The Dave Matthews Band shows how to make money in the music industry.
Part of DMB's success undoubtedly comes from managing its tour so well—because gross ticket sales do not always translate into profitability. Lady Gaga, for instance, was also in the Top 10 for 2010, grossing $51 million in North America, charging legions of fans about $100 a pop. But the shows proved enormously expensive to put on, what with the army of scantily clad backup dancers and dozens of fancy costumes—including a bra that shoots sparks, a feathered bird get-up, and an enormous wearable gyroscope nicknamed "the Orbit." Add in the fountain of fake blood and the price of flying such nonsense around the world, and extravagance cut into the bottom line. The tour actually lost money at first.
In contrast, DMB's tour seems downright humble. There is food. There is merchandise. There are video portions. But mostly, there are just the jams and the fans—and that's how DMB obsessives like it. Indeed, the band cultivates enthusiasts particularly well, a main secret of its success. It keeps ticket prices low in comparison with other big shows, an average of $58.79 compared with, say, $91.56 for arena-rockers Aerosmith. It offers a high proportion of plum tickets to fan-club members and offers them tons of freebies and special deals online. It also plays a stable roster of songs, but jams or improvises at each gig—meaning DMB fans tend to hit up the tour every year, often more than once. Thus, while even the biggest-selling artists front the occasional flopped tour, DMB never does.
If that sounds familiar—not the music, the strategy—it's because DMB is pulling an old trick, one pioneered by the Grateful Dead, a band beloved of business school professors and folk-lovers alike. As described in the delightful Marketing Lessons From the Grateful Dead,the famed jam band produced only a few well-known albums and songs. But they toured constantly—playing about 200 shows a year from 1965 to 1995. And they courted their fans, treating the concert like a service rather than a commodity, and their fans like members of a community rather purchasers of a product. Lo and behold, the Dead became one of the most successful bands of all time.
In many ways, DMB is their inheritor: a serious touring band that has caringly cultivated a devoted fan base and ended up becoming an industry anchor. Some analysts now believe touring will eventually anchor the whole music industry. In the past 10 years, as record sales have collapsed, the touring business has tripled in size to nearly $5 billion a year in total revenue. (That's mostly due to higher ticket prices, rather than more people attending more concerts.) The year 2010 proved somewhat lackluster: According to Pollstar, the top 50 tours netted $2.9 billion worldwide in ticket sales, down 12 percent from 2009. But the industry expects a stronger 2011, with consumer sentiment improving in the United States and huge acts, like U2, saddling back up.
For the first time in decades, though, DMB won't be there. "[We] wanted to let everyone know that after twenty years of consecutive touring, Dave Matthews Band will be taking 2011 off," the band wrote fans last year. "We feel lucky that our tours are a part of so many people's lives, and wanted to give everyone as much notice as possible." But, it noted, we "look forward to returning to the road in 2012."
Annie Lowrey, formerly Slate’s Moneybox columnist, is economic policy reporter for the New York Times.
Photograph of Dave Matthews by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images.