With smaller music venues, Strip finding a new normal


The New Year’s party was all about the names who came to play. And there would have been something wrong with Britney, Bruno and Robin if we had looked past them to dwell on their surroundings.

But now, with the confetti swept up and the headaches subsiding, let’s take a clear-eyed look at how the concert picture has shifted away from the Strip’s ongoing arena fetish.

By March, there will be seven concert venues between a capacity of 1,500 and 5,000 within a 4-mile radius, including:

■ The remodeled Planet Hollywood Resort theater now called The Axis. Caesars Entertainment Corp. has enlisted the concert industry’s leading promoter, Live Nation, to book the rest of the calendar around Britney Spears’ 48 shows per year for two years.

All 7,000 seats are still in the old concert hall. But the balcony will be closed for most of them, and most shows will aim for about 4,500 capacity.

■ December unveiled The Chelsea at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, which can handle 2,500 people seated, or 3,100 with a general admission floor. Most shows will be booked by C3 Presents, which has booked the casino’s outdoor pool deck with both up-and-coming acts and “underplays” of bigger names such as Florence + The Machine.

■ March is scheduled to bring The Brooklyn Bowl to the new retail complex The Linq near Harrah’s. The Brooklyn namesake is a hybrid of bowling alley and general admission concert area, booked by co-owner and promoter Peter Shapiro.

The original Brooklyn Bowl’s current calendar shows more DJs and bands that would typically play the Hard Rock Cafe on the Strip here. But the Las Vegas location will be larger, able to field shows with a capacity near 2,000.

These new players join the House of Blues at Mandalay Bay, with capacity ranging from 1,200 to 1,800; The Pearl at the Palms with a capacity of about 2,500; and The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel, which can hold more than 4,000.

And don’t forget the 4,300-seat Colosseum at Caesars Palace, which is booked solid with a rotation of stars, but will be back in the hunt someday.

So are we looking at a new normal for the concert industry?

“The sweet spot is 1,500 to 3,000 for the largest percentage of bands,” says Danny Zelisko, an independent promoter who books The Pearl.

“The touring artists like it because usually it’s a good payday, and the capacities are not so huge it’s beyond their abilities,” says Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar, the concert industry’s main trade publication.

A midsized hall “gives you the ability to gross quite a bit of money, and still be able to have all the production values that you’d want,” he adds.

But it’s inevitable that increased competition will echo past tug-of-wars over arena acts, which can result in higher ticket prices passed on to consumers.

“You’ve got a lot of people combing over the exact same list of bands that are available, and it’s just a matter of figuring out what price point the audience will put up with,” Zelisko says.

With Mars downsizing from arenas to play the new Chelsea, The Cosmopolitan “has already shown it’s the type of place that will overspend on acts just to get the buzz,” Zelisko adds.

The new construction in Las Vegas follows a national trend. The Hard Rock chain and other tribal casinos across the country are replacing makeshift bingo halls with new venues comparable to The Chelsea or The Joint, Bongiovanni notes.

“An arena can be very kind of neutral, or you see the obvious affiliation for the sports team for which it has been built,” notes Brett Robillard of Gensler Architecture, which was in charge of remodeling the Planet Hollywood venue’s lobby and front-stage areas to give it more personality.

But competitors wonder if Planet Hollywood didn’t go far enough with its remodel. Between the new lobby and VIP area lies the same old theater that fans out wide on each side and has an extremely gradual rake, spreading the outlying seats farther from the stage than modern venues (or even movie theaters).

“There’s a reason why all these new buildings have been built,” Zelisko says with a laugh, noting that he’s booked the room for decades in its days as the Aladdin.

Both economics and psychology are involved in the choice by Spears or Mars to play lower-capacity venues.

“If you’re attending a show you know is sold out and you can’t get in, there’s a certain coolness and you know you spent your money well,” Bongiovanni says. “On the other hand, if there’s lots of empty seats around, your whole vision of the evening is not quite as positive.”

Caesars Entertainment pursued Live Nation to book Planet Hollywood instead of the Colosseum’s operator, AEG Live, because AEG also booking the Hard Rock could create conflicts of interest.

But there is still a question of how Live Nation will serve two corporate masters. Most of the promoter’s big arena tours play at MGM Resorts International’s MGM Grand Garden or Mandalay Bay Events Center. Superstars including Billy Joel, Lady Gaga and Justin Timberlake already are booked for one of the two MGM Resorts arenas this year.

But the Planet Hollywood room will pursue a Colosseum-like model of rotating headliners, raising the potential of a raid on some of that talent.

Bret Gallagher, Live Nation’s president of North American concerts for the region, said arena stars will now have the choice of getting off the road and staying in one place.

“The artists follow the money,” Bongiovanni says. “It’s up to the artists to decide what they want to do.”

And, Zelisko says, “At the end of the day, with all these different choices, it’s the bands who win because they’ve got people fighting over them.” …

Worry yourself no more about the delay of “Panda!” a Chinese production show that was delayed three weeks at the Palazzo, mostly because of entanglements involving visas for its 47 imported performers.

But now the acrobatics, dance and martial arts revue will sell tickets for a “soft” opening starting Tuesday, with us media types invited to a formal unveiling on Jan. 11. The show is more or less able to hit the ground running, a spokesman explains, because it kept rehearsing in Beijing during the delays and needs only to adapt to the Palazzo stage.

“Panda!” is booked for an open-ended run, which could create visa flashbacks to the old-Vegas days when Parisian showgirls had to rotate in and out of the classic feather shows to avoid overstaying their legal welcome.

Ten years ago, a Cuban revue at the Stardust was the subject of a more high-profile delay in getting clearances for its cast to enter the country.

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.