The Black Keys (Photo Credit: Paul Hooper)

The Rock Gods are looking kindly on North America. Seemingly out of nowhere, a number of top-tiered alternative and classic rock bands are hitting arenas this summer, bringing their loud thundering sounds indoors. As arenas across the country thunder with bellicose baselines, gregarious guitar solos and lasciviously loud vocals, many people are wondering — is 2012 the summer of rock?

 “It’s nice to see so many rock shows hit the road, especially since we had so much country hold down the first and second quarter of the year,” said Jon Petrunak, director of Booking for SMG.

 Many of the bands hitting the road are recognizable names — Roger Waters is planning an extensive 38-date run across North America with two stops at Yankee Stadium in New York, while the Red Hot Chili Peppers are in the midst of an early summer tour across the East Coast and Midwest, before taking off for European dates and then returning to the U.S. for at least four dates in California — two at Staples Center in Los Angeles and two at Oracle Arena in Oakland.

 Also making long arena runs are Radiohead, Bruce Springsteen, Nickelback, Foo Fighters, Van Halen and Aerosmith. Add in Coldplay, Rammstein, a tour with Kiss and Motley Crue and European dates for Guns N’ Roses, Blink 182 and Soundgarden and 2012 is starting to shape up as one of the strongest years for rock in recent years.

 “There’s a ton of good rock shows out there,” said Petrunak. “It’s a mix of bands with a long legacy in music and newcomers like the Black Keys, who have been able to jump in with a lot of buzz and sell tons of tickets.”

Petrunak is referring to the Akron, Ohio, duo of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, a heavily blues-influenced minimalist outfit making their first arena run this summer with support from British rockers Arctic Monkeys.

Formed in 2002 in Carney’s basement, the Black Keys have a surprisingly large catalog to pull from and have developed a massive fan base from extensive touring since 2003 with the release of their second album, “Thickfreakness.” 

The group’s loud low-fi sound is reminiscent of roots rock and rhythm and blues, with catchy lyrics and simple song structures that have been licensed for dozens of commercials and big budget movies. While their 2008 album, “Attack & Release,” helped push the band into the public imagination and landed them gigs at Bonnaroo, Outside Lands and Lollapalooza, it wasn’t until the group’s back-to-back release of albums “Brothers” in 2010 and “El Camino” in 2011 that the Black Keys began to enjoy mainstream success. Their hit single “Lonely Boy” has enjoyed tremendous airplay on stations like KROQ in Los Angeles and 99X in Atlanta.

Since then, the Black Keys have twice appeared on Saturday Night Live, have landed a headlining slot at this year’s Coachella festival and won three Grammys. The band is now set to embark on a nationwide arena tour, with their April 27 show at the Chaifetz Arena in St. Louis and their two 1stBank Center shows in Broomfield, Colo., sold out.

“The Black Keys are awesome and they’ve earned every stripe they’ve had,” said Don Strasberg from AEG Live Rocky Mountains, who booked the band’s Colorado gig and has promoted the group at every venue he runs in Denver on past tours.

“They’ve hit every single step on the ladder and there couldn’t be a better example of artists who have worked tirelessly to develop their audience and their trademark sound,” he said.

So far, the Black Keys have reported four sold-out shows from their tour to Venues Today’s Hot Tickets report. Their March 10 show at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia grossed $758,792 — their biggest to date. The group’s March 7 show at TD Garden in Boston brought in $649,567; their March 4 stop at the Schottenstein Center in Columbus, Ohio, pulled in $444,361; and their show at the Bell Centre in Montreal clocked in at $543,403. Tickets for the Live Nation-promoted tour average around $40 to $50.

“Everybody likes the Black Keys and they’ve got a tremendous amount of staying power,” said Eric Bresler, VP of Event Booking & Development for AEG Facilities. “Their music has this special feeling and it’s something you can’t pinpoint. But the way they come off, the way they position themselves and their marketability are all signs that these guys have long careers ahead of them.” 

Bringing the Music Indoors

Most of the talent buyers interviewed for this article attributed the rise in arena bookings to one unifying factor — improvements in the economy. Unless consumers feel optimistic about the future and have the disposable income to purchase tickets, many shows won’t sell out and seats will remain empty.

“Our Red Hot Chili Peppers and Coldplay dates were really strong this year and that was indicative of the overall strength of the market,” said Elmer Straub, VP of Bookings for Tampa Bay (Fla.) Times Forum. “We’ve also got Bruce Springsteen and Van Halen and you generally expect they will do really well, but it’s great that so many people want to come out to see the Chili Peppers or Coldplay come through on this run. I think it shows people are enthusiastic about going to shows this summer.”

The proliferation of arenas and indoor venues has also brought more artists inside, and many shows are scaling their tours for arenas, where it’s much easier to control the environment.

“The thing about arenas is that you never have to worry about the weather,” said Brock Jones, VP of Booking for Global Spectrum. “And nowadays, most venues have curtaining systems that give arenas tons of options when it comes to scaling the show.”

Buildings like Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia and Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., have installed intricate curtaining systems that allow them to drop from 18,000 seats to 5,000 or even 4,000 seats. 

“It gives you lots of options and it puts a lot more acts in play. There are not many that can sell 18,000 seats, but there’s a ton that sell 5,000,” Jones said. That puts arenas in direct competition with theaters, amphitheaters and clubs, many of which have much smaller cost structures than arenas.

“One of the biggest costs for any show is personnel, and you can save a lot on a scaled show by not hiring an entire crew to staff and usher the building, as well as reduced needs for police and paramedics,” Jones said.

What Makes an Arena Rock? 

How does one know when a band is ready to cross over into arenas? Is it Facebook followers? Is it a natural growth from amphitheaters? What about radio play, appearances on television or downloads from iTunes?

“The single underlying factor is that the acts have to be good,” said Jones “It’s one thing to tour all the time, but you have to tour and be good and people have to like you.”

He pointed to the band The Avett Brothers, who have consistently sold out 8,000 and 9,000-seat venues in the Southeast without any radio play. Straub said the same goes for German power metal group Rammstein, who are on track to hit 8,000 or 10,000 tickets by the time they hit their April 21 show date at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

Both groups have significant festival experience, an increasingly important medium for band exposure, especially with so many bands and acts clawing for attention. 

“A B-stage at a festival can get you exposed to 20,000 people,” said Jones. “On the flipside, it’s easy to get lost in the numbers and multiple stages. When a kid goes to a three-day festival, he’s looking for the headliners.”

Jones also noted that “some festivals have overly-large protection clauses and that can hurt the ability to book these acts into arenas. In that case agents typically try to find other times of year for an act to come to the market.”

In terms of negotiations, Jones said some artists are being more reasonable, although “there are some artists that think it’s still 1992.” 

“When it comes to anything we book for Global Spectrum, we try to put together marketable and sustainable offers and guarantees,” Jones said. While Global Spectrum and its parent company Comcast-Specator, prefer to work with promoters, he said there are some huge artists where the only way to make the deal work is for the promoter to own all the revenue streams. In that instance the building has to buy the show and, in those instances, it still happens. 

“If the artist isn’t comfortable with our offer it’s fine, no hard feelings,” Jones said. “We can’t put our venues and clients in a position of unreasonable risk.”

As for future acts, Jones said he’s seeing lots of holds going into the fall.

“Rock does stand out, but it’s not the only game in town,” he said. “There are a lot of country acts hitting the road this summer and electronic music is continuing to grow. Each brings a different audience to our facilities and, hopefully, we can maximize that diversity and have a strong and diverse year.”

Interviewed for this story: Brock Jones, (215) 336-3600; Jon Petrunak, (610) 729-7912; Eric Bresler, (213) 763-5415; Don Strasburg, (303) 588-3185; Elmer Straub, (813) 301-6893