Pearl Jam Tries to Rewrite Rules for Live Shows
by Eric Boehlert
The official tour itinerary pegged Pearl Jam's April 16 appearance on "Saturday Night Live" as the finale to the band's wildly successful six-week U.S. tour. Supporting its 1993 release, Vs., Pearl Jam's 26 shows routinely sold out in minutes, sometimes in single-digit minutes.
But those who follow the act closely knew better than to close the book on the band's nationwide swing. Sure enough, at the last moment the band announced a Sunday (April 17) show at New York's Paramount Theatre. Local fan club members were given the first shot at tickets.
The move was characteristic of the band's response to the challenge of balancing their enormous success with delivering what they think loyal fans deserve, access and reasonably priced music. As the band's manager, Kelly Curtis, explains, Pearl Jam's members were themselves the kids standing in line for concert tickets not so long ago. Now, thanks to their enormous clout -- the band has sold 4.5 million copies of its latest album Vs., in the U.S. according to SoundScan -- they want to fix what they see as cracks in the system, a system that passes bloated ticket prices along to fans.
Many acts fret over how longtime fans are treated when sudden success swoops down on them. But it seems that few spend as many hours as Pearl Jam mulling over the topic. "I've never in my 20 years seen an act this sensitive to their fan base," says Harvey Leeds, VP of promotion at Epic.
Most of the performers today who exhibit such sensitivity toward their followers call Nashville home. Pearl Jam does not sign autographs out of its tour bus after shows the way country stars do, but the band is among the few rock acts that, like their country colleagues, actively court loyalty. For Pearl Jam, that courtship includes trying to change some rock industry rules.
During its just-completed tour, Pearl Jam:
- Kept pre-service charge ticket prices at $18
- Sold concert T-shirts for $18
- Played surprise small venue shows where fan club members got first dibs on seats
- Refused to sell limited-view tickets
- Bought its own satellite time and offered a live concert broadcast, available to any interested stations, and
- Worked out, on one occasion, a deal with TicketMaster so that fans did not need credit cards to buy Pearl Jam concert tickets.
The strategy comes from hours of planning by band members. "Eddie [Vedder's] obsessed with it," says one source close to the band. "It's part of his character and makeup. He doesn't like being on the road that much, so he puts up these hurdles and gets psyched up about jumping over them."
Pearl Jam's pass through Chicago in March was typical for the band and displayed its penchant for the unusual. Rather than playing the Rosemont Horizon, the preferred modern arena located northwest of the city, Pearl Jam chose downtown's Chicago Stadium which hasn't hosted a hot rock show in a decade.
It sold out instantly. "They could have camped out there for a week," says Andy Cirzan, senior talent buyer for Chicago's JAM Productions, which handled the show. Instead the band asked JAM to scout out an unusual venue for a top-secret show for die-hard fans. Cirzan selected the Regal Theatre, a refurbished South Side R&B joint that hadn't hosted a mainstream rock or pop act in more than ten years.
Fan club members were tipped about the show via a mailing from the band's Seattle-based club. Remaining tickets were then put on sale to the general public. But Vedder was concerned that at a moment's notice, kids wouldn't have access to a credit card. The band worked out a deal with TicketMaster so fans could reserve their tickets by phone and pay cash within 48 hours. In New York, leftover tickets were distributed through radio stations; in Detroit, non-fan club members filled out coupons printed in the local newspaper and sent them to the Ten club, which held a lottery.
The attempt to lift the burden of ticket buying from fans proved to be a precursor to the band's announcement that on its upcoming summer tour it will not play venues that pass along more than a $1.80 service charge to fans. Such charges often hit $5-$6 a ticket.
According to Curtis, if promoters this summer are not able to work out acceptable alternative ticket distribution deals, the band will balk, opt for farm fields, and have the band's fan club distribute tickets if necessary. The idea is not just theoretical; Pearl Jam discussed such field shows with the likes of Smashing Pumpkins before that band signed up with the Lollapalooza tour.
Many industry observers doubt that Pearl Jam can break the grip of service charges. At press time, executives from TicketMaster were unavailable for comment.
Curtis says the band is undaunted. Last year, when Pearl Jam refused to play venues that pocketed 30%-40% of concert T-shirt profits (which drives up shirt prices) industry players told the group it would never be able to pull off the move. "We haven't played a venue that takes over 20% in six months," says Curtis, "and we'll probably knock that 20% down too."
A month after the Regal show in Chicago, Pearl Jam gave its fans a gift in the form of a live broadcast from Atlanta's Fox theater April 3. Rather than align itself with a radio syndicator, the band -- with help from Epic, which footed the bill -- cut out the middleman and produced the show itself, commercial-free. The program cost tens of thousands of dollars to produce, according to Leeds. Unlike most radio network agreements the broadcast was non-exclusive. That meant that any station that wanted to could air the concert, including NPR outlets, Voice of America, and shortwave radio. More than 300 U.S. stations took the band up on the offer, including five in the New York area alone.
Pearl Jam's good intentions don't always work according to plan, though. Some radio programmers grumbled about not having market exclusivity. And in Miami last month, city police were called to a Pearl Jam concert at the Bayfront Park AT&T amphitheatre. Sixteen arrests were made, most for disorderly conduct when the gates failed to open on time.
The delay, says an amphitheatre executive, was caused by the band's refusal to go on a stage that had three AT&T corporate signs visible from the audience. Ira Katz, executive director at the park, claims, "The band was totally unreasonable."
Curtis disagrees, claiming that the trouble started when local radio stations encouraged fans, even those without tickets, to come down to the theatre and listen in on the outdoor show. Thousands of ticketless fans showed up.
No matter who was to blame, overseeing Pearl Jam's added details remains a challenge. "It was extremely high-maintenance on my end," says Cirzan of the Chicago Stadium show. "I spent more time on that one show than anything else all last year, and I handled Lollapalooza... They complicate their existence tremendously by being so concerned with how they present themselves. But I admire them for it."
Pearl Jam also casts a skeptical eye toward videos. The band never did a video for Vs., even though Martin Scorsese was contacted early on about working with the band, and a clip would no doubt boost sales of Vs. Curtis says not making a video was a conscious decision, done to pull back the reins on the ban's overwhelming success and let the music speak for itself. Epic's Leeds admits that most of the company would like to see a video. "But we respect their creative vision."
And there may be more music to speak for. Talk persists that the band has already recorded a follow-up to October 1993's Vs. (said to contain slightly quieter "Daughter"-like offerings) and that it's ready for imminent release. Is that true? For once, Curtis is noncommital. "You never know," he says with a laugh.