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Concert Business Goes South

As casinos woo artists, civic center concerts drop in half

By Diane Weaver Dunne

August 04, 2008

Instead of returning to Hartford, where he played to a sold-out civic center in 2006, Billy Joel struck a deal with Mohegan Sun to play 10 concerts at the casino’s much smaller arena this summer.

When asked at a July press conference why he decided to perform at Mohegan, with 10,000 seats, instead of Hartford’s civic center, with 16,000 seats, Joel paused briefly, then answered, “It’s probably the money.”

Joel’s response, which prompted laugher, may have been only part of the truth.

While Mohegan Sun guaranteed him a take comparable to playing a sold-out XL Center — formerly known as the Hartford Civic Center — there were other incentives too. And a combination of factors helps explain why the older civic center is losing out as the concert industry goes south to the state’s Native American casinos, Foxwoods or Mohegan Sun.

“We don’t outbid the civic center,” said Mitchell Etess, president and chief executive officer of Mohegan Sun. “We are competitive with the [XL] Center, but the artists come here for the soft reasons.”

Those reasons vary, and they depend upon what the artists desire. In Billy Joel’s case, he wanted an easy commute from his Oyster Bay, Long Island, home to Mohegan Sun, and a 10-concert series. Mohegan gladly transported the star — either by boat or helicopter — and agreed to the 10 concerts.

“For most artists, [the Mohegan Sun arena] is the smallest venue they will get to play in and achieve their financial goals,” said Etess. “Artists like to play in our new arena. We’ve tried to make acts feel very comfortable here. The [XL] Hartford Civic Center is older. The seats are further away. So they come here. Some schedule it intentionally in the middle of their concert tour. It is like a get away, and more fun.”

The former Hartford Civic Center and similar civic center venues once counted on hosting 40 to 50 concerts each year. Now they struggle to reach half that number.

In contrast, Mohegan Sun officials maintain that they have grown in just seven years to be ranked 10th in the world and 6th in the nation in number of concerts hosted. The casino has teamed with ticket search engine Live Nation and aggressively gone after the concert business, said Lynn Malerba, vice chairwoman of the Mohegan Tribe.

Foxwoods is also boosting its concert business with the opening of its 4,000-seat MGM Grand in May. Several headliners are booked to perform, including Kanye West, Celine Dion and Carrie Underwood.

Charles Steedman, senior vice president and general manager of the XL Center in Hartford, acknowledged that there are new arena models. “But what we have is a great team, great sightlines, great facility,” he said.

With Northland AEG managing the center, Steedman said he is working to add the types of amenities patrons are looking for. “We will talk to UConn, talk to Jim Koplik and look to get it done here,” he said.

But Koplik, a Connecticut concert promoter who is president of Live Nation Connecticut, doesn’t expect civic centers to recapture their former hold on the concert business.

“It is very hard to sell tickets at the [XL] Center,” said Koplik, noting that ticket prices are generally higher at Mohegan. “It is easier to sell 100,000 tickets at Mohegan than 60,000 at the civic center.

“I think the [Hartford] civic center can have eight to 10 concerts a year. Then they have to figure out other ways to make income,” he said.

Koplik continues to book concerts at the XL Center — including the band Coldplay in August — and has booked 21 concerts in Live Nation’s New England Dodge Music Center amphitheater in Hartford’s North Meadows. But he said the only reason Coldplay landed at the civic center was because Mohegan was already booked.

Aside from the challenge of new competition from the casinos, civic centers also are contending with fundamental changes in the concert industry. Many musical artists who once relied on tours to promote album sales now rely on the Internet to tout their latest releases, sometimes offering free downloads of hit singles to fuel CD sales.

And while there are fewer musical acts on tour today, very few of them have the long-term drawing power of Billy Joel.

Joel sold $9.25 million in tickets for his 10-concert Mohegan Sun run.

If special amenities helped draw Joel, they also appeal to concert-goers. Patrons prefer venues with easy and free parking and on-site dining options.

“You can’t just expect a patron to pay $100 for a concert ticket, plop them in a seat and then treat them like [crap],” said Lawrence Lepore, general manager of The Dunkin Donuts Center in Providence. “You better give them something for the money. And it starts with parking to how they find their seats.”

The Dunk has been closed for an $80 million overhaul for the past three summers and is currently replacing the arena’s seats.

“It’s tough to sell an old building when you don’t have the amenities,” Lepore added. Although The Dunk expects to host about 17 concerts next year once renovations are complete, it doesn’t expect to repeat its heyday numbers of the 55 concerts hosted in 1984.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Business Journal. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Business Journal Archives at http://www.hartfordbusiness.com/archives.php.
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