Diehard Minneapolis music fan Chris Dumpert was third in line at First Avenue when tickets for Adele's hotly anticipated concert went on sale, but he got shut out. He became another victim of the new music-biz mantra for 2011 -- think smaller.
Stars like Adele, Janet Jackson and Death Cab for Cutie are messing with the laws of supply and demand by performing in smaller venues than their popularity would warrant.
Why is Adele -- who has sold more albums in 2011 than any artist -- singing May 26 in a Minneapolis club that holds only 1,500 people?
For her and other stars, the aim is to build a stronger relationship with hardcore fans, generate excitement for new albums -- and maybe atone for sins of the past.
"It's part of the reaction to last year when too many artists pushed the envelope with aggressive ticket pricing," said Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the concert journal Pollstar. "It's an attitude of 'Let's adapt to the reality of the American economic climate.' There's a desire to fill all the seats [at concerts] and have everyone walk away with a smile."
In 2010, concert industry grosses dipped 12 percent, with shows by Christina Aguilera, the Eagles, Rihanna, American Idols Live, Lilith Fair and the Jonas Brothers being canceled because of soft ticket sales.
This year, many stars are opting for what the industry calls "underplaying," meaning "you could play to more people," explained drummer Jason McGerr of Death Cab for Cutie, whose 12-city Underplay Tour comes to First Avenue on May 21.
Last time through town in 2009, Death Cab did two sold-out shows at the Orpheum Theatre, capacity 2,650. Before that, the Seattle indie-rock group packed the even-bigger Roy Wilkins Auditorium and Northrop Auditorium. So why return to modest-sized First Avenue?
"You have a different relationship with the audience there -- it's an intimate yet safe setting and we get immediate feedback," said McGerr, whose band played there regularly before finding a wider audience. "You're going to get six, seven songs from our new album that's not out till May 31. It's a warmup tour to build momentum. We will come back to Minneapolis, but it makes more sense to play in front of 6,000 people when they actually have your record."
Building a buzz
The approach is not limited to Minneapolis' most famous music club. In August, Janet Jackson will get intimate at the Orpheum. Last month 1980s heroes Duran Duran packed Epic nightclub in downtown Minneapolis (capacity 2,400). England's fast-rising Florence & the Machine instantly sold out their June 17 Twin Cities debut at the 1,500-seat Minnesota Zoo in February before Florence Welch appeared on the Oscars and saw her career blow up.
"Florence chose the zoo because she wanted an outdoor show for all ages," said Minneapolis promoter Sue McLean. "Perception is important. They'd rather turn away people than have empty seats."
With the glut of music and media in the marketplace, building buzz through sold-out shows is an important part of an artist's promotional campaign, said promoter Andy Cirzan of Chicago's Jam Productions, which is co-presenting the Cars and Death Cab next week at First Avenue.
Buzz can turn into backlash, however, if fans are forced to pay scalper prices to see their favorite acts.
Tickets for Adele that sold originally for $27.50 are going for more than $450 on such websites at StubHub and Craigslist. "I refuse to pay those prices," said superfan Dumpert, a health-insurance product director who went to 108 shows in 2010 and saw Adele's Twin Cities' debut in 2008. "I figure she'll be back again."
The show was booked before the release of the British singer's second album, "21," in January. That album turned out to be the year's biggest smash.
McLean, who has presented Adele twice in local theaters, said the singer specifically requested to play "a club, with an open floor and no seating. In hindsight, she could have done two Orpheum shows or a [theater setup] at Target Center. She could probably do 6,000 to 10,000 tickets."
Artists typically choose the venue size, in consultation with their managers and agents. When First Avenue booker Sonia Grover was negotiating for much-hyped British pop star James Blake's Monday show, she was surprised that his agent requested the 7th Street Entry, with a capacity of 250.
"I think we could have sold out [First Avenue] because of all the hype and press about him," Grover said. Instead he opted to made his local debut in the same storied room as such bands as the Strokes.
Underplays not only create buzz, they keep costs down. A smaller venue means a less elaborate production and a smaller traveling crew.
"Nobody wants to lose money on the road," said well-traveled pop star Sheryl Crow, currently on a theater tour. "It's a little demoralizing to play for empty seats."
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719 Twitter: @jonbream