors," Chilton adds.

Kimber Lanning, owner of Modified Arts in downtown Phoenix, has her own theory on live music today.

"There's a mainstream market and then there's the other market - whatever you want to call it," she says. "This other market is just as strong as it has ever been. People going to shows at Modified are music fanatics, and they're still going out in droves."



The struggle for acceptance

Solid attendance is not the only factor in venue success. Despite great attendance at many local clubs, Lanning says the Phoenix area doesn't seem to respect live music.

"What Tempe has done for the live music scene is like a case study in what not to do," Lanning says, referring to a steady stream of rezoning laws, high monthly rents and property taxes that Tempe enforces.

Because of these roadblocks, the majority of Tempe's venues are forced to set up in small strip malls throughout town. This drastically reduces their chance of success.

"The city councils in our respective cities here have never recognized the value of live music and put it on the same scale as performance of other kinds," she adds.

And Lanning says Phoenix isn't even the best music town in Arizona.

"Tucson is kicking our butt," she says. "They've got a bunch of great venues, all with liquor licenses all in the downtown corridor. Frankly, it's a better place to stop [for bands]."

Lanning attributes Tucson's success not only to the close proximity of the venues, but also strong community radio support. She is quick to mention that Phoenix offers no community radio options.

Another local concert promoter, Charlie Levy of Stateside Presents, says Phoenix lacks a cohesive music scene and all-ages clubs.

"There really isn't a 200- to 400-capacity all-ages venue that brings new music to town," he says.

This hole in the Phoenix music scene has made it hard for smaller bands to create a bigger following in town, simply because they have no place to play.

"Tucson has three or four venues that do all types of music in the 300-capacity range," Levy says. "If you look in Phoenix, there are places doing cool things, but they limit themselves in the type of music they do."

Tempe singer/songwriter Adam Panic agrees with Levy about a lack of venues.

"Even with big shows, I always feel like the room is packed, but then I realize that the venue is just smaller [than venues in other markets]," says Panic.

Beyond venues and promoters, Phoenix has an amazing array of local talent.

"Arizona bands are doing better than ever before," Chilton says. "In the last year and a half, 15 or so bands from Arizona have done real tours and have signed to real labels."

Chilton says Arizona is a new hot spot for unsigned talent.

"One all-local show last year had no less than six labels out to see four different bands on that show," he says.

One such band is Phoenix's The Stiletto Formal, which recently completed a summer on the Vans Warped Tour.

The Stiletto Formal's singer, Kyle Howard, says he has mixed feelings on Phoenix's live music scene.

"For some reason, kids in Phoenix turn out [for shows]," Howard says. "When we go on tours with bands from outside the state, I always find myself in conversations about the attendance in Phoenix. I think the promoters are the reason."

But Howard says he also feels there is a definite lack of originality in the local music scene.

"People are tired of seeing the same shit every night, so even the good bands are losing draw," he says. "Hopefully things will diversify and we'll lose this whole 'scene' nonsense so things will be about music again."

But Chilton says he is happy with the progress so far.

"Instead of everyone going to one big show that everyone is going to be at, people are choosing to go to the show that they want to go to, even if less people are there," Chilton says. "This is good for the music fan that gets what they want to hear and not what some big company or radio station told them they get. And this is good for artists in general. More artists are being able to make a career in music."

And despite many smaller artists and venues blaming companies such as Live Nation for creating the buzz about declining ticket sales in the first place, Zelisko says larger shows will continue to be popular.

"The excitement of people coming to live shows will never go out of style," says Zelisko. "People will always want to be entertained. In these days that are sometimes troubled, a concert tends to be a great way for people to relax for a few hours and forget their worries."

Reach the reporter at: si.robins@asu.edu.



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