Travis Scott, a top seller in the first quarter, at Madison Square Garden on March 2. (Getty Images)

Holiday classics, new ideas power inaugural Q1 charts

No matter what kind of year you’re having at the box office, you can count on the holidays to help goose the numbers, thanks to some perennial seat fillers and A-list acts that make for perfect stocking stuffers. That’s the takeaway from conversations with VenuesNow’s Top Stops leaders as  the first quarter of 2019 drew to a close.  

The Q1 report is a first for VenuesNow, as is a separate set of charts listing only the top North American venues. All nine pages of charts follow this story. 

For the reporting period, which ran from Nov. 22 through Feb. 20, perennials such as Trans-Siberian Orchestra and the Disney On Ice shows kept things chugging along, while Latin headliners continued to prove their strength and live podcast shows proved that they may have some serious legs. 

Darren Pfeffer, executive vice president MSG Live, couldn’t complain about the solid crowds for the 6,000-capacity Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden, which came in at No. 4 on the worldwide list (No. 3 North America) for venues with 5,0001-10,000 capacity, thanks to 111,215 tickets sold and a $7.6 million gross for 33 shows during the reporting period.  

That run included 30 performances of “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” which ran Dec. 13-16, Dec. 19-23 and again Dec. 26-30 and drew nearly 99,000 patrons, alongside strong shows by R&B singers Ne-Yo and Keyshia Cole (Dec. 1) and John Legend (Dec. 3) that were big draws.  

But it was two events Pfeffer took a runner on that really stood out for him. The first was a 25th anniversary celebration of hipster Japanese streetwear brand A Bathing Ape on Dec. 5 with rappers Kid Cudi, Big Sean, Wiz Khalifa, Pusha T and Lil Yachty that really opened his eyes to the possibilities in the versatile MSG-adjacent space. 

“They came to us a month in advance and wanted a venue that was centrally located in New York that had the flexibility for a multiact concert, but which could also transform the space into an immersive experience for the brand,” said Pfeffer, who encourages artists and brands to come in and transform the Hulu space into whatever they want it to be. In early March that included rapper Travis Scott turning the theater into a massive merch mart for his Astroworld tour, on the day of his March 2 show at Madison Square Garden, a creative idea Pfeffer would like to expand on. “That’s the start of a new trend we’d like to take advantage of when artists come to MSG. … We want to take advantage of our flexibility to make it not just another concert but a full-day experience.”  

Another surprise was the Jan. 29 show by budding K-pop band Winner, who are not as mainstream as such better-known South Korean bands as arena/stadium act BTS but who drew from all over the New York/New Jersey area, with fans lining up as early as 11 a.m. on the day of the show to secure their spots.  

Trans Siberian Orchestra stuffed stockings and box office tills. (Getty Images)

At MSG’s Chicago Theatre (No. 3 worldwide and No. 2 North America in the 2,001-5,000 capacity category), Pfeffer had success with a different roster of shows, from soul singer Anita Baker’s instant two-night sellout Nov. 26-27, to the packed house for actor Dax Shepard’s live presentation of his popular “Armchair Expert” podcast, which sold out “extremely fast.” The theater’s December was a robust mix of rock (Radiohead singer Thom Yorke’s solo show, Interpol, Tedeschi Trucks Band’s annual residency), country (Brett Eldredge) and comedy, with Amy Schumer selling out two shows Dec. 19-20, during which she taped her just-released Netflix special, “Growing.” 

“Podcasts continue to be another platform that our venues go after because the shows are similar to music or comedy in that they have a very loyal, built-in audience that follows the brand and which stay connected through the shows and social media,” he said, noting that other podcasts, including “Pod Save America” and “Lovett or Leave It,” have also had strong showings at the venue.  

“We’re fortunate to have a venue that is flexible enough to host Thom Yorke or Amy Schumer because artists enjoy playing the venue,” Pfeffer said. He pointed to Grammy-winning country star Kacey Musgraves’ coming Chicago Theatre show as an example of the kind of artist who has successfully moved up through the MSG ecosystem by climbing the ladder with increasingly bigger shows.  

In the 15,001-30,000 category, Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center (No. 6 worldwide, No. 4 North America) racked up more than $15.3 million in grosses over the course of 30 shows on sales of more than 248,000 tickets, during a period in which the venue had an 18 percent increase. The venue’s senior vice president and general manager, Michael Scanlon, ticked off some of the big, reliable names that filled the house, including Travis Scott, British roots rockers Mumford & Sons, the Dave Matthews Band, comedian Kevin Hart and the always reliable holiday staple Trans Siberian Orchestra. 

Despite the fact that Hart had done recent shows in the area in Atlantic City and Camden, N.J., and Allentown, Pa., Scanlon said the comedian did “unbelievable” business, selling out more than 16,000 tickets. That was a pleasant surprise, but not as big a shock as the packed-to-the-rafters show less than a week later Nov. 29 from former first lady Michelle Obama.  

“I thought, ‘OK, it’s a book tour,’ so we put it on sale and it blew up with 15,000 in an end stage set-up that just took off,” Scanlon said. “We’ve never done anything like that here, and it was a great show that was very entertaining and a very different audience from the one we get for rock and country shows.” The demo was, as expected, a bit older, more white collar and not the typical beer-buying crowd, so while Scanlon declined to discuss per caps, he said they were a bit lower than usual, though wine sales, as you might expect, were robust.  

The other show that provided some hope for the future was a sold-out esports gathering for Comcast Spectacor’s Overwatch team, Philadelphia Fusion. “We’re looking at synergies there and working with Fusion on further esports events,” he said of the still-growing business around live gaming events. (Comcast Spectacor, in partnership with deveoper The Cordish Cos.,  later announced plans to build a 3,500-seat esports arena in Philadelphia.) 

Well Fargo also did its usually robust business with a two-week Disney on Ice run, which takes up a lot of calendar space around the holidays but once again proved its box office muscle.  

A lot of the same acts also hit Manchester, N.H.’s SNHU Arena (No. 14 worldwide, No. 3 North America in the 10,001-15,000 category), which sold over 78,000 tickets through 15 shows in the time frame, including two sold-out Trans Siberian Orchestra gigs, a sold-out Dave Matthews Band show Dec. 4 (with more than 8,000 tickets sold and an $800,000+ gross) and country singer Chris Young ending his world tour at the venue Dec. 8.  

December rounded out with regional events including the Boston Pops, Cirque Dreams “Holidaze” and the annual Christmas at the Arena show. The venue also hosted Disney on Ice, which saw solid increases in attendance over last year despite a nor’easter and the coldest day of the year during its run. 

January kicked things back up with a show by rockers Panic! at the Disco, who made a social media splash with their Jan. 13 show, during which the speakers cut out in the middle of a song. The crowd kept things going, singing the lyrics to the band’s cover of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” long enough for singer Brendon Urie to realize what was going on and cheer them on for helping him out in a viral moment that got a lot of pass-around. “A true entertainer [with how] he handled this outage,” says the SMG-managed arena’s assistant general manager, Jason Perry.  

He also notes that a Feb. 21 show by up-and-coming country singer Kane Brown technically sold out three times during the on-sale because demand was so high that Perry’s team moved the stage back two times in order to open up more seats. 

Rosemont, Ill.’s Allstate Arena came in at No. 7 worldwide (No. 5 North America) on the list of arenas with a capacity of more than 15,000, thanks to 232,525 tickets sold over 29 shows that grossed $10.9 million. The venue’s executive director, Pat Nagle, said Latin stars played a big part in those gaudy figures, some of which is attributable to the venue’s long-standing relationship with two of Chicagoland’s hardest-working Spanish-language show promoters: Henry Cardenas and his former partner and frequent collaborator, Ivan Fernandez.  

Old Dominion got a big turnout at Allstate Arena. (Getty Images)

“We’ve worked with them for the past 10 years and they always deliver — whether it’s a sold-out Marc Anthony show or Alejandro Fernandez, they are two of the best promoters and almost every (Latin) show we do we partner with them,” said Nagle, noting that both shows had grosses of more than $1 million. Classic rocker Bob Seger also drew well at Allstate, as did Trans Siberian Orchestra, which returned for the 10th year and drew 30,000 for a two-show stand. Nagle boasts that Allstate does more WWE shows than any other venue in the country — with four to six stops per year — and this year’s Dec. 26 show didn’t disappoint. Another big draw was comedian Jeff Dunham’s new Year’s Eve gig at 3 p.m., which drew a huge crowd for a show that visits Allstate every other year. 

The new year kicked off with a Professional Bull Riders event that was close to sold out for both of its nights, as well as the biggest show country act Old Dominion has ever played, with 11,000 turning out Jan. 18. In general, Nagle said, Latin audiences are coming out for more shows across the board, especially in light of the crossover success of the Justin Bieber remix of Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito.” 

“We always sell out every WWE show, but thanks to that song we’re seeing way more crossover now, with more Latin wrestlers on the bill, as well as at our radio shows around Christmas, which now always have a Latin flare,” he said, noting that Allstate also has at least one Spanish-language Disney on Ice show in the mix on a Sunday afternoon during the show’s two-week run, a collaboration that brings together Feld, Cardenas and/or Fernandez.  

A common theme from all the venues was a concern about the steady upward creep of ticket prices, with Nagle saying that the trend has begun to show up in the formerly more reasonably priced Latin shows as well, including J Balvin and Bad Bunny concerts that offered $350-$400 price points. “We just had two Elton John shows in February with Gold Circle tickets going for $700, but now other shows that used to be more reasonably prices are going there too,” he said.