Gray-hair bands going strong at KC’s biggest venues

Some of the upcoming concerts booked at the large music venues in Kansas City look like a list of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or bands on the playlist of a classic-rock radio station.

On Thursday night, Crosby, Stills & Nash perform at Starlight Theatre. Next weekend, B.B. King performs at Starlight and Willie Nelson performs at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

Next month, Starlight has booked Boston with Starship and Night Ranger and then Hall & Oates. Beyond that, the Sprint Center has booked the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Madonna and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band; the Uptown Theater has booked Bryan Adams and the band Kansas; and Livestrong Sporting Park has booked Journey with Pat Benatar and Loverboy.

All that follows a string of shows earlier this year by performers such as Barry Manilow, REO Speedwagon with Styx and Ted Nugent, Jimmy Buffett, Chicago with the Doobie Brothers, Alice Cooper, Van Halen, Glen Campbell, Aretha Franklin, Buddy Guy, James Taylor and Def Leppard with Poison and Lita Ford.

Cricket Wireless Amphitheater, formerly Sandstone, has three more shows booked this year. One is a “theatrical tribute” to Motley Crue, AC/DC, Kiss and Poison.

The live-music world is being carried by the elder statesmen and women and music of yore, especially at the larger venues. The industry is aware of it; it just isn’t sure what to do about it.

“I’ve been in the industry longer than I like to admit,” said Brenda Tinnen, general manager and senior vice president of Sprint Center/AEG Kansas City. “As far as I can recall, it has been a topic: Who is going to replace our vintage or heritage acts. And how do we develop new talent? That’s been on the industry conference agendas for a long time.”

“I’ve been saying for 15 years that the amphitheaters have been filled with mostly ’70s acts, and that’s going to come home to roost sooner or later,” said Brett Mosiman of Pipeline Productions, which runs the Wakarusa Music Festival and books bands at Crossroads KC, among other venues. “Over the past 10 years, that still hasn’t changed.”

The list of the top grossing tours of 2011 confirms that much of the music that sells tickets is the older music. U2 topped the list with its stadium tour, which sold out all of its 44 shows. After that, the rock bands and performers on the list are Bon Jovi, Roger Waters, the Eagles, Journey and Iron Maiden. Neil Diamond also made the list at No. 22 for a 20-show tour that averaged 12,000 fans per night and grossed more than $31 million.

Things haven’t changed much this year. The latest list of the 20 highest-grossing tours in the first half of 2012 from Pollstar, the live-music industry’s online magazine, shows that country is boss, and classic rock still sells. Among the rock acts on the list: Waters, Iron Maiden, the Beach Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers and John Mellencamp. The lone appearance by a new-millennial band: the Black Keys at No. 15. Coldplay, which has been around since the late 1990s, was No. 2 on the list.

Tinnen said the industry still relies on its heritage acts because many of them remain viable.

“They were the soundtrack of our lives, those great artists who quite honestly invented rock and roll,” she said. “So we don’t want to let them go. But also they continue to do well when they travel.”

The problem is no one seems to be coming up from behind to take the torch.

“There are up-and-coming artists out there,” she said. “But they all break a lot different today than they did in the past. The industry’s economic model has changed so much. There’s less play on the radio. And the recording industry itself has changed so much.”

Those changes are good news for bands trying to live outside the old model of the recording industry, in which big labels controlled distribution and had all the power. Now, bands and performers have many outlets at their disposal through which they can generate a buzz and leap-frog some of the steps that used to be fundamental in developing and nurturing a following. One viral YouTube video or song placement in a commercial can propel a band into a theater show in a year or less.

But Mosiman sees the virtues of the digital revolution as part of the reason the system isn’t producing arena-size acts. Thirty years ago bands like R.E.M. would graduate from holes-in-the-wall to bars like the Bottleneck in Lawrence to rooms like Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kan., and then to Kemper Arena. They’d play cities of all sizes. But the process would take five years or more, which is a lifetime these days.

“As fast as (popularity) develops, it can unravel,” he said. “Things happen so instantaneously it’s almost bad. It doesn’t give the fans in most markets a chance to see the bands. The hot new bands don’t play Wichita or Springfield or Little Rock because they get so hot so fast they have to go to Denver, Minneapolis and Chicago and play 2,000-seat theaters their first or second tour.

“The legs can get cut out from under you if you’re not careful because you blow up so quickly without playing in front of enough people.”

If there’s an exception to the trend it seems to be in country music, which replenishes its stable of stars. Both those lists of top-grossing tours include several young country acts, some of whom weren’t on the charts five to 10 years ago: Taylor Swift, Jason Aldean, Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert, Eric Church.

Aldean opened for Rascal Flatts in October 2007 at the Sprint Center’s first-ever country show. In March, Aldean headlined his own show and set a Sprint Center record for attendance, breaking the record set by George Strait.

“Country music is different,” Tinnen said. “They have lower ticket prices, which means fans can come more often for less of an investment instead of paying big bucks to see an artist one more time. They also develop talent and showcase more talent as opening acts so fans have seen an act a few times before they headline.”

One of those is Eric Church, who played the Kansas City Live stage in the Power & Light District in July 2010 and opened for several other headliners, including Lambert at the Independence Events Center in November 2010. In September, Church headlines at the Sprint Center. Ticket sales for that show, Tinnen said, are “very strong.”

“Country is still primarily radio-driven, and the other genres aren’t,” Mosiman said. “And it does a better job of connecting its artists to their fans so it does sustain careers a little better. But look at the names of all those popular, early (2000s) artists. Most are pariahs when it comes to booking.”

A look at best-selling country artists of 2001-02 shows that some have stuck around, like Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, Brad Paisley, Blake Shelton and George Strait. But many others have fallen out of the light: Jo Dee Messina, Brooks & Dunn, LeAnn Rimes, Darryl Worley, Lonestar, Trick Pony, Diamond Rio, Montgomery Gentry, Emerson Drive.

“It’s bizarre,” Mosiman said. “If you had four or five hits 10 years ago you’re still not worth 500 tickets, even in country. You can do great on the free-show circuit or the state-fair tours, but that’s it. It’s all about what’s on the radio right then.”

Tinnen said the way people buy recorded music is affecting fans’ allegiance to the performers and how or whether they invest in a live performance.

“In my day I would buy the entire album, sometimes just for that one song that was a hit, but hear the rest of the album and really learn to appreciate the artist beyond one song,” she said. “Now, you can go and buy one or two tunes from Chris Brown or Rihanna or Big Time Rush and not invest in the rest of the music. It changes the way people listen to music and the way they spend their time seeing new artists.”

“You’re not going to reach the headliner level of the ’70s artist because that was built in a time when radio was supreme and there was no Internet,” Mosiman said. “You can go on forever: Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, the Eagles, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Springsteen. They can sell 20,000 tickets because they had 20-year careers. You’re not going to see that anymore.”

Steve Poltz, a songwriter who once toured and collaborated with Jewel when she was filling amphitheaters, told The Star recently: “The glory days of music when people were making money hand-over-fist — I don’t think we’ll see those days again. I don’t think we’ll have those huge, superstar bands, unless someone breaks quick on YouTube and is quickly forgotten about. The acts like Neil Young — who will that be 30 years from now?”

Jeff Fortier, president and promoter with Mammoth Productions, said among teens and 20-somethings, music has a different place than it did in the ’60s and ‘70s. It has become more disposable and peripheral.

“We have a generation that is into video games as much as it is music,” he said. “Music means something to them, but it’s something very different than it was 40 years ago.”

If there are solutions to filling arenas and amphitheaters over the next 20 years, they probably involve the packaging of talent. Mosiman said some amphitheaters have taken to booking multiday festivals to draw younger audiences. He cited the Sound Town festival, which will be Aug. 19 and 20 at the Somerset Amphitheater in Somerset, Wis., as one example. More than two dozen bands are on the bill, including Flaming Lips, the New Pornographers and Devotchka. A week later the venue will host Summer Set, a three-day festival.

“That’s where music is going, not necessarily festivals but the ensemble lineup,” he said. “Young people like to be in crowds of ten to twenty thousand. The only way to do that is with a dozen bands.”

Tinnen said the packaging of bands is becoming the case even with some of the older acts as a way to draw from different fan bases.

“We’ve had Def Leppard here a few times, once with Poison (and Lita Ford), once with Heart, once with Poison and Cheap Trick,” she said. “It can be a really fun experience.”

Young phenoms such as Justin Bieber, One Direction, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry notwithstanding, there is still a generation of bands and performers out there younger than the heritage acts who can draw arena-size crowds: Metallica, Foo Fighters, Radiohead, Kid Rock, Pearl Jam.

“And don’t forget Jay-Z, Beyonce, Kanye West, Drake,” Fortier said. “The list is longer than you think. I think there will always be acts at that level, there will always be a place for those venues.”

But Mosiman sees a dynamic that challenges that notion. Bands plateau quicker these days, he said, citing a band like Death Cab for Cutie, which recently played before about 1,800 fans at Crossroads KC.

“Some bands will have 20-year careers, like Flaming Lips, Wilco, Primus and Ween,” he said. “But in mid-major markets like Kansas City, two to four thousand (fans per show) is where bands like the Fray or Train top out. Death Cab used to be a big deal; now are they over? The Fray was a big deal. Are they over? And in a year or two is anybody going to care about Gotye or Bon Iver? I don’t know. The hot young bands will be bright but brief spots. It’s been proven.”