With 32 large shows and counting, Milwaukee could have biggest concert year ever in 2018
Since 2018 began, the major Milwaukee concert announcements have been flying: Justin Timberlake, Elton John, Florida Georgia Line, Dead & Company, Halsey and Logic, Kevin Hart, Ed Sheeran.
And it's only February.
With more than 10 months left to go in 2018, this is shaping up to be one of the biggest years for large-scale concerts in the city's history. In terms of ticket sales, it's likely to be the biggest.
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Music fans can already count on 32 concerts happening at area arenas, amphitheaters and Miller Park this year — not including family tours or add-ons like Milwaukee Admirals concerts.
The calendar is so crowded that Milwaukee will host two arena tours on March 1, with Lorde and TobyMac literally performing next door to each other. Both Kenny Chesney and Bon Jovi will be here the last weekend of April.
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Once again, Summerfest will host 11 big concerts at the American Family Insurance Amphitheater — including newly announced shows with hip-hop heavyweight J. Cole and indie rock band Arcade Fire, playing Milwaukee for the first time in 14 years.
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And across three consecutive nights in October, the new, $524 million Milwaukee Bucks arena will host three of the biggest rock bands in the world: Metallica, Foo Fighters and the Eagles.
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By the time 2018 ends, the Milwaukee area likely will host the most large-scale tours since 2008 — an especially robust year for the touring industry, that in Milwaukee, included a record 17 concerts at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, and Bruce Springsteen playing Harley-Davidson's 105th anniversary.
With ticket prices substantially higher in 2018, the overall box office should dwarf that year.
Back in 2009, when Bon Jovi played Summerfest's Marcus Amphitheater, the closest seats to the stage cost $97, but the best seats for the band's Bradley Center show April 29 range from $149.50 to $549.50. Those upper-tier prices would have been unfathomable just five years ago, and yet only single seats remain for the show.
RELATED:Bon Jovi playing final major BMO Harris Bradley Center concert in Milwaukee in April
"We've seen enormous growth in ticket sales across the board," said Charlie Goldstone, president of FPC Live, a division of Madison-based promoter Frank Productions. "We haven't seen a saturation point, and it's hard to say when that's going to be."
The live-music industry has had six consecutive record years, and last year was especially strong. The top 100-grossing tours in North America took in $3.65 billion and sold about 46 million tickets, an increase of more than 5% from 2016, according to concert industry publication Pollstar. The average ticket price has climbed for seven years in a row, hitting a record $78.91 in 2017.
The bullish market is certainly driving brisk business in Milwaukee, but there are other factors — including, significantly, the new Bucks arena.
Currently under construction with $250 million coming from taxpayers, the tentatively named Wisconsin Entertainment and Sports Center is designed to attract tour promoters.
Six enclosed docks should allow for more efficient and cost-effective equipment and stage loading compared to the BMO Harris Bradley Center, which has a lone outdoor dock.
Inside, the new arena's layout essentially is a flip of the Bradley, with about 65% of its 17,500 seats in the lower bowl, allowing for more higher-priced tickets, and higher grosses.
Bucks president Peter Feigin has said he wants the venue to host 20 concert tours a year.
To meet that ambitious goal, team leadership initially considered hiring an in-house talent buyer, but has since changed course. General Manager Raj Saha has taken on the role of head of programming. A new hire — focusing on a business plan and content for the forthcoming arena's outdoor plaza — will help with programming.
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Saha is off to a strong start, booking Justin Timberlake's first Milwaukee show in 15 years, and a Maroon 5 tour date that takes place just 18 months after the band's last Milwaukee appearance.
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Elton John and comedians Hart and Jim Gaffigan are also coming to the new arena, and more shows should be announced soon, Saha said. He's also exploring hip-hop and Latin concerts, and said there will be several days of pre-opening events ahead of a grand opening show in late August or early September. Details are expected to be announced next month.
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"There is not a single day that goes by when we're not thinking about content," Saha said. "Hopefully gone will be the days where the expectation was for the Milwaukee market to come down to Chicago and see the show."
Separate from Chicago
That's what's been happening with Bon Jovi. The band is the third-most-frequent headliner in the Bradley Center's history, but it hasn't played Milwaukee for seven years, opting instead during recent tours to draw Milwaukee fans to Chicago stadium shows.
The band's return to the Bradley Center is part of an arena tour around Bon Jovi's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. It likely will be the venue's last major concert before demolition begins this summer.
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"Touring content is very cycle-oriented, and right now we're seeing an abundance of people who want to go out" and haven't played Milwaukee recently, said Doug Johnson, the Bradley Center's senior director of booking.
Touring machine Chesney, who has hit either Milwaukee or Green Bay with nearly every amphitheater or stadium tour over the past decade, returns to Miller Park April 28. Fellow road warrior Sheeran has played Milwaukee on every album cycle but had yet to hit the market following his blockbuster 2017 album "÷." He's at the Brewers stadium Oct. 23.
RELATED:Ed Sheeran to play Miller Park Oct. 23
The Brewers ballpark didn't host any concerts in 2017. Neither did Alpine Valley Music Theatre, which was closed for a season for the first time in its 40-year history.
RELATED:For the first time in 40 years, Alpine Valley Music Theatre is closing for a season
The East Troy amphitheater was unable to line up any acts last year due in part to competition from Wrigley Field, which booked past Alpine headliners Dead & Company and Zac Brown Band for a busy concert season capitalizing on the Chicago Cubs' historic 2016 World Series win.
Dead and Brown are skipping the Friendly Confines this summer and returning to Alpine for a combined four shows.
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A couple of special circumstances are also contributing to Milwaukee's big concert year.
Milwaukee's Pabst Theater Group booked Wisconsin act Bon Iver for a destination event Feb. 17, timed to the 10th-anniversary re-release of debut album "For Emma, Forever Ago." Fans from Canada and more than 40 states attended the sold-out Bradley Center show.
RELATED:Review: Bon Iver celebrates 'For Emma' 10th anniversary with stunning Milwaukee concert
And Summerfest is taking advantage of Harley-Davidson's 115th Anniversary Celebration festivities Labor Day weekend — and an influx of an anticipated 300,000 Harley riders in the city — by booking a Lady Antebellum/Darius Rucker double bill at the American Family Insurance Amphitheater Sept. 1.
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In addition to all that, there'll be thousands of concerts this year at clubs like Shank Hall, theaters like the Pabst and big events like Summerfest, with its multiple stages. A few of those shows — including Jack White at the Rave's Eagles Ballroom and David Byrne at the Riverside Theater — were fast sell-outs.
RELATED:Jack White playing the Rave's Eagles Ballroom in Milwaukee April 20
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Nevertheless, "there's only so much money people can use to see shows," Johnson said. The city's fiscal health is generally stagnant, despite an ongoing downtown construction boom that's the city's biggest since the '60s.
The four-county metropolitan area has 1.5 million people, only about a 0.3% average growth a year since 2010, according to the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. Median household income is about $53,000, roughly in line with the national average.
What's the limit?
So, is the volume of large-scale shows sustainable in Milwaukee? Frank Productions' Goldstone suggests it can be. It may even grow.
Industry experts anticipate the arena will do strong concert business during its first years of operation.
"People that may typically be on the fence about seeing a show will want to experience it in the new building and see it for themselves," Goldstone said. "(Promoters) will take advantage of that."
And although Summerfest's main stage is not technically new, local firm Eppstein Uhen Architects is designing a fresh $30 million to $35 million American Family Insurance Amphitheater to replace the current venue. The 23,000-capacity concert venue is expected to open in 2020, and benefit from its own honeymoon period.
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Finally, this month, Frank Productions, for years one of the largest independent concert promoters in the country, sold a majority stake to Live Nation.
"That's a benefit to your market, without question," said Ray Waddell, president of media and conferences for Oak View Group, an arena and stadium management and consultancy firm with headquarters in Los Angeles. "You have a promoter with tremendous assets in your state tied to the largest promoter in the world that can help with marketing and bringing certain shows to Milwaukee."
RELATED:Madison-based concert promoter Frank Productions selling majority interest to Live Nation
Waddell said promoters will look at several factors when considering markets and venues, including how much marketing a venue can provide, and how well artists and touring staff are taken care of.
Naturally, the biggest criteria will be sales.
"If Milwaukee is buying the tickets, the tours are going to come," Johnson said. "If Milwaukee is not buying the tickets, it will be a little harder of a sell. You also have the Tulsas and Lincoln, Nebraskas, with relatively new arenas fighting for their piece of the pie."
Milwaukee bought tickets in big numbers for Timberlake and Foo Fighters at the new arena this fall; both shows are essentially sold out.
RELATED:Foo Fighters booked for the Milwaukee Bucks' new arena
John's concert at the new arena Feb. 19, 2019 — part of his farewell tour — is sold out. Chesney ticket sales are outpacing his previous two Miller shows, both of which eventually sold out, said Andrew Pauls, vice president of business development for the Brewers.
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"There's always that risk for saturation," Waddell said. "But you don't know it until you hit it. Until then, you push."
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