Why Pop’s Biggest Stars Are Staying Put for Long Residencies
On Saturday, Harry Styles will take the stage at Madison Square Garden as part of the tour for his chart-topping new album, “Harry’s House.”
Then, next Sunday, he will play the Garden again. Next Monday, too. And another 12 times through Sept. 21. At the Kia Forum in Inglewood, Calif., Styles will perform another 15 times in October and November. The entire North American leg of the singer’s latest tour, which opened in Toronto this week, consists of 42 shows in just five cities.
Styles’s tour is the most prominent example of a bubbling trend of concert residencies: extended runs by artists in a limited number of cities and venues. In a rebounding touring market, with concert-starved audiences buying tickets in record numbers — and at higher prices than ever — these bookings are deliberate choices by prominent artists to reduce their time on the road and set up shop in far fewer places than they could on a traditional tour.
Besides Styles’s, high-profile residencies have been completed recently by the K-pop phenom BTS and the Mexican rock band Maná, which has booked 12 dates since March at the Forum, the group’s only performances in the United States all year. In Las Vegas, the place that arguably birthed the residency format, Adele will begin a 32-date weekend engagement at Caesars Palace in November, and Katy Perry and Miranda Lambert also have dates lined up for the fall.
According to talent agents and industry observers, the reasons include clever branding, the protection of artists and crews in the pandemic and a cold calculation of financial efficiencies. More concerts in fewer cities means fewer trucks on the road and lower bills all around.
Those financial advantages are key at a time when gas prices are high and the concert world must deal with the same supply-chain shortages that have hit other businesses, said Ray Waddell, who covered the touring business for decades for Billboard magazine and now runs the media and conferences division of the Oak View Group, which operates sports and entertainment venues around the world.
“The math is challenging right now,” Waddell said. “It costs way more to tour, more to produce the shows for everybody, more for labor. At the same time, inflation is going to impact discretionary income and force fans to make choices. That’s bad calculus.”
For artists like Adele, Harry Styles and BTS, whose vast fan bases seem to have unquenchable demand, asking fans to come to them — and perhaps incur travel expenses of their own — may not be a great risk. But this model does not translate well below the superstar level, agents say.
Of course, extended bookings are nothing new. Bruce Springsteen played Giants Stadium 10 times in the summer of in 2003. Prince played 21 shows around Los Angeles in 2011, most at the Forum. But the pandemic may have led to a critical mass.
For artists and venues, touring has had a much-needed return to full capacity this year. According to Pollstar, a trade publication that follows the concert industry, gross ticket sales for the top 100 tours in North America reached $1.7 billion for the first six months of 2022, up 9 percent from the same period in 2019. Live Nation, the global concert giant that owns Ticketmaster, recently reported that the company had already sold 100 million tickets for the full year, more than in 2019. Still, the tightening of the wider economy has many in the industry worried about the rest of the year.
On the road, and in venues packed with unmasked fans, the threat of Covid-19 still lingers, leading to occasional postponements and cancellations. A residency plan can limit the risk of exposure, and also give an artist a temporary break from the rigors of the road. In one recent Instagram post from a tour stop in Germany, Styles showed himself collapsed in an ice bath. (Styles and his representatives declined to comment for this article.)
The complications of touring in the age of Covid-19 were behind Maná’s decision to limit its U.S. shows to the Forum. Last year, as the group began making its plans for 2022, the rise of the Omicron variant, and the tangle of local health regulations across the country, made a nationwide tour seem daunting.
So they decided to stick to one spot in the Los Angeles area, the group’s biggest worldwide market. The band has already played eight sold-out shows at the Forum, drawing 110,000 fans, and has four more announced through October.
“We just wanted to get out and play, to be with our fans,” said Fher Olvera, Maná’s lead singer. “We thought doing a whole tour would be really challenging, maybe impossible, given all the variables.”
“After everything that’s happened over the last few years,” Olvera added, “the residency is more than a series of concerts for us — it’s a celebration of life.”
The origins of the contemporary concert residency go back to Celine Dion’s decision to set up in Las Vegas in 2003, a time when that city was still seen as a pasture for fading acts.
“It was a very big risk at the time — everybody thought we were fools,” said John Meglen of Concerts West, Dion’s promoter, which is part of the AEG Live empire. “At the time, Vegas was like the end of your career. It was like, ‘Come die with us.’”
But Dion’s two residencies sold about $660 million in tickets to more than 1,100 shows, according to Pollstar. Dion’s engagements, as well as two by Elton John, recalibrated the industry’s approach to Las Vegas, and were followed by residencies there with Garth Brooks, Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez, Lady Gaga, Drake and many others.
The crucial artist for expanding the residency outside of Las Vegas, however, was Billy Joel. After being named the Garden’s first “music franchise” in late 2013, Joel began playing there monthly in 2014, and, aside from a hiatus during the pandemic, never stopped; his 86th concert in the series was recently announced for Dec. 19.
Through his June show, the Garden residency has sold about $180 million in tickets. If the rest of his concerts there this year sell out — a fair bet, since every other night of the residency has — the cumulative gross will be around $200 million.
“It’s basically the Super Bowl of music events,” said Dennis Arfa, Joel’s longtime booking agent. Joel has said he would continue the engagement “as long as the demand continues,” and there is no sign of that letting up.
For Arfa, the scale of engagements like Joel’s and Dion’s raise a question of nomenclature. Do 15 shows over a few weeks count as a “residency” compared to 86, or to 1,100? If not, then what is it?
“The word residency is kind of undefinable,” Arfa said. “Now everything is a residency. People do four nights and they can call it a residency. It’s a matter of verbiage and perception. I think the accomplishment is more important than the title.”
Whatever these are, they are likely to continue. Omar Al-joulani, Live Nation’s president of touring, said he expected around 30 residency-type engagements in 2023. “That’s including a big Vegas year.”
But talent agents and music executives say that these kinds of events cannot replace full-scale touring as a way to satisfy demand and cultivate audiences. When Styles announced his tour dates, Nathan Hubbard, a longtime ticketing executive who is the former chief executive of Ticketmaster, on Twitter declared the strategy “the future of live.” But in a recent interview, he took a more nuanced view.
“This is not the new touring model,” Hubbard said. “This doesn’t mean nobody’s going to Louisville — indeed, most artists are still going to have to go market to market to hustle it.”
And when a major venue announces its next block booking, what do we call it? Is it a residency, or something else? Arfa, Joel’s agent, pointed to Styles’s dates at the Garden.
“It’s a run,” he said. “It’s a great run.”