Crowd roar of live music drowns out stadium revenue from sport

The writer is the author of ‘Economy of Tarzan‘ and co-presenter of the bubble problem podcast.

It’s a sign of post-pandemic times that Wembley Stadium, England’s national home of the beautiful game, will host as many music concerts as football matches this year. And it hasn’t exactly been a quiet year for football: the Women’s Euro final has set its own attendance record. But the 16 games, not all of which sold out and none of them with fans on the pitch, will be eclipsed by 16 gigs – all of which have sold out and will see fans fill the pitch.

In total, Wembley will sell 1.3 million music tickets this summer – that’s the population of Edinburgh and Glasgow combined. And these are precious events. Unlike football games, where drinks can only be consumed during intervals, music fans can drink all night long. This combo of ticket, food and drink, sprinkled with scarcity and often sentimentality, it all adds up. Among the six acts to perform — Coldplay (six nights). Ed Sheeran (five), Harry Styles (two), Westlife, Capital Radio and Foo Fighters Tribute – each show can expect to gross over £5million.

This bargain is not just limited to Wembley. Across London, it reads like a Premier League chart: West Ham hosted three music shows (Foo Fighters canceled two), Tottenham four and Arsenal two. It’s not ‘a London thing’ either: the number of stadium shows and festivals across the country is set to top 2,000 this year, a double-digit percentage growth from the 1,786 that took place in 2019 before the pandemic. This phenomenon isn’t going away. Wembley is extending its concert run to 26 next summer, and many stadiums are following suit.

Demand is so great that Eurovision 2023, which the UK, second only to Ukraine, is due to host on behalf of the war-torn victors, will struggle to find a venue in any of the UK cities in contention .

FT readers and their offspring could be part of this remarkable bounce-back story, perhaps during this weekend’s migration to Wembley to see the start of Coldplay’s matchweek. But if you’re coughing up £120 for a ticket – a year’s worth of Spotify – and that again on beer and food, you’re part of a bigger phenomenon: go big or stay home.

In a market with more choice, we demand more hits. A decade of data, from PRS for Music, the copyright collective, confirms this. In 2012, the year of the London Olympics, UK concertgoers spent £1.2 billion on concert tickets; in 2019, the year before live music was all but silenced, that figure rose to £1.7 billion. Yet all of this growth has occurred at stadiums and festivals, which have increased their share from 23% to 40%. By the end of this year, stadiums and festivals are likely to capture the majority of UK box office spending for the first time ever. This comes at the expense of popular theatres, clubs and venues, which have felt crowded out, in absolute and relative terms.

The UK live industry has never been heavier – where the spoils go to so few events. The reasons concert-goers prefer to have a blast on a big night are threefold: the pandemic, streaming, and disposable income.

Larger events owned by larger companies might have been better able to conform to the shifting focus of government restrictions during the pandemic – and better positioned to bounce back afterwards.

Meanwhile, the pandemic silenced the music on stage as it swept through our phones. But music streaming presents a “paradox of choice” with 82 minutes of songs available. According to the theory, some choices are better than none, but it does not necessarily follow that more is better than some. Only a few can afford to stand out in the cacophony of such a market. For the live industry, this means that the bigger the talent and the bigger the event, the more likely a promoter can create a point of differentiation and draw a crowd.

Finally, with tight wallets this year and next, inflation fueling ticket prices, and residual pandemic concerns making us nervous about indoor crowds, consumers may be more averse to small shows; fans are rebalancing their entertainment portfolio towards fewer and bigger outdoor events.

It’s not just about music. It affects the entire entertainment industry as it determines what the “new normal” will look like. Intuitively, because we’ve been on our sofas for so long, the experience economy has to up its game to get us out of our backs.

Consider the illuminating story of the Atlanta Falcons football team, which made the bold move to improve the quality of dining inside its glitzy new stadium while cutting prices. Overnight spending (or Arpu) increased by 16%. They identified competition at home — a 72-inch smart TV, for example — and outside too, in America’s tailgating culture, where sports fans drink beer and grill in the back of their cars in stadium parking lots. The Falcons realized they were competing for attention on and off the field.

Those who can up their game will stay in the game – stadium and festival stages have the scale to survive. But with the virtual threat of the metaverse fast approaching, everyone else in the experience economy needs to realize that this is a battle for infrequent, albeit enthusiastic, spending.


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