Moving target

Over the length of my career, I've had a few promoters quietly ask my advice about bringing certain bands to town; is the act big enough for the Shaw Conference Centre, or even the Agricom? Or should the show be placed at Red's, oops, Edmonton Event Centre?

(Red's. Dating myself.)

It used to be that when a tour was booked, a band would play in similarly sized venues across the country or the continent. If the band was big enough to play at the Saddledome, it should play Rexall Place. If it played the Rogers Centre in Toronto, it should play at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton. And it worked on a smaller scale, too—if a band could fill a room of 400 in Winnipeg, it should do about the same in either Calgary or Edmonton.

But that thinking is dead. Concert promoters will look at how albums are selling regionally and they will feel out their local markets. They know that bands that are big in the Midwest might not necessarily have broken in the Deep South. The demographics of each city need to be taken into account. Is the city in question more of a dirty rock 'n' roll town or is it a place known for urban cool?

There's no better example of this than the current Flaming Lips tour. In the last week of September, the psychedelic experimentalists from Oklahoma, who on this tour have included a giant vagina in the stage show, will play Calgary's MacEwan Hall and the Edmonton Event Centre. The band will play the Malkin Bowl, a small bandshell at Stanley Park in Vancouver. (And why the heck is a music venue named for Evgeni Malkin?)

MacEwan Hall holds about 1000 people, the EEC about 2000. Earlier in the tour, the Flaming Lips headlined the Molson Amphitheatre in Toronto. No, the show was not nearly full, but it's a venue that has a capacity of around 16 000.

Yes, Toronto is a much bigger city than Calgary or Edmonton, but to move from a venue of 16K to ones that hold 1000 – 2000?

In the Buffalo area, the band headlined a massive outdoor venue, Artpark. In St Louis, the band will play at the Pageant, which has a maximum capacity if 2300. In Oakland, the band will play two nights at the Fox Theater, capacity 2800. Assuming two sellouts—and the promoter is assuming at least one sellout if there are two shows on offer—the band will play to 5600 people in the Bay Area.

These are massive swings in venue sizes from city to city. So, what does this tell you? That the tour—backed by concert giant Live Nation—is following regional trends in the band's popularity. That per capita, there are likely way more Flaming Lips fans in Toronto than there are in the Bay Area.

There looks to be no correlation between the sizes of the venues and the sizes of the cities in which the band plays. Toronto and the Bay Area represent massive metro areas; Buffalo does not.

So, is this a case of promoters overestimating the band's earning potential early in the tour, and the venues have been downsized as the tour goes on? Probably not—there is no sign that upcoming shows have been moved from larger venues to smaller venues.

From the number of declared Facebook fans a group has in City A as compared with City B to regional sales data, we know that bands build popularity in pockets. A band may be creating huge buzz in Edmonton, but be unknown in Halifax. That's the natural course of things. Now, promoters are wise to the fact that bands can't play hockey arenas in every city they visit.

Even one as established as the Flaming Lips. V

Steven Sandor is a former editor-in-chief of Vue Weekly, now an editor and author living in Toronto. 

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