Making the Show
Putting the World of Pop Music On Stage: The Tough Business of Promoting the Stars
Performers of popular music are known for many things: high voices, glossy outfits, revealing their skin on stage and having their private life constantly shown in the media. But few people appreciate what goes into such a production—especially from the promotional side.
Pop has arrived in Vienna, and singers are going for accessories: "Pink" did acrobatics, Christina Aguilera had a whole circus act, Shakira showed off her Latin movements and Nelly Furtado brought the crowd into the show. After seeing some of the big moments, it’s hard not to wonder about the work behind it. What does it take to make such a show?
The promotion agency Concerts.at had the answer.
As I had imagined it, there would be streams of people rushing about, making deals through the phone, casually mentioning arrangements with stars, all part of a day’s work. The real scene, however, was slightly different.
In the room, there were only three employees, all in one space, typing things into their computers and talking on their phones. There were posters everywhere… from Michael Buble, Lenny Kravitz and to the Globetrotters.
Production co-ordinator Roby Gschladt greeted me with a smile. A middle-aged woman with short blond hair, Gschladt was dressed in a trendy blue jacket, green pants, belt and sneakers, lending a vitality that belied her age.
In addition to finding locations, she also handles part of the booking, helps out with the ticketing system and acts as a contact person for the media. With 15-20 years of work experience behind her, she knows the business.
After a little chat, we retired to a conference room where we could talk in peace. "Concerts.at brings in artists and promotes the shows," Gschladt explained.
Founder Richard Hörmann has been in the music business for over 20 years, and molted his former tour management company, Artist Marketing, into Concerts.at in 2005.
Through Artist Marketing and Concerts.at, he has promoted hundreds of performers and built a relationship with some of the artists including Lenny Kravitz, Bryan Adams and Deep Purple. Their track record brings in top acts.
"Agents come to us, not our competition," Gschladt says: I look at their calendar to see what artists are coming to Vienna: Bryan Ferry on May 16, Chemical Brothers on Jun. 14 and Joss Stone on Jul. 17. A wide variety.
To book concerts, they begin by contacting the agents to find out who is going out on tour. They assess the local audience by looking at how many records the artist has sold in Austria and then make their pick.
"We look at the potential to draw a crowd," explains Gschladt.
The next step is to figure out in which venue, based on how many people are likely to be interested the concert and how many tickets they can sell – avoiding holidays since they can’t sell as many tickets.
In Vienna there are two main venues: The Stadthalle, the biggest, with 16,000 seats, and Gasometer, that holds up to 3,600 people. There is also a new one, Halle F in Kongresszentrum in the Prater, which accommodates 2,000 people.
Sixteen thousand people is a lot and the Stadthalle doesn’t seem that big. At a recent performance by Shakira, the room was dwarfed by the crowd and the volume of activity – booths, selling everything from t-shirts and posters to drinks and snacks, so the hubbub hid the real size of the venue.
Since December, many of the biggest pop stars have come to Vienna, from Christina Aguilera to Lionel Ritchie, with Justin Timberlake scheduled for June. Can ticket sales support such big stars? And how much were they really worth? Concerts.at contracts with the artist, guaranteeing them a fee and a percentage of ticket income after deducting the costs.
"The bigger the name," Gschladt explained: "the more expensive the artist."
The promoters only get a small percentage for their effort, although this is a very big number, when it works right. No specifics, though. Gschladt claimed she could not tell me the precise number because it varies so much from gig to gig, depending on tickets sold, the artist’s fee and the overhead.
Promotion, however, is key. There is a marketing plan for each artist, working in co-operation with the media. For Shakira, Radio Energy agreed to play the songs mention the concert frequently and in return for free tickets. Posters of Shakira were also hung up all over, thanks to students' labour. Concerts.at spends most of its promotional money on billboards and posters.
Are they Vienna’s biggest promoters?
"How do you judge that?," Gschladt queried. "By the biggest shows, variety or quantity?"
Their main competitor is Rockandmore.at, founded in 2002, but with principals in the business for over 30 years. As the name suggests, they mostly promote rock but they always keep their eyes open for special events. They and Concerts.at offer gigs not only in Austria but Central and Eastern Europe as well, with Rockandmore.at staging events in Ukraine, Russia and Greece. Eastern Europe is a particular challenge as low salaries mean lower ticket prices, on average 10 Euro less than in Austria.
Venues in Eastern Europe can also be a challenge, generally much less well-equipped. They are often old sports facilities without the needed scaffolding to hang lights and sound equipment, so that the organizers have to build ground support to hang the equipment, which can completely change the look of the stage.
At many, the venues are so small and entrances so narrow that trucks cannot drive inside to the entrance doors. Instead they need to park outside and unload by hand, which takes more time and effort. Because of all this, some artists won’t perform there.
For a long time, artists also didn’t want to come to Vienna, because of the size of the market. Austria was just too small.
ow, with regional markets, promoters are trying to make up for lost time.
And there is indeed interest for pop music in Vienna. The Shakira concert sold the most tickets, around 13,000, perhaps says Gschladt, because she hadn’t been here before. Nelly Furtado sold better this time however than when she came here two years ago. Pink comes here more often, so interest is lower.
But, I had always wondered, why do all these artists come around the same time of year?
"Most artists put out records around the same time and so the tour dates are not that far from each other," explained Gschladt. Many albums come out in November and December, to take advantage of the Christmas shopping season.
Their next big pop concert is pop icon George Michael, who will appear at Donauinselfest on Jul. 13. The competition is bringing Beyonce on May 8 and Justin Timberlake on Jun. 4. It looks like pop music is here to stay.
So is the job glamorous? Meeting the artists and seeing the show for free?
"I hardly see the gigs, because I’m working," Gschladt said with a shrug. The artists she simply sees every day, while they’re doing business, when they’ve just woken up without their makeup.