At a time of uncertainty and flux in pop music, nothing seemed more certain this year than an album and stadium tour by U2.
The Irish quartet is one of the most respected rock groups of the last two decades--a Grammy-winning band with multiplatinum albums and two successful stadium tours behind it.
U2, the industry thinking went, was immune to the cultural and market changes that left albums last year from such other top rock attractions as Pearl Jam and R.E.M. far short of expected sales levels.
Neither the band's "Pop" album nor its "PopMart" tour are carrying the knockout punch expected of them.
After only 13 weeks, the band's "Pop" album--which debuted with impressive first-week sales of nearly 350,000 copies--has fallen to No. 33 on the Top 200 chart, selling fewer than one-quarter as many copies last week as the Spice Girls' "Spice" album, which topped the chart with sales of 137,000 copies.
And the tour continues to be dogged by reports of poor sales in some cities. For 50,000-capacity shows in April, only about 30,000 tickets were sold in San Diego and about 25,000 tickets in Denver.
In Los Angeles, where the band played two shows at Dodger Stadium and one at Anaheim Stadium in 1992 on its "Zoo TV" tour, it is only doing one show this time--June 21 at the Coliseum--and an estimated 7,000 of the original 62,000 tickets are still available.
There have even been rumors in the industry that Toronto-based promoter Michael Cohl, who reportedly guaranteed the band $1 million per show for 100 dates around the world, renegotiated a new deal.
Cohl terms those rumors "absolutely false," and says he's generally pleased with the way the tour is going. "PopMart" ticket sales for 45 stadium shows are approaching 2 million and have brought in $90 million. That surpasses the $67 million for "Zoo TV," which ranks No. 6 on the Pollstar trade magazine's chart of all-time top-grossing tours.
Chicago, Cohl notes, has been a site of huge success. Original plans had called for only one show at 49,000-capacity Soldier Field, but demand was enough to expand that to three dates. At 55,000-seat Giants Stadium in New Jersey, two dates sold well enough to add a third.
And even the shows that have not sold out, some say, should be seen not as half empty, but half full.
"When you've got a band that goes into San Diego and sells only half the seats, sure, it's only half the seats," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of Pollstar. "But that's still 30,000 tickets, and how many other bands can do that? You can count them on one hand, the acts that are even capable of playing stadiums."
But others feel that the showing is a disappointment.
"It adds up to a ho-hum stadium tour," says one concert promoter, who asked that his name not be used because of business relationships with Cohl and U2. "They should have played arenas instead."
Most of these observers said the real message of U2's sluggish sales in some cities is a reflection of the pop music business in general.
"You need to look at other things happening in the music business," says Jeff Pollack, a rock radio programming consultant with more than 100 client stations nationally, including L.A.'s KLOS-FM (95.5).
"The charts are all pop and rhythmic acts. There aren't a lot of rock 'n' roll bands in the Top 15. And everyone is aware of the fact that the music business and touring business are nowhere near where they were several years ago."
For one thing, the baby boomer generation--and even its successor, Generation X--is moving on after fueling pop culture's boom of recent years. Concert-goers seem increasingly reluctant to shell out big bucks--$50 a ticket in U2's case--to see bands in stadiums.
"The demographic of U2 fans is getting older and this album is trying to appeal to a younger fan that's into the whole electronica genre," says Bob Bell, new music buyer for the Wherehouse retail chain. "So they may have lost some ground with the older fans. And so far they haven't really added many younger fans."
Did U2 set its sights too high by starting out in stadiums and giving the album and tour such a splashy launch with its ABC-TV special and big media push--especially given the emphasis on the newer electronic textures of the album that may take longtime fans some time to get used to?
"In past tours they started in arenas and then moved up to stadiums," Bell says. "This time they did stadiums out of the box. . . . If they started in arenas, by the time they got to stadiums people might know the songs better. Last time, by the time they got to stadiums half the songs from the album were radio hits."
Cohl attributes some of the slower sales in such cities as Houston and New Orleans to the fact that he put the entire tour on sale at once--including a second U.S. swing in the fall.