Britney’s residency tests pop appeal

Still not sure if Britney barfed. But even if the helicopter ride was shaky, the pop princess has finally touched down in the desert, and soon we’ll learn more about the future of live entertainment in Las Vegas.

Caesars Entertainment booked 31-year-old Britney Spears for two years, 48 shows each year, the first such attempt to book a pop star of her generation for more than a single-night concert stop. Let’s hope the residency launching Dec. 27 fares better than the “Good Morning America” stunt that announced it: a herd of naughty schoolgirls in a pitch-black patch of desert welcoming a pop star too queasy from the chopper ride to remove her sunglasses, let alone treat early risers to a lip-synced rendition of “Work Bitch.”

Las Vegas, like much of the concert industry, has been dependent on the baby boomer dollar for its sit-down ticket sales. The young money has flown to the nightclubs. As R-J colleague Doug Elfman pointed out earlier this week, top DJs command bigger money than the $310,000 Spears will reportedly take home for each show.

The clubs have been the game changer since 2006, when Boyd Gaming and AEG Live wanted to build a second Colosseum-like theater as part of Echelon Place, which was to replace the old Stardust, and book it with the next generation of Chers and Celines.

That project turned into scrap metal with the recession, and you can’t really blame the casino industry for not rushing Britney, Beyonce or Christina Aguilera into the batter’s box since then.

Money flows back to a casino either way, and live performers with bands and dancers work on thinner margins than DJs who walk into a club with a flash drive. Hakkasan at the MGM Grand was charging men $75 and women $40 for Calvin Harris on Saturday, making reports of $500,000 guarantees for his services seem quite plausible.

Still, casino operators tend to be of the generation that remembers when the star power of traditional entertainers translated into brand appeal. And it’s disconcerting to think that a whole industry will fade away when Elton John and the Eagles decide to retire.

So casino entertainment buyers keep scheming of ways to pull clubbers to ticketed entertainment. They talk up Spears’ “Piece of Me” as a club-concert hybrid, with a standing-room area upfront and a few VIP tables.

Of course, that’s also the way they positioned Cee-Lo Green earlier this year, and that one turned out to be a nightmare on all fronts. Bad idea, it turned out, to ask people to sit and watch Cee-Lo sing karaoke late at night, after the clubs were already open.

But this Britney thing? Honestly, it feels like the best test possible. I don’t see any foolhardiness in the strategy.

The number of shows, 48, is certainly modest, compared with Shania Twain’s 60 shows per year and Celine Dion’s 70 at Caesars Palace. The break-even point also seems to hover around a Colosseum-sized 4,000-to-4,200 people per show, if you believe TMZ’s very specific figure of $508,514 as the anticipated gross for each show.

Ticket prices averaging around $115? Yeah that’s high, but that’s Vegas.

And Britters seems to be poised in the right place between “current” and “timeless,” with a solid audience beyond her present-tense pop.

A new album will support the shows, but her 2011 tour did respectable business, placing 14th on Pollstar’s Top 25 North American Tours for that year.

The only downer? About $13 million worth of red ink from the get-go. That’s what Caesars Entertainment is said to have paid to get the 7,000-seat theater back from Base Entertainment, which struck a long-term sweetheart lease with original operator Robert Earl when the property first opened.

Limited by the seating capacity, Base found it hard to compete with MGM Resorts for big concert draws, so the Planet Hollywood venue tended to sit vacant between beauty pageants. Now Caesars is free to see if it can do better all those nights Britney isn’t in the house.

But those old ghosts from the past shouldn’t be Britney’s $13 million burden. She has enough weight on her slender shoulders already.

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at or 702-383-0288.

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